February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Tidbit intelligence

By |2018-03-21T18:20:50+01:00February 1st, 2006|Features Archive|
Monthly male facial product bills are high. illustration by Suzanne Dunaway.

ere are 42 tidbits to make you sound more intelligent when you talk about Italy:

22. Young Italians tend to avoid one-to-one dating until a couple is engaged (fidanzati, or “promised”). Social encounters usually occur in group settings, in clubs or over pizza. Group events are a vetting process for both sexes. The intense flirting Italian men direct toward foreign women often reflects their inability to successfully direct similar flattery towards warier local women.

37. According to surveys conducted recently by women’s magazines, Italian men spend an average of €200 monthly on beauty care products, including face creams, makeup, tanning treatments and hair trimmers. Men who said they “cared” for their looks spent an average of 38 minutes in the morning grooming for the day ahead.

4. Italian TV is dominated by variety shows that parade scantily-clad showgirls and hostesses known as veline, or “carbon copies,” because the sexually provocative look is easy to produce. Television executives, mostly male, justify their weakness for eye candy by saying that female prettiness is a national treasure and good for ratings.

20. Italians average eight hours online per week, compared to over 30 hours in Britain and France. High-speed lines are hard to obtain partly because aging infrastructure impedes cables, and wireless communication remains in its infancy. By contrast, mobile phone use (particularly for text messages; SMS in Italy) is on a par with Britain as the highest in Europe.

7. Italy is prone to strikes, with transport and hospital workers leading the way. Complaints tend to center on stalled contract negotiations and outdated wages. Italy, like France, has privatized (and downsized) reluctantly. Firing a public-sector employee remains nearly impossible. Social welfare, promoted by labor unions in the 1960s and 70s, is considered a fundamental entitlement. It includes health care and schooling.

26. Italy is a personality-driven parliamentary democracy in which majority and opposition parties spend most of their time squabbling acrimoniously. Public insults are common. Charges of “irresponsibility” are leveled so often by warring leaders that the word has all but lost meaning.

33. The Italian paramilitary police, the carabinieri, are mocked relentlessly. Many recruits are poorly-educated southern youths who want out of provincial life. A more realistic response to the question, “How many carabinieri does it take to screw in a light bulb?” might once have been, “But there’s no electricity.” Some carabinieri jokes are entertaining. To wit: A carabinieri recruit prepares for a parachute jump with an army and air force colleague. The carabinieri leaps first and his chute opens safely. The other two plunge past him when their chutes fail.

This exasperates the recruit, who promptly removes his parachute harness. “No one told me this was a race.”

10. Dietrismo, a Latin offshoot of conspiracy thinking, is fundamental to the Italian world view. Dietro literally means “behind,” so dietrismo is the science of what’s behind things. In Machiavellian spirit, many Italians believe political events are governed by vested interests – often attributed cryptically to loro, or “they.” Since authority figures often advance through patronage, it’s assumed such figures have debts to repay. Soccer fans, for example, insist referees rule in favor of richer teams. Both the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Watergate resignation of President Richard Nixon are knowingly attributed to sinister but unnamed forces.

38. A plane carrying the Torino soccer team, among the best and most beloved in Italian history, crashed into the Superga mountain peak outside Turin in bad weather on Dec. 7, 1948, killing all 31 aboard, including the 18 team members. The team, dubbed il Grande Torino, The Great Turin, had won four straight Italian titles and was returning from a match in Lisbon. The disaster provoked months of national mourning, countless books, and the team is still commemorated today.

12. Padania is the name of the Italian state-within-state coined by Northern League founder Umberto Bossi in 1996. Bossi says regions around the northern Po River — including Milan, Turin and Venice — should be independent and accuses the Rome government of wholesale corruption (though his party is a government partner). He seeks immigration quotas to block foreign workers.

41. Rarely does an Italian prime minister serve his full six-year term. Political bickering usually brings down a government within a year or two of its formation. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will break the trend if he serves through the end of his term in April. His previous government in 1994 lasted only nine months and his chief rival in May elections, center-left leader Romano Prodi, served as prime minister from 1996 to 1998.

27. Since the high-profile Mafia assassinations of judges and prosecutors in the early 1990s, underworld activity has been generally under-reported by the mainstream media. But there are still crimes throughout Italy and the Mafia has outposts in Naples, Calabria and Sicily. Old-school gangs with younger, tidier bosses (some from the Balkans) allegedly run rackets in human trafficking, drugs and prostitution. Boat people, easily victimized, arrive in the Italian south almost daily.

36. Designer Giorgio Armani, born in Piacenza, near Bologna, got his start by selling a Volkswagen. He and business partner Sergio Galeotti received $10,000 for the car in 1975 and used the cash to start the Giorgio Armani line. Before that, Armani was a department store buyer and worked as a designer at the menswear house Nino Cerruti. He studied medicine without graduating. Armani is not the only well-known Piacenza native. Hector Boiardi (prounounced bo-YAR-dee in Italian) emigrated to the U.S. in 1915 and created “Chef Boyardee” pasta products, which became mid-century American staples.

