Umberto Bossi does not like journalists. His stock epithet for the gentlemen of the press—applied to them almost as regularly as “swift-footed” precedes Achilles—is vermi (worms), although he sometimes falls back on servi sciochi (idiot servants). Not too long ago, at a Lega Nord meeting, Bossi caught sight of the press corps covering the event and, after reviling them as liars, he had them thrown out.
The “leader” of the Lega Nord has reason to dislike the press. They have hated him from the start and never lost an opportunity to predict his impending downfall or to blacken the reputation of his movement with terms like “racist” and “fascist.” The Italian press has not confined its attacks to Bossi and the other leaders of the Lega Nord. The entire movement—hundreds of thousands of North Italians—have been stigmatized as bigots for wanting to lead their own lives, preserve their customs and traditions, and regain local control over their institutions.
The Lega Lombarda, the nucleus of the Lega Nord, was founded in 1984. In the early years, the Leghisti confined themselves to street demonstrations against the corrupt government in Rome (“Roma Ladrona,” Rome the thief) and against the South Italian immigrants who dominate the bureaucracy, the school systems, and organized crime. For many of Bossi’s followers, taxes are the symbolic issue with greatest appeal: North Italians work hard and pay their taxes which are spent, disproportionately, on Mafia-controlled projects in the South. As their most popular poster puts it: “The Lombard hen lays the eggs that are cooked in Rome and eaten in the South.”
In 1987 the Lega Lombarda elected its first representatives to the Italian parliament, and Bossi was able to carry out his dream of creating a movement that would encompass all the regions of Northern Italy. For a brief period, the Lega was even included in the coalition that made Silvio Berlusconi, a financier without political experience. Prime Minister of Italy, but for reasons that are still not entirely clear, Bossi broke with Beriusconi and brought down the government.
The Lega has put together a powerful and factual indictment of the entire political system in Italy. The press, however, has never got around to discussing the facts. First come the denunciations. Who but a bigot would criticize the Mafia? And if journalists can find a distinguished intellectual or religious leader to do their work for them, so much the better. It is now almost routine that before any major election, the leftist-modernist Cardinal of Milan will find some reason for telling Catholics not to support the Lega.
The Ambrosian Church, however, does not speak with one voice, and the Bishop of Como described the Cardinal’s pronouncements as “inopportune,” adding that with the family and school in crisis, there are more things for Catholics to worry about than the Lega. The real problems, says Bishop Maggiolini, go back to the kind of Italy that was born in the Risorgimento.
The Lega Nord is usually regarded as an urban populist movement, but so much of the Lega’s imagery is an appeal to the old traditions of Lombardia that I wondered if there were not an agrarian nostalgia lurking beneath the surface of this movement of laborers and shopkeepers. I had always wanted to drive the back roads of the region, if only to take a Gothic pleasure in viewing a civilization in ruins: shopping centers squatting on top of Roman baths, a small corner of a garden clinging to life in an industrial park, otters living and breeding in a litter-clogged drainage canal that runs along the highway.
I spend two weeks visiting innumerable rustic shrines, abbeys, churches, monasteries. At Fiona, a priory at the top of Lago di Como, I am back in the days before Barbarossa, when fishermen fortified their lakeside villages against brigands, and the Church was the principal center of social order. I spend a day in western Lombardia, in the south visiting Vigevano and the great Cistercian abbey of Morimondo, and driving north, another day, I go through Gallarate and must have passed by, without knowing it, the little village of Cassano Magnago, the hometown of Umberto Bossi. The land here was once all farms, and all over this part of Lombardia, there are still signs of the agricultural diligence that gave the Lombards their wealth: terraced hills, drainage and irrigation ditches, even navigational canals that connected the local towns with far-off Milan.
Bossi begins his memoir Vento dal Nord with a depressing visit back to Cassano Magnago: the highway cuts right through what had been parkland, cement houses have sprouted up like tumors, and everywhere is the sound of traffic, the smell of asphalt. Over and over, in the course of his book, Bossi will say that it was his first 14 years in the country that formed his character, that taught him the old ethic of “work and save,” a motto that has been replaced by “consume.”
