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David Barnes: Clown King Berlusconi

Apparently there are moves to expel Italy from the G8 group following its disastrous handling of the recent conference in L’Aquila. The story has run in parallel with the lurid pyramid of revelations around the sexual shenanigans of Silvio Berlusconi, a story which has eclipsed all other Italian news. For most commentators, such is the logical endgame of seven years of Berlusconian buffoonery played out in the world press. But behind this lies an older attitude – the old refusal to take Italy seriously. The country is all show – or rather all showbusiness, behind which nothing of substance rests.

Similar feelings were expressed in the 1920s in foreign reactions to the rise of another northern Italian strongman. Berlusconi is no Benito Mussolini, but the political lessons remain. Within 13 years of the Fascist rise to power, Italy had illegally invaded Abyssinia, gassed thousands of Africans and was under League of Nations sanctions. But outside commentary in the early years of what the Fascists portentously called the New Era more or less restricted itself to poking fun at its inflated rhetoric and delusions of grandeur.

A 1920s French cartoon, typical for its time, showed the Fascists as Romulus and Remus blowing on the udders of a she-wolf, grotesquely blown up like a balloon. Talk from the Duce about a new Roman empire was treated with ridicule, as hot air. Whilst the political cant was laughed off, British newspapers, magazines and travel guides were often heartily enthusiastic about the improved conditions of Italy: tourist sites restored, transport made efficient, bureaucracy cut.

Nowadays what we ignore when we snigger at Italy is an increasingly dramatic turn towards racism and insularity. In visits to Berlusconi’s Italy over the last eight years I have seen swastikas daubed on walls, graffiti urging the expulsion of Romanians, and most chillingly, the simple words ‘Muslims in the ovens’ scrawled on a twenty euro note. Berlusconi says he doesn’t like the idea of a ‘multi-ethnic’ Italy; and his alliance with the post-Fascist National Alliance and the increasingly anti-immigrant Northern League suggest he won’t be changing his tune any time soon. Laughing at Berlusconi won’t make any difference. His bluff, ‘man on the street’ crassness is also the core of his support.

The Italian Left respond with soporific, academic lectures that have little broad-base appeal. Whilst Berlusconi is known as the ‘cavaliere’, ‘the knight’, the centre-left leader Romano Prodi (whose spell in power briefly broke Berlusconi’s reign in 2006 to 2008) has always been referred to as the ‘Professor’. On the left, bookish owlishness; on the right, theatrical clowning interpreted as ‘man of action’ valour. On the sidelines, the world laughs. When travellers like Goethe, Byron and Shelley came to Italy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they tended to imagine that no-one lived there – that Italy was a country of ruins. The ruins remain, but a potentially explosive mixture of xenophobia and rightist politics is brewing behind the palazzo façades. If we and the leaders of the EU treated the clown king Berlusconi with less indulgence, we might find his antics rather less amusing.

David Barnes is a poet, prose writer, and academic who recently completed his PhD on portrayals of Venice. He has delivered papers on Ezra Pound internationally, and is a contributor to our ‘Erroneous Disposition of the People’ publication.

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