Bella Italia!

This was not a particularly dense news day, meaning I find little interesting out there to choose from and to report on. But at least Dutch readers can catch up with the latest developments in both the Chalabi and the Valerie Plame cases in this comprehensive summary article by the NRC Handelsblad’s US correspondent Marc Chavannes. (For those needing help, Valerie Plame is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was revealed last July in a newspaper column by Robert Novak to be an undercover CIA agent. That’s against the law; Novak said his information came from administration officials. Probably not-so-coincidentally, Ambassador Wilson had embarrassed the Bush administration by pointing out that allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium from Niger – an alleged event he had personally investigated – were false.) Chavannes even has the awareness to cite, from an analysis in Kevin Drum’s “Washington Monthly” weblog, the blatant illogic in President Bush’s recent statements about Ahmed Chalabi – i.e. that he didn’t have much to do with him, he was merely Laura Bush’s guest at the last State of the Union address – in light of the President’s earlier statement on Meet the Press that he had met with Chalabi in the Oval Office.

So much for this, that. Where’s the beef? Hey, we always have the option of taking up another country from Politikens’s “Europa XL” series of cultural portraits. Let’s go for Italy this time, analyzed by writer Stefano Benni; he does quite a good job indeed.

  • Painting: The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. Of course! Benni is not afraid to pick the obvious (as our expert on France was afraid to pick the Eiffel Tower, or the French Revolution, as prototypical for that country). In his words, the work is both “sacred and profane”; Mona Lisa is both “the Madonna and the seductress.” And Italian art took inspiration from Leonardo’s mastery.
  • Photograph: “Pina,” from the film Roma, città aperta. Benni starts to show us his audacity and creativity, as this is not a photograph per se but a still from a movie, specifically from Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film “Rome, Open City.” It shows Anna Magnani running down the street, screaming, just before the German soldiers turn and shoot her. Yet from Benni’s explanation it remains puzzling just why he chose this: it represents the period of the anti-fascist struggle in Italy during World War II, but he claims that most Italians would prefer just to forget that. And this is a photograph of a martyr, he adds, which Italians have never shown themselves worthy of being.
  • Person: Totò. And who is “Totò”? Antonio de Curtis was Totò, an Italian comic actor active mainly before the Second World War. “It takes an actor to represent Italy’s thousand faces and gestures,” Benni writes, so he picked Totò as the country’s representative person. He “reproduces our land’s joy and mystery. On the one side the survivor’s philosophy, the poor man’s genius, the pluck to mock and make fun of the powerful. On the other side the hypocrisy, the selfishness, the lies.” Yes, Totò represents the Italian as he is, Benni declares – and, he adds, not as the Americans might prefer him to be.
  • Object: The balcony. An inspired choice, although in his text Benni also is willing to include terraces and thresholds: all places where “community, quarrels, gossip, friendship, philandering, and serenades arise.” For Italy is “a land in the sun, a land that does not hold itself captive to the TV or out of fear for the ‘other.'”
  • Text: From “La cognizione del dolore” (1936), by Carlo Emilio Gadda. “The hardest choice,” writes Stefano Benni. Indeed, I had always been instructed that it was I Promessi Sposi (The Bethrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni, that was the primordial Italian novel, its popularity even helping to ensure the development of Italian linguistic unity around the Tuscan dialect in the 19th century. La cognizione del dolore (“The Recognition of Sadness”) couldn’t have done that, as it’s plainly a 20th-century novel, treating the transition in Italy from a peasant society to an industrialized one. And, indeed, that was a key development in that country through the 20th century, and especially after the Second World War.
  • Song: Creuza de ma, by Fabrizio de André. That title apparently means “Mule-Path of the Sea”; the song’s lyrics are given here directly, translated into Danish. Why not Verdi, Rossini? Well, this Fabrizio de André was a friend of Benni’s (deceased a few years ago; maybe by means of this choice of his friend Benni is unwittingly providing another glimpse into the Italian character, where often it’s “who you know” that counts). Benni claims that De André was a modern-day successor to the troubadours, with a unique feel for dialects and Mediterranean rhythms. Uniquely, here Benni also offers his “anti-choice” for a song: Inno di Mameli, (“Mameli’s Hymn”) which happens to be the Italian national anthem and which, Benni writes, “shows you what the Italians can get up to when they march in uniform, yesterday and today.”
  • Poem: “Rhyme,” by Dante Alighieri. The choice of Dante must rank right up there in obviousness with “Painting’s” Mona Lisa – although there are of course many other famous Italian poets with international influence (Petrarch, Bocaccio) he could have chosen. But Benni does not choose here the Divine Comedy, or any part of it, but rather one of Dante’s sonnets, “Rhyme,” which is conveniently provided in its entirety, in Danish. (Naturally, I’m not even going to try to translate any part of it, or even summarize it.) Why especially “Rhyme”? I don’t think that really matters; Benni chose Dante, just leave it at that, and that choice is fine. He even asks the reader to leave it at that: “I can’t entirely justify why I made precisely this choice, but one really cannot force on or demand from a poem too many explanations.”
  • Food-dish: Wine – Italian Wine. (As in “Bond – James Bond.”) Benni gets clever here again, and I’ve got to admire it. You’ve got to admit that he’s chosen correctly again when he points out that wine has been a common obsession everywhere in Italy, from modern days back into time immemorial, among rich and among poor. In fact, declares Benni, “wine is, together with football, the Italians’ religion” – even as the latter has of late been adulterated by star-worship and millionaires. (That’s football stars, of course – they also tend to be the millionaires.) Wine has been threatened, but not (yet) so much adulterated, by “speculation, counterfeiting, and coca-colaization.”
  • Place: Rome. Benni is very good at stretching category boundaries in a way that simply leaves you unable to argue, isn’t he? “Place” is supposed to mean “place,” and not generally something as big as a city. Yet he’s right again: Dante is the prototypical Italian poet and Rome, all of Rome, is the prototypical Italian place. (Well, some would argue this point, as there is also a decided North-South split in Italian attitudes and politics. Members of the Lega Nord political party, for example, would not agree since for them Rome lies in the Mezzogiorno, the lazy South that must be subsidized with taxes from the efficient, prosperous North. But let’s just leave this be.)
  • Event: Berlusconi’s entrance into the political scene. Definitely not. Here, Benni makes the same mistake that Liza Marklund made when she chose Anna Lindh’s murder last September as Sweden’s prototypical event. Namely, he has allowed his passion over some aspect of current events pull him out of the wide-ranging, long-term perspective he needs to wield to make valid, timeless choices that can truly characterize his nation over all of its history.

    What’s more, even taking Benni’s choice here at face value (namely early 1994, the beginning of Berluscon’s first Italian government) is faintly ridiculous, as that government lasted for only nine months. In any case, he’s not very happy with these developments, it’s safe to say: Benni writes here of the advent of a “media dictatorship,” of “the return of fascistic censorship.” “Never has Italy had such a backward and plain political class”; he sees “Much fear, [but] a certain hope.”

    Well that’s good, but I think we should be reading here rather about such things as the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century, or the rejection of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic after the Second World War, or Mussolini’s March on Rome of 1922, or even Alaric the Goth’s sack of Rome in 410 AD – things like that.

Coming up on Sunday, the D-Day anniversary: Germany. Then shortly thereafter Austria, in an attempt to answer the burning question, “Just how is Austria different culturally from Germany, anyway?” Darned if I know; they just speak German with slightly different accents, is all I’m aware of. I’ll also tell you that their roles in the Second World War were the same – as instigator, and not as victim; as Nazi hammer, and not as nail. Come to think of it, that was also true of their common role in the First World War.

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