“In this consummate portrait of the Italian people, bestselling author, publisher, journalist, and politician Luigi Barzini delves deeply into the Italian national character, discovering both its great qualities and its imperfections. Barzini is startlingly frank as he examines ‘the two Italies:’ the one that created and nurtured such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino, and Leonardo da Vinci; the other, feeble and prone to catastrophe, backward in political action if not in thought, ‘invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.’ Deeply ambivalent, Barzini approaches his task with a combination of love, hate, disillusion, and affectionate paternalism, resulting in a completely original, thoughtful, and probing picture of his countrymen.”
This is how The Italians, a 352-pages-long volume published for the first time in 1964, was presented. The book was, for many Anglophone readers, the first introduction to Italian culture and life and The New Yorker reviewed it this way: “Searching into every corner of Italian life and scrutinizing every cliché concerning it, from the charm of the people (an illusion, he maintains) to the consolation of la Dolce Vita (another one), Mr. Barzini has written an invaluable and astringent guidebook to his country.” Its Penguin edition, on the other hand, presented it with these words: “The ‘fatal charm of Italy’ has held Lord Byron and millions of tourists ever since in its spell. Yet, beneath ‘the brilliant and vivacious surface,’ what are the realities of Italian life? Few writers have ever painted a portrait of their compatriots as crisp, frank and fearless as Luigi Barzini’s. Cutting through the familiar clichés, he instructs us with a cascade of anecdotes and provides a marvellous guided tour through centuries of history. He examines Machiavelli and Mussolini, popes, pilgrims and prostitutes, cliques and conspiracies, Casanova and the crippling power of the Church. Yet alongside the Baroque exuberance and spectacular display, the love of life and the life of love, he also shows us a divided nation, injustice, ignorance, poverty and fear. All this is Italy, a country of dazzling achievement and an uncanny aptitude for getting round problems; both its virtues and its vices are celebrated in this sparkling book.”
Every year, the fall brings us the Italian Heritage Month, an occasion to reflect upon our cultural heritage. Leafing through The Italians, a portrait of our nation, it’s an invitation to take a closer look at our “cultural DNA.” Incidentally, its author, Luigi Barzini, special correspondent for the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, was born in 1908, just like L’Italo-Americano.
We are not going to reveal too much about the suggestive magic of Barzini’s book, where our history and our culture are presented in a way bound to cause lively discussion. Is it a portrait or a caricature? Is it satire or a moral tale? Is it still relevant today? Was it believable back then? Did Barzini go too far? How much did we change? How did Barzini’s own personal views affect his portrayal and perception of his people?
However, the point isn’t really understanding whether Barzini was right or wrong. Every opinion, never mind who voices it, is a consequence of the times in which it emerged, of those in which it is heard or read, and of personal views.
The Italians, undoubtedly, had several merits: it made us more aware of how we are and stressed the importance of self-analysis and self-knowledge; it made us realize the significance of doing some soul-searching, both individually and collectively, to understand who we are, how we present ourselves to the world and what we want and do not want to be.
Today, almost sixty years later, we certainly understand a lot more and are ready to recognize undeniable truths as well as all those twists and turns in our identity that are a product of the historical times when they appeared. But what counts the most is that, when reading Barzini’s work, we ask questions about ourselves, about who we are as Italians.
At the same time, every Italian should read The Italians independently, to challenge their own beliefs and stereotypes about themselves and the Italian community, but also to stand face-to-face with what others say about them, because how they are pictured – in cinema, for instance – is often very different from how we know, think of and describe them.
As interesting as it may be, we shouldn’t forget that Barzini’s book represents one single point of view. Some agree with it, others don’t.
Identity is a matter of perspective, perceptions, experience. What truly counts is asking ourselves how we feel about the way we define and describe ourselves as Italians, about how we are identified by others.
Dealing with how we feel and think about ourselves, with how we understand ourselves as Italians, is key, just like it is to reflect on how we present ourselves to the world, through “our own” Italian dimension. Reading and talking about us is healthy, it’s good for us all.
Dear readers, happy Italian Heritage Month!