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I was listening to the Pope's last Angelus, and I found myself smiling when he greeted the Poles in their own language (as he did with the other main languages). I found myself thinking that there would be a special pleasure for citizens of Poland to hear a German addressing them in their own language. The recent history of the two countries has been a crescendo of mutual hatred, ending in the massacre of one-fourth of the Polish population, followed by the expulsion of millions of Germans under circumstances of terrible brutality.

But then I realized that really I could say the same for myself. When I grew in Milan, vicious prejudice against Germans was a living reality. And it's not just a matter of Nazi and torture jokes; it was a matter of real racial prejudice, with Germans being not only oppressive and homicidal, the designated enemy, but idiotic and foul-smelling too. Their Italian was uniformly terrible and expressed a basic stupidity. A German officer reaching an area flooded by its defenders is bewildered - his maps don't show any lakes there. (Germans, you see, are too stupid to understand the concept of wartime flooding.) One gag had a goat (the smelly animal par excellence) escape the company of a German: it couldn't stand the smell.

This is more than the inheritance of one, even two, world wars, and as a matter of fact it is rather better explained by much older events; it is, in fact, likely enough to be typically Milanese, and I might never have encountered it in such a virulent form if I had grown up, like my parents, in Rome. For Milan and Venice, along with surrounding areas, were the only parts of Italy to be under the direct government of the hated, German-speaking Empire of Austria from 1815 to 1859. Now, to call the hygienic twentieth-century German, even in his most murderous guise, evil-smelling, is clearly nonsense: even their mass murders were carried out with great attention to cleanliness - that was the meaning of the immediate mass destruction of murdered bodies in ovens, before they had the time to spread disease. But an evil smell was in fact a feature of the Austrian occupation troops, mostly not even German themselves, in the eighteen hundreds. In spite of their resplendent white uniforms, they had a bad habit of stiffening their martial moustaches with tallow, and apparently the result could be really stifling at close quarters. Milanese jokers seem to have needed no more than a mention of tallow or of smell to get a laugh.

This ethnic cliche' might have died out if the break with Austria after 1859 had been clean and swift; alas, it was neither, ended up trapping considerable Italian minorities behind a permanent frontier, and made sure that the hatred between the two countries lasted until the final Italian vengeance of 1918 and the annihilation of the Austrian Empire. Obviously, under such circumstances, the Milanese were not going to forget the evil smell of "German" troops for the mere reason that they were no longer around to be oppressive. Then there was the poisoned alliance of 1940-1943, the nightmarish occupation that followed, the savage partisan revolt of the last two years of war, the German massacres, all centred on Milan; and if ethnic hatred had ever had a chance to go out of style, that must have settled it. In a Milanese folk-song from the immediate post-war period, German soldiers are called "black rats":
...poeu su in muntagna a ciapà i ratt:
negher Todesch de la Wermacht,
mi fan morire domaa a pensagh!

"...then we took to the mountains, to do some rat-catching -
Black German rats from the Wehrmacht,
Makes me feel ill just thinking of them!"

These were the memories I grew up with. To people like me, and I would say to a huge amount of Europeans from all kinds of parts of the Continent, to welcome the German nation back to the world of civilized people must have been at least as much a dislocation as for Americans of the southern States to accept equal rights for their darker skinned fellow citizens; harder, if anything, because American blacks and whites at least spoke the same language, and, when the worst came to the worst, could sing the same songs. I know that, for a long time - even after a German hospital effectively saved my brother's life - I could not relate to Germans or to Germany without a certain sense of doubt and alienness. I speak German, I have been to Germany and Austria, I have German and Austrian friends, I warmly admire at least one German woman as a genius...

