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Impressions of Italy and the EU: Now and Then
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-08-22 10:16:22
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A couple of weeks ago I was in the EU, more specifically in Italy. Even in the era of the internet and virtual reality, it seems to me that it remains an undisputed truism that to fully understand a people or a polity one has to first learn the language of those people in order to read their great writers and poets, and secondly, and just as importantly, one has to visit their country and physically live with them for a while. That is to say a concomitant journey through time and space is necessary. Only then one begins to understand the mores, the culture, and indeed the very being and identity of a people. To merely read a translated grand historical narrative of their culture may prove informative and educational, even inspiring, but it remains inadequate.

For most of the students that I and a colleague in the Art Department from Broward College accompanied abroad, it was their first time in Europe. They were seeing Italy with fresh eyes and were surprised by it all: the art, the language, the architecture, the strange customs, the climate, the superb cuisine, the smells, the churches, the synagogues, the mosques (ancient or modern, empty or well attended), the wine, the shopping of beautiful artifacts; the aesthetic sense, the fashion, the soccer games, the bicycle races, the museums, the paintings, the sculptures, the Ferraris, the pastry shops, the gelato shops, the bread, the opera, the tiramisu, the artisan’s shops, the Sistine chapel, the Colosseum, the Forum Romanun, the David, the Moses, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Maria del Fiore, Santa Croce, St. Peter square, Piazza Navona, and the list could on and on. Naturally they fell in love with the country. How could they possibly not. You could see the enthusiasm and the cultural shock on their faces as they came to class in the morning at the University of Urbino where they were pursuing courses in Italian art, civilization and language. They asked all kinds of strange questions such as why Italian showers had a cord hanging in them.  I’d reply that such a cord was to be used only in case of emergency, in case one slipped in the shower and hurt oneself. They found that strange.

I’d bump into them later in the main square of Urbino (Piazza della Repubblica) eating a gelato, or in the famed Ducal palace of Federico of Montefeltro (dubbed by Kenneth Clark the prototype of Renaissance palaces and the most beautiful in the world) viewing an extraordinary display of Raphael painting, a special this year, Raphael being a native of Urbino; or at night in the same palace’s beautifully lit courtyard where a series of international Renaissance concerts were performed. It was like being in a sort of magical place back in time surrounded by sheer beauty. Indeed, how could they not be impressed by it all?

Of course I was glad of their enthusiasm and did nothing to dampen it in any way but I retained an internal smile throughout. For you see, I have lived in Italy for a quarter of my life; I could not possibly see it the same way they saw it; I saw it with different eyes. I kept remembering and comparing things as they were decades ago and things as they are now. And the compost picture that came out of that comparison was not a pretty one. I’d like to share with the reader some of the reflections on those comparisons. It occurred to me that Italy in 1951 was one of the six founding member states of the European Union at the signing of the Treaty of Rome. She had just come out of some twenty five years of fascism and a disastrous war which has left her in shambles. In 1945, having disposed of Mussolini, fascism, the king and the monarchy the Italian people established a republic. 

The preeminent architect of that republic, who became its first prime minister, was Alcide De Gasperi. He, together with Robert Shumman and Jean Monet in France, and Konrad Aidenouer in Germany advocated the founding of a European Union to prevent, once a for all, another world war on the European continent. These men were real statesmen because they possessed a vision of what a united Europe could symbolize and accomplish in the world. Had they written a constitution it would certainly not have been the uninspiring treaty (the so called Treaty of Lisbon) which wants to pass as a constitution and justifiably rejected at the polls by the people of three member nations.

Compare that to what we have today in Italy. A prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who far from being a visionary considers Italy his private corporation of which he is the presiding CEO. At the Aquila G8 meeting he had the effrontery to go around advocating more ethical behavior in economic matters and quoting the social encyclical of the Pope which had just come out. No wonder he is largely seen as the clown of Europe, a fornicator who thinks nothing about sleeping with prostitutes in Palazzo Ghigi, the residence of the prime minister, and then lies about it, so that we were treated to the sorry spectacle of a prostitute telling the truth and a prime minister lying.

