Tag Archives: Italy

Twelve Years an Editor – Almost. Nordic-Mediterranean Perspectives on Iceland’s International Image

Introduction

Since the year 2015 I have been working as editor in chief of Nordicum-Mediterraneum: Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies, published by the University of Akureyri (<http://nome.unak.is>). As such, I have received, read, reviewed and released a number of contributions by foreign and, in particular, by Italian scholars, dealing with Iceland under a broad variety of scientific perspectives. Also, especially during and immediately after Iceland’s 2008 financial meltdown, I was contacted and interviewed by a number of media outlets, primarily Italian. Thanks to these experiences, I can contribute to today’s discussion with an eminently personal yet qualitatively rich account of Iceland’s image among Italian and foreign academic circles. Above all, I believe the materials accumulated in the long life of Nordicum-Mediterraneum to be a truly interesting source of insight in the academics’ interest points, if not even the educated commonplaces, about Iceland.

Albeit in charge of the journal since its inception, I am not its real father, who is instead a scholar that has been working for many years at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Maurizio Tani. Eleven years ago, one year short of the title’s twelve, he approached me with the idea of a scholarly journal devoted to the many and diverse historical exchanges between the North and the South of Europe and, in particular, between Iceland and Italy. Nothing of the sort existed on the academic scene. Needless to say, his suggestion was taken aboard. Then, thanks to the small yet vital financial support of the University of Akureyri, plus the crucial help qua webmaster of Mr. Fabrizio Veneziano of Schiller International University in Paris and of Ms. Sigrún Magnúsdóttir qua Akureyri-based editorial assistant, the journal was officially born.

Foreign contributions about Iceland: Numbers and titles 

A true pioneer in open-access scholarly publishing in Iceland, the journal aimed primarily at serving as a forum and an archive for scholars interested in Nordic and Mediterranean mutual connections. Progressively, pressured by its growing readership, the journal expanded its scope to Nordic and Mediterranean matters at large, rather than remaining confined to the exchanges between the North and the South of Europe. At the same time, the journal continued to publish a variety of other contributions as well, ranging from reviews of recent literature to interviews and personal memoirs. The break-up of the publications listed below does not include the special issues 11(2-3), due this year and already in the pipes, editorially speaking, and reads as follows:

Regular issues: 11 (2006-2016)

Special issues: 12 (2006-2016 i.e. up to 10(3)/2016)

Of which:

Conference proceedings: 11 (2008-2016)

Other subjects: 1 (2006)

New articles: 42

Reflections on Iceland’s economic crisis: 13

Conference proceedings: 102

Conference-related notes: 11

Review essays: 5

Book reviews: 121

Interviews: 6

Memoirs: 6

Translations: 5

Republished books: 2

Degree theses: 1

Other contributions (short notes, reports, surveys, non-peer-reviewed articles, etc.): 19

Total publication: 333

Of all these published materials, 45 contributions can be said to deal with Iceland’s image in the eyes of foreign scholars, whether directly or indirectly, e.g. as reported in books reviewed for the journal (in the case of book reviews and review essays, I attribute each entry to either the reviewer’s nationality or the book author’s nationality, depending on who emphasises Iceland more). Longer pieces (e.g. articles, conference papers) amount to 21, while shorter ones (e.g. book reviews) to 24. Most of them are in legal studies (12), linguistics and/or literature (7) and history (5). Then we have contributions in philosophy (4), economics (4), geography (4), politics (3), psychology (2), art history (1) and personal memoirs (3). The countries of relative observation can be listed as follows:

  • Argentina: 1
  • Faroe Islands: 1
  • Finland: 1
  • Germany: 3
  • Ireland: 2
  • Italy: 25
  • The People’s Republic of China: 2
  • Romania: 1
  • Russia: 2
  • Scotland: 6
  • Spain: 1

True to the original spirit of the journal, publications by Italian scholars on Icelandic or Italian-Icelandic matters stand out as far more numerous than the others. This geographical predominance and the limited overall as well as specific number of published contributions make a quantitative analysis unlikely to provide valuable information. Their qualitative value as academic exploration of Iceland’s heritage and historical experiences persists, however.

The typology, depth and length of these 45 contributions varies enormously. I list them below in chronological order, specifying their category, in accordance with the journal’s internal system of classification. In the pages following the list below, I refer to the underlined authors and the relevant year of publication in the journal; when Icelandic-foreign collaborative projects are included, I underline and count for the country list above only the foreign specialists involved:

1(1)/2006

Article

Antonio Casado da Rocha, “Narrative Ethics and the Ecology of Culture: Notes on New Italian-Icelandic Sagas”

Note on conference proceedings

Maurizio Tani, “Italo Balbo, Iceland and a Short Story by Halldór Laxness. Notes on the Conference ‘La trasvolata Italia-Islanda del 1933’ (Reykjavík, 7 June 2003)”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Francesco Milazzo, “Teaching Roman Law in Iceland”

1(2)/2006

Translations

Maria Savi Lopez (1848-1940), “Akureyri”, Nei paesi del Nord, Torino: Paravia, 1893

Italo Balbo (1896-1940), “Nella terra dei Vichinghi”, La centuria alata, Milano: Mondadori, 1934

3(1)/2008

Articles

Emanuela Finocchietti & Luca Zarrilli, “Paesaggio naturale e politiche di sviluppo territoriale in Islanda”

Conference proceedings

Manuela S. Campanini, “Iceland as a Landscape Investigation Pattern”

Book reviews

By Antonio Calcagno: Paolo Borioni, Cesare Damiano & Tiziano TreuIl modello sociale scandnavo. Tra diritti e flessibilità (Roma: Nuova Iniziativa Editoriale, 2006)

4(1)/2009

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Federico Actite, Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview

5(1)/2010

Articles

Diego Ferioli, “On the Oral-Formulaic Theory and its Application in the Poetic Edda: The Cases of Alvíssmál and Hávamál”

Manuela S. Campanini, “Imagine a Collective Landscape”

Viola Miglio, “Old Norse and Old English Language Contact: Scandinavian Legal Terminology in Anglo-Saxon Laws”

Reflections on the economic crisis

Giorgio Baruchello, “Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano”

Maria Pia Paganelli, “Learning from Bjartur About Today’s Icelandic Economic Crisis”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Antonio Costanzo, “Fyrirlestur um bókina Hávamál. La voce di Odino”

Marinella Lorinczi, “Dracula in Iceland”

6(1)/2011

Article

Adriana Di Stefano, “Northern Steps of EU Enlargement: The Impact of ‘Cohesion’ Policies on Iceland’s Accession Process”

Book reviews

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: H. Beale et al., Cases, Materials and Texts on Contract Law, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010); and T. K. Graziano, Comparative Contract Law: Cases, Materials and Exercises (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2010)

Dissertation

Fabio Quartino, La Costituzione Islandese: storia ed evoluzione

6(2)/2011

Article

Garrett Barden, “Responses to the contributors”

7(1)/2012

Article

Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “’Karlson’ – A Stasi ‘Kontakt Person’. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy”

Book reviews

By Andrea Hjálmsdóttir: Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Mannréttindi í þrengingum: Efnahagsleg og félagsleg réttindi í kreppunni (Akureyri-Reykjavík: Háskólinn á Akureyri og Mannréttindaskrifstofa Íslands, 2011)

By Anita Einarsdóttir & Tiantian Zhang: Herman Salton, Arctic Host, Icy Visit: China and Falun Gong Face Off in Iceland (Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Jorge Mejía, “Some impressions after a quick visit to Iceland”

8(1)/2013

Articles

Hjálti Ómar Ágústsson & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, “Practising what they Preach: Did the IMF and Iceland Exercise Good Governance in their Relations 2008-2011?”

Irina Zhilina, “The Security Aspects in the Arctic: the Potential Role of NATO”

Review essay

By Carlo Penco: Juha Manninen & Friedrich Stadtler (eds.), The Vienna Circle and the Nordic Countries. Networks and Transformations of Logical Empiricism (Vienna: Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook vol.14, Springer, 2010)

Book reviews

By Gísli Aðalsteinsson: Maurizio Tani, La chiesa di Akureyri: Guida storico-artistica alla parrocchiale luterana della «capitale del nord» (Grafarvogur: Snorri Sturluson, 2010)

By Guðmundur Heiðar Frímansson: Brian Lucey, Charles Larkin & Constantin Gurdgiev (eds.), What if Ireland defaults? (Dublin: Orpen Press, 2012)

By Herman Salton, “‘Arctic Host, Icy Visit’: A Response” (cf. Tiantian Zhang)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Jesús Ballesteros, Encarnación Fernández Ruiz-Gálvez & Pedro Talavera (eds.), Globalization and Human Rights: Challenges and Answers from a European Perspective (Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives of Law and Justice, Vol. 13, Leiden: Springer, 2012)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: T. Kue Young (senior ed.), Rajiv Rawat, Winifred Dallmann, Susan Chatwood & Peter Bjerregaard (eds.), Circumpolar Health Atlas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

By Tero Mustonen, C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)

Translation

Luana Giampiccolo, “Leiðarvísir, an Old Norse itinerarium: a proposal for a new partial translation and some notes about the place-names”

9(1)/2014

Article

Matteo Tarsi, “On Loanwords of Latin Origin in Contemporary Icelandic”

Book reviews

By Federica Scarpa: Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook II (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2013)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Þorlákur Axel Jónsson, Dagur Austan. Ævintýramaðurinn Vernharður Eggertsson (Akureyri: Völuspá, 2009)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “Regaining Iceland for the Catholic Church in the mid-19th Century”

9(2)/2014

Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises”

10(1)/2015

Conference proceeding

Thomas Hören, “IMMI and Whistleblowing in Iceland – the new regulatory framework”

Book reviews

By Giorgio Baruchello: Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Gaetano Roberto Buccola, Forme del centro. Percorsi analitici dal “Viaggio al centro della Terra” al nucleo dell’uomo (Palermo: Nuova Ipsa, 2013)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Kári á Rógvi, West-Nordic Constitutional Judicial Review: A Comparative Study of Scandinavian Judicial Review and Judicial Reasoning (Copenhagen: Djøf Publishing, 2013)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Roberto Buccola, “The Unconscious and the Island: Fragments of Research on the Self”

10(2)/2015

Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “Enemies of Interculturalism: The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights“

 

Foreign contributions about Iceland: Recurring themes

What sort of recurring themes can be found in this collection of diverse scholarly and scientific texts? I have identified four.

  1. Iceland as “the land of the Vikings”

This is the title given by the aviator Italo Balbo (2006) to the chapter on Iceland in his 1933 memoirs, who also recalls how the Vikings discovered America before Columbus himself. Spanish-Portuguese philosopher Casado da Rocha (2006) mentions too the Vikings’ “stories of warriors and wise men, poets and politicians of the golden age of settlement and commonwealth.” The marauding hordes, their adventures and their legacy are very much a focus-point for many commentators. They are a reason for distinctiveness, if not distinction. For instance, law professor Milazzo’s (2006) account of his teaching experience emphasises how Iceland is not as much part of the legal tradition based on Roman Law as most other European countries. Legal scholar Johnstone too, in her 2011 review essay on comparative law, mentions the enduring island-centric character of mainstream legal education in Iceland. This is not to say that classical culture did not reach or influence Iceland’s cultural development. Quite the opposite, Actite’s 2009 text offers a concise account of the deep, extensive and sometimes surprising impact of the Latin tradition on this island: “For instance, the Latin phrase Rustycus es, Corydon gave origin to the Icelandic words rusti [farmer] and dóni [rude people]”. Tarsi (2014) offers an even longer account. Even some elements of the later Catholic Christianitas endure, as noticed by Cardinal Mejía (2012) and Tani (2013). Still, the land of the Vikings is distinct and original, which is shown by the interest of foreign scholars, and Italian ones in particular, in the history, development and influence of Old Norse or ancient Icelandic, and its literary accomplishments in the Edda and the Sagas, e.g. Ferioli (2010), Miglio (2010), Costanzo (2010), Lorinczi (2010), Tani (2006), Barden (2011), Mustonen (2013), Giampiccolo (2013),

  1. Iceland as a Nordic State

Former Italian governmental ministers Damiano and Treu, together with the historian Borioni (2008), lump Iceland together with the other Scandinavian countries, as though Iceland had as strong a social-democratic tradition as Sweden, Denmark or Norway. However, Iceland does not have it. It was never a welfare State, in the sense and to the extent these other countries have historically exemplified. The right-wing Independence Party has marked its history much more than the various incarnations of democratic socialism in Iceland (cf. also Meckl’s 2012 article on Iceland’s Cold-War history and Baruchello’s 2014 book review), as also reflected by the largely unnoticed repression of Falun Gong demonstrators in Iceland in 2002 (cf. Tiantian Zhang, 2012 & 2013). Difference does not mean intransigence, however. Thus, Hören (2015) and Johnstone (2013a) reveal significant changes in a more Nordic direction led by the historically weaker left-wing forces of the country, in freedom of the press and in human rights provisions respectively. Perhaps, the most obvious manifestation of the “un-Nordicness” of Iceland was the neoliberal boom-and-bust hot-money cycle that led to the notorious kreppa of 2008, about which a number of contributions have been published, i.e. Baruchello (2010), Paganelli (2010), Johnstone (2013), Lucey, Larkin & Gurdgiev (2013), Johnstone (2013a & b), Baruchello (2014 & 2015b). Penco (2013) adds another layer of “un-Nordicness” by noticing how Iceland’s philosophical tradition owes more to Anglophone and Dutch academic traditions and establishments than to Scandinavian ones. Still, there exist clear connections with Scandinavian political experience, notably the Danish roots of Iceland’s constitution (cf. Quartino, 2011). In fact, in addition to its linguistic-literary roots and heritage, the legal tradition of Iceland seems to be, at large, the most Nordic feature of Iceland’s culture, at least according to Kári á Rógvi (2015). Baruchello (2015) adds another line of continuity, i.e. the cartelisation of strategic industries during the 1930s.

  1. Iceland as an Arctic State

Less controversial is this third commonplace notion. Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, after all, which is cold, dangerous to navigate upon, remote. This is the tone of the account by Savi-Lopez (2006), who pioneered the study and dissemination of Icelandic literature in Italy in the first half of the 20th century. As to later accounts, it would appear that being located in the North Atlantic is strategic. It is so for NATO (cf. Zhilina, 2013), for the EU (cf. Di Stefano, 2011), but above all for the Arctic nations and the governance of the region, as emphasised by Loukacheva (2011), Johnstone (2013c) and Scarpa (2014). Indeed, Meckl’s 2014 studies on the Catholic Arctic mission of the 19th century show the Catholic Church being the first international institution to conceive of the Arctic as a geographically, politically and culturally strategic region of the World. The number of submissions and publications pertaining to this third notion have been growingly steadily over the years, reflecting Iceland’s own growing institutional and intellectual self-characterisation as an Arctic State, not least as manifested by the developments within the University of Akureyri, which is part of the University of the Arctic consortium and hosts a most successful Master’s programme in Polar Law.

  1. Iceland as a dimension of the spirit

Iceland’s unique landscape, the result of equally unique and rather extreme geographic, geological and climatic conditions, lead to awe and deep existential reflection. Scientific observations are the beginning of more profound considerations about the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, the struggle for survival that we have fought throughout our journey on this planet, and the most disturbing question of all: why do we keep fighting? More or less explicitly, this is the tone of the contributions by literary scholar Finocchietti (2008) as well as geographers Zarrilli (2008) and Campanini (2008 & 2010). The same applies to those of Jungian psychologist Buccola (2015a & b). Numerically, we are not talking of a large number of contributions. However, and here the qualitative character of the present account comes to the forefront, the number of authors that have been interested in Iceland because of its mystique is conspicuous. Methodologically unlikely to reflect upon and disclose the motives for their own research, scholars and scientists have often discussed them with me qua editor and a southern European expatriate in the far north. The fascination with Iceland’s lunar vistas and its seemingly prohibitive inhospitality, combined with the sense of authenticity that such conditions inspire, are a frequent reason for Mediterranean minds to develop an interest in Nordic matters, even if these may have little to do with the island’s vistas, inhospitality or authenticity.

Concluding remarks

The literature by foreign experts published over the years in Nordicum-Mediterraneum pertains to many different disciplines. Prominent are literary, linguistic and legal studies. These disciplinary areas of emphasis are the result of many factors, not least the network of scholars and researchers who have found the journal a suitable venue for their work and that of experts willing to review the books that we receive from publishers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge with certainty how representative they are of the stereotypes of, and commonplace conceptions about, Iceland. Nonetheless, I believe that they do offer considerable food for thought, which is an adequate and relevant aim for the present contribution.

