The Italian Riveter: A Snapshot of the Italian Cultural Mind by Diego Marani

Italian culture seems to oscillate between a great openness – the universal spirit of its tradition – and a withdrawal into itself, aroused by the provincial spirit that is also part of the country’s history.

Applying this to Italian literature and looking at the cultural pages of today’s Italian newspapers, and at the bestseller lists and the catalogues of the main publishing houses, it appears that Italy translates a lot, and that the Italian reader has a solid knowledge of international literature and culture. But looking at things more closely, one sees that the reality is different; the most widely read foreign authors are the usual global bestsellers. There is nothing particularly original in this focus on translation, no proof of the country’s great internationality; instead, it demonstrates a kind of cultural colonisation.

The reverse of this coin is the realisation that some of the Italian authors most widely read in Italy would be impossible to translate into any other language, they are so buried in localism and so unable to express universal values. Because, like many European cultures, Italy has become self-referential; it sees only its own little world. And this now seems to be the destiny of continental Europe as a whole – a place that, until fifty years ago, shared a solid cultural canon: that of classical culture, which represented a common substratum of references recognised by all, from the North Cape to Sicily, in spite of their linguistic diversity.

Today, even in Italy, classical culture has been sacrificed for scientific culture, which is considered more modern, and more apt to keep the country in the mainstream of economic prosperity. But doing so ignores the fact that one culture nourishes the other. The ability to think outside the box, so much appreciated by the world of scientific and technological research today, emerges precisely from the originality of thought that comes from a universal and eclectic culture – not specialised but wide-ranging.

Galileo, for example, studied the classical culture of the Greeks and Romans, and practised scientific thought in the logical gym of Latin. Today, far from being part of a united culture, the majority of European intellectuals are recognised as such only in their own countries, and few have the ability
to attract an international audience. Europeans, the custodians of Western culture, have lost sight of what they have in common and prefer to dig into the microscopic worlds of their most tribal identities.

Thus, Italy is now rediscovering dialects; and there would be nothing wrong with that, if it were an honest recovery of a cultural past. On the contrary: dialects are the underground vein that has nourished the Italian language for centuries; they are direct emanations of Latin and not, as many believe, degenerations of Italian. But they are used today to divide and separate, to distance local cultures from the once-inclusive national one. Thus, a literature has flourished that often introduces dialect in an artificial way, with a nostalgia for a past imagined as peaceful and harmonious, a refuge of rural happiness. The past of dialectal Italy was in fact made up of poverty and ignorance, backwardness and social discomfort. The Italian writer Alberto Savinio wrote: ‘The dialect narrows life, shrinks it, makes it infantile.’

The new Italian localism revives regional languages and teaches them in schools, claiming to make new generations aware of their true origins and to fortify the weak Italian spirit, which has become unable to protect the pure, Italian native from the multitudes of foreigners and their awkward cultures brought in by globalisation. Too many Italians do not realise that Italy was born out of diversity and that its origins have never been univocal. Italy is a country of a thousand cultures, and its very nature is in this multiplicity. Reverting to dialects with this spirit is anti-modern and profoundly wrong. Dialects should be left where they belong and used as repositories of past and memory, handed down from one generation to another in a spontaneous way and not turned into some kind of identity trap. If they die it means that they no longer play any role, that they have nothing more to say, and therefore their disappearance will not be a loss. Instead of shutting themselves away, Italians should move towards diversity in an assertive and not a dismissive way, in the spirit of exchange and mutual enrichment.

While dedicating themselves to learning dying dialects and artificially exhumed local languages, Italians do not learn foreign languages, not even the obvious English, which all Europeans, even the French, now read and speak with some competence. Italians do not know English, and the little they know they use in a distorted way, filling their language with English words used out of context. This is especially evident in the press: many journalists cram their articles with an English lexicon that is incomprehensible to many of their readers. This is an all-Italian anomaly practised by those who pretend to know English and therefore belong to a cultured caste, and by doing so distance themselves from the common citizen, who understands the ruling class and the intellectual elite less and less.

Last winter, in some vaccination centres in northern Italy, old-age pensioners lining up to get the jab scrutinised perplexing signs bearing the words ‘bike through’. Why English? Wouldn’t a sign in Italian have been more obvious? This is a symptom of cultural colonisation: many Italians perceive English as more cool, casual, modern and effective than their own language. Covid also brought the neologism ‘caregivers’, which many Italians with little English misunderstood to mean something to do with a car. With modern concepts, the use of English can often be justified by the lack of an Italian equivalent, but a language is only alive when it is capable of creating its own neologisms, without having to resort to words that are foreign to it. This is not linguistic chauvinism. Loans and exchanges between languages have always existed and are legitimate when they do not come at the expense of consistency and understanding.

Italy seems to be afflicted by an innate provincialism that prevents many Italians from seeing beyond its borders. Italian culture, however, has a great attraction for neighbouring countries, such as the Balkans, where Italian is often spoken. It is in Italy’s national interest to become acquainted with these cultures and to encourage these peoples’ passion for our language and culture, and – why not? – it would help in terms of Italy’s regional influence, and to spread European values. But Italy seems to ignore these neighbouring countries, as if they were insignificant or very distant. The average Italian does not even distinguish them from one another. This, too, is an effect of self-referentiality and the undying belief that our country is the centre of the world. Without noticing it, Rome, and perhaps all of Europe, are experiencing, in this century, a slow decline that looks very much like that of the Roman Empire.

In these times of profound change, Italy again is divided in two. One part, young and enterprising, looks to the future, speaks languages, travels, and is able, in the true Italian spirit, to renew the tradition of inventiveness and creativity. The other part remains surprisingly impervious to the appeal of diversity and cultural variety, despite the fact that different languages and cultures are so much more accessible now than they were in the past. Too many Italians, in particular from the south and the countryside, are scared by modern times, and adopt an attitude of insularity and isolation, as if they wanted to protect themselves from the new and the different.

Italy has been a land of emigration for centuries. Poor, illiterate peasants fled the country in search of work. Today Italy has become a destination for migrants who are looking for a better future on our shores. But Italians have not stopped emigrating. Those who emigrate today are the most educated: academics, scientists, but also artists, artisans, cooks, entrepreneurs. Here we call it the brain drain. But an escape it is not. Because in one way or another, Italians always remain tied to something greater than their country: Italianness, which is a way of living, a vision of things, carrying on a tradition of universality that belonged to the classical world and which in one way or another remains deep in the nation’s soul.

By Diego Marani


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