18. Italy had the largest Communist Party in the West during the Cold War, topping out at 34 percent of the vote in 1976 national elections. Bologna and Turin, with their mix of factory workers and university intellectuals, anchored the party’s strength. The United States warned Italy of unnamed “consequences” if the Communists joined the government. But the party lost steam in the 1980s and collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, fragmenting the Left.

40. Drunk driving, while illegal, is among Italy’s unacknowledged problems – in part because wine has long prevailed over beer and hard alcohol. But beer is increasingly popular in the 16-24 age group, according to surveys, and police are largely ill-equipped to handle the growing dilemma. They lack breathalyzer equipment and generally shy away from pulling over suspect drivers.

30. Turin has more arcades per square block than any other Italian city. Italy’s northern centers, including Bologna and Milan, are known for store-lined arcades, a defense against harsh winters. Rome and Naples, by contrast, have few to speak of.

11. The 1990 World Cup and the Roman Catholic Jubilee of 2000 produced major urban makeovers in several cities. Turin got a new stadium for the Cup, while the Vatican under Pope John Paul II helped the city of Rome restore antiquities in preparation for Catholic pilgrims, who totalled 16 million.

15. Italian athletes and journalists are so wedded to their pasta diet that a traveling kitchen usually accompanies the team in major sports competitions outside Italy, including the Olympics, World Cup, and European championships. The kitchen, known as Casa Italia, serves as an eatery and meeting place. In recent years other nations, including Russia, have picked up the tradition.

29. Padre Pio, a rural Capuchin priest who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002, is Italy’s most revered religious figure. The pope acknowledged a miracle recounted by Matteo, a boy suffering from meningitis and multiple organ failure, who said an elderly man with a beard and a long brown habit told him he’d be cured. He was. Padre Pio, who died in 1968, became known internationally after American soldier brought back tales of stigmata and levitation after World War I. Medallions with his image are common throughout Italy.

31. A quarter of Italy’s Serie A (top league) soccer players are married to women who list their employment as “model” or “actress,” or both.

9. Though Italians can take a decade or more to graduate with a college degree (based on oral and written exams), a state education is still free. 21. Too often, though, classes are plagued by overcrowding and the failure of professors to show up. (Surveys suggest some Italians prolong their university education so they can stay at home since jobs are hard to come by.)

39. Seatbelt use is mandatory in Italy, but most think the law infringes on personal freedom and ignore it. Police rarely enforce it. Officials are stricter when it comes to motorbikes and mopeds. Don’t wear a helmet and you risk a €500 fine. Until helmet regulations were introduced, thousands of young Italians sustained crippling cranial injuries each year.

14. Turin’s patrician Agnelli family, which owns Fiat, Ferrari, and the Juventus soccer team, has tragic parallels to the American Kennedy dynasty. The late Gianni Agnelli’s nephew and designated heir died of cancer in 1997 at 33 while another promising member of the clan, 28-year-old Lapo Elkann, was hospitalized last year for a drug overdose. He was found unconscious by a transvestite who allegedly spent the night with him. Allegations of fast living have long dogged the family.

8. Sky blue, azure, is the Italian national color. All Italian teams – whether soccer or bobsledding – are referred to as the azzurri for men and azzurre, the feminine form, for women.

16. Two of Italy’s most celebrated postwar writers are both Jews named Levi. Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, lived in Turin until his 1981 death. Carlo Levi wrote “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” a fictional recollection of forced exile under Fascism.

3. Though he struggled with speech and alertness in his waning years, Pope John Paul II, elected at age 58, was the most dynamic pontiff in modern history. Robust and indefatigable, he often chatted with journalists on overseas trips, sometimes debating them at close quarters. Until John Paul II’s reign, the pope – though officially Bishop of Rome – rarely left Vatican City.

24. The most significant terrorist incidents in postwar Italy occurred within two years of each other. In March 1978, Red Brigades terrorists abducted former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, killing six bodyguards. His body was abandoned in a parked car in Rome after 56 days. In 1980, rightists exploded a bomb inside the Bologna train station, killing 85 and injuring hundreds. Between 1976 and 1981, there were an average of 15 incidents a week.

