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  • Dante, Berlusconi, and the Bordello StatePaolo Sylos Labini’s and James Walston’s Democratic Dante at the Ebb of the Seconda Repubblica
  • Nicolino Applauso

Dante’s memorable invective in Purgatorio 6 has consistently been politicized, especially during the Risorgimento. Vittorio Alfieri, Ugo Foscolo, and Giuseppe Mazzini used the invective while promoting a revolutionary and patriotic Dante.1 Modern scholars such as Edoardo Sanguineti and Lino Pertile have refuted this political interpretation by classifying Dante and his works as reactionary, antibourgeois, and antidemocratic.2 However, the question is far from settled, especially if we consider how Purgatorio 6 has acquired great exposure in recent years through new media with wide circulation, such as pamphlets and magazine articles.

In this study, I shall examine Paolo Sylos Labini’s Ahi serva Italia: Un appello ai miei concittadini (Servile Italy: An Appeal to My Fellow Citizens) (2006) and James Walston’s “The Bordello State: Italy’s Descent under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi” (2010). Both authors advance their criticism against Berlusconi’s government by using Dante’s invective as their starting point. By doing so, they propagate a “democratic Dante,” reach a worldwide audience, and thus introduce a new political model that differs from both the revolutionary and the reactionary interpretations. While exploring Labini’s and Walston’s works, I will also juxtapose the dynamic exchange that occurred between Walston and one of his most outspoken detractors, the Italian diplomat Giulio Terzi. Finally, I shall assess these political expropriations and appropriations by proposing my own conclusion. Even though Labini and Walston successfully revived the Commedia in contemporary political debates by stirring readers’ response to divisive issues pertaining to Italy’s Seconda Repubblica, they also advance the idea of Dante as the champion of democracy. [End Page 249]

Labini is well known not only in Italy but also throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan. The fact that his major works have been translated into English, Japanese, Spanish, and Czech attests to his international standing.3 As Joseph Halevi notes, “Labini is a major economic thinker and one of the foremost Italian intellectuals of the post-war period” (228). After his studies at the University of Rome with Alberto Breglia, at Harvard University, and at Cambridge (UK) with the influential economists Joseph Schumpeter and Dennis Robertson, Labini acquired international recognition through seminal studies such as Oligopolio e Progresso Tecnico and Saggio sulle classi sociali.4 His work stirred numerous debates regarding important sociopolitical issues facing Italy (ranging from poverty, corruption, economic development, and social changes) and confirmed his major role as an intellectual committed to civic engagement.5 Such a commitment was most likely inspired by his mentor Gaetano Salvemini, revered as his “amico e maestro [friend and teacher]” (Ahi serva Italia, 29), with whom Labini closely collaborated as a secretary during his Harvard years (31). Salvemini was an ardent antifascist politician and historian best known for his groundbreaking studies on the history of medieval Florence during Dante’s time.6 He almost certainly influenced his pupil’s simple and direct writing style, but most importantly, his passion for Dante, as evident from the title of his last work.7

His posthumous pamphlet Ahi serva Italia: Un appello ai miei concittadini is comprised of thirteen chapters plus a conclusion, and includes previously published material (such as various interviews and newspaper articles published as early as 2003) that was expanded and integrated with more current reflections during the course of 2005. Perhaps like no other intellectual since World War II, the overt connection that Labini makes between Dante and current politics has no equal in recent Italian history. By explicitly evoking Dante’s eminent invective from Purgatorio 6, Labini opens a direct dialogue with Italians. The subtitle Un appello ai miei concittadini (An Appeal to My Fellow Citizens) immediately identifies the pamphlet’s target audience—the Italian people—and sets a very official, solemn, and almost tragic tone. This is evident from the term appello (appeal), which, besides its legal implications, in a political and civic context also suggests an urgent call that is often associated with the approach of an imminent danger or even disaster. By employing such alarming and passionate prose, Labini evokes Dante...


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