If instead of humans the Creator had emptied a barrel of monkeys on the Italian peninsula, would the Duomo have been built, would Dante’s Inferno have been penned and would David have been hewn from stone? No offense, but Italy with its bounty of natural beauty is so conducive to expression that must I beg the question: Are the achievements of Italy’s people due to them or the land?
"So blessed with natural beauties and riches that it is clear that when Nature formed it she took delight in accumulating all her blessings in a single spot." Pliny circa 70 ad
On the other hand, Italians scare me. Italy is a member of the G8 and one of the most advanced countries in the world. That Italy is able to maintain this position in spite of a) half of their GDP is al nero which translates to: in the black or under the table; b) creativity is stifled by an oppressive government that regardless of which side in in power, it constantly finds new ways to tax productivity and innovation and c) much of what is pilfered from the Italian people supports a massive, growing bureaucracy that enriches itself by unnecessarily complicating the lives of working people. Now imagine the full creativity of this people unshackled. While I’m sympathetic to their plight, I am equally relieved that they remain under a velvet gloved iron fist. Never mind the G8, Italians unleashed would probably dominate the whole planet in short order and where would that leave the rest of us?
For anyone who reads Italian find a copy of La Casta by Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. This hard hitting book names names and completely unmasks Italian politics. La Casta clearly demonstrates what happens to societies when citizens allow politicians to serve themselves. Surprisingly, even The New York Times wrote an interesting review on this Italian language best seller: The Caste: How Italian Politicians Became Untouchable.
Melting Pot — Italy has attracted us for a long time. In part one I mentioned the Greek hero Aeneas first setting foot on Italian soil on the heels of the Trojan war. According to legend, the first post diluvial settlement was founded by Ham, one of Noah’s three original sons, who upon spotting a verdant peak rising above the receding seas left the ark and settled there. That settlement was Cortona, mainland Italy's highest hill town. Cortona was named after Crano, another of Noah’s sons who ruled as its first king. The legends recount how Dardanus a descendant of Noah’s line eventually left Cortona and founded Troy. Many centuries later when Troy fell to the Greeks it was Aeneas, a direct descendant of the same Dardanus/Noah line that escaped to Italy and founded Rome. Cortona is known as the grandmother of Rome. During the Roman era, the Italic tribes composed of Etruscans, Umbri, Samnites and others both near and far were all assimilated. The expansion of the Empire drew in even more peoples from across the known world. All roads led to Rome. Since then everyone who could come to Italy by guile, force or fortune did. Phoenicians, Greeks, Saracens, Gauls, Normans, Vikings, Celts and a host of others who up to this very day continue to seek (and find) an earthly Nirvana in Italy.
What eventually unites all of these diverse cultures is commonly called Campanilismo. The word roughly translates into the bond one has to the nearest bell tower. Whether that bell was Guelf or Ghibelline (papist or secular) mattered not at all. To this day, the power of Campanilismo transcends any allegiance to flag, race, religion, king or country. Unlike the French who seem to be French first, an Italian's first allegiance is to that close knit community within earshot of the hometown bell. This reality is what keeps drawing visitors to Italy time after time. No matter where you travel in Italy, the food, architecture, dialects, customs and wine all change from one valley to the next. Starting with Barolo from the north to Primitivo to the south, Italy has over 400 different varieties of wine, far more than the rest of the entire planet combined! This unceasing competition between hundreds of nominally federated city states now known as Italy is what drove Italian creativity to unsurpassed levels.
By the Middle Ages, the competitive nature of Italians perfected banking and statecraft well ahead of other cultures. Cities such as Venice and Genova were classified as empires in their own right and Macchiavelli literally wrote the book on political intrigue. Even while the superior craftsmanship of Italian armor was highly prized among Europe's elite, Italians took a different view of war. Life in the vineyards was good and Italians did not want to perish on a battlefield. Opposing Florentine and Sienese armies, during their incessant wars, would take to the field in resplendent regalia, parade around in formation, make some feints and return home in time for supper with nary a casualty. On the other hand, one might easily picture a German knight brandishing an Italian made sword declaring that he would rather die than yield. When it came to foreign invaders, barbarians who honored death more than they loved life, Italians developed another strategy: "Forgive me sir, are you the leader of this brave and mighty host? Would you care to rule here? Follow me. I'll personally lead you to our beautiful palace. Don't worry, if this throne is too small or large, my cousin is a master craftsman who will customize it to a perfect fit. If your excellence will excuse me, I must now take leave to oversee the preparation of a royal banquet in honor of your presence. Will 8:00 pm in the grand ballroom be too early, your majesty?"
Italy assimilated both conquerors and beggars until they became indistinguishable from the Italians. No greater tribute could an outsider bestow on a culture than the adoption of its language and customs. The inverse was also true. A people who grant the unifying gift of language, art and tradition are infinitely more vibrant and resilient than a closed or separatist society. When the Black Plague reduced Europe's population by a quarter, new waves of immigrants arrived to take over scores of empty villas, farmhouses and castles all along the sunny Italian peninsula. Now those villas are for rent by descendants of foreign squatters who became fully Italian and inhabited by foreign renters who dream of staying on. Throughout history Italy has been a true melting pot. The Italians are us — the lucky ones who made it their home. The Creator, it seems, did empty a barrel of monkeys on this uniquely shaped country in the Mediterranean Sea, and did so over and over again. Some reached its shores by ark, raft or warship others crossed mountains on the backs of elephants but one way or another they all came. The Duomo was built, the Divine Comedy was written and the David was eventually freed from a block of stone.
“In the heart of every man, wherever he is born… there is one small corner which is Italian, that part which finds regimentation irksome, the dangers of war frightening, strict morality stifling, that part which loves frivolous and entertaining art, admires larger-than-life-size solitary heroes, and dreams of an impossible liberation from the strictures of a tidy existence.”
Luigi Barzini's book The Italians is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about this collection of peoples known as Italians, their origins, accomplishments and mindset. For a more light hearted view of the Italian pysche, pick up a copy of La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini.