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Italy in the wake of coronavirus

Our writer travels from Berlin to Naples by train and discovers that the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst of the beautiful country.

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Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring, but complicated. – Beppe Severgnini

It is an early July morning in Berlin and I trundle my suitcase through the German capital’s cavernous, glass-and-steel main station. Outside the sun glints off the Reichstag and the Chancellery. Newspapers on the stands tell of wrangles over the EU’s recovery fund, a taboo-breaking proposal brokered by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron under which the union will issue common debt to help the continent’s poorer south through the coming economic slump. I put on my mask and board my train. It pulls out of the uppermost of the station’s five storeys of platforms, sweeping westwards through the once-divided city before speeding up across Brandenburg’s flat landscape of forests and farmland.

Germany flashes by: at Wolfsburg, two kilometres of low, brick, 1930s Volkswagen factories; at Fulda, advertising hoardings selling staycations (“Summer at home with Granit Gin”); at Frankfurt the European Central Bank skyscraper and cranes erecting new towers. Then the train veers south, speeding past chemical and oil refineries, and then vineyards and orchards parallel to the Rhine. Entering Switzerland requires no passport checks, but the border is visible in a different attitude to masks. Whereas in Germany almost everyone wears them, changing trains in Basel I notice that almost no one there does. “Is this platform for Luzern?” a man exhales into my face in guttural Swiss German. I’m too British to rebuke him.

My onward train criss-crosses the deep gorge of the turquoise Aare river at Bern before passing lakes, tunnels and chalets with window boxes abloom with flowers. Announcements come in German, English, Italian and French. Clouds shroud high mountain peaks. The train crosses icy torrents. Then it bursts out into Italy at Varzo and the valley of the Toce river unfurls itself below like a picnic blanket. We rush downhill, tracking the western shore of Lake Maggiore, the moon reflected brightly on the water in the midsummer twilight, before the final run through Milan’s sprawling suburbs.

Why am I taking this trip to Italy?

First, because it matters. The economic and political uncertainty now surrounding the EU’s third largest economy constitute its biggest internal risk. Second, because it has just been through a searing experience. Italy was not the only Western country to experience a large Covid-19 outbreak, but it was the first and for several weeks seemed to have been uniquely condemned to the virus’s scythe. Third, because I have a stake in the place; I have Italian family, have lived in the country and as a journalist have reported from it many times. And fourth, because Italy is complicated, contradictory and hard to understand from afar. So I have set out by train – the best way to see Europe – to capture the feel of Italy today, assess the state of its society, economy and politics and work out what the future might hold.

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Milano Centrale station was built as the triumphal gateway to Mussolini’s Italy – and it shows. Its walls are spangled with giant eagles, friezes of Roman military victories and busts of lions. Outside are skyscrapers and hoardings reminding one that this is modern Italy’s economic capital: Unicredit, Armani, Generali, Pirelli. Milan is the country’s most Germanic city. Orange trams clank along its streets, purposeful businesspeople stride about the place and traffic lights are treated as orders rather than suggestions. The hub of one of the richest and most productive industrial regions in Europe, the city also sums up the little-known strengths of the country’s economy. Italy exports more than it imports, its government generally takes in more tax than it spends and its people bear relatively little private debt.

Its problems are chronic rather than acute. Italy accumulated most of its public debt mountain (135 per cent of GDP) in the 1980s. Its almost nugatory growth over the past two decades reflects a self-enforcing cycle of low investment (not helped by eurozone rules), anti-competitive management practices (including a preference for family and private networks) and a brain drain of bright young Italians (including my two Milanese cousins, who both live and work in Britain).

To the right of the station is the Pirelli Tower, home to the regional government of Lombardy. Its president, Attilio Fontana of the right-populist Lega party, stands accused of a slow, complacent response that exposed the region to the worst of Covid-19. The outbreak started in tiny Codogno, south of Milan, then spread. It hit hardest in Bergamo, a city that will now be forever associated with long convoys of hearses, coffins lined up in churches waiting for funerals and hellish tales from medics forced to choose which patients to abandon and which to try to save.

