irst — no, probably not first, but let’s say so — I came across a piece about Italy’s Marche region. It was spring 2005. “Is This the Next Tuscany?” asked the headline. Cheap homes. Simple people. Good food. “Apricot-scented” wine. “I bring you a taste of my Verdicchio,” the narrative began, as if the writer taught rhetoric at the school of high camp.
Similar reports probably followed, but the next one I read (August 15 of this year) concerned Rome restaurants: tourists (“turisti,” chimed the piece) paid more for food than locals — a “tourist tax,” asserted the writer in what was called a “Rome Journal.” “Gouging fits into Italy’s notorious black market,” he continued, using the word “notoriously” the way news writers use its bad news counterpart, “shadowy.” To which a fiesty reader responded: “So what if unscrupulous Roman restaurateurs gouge you for a few bucks over the course of your visit? On the whole, Rome is remarkably magnanimous toward its tourists.”
Truth be told there is no one truth.
So I backtracked.
Two days before the turisti report I found two travel pieces. One laid out San Gimignano (“On some days, it seems, pedestrian traffic can … recall Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.”), the other the Abruzzo, “where Italy shows a rougher edge,” and where before pagan festivals, “A palpable and restless anticipation made it almost difficult to breathe.”
To my surprise however, the Abruzzo town was one The American had reported on at length, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the winter of 2004 (Margaret Stenhouse did the honors). She was far more restrained.
Digging back further I found two more animated Italy pieces (July), one about Fregene (“History’s heavy weight doesn’t hang over Fregene as it does over Rome, but that’s what makes this small town so inviting.”), the second on dining in Genoa (“Restaurants that leave me walking around muttering, ‘If there were only one of these in my neighborhood, I’d be happy.’”)
This is a random list, an indicative sliver of what The New York Time’s, America’s elite paper of record, has published about travel, food, and culture Italy over the last 12 months — or more precisely (Le Marche aside) since the Turin Olympic.
Travel is sport. People justifiably love destinations. They’d prefer to read about fine wine than spilled blood. No one these days sells Beirut or Kabul with any conviction, and tsunami-battered Indonesia, otherwise quite astonishing, has too many… um… Muslims (who might or might not peddle explosive gel-caps).
That threat-free and sunny Italy is front-and-center among the “get me out of here” crowd is hardly a surprise. Italy has always been kind to travel journalism.
But occasionally there’s a curve ball, a small event that illuminates the bigger picture.
This time it was William Grimes’ 1,000 word review of Beppe Severgnini’s latest “colloquialogue” (my word), a Luigi Barzini-style rumination on the Italian character picturesquely titled “La Bella Figura, A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.” (Yes, field guides usually apply to birds, but…)
Within a day, the review sat atop the most emailed list among the hundreds of articles posted on the New York Times web site. It remained there for two days, an absurdly long stretch in the Era of Fast Blinking. The Middle East couldn’t touch it, nor could David Foster Wallace’s poetic adoration of Roger Federer, or another story teasingly titled “Laptop Slides into Bed in Love Triangle.” The Times’ heavyweight columnists Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedmen didn’t break the top-10, though the Duke University lacrosse team rape case did (ever the lure of bodily fluids…)
Grimes’ first line set the tone: “In Italy, red lights come in many varieties. A rare few actually mean stop.” Cliché. The review was titled: “An Insider Explains Italy, a Land of Cheery Dysfunction.” Cliché. Italy and dysfunction are established prose partners.
On balance, be advised that Beppe Severgnini — who wrote a breezy pre-9/11 book on his reporting stint in Washington — is uniquely placed to understand what makes Americans tick and fathom their dependence on the Internet. He’s also an astute PR whiz whose popular Corriere della Sera proto-blog, “Italians,” (he takes questions from readers and provides chatty answers) is deservedly in the vanguard of the nascent Italian interactive movement. Before launching The American I lunched with him in Rome. We traded tips and barbs. Rome, I suggested, is a city based on approximation. Una cittá approssimitiva, I said. May I quote you? he asked. Be my guest. He was already scheming. Good on him. He gets it.
What interests me more than Beppe’s shrewdness is the American yearning, often intense and intensely misdirected, for all things Italian.
Yes, you needn’t remind me: there’s that Tuscan sun bit, a book and a movie with a died-and-gone-to-heaven sheen that’s impossible to rationalize or refute; Tuscany is a condition, a summary 21st century pastoral that seems to block falling towers, instructing them to back off. And in the myth’s background the mewling of bickering carpenters named Beppe and Gianni, maybe a seamstress called Clara.
