When I first arrived in Rome in 1994, the orange city buses still drove with their doors open. The bus drivers considered the city their racetrack and would cut any corner they could. In other words: the eternal city still made good on its promise of chaos. Africa seemed to begin just south of Florence (as they say north of Florence).
When I studied at the Papal University in 1998 and 1999, not much had changed. An estimated 100 unions existed for the city’s bus and subway drivers. On some days, the workers on line A would strike. On other days, line B would refuse to report for work. You were either a communist or a faithful Catholic. You either praised democracy or relished the return of the Italian king. Governments came and went, and many Italians refused to despair over the perpetual political turmoil. In the late 90s, few had heard the name of the little island Lampedusa, now infamous as a landing point for immigrants from Africa. The Italian peninsula seemed independent from external influence and resistant to worry.
Inhabitants of Rome were particularly unaffected. The more disappointing Italian politics and politicians became, the more the people of Rome turned towards the true leader of their city: the pope, the Pontifex Maximus, the highest bishop of the Catholic Church, the Caesar-like leader, the shining light “to the City of Rome and to the World”.
Italians are superstitious: They call upon saints, they believe in evil eyes, they curse. Before I could even conjugate irregular verbs, I had learned three words for “easy girls”: puta, troja, miniota. The people of Rome are rhetorically skilled, holy and profane exist often side by side.
The insularity goes hand in hand with language. Italians today are proud to say that contemporary Italian has not really changed since the days of Dante. The famous poet could still find his way around Rome today. Martin Luther, by comparison, would be lost in contemporary Germany. When complex issues are concerned – such as insulting someone’s mother or sister -, the band between high German and medieval German is very frail. Italians clearly do not have that problem.
Rome – the Whore of Babylon. That is the name Luther used to describe the city when its primary purpose was headquartering the Catholic Church. When I returned after university to intern at Radio Vatican, it dawned on many that true power now rested with the Italian government, not with the church. Silvio Berlusconi had already made a scene, protests against his policies were already erupting. And God sent a message: The Turin cathedral burned, an earthquake hit Assisi, Southern Italy suffocated in trash. Berlusconi failed to manage these crises – yet he was always re-elected.
Berlusconi was convinced of his greatness. When pope John Paul II departed for his final trip to Assisi, the Vatican only succeeded at the last minute in preventing Berlusconi from stepping on the pope’s train. Someone like himself ought to travel with the pope, Berlusconi thought.
When I studied in Rome, the US lived through impeachment hearings against President Clinton. He remained in office despite his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Sometimes it seemed as if Berlusconi believed that extramarital affairs were necessary qualifications for a head of government. A bizarre belief: “I’d rather be promiscuous than gay”.
Now, Italy faces collapse. The proud nation has been humiliated, in large parts due to Berlusconi, and due to failure of Italians to rid themselves of him. I guess every nation gets the government it deserves.
Italians should take the church as an example: Half a century ago, the Vatican realized that it did not make much sense to elect only Cardinals from Italy. When John Paul II raised the point, the initial response was hostile: “What? Non-Italians?” But the time of an independent peninsula is over. Inbreeding does not solve any problems. The self-reflexivity has not ended with Berlusconi’s departure: Many members of the new government are economic experts who have risen through the ranks of the Italian elites. Yet what Italy needs are fresh faces with fresh thoughts.
Italy needs a renaissance. Thankfully, that’s an idea they are familiar with.