Back in September 2003, the then mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, decided to hold what was known as a notte bianca in the capital. The idea was taken from Paris, and it was one of the many initiatives at that time to make Rome a better place for those who lived there all the year round, not just tourists. Shops, bars, restaurants, museums and galleries were to stay open all night. There were to be concerts and shows. The trains and buses would run until dawn. And a great success it was. I lived in Via del Corso in those days, and I went for a little walk at about ten o’clock before going to bed. The streets were crowded, every pavement café full.
Then, at three thirty in the morning, disaster struck: the heavens opened, torrential rain fell, and the lights went out. Somewhere far to the north a tree had hit an electric cable and triggered a chain reaction, plunging the whole of Italy into darkness. About half a million people had to sleep in railway stations as the trains could not run. The traffic ground to a halt as the traffic lights failed. The white night had turned into something of a dark one. The electricity was not fully restored until the following afternoon.
When I got up that morning, it was to hear the stories of people groping their way home, being trapped in lifts or spending hours in the darkness of Termini Station, never a very inviting place at the best of times. But, as you can read here (in Italian), despite the chaos, not a single crime was committed under the cover of darkness.
Yes, you read that correctly. No arrests, no disturbances, no crimes, no disorder in the streets.
An English friend said to me: “Can you imagine what it would have been like if this had happened in England? Every shop would have had its windows broken and its contents looted. But in Italy, people just quietly go home.”
And so it is. Rome in those days often had political demonstrations, but they never turned violent. Public disorder of the type regarded as “normal” in the United Kingdom simply does not happen in Italy.
These memories of the essential peacefulness of Roman life were triggered by a tweet from the author of the Cranmer blog in response to my latest posting:
So, the Reformers are to blame for the riots and the only solution is a return to Mariolatry http://t.co/fllOW33 His Grace despairs.
In fact that is not what I said, but rather what he inferred. But is it true? I do not mean that the riots were caused by the Reformation, but is it true that Catholic countries are less prone to rioting that a country like ours? (One hesitates to characterise Britain as Protestant any more, so little traction does religion have these days.)
Italy has terrible social problems and in certain regions suffers from endemic poverty and chronic unemployment. In parts of the Italian south unemployment stands at 80%. Drug abuse is rife in cities, as is petty crime. Many cities have suffered years of neglect. Many Italians despise the state and their government, and rightly so. Yet they do not riot. Why not?
One reason may be that Italians are simply nicer people that the British, less given to violence. More importantly, though Italy has weak governmental structures, it has strong family structures. Mass fatherlessness is not an issue in Italy, at least not yet. Every Italian belongs to a family; as well as this essential community, they also belong to a variety of other communities operating at local level: friendship groups, football clubs, social clubs, churches, and political parties.
For Italians star’ insieme – being together, hanging out – is second nature. They do not seek solitude, and their language has no word for privacy. Italian commentators are worried by youth alienation, and have blamed it for some of the shocking crimes that have taken place in recent decades, such as the famous Pietro Maso case (famous, though only in Italy) and the case of the other parent murderer in Nuove Ligure (see here, again, only in Italian). Nevertheless, even if Italy is not paradise, Italian youth alienation has not had the same supposed result as it has had here.
I have two further impressions that colour my picture of Italian life. Every Italian I have met came from somewhere. Each has a town or a village; each comes with a history. They can be rather dull on the subject, in fact. But each has a clear sense of identity and this is very often expressed by strong attachment to the local speciality. Food matters, and it matters where the food comes from too.
This gastronomic and geographical rootedness is complemented by the fact that though many Italians are irreligious or even anti-clerical, few seem to be of the opinion that religion is unimportant or malign. If you want to see evidence of this, compare the way La Republicca covers religious topics with the way the Independent does: it engages with the topic.
For Italians, religion is there, in the centre of national life, and its influence is powerful. In Italy there are clergy who are figures of national importance for their social work – people like the great and good Don Benzi as well as numerous others. In Italy, religion has not been driven out of the public forum.
Again, perhaps related to this, Italians never – and I mean never – talk down their culture. Italian intellectuals as well as ordinary people seem quite content (and this may infuriate foreigners) to think that Italy is the best country in the world and the Italian way of doing things is an excellent approach to life. They are not given to cultural self-hatred. Much energy is expended in celebrating the achievements of Italian culture and history, even, and perhaps especially, by the Left. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” campaign and talk of national rebranding would be incomprehensible to Italians.
I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but, in the aftermath of this summer’s rioting, I think we could learn a lot from the Italians.