We have a thing for Italy here on Classically Educated. Whether it’s because that’s where a lot of the “Classic” part of our moniker took place or whether we simply like the idea of Tuscan sun falling on a suitably hilly vineyard, it’s the one modern nation (along with England, of course) that we can’t get enough of.
We’ve discussed Italy’s literature, their participation in WWII and even encouraged people to take the Grand Tour (which, back when it was a thing, was essentially a jaunt around Rome, Venice and Florence). But the links above are just the tip of the Iceberg. Search for the keyword Italy on this blog and you’ll be bombarded with entries.
So you can get a pretty good idea of what both I and our contributors think of that boot-shaped appendage to southern Europe, but what do Italians think about themselves?
To get an idea of that, I heartily recommend reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians. Part history lesson, part politico/philosophical tract and part meditation on the national temperament, it delivers the goods.
Like most peoples, Italians are quite conflicted. On one hand, the modern people are the inheritors of a glorious past of which they are justifiably proud. On the other, the really glorious part took place about two thousand years ago, and the more recent past has been more of a mixed bag in which a general lack of distinction has been peppered with certain bright moments, occurrences and individuals. The years after the Florentine renaissance ended, in particular, were grim ones.
Barzini, despite his often caustic look at his countrymen, also harbored a geniune affection for their foibles. Reading between the lines, he seems to be telling his readers that the idiosyncrasies are what makes Italians Italian, and you can’t have one without the other. In this, though less overtly humorous (and much more critical), he reminds me of the portrait of the English that Bill Bryson painted for us and which we discussed earlier.
The cover of the edition I read portrays this beautifully. The man shown is not a Medici (or even a Borgia) but a mercenary who later took over a town and ruled… in a hugely humanist and enlightened way. The perfect symbol for the people described in the text.
Oh, and you won’t forget that nose very soon…
Verdict on this one is: pick up a copy, you’ll probably enjoy it (and learn new stuff while you’re at it).
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is about insane Greeks. He promises to insane Italians next, if enough people pester him to.