Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Italians: A Full Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals

The Italians: A Full Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals (1964) is a book by Luigi Barzini (1908 - 1984). Barzini was an Italian journalist and author who worked in American for several years and also wrote Americans are Alone in the World (1953). There are two notions you may have about this book that will quickly be dispelled once you get a little way into The Italians. The first notion is that The Italians is a flattering portrait of Italians. It isn’t and in fact, at times it is quite cynical. The second notion is that this is just a portrait about manners and morals. Again it isn't because there is a historical component to the book.

There are two underlying questions that Barzini has in mind throughout the book. He mentions them in the Forward and again in the Conclusion. They are this: “Why did Italy, a land notoriously teeming with vigorous, wide-awake and intelligent people, always behave so feebly? Why was she invaded, ravaged, sacked, humiliated in every century, and yet failed to do the simple things necessary to defend herself?” These are bold questions to ask about one’s country. In working his way to an answer, Barzini alternates between chapters about observations and generalizations on different aspects of Italy, such the eternal charm of Italy or the importance of spectacle in Italy, and historical-themed chapters, such as rise and fall of Cola di Rienzo, Mussolini, and the Battle of Fornovo. I found the history chapters the most successful and as they lent the most weight to the book, including Chapter 7: Cola di Rienzo and the Obsession of Atiquity, Chapter 8: Mussolini or the Limitations of Showmanship, Chapter 9: Realism and Guicciardini, Chapter 15: Fornovo and After, and Chapter 16: The Perennial Baroque.

So how does Barzini answer the questions he raises? He bases his answer around unity or lack thereof. Feeble behavior and invasions occurred because Italy wasn't unified. Barzini writes that even during the days of Imperial Rome, Italy remained a mosaic of different administrative entities. Any unification attempts in subsequent centuries from the outside were usually short lived. Barzini writes: “The Italians felt much too old and wise to become imitation northerners.” Italians were already unified by their past greatness. Finally, the church as a possible unifying force was a sometime ally and sometime foe and was kept in check so that it never could be the unifier. In fact, Italy was not unified until 1861, and tenuously at that, as only a small percentage of the population supported it initially. So if Italy unified earlier than she did, she might have behaved less-feebly and defended herself more ably? An intriguing idea, but certainly not a given.

In Chapter 7: Cola di Rienzo or the Obsession of Antiquity, Barzini discusses the rise and fall of Cola di Rienzo (1313 – 1354), an Italian politician and tribune of Rome who broached the question of Italian unification; he tried but did not succeed. A chronicler during his last days said ‘This man has lighted a fire he will not be able to put out.’ Barzini continues: “(The chronicler drove the point home with an earthy proverb, which cannot be printed here in English: ‘Che vale petere e poi culo stringere? Faticasi le natiche.’)” The proverb can be roughly translated as “Why fart and then close your ass? It only tires the cheeks.”

There are many interesting historical characters and events that Barzini weaves into the narrative, and this book is well worth reading if just for that. Chapter 16: The Perennial Baroque, in particular, is a stand out. The Baroque is a historic period from the 16th century to the 18th century which encompasses a characteristic style of art, architecture, and music. Baroque style has tendencies toward being overly ornate, needlessly complicated, and excessively emotive in composition, what you might describe as over-the-top. In that context, Barzini posits that “elements of Baroque life, oppression, tedium, and revolt, were stronger in Italy than anywhere else” and hence Italians took to Baroque quite nicely. In fact, Barzini claims that Italians are still living in a Baroque reality - at least as of the late 1950s and early 1960s when Barzini wrote the book. Of the Baroque period, Benedetto Croce (1866 – 1952) wrote and Barzini re-quotes: “Italy, who had given birth to apostles and martyrs in earlier centuries, and would beget more later, during the Risorgimento, did not produce any in the Baroque age, because such men cannot exist when there is lazy tranquility and resignation in the spirit.” That the idea of a strong creative energy channeled into narrow, acceptable expressions would ultimately lead to a sterile period is interesting.

While I find much of what Barzini writes interesting, I also take it with a grain of salt. To read it as if the author intends to be provocative might help. Whether Barzini intends this, I do not know. In my collective time in Italy and studying Italy and Italian culture, I can see elements of truth in The Italians, but ultimately I believe people, and the Italians included, are more complex and nuanced to accept all of what Barzini says.

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