“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (translation by Robert Durling).
The above passage, the opening of the most famous of Francis Petrarch’s political poems in Italian, came to mind last week when I read the news that Italy would have a new governing coalition formed by racists and nationalists.
The news also made me think of my dissertation advisor, the Italian poet Luigi Ballerini, whom I recently saw in Milan where he was born in 1940. His earliest memories, he has often told me, are of Nazi soldiers retreating from the city atop their tanks, bare-chested in the heart of winter. Luigi never knew his father, who was killed by fascists on a Greek island.
Today, Matteo Salvini — an avowed racist, nationalist, and Euroskeptic (not to mention a confidant of Steve Bannon, who now resides in Rome) — has come to power in Italy (see this Fox news account of one of Salvini’s campaign rallies from earlier this year).
The Italian papers reported yesterday and the English news media is just beginning to file its reports on Salvini’s freshly forged alliance with Viktor Orbán, the hardline anti-immigrant and openly anti-Semitic prime minister of Hungary. Together, they plan to re-write the EU’s rules on immigration — Salvini and Orbán’s shared cause célèbre.
Before he cleaned up his act and tried to affect an air of respectability, Salvini was renowned in Italy for his overtly racist rhetoric. In 2009, he proposed (as a joke, he later claimed) that foreigners riding the subway in Milan be forced to wear stars on their clothing to denote their immigration status.
Even when I’m Italy teaching for an Italian university, I’m technically an extracomunitario, an alien. Will he require that I wear a star when I take the train?
Tomorrow, I’ll head off again to Italy for another two weeks of teaching at a university there. This time, I’m taking my wife and our two young daughters with me. We took our oldest daughter to visit the country when she was just a baby. She has no memories of our time there. So this trip, which we’ve been planning and talking about for weeks, is their “first trip to Italy.”
It makes me think of my first trip to Italy, in 1987 when I studied the history of Italian language at the University of Padua. I’ll never forget meeting and interacting with other foreign students from the Middle East and Africa then. I can only imagine, with dread, how they perceive Italy’s current political climate. I can hardly fathom their concern for their children’s futures.
When I saw Luigi last month in Milan, where he is living permanently now, he told me that he doesn’t recognize the Italy of his adolescence, a time when economic prosperity and liberal attitudes locked arms to create a culture of hope, tolerance, and humanism there.
Machiavelli famously closed The Prince with these lines from the same poem by Petrarch:
“If only you would show some sign of piety, then virtue against rage will take up arms, and battle will be short, for all that ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead” (translation by Mark Musa).
Hope still shines in the distant future, dimmed and diminished but still flickering. Let us pray that the not-so ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead.