I owe this trip to our secretary, Leann, who kept looking out for low airfares to Europe. Only a few days before she discovered Alitalia’s summer half-price sale, I had received another kind invitation to spend a few days at the Centro Internazionale per Studi Lombardi (CEISLO). I bribed my wife into coming along by promising to visit Pompeii, and when I told a friend of our plans, he and his wife almost immediately decided to join us.
We began with high hopes and ill omen—I managed to sprain my ankle only two days before our departure—but the hotel I had found after four calls to Rome (“tutto completo“) proved to be as pleasant as it is affordable. The Albergo di Campo di Fiori is located right on the Campo di Fiori (not near the Baths of Diocletian, where a popular guidebook puts it. God bless the cabdriver who would not listen to me), and it is hard to think of a livelier location. In the lightest of drizzles, my writer-cattleman friend and I sat on the roof, late at night, and watched Rome putting itself to bed. In honor of the occasion I even drank vodka, which I have not done willingly since I was 14.
I spent most of the short time I had trying to find people. Professor L.E. Rossi of Rome University had invited me, along with Chris Kopff, to deliver a paper on classics. I’m not used to discussing Greek lyric meters in Italian and managed to begin with a howling mispronunciation, but we all survived and went out to dinner with my friends. Professor Rossi treated us to one of the best dinners I’ve had in Italy. (How can one ever repay the kindness displayed by European friends. Even if they were to come to America, where could one take them?) Like so many good restaurants in Italy, this was very unquaint and looked the sort of place where prosperous Chicago businessmen have lunch.
I did manage to find time to visit a few churches. St. John Lateran is something of a mess, with the omnipresent signs of restoration, but Santa Maria Maggiore is still the most harmonious hodgepodge of styles in the world. A walk around the basilica is a fast-forward tour of a thousand years of architectural development. As a record of Europe, “Mary Major” is like a photo-spread on the life story of an embryo, but in the unfortunate case of our civilization, the baby is stillborn.
My friend and I catch a bus down to the Colosseum, and going in we look for a place to sit in the shade. Inevitably the talk turns to why and how the mistress of the world fell into her nonage. I have always suspected that Rome suffered the natural fate of all unitary political systems—empires or democracies. Left unchecked, a governing class will always increase its own power, and not simply out of greed and ambition for power. Problems cry out for solutions, and it is the rare ruler who is wise enough to ignore most problems: scire omnia, non omnia persequi was Tacitus’ definition of political wisdom, although he meant it only to apply to personal matters. As Madison and Calhoun understood, the only check upon the growth of power is another power.
In our own system, it was the states and the little communities that used to protect us from the national government. In Rome, it was the conflicts between Senate and Populus, between Rome and the hinterlands, between aristocrats and business interests that preserved liberty and what is even more precious than liberty, the political vitality of the nation. The empire. when wisely administered, did its best to settle those conflicts, and as’ the power of the imperial bureaucracy increased, civic virtue (by which I mean the guts needed to take part in public life) declined. The more fires the government puts out, the more we are smothered in the smoke. On the whole, I think, under republic and under empire, the Romans did a better job than we have done, and it took far longer for them to lose their nerve.
Rome was uncharacteristically chilly for May. It was also full of European teenagers on holiday, and we were eager to leave. Driving out of the middle of Rome, even after being plagued by gypsies and Moroccans in the train station where we rented the car, and even after getting lost several times before striking the high road to Naples, was less terrifying than we had anticipated. We left the autostrada at Anagni for a late lunch at an out-of-the-way hotel we stumbled upon: a pasta with a sauce made of fresh artichokes, grilled lamb, and small yellow potatoes served with butter and parsley.
But this simple meal proved to be our last bit of luck that day. It was already late afternoon when I took us around the lovely old town and almost wedged the car in a steep 13th-century alley. I have almost no depth perception and cannot back up a car for ten feet, much less down a twisting street about seven-feet wide. Making no progress on the back roads, we returned to the autostrada only to be hit with mile after mile of construction.
We were headed for Avellino, because we had read of the great winery in the neighborhood. I for one will never drink it, because my taste of Avellino consisted of a rush-hour traffic jam in the center of town as we fruitlessly attempted to find a quiet hotel. (I stupidly rejected a place in a suburb perched on a hill overlooking the town. Too modern.) The real horror did not begin until after dark, when we realized that we had come unintentionally into Salerno, which we rode around and around looking for an hotel with a garage.
As our ill luck would have it, we found the Hotel Garibaldi near the marina. Visitors to the Bay of Naples always sing the same song: foul air, dirty bathrooms, unchanged bed linens. Our room had the particular distinction of facing the enclosed courtyard, which smelled like a locker room in Herculaneum, sealed under mud and ash for 1900 years and excavated for our benefit. The place did have its charms, though: an ancient soft drink cooler with small coke bottles two-thirds filled. There were several empty beer bottles decorating the room, and in one of them was a bunch of faded flowers. Our hostess offered them to us with the gracious smile of a great lady bestowing a favor. I did not have the heart to refuse. Our hotel, which only occupied two floors, was quiet enough, but the upper floors of the building were more lively. What an odd couple, one of the ladies remarked, seeing an older man riding up the elevator with a teenage girl in hot pants.
I’ll break off the slide-show here and say that Paestum is still as magnificent as Shelley said it was, although you can no longer see through the columns of Poseidon’s temple. My ankle gave out half way through Pompeii (I knew my injury would come in handy), and leaving my wife to wander the ruins, I went back to the Hotel Santuario with my friends. The hotel, as well as being quiet and rather pleasant, is a marvel of cleanliness and efficiency. It was four o’clock, and we had not had lunch, but the assistant manager was kind enough to prepare us pannini with prosciutto and cheese and several bottles of a somewhat fizzy but drinkable wine. We went to mass in the church across the piazza, where a young nun sang popular-sounding hymns with a passionate intensity that was almost alarming. My friend and I sat outside the hotel, watching la vita in piazza until my cigar caused a minor row with a crowd of young people who affected to cough and wheeze. (I did the same when they lit up cigarettes.)
We spent a week in Umbria and Tuscany. Orvieto, Cortona, Chiusi (almost all the Etruscan sites are impossible to visit, but the Etruscan museum is good and the market better). Assisi is the worst kind of tourist trap, part Disney World part YMCA camp. (To be fair, I should say that an Italian friend visited Assisi a few weeks later and fell in love with the place.) I did not even want to eat there, and we had an unsatisfactory lunch at a marina on Lake Trasimene. No sign of Hannibal, but the North Africans are definitely re-invading Italy.
The immigration problem in Italy has not improved, and by May the most serious debate was over what to do about the Albanians, who had been coming in such large numbers that the news footage reminded me of Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints. For all their problems, the Italians (like the French) are capable of decisive action, and in early August the government—taking a page out of Raspail—assembled a flotilla to repatriate the Albanians. After sending all but a thousand back to Albania, the government began to weaken, promising $40 and a suit of clothes to everyone willing to go home. Not surprisingly, most of the emigrants want to stay. I know that it would take a lot more than $40 to make me leave, if I had a chance to remain permanently in Italy. Ultimately, the government tricked the Albanians, with vague promises, into being dispersed and eventually dismissed.
I could have stayed a year in our little hotel in Orvieto, right on the corso. We ate several times in a superb restaurant not far from the cathedral, which had beautiful frescoes—classical and with pure colors that reminded me of early Picasso—by Luca Signorelli. Most of Signorelli’s greatest work was painted over by later artists, but Orvieto had the good fortune to be poor. In Cortona, Signorelli’s birthplace, they preserve his memory, and I was treated to a discourse by the owner of a bookshop.
I will not describe how I dragged the party through Montepulciano without finding lunch or how we fled in panic from the tour bus hordes in San Gimignano and stayed in Colle Val d’Elsa, which was quiet as a grave, or how I was overwhelmed—and this for the third time—by the crowd of unwashed tourists that have made Siena impossible. In the cathedral, my wife pointed out something I had not thought of before. Set in the pavement are a series of mosaics representing pagan as well as biblical stories, Roman emperors as well as popes, saints beside sibyls. The great pulpit (carved by Nicola Pisano) counterpoints the seven liberal arts with scenes from the life of Christ. Here it was—in stone, paint, and marble—the great synthesis of late medieval civilization, that is to say our civilization.