Little Italy: Seeking a Niche in International Arctic Relations

In December 2015, The Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation published Verso una strategia italiana per l‘artico (Towards an Italian Strategy for the Arctic). In this article, the authors explain and evaluate the document in light of Italy’s connections to and interests in the Arctic, the Kiruna rules for observers at the Arctic Council, and the Arctic policies of other observers. They conclude that the intended audience for Verso una strategia is the Arctic States. Therefore, the document emphasises relevant Italian scientific efforts and promotes Italy’s oil and gas industry while downplaying the rights of indigenous peoples and avoiding issues of controversy. Publication of the document as a work in progress indicates the ministry’s willingness to listen to feedback and adapt its approaches as it develops a more comprehensive and nuanced strategy.

Continue reading Little Italy: Seeking a Niche in International Arctic Relations

Ann Christys, Vikings in the South. Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Much has been written about Viking voyages, raids, exploration and settlement in the North Atlantic, the Baltic and the lands of northern and western Europe during the Viking Age. The same applies to the activities of Scandinavian Vikings – the so-called Varangians (mostly Swedish) – in Russia, on the Russian rivers, in the Black Sea and the lands of the Byzantine empire. Students of Viking history have long been familiar with the most important facts of this history although ”new” knowledge is still being brought to light, offering new perspectives and interpretations. This is not least due to recent archaeological research in the area.

Continue reading Ann Christys, Vikings in the South. Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Europe’s Constitutional Law in Times of Crisis: A Human Rights Perspective

In this paper, we aim to survey representative constitutional amendments in the European Union’s (EU) area, whether attempted or accomplished, as well as significant adjudications by constitutional bodies. Then, we proceed to assess these legal phenomena in light of human rights jurisprudence. Pivotal reference in our work is the recently released 7th volume of the Annuaire international des droits de l’homme (Athens: Sakkoulas, December 2014), edited by G. Katrougalos, M. Figueiredo and P. Pararas under the aegis of the International Association of Constitutional Law. Not only does this volume comprise the work of some of Europe’s noted constitutionalists, it also addresses the constitutional matters central to this paper in light of human rights jurisprudence, which is the area of expertise of one of the paper’s authors, i.e. Ágúst Þór Árnason, and the area that the other author, Giorgio Baruchello, has construed axiologically as a pivotal instantiation of civil commons, i.e. “all social constructs which enable universal access to life goods”. Have European constitutions continued to function qua civil commons in the crisis years? That, at the deepest level of value scrutiny, is the question that our joint survey and analysis aim to answer.

Continue reading Europe’s Constitutional Law in Times of Crisis: A Human Rights Perspective

An interview with Kristján Jóhannsson

 

KJ. 38 years! Yes, 38 years. It was such a magnificent time in my life. Even if there were always challenges to overcome, sometimes truly tragic ones. Indeed, they started since the very beginning, in 1976, when my family and I arrived in Milan, and spent the very first night in a hotel by the train station. It was another world. For me, a farm boy from Akureyri, it was a bit frightening. I was with my first wife, two children, my daughter, then very little, and my son, who must have been 6 years old. I could hardly speak a word in Italian back then [the present interview was held in Italian in Akureyri on Saturday, 25 January 2015, and then translated into English]. I knew that my teacher there could speak English, though.  The following morning we went to catch a bus, the blue kind [for long-distance routes], in order to go to Turin, since my teacher was supposed to be there, at the local music school [It. conservatorio], not in Milan. However, not even that was a straightforward matter…

 

My teacher, Giuseppe Valdengo, a baritone known as “Toscanini’s baritone” for he was Toscanini’s favourite, and an accomplished violinist and pianist—indeed a great musician despite being somewhat eccentric—was no longer in Turin! As I said, he was eccentric, amusing, but only to a certain point. He took things lightheartedly and liked making fun of circumstances as well as people, often ending up with offending those around him. Well, just about the time of my arrival, he had gravely offended the director of the music school in Turin, so that he had to leave Turin and go elsewhere, which was not a problem for him, given that he found immediately a new position at the music school of Aosta, in the French-speaking part of northern Italy. For us, on the contrary, it was quite a problem: we had to change our plans on the spot and go to Aosta instead. Valdengo was kind enough to help us find an apartment in Saint Vincent, near Aosta, not far from the well-known casino. We found him there, cheerful, pleased, and I had my first class with him the following morning. I was introduced to the director of the music school in Aosta and that is how I commenced my first year of studies in Italy. I followed an intensive programme that should have helped me catch two pigeons with one stone, namely to learn the Italian musical repertoire and, at the same time, the Italian language.

 

 

 

NM. Were you following a regular study course, then?

 

KJ. Yes and no. I was at a regular music school, but every three months I would take an examination and move up one grade. After one year, if I kept going at that pace, I would be at the second-from-last year of the school curriculum. It was an ambitious plan and a very interesting experience, also because the school was very vibrant and demanding, much more so than here in Iceland, where there is far too little to do and life is far too easy, back then as well as today. Believe me, I do think that, without adequate pressure placed upon the students, real world-class talents cannot emerge.

 

 

 

NM. Do you think that there are still significant differences between the musical education available in the Italian schools and the one that you can get in the Icelandic schools?

 

KJ. Yes, it is still the case. In Italy you can tell a student that something is wrong and that he must do something about it, put more work into it. If you do it in Iceland, then you, the teacher, are in trouble! It makes an enormous difference.

 

 

 

NM. But why Italy? When you decided to go abroad to pursue your studies as an opera singer, you could have chosen other countries, closer to Iceland, either geographically or culturally, if not both.

 

KJ. Certainly, Sweden was very much talked about as a suitable option. Nonetheless, choosing Italy was such an important decision in my career. And I have a person to thank for that. You see, I had studied classical singing here in Akureyri with maestro Vincenzo Maria Demetz, who, among other things, had taught me some Italian—very little, in fact, just a few words! Unfortunately, we spoke together mostly in English and in German, since he came from Val Gardena, in the Alps of [German-speaking] Alto Adige. He had a rather particular opinion of me, in truth an amazing insight. He said to me: “You are more southern Italian than the southern Italians [maestro Demetz used the tongue-in-cheek derogatory term “terrone]: your physique, your temperament, your type of voice; you must not go to Germany or Scandinavia, you must go to Italy! There you will be able to let yourself go and, verily, sing. In Germany, in a way, they might get you to sing Lieder. That way, you could acquire a certain refinement, which would be good for a strong and loud voice like yours. But that is not really the place for you. Go to Italy!” Maestro Demetz was correct on all accounts, for I was not a lyrical tenor, I was not light, I was without agility; I had to get straight into Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Then, but only then, I could work on some additional aspects of my voice. He had seen all this back then, already, which is fantastic, for he was right! 

 

 

 

NM. Moving to Italy, studying so hard: it must have been not only an exciting time, but also a hard one. What sort of sacrifices did it involve?

 

KJ. Big sacrifices. I was young, 26 years old, but I was already married. Besides, I had a fairly clearly defined life in Iceland: I had my own small enterprise, which I managed, I had two children, a house… Yet, I said it right there to maestro Demetz: if I go there, I’m going to make it; I won’t to be fooling around, wasting my time. I knew that, at my age, I had to be ready to go on stage in two or three years. Also because, back then, there were no scholarships, no grants, no student loans, like today. When I decided to go, I sold my house, I loaned out my small enterprise for two and a half years, in order to see how things would have worked out, and for that time we lived off the little revenue coming from my small enterprise in Iceland. After two years and a half I felt like I was dying. Moreover, after just one year, it was pretty clear that my wife couldn’t cope: she and Italy didn’t get along with each other. Not to mention the Italians: she thought they were all mad!

 

 

 

NM. As an Italian expatriate, who left his native country for the quieter north, I may be able to understand her!

 

KJ. Yes, exactly: the quiet north! Well, eventually, she needed to come back to Iceland. And so the troubles started. I began having a little fun around and, in the end, our marriage went down the drain. Also, I felt that she wasn’t really backing me. As regards singing, we didn’t have the same perception of things. She thought that we were going to have some fun for one or two years and then we would move back to Iceland, where I would have kept singing, certainly better than I did before. I wanted more. After six months in Italy, it was clear that things were going well for me at the music school and, at least for a year, my work with Valdengo produced tangible results. I was already giving concerts around, taking part in semi-staged operas. It was the beginning of my professional life. I mean, after just six months, I had my debuts in La Traviata and La Bohème. The voice was good, in all the ways that matter: it responded well, I wasn’t fatigued, and the high notes were good, solid and bright. After a year, I thought it sensible for my wife to go back home, for she was stopping me, rather than supporting me. Still, it was hard.