34. American basketball legends Doug Moe, Bill Bradley, and Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni each played in Italy. The game is immensely popular in northern Italy, with successful teams in Treviso, Bologna, Varese, and Milan. NBA scouts and agents often work out of Milan to scout promising players in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

19. Gasoline prices in Italy are among the highest in Europe, averaging between €1.2 and €1.4 per liter – up about 40 percent since 2002. That works out to over $5 a gallon. British prices are even higher. Italy imports 80 percent of its oil (from the Middle East and Iran) and 95 percent of its natural gas (from Russia), accounting in part for cordial political ties between Italy and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

2. Until the 1980s, Italy had only three major television channels, all managed by state broadcaster, RAI. Each one had (and retains) a political slant: RAI Uno is Catholic and pro-government, RAI Due is center-left, and RAI Tre is openly leftist. When the state relinquished its media monopoly, channels proliferated, creating problems with anti-trust and favoritism. Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister since 2001, holds majority stake in the country’s three major private networks, Rete 4, Canale 5 and Italia 1. He also owns the Milan soccer team. Early in his career, the Milan-born Berlusconi was a part-time cruise ship crooner who favored lugubrious ballads. He made his fortune (estimated at $2.8 billion by Forbes in 2000) developing residential property outside Milan. He entered politics in the early 1990s.

23. Oil tycoon John Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson was kidnapped by bandits in July 1973 and held for four months. When Getty refused to negotiate, the abductors sent a box with a note that read: “This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.” Getty senior, who had 14 grandchildren, purportedly paid $2 million for his release.

28. Italy once placed strict limits on how many non-Italian citizens who could play for soccer teams. When the restrictions were eased in the 1980s, wealthy clubs such as AC Milan and Juventus of Turin began recruiting internationally. The ethnic diversity of players has been criticized by the Northern League, a rightist government partner that seeks the secession of northern territories. A debate rages whether talented foreigners of Italian heritage should receive fast-track citizenship to play for the national team.

6. Until Italian unification in 1871, the Roman Catholic Church embodied by the Papal States was the peninsula’s dominant political force. Roman Catholicism was Italy’s official state religion until 1985, when a revision in the Concordat that governs relations between Italy and the Vatican was amended. Nine of 10 Italians say they are Roman Catholic; one in eight attends Mass regularly. New Asian and African immigration has vastly enlarged the nation’s Islamic population since the mid-1990s.

25. Fiat-owned Juventus is probably the nation’s most popular soccer team (it has 26 titles), with a fan base that grew from southern factory workers employed by Fiat in the 1950s. The city’s other major team, Torino, is patronized by the city’s upper crust.

35. Italy’s deep south (Calabria and Sicily) was once known for unpunished “crimes of passion.” Husbands who killed cheating wives and their lovers often received light sentences or had their crimes overlooked. Such nonchalance has diminished significantly in recent decades.

17. Bills are rarely paid promptly in Italy. Late payment gives the economy a crutch, permitting Italians to press ahead with projects they wouldn’t otherwise undertake. Commercial bills, usually due after 60 to 90 days, are often settled months later. Wages (and taxes) can also lag. Small business owners and freelancers have the hardest time collecting. Not surprisingly, bank loans and mortgages proliferate. The European Union has repeatedly told Italy to mend its ways, so far unsuccessfully.

1. Gustavo Thoeni, the top Italian skier of the 1970s, was born in Trafoi (once part of Austria) and preferred German over Italian, dampening his national following. When big-talking, pasta-loving Alberto Tomba showed up, Italians were ready to fall in love. The extrovert from near Bologna dominated skiing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at one point winning a record nine straight slaloms as well as Olympic gold medals.

5. Until his death in February, jazz pianist Romano Mussolini was the last surviving son of dictator Benito Mussolini. While Mussolini’s two other sons, Vittorio and Bruno, were once pictured on a Time Magazine cover as pre-teen Fascists, the younger Romano, who died at 79, chose music over politics and played jazz at home. “I was never censored,” he said. He and his Verdi-loving father sometimes engaged in violin duets.

32. Italy’s national ice hockey team set a mark for futility at the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics, losing by 15 goals or more in five games: Sweden won, 23-0; Canada, 21-1; the U.S. 31-1; Czechoslovakia, 22-3; and Switzerald 16-0. While the country has a lively pro ice hockey league, the sport is played mostly in the north and ranks below baseball among attractions (baseball was introduced in Italy by American GIs during World War II and has become moderately successful in a number of cities, including Nettuno, site of the 1943 Anzio landings, and Bologna.)

13. Morning espresso, at home or at a “bar,” is quintessentially Italian, north, central or south. An espresso is also what you order after lunch. Pick cappuccino or a Coke and your street cred drops substantially. In the 1950s, after-lunch cappuccino drinkers were known simply as “Americani.”

42. Italians generally speak “British English” because most go to Britain to perfect their language skills. Language schools generally use British English as a model. Italian accents are poor in part because films are dubbed and students rarely hear English spoken. Latin languages usually inflect the first syllable of a word. The island Capri, for example, is pronounced KAH-pree in Italian, kah-PREE in English.

About the Author:

Corinna Amendola is a freelance writer who has contributed to the magazine since its creation.