During the crisis I kept in touch via Zoom with my relatives in Milan. “Living in Lombardy, you felt a strong sense of responsibility to follow the lockdown measures,” recalls my aunt, a school teacher. The ensuing restrictions were more severe than almost anywhere else in the West. Trips to the shops required an “auto-certification” form and all forms of outdoor exercise were banned. Late March – when the death rates announced every day at 6pm refused to sink – was a particularly grim time. But, she says, “people I know were generally positive and united by the extraordinary situation”.

In mid-April, as the virus was only starting to take hold elsewhere in Europe, the numbers finally started to fall. And today Milan is probably the Western city that has spent longest learning to live with the virus. Wary of a second wave, my aunt is preparing for what she calls “a very uncertain start to the next academic year”. Meanwhile, Milan’s corporate titans are readying themselves for an unprecedented economic crunch. The country’s furlough scheme runs out in October and Italy’s economy is expected to shrink more this year than that of any other EU member state.

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At Milano Centrale, commuters and long-distance passengers are now well drilled in the new procedures. A one-way system for passengers is marked out with barriers and arrows on the floor. Heading for my onward train I pass a temperature scanner before I reach the platform, where stewards dole out bags containing rubber gloves, headrest covers, antibacterial gel and masks. The carriages, too, are one-way; with an “entry” and an “exit” door. The casual, unfussed Italy of past visits feels like another age.

My train flies out of Milan, through graffitied underpasses, along the southbound Autostrada del Sole (motorway of the sun, a postwar employment project) and past the towns and factories of the fertile northern Italian plain. Church towers peek through the morning mist. After Bologna the terrain becomes hillier and, plunging through a series of tunnels, the train pulls into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station. I get off, store my suitcase and drink a just-barely-acceptable (as it is verging on late morning and this is Italy) cappuccino.

The station is named after the nearby church, built by the Dominican friars during the Black Death to show off their theatrical preachers and win what today might be called “audience share” from the more austere Franciscans. Boccaccio chose Santa Maria Novella as the opening setting of his Decameron, not least because his masterpiece was a collection of novellas and the man liked a pun. I hope to visit the church, but on arriving find it is still shut due to the pandemic. Only its tiny Cappella della Pura is open for prayer. I enter and spend a few moments on a pew marked with signs telling people to sit at opposite ends and to wear masks. Peering through the roped-off door into the main church, I try to imagine Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Lauretta, Emilia, Elissa and Fiammetta gathering there amid the horror and pain of the plague and deciding – on the arrival of three strapping fellows – to quit the city for the countryside.

Florence in July is usually a nightmare of tourist hoards. But this year the rattle of suitcase wheels on cobbles, the selfie sticks, the fleets of e-scooters careening though crowds are all absent. On the Piazza della Signoria the replica statue of Michelangelo’s David stands unusually unphotographed. It is not an entirely unpleasant way to see the city.

But to luxuriate in the calm feels distasteful. Florence lacks the usual clatter and hubbub of urban Italian life. At the grand Café Scudieri customers do not huddle together at the bar drinking their coffees, clapping each other on the back and exchanging banter. They stand separated, on dots marked on the floor. Out on the square there must be more than a hundred café tables open. Only four of them are occupied. I pass several hotels with their shutters down and chiuso (closed) written on the door. Last year 13 per cent of Italy’s GDP came from tourism. The empty streets and hotels may be nice for occasional visitors such as me, but they spell bankruptcy, unemployment and misery for Italians.

Nothing on my trip through the country stays with me more than the posters, all over Florence, with drawings of the city’s most magnificent sights, its palazzi, its cathedral and its gardens, glimpsed only partially through open windows. The message from the municipal government is: exercise caution or once again this is all you will see of il bel paese, the beautiful country.

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From the train to Rome the rich green of Italy’s north gives way to the drier hues of sunflowers, olive groves and wheat fields. Flame-like cypresses lick upwards on hills crowned with towns – Montepulciano, Chiusi and Orvieto – built like fortresses to protect them from the armies that swarmed across these historical borderlands between the pre-unification Papal State, centred on Rome, and the then foreign-dominated city states and principalities to the north. (Italy’s long history of foreign occupation helps to explain its love of the familiar and local, in a habit known as campanilismo, or loyalty to one’s nearest church tower.)