...but I think I can say honestly that I have never completely lost that sense of doubt and alienness until I first saw and heard Pope Benedict with my own eyes. One of the things this wonderful man immediately does is disarm ethnic hatred. He is so obviously kindly, so obviously open, so obviously everyone's beloved old uncle or father figure, that you can't help but take him as he is and love him for what he is. I like to think I am speaking for many others when I say that, to me, this gentle, tired old university professor is a living human token of peace and respect between nations.
fpb: (Athena of Pireus)
I was listening to the Pope's last Angelus, and I found myself smiling when he greeted the Poles in their own language (as he did with the other main languages). I found myself thinking that there would be a special pleasure for citizens of Poland to hear a German addressing them in their own language. The recent history of the two countries has been a crescendo of mutual hatred, ending in the massacre of one-fourth of the Polish population, followed by the expulsion of millions of Germans under circumstances of terrible brutality.

But then I realized that really I could say the same for myself. When I grew in Milan, vicious prejudice against Germans was a living reality. And it's not just a matter of Nazi and torture jokes; it was a matter of real racial prejudice, with Germans being not only oppressive and homicidal, the designated enemy, but idiotic and foul-smelling too. Their Italian was uniformly terrible and expressed a basic stupidity. A German officer reaching an area flooded by its defenders is bewildered - his maps don't show any lakes there. (Germans, you see, are too stupid to understand the concept of wartime flooding.) One gag had a goat (the smelly animal par excellence) escape the company of a German: it couldn't stand the smell.

This is more than the inheritance of one, even two, world wars, and as a matter of fact it is rather better explained by much older events; it is, in fact, likely enough to be typically Milanese, and I might never have encountered it in such a virulent form if I had grown up, like my parents, in Rome. For Milan and Venice, along with surrounding areas, were the only parts of Italy to be under the direct government of the hated, German-speaking Empire of Austria from 1815 to 1859. Now, to call the hygienic twentieth-century German, even in his most murderous guise, evil-smelling, is clearly nonsense: even their mass murders were carried out with great attention to cleanliness - that was the meaning of the immediate mass destruction of murdered bodies in ovens, before they had the time to spread disease. But an evil smell was in fact a feature of the Austrian occupation troops, mostly not even German themselves, in the eighteen hundreds. In spite of their resplendent white uniforms, they had a bad habit of stiffening their martial moustaches with tallow, and apparently the result could be really stifling at close quarters. Milanese jokers seem to have needed no more than a mention of tallow or of smell to get a laugh.

This ethnic cliche' might have died out if the break with Austria after 1859 had been clean and swift; alas, it was neither, ended up trapping considerable Italian minorities behind a permanent frontier, and made sure that the hatred between the two countries lasted until the final Italian vengeance of 1918 and the annihilation of the Austrian Empire. Obviously, under such circumstances, the Milanese were not going to forget the evil smell of "German" troops for the mere reason that they were no longer around to be oppressive. Then there was the poisoned alliance of 1940-1943, the nightmarish occupation that followed, the savage partisan revolt of the last two years of war, the German massacres, all centred on Milan; and if ethnic hatred had ever had a chance to go out of style, that must have settled it. In a Milanese folk-song from the immediate post-war period, German soldiers are called "black rats":
...poeu su in muntagna a ciapà i ratt:
negher Todesch de la Wermacht,
mi fan morire domaa a pensagh!

"...then we took to the mountains, to do some rat-catching -
Black German rats from the Wehrmacht,
Makes me feel ill just thinking of them!"

These were the memories I grew up with. To people like me, and I would say to a huge amount of Europeans from all kinds of parts of the Continent, to welcome the German nation back to the world of civilized people must have been at least as much a dislocation as for Americans of the southern States to accept equal rights for their darker skinned fellow citizens; harder, if anything, because American blacks and whites at least spoke the same language, and, when the worst came to the worst, could sing the same songs. I know that, for a long time - even after a German hospital effectively saved my brother's life - I could not relate to Germans or to Germany without a certain sense of doubt and alienness. I speak German, I have been to Germany and Austria, I have German and Austrian friends, I warmly admire at least one German woman as a genius...

