John Hooper The Italians

ISBN 13: 9780525428077

The Italians

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9780525428077: The Italians

Washington Post bestseller
Los Angeles Times bestseller

A vivid and surprising portrait of the Italian people from an admired foreign correspondent

How did a nation that spawned the Renaissance also produce the Mafia? And why does Italian have twelve words for coat hanger but none for hangover?
John Hooper’s entertaining and perceptive new book is the ideal companion for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Italy and the unique character of the Italians. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent based in Rome have sharpened Hooper’s observations, and he looks at the facts that lie behind the stereotypes, shedding new light on everything from the Italians’ bewildering politics to their love of life and beauty. Hooper persuasively demonstrates the impact of geography, history, and tradition on many aspects of Italian life, including football and Freemasonry, sex, food, and opera. Brimming with the kind of fascinating—and often hilarious—insights unavailable in guidebooks, The Italians will surprise even the most die-hard Italophile.

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About the Author:

John Hooper is the Italy correspondent of the Economist and a contributing editor of the Guardian (London). He has also written or broadcast for the BBC, NBC, and Reuters. His book The Spaniards won the Allen Lane Award and was revised and updated as The New Spaniards in 1995 and 2006.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Spaniards

The New Spaniards

Published by the Penguin Group

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A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015

Copyright © 2015 by John Hooper

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Photographs by Christian Jungeblodt

ISBN 978-0-698-18364-3

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

Also by John Hooper

Title Page





1. The Beautiful Country

Porta Pia . Glory and misery . “The crux of the Italian problem” . Islands, highlands and plains

2. A Violent Past

Leo’s legacy . Goths, Lombards and Byzantines . A holy forgery . The communes . The Venetian exception . The medieval Mezzogiorno . The Italian wars and the Sack of Rome . Under foreign yokes

3. Echoes and Reverberations

Two Italies . . . or three? . Civismo . A linguist’s playground . Superiority and sensitivity . The vincolo esterno . Of furbi and fessi . Fragile loyalties . The prime minister who vanished from history . Trasformismo

4. A Hall of Mirrors

The Minister for Simplification . A plethora of laws (and law-enforcers) . Bureaucracy . Truth and verità . Mysteries and the “misty port” . Pirandello

5. Fantasia

Myths and legends . A phantom army . Pinocchio . Copiatura . Masks and messages . Opera . Padania declares independence . Dietrologia

6. Face Values

The neo-Fascist’s bare arms . Style and look . Symbolism . Talking visually . Videocracy . Bella (and brutta) figura

7. Life as Art

Treasuring life . A thick layer of stardust . Work and leisure . La tavola . The Mediterranean diet . Slow Food and fast food . A brief history of pasta . Foreign food . . . what foreign food?

8. Gnocchi on Thursdays

D’Antona and Biagi . A love of the familiar . “Acts of God” and acts of man . One step to the right . Conservatism, technophobia and gerontocracy . The “BOT people” . From catenaccio to gambling fever

9. Holy Orders

A blurred line . The bloody end of Muslim Italy . Jews and ghettos . The Waldensians . Freemasonry . Blasphemy . The Lateran Pacts . Christian Democracy . A less Catholic Italy . Comunione e Liberazione . Sant’Egidio . Padre Pio . The “testicles of His Holiness”

10. Le Italiane—Attitudes Change

Great-aunt Clorinda . From Mozzoni to the Manifesto di rivolta femminile . Gender and language . Veline . Desperate housewives . Ricatto sessuale . The influence of Berlusconi . If Not Now, When? . Change in (and on) the air . La Mamma: glorified but unsupported

11. Lovers and Sons

Al cuore non si comanda? . A sexual revolution (within limits) . Sensuous she-cats and “Italian stallions” . Adultery . Prostitution . Contraception and the mystery of the (missing) unplanned pregnancies . Mammismo . Gender stereotyping . Homosexuality

12. Family Matters

An honored but changing institution . Divorce . The decline of marriage . The Italian family firm: myths and realities . The arrival of the badante . Stay-at-home kids: spoiled or just broke? . “Amoral familism” . Menefreghismo

13. People Who Don’t Dance

From behind shades . Wariness . The Fox and the Cat . To ciao or not to ciao? . A love of titles . Mistrust . Alcohol (and teetotalism) . Narcotics

14. Taking Sides

Il piacere di stare insieme . Guelphs and Ghibellines . From the Genoa Cricket and Athletic Club to Berlusconi’s AC Milan . Professionalism . . . and professional fouls . Gianni Brera and the footballing press . Il processo del lunedì . Fan radios . The ultras . Referees . Calciopoli

