In the last couple of months, the international media, especially in Britain and the US, has presented Italy as if it were governed by incompetents. Old Reformation stereotypes of Catholic and Mediterranean chaos and corruption have been dusted off to use again. This Anglo-Saxon attitude towards Italy is partly based on a misreading of the statistics: the tragic figures have been presented for the country as a whole, overlooking the huge regional differences. According to the official figures just after Easter, although around 10,000 people have died in Lombardy, centered around Bergamo, only around 300 have died in the whole of the Lazio region, which includes the capital city Rome. The provinces of Umbria, Calabria, Basilicata, Molise and Sardinia all had under 50 victims, some less than 15. This is a huge contrast to the UK and USA, where the virus is galloping and widespread.
The truth is that the Italian government has been rather exemplary in its protection of its population, once they had ascertained the gravity of situation. The virus had taken the north unawares, whereas the south of Italy was locked down before the virus arrived, saving countless lives in a country that, bar Japan, has the largest elderly population per capita in the world.
Under the rules of the lockdown, we can only leave the house for a jog or to walk the dog around the block. Children and the elderly do not go outside at all. I get stopped by police almost every time I go to the supermarket, to check my outing is really necessary. Frankly if it wasn’t charming carabinieri I would be worrying about my civil liberties. The streets are utterly deserted at all times of day: looking down the straight ancient Flaminian road from the Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, there is often not a single soul.
What has amazed me though, is that the anarchic Romans have all obeyed the government. No one breaks lockdown here. Literally no one. I can understand that a country like China would be obedient, living as they do under dictatorship, but Italy?
Living here, one becomes used to the idea that rules and regulations are suggestions rather than commands. People smoke, walk, drive, sit and stand where they shouldn’t. Romans often winkingly quote a recent hit pop song about themselves: “Non ci sono regole, ci sono solo eccezione” (There aren’t any rules, there’s only exceptions to the rule). So, given this, it’s all the more extraordinary to see such compliance.
Part of the reason is that Italians have a strong sense of mutual responsibility and civic pride. Italians only refer to themselves as such when they’re abroad: at home they consider themselves defined by their community be it town or county: they’re Romans, Tuscans or Sicilians first. This is not a nation state, and perhaps because of this, allegiance is very local, very human, and especially in the south, their sense of society is very interconnected. Even here in the capital city, I know the first names of the people in my supermarket, pharmacy and cafes, and they know mine. To illustrate how much Romans love Rome: a local ironmonger has graffitied a quote from Cicero outside his shop: “Rome is not just a geographical entity; Rome is not limited by rivers, mountains or seas; Rome is not a matter of race, blood or religion: Rome is an ideal. Rome is the most sublime personification of freedom and law ever made by mankind…” This is typical of Italians’ pride in their province or municipality.
You might expect that this sense of unity would break down in the face of the economic crisis, as people’s savings start to run out. The south of Italy is heading for a longterm economic crash that will possibly make the toll of the virus look benign. The government tries to distribute to the needy; but many in the south live hand-to-mouth, and I include Rome in this, many work in the shadow economy. The treasury obviously cannot reimburse money that was never declared in the first place.
There is certainly a sense of economic desperation here. We see viral videos of a father from Palermo saying he only has bread to feed his toddler daughter; a mother in Bari begging police not to arrest her adult son for stealing food. The man is let go: Thomas Aquinas’s argument that taking food when you are starving is not technically stealing is embedded in the Italian psyche. On the news, a story of supermarket looting in Sicily (called “saccheggio” in Italian) the reporter was keen to point out the criminals “are not locals”. There is generosity on street corners everywhere with baskets for food donations and signs saying “Chi può metta, che non può prenda” (“Who has puts, who hasn’t takes”). I’ve even seen a wicker horn of plenty full of art materials laid out for all-comers.
It’s true that after nearly 7 weeks of lockdown here, something must change and many are in dire economic straits. It is hard not to agree with ex-premier Matteo Renzi saying to Parliament that “we should not die of COVID, but we cannot die of hunger”. But his voice is considered marginal here, and he was roundly booed by his colleagues and called “poco serio” (not a serious person) by Carlo Callenda.
So why, in this dire crisis, isn’t society falling apart, at least yet? Partly because inequality isn’t rubbed in the faces of the poor as it is in so many countries: there aren’t many visible billionaires south of Milan to incite envy, and people are not conspicuous consumers here. The shops on Via Condotti (Rome’s Bond Street) are filled with foreigners not locals.
It’s also partly because of the deep historical memory. Local blades will know the history of the monuments here. A young lad once replied to my surprise at his erudition: “Well, of course. I built that church myself.” He meant his ancestors had. This is a city where you get ice creams by 7th century BC temples and stroll by the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination and the Renaissance is considered the rise of the nouveau riche. History, the good, the bad and the ugly, all seems that much more compressed and recent than it may do in the north of Europe.
Death and decay seem closer, or rather one is more conscious of it here in Rome: all empires come to naught and all man’s sense of power over nature and time is full of vainglory. Every fresco in every palace and church communicates that message. So many churches and streets have memento mori inscriptions recording the various plagues of past centuries: Often the legend is “hodie mihi, cras tibi” (today me, tomorrow you). Life is short, so live it well.
Furthermore, all Italians study Boccaccio at school (along with Dante and Petrarch) whose “Decameron” is a sort of stationary “Canterbury Tales” of the Black Death of 1348. If you grow up with this as your Shakespeare/Chaucer, (both of whom were inspired by Boccaccio), it’s no wonder you take contagious disease seriously.
The culture is filled with tangible memories of catastrophe: Vesuvius’s volcanic destruction of Pompei in 79 AD; the 1997 earthquakes crumbling the Giotto frescos in Assisi; Rome’s apocalyptic sacking by Alaric and the Goths in 410, and in 1527 by Charles V Habsburg – all these are mentally jumbled together. And very strangely for those who come from nation-states, Rome, Naples and Palermo see themselves in passive resistance to the unification of Italy by Garibaldi and the Savoys: an episode they perceive as morally corrupt and – especially for the south – disastrous in its consequences. Lampedusa’s “Gattopardo” is the literary masterclass of southern survival: “for things to stay the same, everything must change.” Hence the common philosophy of life in these parts: adapt and wait out catastrophe, however long it might take.
At first, I had thought the strict lockdown was over-the-top. Especially in Rome, where even the residents who miss Mass still seek a priest when they are at death’s door, I wondered why there was so much fear of death. But I was wrong: the common purpose was driven, not by fear, but by a sense that “This too shall pass”. Pope Francis implicitly referred to this when on Sunday 15 (the Ides of) March, he visited the church of the miraculous crucifix on Via del Corso. That crucifix survived a fire following the plague of 1522. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – plague, pestilence, war and famine – have ridden before here, and they have always eventually ridden away.
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