...but I think I can say honestly that I have never completely lost that sense of doubt and alienness until I first saw and heard Pope Benedict with my own eyes. One of the things this wonderful man immediately does is disarm ethnic hatred. He is so obviously kindly, so obviously open, so obviously everyone's beloved old uncle or father figure, that you can't help but take him as he is and love him for what he is. I like to think I am speaking for many others when I say that, to me, this gentle, tired old university professor is a living human token of peace and respect between nations.
fpb: (Athena of Pireus)
Before World War One was won, there was a long and grim period during which Germans and Austrians, having destroyed Russia, threw everything they had against Italy, France and Britain, hoping to destroy them in turn. After a catastrophic defeat on the river Isonzo, called the battle of Caporetto, the remains of the Italian Army retreated to the river Piave and the huge mountain Monte Grappa, and stopped there, resolute to hold that line or die trying. A Neapolitan popular musician, E.A.Mario, wrote the song that spoke for those men, "The Legend of the Piave," which immediately became a kind of second national anthem:


(The singer is Mario himself.)

25 years later, the glory and purpose of the Piave and Mt.Grappa had mutated into an abyss of disgrace, treachery and beggary. Italy was shattered, occupied by enemy armies, and starving. Having entered the war on the wrong side through a mean and disgusting calculation of advantages, it had to break out of one disastrous alliance without being able to expect any sympathy from the other side.
The city of Naples rebelled against occupying German forces on September 28, 1943. After four days of ferocious fighting, the Germans were forced to withdraw, and the Allies walked into Italy's largest city without having to fire a shot. However, Naples, at the centre of a war zone and a devastated economy, soon found itself close to starvation, while full of comparatively well-paid American and allied troops. I’m sure you can see what came next. There was not much violence of any sort – except for a Moroccan unit that made itself notorious across Italy – but plenty of what one might call commercial exchange.
The daughters of middle-class families, clean, elegant, polite and pretty, were very popular with servicemen. Also, they had no colour prejudice – before the war, Italian colonists in Ethiopia had infuriated Mussolini, who was a genuine racist, by associating happily with local girls – and I have the impression that black American servicemen were delighted with the opportunity to buy the “services” of these segnorine. The whole matter was terribly painful to the girls and their families, and as the situation improved they did their best to pretend it never happened; but they were not allowed to. These well-brought-up young ladies did not have the “professional habits” which allow regular prostitutes to avoid pregnancies, and when the inevitable baby boom took place, many of the children turned out to be of an unexpected colour. I don’t think anything much happened – people just wanted to get the whole thing over with, and Naples is a seaport and has always been full of people of every sort anyway – but, this still being Naples, they wrote a song about it.



And what is the punch-line? That the author of the music was the very same E.A.Mario again.
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The Italian partisan resistance against Nazi occupiers and Fascist collaborationists began officially on September 28, 1943, when the great city of Naples rose in unplanned revolt. Nineteen years later, director Nanni Loy celebrated Naples' heroic and victorious insurrection with one of the greatest Italian movies ever made - every one of the actors played anonymously and for free, as a homage to the real heroes, the people of Naples. This is the scene of the start of the revolt:
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It’s not easy being Italian.Read more... )

1798

Aug. 31st, 2010 10:24 am
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Nobody seems to have noticed the parallel; because, I suppose, not many historians today write from a Catholic viewpoint. But in 1798, two Catholic priests led two great popular insurrections on the two sides of the war then raging between a French Revolution not yet quite hijacked by a Corsican adventurer, and a reactionary Europe dedicated to the most contemptible and cynical forms of politics (the anti-French alliance was, at one and the same time, working together to slice and destroy Poland, and incidentally to destroy Kosciuzko's constitutional and liberal reforms). Their different fates had something to do with the different countries in which they took place, but they also had something to say about the future of the Catholic Church.Read more... )
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A work of genius in history is something which takes a subject and gives a view of it that is comprehensive, penetrating, and novel. Of the three, being comprehensive and penetrating are the more important requirements, but novelty - not in the sense of cleverness, but in the sense of making you feel as though everything you are looking at is new, surprising, unexpected - is the quality that most impresses the idea of genius on the reader.

Professor Aldo Angelo Settia of the University of Pavia has produced at least one such work, probably more.Read more... )
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95 years ago, Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Allies. Although the country had been nominally a German and Austrian ally since the previous century, in reality there was no love lost between them; the Austrians especially described Italy, in private memos, as an enemy country, and the bad feeling about the treatment of Italian minorities in Dalmatia, Istria and Trent kept simmering on the Italian side. More importantly, two major outrages had alienated Italy from her nominal allies: Austria's unilateral annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, which went against Italian interests and was not even announced, let alone discussed, beforehand; and, more importantly, the German invasion of neutral Belgium at the start of the war. After that major crime - garnished with widespread and widely reported war crimes against Belgian and French civilians - there never was any hope that Italy;s alliance with Germany might hold; the choice was merely between neutrality and open war against her former allies.

Italy entered the war with few illusions. It had had almost a year to observe what was happening between the nations already at war, and see the horrendous bloodshed at the Marne, at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, and the swift hardening of battle lines into bristling rows of trenches reaching from sea to sea. Everyone knew that there would be hundreds of thousands of dead and that the war would last years. Indeed, to a contemporary mind the question is why Italy would want to intervene at all; and we are not surprised that, until the very dawn of intervention, most of the Italian public was said to be against it.

It is more significant, however, that public opinion seems to have changed as soon as war was declared. The majority of the Italian public supported the war through every change of fortune to ultimate victory. They would rather Italy had been spared the scourge of war, but they did not think the war as such was wrong, and once Italy was in, they would support its aims. The truth is that Germany's bullying, almost terroristic behaviour had made her defeat a moral cause that nearly everyone supported, and even if Italy had not resolved to enter the war against her, she would still have cheered and even supplied volunteers to the countries that did.

The effect of the war was largely negative. Italy was swindled out of the rewards she expected for the war, and scapegoated in the name of Woodrow Wilson's hair-splitting and bookish notions of international justice. The country fell into a tailspin which led her to the rule of an adventurer with no character or principles, and to another and much more disastrous war. And that is probably the main reason why, when we remember the 600,000 young Italians who never came back from the front, our emotion is mainly one of sadness and waste.
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Dante is the father of the Italian nation. No other poet in any other language has anything like his claim on the very identity and language of his country - not Cervantes, not Shakespeare, not in a million years Voltaire or Goethe or Pushkin or Tolstoy.

And that is not only because, in the view of those who can read them all, he is, purely as a writer, the greatest of them all. It is that he made the Italian language. There was no Italian vernacular before him - no language capable of coping with the heights of intellectual life and the complexities of an advanced society; the official documents of Italian states and the philosophical tracts of giants such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas were written in Latin. There was a groping towards such a language, inspired by contemporary French and Occitan models; but nobody had really gone beyond a simple, warm-hearted daily speech, capable of love and hate poems and of the devotion of St.Francis, but not of the high intellect of Thomas or of the complexities of the lawyers. For those you needed Latin.

Dante came, seized the language of the Florentine streets, and made out of it a medium worthy of philosophy, of high artistry, of legal and scientific communication. He foreshortened in his own volumes the work of generations of writers. And he did that while never for a moment losing the peculiar quality of daily language - the main reason, I think, why he called his work a "comedy". Would any other devotional writer be capable of the salty and astringent plebeian force of: "Christ never said to His disciples gathered/ 'Go forth and preach the world any old rubbish'"? (It is even better in the original: Non disse Cristo a Suo primo convento/ "Andate e predicate al mondo ciance".) Not even GK Chesterton and CS Lewis, and not in a million years any other modern Christian writer, however good; it is more like the style of a modern American thriller.

For this reason it is good news, I would say quite extraordinarily good news, that Dante continues to be a national and even a popular concern. A recent TV reading of the hundred "songs" of the Comedy, by Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni, has drawn up to twelve million spectators per episode. (A reading, mind you; a man - even a man like Benigni, born to clown - standing in front of the camera and reading out loud. What most TV executives would regard as the epitome of bad TV.) And it may even be seen as good news that two learned bodies are at daggers drawn over the man whom Puccini called "our Great Father Dante". The ancient and prestigious Societa' Dantesca of Florence, in charge of the definitive edition of the Comedy, is in a permanent rage at the upstart Centro Pio Rajna, which is taking charge of the commented edition after publishing an epoch-making edition of the earliest commentaries. There have been injunctions and an academic meeting broken up by police. But even that may be a sign of health, because it shows life and passion in the study of a poet seven hundred years old, and yet more alive than most of us.
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When I heard of the well-named Mrs.Robinson's lust-crazed behaviour and attempted suicide, I was disposed to sympathy. After all, I know better than most the situation of someone who warns against sins he knows - all too well. But when I heard one remark made by her husband - to which, one assumes, she fully submitted - then all sympathy flew away. I have no pity for someone who could so falsify Christian moral teaching as to say that "I did not say that homosexuality is an abomination, God did."

What shallow, ugly nonsense. Do not expect from me a defence of homosexual practice as such; the Church teaches against it. But the Church also teaches that the impulse as such is not a sin; only the practice is; and what is more, the Church teaches, and has always taught, that homosexual fornication is bad in no other way than any other form of fornication. That is what makes Mrs.Robinson's great sin so ironic: she fell into what, according to age-old Christian teaching, was the exact same sin - only a different specification - that she and her husband were busy pushing beyond the boundaries of the human (that is what "abomination" means). And to add to the irony, it was exactly in Ireland that the equivalence of all forms of fornication had been clearly formulated. The earliest Celtic penitentials (the systematic study of morality and guilt is one of the great contributions of the Celtic Churches to Christianity), though ascribed to two saints, Gildas and David, who were notoriously at the opposite end of doctrine and practice, nonetheless fully agree in this: the penances inflicted for homosexual practice (and for homosexual practice only) are exactly the same as those imposed for fornication with women.

If that is the case, where does the peculiar savagery with which the West has long since treated homosexual practice? The answer is simple enough; it is, in fact, present, black on white, in some of the best known and most widely studied documents in history. It came from Roman law, and specifically from the changes wrought in it by one of the worst tyrants in history. The murderous Justinian I, would-be restorer and effective destroyer of the Roman Empire, codified the whole of Roman law in an enormous Code called after him; but in codifying the law, he also put in some enactments of his own, one of which featured the death penalty for homosexuality. He needed it in order to get rid of undesired clergymen and aristocrats.

It must be understood that for most of our history, everything Roman has had a kind of glow placed on it. Ancient Rome was always taken to be a model, however it was perceived. And when Roman law was rediscovered in the twelfth century - after centuries in which Europe, including Italy, had developped a different customary law of Teutonic origin - its superiority was taken for granted. And so judicial murder for sodomy became part of the law of the land. That was not the only horror that resurrected Roman law brought to Christendom: its prestige also covered the codification of torture as a normal instrument of police investigation - which it remained until the eighteeenth century and Cesare Beccaria - and the codification of slavery. Slavery had disappeared from Europe during the Dark Ages; from the moment Roman law was resurrected, there were constant attempts to reintroduce it in various ways, or to alter serfdom into slavery, according to time and place. It was because of one such bright idea that the English peasant rebels fo 1381 had intended to "kill all the lawyers"; they knew, all too well, that legal ideas being pushed included their own enslavement.

I do not feel bound to any of this kind of heritage. It has nothing to do with Christianity. Let us remember one basic point: to a Christian, everyone is a sinner. Including, most certainly, himself, or herself. If I say that a practicing homosexual is a sinner, it is no more than I should and do say about myself, for the practice of a myriad sins none of which I am going to tell you about. I certainly do not mean that the practice should be called an abomination, any more than any other sin is an abomination. Some sins certainly are, beginning with murder and abortion; but I am myself guilty of so many things that I should be the last to condemn others. I walk as a sinner among sinners, and if I ever say that anything is an "abomination" - something from which human beings should flee as from the plague - it will certainly not be the insanitary and rather sad practices with which some people try to ease a desire that cannot be eased. Try murder, or abortion, or the oppression of distant peoples; those, not these, deserve to be called abominations.