To add some humor to it all, as it befits a clown, he promised to go on pilgrimage to Monte Rotondo, the place where the Capuchin friar Saint Padre Pio lived some forty years ago where he would seek forgiveness and redemption. It sounds like a Boccaccio tale from the Decameron and yet incredibly the majority of Italians continue to support him; they don’t believe that fornicating and lying is such a big deal; which says much about the ethical values of present day Italy that tolerates what would have been unheard of at the times of a De Gasperi. The repeated requested of the President of Italy Napolitano that Berlusconi answer some of the legitimate questions of Parliament about his private conduct went unheeded.

As Vico points out in The New Science, at the end of a civilization shame disappears and the whole civilization goes crazy. Not even an economic crisis has distracted most Italians from the pursuit of mere material possessions and pleasures and la dolce vita in general. Compared to 1950 we have today a much more materially prosperous country that is however destitute in spiritual values. In that sense Italy who gave us the Renaissance and the beginning of the modern world can function as a mirror to the rest of Europe and indeed Western civilization.

But on a more political level there is something even more ominous and troubling than the mere clowning of Berlusconi and the deteriorating moral standards of the country’s elites. It is the phenomenon of the so called “ronde,’ (a military term suggesting the patrolling of the military police) i.e., self-appointed vigilante groups who go around big Italian cities patrolling the streets and stopping people according to a profile of those they consider immigrants and/or terrorists. Somehow the two are grouped together. At piazza della Reppublica in Urbino I met an American who told me that he was one of the ronde’s victims. He was stopped, asked to produce a passport and questioned. What was his crime? He sported a beard, and that in itself  made him a suspect. If that reminds the reader of the Nazi vigilante groups in brown shirts of the 1930s, he would not be too far from the mark. This going on, mind you, in a modern democratic nation, proud of being one of the founding members of the EU.

The “ronde” of course are very much in sinc with the xenophobic philosophy of Umberto Bossi, one of the ministers allied with Berlusconi, leader of the Lega party which advocates the secession of the so called “popolo Padano,” a term Bossi invented, for there is no such people historically; that is to say, the secession of the whole of northern Italy, the most affluent part of Italy, from the rest of the country. Ironically this is happening 150 years after Italian unification and in the era of a allegedly dwindling nationalism within the EU. So when one of the major architect of Italian unification, Cavour, said that “now that we have made Italy we need to make the Italian” and when the Prince of Salina in The Leopard says that we have to change everything so that nothing changes, they were in a way acknowledging that such a union was an artificial political union created from the top down aiming at the aping of European nationalism with no sense of an organic cultural identity of the whole Italian people.


Here too, I would suggest that Italy functions as a mirror to the rest of the EU; for indeed vigilantism and xenophobia is on the ascendancy even outside of Italy, in allegedly liberal countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. Vigilantism suggests that the cultural identity of this brand new European (the “Newropean,” so called) is quite fragile. Churhes are abandoned since everybody is in soccer stadiums on Sunday and religion is equivalent for many Europeans to medieval obscurantism, but then it is resented when Moslem immigrants buy them and transform them into mosques. One begins to suspect that the same slogan can be applied to the EU: now that we have made Europe politically, we need to make the Europeans. One is bound to ask: has the cart once again has been put before the horse?

The result in the unified Italy of 1861 was the creation of two countries which pretended to be one: a Northern Italy and a Southern Italy, not to speak of Rome which was still in the hands of the Church at the time. If the reader thinks this an anachronism of sort, that modern Italy has transcended such divisions, he would be greatly mistaken. An event which happened while I was there a few weeks ago is illustrative. An Italian parliamentarian from the Lega Party by the name of Salvini (who will soon grace the halls of the European parliament in Strasburg) was recently recorded shouting a song at a soccer game which went like this: “arrivano i Napoletani, anche is cani se ne scappano dalla puzza” (here come the Neapolitans, even dogs run away from the stench). Need one say more? What is ironic even here is that all this is happening while the europarlamentarians in the EU parliament bravely speaks of a European identity beyond nationalism. I wonder what the europarlamentarian Salvini will be speaking about when he gets there.