 

 

 

NM. And your children?

 

KJ. Our elder boy stayed in Italy with me, studying in the schools there. He grew up in Italy and thinks of himself as Italian. Later on, he went to the University of Bologna. Our daughter, instead, followed her mother back home and grew up in Akureyri. They remain close to each other to this day. My wife and I tried to be reasonable and avoid their mutual separation, as well as being separated from either parent. Besides, my daughter came to Italy when there were school holidays in Iceland. As a child, she would sometimes travel on her own. She was a strong little girl back then; she is a strong woman today—my dear Barbara. It was hard, but that much my wife and I could understand: that we didn’t understand each other any more. I was determined. I was strong-willed: I wanted to be on stage and be good at what I was doing. Furthermore, after a year, right in the middle of all this family chaos and unpleasantness, I felt I couldn’t progress much more with Valdengo. He was too lighthearted, too cheeky, he wasn’t taking things seriously enough for my taste. Thus, after a year, when I kept being told that everything was going well, I could sense, almost by instinct, that I was still lacking much to be a real opera singer.

 

 

 

NM. What couldn’t Valdengo give you as a teacher?

 

KJ. He was an excellent listener and very helpful. Nonetheless, as I travelled around Italy and attended concerts, also at La Scala in Milan, I heard and understood that there were certain additional elements of my musical education that I had to acquire or improve considerably more. Above all, I had to become an artist. The voice is one thing, but to sing as an artist is another. To interpret the music well, to master the Italian language, to absorb the Italian culture and make it mine: I couldn’t do it there, in Aosta, with Valdengo. So I told him that I was going to study under a tenor in another place. He became furious with jealousy! Just think of this: after Christmas that year, I took part in, and won, the Maria Callas Award: I had a scholarship, an Italian scholarship, and a contract to sing in five performances of Madama Butterfly at the Spoleto Music Festival as Pinkerton. Valdengo was so mad with rage and jealousy that he wrote a letter to the ministry in Rome, complaining that they were a bunch of idiots, that they had awarded the prize to a hopeless case, who sang like a dog, and so on and on… He destroyed me. The scholarship was revoked and I lost my performances in Spoleto. He destroyed me out of jealousy. In the process, he also destroyed the friendship that he had with Demetz, who took upon himself the full responsibility of sending me to Valdengo in the first place. It was horrible. And yet, what could be a catastrophe turned out to be a lucky break. I went to Piacenza, at the Nicolini music school, where I got my BA, studying with Poggi. Also, I studied acting with Eugenia Ratti, a world-class singer that had performed all over the world, including La Scala and the Met, and that taught acting there. It was precisely what I needed: how to move on stage, how to interpret different roles, how to master and use the Italian language effectively, how to make the Italian culture my own and, above all, how to approach the different composers, understand them. I travelled to Tuscany, to Emilia Romagna, to “meet” with Puccini, Verdi, even Bellini down in Sicily. 

 

 

 

NM. Did you make many friends during your studies and your travels around Italy, people that helped you to absorb the Italian culture, or did you work primarily at the music school?

 

KJ. Under this perspective, I trusted and benefited from the music school, most of all. Also, in my profession, it is hard to make real friends. You are too much on your own. There is too much competition for that to be likely to unfold. Besides, you cannot rely on friends, even if you can make them. Still, there are exceptions, and I met at the Maria Callas Award a lovely man that has become a life-long friend, Maurizio Barbacini. But before I talk about him, let me say that, in those years when I was based in Piacenza, life went on rather well. I was singing frequently, there, in Bologna, Parma, at a number of opera societies, in Turin. My name was getting around. Life was nice. I met also a dear Hispanic-American woman, Doria Cavanna, whom I married in May 1983. Sadly, she died the 31 December of the same year. Another tragedy in my life. She was an amazing artist. Much more developed than me as an artist. I learnt so much from her. I tried to absorb all the suggestions that I could get from her, especially when she was on stage. She wasn’t only a singer, by the way. She had been an actress. She had made movies in America. She was a great woman and a great artist. Despite our time together being so short, it was a very healthy and important period of my life. Her death was a terrible blow. Yet, they say that suffering helps an artist to mature and evolve. There can be no joy without sadness; nor sadness without joy. An artist must understand both realms of experience. I paid a terrible price for that understanding, but, over that period, I did open up to acting and to theatre as art forms.

 

 

 

NM. As time went on, given what you are describing, it seems clear to me that you integrated well within Italian society and the local way of life. However, how much of that Icelandic farm boy that had travelled from Akureyri to Milan, Aosta and Piacenza was left within you? Was there anything that you deem quintessentially Icelandic that helped you face and overcome the challenges that you met?

 

KJ. Absolutely so! I grew up in a big family, seven children, I was second-from-last; I had to fight every time to get anything I wanted, nobody ever gave me anything for free; in this sense, I was tough and autonomous; whenever I liked to do or achieve anything, I knew that I had to fight, on my own, in order to get it. Therefore, even after the shocking way in which my relationship with Valdengo had concluded, the sort of thing that would annihilate a person’s self-confidence, I thought that I would succeed anyway; in fact I wanted it even more than I did before. He told me to go to hell? I will show him that I am a real devil. He told me that I wouldn’t make it? I will show him; I will make it! Nothing could discourage me. And this is very Icelandic: personal autonomy, self-sufficiency. I knew that I had to fight and I did it. Then, you know, in the end, that Maurizio Barbacini of whom I told you briefly before, he helped me too. Consider this: I was penniless, I had been repudiated by my former teacher, I was divorced; in fact, I had left everything to my wife: I thought it was right to do so—and I wanted to be a gentleman. I needed only my toothbrush and I wanted my freedom. Besides, I felt guilty, so, in the end, it seemed right that way. And this is how I actually left Akureyri behind me.

 

 

 

NM. You didn’t leave it for good, though. You kept in touch with Iceland, didn’t you?

 

KJ. Yes, every once in a while I came to Iceland, almost every year, singing in Reykjavik as well as Akureyri and, of course, to see my daughter. My son was with me, in Italy. My daughter was here, in Iceland, her family was here. In 1982, to tell you the truth, I doubted that I could go on, and started thinking about coming back to Iceland. Yet, here in Iceland, I had made friends, powerful friends, people with money, politicians. I wrote to one of them, I described in the letter my situation; I told them that I was penniless and that my predicament was really desperate; I told him that I had to tour around Germany for some auditions there, and that I was ready to do anything. I got some help in return. Not much, but enough to rekindle hope. You see, in 1981… 

 

Actually, going a little further back, in 1979-1980, I graduated with Poggi, and they asked me to take part in a concert in Mantua. There is a beautiful little theatre there, and it is there that I got lucky: at the piano was Ettore Campogalliani, a great musician, who for 25 years had been working at La Scala, a real giant in the world of music! He was there, at that concert, playing the piano for some of his students, who would later become some of the most important singers in the world. I sang for him both big arias from Tosca and was very successful. I also sang other arias, from La Bohème and other operas by Puccini, receiving great applause—the little theatre truly seemed to be crumbling down upon me with excitation! So I had an opportunity to talk to him. He was a real gentleman and a man of great culture, not only an accomplished musician, but a published author of many books as well. He was also a poet, and he taught at the university in Venice. Over dinner, I spoke to him candidly and explained to him that he could give me what I needed most. Almost everywhere else, included here in Iceland, the music scene was provincial. I say this despite having been born and raised in the theatre here in Akureyri. My house was near the theatre. My father worked there and so did my mother. At the age of two or three I was already in the theatre of my hometown. That was already a great advantage. I had already understood many things there then, but in Milan, at Campogalliani’s prestigious theatre, I could advance so much more!