There are sins, and there are sinners, whom one should reject; crimes that really are abnormal, that affect the sane human being with a sense not only of anger but of misery, enormous wrongs that cannot be altered. Abortion is an abomination; Nazism is an abomination; Communism is an abomination; Leopold II's conquest of the Congo was an abomination. These evils subvert the very order of society and involve an infinite number of attendant evils, themselves monstrous enough to damn a man's soul, as states and professions are perverted, rank by rank, office by office, person by person - till everyone is guilty of something monstrous. The railway clerks and signalmen who kept the trains running in Nazi Germany made sure that cattle trains loaded with prospective murder victims were efficiently driven to Auschwitz or Sobibor. This is what abomination looks like. To extend that to homosexual practice - let alone to "homosexuality" - is an insult; an insult to the dead who were its victims, and to the damned who let themselves be swept away with its flood, and damned their own souls in consequence.

Myself, I really am not interested in my neighbour's sins. My own are quite enough to be getting on with. And to condemn one man for one of his sins makes sure that all of us will be condemned, always. The experience of Mrs.Robinson ought to be instructive in this regard. If you condemn a man for this "abomination", you condemn some of the finest people who ever lived. You condemn Plato, Virgil, Michelangelo and Tchaikovsky - something that should occur to no civilized man.
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The past does not die very fast. For decades now, the heirs and sympathizers of Benito Mussolini have been trying to popularize a version of their Leader that cleared him of all the issues that have made Fascism, not only discredited, but odious. This Mussolini of the Mussolinis was not particularly racist; he did not really hate Jews, was nervous about Hitler's influence, and did not relish violence for its own sake. This is not overwhelmingly important; the majority of Italians loathe the memory of Mussolini and regard Fascism as a blight. But there has long been a significant and slowly increasing minority that was willing, either to accept this nonsense at face value, or at least to allow itself to believe that there were areas of doubt and debate about the real moral legacy of the Leader.

What is disgusting about this is that, all the time, a set of documents existed that would have blown all this disingenuous and oily propaganda sky-high: the papers and diaries of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini's main lover (but never the only one - apart from his wife, Mussolini was always predatory and bragged of conquests even in the Italian royal family). And yet, until the last few months, these papers have been inaccessible to anyone, because of a grotesquely long lawsuit between the Petacci heirs and the State national archives (which held them). This lawsuit has only ended recently, due, it would seem, to the desire of the one surviving nephew of Petacci to see his aunt properly treated by historians.

Why on Earth he should imagine that these writings will burnish Petacci's image is a mystery of the human soul. The confidences that Petacci registers on a diary apparently started purely for the purpose - her diaries proper begin in 1937, when her position as favourite sex object is assured - paint an image so repulsive that it reflects very badly on her, given her continued willingness to give herself to him more or less in public. (Their affair was notorious all over Italy.) The gross and lustful compliments he pays to her are bad enough, but Mussolini was already known to be sex-mad, and even his defenders do not try to pretend otherwise. But the vicious racism, the way he relished the idea of violence against minorities ("I have thrown 70,000 Arabs into camps, why shouldn't I throw 50,000 Jews?" - this while he was selling his image in the Middle East as a champion of Islam), the crudity of his mind, the pleasure he took in Hitler's flattery at the time of Munich, his vicious and even rather petulant rage at the Pope's defence of Jews, Africans and mixed marriages, all go to prove that everything that we most despise about Fascism had its fountainhead in its leader and founder. And incidentally, this woman, who was the comfort and support of his life for its worst and most debased decade, from the wars in Lybia and Ethiopia to his final reincarnation as a German glove puppet, and who seems to have recorded every most despicable utterance of her lover out of admiration, gives us, for the first time, a good reason for the Partisans to have executed her alongside him that day in 1945. The enraged civilians who desecrated her body alongside his in Milan understood it instinctively, even without need for written evidence. If the person who gives moral aid and sexual comfort to a criminal, year after year, in the full knowledge of his crimes, can be seen as an accomplice, then she was his accomplice; in a sense, his closest.
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Recently, I have been asked a couple of times for advice about books on Italian history. Read more... )
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I think I have got straight, to my satisfaction at least, what makes Italy, and especially Rome, so special. It is not even beauty; it is what beauty points to. Think of Samuel Johnson's famous meditation on the isle of Iona:

