Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.
When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).
Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).
That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.
Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.
It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.
Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.
I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.
Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.
What’s this world coming to?
In other news, Agnelli heir and playboy Lapo Elkann has publicly announced that he is converting to Judaism.
What IS this world coming to?
Boccaccio’s tale of the conversion of Abraham comes to mind…