- Italian Vices: Nation and Character from the Risorgimento to the Republic
A singular phrase recurs in Italian discussions of Italy. When commentators, journalists, or politicians seek to add weight to their denunciations of a current policy or practice, they have a clinching argument ready-to-hand: This situation would not occur in a normal country. That negative exceptionalism, with its assumption of a higher standard everywhere outside Italy, has a long history; and that history is the subject Silvana Patriarca addresses in Italian Vices by focusing on disparaging views of “Italian character” in the last two centuries of Italian discourse. In effect, she suggests, Italian authors absorbed the stereotypical criticisms of Italians as lazy and effeminate that were repeated in the accounts of foreign tourists (especially those written by confident English Protestants). From the late eighteenth century on, however, Italian patriots seemed to accept such criticisms but explaining them as the result of centuries of bad government. A resurgent Italy would reform Italians. Subsequent chapters describe the evolution of Italian self-criticism: Risorgimento concern for civic character; imperialism as a test of national character; world war and manly virtue; Fascist frustration with Italian indifference to discipline; anti-Fascist views of Fascism itself as an expression of the weaknesses of Italian character; post-war acceptance of these same defects as rather charming attributes of a what are nevertheless brava gente; and finally, contemporary writings that pessimistically treat the disappointments and missed opportunities of united Italy as evidence that the notorious deficiencies persist.
Each of these chapters is built on a compilation of citations from an impressive array of sources. Well chosen for the period in question, the authors are carefully identified and sometimes further commented upon in footnotes helpfully placed at the bottom of the page. Patriarca’s informed discussion both provides background and brings to bear current, more theoretical, work on gender and identity while sometimes citing related examples in other countries. This essay thus touches on a great deal of modern political and cultural history yet skillfully skirts the inherent pitfalls of so wide-ranging an approach to such a necessarily amorphous subject. Within each chapter, more names could be adduced and other authors found who argued in a different even contrary vein. Nevertheless; the evidence presented establishes the prominence of certain tropes and common ways of thinking. Anyone familiar with a particular author [End Page 312] could add complexity and nuance to the summary presented here; yet these familiar themes are clearly present in their thought. It might have been tempting to attempt a precise definition of the qualities thought lacking in Italians, but in fact the imprecision of these complaints is a source of their multivalent utility. The same phrases are employed in support of opposing programs, and the failings emphasized shift from era to era. Sometimes criticism is directed at social behavior, sometimes at individual character; but whatever the deficiency—the lack of civic engagement, of a communal sense, virile virtues, organizational discipline, or social responsibility—it is presented as quintessentially and almost timelessly Italian.
Here, then, is a cultural tradition that serves many purposes. It sustains a readily available rhetorical arsenal elaborately equipped for searing attacks on contemporary society. It lends to criticisms both narrowly focused and breathtakingly broad an air of historical perspective well above the immediate and mundane. Over the centuries much written in this vein has had real depth and still repays study; many of the specific criticisms have been valid and some profound. Polemicists therefore are understandably eager to place themselves within that tradition, nourished by the historical reality that Italy has been surrounded for more than three centuries by countries that have appeared to be economically or politically more successful, a reality that obscures Italy’s own enormous transformations. Useful to both left and right, this flexible tradition can denounce an effeminate aristocracy, ignorant peasants, or self-centered bourgeois; campanilismo or patronage. In the last generation, however, the conclusions drawn from this pessimism about Italian behavior seem especially hopeless. For the patriots of...