We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!

True, noble, and beautiful. But if a man can get so much out of a small, tempest-tossed monastic island in the north seas, what can one get out of Rome? Piety would feed not only on the memory of St.Peter and St.Paul, not even on the succession of Popes and great ecclesiastics, but also on wholly local saints such as St.Frances of Rome or St. Philip Neri. Patriotism? I still remember my grandfather taking me to see the French cannonballs embedded in the walls in the Gianicolo Park, where in 1848 Garibaldi and his volunteers held back an overwhelming French enemy for a month, and Goffredo Mameli, the writer of our national anthem, died of gangrene from a wound at twenty. Art? No city in the world compares. Science? Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest scientists in history, established his group of brilliant researchers in the 1920s in Via Panisperna, and the group was ever since known by the name. Rome has the most ancient Jewish community in the world - and one of the few which is neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi - the memory of great musicians from Palestrina to Liszt and Respighi, the grief and horror of the Second World War, great parks, buildings from every style and age from pre-classical to twentieth century modern (Palazzo Civilta' del Lavoro, in the EUR quarter, has often been used as the background or inspiration for science fictional or supernatural settings) - everything loaded with grandeur, emotion and significance. And then there is the rest of the country. A person who travels through Italy travels through his or her own life, in every way that is significant.
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On May 29, 1848, near two villages called Curtatone and Montanara, a few miles from the fortified city of Mantua, an astonishing struggle took place. Field-Marshal of the Empire of Austria Count Johann Joseph Radetzky took his Austrian Army Corps, nearly 35,000 strong on a manoeuvre to surround and destroy the Tuscan-Neapolitan lines facing Mantua, held by little more than 4.800 men - an odd mix of soldiers from several small armies and poorly-armed and unruly volunteers - that stood between them and the main enemy body. Radetzky had quietly marched his troops out of the safe and distant stronghold of Verona two days earlier to outflank King Charles Albert's regular soldiers, his main enemy, from the south; the small Italian outpost was in his way - placed there exactly to hold out against such a possibility - and it had to be smashed.

The battle is particularly remembered for the mad gallantry, driven equally by patriotism and by youthful recklessness of the volunteer students of the Battaglione Universitario, poured ouf the universities of Tuscany and Emilia, with their professors promoted as officers. But we should not forget the old men. The battle was directed by two indomitable veterans. Field-Marshal Radetzky was indeed the man for whom the famous march was written, and he deserved it. Active, energetic and far-sighted, this 78-year-old had saved his Army Corps from certain destruction, marched it to safety, and, not satisfied with having survived, was trying a brilliant surprise manoeuvre against the lumbering Charles Albert. On the other, General Count Cesare De Laugier de Bellecour, from Portoferraio, Isle of Elba, who had fought with Napoleon in Russia and Spain and had lived a life worthy of an adventure novel. But that was the only similarity: Radetzky was at the head of a practiced war machine which he had had two months to restore to perfect efficiency; Laugier had a ramshackle, untrained force whose command he had only just taken (three days before the battle). And while sources disagree about the relative numbers of Austrians and Italians, they agree on one terrible fact: the Austrians had 130 cannons, the Italians 6 and two howitzers.

