We hear, for example, that Italians are ‘fatalistic’ and ‘naturally theatrical’, that they possess an ‘instinctive distaste for radical change’ and that there is a ‘very Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust’. These are very broad brush strokes but, to be fair, Hooper’s book questions stereotypes more frequently than it regurgitates them. It is also brimful of fascinating tales and is written with great affection.
Hooper clearly knows Italy very well and he suggests a number of cultural paradoxes or tensions. Italians are depicted as prizing their individuality but they also adore communal initiatives: they ‘prefer to go their own way, but they often end up in the same place’. They object to laws they find unpalatable but have a habit of following informal social conventions. The fundamentals of the national psyche, whatever that term denotes, also come under scrutiny.
Many Italians are extremely proud of the peninsula’s past – not least the Roman era and the Renaissance. This is understandable: ‘what other people of comparable numbers can lay claim to such an extraordinary catalogue of achievements?’ The roster of spectacular painters, architects, and writers is extensive. At the same time, however, what we now refer to as Italy has endured a tumultuous history, littered with invaders and occupiers.
This produced some positive results, not least Italy’s linguistic and culinary diversity, but, according to Hooper, we should not ignore a more complex legacy. ‘Resentment’ and ‘vulnerability’ apparently coexist with self-confidence, and an ‘ambiguous view of foreigners’ prevails. We are also informed that memories of earlier, uninvited disruptions account for later resistance to innovation. However hot it gets, Italians are reluctant to invest in air-conditioning and sales of dishwashers are surprisingly low. Even the traditional Italian way of playing football is notched up to bred-in-the-bone caution, though this has begun to change.
In fact, ‘change’ is a word that crops up frequently and, when comparing myth with reality, Hooper makes some intriguing points. A prime example is the Italian passion for family. It still remains an ideal, but the sands have shifted. Divorce is now quite common, the youngsters don’t get married when they fall in love, and non-conventional family units can be found in most places.
Hooper also looks at the puzzling issue of Italian national identity. There is a long-standing notion that ‘Italy’ doesn’t really exist and that it is a cobbled-together geopolitical construct. The old geographical borders and boundaries still play a part (mountain ranges, island mentalities, and so forth) and regional diversity is not hard to spot but, as Hooper opines, diversity is not the same thing as disunity. If you’ve ever shared a pub with a random selection of Italian football fans when their national team is playing you’ll know that Venetians, Sicilians, and Romans can make common cause.
Hooper is neither a sociologist nor an anthropologist so he can be forgiven for not playing by the rigorous interpretative rules that define these disciplines. He simply tells it as he sees it through a journalistic eye. The results, while sometimes reductive, can be very amusing. His Italy is a place where looks count for a great deal. This, we are told, is why shop assistants expend an absurd amount of energy gift-wrapping the humblest present, and why Italian newspapers devote countless column inches to discussing the sartorial calibre of political candidates.
Hooper’s book is not an uncritical love letter to Italy and it takes the country’s flaws to task. Hooper is no fan of unwieldy bureaucracy or the lunacies of political culture, and he provides some haunting sentences on how the disabled are frequently kept out of sight.
He still likes the place, however. If you want to know why so many Italians wear sunglasses even when it isn’t very sunny, or why the nation has witnessed a recent boom in gambling then this is the book for you. A random panel of Italians would have a better chance of determining whether his analysis is accurate but, with caveats reiterated, this Englishman was certainly entertained.
THE ITALIANS by John Hooper, Allen Lane, £20 (hb)/£11.99 (eBook)
This story was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine