This book’s index is rather depressing. Silvio Berlusconi takes up three columns, and his entries are divided into almost 80 sub-sections. Happily, John Foot makes it clear that there is more to the history of post-war Italy than ludicrous politicians. Alongside the tensions and tragedies there have been periods of extraordinary creativity and innovation: dynamism as well as division. He rejects any ‘master narrative’, challenges stereotypes, and argues that Italy should not be dismissed as a nation trapped between the currents of tradition and modernity.
Foot opens with the chaos of the post-war era. Italy is ‘a country on its knees, lacerated by violence and an unprecedented crime wave,’ with its ‘basic institutions… on the verge of collapse.’ Early signs of recovery and reconstruction were not encouraging. Bitter political rivalries between left, centre and right deepened, far too many of the old guard remained in positions of influence, and new constitutional arrangements were far from ideal. It made sense to distance the country from its fascist past, but inclusivity was taken to extremes through the system of proportional representation and an endless run of coalition governments (many of them alarmingly short-lived) was set in motion. People even chose their sporting heroes according to their political proclivities.
Then, during the 1950s and early 1960s, something remarkable happened: il Boom, as the Italians termed it. Economic change was not an unalloyed success. Many rural areas suffered the ravages of depopulation, swapping the open field for the factory floor was not always a wise career move, and while the increasingly packed roads were wonderful for car companies, they were terrible for the environment. Still, the transformation was momentous (Turin’s citizenry increased by 42 per cent over the course of the 1950s) and the nation had a spring in its step.
It decided to walk in contradictory directions over the following two decades. Many kinds of reform were embraced from the late 1960s into the 1970s: in education, prisons, psychological medicine, divorce, abortion, and much else. But these were also the ‘lead years’. Bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and the antics of armed political groups grabbed the headlines with appalling frequency. Italy could boast of its progress, but an attempted political coup still seemed like a good idea to some neo-fascists in 1970 and a cholera epidemic could still strike Naples in 1973.
The industrial roller-coaster began to run out of steam by the 1980s which posed problems for the nation’s leaders. Unfortunately, many political parties were mired in corruption and ‘factions argued not over ideology or even policy, but rather about the distribution of funds.’ All of which sounds rather bleak, but during this era artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers and satirists found rich outlets for their creativity. Better yet, by the early 1990s it was decided that something had to be done about the nation’s political woes. Corruption was exposed and an endless stream of politicians were taken to task.
Not that what came next was especially cheering. Odd new parties, such as the Lega Nord, surfaced and then the man who had made his first fortune during Milan’s 1960s property boom strode on to the stage. Foot is tough on Berlusconi, but what choice does he have? The mystery of Berlusconi’s enduring popularity, and his ability to bounce back from scandal and defeat, is hard to fathom. Perhaps the resilience came down to the banality of his agenda: seeking ‘power to make himself more powerful’.
Foot has produced a wonderfully rich portrait of a country he knows well. His study is, as he says, ‘eclectic’ but this only reflects the kaleidoscopic nature of Italy’s recent history. You’ll learn a great deal about the ups and downs of the mafia, Italy’s confused relationship with its immigrant population and, if you like football, you’re in for a treat. Italy has been referred to as a ‘historical mistake’: a 19th century concoction that was destined to struggle. Well, struggle it has, but for all the political and cultural storms (whether devastating or of the teacup variety), in many ways the nation might better be seen as a rather happy accident.