Arriving in Rome, I hop into a taxi and meet Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali think tank, at an upmarket trattoria close to the Pantheon. Masked waiters show us to our table and the menu is a QR-code scanned on one’s smartphone to avoid hand contact. I express admiration at Italy’s stringent anti-virus measures. “Official spaces – museums, train stations – are doing very well,” Nathalie tells me. “But people are getting complacent. Go out tonight and you’ll see young people not social distancing at all.”

As our cacio e pepe and roasted artichoke turn up, so does the politics. I ask her how Giuseppe Conte has handled the crisis. The prime minister had been a relatively little-known law professor until 2018, when he was drafted into the role by a new government of Lega and the heterodox-populist Five Star Movement (M5S). He was renewed in it last summer when that coalition collapsed and a wobbly looking new one of the M5S and the centre-left Democrats replaced it. “At the start of the pandemic the assumptions about Italy were confirmed,” Tocci says of a sense at home and abroad that once more the country was in chaos. “But the debate is now categorically different from what it was.”

Conte found his voice in the crisis, she argues, and the EU’s recovery fund is seen as an achievement for Italy. While support for the Lega has fallen, Conte’s approval ratings have risen. “He could last until the presidential election in 2022, and even until the next general election in 2023,” Tocci says.

Later that afternoon I test out the theory on Teresa Coratella of the European Council on Foreign Relations. We meet close to the Vatican Museum. Though a native Roman, Coratella has not visited it in decades and, with tourists now gone, has clinched a booking. She sees turmoil ahead. “Italy today feels a bit like it did the 1970s,” she begins, referring to the political unrest known as the anni di piombo, or years of lead, and advises me: “Watch Di Battista.” Alessandro Di Battista, the leader of the M5S’s radical wing, could split the party, take it out of government and force Conte to turn to Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party to make up the numbers in parliament. And in the long term? “Watch Meloni,” she says.


Vox populi: Italian opposition parties protest against the government in Rome on 4 July. Credit: Alessandra Benedetti – Corbis/Getty Images

The chance to do just that and see Georgia Meloni, leader of the hard-right Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) party, which had advanced in polls during the crisis, comes the very next day. Its already hot at 10am as Italy’s three main right-wing forces – Lega, Forza and the FdI – gather for a joint show of strength on the Piazza del Popolo. The three have combined to fire a salvo at Conte and his government for doing too little to relaunch the economy. They have a common slogan (“Together for an Italy of work”), their supporters mingle on socially distanced chairs and wave the same giant Italian flags to patriotic Italian tunes (and, rather improbably, the song “YMCA”). The speakers all have common targets: left-wing judges, red tape, migrants, “politically correct” anti-homophobia measures and an out-of-touch government without a plan for jobs.

But there is also rivalry at work. Before the rally begins Matteo Salvini, the Lega’s leader and Italy’s most prominent politician, appears on the stage to photograph the crowd; not to miss out, Meloni darts out in front of the podium to take a selfie with it, too. Both reel off applause lines.

“The most left-wing government in Italy hide in their villas but we [the right] are in the piazze among the people. We ARE the people!” bellows Meloni. “This is a government that would rather embrace communist and Muslim governments abroad than Bolsonaro and Netanyahu and Putin who are elected by their people!” rails Salvini.

Waspish, sleek Meloni styles herself as the herald of old-school competence and decency coming to rescue ordinary Italians from a wide-eyed government; burly, crumpled Salvini poses as part of a global insurgency and demands a New Deal-style wave of investment in bridges, tunnels, ports and motorways. Of the two, Meloni’s more small-c conservative rightism seems to have the momentum: “Georgia! Georgia! Georgia!” the crowd chants.

After the rally I stroll through Monteverde, where I lived as a student more than a decade ago. For all the turmoil of the intervening years – the eurozone crisis, the march of populism, the pandemic – it feels unchanged. This is the Rome of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s postwar films. The lower-middle- and middle-class Rome of clerical and administrative workers, small business owners, shop workers and bus drivers. The quiet Rome where kids kick balls around in squares and parks, where corner bakeries sell the sort of pastries available only in the most pretentious and overpriced parts of other cities, where families chatter across balconies.

