Masks, spaghetti and the Mafia
Stereotyping Silvio. Foreign media and the labels they attach to Italy “Why does Heaven send such riches to those so little able to appreciate it?” wondered Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade. More than two centuries later, the undercurrent of anti-Italian prejudice, of admiration edged with incredulous irony and of goodwill veined with diffidence, continues to permeate foreigners’ views on Silvio Berlusconi.
We should say that criticism of Italy’s prime minister, however harsh it may be, is legitimate. Readers know that the Corriere della Sera has never pulled its punches. And it is equally true that the premier sometimes sets himself up. An example? Inviting American business people to invest in Italy because we have the sun and “as well as the good weather and the beauty of the country, we also have stunning secretaries”. To say nothing of the way he harps on about how Italians are the most “simpatico” people in the world. No one chooses a dentist or a surgeon out of “simpatia”, and it’s the same with partners for major industrial investments.
That said, even Silvio’s most critical opponents would have good reason to be annoyed at the way the Berlusconi phenomenon fuels the intolerably sour stereotypes that hurt and angered our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott, admitted as much some time ago in the Corriere della Sera: “We can’t wait to find an excuse to wheel out the same old prejudices and clichés about Italy and the Italians. We want to talk about sex and beautiful women, and the Italian passion for calcio. (...) we adore discussing the Mafia”.
Women, sex, football, Mafia. Each and every one of the topics used against Berlusconi has automatically been turned against all Italians, including the ones who don’t like Silvio. Der Spiegel ran Berlusconi on the cover under the headline “Der Pate” (the Godfather) and called him “Al Cafone” [“cafone” means “yob” or “lout” – Trans.]. The BBC aired a documentary on Berlusconi’s Italy using the soundtrack from the Francis Ford Coppola film.
Eva Erman in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter wrote that “today’s Mafia saga, with Don Berlusconi in the leading role, does not have the same pathos as the story. Berlusconi is just a wannabe godfather. (...) to build his empire and protect his family, Don Corleone had no qualms about breaking the law or corrupting politicians, or even killing them. He made his own rules and his own morality. Don Berlusconi, on the other hand, changes the law. If he is on trial for false accounting, he tweaks the law on time bars”. Conclusion: “Perhaps the time really has come for a parricide to let a little fresh air into Europe’s Boot and get rid of the nasty smell of sweaty feet”.
Nobel laureate José Saramago also noticed the whiff: “But in the land of the Mafia and the Camorra, what does it matter if the prime minister is a proven criminal?” It goes without saying that the verdict on Berlusconi reflects on those who voted him in. “Some countries don’t deserve their rulers. Almost none. But no matter how little Italy thinks of politics, it should behave with more dignity”, Antonio Gala wrote in El Mundo on one occasion. His conclusion: “You just can’t take people who vote for such a monster seriously. Unless they elected him for a laugh...”. El País agrees. What headline did they use for one article on Italy? They focused on pasta, macaroni, spaghetti, and came up with: “La espagueti-democracia”. The strapline: “Italy revives its reputation as Europe’s Odd Man Out”.
In any case, what do you expect from a country that produced Punchinello, Harlequin and the many other masks that lent lustre to Italian comedy, puppet theatre and literature? “We have to admit that our scandals have less brio than those of our neighbours. For example, we would look in vain for anyone as picturesque as Berlusconi”, noted Gerard Dupuy in Libération after Silvio’s first election triumph. Dupuy did concede that “it is a French habit to moralise and look down our noses at others. A classic superiority complex. We do it with other countries, too”. But “with Italy, it’s easier, given who is in government”. What epithet did The Times choose years later to slap down Silvio? “Buffoon”.
It always comes back to that. Buffoons, masks, spaghetti, Mafia, sunshine and mandolins, or if you prefer Mariano Apicella’s guitar. Italians are crafty, and occasionally inspired, but still as unreliable as when Montesquieu wrote that “each thinks only of deceiving the others, lying and denying the facts”. Then there’s Rudolph Valentino and the charming Italian womaniser in a society as corrupt and hypocritical as it was when Flaubert, writing about Naples, said: “I am perpetually tumescent. I fuck like a donkey on the loose”.
What about Mamma? Is there nothing about Italy, the land of mummy’s boys and mammas for whom “my song flies”? Of course there is. We have not been spared the mamma angle. The New Yorker explored the theme six years ago: “In the official literature, this extraordinary rise is transformed into Silvio’s vision of making the world safe and free for Rosella. She is his fallback Italian mamma. “She comes up in almost every conversation with the men in his inner circle, a woman of such improbable homilies that she could be June Allyson in a fifties weepy”. The piece carries on: “If the cliché is true that Italy’s most enduring institutions – the Mafia and the Church being the obvious examples – owe their success to the prototype of a big, bossy Italian family, full of threats and pieties, then you have to look at Italy today as Rosella Berlusconi’s legacy”.
Gian Antonio Stella
10 luglio 2009
English translation by Giles Watson
Source:Corriere della Sera