The high point of our touring, for me, were the several days we spent doing virtually nothing in Bibiena, a town in the Casentino north of Arezzo and east of Florence. I had hoped to find Peter Russell, the poet and friend of Ezra Pound, but he was away in Milan, lecturing. In the mountainous Casentino, May is too early for the Italian tourists who come to escape the heat and to visit the various Franciscan shrines. Dante took refuge here with the Guidi, whose castello in nearby Poppi is being restored. My friend and I had our picture taken beneath the bust of Dante. “Three poets,” is the suggested title.
The air was chilly, and it even snowed on us as we drove up to the Hermitage of St. Romualdo. During visiting hours, the monks are all in their cells, but they do gather for meals and for services. They spend the rest of the day either praying or working their garden plots. There are worse ways to live, and I can well imagine, as our world grinds itself down into the mire of lies, vice, and cowardice, some new monastic movement rising up to rescue the victims of the sexual “revolutions.”
We spend our last week in Lombardia, enjoying the hospitality of Giuditta and Giuseppe Podesta at CEISLO. Our discussions turn on recent events in Central and Eastern Europe, and the prospects for European unity. On a broader level, we talk about the decline of civilizations and what can be done to slow or arrest the descent into sloth and materialism. I cite the reforms of the Emperor Heraclius, who created a stable class of peasant-soldiers who defended Byzantium for almost a millennium, but the professoressa is not impressed. Byzantium, she argued, is a great example of conservatism without creativity. I bring up Byzantine hymnody, mosaics, and historiography and am embarrassed to find she probably knows more about Byzantine culture than I do. Time for a tactical retreat.
Dinners at CEISLO are great occasions, not only for cooking. One night we are surprised by a visit by my friend Elvio Conti, who is very active in the Lega Lombarda. He brings with him a recent recruit to the Lega, a retired businessman who represents the growing acceptance of the Lega in bourgeois circles. They are immediately invited to dinner. So is the baker, the local Liberal Party leader, who arrives with the dessert. We are in for it now, I think, a real shouting match. Instead, we have the liveliest discussion, dominated by the new recruit, who had been a buyer and executive with the Rinascente chain (by far the largest retailer—supermarkets, department stores—in Italy).
His knowledge of the world and his hardheaded grasp of business and economics impresses even the skeptical Signora Podesta. My liberal friend, Signor Laini, is passionate in defending his party and in criticizing the Lega, but on many fundamental points agrees with its critique of the partitocrazia.
What most surprised me in this and subsequent discussions with various people was the general hostility to the Persian Gulf War. From the newspapers (Italian as well as American) I had gathered that there was a great deal of public support for the war, countered only by a minority of Communists, the members of the Leghe, and the most faithful Catholics. What I found instead were several lukewarm supporters, who thought Italy needed access to the oil but disliked the way President Bush handled the whole affair. The opponents, on the other hand, tended to be vehement and perhaps anti-American. I asked a number of observers what they thought the real percentage was for support and opposition, and the answer was always 50-50.
One night we are joined by a group of students and local friends of CEISLO, and there are several tense moments, until I succeed in explaining my own position, which is patriotic anti-imperialism. The only real argument that breaks out is between me and the other lady in our party, who defends the war with considerable heat. I grow even hotter and pull the dirty trick of switching back into Italian.
What is most impressive about this evening is not so much what we are saying as that we can have this conversation at all. Here we are in a small town in a company that includes a librarian, a young lady who works in a beauty parlor, and a young man who sells medical instruments, and the conversation is far more serious than what you could hear in most faculty clubs. The reason for this is partly the Italian interest in politics, but it is more a function of CEISLO’s presence in the village of Olginate. I wonder if American “think-tanks” would have a more significant impact if they began to involve the people in the neighborhood?