It’s not a bad life, here. And yet, those squares and parks are litter-strewn and daubed with right- and left-wing graffiti, those shops seem not to have been renovated since the 1980s, and those families are more old than young. This is the sociological heart of Italy; insiders in the country’s system living comfortably but all too aware of their social insecurity, of their stagnant living standards and of the poor prospects for their few children. This is the Italy that Salvini and Meloni have in their sights.

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On the train out of Rome the landscape becomes more dramatic and southern. Thickly forested mountains rise up between the railway line and the coast, palm trees tower over abandoned building sites and, on the outskirts of Naples, ragged blocks of flats look close to falling down. News headlines tick across the screen in my carriage: EU finance ministers discuss recovery fund; nurses protest in Milan; record Covid-19 infections in Florida and Texas. At Napoli Centrale station an official points a temperature sensor at my forehead: “36, great!” Somehow it feels like a compliment.

Naples is everything they say about the place. It is grand, imperial and beautiful. And it is the obviously poor and chaotic capital of the Camorra mafia gang and (not unrelatedly) the phenomenon that the postwar sociologist Edward C Banfield called “amoral familism”. By this Banfield meant a preference for family and close networks so intense that it undermines societies as a whole. Nowhere is the trade-off between Italy’s love of the familiar and the effectiveness of its government more stark than in Naples. It can feel like the least lonely city in Europe: Neapolitans are loud and drenched in shared rites, traditions and superstitions. They live life on squares, balconies and the backs of scooters. But it can also feel like the most dysfunctional city in Europe: litter clogs the streets, roads are endlessly dug up and not finished, torn netting wraps around historic buildings to shield pedestrians from pieces dropping off.

The pandemic will accentuate this contrast. Though southern Italy was barely touched by Covid-19, Naples went into lockdown like the north (Neapolitans grumble that had the south been the epicentre, it alone would have been quarantined) and did so with verve and good humour. Families rallied together, traditional songs were sung from windows and, in a scene much-shared on social media, a DJ installed turntables on his balcony and led his street in a rendition of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

Yet it is here in Italy’s south that the long-term pain will be the greatest. About a third of Neapolitans work informally, so have not been covered by the furlough scheme. Whole families have been pushed into destitution. Italian TV news now often shows queues at soup kitchens and food banks in the city to illustrate the growth of the so-called nuovi poveri, or new poor.

I have come to Naples intending to visit two such food banks, but find both closed. Instead, for some historical perspective, I decide to follow the traces of the city’s devastating 1659 plague, which halved its population and began its long decline. Squares in the old centre still bear the baroque obelisks built to give thanks when their districts were finally freed of the outbreak. The most famous, in the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, is like a giant, ornate candlestick swirling and fluting upwards. I hike up towards the Castel Sant’Elmo looming over the city. The stairway is deserted, thick with weeds and broken glass, and dotted with rambling purple oleanders and little shrines set into the hillside. At the top my plans are once again foiled – the Museo di San Martino housing Domenico Gargiulo’s nightmarish painting of the city during the 1659 plague is still closed from the lockdown – but I am compensated with the best possible view of the city.

To the north, beyond the the tangle of electricity lines, TV antennas and the church towers, is the long ridge bearing the city’s grim housing estates (among them Le Vele, the setting of Roberto Saviano’s brilliant book Gomorrah). To the south are the cranes of the port – an important Nato naval facility and a reminder that Italy remains a significant military force – and beyond it the curve of the bay and the brooding, ominous form of Mount Vesuvius. But for the occasional, distinctively Italian nee-naw-nee-naaaaaw siren rising from the city, it is peaceful; birds singing in the gardens, seagulls wheeling overhead, Italian and EU flags fluttering on the top of the castle. The truth is obvious: this is a bel paese, blessed in its landscape, culture and traditions. But nowhere as much as Naples reveals the tension between those blessings, the weight of past and place, and the need to move on, change and renew.

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Later I talk to Lorenzo Marsili, a philosopher, who says that the pandemic epitomised the two sides of this story. “If you put three Italians together in a room you get four political parties and five governments,” he jokes. “But in an emergency Italians are good at pulling together. They join in and follow the rules. Even in the south the situation [during the lockdown] was under control.” Italian quirks contributed resilience, he adds. “Italians love their old people and old people play important roles in their families. So a virus targeting the old triggered a special alarm.” Asked to describe the national mood, however, he immediately replies: “despondency”.

