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« Forseeable Disasters | Main | Modern Art, Italian Style »

October 14, 2007

Perceiving Italy

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Italy takes some getting used to. It did for me, anyway.

Other folks seem to cotton to the place immediately. Some make it their only serious European travel destination. A few even buy property and spend a good part of the year there.

I've come to be fond of Italy. But, as suggested above, it took a while. A number of factors came into play, yet I suspect that a key one is generational.

I don't remember when I was first made aware of Italy, though it might have been in the early post-World War 2 years (by the time I was conscious that "there was a war on," Italy was already out of it and, to me, the enemies were Hitler and Tojo). Post-war, Italy was one of those basket-case countries the Marshall Plan was set up to help, so I suppose I heard it mentioned on radio broadcasts and appeals from charity agencies such as CARE.

As I became increasingly history-conscious while in elementary school, I learned that Italy's performance in the recent world wars was less than stellar. The pattern I was seeing was that Italy was a second-rank player in the European stage.

I later became aware that lots and lots of Italians had left Italy because it offered them little, moving to the USA, Argentina and elsewhere: again, not a good advertisement. Italian-American had yet to strongly move into the middle class and, in Seattle, the not-so-many Italians lived mostly in the south end, not the northeast where I grew up. The image was of a bunch of poor who left a poor country and seemingly remained poor.

In the early, pre-color TV 1950s, the local television station began boasting its new movies. Hollywood had yet to release its film libraries for broadcast, so we were stuck with seeing cheapo films from the 30s. Unfortunately, the "new" movies were equally cheapo. They were shot in Italy and dubbed into English -- perhaps the greatest expense in a low-budget production. Anyway, what I mostly saw were longish-haired (for the times) men wearing trench coats, wandering nearly-deserted cobblestone streets. Not very much of that expensive dialog; just a lot of sideways glances and puffing on cigarettes. And again, not very appealing. Perhaps Italy would have come off better had I seen Roman Holiday, but I'm semi-sure I missed that flick.

Over time, my knowledge of Italy expanded while my perception remained that it was a second-rate place. Sure, Italians built Ferraris and other high-performance cars with classy bodywork. But the Fiats that I might have been able to afford and other makes such as Alfa Romeo had a reputation for unreliable electricals. Yes, Italy was the core of the Roman Empire and host to the Renaissance. But it wasn't militarily competitive in World War 2 and, post-war, has been unstable politically while experiencing a stronger Communist presence than in most other democratic European countries.

People 15-20 years or more younger than me might have received a different introduction. The wars might have seemed less relevant. Poverty was no longer a nation-wide issue (though it has persisted in the south). Milan's entry on the high-fashion scene might have seemed less surprising. Italian films would have had popular players such as Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastrioanni. Italian-Americans would have been farther up the socioeconomic ladder. Though Fiat still would have meant "Fix it again, Tony."

Today's under-30 crowd almost surely has a different perspective. Italy is a hot travel destination. The cutting-edge fashion/design image is strong. Film buffs are well aware of classical Italian movies by Fellini and others. Semester-in-Florence college programs are common undergraduate fodder. And the only Italian cars sold in the States these days are Maseratis, Ferraris and their ilk.

Italy remained a mixed bag when I first saw the place. I was on my second trip to Europe and driving east on the Autoroute that runs along the edge of the French Riviera when the whim to duck into Italy overcame me. So I continued beyond the border to the first Italian exit, near Ventimiglia. A sorry sight. Dingy. Industrial. Then back along the coastal road, crossing into France at Menton, where all became sleek again.

Now, northern Italy is supposed to be one of the wealthiest places in Europe. But it doesn't look that way from the streets and roads. Most houses seem to have the same sorts of weathered-stucco exteriors in the same limited set of dingy-looking pastel colors. Interiors might well be cutting-edge decoration and industrial design, but there's no way of telling from the outside. Perhaps it's a form of camouflage.

Whatever the reason, Italy doesn't seem as spiffy as, say, France or Germany. So when a tourist in one of those countries continues into Italy, the contrast might not seem favorable. Perhaps that's why Italy came off better on my recent trip -- we were only in Italy aside from a few hours in Lugano, Switzerland and Paris' Charles DeGaulle airport. I could deal with Italy on its own terms, not comparatively.