It was at that absurd point that I took three of the students with me for a short trip to Southern Italy while the others went to Venice. They had no idea that there was another Italy from Rome down. When they arrived in Bitonto, they saw a Italy just as cultured and even more affable than the other. A Italy where it is possible in a city of 60,000 inhabitants (Bitonto) to open a state museum free to the public from a donation of an art collection gathered over half a century (the Devanna museum of which I have spoken in another article a few months ago (see Ovi of 22 April 2009) and containing masterpieces by Artemisia Gentilieschi, el Greco, De Nittis, Veronese, Titian, Delacroix, Stella, just to mention a few. Those three students were very glad to have visited Southern Italy. It encouraged three others in fact to visit Naples and Pompei later on. I hope that such visits to the land of Magna Grecia which precedes the Romans, become a regular feature of summer study trips to Italy.

The other two social phenomena which I observed but which I reserve for future articles for they would take us too far afield, is that of the presence in Italy of the extra-communitarians, that is to say, people from outside the EU who arrive by the thousands, legally and often illegally, mostly Africans and Moslems. The other is the narcissism and egomania observable in the youth of Italy. Here too there is an obvious conscious imitation of one of the worst features of American popular culture. The same youth at times will also be consciously anti-American. It’s like having the cake and eating it too.

There is plenty of food for thought in those impressions of Italy and I am still ruminating on them. Suffice here to end with this though, not everything that is progressive and the latest fashion is necessarily progress. Some of it is regression. Indeed progress is not deterministic and inevitable. But there is more to come. Stay tuned.

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Marco Andreacchio2009-08-22 14:18:25
Dear Dr. Paparella,
You highlight some of the most glaring contradictions afflicting both Italian and the EU (esp. its "Western" front). We are faced with a political order alienated from its natural underpinning: words that fail to do justice to the common experience of man; "civil rights" turning their back to "natural right". Your account invites us to conclude that the current predicament is unsustainable. The identity of Europe cannot be adequately defended on the basis of mere discourse (soft power) and arms (hard power). E.g., empty, pretentious talk and the iron fist are failing to stop social disintegration, moral decrepitude, or even the invasion of "barbarians" (cf. e.g. France-based rise of "black power" movements:


or the widespread European befriending most-feared Muslims by stressing what they have in common, namely hate of Jews:


The barbarians are a reality. One need only walk through any major city of Europe, and especially its peripheries to come face to face with it. But if you are stressing the fact that the worst malaise is that of the elitist European nations, then one cannot disagree with justice: the barbarians were much more "plain" (schietti) and "force of mind" than the Romans of late imperial Rome. As a result, truth itself was with the barbarians. I am paraphrasing the Vico of the Scienza Nuova (1730). His point remains valid, today as throughout all ages. We need more than artifice, here, to save civilization. We need "well-grounded Art"--an Art helping us recognize the dire price of loosing piety (cf. the phenomenon of narcissism--or self-deification, if I may so dub it--that you point out); and Art allowing us to retain our civil liberty instead of replacing it with our dream thereof; an Art, finally, capable of raising us to "observe-within-us" the natural source of civility, and thereby "the true civil nature of man". Only intimate recognition of the natural roots of public morality, or "reason of State" (ragion di Stato) is capable of convincing us of the unqualified importance of defending our own native Nation (Nazione natia), not merely as far as facades go, but at its root, and so beginning from our Nation's true Form, which Christianity calls "Mente Signora libera ed assoluta della natura" (Vico).

