The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945 by John Foot - review by Donald Sassoon

Donald Sassoon

La Dolce Vita?

The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945


Bloomsbury 496pp £25 order from our bookshop

The Italian elections of 4 March 2018 came too late to be included in John Foot’s The Archipelago, his breathless and entertaining (or despairing) voyage through postwar Italy. The results would have increased his despair but the substance of the book would have remained the same. The centre-left Democratic Party, led by the hapless Matteo Renzi, who boasted he would ‘scrap’ (rottamare) all that was old in Italian politics, particularly in his own party, was utterly routed, gaining only 19 per cent of the popular vote. Renzi found his own way onto the scrapheap, and not for the first time: in December 2016, when prime minister, he held a referendum on constitutional reform, threatening to resign if he lost. He lost by a staggering 60 per cent to 40 per cent, a defeat that makes David Cameron look clever.

Technically, the Berlusconi-led right-wing alliance ‘won’ the 2018 election, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for Berlusconi, since, within his coalition, the far-right Eurosceptic and xenophobic Lega emerged as the strongest party. Berlusconi is now moribund. The Lega used to call itself the Lega Nord, but it has dropped the ‘Nord’, along with the anti-southern bile it once spewed, hoping to gather southern votes in a holy alliance against Muslims, refugees and immigrants. The largest single Italian party is now the Movimento Cinque Stelle. Like Emmanuel Macron in France, it claims to be ‘neither left nor right’. In the European Parliament, however, the Movimento Cinque Stelle’s MEPs know exactly where to sit: in the group that includes UKIP, Alternative für Deutschland and other right-wing forces. The Movimento Cinque Stelle, often described as ‘populist’, was founded as recently as 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo. In the 2013 election it won 25.5 per cent of votes, becoming Italy’s second largest party, and soon gained the mayoralties of Rome and Turin. This March it won almost 32 per cent of the vote.

Once upon a time – that is, in 1945 – Italy was more agrarian than industrial, more Catholic than secular, more a country of emigrants than of immigrants. Then, gradually, things changed, as they did everywhere. Foot punctiliously describes the events, great and small, that contributed to these changes, but eschews comparisons. It is as if the rest of Europe did not exist. Thus he notes that in 1946 only twenty-one women were elected to the Italian Constituent Assembly – but he should also note that only twenty-four women were then in the House of Commons.

Foot explains how, in 1945, the Roman Catholic Church, for the first time in the history of Italy since its unification, found itself at the centre of daily politics, warning Italian voters that ‘God can see you in the secret of the election booth’ and excommunicating all communists. The Church controlled newspapers, radio stations, sports clubs, banks, publishing houses, insurance companies and trade unions. There were 250,000 bishops, priests, nuns and monks. Not surprisingly, the party the Church supported, Christian Democracy, remained in power from 1945 to the beginning of the 1990s. Yet the Communist Party remained consistently strong, attaining one-third of the vote in 1984. So why were the Christian Democrats, in spite of the support of the Church, its dealings with the Mafia and its control of the state machine and the jobs that went with it, never able to obtain an overall majority and always forced into coalitions? Foot does not attempt to answer this. While remaining balanced and judicious and giving everyone their due, he is generally reluctant to offer an analysis.

The book is, nevertheless, a pleasure to read. It is not just about politics. It is also full of characters, vignettes and interesting facts. Foot tells us about Fausto Coppi, the cycling champion, as well as the remarkable novelist Primo Levi and the return of the celebrated Arturo Toscanini to conduct the orchestra at La Scala. He tells us about Italy’s renowned film directors, such as Visconti and Rossellini, though says little about the Italian film industry, the largest in Europe during the 1950s, which produced dozens of unmemorable films marginally better than the British Carry On series (not a major feat). He tells us about famous pop singers, such as Domenico Modugno (co-author of ‘Volare’), but says little about the music industry or the celebrated singers of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Claudio Villa, who won the San Remo Festival Award four times. He tells us about Dario Fo but says little about the actors worshipped by ordinary Italians, such as Alberto Sordi. He is very good on football and cycling, having written a history of these sports in Italy.

Foot notes the lack of historical awareness in Italy of the misdeeds of fascism. Gaetano Azzariti, former head of the Race Commission, the Fascist body that was charged with implementing anti-Semitic legislation, turned up as president of the newly established Constitutional Court in 1957, his past forgotten or forgiven. This could not have happened in Germany. But he also gives accounts of the considerable anti-Fascist protest movements and the students’ and workers’ struggles of 1969 (the ‘Hot Autumn’) and 1970, and the successful battles for the legalisation of divorce and abortion, though he is reluctant to examine why such radicalism evaporated. The reader may also wonder why there is so little about the economy when Italy, having emerged wrecked from the war, today has the ninth largest GDP in the world. Perhaps it’s because the numerous anecdotes he relates shine light on Italian society, while economics can sometimes be a little boring.

With great skill, Foot narrates the rise of consumerism, the impact of television and of television personalities, and Italy’s failure to protect its environment while remaining ‘one of the most beautiful countries in the world’. He lucidly charts the decline of trust in the Italian political system after the Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’) scandals, the rise of Berlusconi (Italy’s Trump avant la lettre), including his prosecution for tax evasion and his sex scandals (the famous ‘bunga bunga’ parties) and his total inability to reform the Italian political system, the arrival of immigrants from Africa, the spread of racism, the brain drain and the enduring strength of the Mafia. He concludes by noting that a ‘time traveller would struggle to understand what had happened’ since 1945. The book tells us what happened, though not why. The Italian archipelago is still in flux and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future.

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