It takes time for old perceptions to fade. While I enjoy visiting Italy, happily munching spaghetti, pizza and gelato, my mind still carries some of the baggage of Italian second-rateness from my childhood and early youth. Perhaps that's because there might still be a touch of truth in it.



posted by Donald at October 14, 2007


I recently went to northwestern Italy for the first time and, except for Milan, surprisingly ugly for a center of fashion design and style, was amazed by the food, the architecture, the people, and the scenery (a cross between San Francisco and Santa Barbara. I have a note about it here.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on October 14, 2007 2:15 PM

DP speaks of Italy as being second rate. I would go further and say that it is backward. Before someone jumps down my throat, I am not speaking of individual Italians. But Italian culture, in which loyalty to family and distrust of the stranger are the two poles, has placed Italians at a disadvantage, in terms of both economic cooperation and social cohesion, relative to the higher trust cultures of most Western European nations and of America.

Posted by: ricpic on October 14, 2007 9:28 PM

Italy also capitalizes on its past more than most other countries. Travel in Italy, and you cannot help but notice that you're in a country with many centuries of history.

Posted by: Peter on October 14, 2007 9:42 PM

Nothing to say, Donald, about the Italian influence on American cooking? My paternal grandparents made spaghetti once a week as something quasi-exotic. I'm thankful dishes aren't preserved like photos, as the sauce was likely as palatable as the fare at those combined Chinese-Mexican restaurants, but the idea that one could here in the U.S. compete with those culturissimi italiani (even as we were suspicious of them, and teased the poorer Italians who came here for not living up to our ideas of Italians derived from English Renaissance admiration, Church of England ambivalence, and 19th-century artistic adulation) led, I do imagine, to the spate of Julia Child, Martha Stewart, and other such cookbooks that have us eating rather better (regarding both health and elegance) than our 19th-c. forbears. Hearing stories from my parents, that was a major cultural event. Wasn't it they who got we ex-English to stop boiling our vegetables for 45 minutes?

Posted by: Christophorus Comenius Corvinus on October 14, 2007 11:13 PM

I've always liked the fact that Longfellow used to chat with the Italian fruit vendors on his way to the Dante Club recitations at the Omni Parker (which I believe I read in Howells's _Literary Friends and Acquaintance_). Admitting Longfellow is about as popular as log cabins these days, what profound influence must those street vendors have had upon Longfellow's ability to imagine himself into Dante; and musn't Eliot's early love of Dante derive from Longfellow and Lowell? What would our literature (to pick a topic relevant I hope to this blog) be like today without those squalid Puglians and Calabrians? What would our architecture be like if they'd brought their towns with them?

Posted by: Christophorous Comenius Corvinus on October 14, 2007 11:24 PM

I think it's all simply a matter of perspective. Growing up in and visiting Croatia (when it used to be Yugoslavia), in the '60's and even '70's, Italy seemed to be gleaming and rebuilt and shiny. And the ancient ruins seemed to be in much better condition than most anything in the then Yugoslavia.

The only exception was Naples, where the bombed out port remained in tatters well into the late '70's and '80's. It wasn't for the lack of money; just the, uhmm, disposition of it.

But that Italian second-ratedness that you wrote of? Well, it sure looked like first-rated to this east of Italy native. I thought Trieste was a cornucopia of riches and abundancy, until I came to the States where too much was the standard fare.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 15, 2007 8:08 AM

My wife and I backpack/eurailed in western Europe back in 1978, and had few good experiences in Italy. Like some of the other commenters, we noticed a big difference in the general level of development--in our case it was a very stark contrast from Switzerland to northern Italy.

There was a tunnel accident near Domodosola which caused us to have to leave one train, get on charter busses, and get on another train at the next station. That couldn't be helped, but
we found it a bit hard to believe that among all the Italians involved in the emergency, not a single one spoke enough English, German, or French to explain to the travelers what was going on.

Milan, the "industrial heart" of Italy, was strange. The high-rise HQs of FIAT, etc, had rutted, garbage-strewn parking lots. The evening streets were filled with Italian families, the males of which couldn't keep their eyes off my wife or leers off their faces.

We did enjoy our few days in Venice, but Italy is way down our list of places to revisit.


Posted by: Narr on October 15, 2007 1:50 PM

Darko, need I tell you how Ljubljana looked from the POV of a SU-dweller?

Posted by: Tatyana on October 15, 2007 3:58 PM

ricpic, There's something is what you say; yet Italy's economic record has been not too bad, even in the years when it was a laughing stock. I believe they surpassed Britain in per capita GDP some years ago.

The thing is, the family orientation of Italian culture can work for good or bad. In the north it's supported the development of a lot of small family firms that have contributed to a successful entrepreneurial culture. In the south it's different, obviously - the paradigm case of "amoral familialism".

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on October 15, 2007 4:48 PM

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