November 7, 2011 | Faster, Please!

Italy Wobbles, and a Demon Appears in the Clouds

As usual, whenever the situation permits, the British press — led by the screaming meemies at the Financial Times — calls for the defenestration of Silvio Berlusconi.  “In the name of God and Italy, go!” the FT intones at the beleaguered PM.  A bit pretentious, yes, but then they’re the smartest newspaper in the world and so they consider themselves fully authorized to speak on behalf of the Almighty, and  of their favorite vacation spot.

You probably know that the Brits have long had a love/hate affair with Italy.  They love it because it’s so pretty, the weather is usually better than what they’ve got (although these days the weather in Italy is catastrophic, but never mind), and they hate it because it seems to them that the Italians have a lot more fun than they do.  As well they may, although Italy’s a lot tougher than the romantics suspect.  The campaign against Berlusconi has been raging for many years, and he’s been convicted of so many crimes in the British press (although, to the rage of his critics, not by Italian courts, whose judges are for the most part on a very different part of the political landscape from Berlusconi) that the very sight of him at international meetings provokes new outbursts.  The latest is of a piece with that tradition.

It has always seemed odd to me that so many self-proclaimed defenders of press freedom are so vitriolic about the man who may well have saved Italy’s media from total control by the country’s political parties.  It was Berlusconi who funded private tv way back in the seventies, at a time when every news broadcast on the official, state-owned networks was under party management, as they mostly remain today.  The liveliest and most independent newspaper in the country, il Foglio, is underwritten by the Berlusconi family.  Meanwhile, “his” TV broadcasts are chock full of anti-Berlusconi journalists.  So what, exactly, is their problem?

(Answer:  They don’t like competition).

And of course, going back to the Brits’ stereotype of the Italians, it’s obvious to a blind man that Berlusconi et. al. have a great deal more fun than the pols in London, although it’s certainly not for lack of trying, as we all know.  I will never forget a plaintive editorial in an Italian newspaper about the Profumo scandal in Great Britain, with its all-star cast of gorgeous spies and harlots, and the Italian editorialist moaned “the Brits and the Americans have endless sex scandals;  we’re supposed to be the Latin lovers and we haven’t had a decent sex scandal for years.”

Berlusconi solved that bit of national shame.

As everyone knows, Italy is in the midst of a financial crisis (it seems always to be in a financial crisis, as it was when I was a correspondent in Rome in the seventies, and has remained ever since), and the reaction of the political class, including the PM himself, is the same as ever:  they assume some greater power will tell them what to do about the crisis, they focus on getting their hands on power and money.  It’s not unfamiliar to Washington watchers, of course, but it’s more blatant in Rome.  For the most part, the Italian Government (within which power struggles abound) is looking for the deus ex machina of the day to tell them what to do with their money, taxes, and debt ratios, while all and sundry demand the resignation of the Berlusconi Government so that they can divvy up whatever goodies are available after the deus (the IMF?  the European Central Bank?  Obama?) issues the orders.

An Italophilic friend once remarked that Italy is forever on the edge of the abyss, but it won’t ever slide into the darkness, because they always find a way.  But then again, the past is not a reliable guide to the future, and you never know.  One thing to keep in mind is that his enemies have been trying to (politically) kill Berlusconi for a long time, but nothing — not sex scandals, not indictments for various crimes, not parliamentary maneuveing by so-called friends and open enemies, has gotten the deed done.  If there were an election in Italy today, and if he ran, he’d most likely win;  there isn’t a popular opposition candidate around whom the various anti-Berlusconi parties seem inclined to rally.

Meanwhile, there may have been a message from the Almighty that one can take seriously.  If you’re familiar with the fabulous frescos by the great early Renaissance genius Giotto in the Basilica of Assissi, you may recall that one of the most famous panels depicts the death (at the bottom) and the rise to Heaven (on top) of Saint Francis.  Between the two scenes is a layer of clouds.  Millions of tourists, faithful, art historians and students have admired it for some eight hundred years, but only now has a scholar noticed that there’s a demon, complete with horns, very clearly in the cloud bank.  Have a look.  The article’s in Italian, but at the bottom there’s a series of photos and you’ll see it.  You can’t miss it.  It’s one of those things which, once you’ve “seen” it, you say to yourself, “well of course!  It’s so obvious.”

But the lady who spotted it saw more clearly than all the rest of us.  As Saint Francis rose to Heaven, he had to deal with real evil.

Which, I can’t help thinking, is a perfect metaphor for our world, in which so many would-be leaders grab whatever they can while they ignore the very real forces of malevolence lurking overhead.  Like those Italian pols — and ours — who keep playing the same failed games instead of girding their loins and fighting evil.  Of which there is quite a lot, in the clouds and on the ground.


Read in Faster, Please!