 

I needed more culture. That was the point. He said to me: “I really liked you today. In Milan, at least fifty of the best singers in the world have come to me: Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Katia Ricciarelli, Gianni Poggi, Carlo Bergonzi…” I couldn’t list them all! Renata Scotto and so many others! “However,” he said, “I normally require an audition, hence you will have to come to Milan and sing for me…  No! I’m joking! You proved your worth today: we can start our classes tomorrow, if you like.” So I went to him, and there was also Antonio Tonini, who was a good friend of his, and after two or three months with him he told me that, in Ancona, maestro Zino was going to stage Il Trittico by Puccini and that they needed a tenor, as usual! That’s how I got the job! Back then I knew well Rigoletto, La Bohème, La Traviata and I was preparing Lucia di Lammermoor. “Leave Lucia and study as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi“—that’s what he said. After a month, Tonini came to listen to me and told Campogalliani: “Let’s have him for Il Tabarro as well. He should do both, for there is no better singer—and we can save some money too!” This combination of roles is very rare, given that Il Tabarro is complex, deep and dramatic, while Gianni Schicchi is lyrical, even light, since Rinuccio’s role is very high [in the vocal register]. In May we go to the Marche for the rehearsals—and it was so beautiful! I had an enormous success in both roles.   I was the newcomer, though, hence I was not getting paid much: I was the last name on the list! Still, it was enough to survive. All these events happening in a rather short span of time. In Ancona, moreover, I met an Englishman, who was the director of the English National Opera. After listening to me, he decided to offer me the role of Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at their theatre in London…

 

 

 

NM. From one thing to the next…

 

KJ. Yes. Life seems to move that way. This is also how I met, out of sheer chance, the great maestro Menotti. It was at a concert in Parma. We started talking together. He told me that he was disappointed not to have me singing for him, as Pinkerton, in Spoleto. Then, I had to explain to him what had happened, how an angry person had tried to destroy me, my reputation, my career. He replied: “Don’t worry. In 1983 you come to Spoleto and sing in a new edition of the Madama Butterfly. It will be an over-the-top one, I warn you now!”—Ken Russell, a real genius, was going to direct it… Menotti and I became friends that way. He was then the super-intendant of the theaters in Rome, where I spent eventually 20 years as a regular performer, singing in all the big roles: Tosca, Il Trovatore, La Gioconda, Manon Lescaut.

 

 

 

NM. 20 years, during which you inaugurated with Il Trovatore the newly built opera theatre in Genoa, in 1992, as the city celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.

 

KJ. Exactly. The theatre Carlo Felice in Genoa. It was 500 years since the “discovery” of the Americas and 50 years since the destruction of the old opera house, which the Brits had bombed during World War II. I remember it very well.

 

 

 

NM. Yes, that is true, only the wing to the east had survived the aerial bombings and is still visible today. The rest is new—so new that it had sparked some controversy…

 

KJ. What a theatre! And what an occasion! Singing in one of the best roles Opera can give you. It was a remarkable experience. I recall the actual theatre, which is sort of inside-out, for it is meant to give you the idea of singing in a medieval square, like those you see in the old part of the city, which is just nearby. When I saw it, I said to myself: “It is true what they say about the Italians [that they are all crazy!]”. I found it very strange, but, at the same time, very interesting. It was something daring and novel. A stroke of genius, I would say.

 

 

 

NM. Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is said to be the best opera ever staged in that theatre, for it is possible to create the illusion of being in medieval Genoa, given the subject of the opera and the look of the theatre.

 

KJ. It’s true. Singing in a medieval square! By the way, I sang also La Gioconda and Rigoletto in that theatre. Somehow, 1992 was the year of my “explosion” as an international tenor. I started singing regularly in Britain as well, which lasted over a period of ten years.

 

 

 

NM. And what was your relationship with Iceland at that point of your career?

 

KJ. I was far away, very much. The sense of separation ran deep. Also, I was being mocked back home, they said that I had gone to Italy to become the new Caruso… Some rascal, I mean… But I took it mostly as a bit of fun. 

 

 

 

NM. You had also Icelanders that supported you, though.

 

KJ. Yes, certainly. Valur Hafþórsson, the head of KEA, had sponsored me. So did the Town of Akureyri. Not huge sums of money, but enough to make life easier. Above all, I knew that I had not been deserted. They were beside me. They supported me. Nevertheless, I felt distant. I was the first young Icelander to go to Italy in 25 years. After the war, in the 1950s, a few went to Italy to study, without great results. Then, nobody else. Even today, far too few Icelanders go to study in Italy. I cannot understand why. Italy is the cradle of civilization, the cradle of culture, the cradle of Opera. Why are they going elsewhere? Why London or the US? It’s all second-hand there!

 

 

 

NM. Do you think that in Italy there are still the best opportunities for opera singers? The best schools?

 

KJ. Yes, I do. Absolutely. I am certain of that. Also, think of this fact: while we are sitting and conversing here, today, there are literally thousands of concerts and operas being performed worldwide. More than 70% of them are either Italian or in Italian. Then, what’s the point of studying elsewhere? The main reason why I don’t do German Lieder is that I cannot speak German very well. A singer must have a high level of competence in the languages he wishes to sing in. Now, if more than 70% of the classical singing going on in the world is in Italian, then it is simply logical that anyone interested in opera singing should acquire a high level of competence in the Italian language. You cannot get that in London, Vienna, New York. You can only get that in Italy!

 

Also, let me add a few words on Maurizio Barbacini, whom I met at that Callas competition of which I was talking to you before. He sang back then and also played the piano very well—a gifted musician. I had him joining me in Iceland for some concerts, conducting the national symphony orchestra. We issued a record together too. Now he is often in New York and Vienna. A great pianist and a man of great musical culture, especially Italian opera. I would consult with him very often in those days, even if his career was not yet blossoming, for I trusted his judgment. He always had great insight in musical matters. Well, I was waiting before commencing at La Scala, which had hired me, but, as you know, theaters have often many-years plans to run through, meaning that, like with the Met, I sang for them in 1986 and then walked on stage in 1990! Well, I met with Barbacini. We conversed, had some fun, did some music together. And then he said to me: “Why do you take on these roles, which everybody else can take too?” He was referring to high lyrical roles in Rigoletto, La Bohème, Tosca, possibly the toughest one among them, La Traviata, some Bellini, like La Sonnambula and I Puritani—I had always very solid high notes, which are de rigueur for that kind of repertoire. He continued: “There must be at least three or four other tenors out there that sing these roles as beautifully as you do. But I know you, your vocal capacity, your temperament, your strength, both of will and of body: you must sing those parts that nobody else, in this day and age, sings really well. Those parts for which you cannot find really good tenors, apart from Luciano [Pavarotti]. He’s the only one.” It was an excellent idea. Also, I had noticed my own mental and physical development over those years, which was calling for something new in my career. Someone once told me that no idiot has even sung well!

 

 

 

NM. An interesting motto…

 

KJ. One must think about the roles he chooses, the possibilities available in the repertoire and in the theaters, selecting the place and the moment with some wisdom. It is not enough to just go on working, relentlessly. Thus, it was the mid 1980s, I started studying for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which I knew would have been performed in Iceland, with me in it, the following year. Then I started studying Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, for which I had received an informal offer from Florence, with Bruno Bartoletti conducting it. Meanwhile I had sung Tosca in Florence with Zubin Mehta, and it was very successful, at least as much as my Trovatore in Genoa. In between I sang the Gioconda and, in Turin, Il Trovatore. So, I had the Tosca in Florence and Il Trovatore in Turin: I was going back and forth between the two—what a mess! But I was young, lustful and strong! Up to 80 concerts a year! Barbacini was right: with these operas, my strong voice, my will and my wisdom, I must say—I had always 20% of my voice in my pocket, so to speak, for 80% of my strong voice was more than enough, while other colleagues in the same roles would have to push 100% all the time—it could be done. Theatre directors were happy with a singer like me. They long for stability, reliability; they don’t want to worry about whether the lead tenor will make it or not. I had this surplus of vocal strength that they could rely upon. Therefore they were happy to offer roles to a madman like me: “You sing better when you are sick than when you are in good health”, one of them told me once! My friend Barbacini was right: I knew more roles, I was known as reliable, there was now one of these roles available in Vienna, then another in New York, and then yet another in Florence…

 

 

 

NM. You expanded your repertoire and established your career.

 

KJ. Precisely. And I was always cautious in deciding my next move. I didn’t rush forward. I thought things through, paying attention to the health of my voice, never pushing too hard. I must concur with the adagio: no idiot has ever sung well! You may have a golden voice, but without wisdom you cannot go anywhere!

