Every so often since the 1990s the journalist Beppe Severgnini publishes a volume of his latest destination he has lived and worked in, and has it translated into various tongues. La Bella Figura (2008), a 10 day journey inside the Italian mind and down the length of his home land, is in its present format quite different. It is aimed at English speaking Italophiles wishing plausible answers to complex questions, something a self proclaimed Italian Anglophile feels he can provide.
It is an attempt to demonstrate that the foreigner's image of Italy is very different from the real Italia of the natives. In a nutshell, "Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages such as hills in the sunset, olive groves and raven haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. In Italia you go round and round in circles for years. Which, of course, is great fun."
Excellent start and intention: it is much more than pizza, Mafia, corruption of public administration, Berlusconi and his bunga bunga parties, and of over paid football and film stars clad in Armani, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, as featured in the columns of world press.
Though focusing on certain key tourist hot spots since the past Grand Tours of the rich: Milan, Florence and Tuscany, Rome, and Naples, Severgnini's ten chapter day tome is not a traditional tourist guide. As in earlier works he uses a day or a place to examine and explain customs, habits, behaviours and mannerisms of his people: the noise in an Italian airport, at stadia, the purpose of long distance rail travel, the innuendoes of night life, the language and unwritten rules of headlights and motoring, the Italian piazza, the garden - ie where Italians act in public as animals at the zoo, and then compares that with the closed, private world of the changing bambini-less Italian family, and introduces us to "mammismo", mother-fixated over-grown children, a unique sacrosanct national institution, which recently Cristina Odone of the Telegraph (17.02.14), an Italian living in the UK, sagely distinguished with our less developed, mild version of "mummy's boy" . Severgnini also takes one to less known areas: the island of Sardinia, and to his own much loved home town of Crema, close to Milan, to emphasize that Italia is still a young nation of 100 different, distinct, and very proud centres, proud of their histories, where the NGA should know that the warm hearted barber and friendly kiosk attendant might still be more reliable sources of local events and gossip than expensive satellite surveillance equipment.
At the end Severgnini's British guests sent back an end of trip SWOT report split between the Italian positives and negatives: the strengths, "G"s for genius, guts, gusto, and generosity, and the weaknesses, "I"s, intelligence, intuition, intention, and intimacy: among which includes the country's refusal to change and drift towards modern innovative initiatives, such as e-commerce, and whenever they are accused of a vice rather than trying to remedy the fact they do nothing, justifying their failing as something not unique.
A country, the author notes, which proudly had Botticelli amongst its greats, has recently had Berlusconi, an industrialist who like a captain of a ship promised to lead his country into safe havens, but instead behaved like an African despot, made his life, and his own cabin comfortable, and left the rest to swim to the rocks or fight off the sharks.
Until his book appeared the people, like the dying Venetian maritime Republic in the eighteenth century, could fall back on living for the day, on good food, on hedonism at religious, sporting, and TV leg show carnivals, with the good weather keeping up the depressed spirits for eight months of the year. It was the same foreigners' mythical search for buried treasure of Italy and finding Italia; the hopes of the locals with the realities, discovering they are living in a hellish heaven, or of a hell colonised by angelic souls - Severgnini stops mid way to please the one and only, himself, as an "offbeat purgatory", and gets a laugh, too!
As an Italian, was the comment that going round the maze-like world a real fulfilling experience? Surely not. Maybe for a sociologist, or a journalist like himself it is diverting, because it is part of his bread and butter; it is also part of the self, Italian me first, syndrome, that he criticises about Berlusconi, and admits it is rare when Italians come together as one - when the Azzurri beat the best on the soccer field, or when with "uncivil civic spirit" motorists flash their headlights to warn others that the police are around the corner making checks.
A book can be praised / criticized for what it has, just as it can for what it leaves out. It was commented, even if in passing, that Italians are not racist. They have realised almost after 40 years that they can be patriotic and nationalists, without being Fascists. Even before the world financial crisis racism and chauvinism were slowly moving their ugly heads above the parapet, and since the growth of youth unemployment feelings have hardened. The image of the young Italian on the front cover, confidently lying across his Vespa like a Greek god, is now a little dated.
True, one or two generations ago Italians exported immigrants, but the country has never witnessed, much less experienced a multi-coloured invasion as they have had in the last 15 years of different coloured faces (Africans, Chinese, and Indians), whites (Albanians, Macedonians, Rumanians), and nomads (Roms). In the case of the Chinese, not only are they replacing old local skilled artisans in the main shoe, clothes, leather workshops of Tuscany, manufacturing cheaper identical products, they are actually taking over shops in many main provincial centres, whereas lists of bankruptcies of small and medium companies, the traditional dynamic power of the economy, as well as suicides of failing local managers, have been doubling since 2010. Locals, as in Greece, are falling prey to frightened extremist voices; young graduates, like their unskilled grandparents, are now forced to take their chances by flying out to other lands.
In 2008 Severgnini believed Italy did not have a role model like Columbus leading all to a new promised land. Now that person may have appeared in a puff of smoke, as Pope Francis. It will, however, take more than a puff, a Francis, or a swallow to make a summer, or simply first having a will and then finding a way to change the vices of an ingenious, perfect, chosen race in order to fuse the vision of Italy with Italia. One past foreign visitor to the country, I recall, used to say he liked Italy, but pity about the Italians, as if he could distinguish the people from their culture.
Beppe Severgnini's words will inform the less informed outsiders. They won't convince all his people who may feel that as an Anglophile he is behaving like a smart alec, an Italophobe, and laughing at them at their expense. More so, as he knows what Italians are missing, he leaves one to guess his real preferences. Neither will he convince English speaking ex-pats in the know, much less those like the present reviewer with roots in the two countries.
As his previous volumes, La Bella Figura is well written, informative, a little over-witty in parts, and a little too harsh in others, but may leave the locals and those like myself asking was it a study of the country by an Italian, or the journey of one among the crowds of millions of Italians. It is, indeed, a face of millions, or the one and only right one. A good product makes a bella figura - the joy of all Italians, a poor one -the unmentionable brutta figura, is best forgotten.