Gary Hart’s Notes from John Hooper’s “The Italians”

The Glory of Italy   “For 30 years under the Borgias, they had murder and terror but produced Michelangelo, Leornardo and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had 500 year of democracy and peace—and what did they produce?  The cuckoo clock.”  Harry Lime

Vulnerability   Italians have been victims of invasion and domination—Arabs and Spaniards (in the south), Goths (Germans) and French in the north.  It has had a brutal effect on their national psyche, especially since they take such pride in the accomplishments of the Roman Empire and Renaissance.  It helps account for their fatalism and dismissal of military matters (in contrast to US where heroism, adventure, glory, etc. is associated with the military and war).

“Furbo”  (meaning cunning, crafty, sly).  Fare il furbo means to jump a queue—always figuring a way to beat the rules.  Fusso, by contrast, means idiot or if you pay the full price for a rail ticket or don’t get into the theatre for free.  Fussi have principles and furbi have aims.  Italians were on both sides of WW I and WW II—back and forth.   Similarly, over 100 out of 630 Italian legislators switched political allegiances during 2008-2012.

Complicated. Five national police forces and four layers of government (national, regional, provincial and municipal); power is diffuse and very difficult to figure out which leads to lots of corruption in order to get anything done.

Relativity. Verita means “truth” but also means “version.”  Journalists are reluctant to state facts in articles only versions.   Cheating is accepted, even expected, on school and university exams.  (Berlusconi began his career/profits  by writing essays for students to turn in as their own).  

A judge estimated that only 20%-30% of witnesses tell the truth in court. As a result, very heavy reliance in Italy on wiretapping (76 per 100,000 inhabitants; in contrat 00.5 inhabitants in US).  There are a significant number of Italians who are professional witnesses, that is, they hire out to lawyers to testify in court to whatever the lawyers want them to say!

“Dietrologia.” Roughly translated:  divining the true motive for, or cause of, an event (it dismisses the notion that anyone could act purely for reasons of moral conviction).  

Image  Italians pay great attention to dress and what is visible because they assume it is a representation of something that is not—it is symbols and gestures that are essential to try to get at hidden meanings.

Beauty and virtue are viewed separately in other cultures but not in Italy where they overlap.  Bella figura not only means beautiful or handsome but also nice, fine and good.

Many Italian city councils arrange for their best looking cops to direct traffic in the main square.

Italy has (along with Greece) the highest percentage of plastic surgeons of 25 surveyed European countries.

Unattractive things are kept out of public view.  You rarely see women in their third trimester of pregnancy in public; nor do you see mentally or physically disadvantaged people in public in Italy (at least not Italians—different for immigrant populations).

Increasingly, the Catholic Church is a prized  cultural habit rather than a bond of faith.

Berlusconi   No politician except for Mussolini has impressed his personality on Italy so decisively nor has any European politico succeeded in generating a cult of personality as did B during his heyday.   He was a great communicator who was able to speak in a plain, unadorned Italian, drawing his metaphors from family life, eschewing the subjunctive and deploying a simple/crude vocabulary that resonated with the man on the street.  (My favorite B anecdote:  While campaigning he told the crowd:  “They took a poll of women between the ages of 20-30 asking would you like to make love to Berlusconi and 33% said,  Yes! And 67% said, “Again?”)

People loved his gaffes and the fact that he always portrayed himself as an outsider.  One of his most attractive features:  he seemed tolerant of tax dodgers (“quello che gli para”  do whatever you want).

Italians have always been very heavy newspaper and TV views and B controlled much of both these media forms which accounts for a lot of his ability to overcome scandals and huge missteps.

Political Beliefs   The most conservative country in Europe concerning abortion and homosexuality.  And yet Italians are adamantly anti-capital punishment and find American executions as ghastly and outrageous.

Work   Work is not to interfere with leisure in Italy—leisure is what counts  (especially meals, and most especially family meals).  No one regrets retirement in Italy—they love it and look forward to it.  

Food   Good Italian food is not based on complex recipes nor obscure spices but the quality of the ingredients (Slow Food is a longstanding tradition in Italy, not a recent movement as it is in US).  MacDonald’s has a relative small presence in Italy  and while Starbucks has a presence in over 60 countries, Italy is not one of them.  Ethnic cuisines are viewed with deep mistrust (except for cheap Chinese and sushi).

Technology  Italians are suspicious of technology:  They don’t use much air conditioning even though places like Rome can be oppressively hot in summer and they have a relatively sparse use of dishwashers.  Italians were among the slowest in Europe  to use personal computers (by mid-2000s, more than half of Italian households ere without a computer and only 1/3 were connected to the Web.

Miscellaneous  The average age of Italy’s professoriate is 63.

Italians very conservative in their investment patterns: 20% of household investments are in bonds (less than 10% in US and less than 2% in GB).