 

 

 

NM. Let’s get back to Iceland…

 

KJ. Yes, well, in the late 1980s there was Sigurður Björnsson, conductor of the national orchestra, which was a bit boring, to be frank. They took themselves far too seriously. They didn’t care for Opera. They cared for pure music, especially contemporary, which is good, but to a point. One should never forget what Karajan used to say about orchestras: the best ones play regularly in operas, meaning Vienna and Berlin, for the players must listen to the singers, pay attention to what is going on, following the artists on stage. Sigurður wanted to change this and he did change it, fighting and making use of me in this direction. It was a big bet—on a real racing horse, though! We staged many operas, also semi-staged ones, and there was no year in the two following decades when I didn’t sing something in Reykjavík. Needless to say, many local colleagues became very jealous! His wife, a fantastic soprano, with whom I had debuted in 1981 in La Bohème, was a good friend of mine. We were the best singers in the country. It is as simple as that. But then I could start hear people gossiping about us, spreading lies, being nasty. Now, I am no angel by any means, but things were being twisted and blown out of proportion… All this made me feel more and more separated from Iceland.

 

 

 

NM. Why coming back, then?

 

KJ. After singing for 30 years around the world as one of the best three or four tenors in the profession, facing also envy and gossip on your own, you become very self-centred. But the world doesn’t spin around you. In 1985, during the rehearsal for Un ballo in maschera, I met the woman that became my wife, with whom we will soon celebrate 30 years together. She was younger than me, a stage actress, I fell madly in love with her; and she with me, fortunately! Everything worked out well. There was something in her that my second wife also possessed: they were women of great culture, educated, and cosmopolitan. I had been alone for two year. Suddenly, thanks to her, I felt inspired again: I could receive so much from such a talented artist.  And she understood me. She came with me to Italy without any qualms, She had been abroad herself: 10 years in Norway. There was no uprooting. Nothing radical. She was cosmopolitan. She liked that kind of life. In Iceland, an artist’s life is very hard. Artists are paid poorly and, at times, treated poorly. People expect them to be available to act, sing or play, but they are flabbergasted if then the artists ask for money in return. And what they get is very little anyway. Thus the overall level of artistic life in the country, and I am talking about the widespread mentality not the artistic quality, has been condemned to provincial mediocrity.

 

 

 

NM. Haven’t things changed over the past 10-15 years though?

 

KJ. Yes, they have. And I think I played a role in this change. I insisted to be taken seriously and so all artists with and like me. It is fine to have amateur singers or artists that win their bread in a different way, but you also need people that go past that stage and turn their art into a career, a profession, a life. A life that can take you around the world: we lived for almost 10 years in Monte Carlo, we travelled regularly between Italy and the US.  And we had kids…

 

 

 

NM. That changes things, doesn’t it?

 

KJ. Yes, I used to joke about the fact that I led a better life than Onassis: travelling worldwide, singing in the best theatres, being famous, wealthy—and always with my family! But then the kids started growing and they had to go to school… As a result, my wife started being less mobile, while I travelled more and more often on my own; then she got seriously ill—now everything is fine, thanks God—and I was constantly worried for her while abroad. All this didn’t go down well, with her especially. She wanted to change things, for herself first of all. As for myself, I had had my shot. Thirty years on the top of the world, so to speak. Now she wanted, she needed, to think more about herself. And I understood that very well. After receiving so much from my family, I had to give back to them. So I slowed down, moved back to Iceland and began to teach on a regular basis, while she went to the university in Reykjavík. Meanwhile, I spent more and more time with the kids; she completed her first degree, got a Master’s degree… Now she earns more than I do! And that is just great: we are ready to face the future together. But be sure about this: I still love being, and I think I am still loved as, a man of music. In fact, I hope to die on stage!

 

 

 

NM. And what would you say of yourself as a teacher?  

 

KJ. I do my best to coach as many young voices as I can. Just few weeks ago, at the opera house in Reykjavík, there was Verdi’s Don Carlo: 8 singers were former students of mine. Some people acknowledged this fact; some didn’t… I am saddened, to tell you the truth, about the way in which Icelandic music schools operate. They are too relaxed, too lenient. Students approach their courses as some kind of fun or entertainment. I have always thought of education as something more than that. Getting an education, enriching your culture, pursuing a study line are meant to take you to some higher or deeper place—a stage at least! It is not just a bit of fun. I teach differently than most of my colleagues. I make demands.

 

Also, there are too many music schools in the country, which are starved of students, since these are never enough for all of them, hence the schools are always on the verge of bankruptcy, which reduces dramatically the scope for teachers to make demands on the students. Ten music schools, two for singing, would be enough in Reykjavík: there are 19 now! All are competing for the same funds. Fewer, better poles—that’s what we need. As long as the funds are not reduced, then they could be distributed among the fewer schools, which could then hire teachers as needed and increase the level of musical education in the country. Icelandic taxpayers pay about 65% of the cost of advanced students in music schools: the students should ponder upon this fact and behave more seriously, taking their studies more seriously, working much harder. On my part, I try to teach the way it is done in Italy: you pay more to study with me, but you get more hours, both with me and the piano accompaniment, and you are expected to do all that is required, such as music theory, etc. You are to be prepared as an artist. And I am much harder than my colleagues. You cannot spend five months studying one aria! And I can get very angry: sometimes I give the students a dressing-down. They accuse me of being mad, but mad are those students that do not study: they have the opportunity, the general population pays for much of it, and they are registered as students. Why on Earth should they consider studying as a discretionary option, then? If you are a student, then you study. It is that simple! 

A personal memoir by Róbert R. Spanó

 

It has always been a big part of my self-image to be “half Italian and half Icelandic”, although not in a negative way; quite the opposite.  I have always been proud of my background and have often wondered if and to what extent it has moulded my personality. Growing up I always felt a bit different from my “pure” Icelandic friends, in a subtle way, perhaps a bit more extrovert at times, certainly a loud and rather gregarious person; all in all classic stereotypical Italian characteristics. But for personal reasons my sisters and I did not cultivate strong ties with Italy initially. Later, my older sister and I have begun a pilgrimage of sorts, attempting to contact our relatives to the extent possible.

 

In my view it is important for those persons that have multicultural roots to attempt to understand from where they come from, as it is clear that one will better understand oneself in that way. Fortunately, I have not, directly, suffered prejudice during my life, due to being “half” Icelandic, despite having lived most of my life in Iceland. However, I could describe many amusing anecdotes that are related to my family name, which is certainly not a common one in Iceland. One of my favourites comes from the time when I worked as a Deputy Judge in the District Court of Reykjaness. I presided in a case where I had to appoint assessors in a real estate dispute. I later heard that one of the assessors, during an examination of the real estate in question with the parties to the case, read aloud from my court order appointing him for the job. Slowly he began by stating that in the District Court a hearing was held by… and then he paused, clearly having problems with the name of the judge, ending up by saying: “… held by Róbert R. Shampoo deputy judge”!

 

Currently, I work in a very international setting as a judge in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. In the Court, almost 700 staff members from all over Europe work together in a very interesting and collegiate atmosphere. I have already felt that my international background is an immense asset in this environment for many reasons. Firstly, having lived abroad myself when I was younger, both in Canada and in Italy, makes it easy to identify with others, their differing viewpoints on various issues and on the way they approach certain problems based on different starting points. Secondly, I have been very fortunate to work closely with my good friend and colleague, the Neapolitan Guido Raimondi, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Court and the judge elected with respect to Italy, and all the wonderful Italian lawyers in the Court. This experience has brought me closer to home, so to speak. I can converse with them in Italian and have dealt with many Italian cases for which I am, happy to say, well equipped.

 

I have four wonderful children, my foster daughter Rán, Karítas Diljá, Egill and Atli. They all have very Icelandic names and, with the exception of Karítas Diljá, they are light-haired and bluish-eyed like their mother, my wife, Arna Gunnarsdóttir, a very talented artist. My older sister, Ásdís Mercedes, is also an artist and a mother of two lovely boys. Unfortunately, Ásdís and I have not been very effective in teaching our kids about their Italian heritage, but hopefully that can be amended in the future.

 

Last summer my wife and I travelled to the Amalfi Coast to spend a week hiking in the hills, starting off in Ravello and ending in Positano. As I walked through the streets, sat in the cafés, ate pasta and pizza in the restaurants and drank some great red wine with my wife in the evening, I felt at home. It has always been like that, I think: living in Iceland, but sensing, to some extent, that I also have another home, far away to the south. It is a comforting feeling!

A personal memoir by Þóra Arnórsdóttir

My choice wasn’t very exotic, though. I had decided to go to Norway for the next two semesters. However, as I sat there in the tiny little loft apartment I rented downtown, I suddenly realized that winters in Oslo are oh, so much colder than Reykjavik. I knew that the philosophy department of the University of Iceland had a good relationship with an Italian university and it was on this moment I decided that Genova would be my destination, not Oslo.

