Report from Rome

Paul Arpaia

What Comes Around, Goes Around

Editor’s Note: History Department professor Paul Arpaia is only the second IUP faculty member to win the Rome Prize. (Daniel Perlongo of the Music Department was a Rome Prize winner in both 1970 and 1971 in musical composition.) Arpaia is filing dispatches to IUP Magazine throughout his year at the Academy. He sent this one in May.

There’s an uneasiness that seems palpable in Italy today. There has been a garbage crisis in Naples that has been going on for years and has become critical in the past year with trash literally piling up everywhere.

(My Neapolitan friends are too embarrassed to have me come visit, and they come to Rome instead.) Prices, especially food and gas, are going through the roof. Politicians cite official statistics to argue that inflation is growing at a slower rate than what is perceived, but no one is buying it.

In a nation of savers, savings are at an alltime record low, and credit is becoming more and more the only way to keep up the lifestyle Italians have come to expect. Little hope remains for those in their forties and younger to find the stable jobs for life that were once a staple in Italy. Emigration now appears to be the best way to find the professional security that can make settling down and raising a family possible.

At the same time, Italians feel overwhelmed by immigration. Italy has a relatively small immigrant community (both compared to the Italian population and in the overall number of immigrants), but Italians are becoming increasingly xenophobic, especially toward the 270,000 Romanians and thousands of Rom (whom Americans call Gypsies), who are more difficult to count.

Despite a steady decline in violence, many Italians feel increasingly afraid of crime, and they point to recent high-profile cases of hit-and-run accidents and rape involving immigrants to make their point. The Italian crime syndicates, the Mafia, the Camorra, the ’Ndrangheta, and the Sacra Corona Unita (to name just the four major organizations), seem to be more entrenched than ever. Although efforts to clean up politics have borne fruit, everyone seems to think that anyone from the political classes has ties to the mob. Meanwhile, after the initial shock, the number of gangland murders seems now part of the routine, much as the U.S. urban murder rates give little pause to Americans anymore. There had been much hope that Italy’s entry into the European Union and the euro zone would have resolved, if not solved, these problems. But, it seems apparent that even these hopes have been dashed. A malaise has gripped the country.

Given the climate, it was not surprising that the April 2008 elections were won—and won handily—by Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, which played on fear. Two real winners emerged: the Lombard League, a populist northern movement that blames all that it perceives wrong in the world on foreigners and on Italians from Tuscany on south, and the National Alliance, a neo-Fascist party that plays an all-too-familiar tune. Although the two parties had been part of Berlusconi’s successful coalitions two times before, their sustained and considerable strength in the current coalition confirms their position as “respectable” mainstream parties. Indeed, as Berlusconi campaigned to take power again, he was clearly moving ever closer to the extreme right. Just before the elections, he announced that his own party, Forza Italia (Let’s go, Italy), and the National Alliance were merging. (The Lombard League declined the offer. It is too tied to the northernmost provinces of Italy to join the new, nationally based, right-wing party, but it remains an appendage.)

With the challenges of increased globalization, unrest in the Middle East, the emergence of China as a superpower, and economic problems in the U.S., the Italian center has not held, and the right has become the far-right; or the far-right has become the right. Either way, it is a disturbing development for a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe to contemplate.

With the right playing on fears in the recent April elections and political pundits and pollsters pontificating that the race was too close to call (sound familiar?), the centerleft was not alone in being oblivious to what those of us with more prescience could see: the center-left and the left were about to be defeated. The newly created Italian Democratic Party (an obvious attempt at aping American politics, typical of so much of what the Italian center-left seems to do these days) made a barely respectable showing. What plays in Peoria does not play here.

Further to the left, the communist and socialist parties were trounced. Their base of working-class Italians had defected either to the far-right or center-left. Now, for the first time since Mussolini outlawed the Socialist and Communist parties in 1925, neither has any representation in parliament.

There were also surprises in several mayoral elections, most notably Rome. For the first time since Mussolini, the Eternal City has a Fascist mayor. Yes, that’s right: a Fascist mayor! I still find it hard to believe that I saw his victorious supporters give the “Roman salute” (the raised right hand extended—a gesture Hitler borrowed, too) at the victory celebration on the public square designed by Michelangelo, outside city hall.

So what do I make of all this? As I begin the last leg of my yearlong tenure at the American Academy in Rome, I cannot help but think that we would be better off if we had come to terms with the past. Let me be clear. I do not think that Italy will return to a Mussolini-like government, sponsoring right-wing terrorism in Europe (as it did in France,Yugoslavia, and Spain), invading smaller countries (as it did in Ethiopia, Albania,Yugoslavia, and Greece), or declaring war against the United States (as it did in World War II).

I certainly do not think anything of the sort is on the minds of the once and future right. Rest assured that for Americans, the newly configured right might still prove the unwavering and unquestioning ally it was when Berlusconi last held power in 2006. Still, at what cost? It is disconcerting to pick up the newspaper these days and read how the government has begun carrying out “blitzes” against Romanian and Rom communities, has decided to make clandestine immigration a crime, and has increasingly begun to use the European Union and so-called Islamic terrorism as whipping boys.

In Naples, a mob led raids on Rom settlements, forcing the inhabitants to flee. They remain under police protection, and I fear that this type of mob mentality, emboldened by the new government’s rhetoric against foreigners, may not be so easily contained in the future. And so, the Rom are once again among the first victims of the right, and few seem to take notice.

Romanian immigrants, another target of the right’s furor, are protected to a certain extent by their country’s inclusion in the European Union. The Romanian president has “invited” Italy not to target the Romanians. Still, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be Romanian in Italy. And, I fear for them and especially for our beloved Gabriele, the barista at the American Academy. Will Italians perceive in time that their country’s problems are much deeper and the solutions much more painful than what the new right proclaims?

I will surely come back to Italy and to Rome often. If nothing else, my research leads back to Rome. At the end of this month, I am to be inducted into the Society of Fellows of the American Academy, which assures me the fellowship of leading American artists, musicians, and scholars for life. But, I wonder, to what Italy and to what Rome will I return someday? And, by extension, I wonder to what America will I return?

It has indeed been an interesting year. I look forward to returning to my wife in New York City and to my students and colleagues in the green vales of southwestern Pennsylvania. I am glad to have been and to have returned.