15. Restrictive Practices

Possessive instincts . Catholicism and liberalism . Lottizzazione . Capitalism without competition . Protectionism . Shareholder pacts . Enrico Cuccia and il salotto buono . The never-ending tale of the foreign lettori

16. Of Mafias and Mafiosi

A relatively crime-free nation . What makes a mafia? . Cosa Nostra decapitated . The rise of the Camorra and ’Ndrangheta . Sciascia’s palm tree line: organized crime creeps north . An absence of trust and the legacy of Unification

17. Temptation and Tangenti

How corrupt is Italy? . The role of patronage . A tolerance of graft . Corruption and corruzione . Nepotism . “Everything in Rome comes at a price” . The culture of the raccomandazione . The cost of graft . A “renaissance of corruption”

18. Pardon and Justice

The navel of Italy . Abusivismo . Laws and conventions . Pardon and justice . The Sofri case . Slow-moving courts . The 1989 legal reform . Garantisti versus giustizialisti . The magistratura

19. Questions of Identity

Italy has a birthday party . Campanilismo and the frailty of separatism . Concepts of Italia . Diversity and disunity . Dialects lose ground . The north-south divide: perceptions and statistics . “Italian-ness” . Immigration . Racism . Sinti and Roma


Blue skies, blue seas . . . and unhappiness . Italy’s economic decline . Rules and change . The need for a dream . Jep’s smile




A book like this is built on myriad observations and impressions rather as limestone is formed out of an infinite number of tiny shells. So my first and most important thanks go to all the Italians I have met over the years that I have spent in their country—friends, neighbors and casual acquaintances—because it is their descriptions of themselves and their explanations of their society, their recommendations and advice, their hints and silences that have done more than anything to give substance to this work.

I first lived and worked in Italy, briefly, at the age of eighteen and might never have returned except for the odd holiday had it not been for Paul Webster, who in 1994, while foreign editor of the Guardian, suggested that I rejoin the staff of the paper as its Southern Europe correspondent based in Rome. When I left Italy again, five years later, I had no plans to go back and probably would not have embarked on the writing of this book had Xan Smiley, the then Europe editor of the Economist, and Bill Emmott, its then editor, not arranged for me to become their correspondent in Italy. Warm thanks also to Alan Rusbridger, then as now the editor of the Guardian, who proposed that I be shared between the two publications and later agreed to my taking a period of unpaid leave to begin the writing of this book. John Micklethwait, the current editor of the Economist, also agreed to that, and later generously offered me a spell of paid leave so I could finish what I had started. John Peet, who has been the Europe editor of the Economist for most of the time I have worked for the magazine in Italy, has been unstintingly tolerant of my periodic retreats into book writing.

In each of my spells as a correspondent in Italy, I have benefited from the hospitality of national newspapers: first La Stampa, and more recently Corriere della Sera. It has given me access to a wealth of information about Italy and the Italians. I am very grateful to those who edited these two papers during the periods in which I worked on their premises, Ezio Mauro, Carlo Rossella, Stefano Folli, Paolo Mieli and Ferruccio de Bortoli, as well as to the Rome bureau chiefs and Rome supplement editors who were my immediate hosts: Marcello Sorgi, Ugo Magri, Antonio Macaluso, Marco Cianca, Andrea Garibaldi and Goffredo Buccini.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the reporters, specialist writers and regional correspondents of both papers. Italian journalists are unsparing in the help and advice they offer to their foreign colleagues and over the years I have acquired a huge debt of gratitude to those of La Stampa and Corriere della Sera for their insights and their readiness to share their knowledge with an outsider. Those who made direct contributions to the contents of this book include Massimo Franco, Lorenzo Fuccaro, Daria Gorodisky, Stefano Lepri, Dino Martirano and Ilaria Sacchettoni.

Thanks also to Eliza Apperly, Elizabeth Bailey, Lara Bryan, Simon Chambers, Bianca Cuomo, Giulia Di Michele, Bea Downing, Katharine Forster, Will Harman, Sophie Inge, Yerrie Kim of EF Education First, Tom Kington, Flavia Manini, Maria Luisa Manini, Hannah Murphy, Laura Nasso, Marie Obileye, Lorien Pilling of GBGC, Hannah Sims, Helen Tatlow, Katherine Travers, Ed Vulliamy, Tom Wachtel and Sean Wyer.

Paddy Agnew, Antonio Manca Graziadei and Isabella Clough Marinaro generously agreed to bring their specialist knowledge to bear on Chapters 14, 18 and 19, respectively. Francesca Andrews and Maria Bencivenni read through large sections of the book. Their observations and suggestions, which could have come only from a rich experience of the cultures and societies of both Italy and Britain, were invaluable. It goes without saying that the errors that remain are mine alone.

