The English Way (1)

Sordi-in-I-Due-Nemici-Posters

from “The Best Enemies”, with David Niven and Alberto Sordi.

Elections are not very far and I may say that analyzing the Italian political situation, the name of the party that is very likely to win will be: “precariousness and confusion”.  But what are reasons that have brought our nation to the pathological political instability that has characterized us for decades? What’s wrong with us? We are a charming country with a glorious past, the cradle of civilization along with Greece and much more could be added, for sure. However, even if we started so well, we must have missed a few steps in the path towards a mature democracy.

One justification might be that we are a young nation: only 157 years old. We shouldn’t forget that before the unification, we had suffered dominations of any kind, whose heritage can be clearly seen in any of our regions in term of culture, food, music, language. By the way, in those centuries of oppression we had also gradually developed a higher degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness, “virtues” that still distinguish the Italian stereotype abroad, were the weapons we had developed in time to defend ourselves from the foreign rules.

The problem is that once free and politically united, we haven’t been able to work together for the making of a common identity, because our chronic distrust runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” way, rather than the “social” one.  That’s why the process towards a responsible, efficient democracy here is slower than in other countries. It’s this lack of a common political and social exercise that still makes us always look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems. He has never showed up and never will. But as I told you before, we are young.

In other countries, on the contrary, the path towards democracy has seemed somehow more natural. The last invasion in England, for example, dates back to 1066,  when the Normans conquered and unified the country – fortunate event that might have happened in Italy as well, thus sparing us a lot of troubles, but for the Pope’s fierce opposition against the Normans’ advance from the South of Italy,  therefore; England, if compared to Italy, had an advantage of 800 years. It means they had plenty of time to make a lot of nice political experiments. From that moment on, and before any other country, England will undergo a gradual but constant weakening of the great powers of the Middle Age, Church and monarchy and the growing of a modern one: Parliament.

With the English Common Law, for instance, the king was not considered any longer above the law; therefore if the English ruler could be tried just like anybody else,  it meant that he had started to lose those divine traits that his fellow kings all over Europe would have kept for a longer time. Furthermore; with The Magna Carta the king could no longer impose taxes without that “general consent” of those who one day will become part of a fully elected Parliament. The nobles took advantage from this situation increasing their power, but they greed will bring England to the disaster of the War of the Roses.

The Tudors were necessarily firmer monarchs whose recipe for a stronger country was the balancing of powers. They weakened the nobles depriving them of their private armies, avoided summoning Parliament, increased trade, developed alliances with the other countries, but above all, smashed the power of the Roman Catholic Church taking advantage of the Protestant wave from the north of Europe. At the dawning of the seventeenth century England was an Anglican country with a well-defined Parliament and a growing middle class.

The Stuarts failed to understand the now rooted distinctive features of their country, and tried to make it more “European” if possible, but in this way they only succeeded in reinforcing its prior structure. After the Glorious Revolution, England was a modern nation with a monarchy controlled by an independent Parliament and a flourishing bourgeoisie. It was, therefore, ready to face the great changes the industrial revolution would have brought about before any other European country and destined to be a long-lasting power worldwide. But this is another story. As I told you before, we are young.

Grand Tour

grand 1Year after year always more and more many students of my school decide to experience a student exchange programme in order to improve their knowledge of a foreign language. The destinations may range from the English-speaking countries like the U.S.A., Ireland, England, Australia  to the more exotic ones like Japan, China or Taiwan. At first they are convinced it will be only a matter of studying in a new school, changing habits for a while and why not, enjoying the exciting flavour of independence, to understand very soon that they have been involved in something more complex than simply learning a language. I want to use the words of one of my students to explain it, who, once invited to report about her one year experience in Taiwan, was happy to say with such eager eyes that she felt like having lived a whole life in that year and even more.

grand 3Sterne would have called it a “Sentimental Journey“, where sentimental refers to those emotions that arise from both the vision of a new landscape and the confrontation with completely different habits and cultures. The belief that travelling was a fundamental step for the “Bildung” of an adolescent is not something new, but it was rooted more or less in the seventeenth century, when it became fashionable among the young offspring of European aristocracy, artists and cultivated men to undertake a travel to Italy or better a “Tour“. The term “tour” replaced “travel” or “journey” as it marked the peculiar nature of this kind of voyaging, which was particularly long and broad, with start and finish in the same place. Many countries were visited but the dream destination was Italy.

grand 4In 1670, Richard Lassels coined in his “Italian Voyage” the expression “Grand Tour” a neologism that would have been universally adopted since then. For the “grandtourists” Italy was a mythical place, an open-air museum where the climate was always sunny and bright and nature wild, uncontaminated. The wealth of its archaeological sites, the legacy of Renaissance, the extraordinary musical vein were powerful appeals, but that was the myth as the reality these travelers found was very often quite disappointing.Impoverished countryisde, lifeless ports  and towns, dusty cultural activities and political institutions that seemed so rusted if compared to the more advanced European models, especially those in England. Goethe, who  had toured Italy for a couple of years, marked the contradictions of the country in his “Italianishe Reisen”  and in a second trip to Italy 1790 he sentenced: “Italy is still as I left it, still dust on the roads, still cheating habit. If you look for German honesty, you will look in vain.There is liveliness here, but no order and discipline. everybody thinks only of itself,  politicians included…..” uhmmm, if he could see Italy today, I think he would use more or less the same words. However, despite some bad reviews, the Italian seduction still worked.

grand 5The phenomenon, in fact, became wider and rich travelers had the habit of touring in the company of valets, doctors, musicians, painters. The Earl of Burlington , Richard Boyle, arrived in Italy with fifteen people besides his  gardener and accountant, Lady Marguerite Blessington used to travel on double spring carriages provided with mattresses and pillows and William Beckford, the son of a wealthy London merchant, was accompanied in his second trip to Italy by the artist JR Cozens, the Rev. John Lettice, his guardian and factotum, the doctor  Projectus Errhardt, the harpsichordist John Burton and by such a large party of friends that once in  Augusta he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria. An anonymous traveler wrote: “this travel mania is so widespread, that there is not one wealthy citizen that doesn’t  wish to enjoy the beauties of Germany, France and Italy”. Furthermore the new extraordinary archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompei (1748) had enriched the itineraries of the “grandtourists”.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the modernization of society (new roads and railways, industrialization) the new generations of “grandtourists” seemed to have less time and money at their disposal. The length of the “tours” started to shorten and the new travelling rhythms  were signs of  the impoverishment of those cultural aspirations which had characterized them for more than a century. Travelling became less “sentimental” and more diversion, a sequence of organized information rather than a personal discovery. Hence these students, who have had the chance to experience the world just like the “grand tourists” used to do, are the last, fortunate “romantics”.

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