But it’s deeper than cliché, and more focused. Americans, like British rustic-seekers before them, want to portray an Italy of their dreams, as if to poke Latin putty into Anglo-Saxon cracks and crevices as a defense against the mundane and to square a window into Mediterranean fantasy.
Why ponder the repetitions of suburbia when, a little money put aside, you can try your hand with “la bella figura” in Rome (while you’re being overcharged). Or grope through San Gimignano. Or rough it in edgy Abruzzo. Or skip out to once-fashionable Fregene (“A simple fishing village, [it] became an oasis for Italian intellectuals and Rome’s fashionable Via Veneto crowd.”) Why resist the call of such a personable Mars, with its stubborn traditions and Renaissance deltas, where — says Beppe — “obedience is boring”?
Here’s a country where a drier’s plump thumping — what more average American sound? — is only occasional, replaced by wet embraces of laundry flagged out raggedly to nick heat from the all-season sun. Here’s a place — possible? — minus the slinging ticks of microwave. Here’s a lifestyle — astonishing! — still suspicious of most things instant. Here’s a pace kind both to mobile phones and naps.
Italy conscripted Keats, Goethe, D.H. Lawrence (Naples men “with great macaroni paunches”), Dickens (he hated it), Henry James, Pound, Hemingway, and so on. George Clooney gave it a celebrity fist pump when he bought a villa on Lake Como. The love letter list goes on and on. So do the “I love Italy” book titles.
Though Americans got wise to Italy in the neorealist 1950s, early craving was mostly confined to busty diva-worship: Loren, Lollobrigida, Cardinale. The more recent version replaces sexuality with a yearning for exotic geography that’s low on woe. It’s as if post-9/11 America had learned the ceramic fragility of states and personal order and turned to admire and embellish places where beauty appears to outlast chaos. Italy is the leisure-time perfection of spellbinding idyll, disbelief suspended to make way for a life of conviviality and countryside and bits of hand-made pasta spanked to life by a race of strange and elegant people — “old country” people — whose language is tunefully mysterious. It’s as close to an eccentric dream of lost simplicity as a newly conformist society can fairly allow.
Severnigni and others play on this collective (if borrowed) nostalgia: pasta, yes; chaos, yes; but with sweetness on the side. It’s the “run-the-red-light” and grin philosophy of Italy, Cerberus-with-a-smile button.
“The shopping mall (but not Internet shopping) is popular,” says Grimes quoting Severngnini, “because Italians pretend that it’s a piazza.”
Why is this funny?
Possibly because the mind’s eye piazza is a fancy of fountains and Fellini faces. Because in their insistence in being so Italian, Italians are terminally cute. (Unlike, say, the French. Who are only terminally French, and thus arrogant.) And look, the Italians can even win things: handsome men kick around a ball and capture the World Cup (beating France!) Then, the same handsome men gather round and dance and kiss. Amazing.
The Romans envied the Greeks enough to vanquish them, obliterative flattery, so to speak. The Etruscans, another clever tribe, were annihilated and co-opted.
With annihilation out of the question, curiosity and envy morph paradoxically into a kind of patronizing fascination that includes genuine adoration.
Italy attracts because America, self-conscious about its “recentness,” gladly transforms foreign parochialism into a benevolent sophistication the embrace of which is an act of personal improvement. Sun, food, old terrain, good and partly comedic people: how literally adorable, and relaxed. You cannot similarly love Iran — too many jagged edges. Italy is a serviceable idol whose institutional mischief only makes it cuter still. Telecommuting doesn’t work in Italy “because it deprives Italians of the social drama of the workplace,” says Grimes, citing Severgnini. Read Sopranos-style gesticulation.
The perfect quaintness goes on and on.
To want a beautiful thing whose desiring doesn’t compromise either national identity or moral rigor is a luxury. For many Americans, Italy is less a nation — few have any operational notion of Italian government — than an ache by way of virgin olive oil and Modena balsamic. It also conforms to a voyeurism in which virtual knowledge, gleaned from print and video, is as exciting and compelling as actual experience. Writing about Italy is to have and hold without necessarily needing to know.
Here’s a concluding anecdote.
Living near Lake Garda in the 1920s, D.H. Lawrence decided to write about the Italians, whom he loved but found frustrating. He met Faustino — “Il Duro,” he calls him — a rich man who nonetheless worked the fields, which made him all the more intriguing and enigmatic. “Il Duro” evidently left poor mercurial Lawrence, a class system product, dumbstruck. “There was nothing between us except our complete difference,” he wrote, not knowing what else to say. “It was like night and day flowing together.”
Yes. As Italy is to the distant and desiring eye.