For all Italians who live abroad or are acquainted with foreign people a day comes when a non-Italian asks them an uncomfortable question: “Why are you Italians the way you are?”. I have to admit the first time this happened to me I strongly deluded a German guy who was staring at me incredulous. It seemed to me that the Italian character is too complicated, too peculiar to be explained to foreigners. However, Barzini’s The Italians made me change my mind.
The Italians, written in 1964 by Italian journalist and liberal politician Luigi Barzini, is a remarkable commitment towards an answer that is anything but obvious. How can the Italy of the Renaissance, the Italy that gave birth to Dante and Machiavelli, the Italy that taught the world fine arts and food, be the same Italy where Fascism and Mafia were born? Through a scrupulous work as historian and journalist, Barzini sets up an argument that never loses its own coherence.
In his pursuit of a reasonable answer, Barzini seldom abandons history as his privileged search field. Throughout the book he remains loyal to the idea that today’s Italians are the children of history. Therefore Italian psychology is brought back to big and small historical events, its main traits to the great men of the past, such as Mussolini and Cola di Rienzo. Starting from the Middle Ages, Barzini then focuses on the sack of Rome as the breakthrough for Italian history: the inception of a 400-year development that has shaped Italians’ pessimistic pragmatism towards life and politics. Social issues, such as the Mafia and the role of the family, are also considered in order to endow the reader with a clear image of life in Italy.
The book can be considered a transition from unconsciousness to consciousness, from childhood to maturity. Indeed the first chapters depict the mystified view of Italy tourists have developed throughout the centuries. This is a distorted or, at least, simplistic image of the country. As pages go by, the surface of things is abandoned and the reader becomes aware of the complexity concealed behind Italian beauties. The core of Barzini’s analysis eventually emerges: Italians’ contradictions would be the result of their perverse attraction towards power. A new Italy unfolds before the eyes of the reader. This is the country where power rules over all social relations and pragmatic individualism has irremediably weakened people’s trust in politics; this is the country of Mafia and Fascism indeed.
Though smart and entertaining, The Italians presents more than a limit in the eyes of an Italian. Firstly, a clear limit is Barzini’s own nationality. Writing about his countrymen his first duty would be to avoid stereotypes at any cost. Therefore, he can’t get away with it when he writes, for instance, that Italian women are the most desired in the world. This is an ingenuous commonplace (and not the only one). Another limit is that Barzini was born in 1908 and wrote his book in 1964. Therefore, the author often appears influenced by old-fashioned ideas that today would sound ridiculous. What’s more, forty years have passed since The Italians was written and radical transformations have deeply changed the Italians Barzini wanted to explain to foreign readers.
On the other hand, Barzini manages to raise questions that still obsess many Italians, giving voice to problems and facets of the Italian character that seem irremovable from their DNA. Barzini’s answer to the Italians’ dilemmas is with no doubt questionable. However, The Italians remains an extraordinary journey through the Italian peninsula, a precious document not only for curious foreigners but also for those Italians who can’t sort out why they are the way they are.