The paradise lost of childhood is the source of much rebellion in the modern world, and although Umberto Bossi would go on to be a roughneck, a salesman, and a medical student in a modern Lombardia far removed from his early years, his ability to tap into the aspirations of North Italians has never been limited to the usual appeals to greed, self-interest, and parochial resentments that fuel most populist movements. All the time, if only at the back of his mind, has been the desire to recover the world “the way it was” and, perhaps, to get even with the people who destroyed it: greedy politicians, Sicilian mafiosi, and corrupt businessmen who cement over villages, counting their own profits but never the costs that others have to pay.
September 15th, the day of liberty for Independent Padania, dawns fair and warm. I hurry into the center of Olginate—a small village, now suburbanized like so much of Lombardia—where I board a bus with the local leghisti. My host is Giulio de Capitani, a local counselor and the nephew of my old friends, Giuditta Podesta and her brother Giuseppe.
There are two or three “Pulman” buses just from Olginate, and we rendezvous with the other delegations from Lecco at the Abbey of Pontida, the site of the famous Lombard “giuramento” (oath). Waiting for the stragglers, some of the young bucks leave the bus to spray-paint Lega slogans on a cement wall. They have obviously done this before. While one stands with the paint can hidden in the grass, the two others split up, taking positions where they can watch for policemen, and in the 15-20 minutes it takes to complete their art work (they go over and over, always darkening and thickening the letters), the alert is given several times.
It is an impressive motorcade: dozens of buses and who knows how many automobiles, all from the province of Lecco. When we hit the autostrada, we catch sight of other motorcades headed toward their designated sites on “dio Po” outside of Cremona, a city made famous by its violin-makers. Today, another chapter in Italian history is being written, as thousands gather from all over this part of Lombardia, to celebrate the birth of Padania. The newspapers and radio are already reporting that the Festa is a failure: only 10,000 are said to have turned out all over the North. “Look,” an angry woman tells me, “you’re a journalist. Do you see no one here? Why do you all lie?” I don’t know about other places, but here, in the mile long space between two bridges, the fields and paths along the shore are crowded with members of the Lega Nord from one small area, the province of Lecco.
It would be easy to get lost in the crowd, but de Capitani—a successful architect and admired local figure—takes charge and in the course of the day I shake hands with dozens of officials: mayors, councillors, and even a member or two of the Italian parliament. The mayor of Colico, a town at the Northeast corner of Lago di Como, tells me that, in mystical ceremonies like today’s, Padania is returning to its Celtic and pre-Christian roots. The mayor looks 100 percent German and speaks Italian with the emphatic precision of the Italian Swiss. After discoursing on the mysteries of trees and rivers, he adds that he, like most of his friends in the Lega, is a good Catholic.
We sneak off for lunch at a nearby restaurant with Alberto Maria Bosisio, member of parliament and one of the brightest and most polished leaders of the Lega I have run into. He and the other well-to-do leghisti who have filled up the restaurant are living contradiction of the story I have heard repeatedly, that the middle-classes who joined the Lega in the early 90’s departed after Bossi’s ribaltone that overturned the Berlusconi government. In a heated but friendly conversation with other leghisti, Bosisio draws a precise line between defense of the North against the invasion of Southern mafiosi, government officials, and welfare dependents, on the one hand, and a general hatred of Southern Italians, on the other.
In the media there have been predictions of violence, but the nearest approach to trouble comes in the restaurant, as a group of leghisti complain about the service to the obviously Sicilian proprietor, who treats them to a tongue-lashing of an eloquence undreamed of by Lombards. Our waiter, just as obviously of Southern background, though he speaks without the accent, tells us he is sympathetic to the Lega’s demand for home rule. From all that I can tell, Sicilian businessmen have nothing to fear from the Lega, and some of them would welcome any effort to drive the Mafia back to Sicily.
For the “Senatur,” today has been a long time in coming. For the past two years—indeed, throughout its existence—the Lega has been demanding political reform and a deconsolidation of power. Exasperated by the slow pace—actually, no pace—of reform, and despairing of any progress toward a federal constitution, Bossi began hinting last fall that it was time to secede. In the spring, he made his threats explicit, and today—at the end of three days of symbolic demonstrations, including a mystical ceremony of carrying a vial of water from the source of the Po all the way to the mouth—the Lega is ready.
After a series of speakers from other independence movements—Basques and Catalonians from Spain, a Fleming from Belgium—Bossi begins to speak in an uncharacteristically solemn voice and announces the independence of Padania and the federalist principles on which his new nation will be based.
