At the beginning of the year, Italy was a pretty busy country. The fabled Sanremo Music Festival, a song contest, was imminent. Despite being the only developed nation still mired in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Italy’s front pages were filled with coverage of corny music, petty squabbling between parties in prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s fragile coalition and howls about football or a famous restaurant – God forbid – losing a Michelin star. On 19 January, while news about the coronavirus epidemic in China skyrocketed, there were warnings from data scientists at our Rome-based journalism research centre Luiss Datalab and on the social-media platforms of the daily La Stampa that something terrible was coming.
It fell on deaf ears; there were a few jeers in the comments and that was it. Then the virus hit the richest areas, Milan and Venice, killed thousands of innocent people, shut the fashion shops and the Sistine Chapel, and emptied the restaurants where I lead my nomadic life: Bolognese and Da Pietro in Rome, Trattoria Milanese in Milan, and Gigi Mangia in my beloved hometown of Palermo.
I am keenly aware that our philosophers, gurus, theologians and influencers are penning and posting harrumphing paragraphs, solemnly stating that, after the virus, Italy will be a different country. Professor Gravedigger predicts that we will fall prey to neo-fascist Black Shirts who will fester on the failure of our leaders, while Dr Pollyanna foresees that we will be transformed, helping each other like brothers. Do not believe the hype: after the pandemic, Italy will be Italy, just as after the First World War and the Second World War, Italy was Italy.
Many Anglo-Saxon scholars, from Edward Banfield in 1955 to Robert Putnam in 2000, have enjoyed a bit of a condescending postcolonial attitude dissecting the “weak Italian identity”. Actually Italians – despite their reputation for being individualists, closer to family than civic institutions – do have a powerful cultural genetic code, albeit a subtle one that is often invisible to foreigners. This deeply entrenched Italian DNA will kick in when the pandemic eases, just like it did at every crucial crossroads in our modern history.
However, Italians will have to make a choice: do the right thing or walk into utter disaster, oblivious of foreign pundits, domestic naysayers and graph-filled op-eds in financial newspapers. After the pandemic we will have to shape up, getting rid of our debt not because some zealot says so but because, otherwise, we’ll never be able to invest in future generations. We should, at long last, embrace the power of the digital world, not to show off our new smartphones (no country uses phones more than us) but to give our small and medium-sized companies a long-awaited chance to grow.
The choice is there: progress or perish. I bet that Italians will make the right choice at the very last moment. Do not ask me why, I just feel it. After all, I too was born and bred in the old country.
About the author: Journalist Riotta splits his time between Italy and the US, where he is a professor of Italian studies at Princeton. His writing often appears in La Stampa.