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To Rome with Love

For centuries, Italy’s main focus was on its domestic affairs. Today, the country can no longer afford such parochialism. An essay on Italy for and The European.

My earliest memory of Italy comes from TV: Don Camillo and Peppone. My grandparents loved Fernandel, the French actor who did a masterful job of portraying the kind Italian priest Don Camillo, caught in perpetual conflict with the Communist mayor Guiseppe Botazzi, better known a “Peppone.” Don Camillo’s parishioners from the town of Brescello in the flatlands along the river Po endearingly referred to their priest as “Reverend” (“Reverendo,” in Italian) during a time when the term had long been abandoned in small-town Germany, where I grew up. In the world of my childhood, cassock-clad reverends only featured in the stories of village elders. Communists didn’t really exist either: they governed somewhere across the Iron Curtain and were pagan thugs.

Don Camillo’s Italy was a black-and-white world and thus, according to my childish imagination, backwardly oriented: a country that steadfastly clung to its past. (Of course, Mussolini and fascism didn’t feature in the TV series.) But between 1952 and 1965, when the series was filmed, the real Italy had become remarkably different from the country portrayed on TV. During the 1960s and 1970s, Italy was the favorite vacation spot for Germans and experienced immense popularity.

I first traveled to Italy in 1994 as part of a Catholic youth excursion to Rome, the Eternal City. Back then, the orange public buses still drove with their doors open and screeched around bends in the road. Downtown Rome was a traffic nightmare.

In 1998/1999, I spent a year as a student at the Papal University Gregoriana that began with the official matriculation on an old German “Triumph Adler” typewriter (probably a leftover from the German occupation during World War II). We queued up in front of a long line of these typewriters and were called up to enroll for the upcoming year. The sheets of paper were yellow, and the typewriter frequently malfunctioned and dropped several inked letters at once onto the paper. Thankfully, bottles of white correction fluid were at hand to fix any mistakes. If someone eventually decides to write a biography of my life, I encourage him or her to seek out my matriculation papers. They are quite a sight!

Only in 2000 did Rome exhibit its other side. City officials expected (and were frightened of) masses of pilgrims for the Catholic Jubilee celebrations. Gone were the times when pilgrims had to trek on foot through the dense forests of Northern Europe, evade wild animals and witches, or when they were crushed on the only bridge across the Tiber river, pushed into the water, and drowned just before reaching the Vatican. This, the city decreed, must not happen at the advent of the third millennium! Thus, Rome became organized: in 2002, I witnessed the first traffic cop handing out parking tickets (I was so stunned that I stopped to take a photo).

The fresh wind of European integration was airing out the last corners of cultural peculiarity and ridded Italians of their love for chaos. Don Camillo still measured time off the top of his head. Half a century later, Italy had become a modern country.

Italy in the late 1990s seemed particularly multi-layered to me. The majority of youths in Rome sympathized with the political Left – you could tell by their clothes and hair. Everyone hated Berlusconi, who held power even back then, and was to continue to dominate Italian politics for many more years.

In Rome, anti-clericalism seemed like a driving force of the Italian identity. In 1870, I was told, everyone who marched into Rome with Garibaldi to complete the construction of the modern Italian nation-state was excommunicated by the pope. The trauma lived on: before Garibaldi, “being Italian” was largely synonymous with “being Catholic” for a majority of the population. After 1870, that connection was partially severed.

Most young adults that I encountered outside the university did not feel a strong connection to the Catholic Church – but they certainly talked a lot about it! Maybe politics was simply regarded as too unworthy to devote time and words to it. An old lady in my building at the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele summarized the Italians’ frustration with politics as follows: “We Romans don’t care what happens in politics. Politicians come and go. But we still have a king here in this city – the pope.”

Until 2011, Italy was stuck with Silvio Berlusconi. The “cavalier,” as he was known in Germany, exhibited a peculiar kind of charm: he was solely interested in his personal power and empire. To Berlusconi, earthquake victims were welcome props for a display of his determined leadership (and then spent years living in container settlements because housing construction stalled). He presented an amalgam of narcissism and hooliganism. I dearly hope that Italians don’t fall for that demagogue again as he engineers his return to political fame under the guise of Euro-skepticism. A head of state who bends the law (or orders to have it changed) so that he can evade prison – what kind of leader is that?

Italy and Germany: theirs is a long love story that finds its visual expression in a 19th century painting from Johann Friedrich Overbeck with the title “Italia and Germania.” But what do Germans think about Italy today? We love the Italian cuisine, and we adore Italian culture. Romans cultivated southwestern Germany. According to historians, the division of Germany by the “Limes” – the fortifications along the Northern frontier of the Roman empire – set the stage for the further development of two different regions: one dominated by Roman influence in the West, and one dominated by its Germanic heritage in the East. The Catholic/Lutheran split after the Protestant revolution and the division of Germany after World War II roughly paralleled the ancient division. Even today, inhabitants of the two parts of Germany regard each other as somewhat “different.”

The conflict between northern and southern Italy is somewhat different. After the reunification of Germany, the newly incorporated federal states in the former East exhibited the same dynamics as the western part of the country. There is no simple East/West divide: the northern parts of Germany, governed by the Social Democrats, tend to lag behind the southern states, governed by the Conservatives. Religion tends to be more prevalent in the South of Germany, regardless of whether a region belonged to the West or to the East before 1990. Germany’s problems cannot easily be blamed on a particular region or analyzed in isolation from the situation of the whole country.

By contrast, Italians – to whom Dante is what Luther is to us Germans – don’t seem to regard themselves as one people. North and South are distinctly different. From afar, there’s no compelling reason for this self-segregation: all Italians speak the same language, embrace similar cultural habits, and almost all share the same religion.

Additionally, Italy almost resembles an island. Italian interests and attention are automatically focused on domestic affairs. For centuries, even neighborhoods within cities would quarrel and raise arms against each other.

Today, Italy cannot afford such parochialism. In the 1990s, when I lived in Rome, few Italians spoke English. Students who ventured abroad almost always went to Spain, where the stress of studying was low and the language was rather similar to Italian. Germany, with its many neighbors in the middle of the European continent, is different. Despite deeply held prejudices, Germans have emerged as a liberal and tolerant people over the past two decades. We are firmly rooted in Europe and sense that the European Union is a blessing rather than a curse, that it brings us more advantages than disadvantages. That’s one reason why no anti-European party has thus far emerged in Germany.

But Italy benefits from Europe as well, even when the country’s geography might lead us to believe that Italy can succeed on its own without its northern neighbors beyond the Alps. That’s an illusion. But the lack of self-sufficiency is no sign of weakness. Europe since 1945 is one of the greatest civilizational and cultural achievements in the history of mankind. Italians have a right to be proud of that history: from the times of ancient Caesars until the inception of the common currency, Italy has left its mark on world history.

No European country can succeed on its own in the future. The world of Don Camillo and Peppone was markedly different from the world we inhabit: it was small and cozy. The future belongs to Europe. Italians must not be afraid of opening up: for centuries, their ancestors already ruled large areas of the European continent.

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