The next day we visit the mayor of Lecco, a very prudent and able man presiding over the upgrading of Lecco to the status of provincia. I note that he has a sister cities arrangement with many cities but none in America. He grows uncomfortable, explaining that Lecco is a commune d’Europa. Later, someone explains to me that the mayor is in a difficult position. As a Christian Democrat he belongs to the party that sent Italian soldiers to the gulf war, and the left is waiting for any opportunity to accuse him of being pro-American.
We cannot eat and argue all the time, and we spend our days visiting Lecco, Bergamo, and Como, where we meet Elvio Conti, who takes us on a cruise of Lago di Como. We eat lunch in Menaggio—real Lombard fare from the lakes: a hearty dish of buckwheat and cheese that can see a man through an entire day of hard labor, and fishes from the lake—smoke-dried lavorello and fresh tinca. After several bottles of wine, our heads might as well be at the bottom of the lake, but Conti takes us to a little bar for more wine and shows us the hotel where the Lega Lombarda held a rally. The proprietor is away, but his son buys us a grappa. (Note, we had never before tasted anything drinkable called grappa, but this is very good.)
Back in Como, we are taken shopping, and although it is late and we are due back in Olginate, Conti signals us to follow his car. My wife grows impatient, since we have no idea where we are going, but we end up in the very silk factory she had been begging me to find. Somewhere in my increasingly incoherent Italian, Elvio had figured out where we really wanted to go. That is the mystery of life in Italy, where people never seem to plan anything or even answer a letter, but they are always two steps ahead of you in doing a kindness.
Our last little adventure was a trip to Milano to see the cathedral and to meet journalist Mario Marcolla and a young man who wants to do an interview for Christianita, the official organ of the Alleanza Cattolica. Marcolla is the Italian translator of Russell Kirk and a real expert on Anglo-American conservative thought. We go to the top of the Duomo in the forest of gulie and stare at the Madonnina. I do not see Il Resegone, the mountain that looms above Lecco, despite the assurance of that Milanese comic-book miscreant, Cattivik.
From old Milan, the city of faith—commercial as well as religious—we descend to the blaring world of Cattivik’s Milan and try to have a quiet conversation in the roar of a police unit’s mobile generator and a phony Peruvian band. (Anyone who speaks Spanish can pose as an authentic Andean musician.) Marcolla observes, “Sempre la festa. . . . Morning, noon, and night, it’s party time, and nobody works, and they wonder why we don’t catch up with Germany and Switzerland.”
Like all men who love their country, Marcolla is hard on Italian vices and may not realize how much worse off we are in the United States. From his (affectionate but deprecating) description of his son (allegedly a libertarian who likes Ayn Rand), I expect to meet what Lew Rockwell would call a real “modal.”Instead I find myself shaking hands with a polite and hardworking young man. I had friends in South Carolina, who were always complaining about their daughter’s laziness and rudeness, when in fact they had reared a studious young lady with beautiful manners. Does this mean, I wonder, that it is bad parents and bad citizens who cannot criticize what they claim to love?
Italy is currently undergoing a serious constitutional crisis, and all parties seem to understand that something has to change, if the government is ever to clean up the massive fiscal corruption and begin to do battle with organized crime. Italians are full of spleen against the partitocrazia, and my friends in the Lega Lombarda are rueful in comparing their own country with Switzerland, but behind all of the anger and all of the bitterness, it is impossible to miss the passionate love of Italy (especially their little part of it) that animates every Italian I have ever met, including a Rockford lawyer who had just returned from a month’s visit. I met him in a local Italian grocery, and he could not stop talking about the beauties of Tuscany and Sicily. His one worry was that Americans (he was born in this country) would spoil it. I agreed with him.
I recently attended Rockford’s Festa Italiana and listened to a foul-mouthed comedian telling ethnic jokes. (He got nervous when he realized that the priest he had been needling was, in fact, the bishop.) After asking how many Siciliani, how many Baresi, how many Napoletani were in the audience, he concluded by saying, “The important thing, though, is that we’re all Italians, right?” Only one person (probably not an Italian) asked if there were any Americans. But Sal Richards is probably right. Being an Italian, even an Italian-American of the third generation, means something, but what does it mean to be an American? Most of us don’t have the faintest idea.