On the way home, after all the flags have flown, the sausages eaten, and the Grand March from Aida (the national anthem) played a dozen times, I feel a little like the hapless couple at the end of The Graduate: after independence, what? Who will break the eggs to make this omelette? The press has made much of Bossi’s defense force, the “camicce verdi” (green shirts), but these are men of all ages, unarmed and not particularly dangerous looking. The only violence comes when, a few days later, the number two man in the party, Roberto Maroni, is beaten up by the police in his office. Maroni is a particularly strange object for police brutality: he is not only well-liked by his political enemies, but for a brief time he even served as Minister of the Interior, a post which gave him control over the national police.
In Torino, at the Lega Nord’s headquarters in Piedmont, I ask the leaders if Maroni—now ostentatiously sporting a neck brace—was not overreacting. On the contrary, I am assured, they have it from friends who were present that the police, after knocking him to the ground, kicked Maroni repeatedly in the groin, but Bobo is too proud to admit how badly he was hurt.
Until recently, I had not realized the significance of Piedmont to the Lega Nord. As Bossi himself explains, his first steps toward autonomism were taken under the guidance of Bruno Salvadori, the leader of the Union Valdotaine, who had decided to preach the federalist gospel outside the borders of Val d’Aosta. Later, when Bossi conceived a similar project—to create a Northern federalist movement not limited to Lombardia—he turned to Piedmontese autonomists like Gipo Farassino. Farassino is a well-known cantautore (singer-songwriter) and actor, whom the ordinarily hostile Corriere della Sera treats with a tongue-in-cheek respect, noting that he is the only founder of the Lega Nord to remain on good terms with Bossi and describing him as “famous cantautore, much loved by women . . . a theatrical performer who has had great success.”
Farassino dispells any suspicions I might have that the Lega Nord is really a Lombard movement that is swallowing up the other regions. “Autonomy is more deeply rooted in Piemonte than in Lombardia,” he says. He is passionate about his country, which is not Italy or even Padania, but Piemonte. As a performer, he has traveled all over and likes to take vacations in France but feels more alien in Southern Italy.
Even in the world of instant communication, of European Union and the United Nations, patriotism is a natural phenomenon. “It’s human nature,” he says, “when you are spinning the radio dial, you stop when you hear la mia lingua” and cites a proverb to the effect that “There is my home, where my heart beats.” We are a long way from Franklin’s nonsense that wherever freedom existed, there was his country. In pointing out the differences between North and South in Italy, Farassino is frank but not bigoted; but, he says, if Italy is ever going to enter the European Community, it will have to recognize that there are really two economic systems, which should have two different monetary systems to reflect the difference. As it is, Southern Italians take the tax dollars they receive from the North and they use them to buy cheap goods manufactured in Korea or Taiwan. Industries are leaving Italy, because of unfair taxation, but the whole corrupt economic climate is unfavorable to business. The South has great resources, he points out, and the people are enormously talented, but instead of using their energy and creativity to produce wealth in their own regions, they enter the government and live off the taxpayers.
I had an appointment with Gipo Farassino, but in roaming through the Lega’s offices in Torino in the company of Maurizio Gotta, a very helpful young leghista, and Steve Balestra, an Italo-American of South Italian background, who speaks fluent Italian, I came upon Mario Borghezio, a deputy to the Italian parliament. If there were a radical faction of the Lega (Bossi absolutely forbids the formation of correnti), the honorable Borghezio would be the leader. While Bossi was still playing at the game of reform in Rome, Borghezio was calling for secession. (According to the Lega’s leaders, this was all a stratagem planned in advance.) Partly as a result of his “extremism” and the bluntness of his speech, the Piedmontese deputy is, next to Bossi, the Lega leader the press loves to hate. Somewhat to my surprise, he is all smiles and welcomes, particularly when I tell him about the activities of the Southern League in the United States.
