A note on Italy, stereotypes and covid-19

The coronavirus continues to go about meticulously taking as many victims with it as it can before we catch up with a cure or it loses patience with our hiding at home and buggers off. Italy at the time of writing holds the terrible record of the highest number of recorded deaths worldwide. The distress at having to watch it ravage towns in the Po Valley has only been abated, at least initially, by the defiance shown by Italians in the face of this patient killer, most vividly demonstrated in the mass singalongs from balconies in towns and cities. More recent reports out of the country suggest these have now fallen off, in places replaced by glum acceptance, anxiety or boredom. But for a while it seemed as if the life-affirming Italian disposition, manifested through Turandot and Verdi, was the very example we should all follow to stave off fear.

Like all stereotypes, that of the Italian in love with life is part truth, part fiction. But for a while it was a welcome relief, and to a non-Italian, an admirable example of how to cope in a crisis. Foreign observers looked on approvingly at the Italian stereotype in action: unable to contain their natural sociability, here were Italians singing – and singing opera – and making a lot of noise (Nessun Dorma, incidentally, means ‘let no one sleep’). We took such joviality as welcome evidence that our lamented disconnect with our neighbours elsewhere in Europe was not dead but dormant, and in adversity, our quotidian lives interrupted, capable of resurrection. Exuberant Italian camaraderie also slotted neatly into our idea of Italians being the most fervent flame-keepers of those fundamental values that constitute humanity: a meal shared with loved ones, taking pride in your surroundings, an unbroken link with the past, a healthy approach to food and drink, and respect for the elderly.

We want these customs and values to be true as a kind of nostalgia – real or imagined – for what life must have been like pre-mass industrialisation, and as an escape from the digital wasteland of instant connection we now supinely inhabit. In troubled times we reach for the familiar and Italians singing and shouting with boundless enthusiasm was a familiar image – the balcony, the washing hung on a line, the music, the matriarch, the brightly painted stucco walls. Despite the crudity of the stereotype, watching those initial videos was a pleasure and a distraction. Stereotypes are ground in some sort of reality, however tenuous, and this was something to cling on to when lockdown in Britain began – they’re coping, maybe we’ll be alright.  

Like everything we love, Italy is as much a mental construct as a real, organic place. Recognising which is which is the way of getting to the truth, of brushing off sentimentality and tourist tat, gondolas and La donna è mobile on every pizza ad. Yet the quagmire Italy has found itself stuck in these last few weeks has demonstrated that brushing aside the preconceived image of Italians is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The real Italy does have something of our lazy notions contained within it. Singing from their balconies might fit a little too snugly into our projection of Italians as loud, life-loving, opera fanatics. But our conception of Italians as family-orientated, warm and hospitable is something to which this writer can attest. Stereotypes can be dangerous; they can also be true.

All admiration starts with the shimmering exterior, but it should mature into love and then respect. Forever beset by seemingly insurmountable campanilismo, and dogged as it is by myriad problems, Italy these last few weeks has demonstrated it does have something about which it can be proud – Italians. Metternich dismissed Italy as a mere ‘expression géographique’. May the conduct of the doctors and nurses who have risked or lost their lives saving others, as well as the selflessness of countless Italians, attest to the invalidity of that remark.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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