Italy should be the best country in the world, it really should. It has abundant riches in terms of culture, history, food, weather, urbanism, architecture, industry, craft, design, literature, football, cinema, language, and almost impossible beauty in its landscape, terrain and people.
But it isn’t the best country in the world. It’s far from it.
The Economist put it rather succinctly recently, but its issues run deeper than even their artful skewering suggests. Long-time readers will know I rate the Australian writer Peter Robb hugely, and he has written several books about Italy, casting a net far more broadly than the Berlusconi years. Its turbulent waters do indeed run deep. I admit I'm fascinated by Italy partly because of these torrid dramas that have been unfolding throughout this apogee in the reign of Berlusconi, the self-described most accused man in the universe, but Robb's work almost implies some complex symbiotic relationship between that beautiful everyday and its rotten structural elements.
John Lanchester, in his book I.O.U., recalled "something I once heard a political scientist say about Italy. That country, he said, makes you understand what an anarchy would in practice look like: it wouldn’t be a society with no laws, but one with thousands of laws to which nobody pays any attention."
And yet having worked a little in Italy over the last couple of years—with Experientia in Turin and Domus in Milan—I see another side of Italy, the side that almost lives up to the promise. The easy, everyday pleasures of working in, playing in, and simply being in, Italy make it all too easy to forget the greater dramas being played out there. (Yes, this is across a series of short visits rather than any attempt to set up a life there.) At times it does feel like the best country in the world.
It's all too easy to write about those more obvious pleasures. Or at least they're well understood by anyone who's spent time there. But another kind of episode stays with me, for some reason. it is perhaps an unlikely highlight, but that's why I'm writing about it.
During a visit to Experientia for a workshop on Low2No, Experientia's Mark Vanderbeeken took my colleague Léan and I for a walk through the centre of Turin to the Partito Democratico festival, aka Festa!, that was taking place in the city that week.
In a total reversal of the UK or US political convention model, Festa had taken over the city properly, and was essentially composed of everyday people first and foremost, with the professional machinations of the party as a backdrop at best. It was lively, friendly, highly social and totally unpredictable. It was part-circus, part-arcade, part-promenade, part-feast, part-rally, and part-party.
Festa was centred on a large park, which carried most of the stalls and tents, but blurred into the city's primary piazzas. Here, the political debate was at the core of this temporary transient city within a city, carried across several impressively large and well-equipped stages, with live broadcast of numerous debates. Further debates were distributed across the camp of tents and stalls in the park.
Yet the bulk of the event is the city coming together, a huge diversity of activities and people gathered around a more everyday sense of politcs and political engagement than I'd seen for a while. For sure, some of the participants—the circus?—may have had little engagement with the Partito Democratico, and were really there because, well, people were there (though it was nice to see a circus strongman, I must admit. It had been a while.)
But—and here I admit I may be reading into it what I wanted to see—it seemed that most of the event, most of the people, were there through a sense of political engagement. This was the difference; it felt like, say, Adelaide's Garden of Unearthly Delights, to pick any old urban festival at random, and yet it was political in origin, in nature, in realisation.
It seems worthy of remark as falling political enagement across Europe is, of course, creating dangerous vacuums. In the UK (and Australia for that matter) this lack of engagement may even be related—inversely proportional, even—to the increased professionalisation and 'control' of similar political gatherings. Here, the political engagement felt natural, and a core component, alongside many others, of a full life well-lived.
Leaving aside the particular political persuasions involved, Festa felt democratic in a sense now alien to the over-professionalised machine codes of Anglo political gatherings. The security was virtually non-existant, or at least virtually invisible, and the overall spatial organisation of Festa so porous such that the entire thing felt open, at least in terms of access. The city blurred with Festa, and vice versa. The distinct lack of control was actually engaging and exciting, with the sheer ordinariness of some of the participants and their contributions a joy to see—a vacuum cleaner salesman posed with his product; a double-glazing firm sets up next to a sweet stall next to a bookshop-on-trestle-tables; a local radio station waves and calls out to Mark as he walks past.
The party stickers or posters were there or thereabouts, in the background, but really, the party was no more than a platform for social interaction. This lack of professionalism, this everyday commerce, this untrammelled, raw participation, would simply not be allowed at a British political gathering. It would all be too 'off brand'.
Of course, this being Italy, if politics was central, food was too.
The food stalls had the condition of impromptu market squares, as if any significant critical mass of Italians will generate a piazza-like condition wherever they gather (like Mike Davis's Magical Urbanism thesis, but instantaneously, like Instant Citta). Families sprawled over multiple generations and multiple tables.
We end up sitting next to two jovial men who raise a plastic glass to us, and with whom we embark upon faltering but good-natured conversation. The food is great, in an utterly paysan sense. Hunks of meat, potatoes, simple salad. Served on paper plates, and attacked with plastic cutlery, it still tasted good, and only cost a few euros.
Since moving back to Europe, I've been more aware of the rituals still present in everyday life here. Perhaps by virtue of the brevity of summer here in Finland, it's peppered with ritual, squeezing out as much as possible, from Juhannus to crayfish parties. It's quite enchanting, particularly having grown up in UK culture, and then with recent experience of Australia, where both societies (at least the more Anglo elements) are somewhat bereft of this kind of ritual.
I'm aware, as an outsider, that I'm romanticising what I saw; that an Italian, or an Italian political veteran, would've seen it all before, have pointed out the disproportionate number of elderly participants, or the diminishing impact that the event might be having on the political agenda, or the lack of any coherent 'political agenda' at all in contemporary Italian life. Or indeed that aforementioned sense of a country of immense potential being frittered away.
I'm sure this is the case. Yet I remain intrigued and heartened by the participation on display, by the vigour and passion of the political debates, by bounteous public feasts, and by a city coming together. As with my work experiences, this was a different Italy to that we see in the news, and all the better for it.