Continue reading A personal memoir by Þóra Arnórsdóttir

Francesca Bregoli, Mediterranean Enlightenment. Livornese Jews, Tuscan Culture, and Eighteenth-Century Reform (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014)

 

The archaeology of Etruria (e.g. the Phoenician elements in the royal tombs of Pisa and the temple of Pyrgi), the Islamic contribution to the Romanesque Art of Pisa and Florence, and the life of Leonardo Fibonacci da Pisa (i.e. the mathematician who introduced Arab numbers in Europe) are only a few notable examples of this long and intense relationship that needs to be better known, both by scholars and by the public at large.

 

The last main chapter of this long Semitic history of Tuscany is the one related to the Jewish communities of the region. The main Jewish community in Tuscany was that of Livorno, the new harbour-city of Pisa, created by Medici dynasty as the new commercial hub of Tuscany and one of the main commercial centres of the Mediterranean region. Livorno, once called simply “Porto Pisano” was from the very beginning of its history declared porto franco and put under the protection of the Tuscan Navy of the Military Order of Saint Stephen, which had its monastic and educational buildings in Pisa, but its arsenal and fortress in Livorno. Together with its mother-city Pisa, the site of the Tuscan University and of the Royal Palace, Livorno, which was well-linked to Pisa by a large network of canals, was a kind of second capital of Tuscany, after Florence.

 

In Livorno, Tuscany offered full protection from any interference to everybody ready to participate in the economic life and growth of the country. Religious freedom was guaranteed to everybody and even the Papal Inquisition could not enter the city. The interaction between Tuscan culture and the minority cultures in Livorno produced very interesting fruits, both in demotic and educated cultural forms. Studies like those conducted by Fabrizio Franceschini on the linguistic and literary landscape of Livorno during the 18th and 19th centuries have proved it clearly.

 

Today, after the end of the porto franco, the devastation of the second world war and the damnatio memoriae enacted by the Italian Kingdom as well as by Fascist and Republican industrialism and urbanization, visitors have no easy task finding the remains of the long and glorious past of Livorno. But with a good guide and a boat, you can find in the network of canals the still-standing monuments of the “Venice of Tuscany”: the Jews’ ghetto, the Protestant churchyard, the Dutch docks, the Armenian and Greek-Orthodox church, the Greek-Catholic church and the Church of the Corsican Nation.

 

If you are not going to visit Livorno in near future, then the book by Francesca Bregoli, assistant professor at the Queens College of the City University in New York, is a valid alternative that offers you an impressive experience of Livorno’s past. The book brings you to know the life of Livorno’s Jewish community during the 18th century, at the time when many Jewish intellectuals participated actively in the economic, cultural and scientific life of the Tuscan nation. Despite the scholarly character of the book, meant to clarify how Jewish minorities related to non-Jewish cultural traditions in 18th-century Mediterranean regions, the book is very enjoyable even to a reader that is not specialized in Jewish studies.

 

Combining the analysis of economic data, judicial and governmental documents with cultural analyses of the nazione ebrea of Livorno, the book covers the development of Jews cultural institutions in Livorno during the period going from the final two decades of Medicean rule over Tuscany to the departure of Grand Duke Leopold I for Vienna in 1790. The first four chapters trace the participation of the Jewish community, protected by the Tuscan rulers, in Tuscan culture, its awareness of Enlightenment thought, and the related scientific reformist aspirations. These first chapters show also how Tuscan Galilean culture helped local intellectuals, including the nazione ebrea, to adopt Enlightenment culture. Particular focus is cast upon Joseph Attias, Angelo de Soria, Joseph Vita Castelli, Graziadio Bondì, and how attendance of studies at the University of Pisa strengthened the ties between Jewish intelligentsia and the Tuscan State.

 

Chapter Five is dedicated to Tuscan Enlightenment reformism, which was appreciated and studied all over Europe at that time, and it shows how changes in Tuscan public health did not diminish the spiritual concerns of benevolent confraternities. The three final chapters concentrate on Jewish reactions to Tuscan reformist efforts that had important consequences on the economic and political life of the nazione ebrea. In particular, chapter Six explores 18th-century Jewish and Tuscan governmental attempts to regulate social behavior by focusing on Jewish coffeehouses and the laws on gambling within those premises. The chapter shows, for example, that in the sphere of leisure time, developments in the nazione ebrea paralleled and mirrored reformist endeavours championed by the Tuscan authorities at large. Chapter Seven is dedicated to the study of Leopold I’s reforms on the cultural life of the nazione ebrea, especially on Livornese Hebrew printing activity.

 

The final chapter takes a comparative look at the processes of Jewish inclusion in the 1780s, suggesting the need to look at the Tuscan example in a different way from that used to explain better-known cases of continental Western Europe and in already studied “port Jews” cases. Among the most interesting conclusions of the study we can mention the fact that commercial utility justifying the many rights of the Livornese Jewish community bolstered its corporatist understanding and hindered the political emancipation of its individual members.

 

The book is without doubt an important contribution to the knowledge of Tuscan history and it also demonstrates the importance of studying Tuscany as a separate cultural and institutional reality, therefore inviting to be cautious vis-à-vis applying to Tuscany what has been concluded about other parts of 18th-century Italy and Europe.

Dom Holdaway & Filippo Trentin (eds.), Rome, Postmodern Narratives of a Cityscape (London & Brookfield: Pickering & Chatto, 2013)

Rome qua its sprawling peripheries, immortalised by Italian literature and cinema in their bleakest and most dramatic aspects (e.g. Pier Paolo Pasolini), has also become a well-known aesthetic trope, which is itself parasitic upon Rome’s paradigmatic historic centre, whose time-honoured beauty and wealth stand in stark contrast to the more recent peripheries. Whilst the former aesthetic reception of Rome is tied indissolubly to the classical age and later classicism, the latter is a standard case of modernity qua urban phenomenon, i.e. the pre-modern city centre being surrounded and eventually dwarfed by ever-growing circles of newly populated areas marking the inexorable advent and advance of the modern age.

The contributors of the volume hereby reviewed attempt to overcome this aesthetic dichotomy and present a postmodern understanding of the city, drawing primarily from architecture, psychoanalysis, art history and film studies, the book’s cinematographic references spanning from Enrico Guazzoni’s 1913 Quo vadis to Michele Placido’s 2005 Romanzo criminale. Whereas classical and modern narratives aim at establishing fixed points of reference and final evaluations, a postmodern one contents itself with their plurality, which reveals implicitly the irreducible variety of perspectives characterising human affairs and the incessant flow of human life, individual as well as collective, which no abstract concept or conception can truly grasp once and for all.

 

The first three essays in the book pursue their postmodern interpretation of Rome by focussing upon: (1) the ever-changing urban landscape around, against, through, within, beneath and upon the Aurelian Walls (“Between Rome’s Walls: Notes on the Role and Reception of the Aurelian Walls”, by Marco Cavietti); (2) the impressionistic and idiosyncratic depiction of ancient and modern Rome in Federico Fellini’s cinema, which has itself become part of the internationally shared imagery of the city (“The Explosion of Rome in the Fragments of a Postmodern Iconography: Federico Fellini and the Forma Urbis”, by Fabio Benincasa); and (3) the further expansion of the re-presented Rome in recent Italian films, which bear witness to the gradual cultural acceptance of more and more sections of the modern city in the same imagery (“Centre, Hinterland and the Articulation of ‘Romanness’ in Recent Italian Film”, by Lesley Caldwell).

The second lot of three essays focuses instead upon specific places and notable artefacts in Rome, the fame of which may often hide the very different meanings that they have had in the course of their history or with regard to their observers. The chosen items are: (1) a number of famous buildings, monuments and neighbourhoods in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1979 film entitled La luna (“Topophilia nd Other Roman Perversions: On Bertolucci’s La luna”, by John David Rhodes); (2) the 2nd-century equestrian bronze statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius and emperor Augustus’ 1st-century BCE Ara Pacis (“Marcus Aurelius and the Ara Pacis: Notes on the Notion of ‘Origin’ in Contemporary Rome”, by Filippo Trentin); and (3) the gigantic gas holder built in the Ostiense area in the 1930s to provide the citizens of Rome with cooking gas and street illumination (“A Postmodern Gaze on the Gasometer”, by Keala Jewell).