However it seems clear that Laugier had arranged his forces well. Radetzky's first attempt at surrounding them failed completely: the troops seem to have been arranged in such a way as to make surrounding them impossible. The Austrians realized that it was a matter of breaking them down man to man.

Military theory says that to break a well-entrenched enemy with a frontal charge requires a superiority of five to one. The Austrians had that and more; they were professional soldiers, famous for dash and marksmanship; and they had the cannons. They came three, four, five, six times, each charge carried out by new fresh troops. The stories that came out of that day have more to do with Homeric legend than with the way we imagine normal life; but they happened. Early in the fight, one of the two Italian artillery posts was hit by an Austrian rocket that blew up some ammunition. Only one man, Gunner Elbano Gasperi, remained standing; and this half-naked, wounded regular took on himself to operate the whole battery, servicing his three cannon alone, running from one to the other like a maniac, charging, aiming, firing. Even the volunteers' indiscipline served the day: when, after two hours of fighting, General de Laugier ordered them into the line, he found that he had almost nobody to order - they had all already run to the sound of the guns, and it was their nearly insane recklessness that had done much to blunt Austrian assault after assault. Under the fearful, precise fire of the 130 Austrian artillery pieces, the outnumbered Italians fought for seven hours in the savage May sun, dying like flies, but holding the line. At four in the afternoon, realizing that there were no reinforcements coming, General de Laugier ordered his men to withdraw - and, astonishingly, it was not a rout, but a textbook disengagement under the covering fire of a sharpshooter regiment. The next day, Charles Albert, doing something right for once, fell upon the Austrians and hammered them back. The incredible struggle of the boys of Curtatone and Montanara had been worth something - for a while. (One of the young men who survived the battle was Carlo Lorenzini, who later, as "Carlo Collodi", was to create the immortal Pinocchio.)

That war ended badly, thanks in great part to the talent and courage of old Field-Marshal Radetzky and the underhanded stupidity of Charles Albert - a king with the soul of a party political hack. But there was to be another war, and another, till Italy was free. Radetzky had seen this coming, and being put in charge of Austria's Italian colonies after his victory, had devised a political strategy that might have worked, if someone had thought of it thirty years earlier: divide the patriot-minded upper and middle classes from the working people, and present the Austrian government as the paternal protector of the poor. As a part of his strategy of mixed conciliation and repression, a number of revolutionaries had been allowed to leave the country or even to remain quietly at home; and in the surrounding Italian states, dependent on Austria, similar strategies had led to odd results such as General de Laugier becoming the Minister for War of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany, whose soldiers he had led against the Austrians.

So it happened that one day de Laugier and Radetzky met at a State dinner. Radetzky, according to eyewitnesses, said something like: "Here you are at last! It is since that May 29 that I was eager to make your acquaintance. Bravo! Indeed, bravi! You were little more than a bunch of kids, and you managed to hold us back for seven hours. You practically had us all thinking that we were facing Charles Albert's best professional units!" That day it was proved that "it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog": that pathetically ramshackle, ill-armed, ill-trained unit held back a well-trained, overwhelmingly superior professional army till they had lost a whole precious day, and then executed a textbook retreat and left the Austrians to be defeated on the following day by the dilatory and incompetent Charles Albert, who, without them, would have certainly been defeated then instead of a year later.

What does this have to do with opera? Simply this: that opera was the music that all those people, Italians and Austrians, heroes and villains, the gentleman Radetzky and his colleague the Butcher Eylau, the resolute De Laugier and the nerveless Charles Albert, loved and sang and paid to listen and in some cases composed. Verdi was the leading single personality among the patriot party in Italy, and Wagner actually took part in the fighting in Germany at the same year. This was the music of a manly age that went to war when they saw need and killed and died without softness, but who were also capable of mutual chivalry and understanding such as in the memorable scene between Radetzky and de Laugier. And to hear it called "poofy music" is to me not only an instance of utter barbarity of taste, but of atrocious ignorance of our culture history.

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