I ask the deputy and the other leghisti, what secession really means. The answer is somewhat unexpected. For years the Lega called for federalism and worked with any parliamentary group willing to decentralize and reform the Italian state. They got exactly nowhere. What they finally realized, in the course of the past year, was that reform was impossible, so long as the game was being played according to Roman rules. But if the North were independent, if only in principle, and free to control the flow of tax money to Rome, the powers-that-be would have to negotiate in earnest. In fact, Roberto Maroni announced in October that the Lega would help the citizens of Padania in their efforts to resist the corrupt and oppressive taxation of the Italian government by providing a self-help manual. Giancarlo Pagliarini, one of the Lega’s most respected leaders, commented: “A government that says, ‘We won’t reimburse you’ [i.e., for excess taxes paid], is morally irresponsible,’ and the intransigent Borghezio has called for ‘moral objection’ in the form of tax resistance” (La Stampa, October 16).
The Lega is playing high-risk politics but with considerable finesse. With at most a third of the population supporting their policies, the Lega Nord claims to speak for all of Padania. On the other hand, no normal North Italian, including hardworking Southern immigrants and their children, wants to continue paying outrageous taxes to a criminal government, which—in the words of a Lega poster—”Tells the Lombard donkey: ‘Shut up and pay.'”
If the administration of Romano Prodi had any guts, they would schedule a referendum on secession next week. The Lega would lose, probably badly, and the government’s hand would be strengthened. But talk of referenda is a heady wine and dangerous to a regime that bases its power on brute force and corruption, and for one reason or another, Roma Ladrona is unwilling to take the risk. Every day that the current standoff continues is a victory for the Lega, because every day the citizens of Padania can read of new scandals in the government.
Riding in a taxi one day in Lecco, I struck up a conversation with the driver who turned out to be a leghista. Discovering that I was giornalista americano, he got out his telefonino and rang up a journalist friend of his in Milan, Luigi Geminiazzi, who writes for the Catholic paper Avvenire. Far from being a sympathizer with the Lega, Geminiazzi asks my untutored opinion on what the future holds. I tell him that the American B,evolution never had the support of more than a third of the people in the colonies, but that revolutions are made not by passive majorities but by active minorities. “Exactly,” he replies, and unless they can reform the government—which appears to be impossible—support for the Lega and for independence will go from 30 to 60 percent.
Time may be on the Senatur’s side, but it is running out for me. My next-to-last night, I spend in the little town of Merate, addressing a meeting of the Giovani Celti Meratesi.
The Young Celts are an outgrowth of the Lega’s youth movement. Most of them are convinced that Padania is a Celtic country, but they are just beginning their study of the Celts, whom I describe as a nation of poets, warriors, and hard drinkers. “A Celt who drinks Coca,” I tell them, “is a traitor to his race.” Several of them hurriedly put their soft drink cans under the table and go off to find a beer. I suppose my speech could be described as corrupting the young.
They are good kids, mostly in their 20’s: hardworking, energetic, and refusing to accept their nation’s slide into the Third World. For them being a Celt or a Lombard is a means of making Karl Schmidt’s friend/enemy distinction, and they feel themselves more and more alienated from the national regime and the coalition of gangsters and welfare-dependents who support it. For them, Umberto Bossi is another Braveheart (as Bossi himself has claimed) fighting against an oppressor who has occupied their country and mobilized the resources of public opinion—the newspapers, the tele-journalism, the intellectuals—into a massive conspiracy to demonize the people of the hardworking North as racist bigots. When I explain that Middle Americans, especially in the South, are subjected to the same campaign of defamation, they are at first puzzled, then relieved to find that they are not alone in Padania.
But what country is this Padania? Is it the industrial suburbs of Sesto San Giovanni, the tourist meccas of Venice and the Lakes, or the little towns of the Brianza, where old Lombardia awaits just beyond the electronics factory? I spend my last afternoon, driving up from Olginate toward Colle di Brianza. I pass through ancient villages adjacent to housing projects and rustic churches on top of terraced slopes leading down to gravel pits and a clear-cut lumbering operation. A shepherd drives his sheep down the road leading into a hilltop village that looks down over the industrial plain around Oggiono and its lake, only a mile or two from the Superstrada connecting Lecco with Milan.
That night I go to supper with a local labor organizer and master gardner, Edoardo Bonacina (“Nino”) and my old friend, the liberal baker Laini. After the disintegration of the Liberal Party, Laini has moved over to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. A few nights before, I had accompanied him to a meeting of the “club” in Lecco, which consists of sober intelligent businessmen talking practically of local problems: roads, sanitation, zoning. I can understand the attraction of Forza Italia to many responsible Italians all over the North. Imagine, they say to themselves, if industrious and honest businessmen could run things, instead of the Mafia and the socialists.