Emanuel Paparella2009-08-22 16:06:55
Dear Dr. Andreacchio,
I take notice of something rather rare and indeed a bit surprising, a rather lengthy pick-up on Vico who is briefly alludeded in the piece. I have written more extensive tracts on Vico always met mostly by the silence of the tomb. In fact, whenever I mention Vico I somehow feel like a voice crying in the desert, and yet he remains extremely relevant to what is happening hic et nunc in Western civilization. Vico who dedicates a good portion of his Scienza Nuova to historical analysis and speculation (and has legitimately been seen as first and foremost as a philosopher of history, the first to understand the true meaning of myth) would agree that the phenomenon of the Barbarian invasions is nothing new in Italy and that in fact Machiavelli would have been much more on target had he stressed that kind of phenomenon in his analysis or hard power and how one gets it and retains it, rather than the fantasized Roman roots of the Italian people. He, as well as il Duce later on, would have then have spared himself the irony of a Guicciardini who reminds him that “to compare the present Italians to the Romans is like comparing a noble horse to a donkey.” (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2009-08-22 16:07:34
It means that Vico saw the Barbarian invasions as something not wholly negative. Those invasions might have stopped for a while Roman decadence and depravity by infusing new blood and the sense of the poetic and the imaginative into the body politic. If the corsi and ricorsi of Vico have any historical validity, we may be seeing something similar that repeating itself in Italy and indeed the whole EU and the “ronde” will hardly be able to prevent it. After all Italians are now propagating themselves at the rate of one and half per couple. Cars and la dolce vita is more important to them than children. Which means that in couple of centuries there will be no more Italians, whether or not they are descendant or not from the Romans; there will be the descendants of the neo-barbarians. As I said, nothing new in Italy, but it appears that in the Netherlands and Denmark they are worrying already, while continuing the decadence. Well they should. The blue eyed blond haired Scandinavian northerner (member of the superior races) may be doomed too. That too, Vico, teaches us and could teach the Scandinavian too, should not be seen as a negative.

Be that as it may, it has always remained fascinating for me that the New Science does not end with some appeal to Platonic forms but with reminding the reader that it was written not for the scholar residing in the august halls of academia but for ordinary people: “per insegnar il volgo a virtuosament operare.” Which means that, not unlike the Church in medieval times, the urgent task now is that of educating the Barbarians to virtue and civilization. Unfortunately, the example of the descendants of the Romans, the likes of Berlusconi and Bossi, not to mention that of the professors in academia, complicates things considerably, because I am afraid that such an example is not a spur to virtue but rather to decadence and decay.

Emanuel Paparella2009-08-22 16:09:13
Oh, from the list of wonders of Italy in the article, I forgot to mention the cappuccino and the espresso cofee, and that is unpardonable.

Emanuel Paparella2009-08-22 16:13:42
Errata: coffee.

Eva2009-08-22 19:16:50
Brilliant article, Paparella. Apart from having formed much the same opinion of Italy after living there for some years, I also liked your comparison with the EU of today. I think you're absolutely right about it, and... wow, there is A LOT of work ahead of us! The Italians still haven't managed to find their 'Italian' identity after 150 years - what hope does that leave for the EU...?
Very interesting article, please write more about this subject :)

Emanuel Paparella2009-08-23 01:45:07
Thanks Eva. That too came as a bit of a surprise today. Life is continually surprising us. Even some of my friends consider some of the views and impressions expressed in the above article as a bit extreme, but my reply is that they may not have lived there long enough; when they do they may well change their mind too, assuming a modicum of impartiality and objectivity. To go to Italy to merely see the wonderful sights to place in one’s album when one returns home, considering the people as part of the museum, as unfortunately many tourists do, is to fail to understand anything about the cultural identity of those people and to be guilty of is historical archeology; history as dead matter to be preserved and treasured... Vico taught us that history transcends mere archeology, has to come alive and it can only do so when one places oneself in the hermeneutical circle that is history and understands that it is man that makes history but the opposite is also true, history makes man. To have all that confirmed by someone who has lived there for a while and therefore knows the place and its people well lends some confidence to the impartiality of the phenomena I was attempting to put across and indeed encourages me to write more on those phenomena already announced at the end.

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