The Italians part 3 — Who Are They, Really?

by Mario 18-May 2010

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

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.

The Italians part 2 — Who do they think they are?

by Mario 10-May 2010

Genius is the first operative word. Most Italians I’ve known view themselves as a highly creative lot with a nothing-is-impossible attitude. Their creativeness and adaptability is well documented in Arturo Barone’s book: Italians First — An A to Z of Everything First Achieved by Italians. The author, with whom I’ve had interesting conversations, is quick to note that he purposefully limited his research to achievements made in the last 1000 years. "If one were to document everything the Italians were responsible for since the dawn of time there would hardly be anything left for the rest of the world to claim." Tuscany alone gave law to the English, science to the Germans, taught the French how to eat — almost, and then went on to electrify the world with its art, literature and architecture. Arturo’s book is filled with startling breakthroughs by Italians in science, medicine, mathematics, economics and more. Italians do not view their excellence as limited to food, cars, fashion, art and song, and with good reason. 

Carpe diem — No one group appears as ready to seize the day with as much gusto as the Italians. Their madcap driving habits and mercurial cars exist for the sole purpose of reaching a destination quick enough to get back to the enjoyment of life. "They found a country [Italy] which is still to us, as to them, an earthly paradise; where, amid superb cathedrals and palaces and beautiful walled cities, dwelt a race that numbered life itself amongst the grand arts. The love of beauty for its own sake.” St. John Lucas  

Bella Figura — The art of looking superb is in the genes even when wearing jeans. To fully enjoy life you must not only look the part, you must possess the knowledge to be able to do so. Regardless if one is a judge or a janitor it is critical to possess proper manners, elegance, know the right people, thoroughly understand politics, sports and be a consummate connoisseur of food, wine, art and fashion. Making a brutta figura (cutting a bad figure) is akin to committing social suicide. When Italian males are first introduced they look at each other’s watch, shoes and make of car. Those three items will usually determine on which rung of Italy’s social ladder they belong. Italians can also spot each other amidst a sea of foreigners as tourists typically lack either the elegance or panache that sets Italians apart. "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti." Sophia Loren 

High DramaNessun problema and un attimo (no problem & just a moment) are common mantras. Since Italians reluctantly work in order to live — and not the other way around as in some other cultures (hint, hint)— Italians enjoy fun things first, followed by long winded meetings to posture, pontificate and preen. Work should be left to the last possible moment just before embarking on the next holiday. This modus operandi insures continuous opportunities to appear frantic. The more frenzy and drama can be carved out the more important one seems to be. When pinned down, cutting a bella figura rarely applies to work and thus a simple, evasive: no problem or it only takes a moment — never knowing when or if that moment will come — suffices to push off most deadlines for yet another day. "A man who has not been to italy is always conscious of his inferiority." Dr. Johnson 

Passion — Whether it’s about cars, the opposite sex, food, sports or something as seemingly insignificant as a simple wave of a hand, everything an Italian does must be done with passion. “When I was young, I kissed my first woman, and smoked my first cigarette on the same day. I have never had time for tobacco since.” Arturo Toscanini

Stay tuned for part 3 The Italians — Who are they, really?
Hint: “It’s not impossible to govern Italians. It is merely useless.” Benito Mussolini

The Italians part1: Who are they?

by Mario 29-Apr 2010

The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.

— E. M. Forster 

What draws us to Italy? Is it the food, the art, the history, the wine, the natural beauty or is it more? Millions plan to visit the Great Wall, the Pyramids, the Ganges once in a lifetime. Most, when given a choice, will return to Italy over and over. Italy is such a sweet addiction. Once smitten you never shake it off or get enough. Someone aptly said: each of us is an amalgamation of three different beings: how others see us, how we see ourselves and what we truly are. Can Italy and the Italians be viewed in a similar manner? 

Fatal Attraction What we observe may lie somewhere between two well known quotes: Was in short, ever well to be elsewhere when one might be in Italy? — Edith Wharton and Italy is not technically part of the Third World, but no one has told the Italians. — P. J. O’Rourke. This discordant combination of irresistible charm and warm chaos draws us like moths to a flame. It’s far too easy to envision Italy or the Italians as a kind of suave, bad boy perpetually sweeping dainty damsels off their feet. Actually, we clamor for it. Methinks it is not quite how they appear to us but rather it’s the mesmerizing effect this place and its people have had on mankind ever since Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war, first set foot in Italy. 


In the early nineties Frances Mayes captured our attention and heart by revealing simple day to day encounters with ordinary Italians. By the end of the decade every villa in Tuscany had dozens of copies of Under the Tuscan Sun left behind by guests who had sought and found their holy grail. In the new millennium Linda Dini Jenkins masterfully joined this illustrious cabal of writers enthralled with Italy in her most recent outing: Up at the Villa — Travels with my Husband. Most of her book is dedicated to Italy. Linda went beyond relating encounters, she infused her work with poems, images, recipes, travel tips and ultimately the passion this country and its inhabitants imbued her with. Italians, it seems, have an uncanny ability to strike hidden chords within us that both excite and soothe our spirit. This is how I believe we view them...

The charm of Italy is akin to that of being in love.

— Stendahl 

Stay tuned for part 2: The Italians — Who do they think they are?

Hint: Men of genius do most when they work least” Leonardo da Vinci

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Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....


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