Several Berlusconi supporters have been calling for a new rapprochement with their old friends in the Lega. In their heart of hearts, most Northern Italians support the Lega’s major objectives, but for one reason or another, they happen to dislike Bossi (he is too tyrannical they say, a clown who cannot be taken seriously, a crook who takes money from the Bavarians) or else they find themselves attached to one or another political party. As the ex-Liberal Laini declares, “I am more of a leghista than Bossi,” explaining that he is supporting practical measures to secure economic autonomy in the North. People are too busy with their lives and do not understand these things. Nino concurs: “la zhede non capise un cavolo,” that is, “la gente non capisce un cavolo” (the people don’t know a cabbage, i.e., nothing).
As the night goes on, my notebook fills up with local dialect expressions. Bragging a little, I tell them I have a Milanese-Italian dictionary. No good, they explain: Milanese is a foreign language here. Comasco? A little better but hard to understand. Even Bergamasco is exotic. Are there any books on the local dialect? Nothing, although there might be something in Lecco, which is close. Close? It’s five miles away. A few weeks earlier, Maroni had declared that Padania would renounce Italian and use only local dialects, but if Como cannot communicate with Lecco, much less with Olginate, Padania will soon break up into regions, then into provinces, then into villages. Maroni’s answer is that as a “national” language, Padanians will use English, in which case Steve Balestra will have to be the next leader of the Lega Nord, because he is the only one fluent in English. I asked the Young Celts if they wanted to learn English, and they laughed. How could they turn their backs on Manzoni, the greatest writer from Padania?
I do not know what the future holds for Padania. Whatever happens in a practical sense, it is a nation in the process of creating—or rather recreating itself. Here from this local restaurant—Da Oskar—I can see the traffic going by on the suburbanized road leading into Olginate. Most of the people in these houses and apartments came from other parts of Italy only 20-30 years ago, to work in the mills and factories of Lecco, and yet inside the restaurant, the last farmer of Olginate is drinking wine. Laini tells me of growing up just up the hills from here, on the other side of the River Adda, while Nino seems to be at least second-cousin to everyone I have met: to Giuseppe who owns the grocery where I buy cheese and wine to take home, to the lady who owns the Ristorante Primavera, where I ate the night before as her children did their homework under the television set. Beneath the surface of this transformed village, the age-old patterns persist. Nino is not a farmer, but he maintains the beautiful garden at CEISLO and grows enough vegetables to feed a family of 20. To a stranger’s eyes, much of Northern Italy has been modernized and transformed beyond recognition, but for the old-timers eating and drinking in Da Oskar, these changes have not disturbed the core of life.
Nino is a leftist, Laini a classical liberal, but both are Lombards, “more leghisti than Bossi,” and while it is Bossi and the Lega who receive the brunt of the media’s attack on the industrious North, it is the people themselves who are the real demons—Lombardi and Piemontesi, of course, but also Toscani and Siciliani. Once upon a time, the objects of national hatred were aliens—domestic and foreign—like the Jews or the Irish or the far-off Huns. Now the enemy is us, although not in Walt Kelly’s self-hating sense. Everywhere in the European world, the official enemy is now the people themselves, particularly those who pay, rather than receive, taxes, those who are not ashamed of who they are and who their people have been, those who cling to the hateful illusion that they can run their own lives and communities without an invading army of teachers, bureaucrats, and social workers telling them what to do and how to think, and if they begin to complain about high taxes or businesses taking jobs out of the country, the donkeys are told “Shut up and pay.” In Italy, the taxes may prove to be the last straw, not to break the donkeys’ backs, but to goad them into resistance.
Here in America, the donkeys may be too well-fed, too burdened by all they think they own, too uprooted and bewildered by their constant shifts of residence and by a global culture that turns Rockford into Newark into Jacksonville. la zhede non capise un cavolo—literally—because they are too busy watching football on television. If any American donkeys are going to kick over their traces, it will only happen in those remote places of Middle America, where the old-timers know cabbages and can sec past the suburbs and info the fields and villages where their ancestors lived and died, making the best sense out of a world into which we are all born as strangers.