The Lega Nord has not been cowed by its mediocre showing in the spring elections. Virtually alone among Italian political leaders, Umberto Bossi has condemned both the “humanitarian” mission of the Italian army in Albania and the continued refusal of the government to keep out the so-called refugees, most of whom have spent the past ten years looking for a pretext for going to Italy. As Bossi told members of the Italian parliament, “I’ve been to New York and seen a multicultural society. I don’t want that for Italy.” Meanwhile, Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the postfascist Alleanza Nazionale, has stuck fast by his senior political partner, financier Silvio Berlusconi (leader of the Forza Italia), who supports the government’s policies on Albania. So much for Fini being a fascist: he is not even a nationalist anymore.

In the middle of May, a few days after I arrived in Rome, a Venetian separatist group calling itself the serenissimo governo used a homemade “mini-panzer” in their capture of the campanile of San Marco in Venice. The press was quick to point out contacts between this extremist movement and the Lega, and prominent journalists and politicians began calling for a crackdown on Bossi. The “leader” responded by declaring, “We are revolutionaries, not terrorists”—an admission which, if made in America (where possession of the writings of Jefferson, Locke, or Sam Adams is evidence of a hate crime) could get him at least five to ten in a federal prison.

A day or two later, Bossi’s followers peacefully occupied the same campanile, which has become the symbol for the Venetian longing for autonomy. Parliamentary debate was hot, as leghisti responded to attacks on the Lega’s “terrorism” by demanding an investigation into police brutality. Mario Borghezio, a Lega leader from Piedmont, told the minister of justice, “You live in a ministry that is a cemetery of papers and mysteries.” (I was supposed to meet with Borghezio the night of my arrival, but a strike by French air traffic controllers delayed my arrival—my apologies, onorevole Borghezio.)

National Public Radio’s Sylvia Poggioli, the most accurate source of South European news to which Americans have access, pointed out the irony, that “campanilismo” (i.e., attachment to the local bell tower) is a derogatory term for smalltown chauvinism, but I have been telling Italian friends for some time now that “campanilismo” sums up the best qualities of the Italian character.

The attacks on the Lega continue to mount, even as the leader seemed to be seeking reconciliation with former friends who support his vision up to the point of a confederal Italian republic but balk at open talk of secession. Gianfranco Miglio, the political theorist who abused Bossi in his kiss-and-tell Io, Bossi, e La Lega, is now speaking respectfully about his former ally. But Bossi’s critics claim he is running scared, because the majority of his followers refuse to support his more radical goals. To silence this divisive criticism, the Lega sponsored an informal “referendum” in Padania, on the question of autonomy and independence, and nearly four million leghisti turned out to endorse the senator’s position—which is autonomy for the North, in or out of an Italian union. So much for divisions within the ranks.

By mid-June the Italian parliament was taking up the question of a new constitution, which will probably have both presidential and federalist trappings. The leaders of the Lega remain, so far, unimpressed. Meanwhile in Venice, a Gay Pride march turned into a militant demonstration against the Lega. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Italy continues to serve as the political laboratory of the Western world. From the days of the Roman Republic and Empire, of the medieval communes and Renaissance despotisms, down to the Risorgimento (their war of Northern aggression) and the establishment of fascism, Italian political leaders have charted a course for their less brilliant Germanic and Celtic cousins, who repaid them by borrowing the ideas and institutions and despising their creators. A year ago, a German politician asked me why I wasted time on Italy and Serbia. “In Europe today, only Germany matters.” In fact, Germans may be moving, ever so slowly, toward nationalism and away from the New World Order adventures of Chancellor Kohl, but the real ferment continues to be, for the moment, in Italy and in the Balkans.