Italy’s problems persist. The pandemic has accelerated existing trends. The EU’s recovery fund helps but is not the Rooseveltian transformation needed to solve the divergence between north and south. And the politics will only get worse: “When the furlough ends in October, the brutal cost of this will be driven home,” says Marsili. Amid soaring unemployment and foreclosures, that could be Salvini’s and Meloni’s moment: “particularly if Paragone’s party takes votes from the M5S”. Gianluigi Paragone, a former M5S MP, is planning to launch Italy’s first overtly anti-euro party. “That coalition would make Viktor Orbán look like a moderate Christian democrat.”

My long journey back north takes me back up to Rome, through Tuscany and then north-east across flat rice fields and over the Adige River into Verona, capital of the Veneto. My last stop is one final reminder of the complexities. The Veneto borders Lombardy and like it has a Lega regional president. But unlike Fontana in Milan, Luca Zaia in the Veneto defied Salvini, took the virus seriously and moved fast to roll out test and trace measuresHis region duly suffered 2,049 deaths, compared with 16,788 in Lombardy. Just as the virus proved that even the north of Italy can be dysfunctional, so it proved that even the Lega can govern seriously and competently.

I continue north. My train passes Lake Garda, then as the peaks get higher the names become bilingual – Bolzano/Bozen, Bressanone/Brixen, Fortezza/Franzensfeste – as we cross the former-Austrian southern chunk of the Tyrol given to Italy by the Allies at the end of the First World War.

I use the journey to read (finally) Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, which charts the fortunes of a grand Sicilian prince caught up in the transformations that led to Italian reunification. “For everything to stay the same, everything must change,” his nephew tells the nobleman – an entreaty that applies just as much to today’s Italy to that of the nascent Italian nation state of the 1860s.

My train continues past meadows where cows graze and tanned Austrians hike along the mountainsides, then past Innsbruck and down into Munich. There I board the ninth and final train of my journey, which speeds me past the long lines of cargo wagons loaded with Audi cars at Ingolstadt, through the deep valleys and dark forests on either side of the old east-west German border, across those flat, north German horizons of wind turbines and back home to Berlin.

A few days later, Lorenzo sends me a link. I open it to watch a clip of Paragone announcing the launch of his party “Italexit” on a talk show: “Has anyone ever had the possibility to approve the direction of the eurozone and the EU? Not in Italy!” One poll later that week puts it on 7 per cent.

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If you took the best of Italy’s engineering and design prowess, its generous and convivial society and its beauty, culture and historic depth, you would probably have the makings of the most successful country in the world. But each of these coins has a reverse side. Successful legacy industries can breed economic conservatism. A neighbourly and family-oriented society can breed parochialism and informal webs of influence that undermine official ones. Living in a beautiful country surrounded by the treasures of the past can breed nostalgia. Italy’s strengths are many and often understated. But there is undoubtedly something sepia-tinted about this country where – amid all the verve and drama, personal and political – there has been too little progress in too many areas over recent decades.

Many in Italy agree that the pandemic has brought out much of the best and some of the worst in their country. But few predict that it will greatly change its direction, other than to accelerate it on an existing course. That assumption may be true. Or it may be fatalism. As it is not clear which, one might as well challenge it.

That is partly a job for Europe as a whole. Italy in many ways is Europe. It is the country to which the European project traces more of its roots than any other, where the EU was born and where many trends that have since swept the continent (not least right-wing populism) first took hold. Its cultural import meant it was ushered into the eurozone in 1999 without meeting all the necessary requirements. And while the euro is not the root cause of the country’s stagnation, Brussels, Berlin and Paris have done too little to complete the monetary union with the fiscal architecture needed to enable Italy to advance within it.

Ultimately, however, it falls to Italians to do battle with their own monsters. That means finding the vigour to ensure that the EU’s recovery plan, which was finally agreed on 21 July, is now put to good use and thus defy northern stereotypes about Italy’s ability to use such support wisely. It means finding the generosity of spirit to avoid scapegoating and culture wars that detract from the country’s problems. It means having the sprezzatura to escape from the despondency that plays too central a role in the country’s mentality. Even if it is just to preserve the very many good things that are still true about Italy – for those things to “stay the same” in Lampedusa’s formulation – change must come to il bel paese

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special