From Dante to Ferrante – the inevitable Italianisation of the world

Presented in Times New Roman font, in italics.

From Dante to Ferrante – the inevitable Italianisation of the world

Italian voters will go to the polls on Sunday in what was Italy’s most comprehensive constitutional referendum ever. Who cares, you might say. And yet I warn you, watch out for what happens in Italy, it often ends up affecting the rest of the world.

I write this in italicised type because this is what this piece is all about, really. The Italianisation of the world. Sure, now that a Punjabi-American, Nikki Haley, the youngest governor in the United States, has become the first woman appointee in the Donald Trump administration, now that you have your Satya Nadella as chief executive officer of Microsoft, and your Sundar Pichai as CEO of Google, plus a few key Indians or Indian-Americans in pivotal spots, you may start to think India is actually making an impact in the world.

We, Italians, have been there before. Just think of the Italianisation of the world. Make no mistake, the Roman empire was there before all other Western empires – all copy cats of our Marc Aurelios, our Caesars. Where did you think the word Kaiser came from?

And let’s look at literature: Dante Alighieri came way before Shakespeare. By the way, it’s been 90 years since some Italian intellectuals have been trying to tell the world that the reason his sonnets and plays are so often set in Italy and reveal such deep knowledge of our country is because William Shakespeare is a pseudonym for Guglielmo Scrollalanza. He was Italian. Look it up.

I won’t even mention the obvious contribution to the Renaissance. Too easy. Let’s slide straight to the 1800s, after reminding you that Christopher Columbus was indeed from Genova and that words like ciao and ghetto are Venetian, just like Marco Polo, Giangiacomo Casanova and Romeo Montecchi (who died for Juliet). Global icons of exploration, fornication and hopeless love.

Mazzini and Savarkar

Italy is a political laboratory of the future. Giuseppe Mazzini, the main ideologue of the movement leading to the unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, has changed the world in many ways, although this is gravely under reported. His ideas of a unified people guided by a sort of spirituality, although not necessarily a religion, are explained in detail in the upcoming Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra (Juggernaut 2017). Mazzini had a deep and wide impact on Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Yes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favourite inspiration. So forget about Sonia Gandhi, the Italianisation of India started way before her and continues through the Bharatiya Janata Party. Asian, African and Arab nationalisms altogether, Mishra argues, have been deeply influenced by the Italian Mazzini. Alas, as he explains with detailed examples, the adventurous and rambunctious Fascist bard Gabriele D’Annunzio has also inspired contemporary terrorists everywhere.

Thanks to our murderous creativity and later to Italian-American Francis Ford Coppola (and Italian-Americans Al Pacino and Robert De Niro), mafia has been the archetype of international organised crime since it was born in Sicily, with the unification of Italy, until today.

Al Pacino in The Godfather.
Al Pacino in The Godfather.

Let’s not even mention pasta and Neapolitan pizza and their global penetration into the stomachs of the world. French cuisine, you say? Quel shock! It comes from Italy as well. Although French food historians have been busy trying to debunk this fact, Catherine De’ Medici, sent to marry Henri II at the court of Francis I, imposed as a pre-condition bringing to Paris her eight chefs, who taught those half-baked potato-eaters what real food is. Anyway, Leonardo Da Vinci had already been to that court to freshen up the interior decoration. Just saying.

Politics and media

Flash forward to the 20th century. Who do you think Hitler was copying while setting up his racist, anti-semitic, bloody Third Reich? But our very own Benito Mussolini, of course. Fascism is back in vogue in the world. Who invented it? Some Italians imitating ancient Romans.

Quiz: who do you think came first, Marine Le Pen or the Lega Nord? And, hey, we’ve had an anti-European Union clown (I don’t mean that as an insult, that is Beppe Grillo’s lucrative profession) gathering 20% of the vote for the 5 Star Movement way before Brexit had its ill-tempered Nigel Farage. But Machiavelli is also one of our Made in Italy exports, after all.

Scroll down to the 21st century. Who’s had a dubious chauvinist billionaire with a loud mouth in power first? Italy or the US? Bunga-Bunga Berlusconi officially denied similarities with Donald Trump saying, “Hey, I’m not a conservative.” And he is technically right. But it is very difficult not to see the comparison.

Before Donald Trump, there was Italy's Bunga-Bunga Silvio Berlusconi. (Photo: Reuters)
Before Donald Trump, there was Italy’s Bunga-Bunga Silvio Berlusconi. (Photo: Reuters)

One advice I could give America and the world, having lived in Berlusconi’s Italy, is to not follow the pied piper, don’t let him entertain you, the message within the laughter is deadly and not in your interest.

Media should be careful and self-restrained. But, of course, it is impossible to resist. The system is set up so as to make the American Berlusconi impossible not to talk about.

And where did this system, capitalism, start anyway? Well, in the pioneering banking era of the De’ Medici family in Florence. Yes, in Italy.

But speaking of capitalism and media, there you have another proof of my theory: Italian media has always been embarrassingly biased. When I signed my contract with the newspaper la Repubblica decades ago, it spelled out that the editorial line was founded on the ideals of the democratic left. No secret there. In Italy, you read a newspaper, website or watch a specific TV channel only to reconfirm your opinions, not to get the facts. Facts are distorted by opinion anyway, so let’s just stick to your bias. Now that not only Fox, but also CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times have largely given up on the idea of fairness in reporting, I deduce the Italianisation of media has reached globally. Communists read “il manifesto,” if you’re nostalgic for the good ol’ days of Benito, you read “Libero”.

Arnab Goswami, you say? We’ve had Giuliano Ferrara (a former Berlusconi minister at one point) since the 1980s in Italian TV. Ferrara built a political and media empire for himself out of being loud and overpowering guests with his own slant.

Okay, my theory is not that we’re the best influence, but that Italy is an influence nonetheless.

Yes, of course, I wish that everyone, as it is beginning to happen, just read our poet-philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, or rediscovered the aesthetic theories of Benedetto Croce, or read up on Antonio Gramsci or Pier Paolo Pasolini, and brought up the Venetian justice system or Venetian architect Palladio and painter Titian, when thinking of Italy. Or that people remembered our recently departed Umberto Eco, our immortal Italo Calvino along with the popular Elena Ferrante.

But this is what’s on the menu, in this Italian restaurant. The bad and the good. Written, of course, in a Times New Roman font.