Rome or Death!

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

As I walked into the Spanish Royal Academy’s small concert hall at the top of Janiculum Hill, in Rome, I noticed an old lady sitting in the back row, distant from everyone else. She looked at me and said, “Roma e’proprio finita.” I asked what made her think that way, why Rome has fallen. E finita? The lady did not say anything else, she kept her lips tight, stared at me, her eyes asking, “How do you not see?”

My mind was split between the words of the old lady and a desire to focus on the sweeping view of the city below. The Academy is attached to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, believed to be the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion. It looks like nothing special from outside, but once indoors its Andalusian architecture makes you feel as if you’ve been transported to Spain. If not for the view of magnificent Rome below. I agreed with the Roman woman but wondered if her prophecy and my wandering mind were on the same page.

I was there to get the best view of the eternal city, only possible from the terrace of the Academy, otherwise closed to the public. It was late in the afternoon and the heavy dark clouds on the distant horizon made the ancient city even more glowing. Evgeny Konnov, the Russian pianist, was playing a concert. The old lady did not seem to be there for the music, either. She just looked around herself disapprovingly, trying to figure out who in the room was responsible for the conquering of Rome. Not only the Spaniards, who occupied this otherworldly place in the 16th century, but also the French, and so too Americans, who wrangled the best properties and the views of the city. Just a short distance from the Spanish Academy is the American Academy in Rome, that is, Villa Aurelia, originally built for Cardinal Girolamo Farnese around 1650, now American property and a venue for conferences, public receptions, and concerts. It also includes apartments for the Academy’s scholars and is surrounded by 3.8 acres of magnificent gardens.

The interior of Janiculum Hill, away from the view of the city below, has a few monuments to the Italian Risorgimento, a national movement that created a lot of turbulence on the peninsula but never achieved its main goal: to free the country of the Pope. Janiculum Hill was the site of a memorable battle in 1849 when Giuseppe Garibaldi fought against French troops attacking Rome. Even though the French well outnumbered Garibaldi’s troops, they were able to resist the French army for several weeks. This event prompted the construction of a number of monuments on the hill that pay homage to Garibaldi and his comrades, who were instrumental in the creation of a united Italy in 1861.

But de facto unification of Italy was impossible because the large swath of Roman land on the Tyrrhenian Sea, across to the port of Ancona on the Adriatic, and as far north as Bologna—the so-called Papal States–were territories held and governed by the Pope, who was a ruler of both spiritual and political power. It was against the Pope that Garibaldi proclaimed, famously, “O Roma, o Morte!” in Palermo, 1862, before the second attempted assault on Rome to remove the Pope.

Don H.Doyle wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times, in 2012:

Nationalist movements, of course, gain great impetus when they are allied to the religion of the people and able to insist on the divine right of their struggle. That could not happen in Italy. Any attempt to unite this most Catholic of countries would have to be achieved in opposition to Catholicism and to a Papacy whose territorial possessions were traditionally guaranteed by France, Austria, and Spain. This conflict between the interests of church and country vexed Italian public life through the Mussolini era and the Second World War. Even today, the Vatican is frequently accused of interference in the sovereignty of the Italian parliament.

In reality, the partial success of Garibaldi and his patriots was not due to religion; Catholicism itself did not block the social reforms or foundation of the republic demanded by Risorgimento. The game being played was between two weltanschauungs, the Freemasons, and the Church, while a disproportionate amount of the military power came from the Vatican’s economic might; its political alliances cemented the defeat of Garibaldi’s bold army.

As staunch allies of the papal state–France, Spain, and Austria–were rewarded with the nicest properties in the papal city, Garibaldi saw fertile soil for his ideas in America, at the outbreak of its Civil War, 1861. He offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln, supporting the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, the conservative majority that opposed Risorgimento chose what Garibaldi called the Death. He believed Rome could only prosper with the abolition of the papal state, the separation of church and state.

Half a century later, Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator, underlined the need of a central and more secular administration in the country. Unfortunately, after a good start, a once-socialist Mussolini turned to fascism. Fascism did push the Pope aside and introduced a few strokes of modernity to the country, but the latter came at the price of brutal dictatorship. Among the benefits of fascism were the trains, which started to arrive on time in an otherwise dysfunctional country. Terror was regular while architecture, cinema, radio, and public transport bloomed. There is no doubt that Garibaldi dreamed of a similar progress, but on a smaller scale, for Italy in his time was still very much an agricultural country, while fascism leaned on the achievements of futurism that preceded it.

