Italy is now a mental space. A media construct. Gone the generous piazzas and Renaissance facades, gone the busy cafés, the passeggiata and the aperitivo. Drones watch over the world we have abandoned. Italy is an individual shut up in a room with the urgent voice of the news bulletin. Excited mind, frustrated body. Millions of individuals. Or families around televisions. Any event is necessarily a media event.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte speaks to the nation late at night from his personal Facebook page: Italy is the admiration of the world; we are at war; no one will be left alone. The Pope prays from a vast emptiness outside St Peter’s; no one can recall what he said, but the image was extraordinary. Every evening at six, the day’s body count: still increasing, but increasing less. Invitations to alarm. Invitations to hope. Invitations to sing the national anthem on your balcony.
I write from day 23 of total lockdown. Sometimes it seems the only way to reconnect with fellow human beings would be to fall ill and get taken to hospital, where the real drama is unfolding, unseen. Except our overriding civic duty is precisely not to fall ill. Because very likely there would not be a bed anyway. Only one in ten of the dead in Bergamo made it to intensive care. Bergamo is 35 miles from our flat in Milan. We are in suspended animation until such time as it will be safe to be sick.
Every new situation is an opportunity for national character to assert itself. My partner and I are poring over the Modulo di Autocertificazione – the document that allows us to go outside. We must download this from the net, print it, fill it out and carry it with us each time we leave the house. To show to the police. Or the army. Since the first version came out on 10 March it has been altered four times, becoming progressively more complex. Specific commas of specific laws are diligently cited. ARTICLES 46 AND 47 OF PRESIDENTIAL DECREE No. 445/2000. We must write down our ID card number, where and when it was issued. Phone number. Residency. Domicile. We must confirm that we are aware of all anti-virus provisions in whatever region we are moving in. And tick off from a list of possible motives for being on the street. “Health”, “Proved work necessity”.
But who says what’s proved and what isn’t? Can I go to the post office to post a contract? The genius of bureaucracy is always to create anxiety and insecurity. What if the printer fails? Or you don’t have a printer? Apparently the police will give you a form. So why are we bothering? Fines range from 200 to 5,000 euros. Neighbours spy from balconies. Masked as bandits, we avoid the lift and sniff the air of disinfected streets.
As inevitable as the bureaucracy is the wonderful humour. In tweets. “Italian Encyclopaedia of Self Certification. Vol II.” “Franz Kafka: The Self Certification.” “Italy Requests Emergency Toner Aid from Russia.” A photo shows two Carabinieri lying in wait by the roadside with a laser printer and reams of paper.
Locked down, we travel in our dreams. My partner tells me she went to a bookshop and bought a novel with an orange cover. By Elsa Morante. I was in Piazza Abbiategrasso, shackled to a machine that wouldn’t let me go where I wanted, a sort of cross between a vacuum cleaner and a Dalek. After breakfast we work. Writing and translating at the same table. Around nine, from upstairs, comes the thumping of young feet. A four-year-old boy runs up and down the floor, hour after hour. All day. There is no question of complaining. What else can he do?
Ironically, I am writing about walking. In 1849 when the Roman Republic surrendered to French besiegers, Garibaldi led 4,000 men out of the city at night and zigzagged north through the country, evading French and Austrian armies, trying to make it to Venice. Last summer we did the same walk: 400 miles on foot. Day by day, I stare at photos I took then, of this beautiful country where I have lived for 40 years. I think of the freedom of our walking, of the issues in the air in 1849 – patriotism, self-determination – and in 2019 – immigration, sovereignty – and I listen to the thumping of the young feet above me and imagine the whole of Italy, the whole of Europe, running back and forth between four walls, towards the economic disaster that awaits us.
In the emergency we are living through, all kinds of incongruities are forgivable. You can go to the tobacconist’s for cigarettes, but you cannot go for a run. Cigarettes are responsible for 80,000 deaths a year in Italy. A man reports a neighbour to the police for running and the culprit takes a hammer to the informer’s car. Inevitable. Yet it’s hard to condone choral sanctimoniousness.
Journalist after journalist laments our unpreparedness, our lax, easy lives, our carelessness with the environment, our never having lived through a war. As if epidemics hadn’t existed before consumerism and greenhouse gases. And they call for order, for discipline. We will never be the same again, they promise. We will be more united as a nation. We will love our families more. Fortunately there is always someone who hits back. “Not true,” writes Viviana Viviani in the magazine Pangea. “The anxieties will soon pass, likewise the fear of being close to others, and even that horrible desire for dictatorship, that briefly overtook us.”
I’m not sure I agree entirely, but we all know what desire she is talking about. We’ve all felt this urge, in the emergency, to control and punish others. “Madness is rare in individuals,” Nietzsche advised, “but in… nations, and ages, it is the rule.” Which is why, however much I love this country, and am heartened by its newfound unity, it seems important not to fall in thrall to the media’s rhetoric of war and discipline. We remember that Churchill much admired the unity and discipline one leader inspired in Italy in the 1920s.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021