I could not have wanted a more involved, enthusiastic or charmingly persistent agent than Lucy Luck. And I have had the immense good fortune to have as my editor Simon Winder, who is not only a successful writer himself, but the author of books in a similar vein to my own. This one is all the better for his perceptive comments. Melanie Tortoroli at Penguin Group (USA) has been every bit as supportive (and patient).

This edition of the book also owes much to Christian Jungeblodt, an outstanding photographer and a good friend whose memorable glimpses of Italy and the Italians enhance the pages that follow. Many of the photographs are due to be published in a book, Bella Italia Project, supported by VG Bildkunst.

My wife, Lucinda Evans, read the entire manuscript with the keen eye of a former national newspaper subeditor. It has benefited greatly from her good judgment and feeling for words. But her main contribution has been a subtler one: she has been with me throughout my Italian adventure, and the insights and reflections she has shared with me along the way can be found in almost every chapter of this book.


The Beautiful Country

Il bel paese ch’Appennin parte, e ’il mar circonda e l’Alpe.

The beautiful country that the Apennines divide, and Alps and sea surround.


No one would choose to start a book at Porta Pia.

It is in one of the least attractive corners of central Rome, a place where architectural styles from different periods sit uncomfortably together like mutually suspicious in-laws. The biggest building in the vicinity is the British embassy, which dates from the 1970s. Its architect, Sir Basil Spence, was at great pains to ensure it blended in with its surroundings. Not everyone is convinced he succeeded. The embassy looks rather like a colossal concrete semiconductor, torn from the motherboard of a gargantuan computer.

The gate—the porta itself—takes its name from Pius IV, Michelangelo’s last patron and the pope who brought the Council of Trent to a successful conclusion, thereby launching the Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo’s friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that the artist offered Pius three designs, and that the pope chose the least expensive.* Nowadays, the gate he built forms one side of a bigger structure—the side that faces toward the center of Rome. How much of Michelangelo’s design has survived is open to question. A coin minted in 1561, when work began on the gate, and an engraving made three years after its completion depict two substantially different structures.

In the nineteenth century, another Pius—Pope Pius IX—had a courtyard put behind Michelangelo’s gate (if it was any longer Michelangelo’s gate) and added a new facade in the neoclassical style that looks away from the center of the city. Around the courtyard between the two facades, Pius IX erected some buildings for use as customs offices. Rome was still then the capital of the Papal States, a sizable territory that had been governed by the popes since the eighth century and whose latest ruler had indignantly refused to let it be incorporated into the new state of Italy.

On either side of Porta Pia stretch the Aurelian Walls. These were begun in the third century AD for the protection of ancient Rome. Lofty and sturdy, they continued to defend the city, with greater or lesser success, for the next fifteen centuries, and it was only by blasting a hole through them at a point about fifty meters west of Porta Pia that Italian troops were able to force their way into Rome, complete the unification of the peninsula and put an end to the temporal power of the popes. Many of the soldiers who poured through the breach on that September morning in 1870 belonged to an elite corps of Italy’s new army known as the Bersaglieri (“Marksmen”). The customs offices inside Porta Pia were later turned into a museum for the Bersaglieri.

The area around the gate, then, is an eclectic muddle. But it brings together within a few hundred square meters tangible allusions to the bits of their history of which Italians are proudest: the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Risorgimento.* Some, though not all, would add to that list the papacy and the Counter-Reformation, which brought with it the splendors of Rome’s Baroque churches.

What other people of comparable numbers can lay claim to such an extraordinary catalog of achievements? One nation—even if it did not consider itself a nation until quite recently—produced the only empire to have united Europe and the greatest cultural transformation in the history of the West, one that shaped our entire modern view of life. Along the way, the Italian peninsula emerged as the preeminent seat of Christendom.

No other nation can boast such a catalog of great painters and sculptors: Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, of course. But also Donatello and Bernini, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Titian and Caravaggio. And there are others, like Mantegna, who are nowhere close to the top of the list but who would be hailed as national cultural icons in most other European countries. Then there are the architects—Brunelleschi, Bramante, Palladio—and the writers—Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. And the composers—Italy has given the world Vivaldi, the Scarlattis, Verdi and Puccini.

Saint Benedict, Saint Francis and Saint Catherine of Siena were all Italians. So too were Galileo, Christopher Columbus and Maria Montessori. Among other things, we owe their country the Gregorian calendar, the language of musi...

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Hooper, John
Editore: Viking Books 2015-01-29 (2015)
ISBN 10: 0525428070 ISBN 13: 9780525428077
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