As far as the role of post-WWII papal power is concerned, the intrusion of the Vatican into secular life and politics is not as evident as Doyle described it six years ago. After the defeat of fascism, the republican constitution defined a new political system that was conceived to prevent any excessive concentration of power and fascism’s return. The system entrusted power to political parties that then generated the perennial changes of government. The instability of the government after WWII was sustained also by Cold War political polarization, proactive American assistance to governments loyal to NATO, and the Church meddling in political affairs. The influence of the Church decreased with the end of the Cold War, however, and the end of U.S. objection to the Italian Communist Party’s participation in the government.

The current political landscape has changed completely and has nothing to do with the political parties that dominated in Italy after the WWII. Today’s populism is a new kind, which started with Berlusconi 25 years ago and grew with the separatist Lega Nord, most recently into the Five Star movement, now the majority in parliament. None of the latter care much about the Church; none of them is tuned into the Vatican. The current situation is confusing and precarious enough that even a news junky like me tends not to follow it, though there is one prevailing sentiment: after the defeat of the 2016 referendum that proposed substantial constitutional reforms, Italy has become even more divided. Change in the country, or a push toward contemporary progressivism, has been blocked by a staggering fear of authoritarianism, flames being fanned. Italy is paralyzed in its agony, and nearing death, to use the Garibaldian term. This is a dangerous status quo that will generate a more aggressive form of populism, leading Italy into a crippling new authoritarianism. Democracy has lost.  Let’s hope that this new wave of political chaos, social incitement, and institutional erosion will not lead to ashes.

Walking hours and hours around Rome, though, gave me hope that this marvelous country will not succumb to the temptations it, and other world powers, currently face. It is really lovely to see that small things, like gastronomy and enology, still prosper and that in a few short years Italy acquired incredibly modern railways the U.S. can only dream of. (Could this be a bad omen, since a lot of dictatorships start with the improvement of the railroads?) The morning news over the national public radio is a pleasure to listen to because it is informative and professional. That a new generation of immigrants is trying to integrate, volunteering for small public works, replacing the negligent local administrations, lends optimism.

But at the same time, a high ranking public attorney told me the other side of the story. A decade back, after the Chinese Zhejiang community invaded Italy with ceaseless merchandise smuggled in and stocked up on the outskirts of Rome, to be sold on the streets of Naples with the help of the Camorra, Rome was also the supply center of smuggled Chinese merchandise to other capitals of the EU. Investigators collected evidence and informed Brussels and Rome about it. Nothing helped to stop the illegal commerce, but while the Chinese traders years ago were helped by skilled locals who knew the loopholes of Italian law, the Chinese of today did their homework and now monopolize the operation. They learned how to move within the system, they learned the language and the skills to move up the social ladder, recruiting freshly arrived immigrants for the jobs they used to do. The investigators are now focusing on a big group of Bengali immigrants who are likely connected to the Chinese racket. They must hurry before it’s too late, as the Bengalis will also learn to move up on the social scale and maneuver their business against the interests of the country, leaving more Italians behind. Pushing them to populism.    

It was a Sunday morning, and Rome was bathing in that irresistible spring light and the smell of blooming jasmine that gives you an appetite for life. There was no traffic on the streets. I attempted to hire an Uber but gave up when I saw the price and a 13-minute wait to go just two miles. So I waved down the first taxi. “The people are nice today, because of the weather and less traffic on the streets,” my driver blabbed to me, unprompted.

The driver was dressed up, a chatty former hairdresser, and started to call me professore immediately. He was poking at me, trying to pinpoint my identity. I shot back with questions about the latest fight between the city’s taxi and Uber drivers, asking him if his side won the war, since Ubers in Rome are restricted to operating as a luxury car service (one can only get black and lux Ubers here, the drivers in stiff attire that makes them hard to distinguish from politicians, businessmen, or anchormen). A-Class. My driver did not play it straight first, testing me still, but once he understood that I understand Uber well, he gave up, and said, “Well, the people who take Uber are those who want to make bella figura when they go and visit some lady.”

In my driver’s words, I heard a bit of the Trumpian mentality, inseminated first by Italian tycoon Berlusconi, who ran and ruined Italy for two straight decades. In that phrase alone, there is everything you need to know: Barbiere di Siviglia, the provincial notion of being elegant and smashing if you dress in a black suit with a necktie, a shiny watch at the wrist, sitting in a polished Mercedes. It is very Italian, isn’t it? Whoever sits in the back seat of this kind of car, with the driver in front, must feel rich and powerful, it’s assumed, without necessarily being rich and powerful. It’s a mindset that finds many customers, among well-off Italians and tourists too, who look away from the overwhelming struggle for survival and citizenship in a country without an idea of its future, or how to get there.

Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

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