Impressions of Italy and the European Union in 2009 - Part I

This past summer, I was in the EU for five weeks, 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 cappuccinos, the espressos, the gelato shops, the heavenly bread, the delicious wine, 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 immediately 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 treat 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 had 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 eventually 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 was 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 San Giovanni 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 licentiousness 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 requests of the President of Italy, Napolitano, that Berlusconi answer some of the legitimate questions Parliament posed 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.

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