The concluding three essays discuss Rome’s two-way links with foreign architectural experiments. Specifically, they address: (1) the growingly innovative and daring architecture of the churches built outside Rome’s historic centre in the 20th and 21st century, especially after the 1962-5 Second Vatican Council, in line with analogous developments in Glasgow (“Ecclesiastical Icons: Defining Rome through Architectural Exchange”, by James Robertson); (2) the thirty-year-long international success of the itinerating architectural exhibition called Roma interrotta, in which twelve architects from different countries reinterpreted Giambattista Nolli’s seminal 1748 Great Plant of Rome (“’Roma Interrotta’: Postmodern Rome as the Source of Fragmented Narratives”, by Léa-Catherine Szacka); and (3) the influence of Rome’s architectures on two of the most influential 20th-century American architects, i.e. Charles W. Moore and Robert Venturi (“Las Vegas by Way of Rome: The Eternal City and American Postmodernism”, by Richard W. Hayes).

 

The volume edited by Holdaway and Trentin is the second instalment of the Warwick series in the humanities and it offers an engaging exploration of Rome as an evolving cultural hub of important significations for architects and artists, well beyond the firmly established waves of classicism that, recurrently, have swept the shores of Western creativity. Also, it offers a convincing example of coherent application of “postmodernism” as a useful hermeneutical tool and an established category of academic thought. Although the level of scholarly detail of the chapters is not homogenous, the overall quality of the volume is noteworthy, since this book offers many a refreshing perspective over a city about which countless perspectives have already been offered. Moreover, interesting considerations about the city’s demography, politics and economic life punctuate the chapters and make this book even more appealing. Above all, a genuine fascination with Rome’s vast and complex architectural and artistic history informs the whole endeavour, turning the book into an erudite act of love for the city. The reader who has never visited Rome will feel compelled to do it. The one who has already visited it will wish to do it again, in order to savour it in a new way.

R. Bohlin, De Osynliga. Det Europas fattiga arbetarklass; M. Linton, De hatade. Om radikalhögerns måltavlor; B. Elmbrant, Europas stålbad. Krisen som slukar välfärden och skakar euron (All titles by Atlas, Stockholm, 2012)

 

The feminist journalist Rebecca Bohlin has looked into the working and living conditions of the least paid workers within the service sector, although reminding to us that many other jobs in different sectors meet similar problems. She has met cleaners, kitchen attendants and cashiers in Stockholm, London, Hamburg and at the same time has interviewed scholars and as well politicians and union representatives about the rise in income inequality and the worsening of working conditions, across Europe and in Sweden.

And to Sweden indeed is devoted the first chapter (Hur mår RUT?). The question of rising inequalities has become hot after 2007, when tax deductions for domestic service (RUT) were introduced, with the argument that the black market was to be stopped. In fact, however, according to the unions and to some research, the outcome has been an increasing in the number of workers (often asylum seekers or anyway migrants, very often women) exploited and with no safeguard: their formal job contract is legal, but their actual working conditions are definitely different, and for the worse. Yet in Sweden, as Bohlin acknowledges, living conditions of the low-paid workers are better that in most other countries.

In the second chapter (Så pressas lönerna neråt) Bohlin analyzes, again through witnesses and interviews, migration policy at the EU level and in some of its member States. She insists on the paradox of a rhetoric stressing the need of labour force from outside Europe, in order to face demographic challenges and to make companies more “globalized”, while at the same time the actual policy is based on a military defence of the “fortress Europe”, at the cost of thousands of human lives every year. And those who succeed in reaching Europe are often exploited both economically and, when women, sexually. And that even in a country that is a world master in workers’ rights and gender equality such as Sweden.

How are trade unions tackling this backward trend to a degree of workers’ exploitation similar to that in the 19th century? Around this unavoidable question the third chapter (Facket famlar efter en ny solidaritet) is built. The answer is not at all self-evident; on the contrary, here one goes on attempt by attempt. However, what comes out from the talks that the author has had with union leaders and members, in Sweden and in the UK, as well as with scholars, is that a trade union like the Swedish one, service-oriented, is not well-equipped to face the challenges that labour movements all over the world have to meet. More interesting it seems the experience of the “Social Movement Unionism”, a strategy that has been tested in South America and is made up of a mix of mobilization, learning, dialogue with local society, negotiations – and protest actions. Exactly what many all over Europe – either workers or unemployed, migrant or local – call for.

 

An even darker side of Europe is the subject of Magnus Linton’s work, that he describes in his Introduction as a book on “majorities and minorities, absolutism and relativism, boarders and lack of them, fantasy and reality”. The author, well-known in Sweden for his reports after the carnage in Utøya, has carried out an inquiry about right-wing radicalism in three European countries: Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway, moving from the awareness that the current economic crisis increases its appeal. Linton has met the main targets of xenophobic and neo-nazi groups, respectively Roma people in Hungary, muslims in the Netherlands and left-wing intellectuals in Norway. The first section (Parasiterna), after reminding shortly the persecution of Roma in history (culminating with their, neglected, massacre during World War II) and the recent deportation of Roma in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden, introduces the reader to the disturbing world of the Hungarian neo-fascist party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), whose programme is openly “roma-centered”, so to say, and that in 2010 established itself as one of the main political forces in the country with 17% of votes. Jobbik’s growing influence resulted in a situation that Linton, with reference to what happened in the municipality of Gyöngyöspata, tells in the following way: “in 2011 in the middle of Europe fascists in uniform marched and families belonging to one of the poorest and most persecuted minorities in the continent were forced to escape what otherwise would have turned into a pogrom”. And Gyöngyöspata was only the beginning. However, the political scientist Zsolt Enyedi, interviewed by Linton, points out that these developments in Hungary were at the same time astonishing and predictable. Their roots can be found in a historical process starting from the fall of the Berlin wall; since then, populism has been a constant presence in Hungarian life and in the end has exploded due to the economic crisis. The fact that in 2010 the nationalist and authoritarian party Fidesz won 2/3 of the votes has made the situation even worse and transformed Hungary into a stronghold of radical Right in Europe.

Another country, another scapegoat: in the Netherlands, as it is well-known, the thesis that “our” problems could be solved if only “we” got rid of Muslims has found one of its most prominent champions, i.e. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and major pointer for Dutch politics for years (see the section: Ockupanterna). Though making sure to distinguish himself from people like Anders Berg Breivik (who pointed at Wilders as his ideological source of inspiration) by stressing his own democratic attitude, Wilders has steadily run down Islam, equating it with Fascism. Together with Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by a left-wing extremist), he has personified the idea that multiculturalism is a luxury only the privileged few can afford and has transformed the Netherlands into the headquarters of islamophobia in Europe.

The Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk, here quoted, urges to take into account that politics’ highest aim is economic security, as well as the capability for society to accept cultural uncertainty; but when the former decreases, then the need for a strong cultural identity rises.

Roma people and Muslims are easy scapegoats in a continent affected by geopolitical and economic turbulences; but how came that in the rich and enlightened Norway a right-wing extremist killed more than 70 young left-wing activists? What Berg Breivik aims at with his double attack (a bomb in Oslo and the carnage on the Utøya island) was, as Linton explains, to murder at the same time three generations of “betrayers” (hence the title of the section, Förrädarna), i.e. three generations of Social Democrats: the forthcoming (the young activists who met in Utøya), the present (the governmental headquarter in the capital), and the former (Gro Harlem Brudtland, former prime minister, who escaped assassination in the island due to a delay in Breivik Berg’s plan).

What has been betrayed are Norwegian culture and identity, quite obviously. Breivik Berg defines “cultural Marxism” what could otherwise be summarized as “politically correct”, in other words the idea that there are some topics that cannot be questioned, above all feminism and multiculturalism. Linton points out that coinciding with the perhaps unstoppable march of right-wing extremism in Europe is the discontent caused by what has been perceived as the hegemony of political correctedness, which has become more and more centered upon universities. After all, right-wing radicalism is not interested in discussing rationally a question (which is supposed to be the academic approach) but, on the contrary, in imposing its own understanding of reality. And it is succeeding in doing this. Linton recalls our attention to the fact that what is striking in Breivik Berg is not his insanity, but how much he reflects stereotypes and plot-syndromes related to Islam that unfortunately are represented in more or less all the European parliaments (as well as in the EU one).     

 

Not even the book by Elmbrant, one of the most prominent Swedish journalists, is intended to bring comfort to the reader. Here as well the impact of the economic downturn is looked into in a European perspective, yet with a particular attention to countries such as Greece (see chapter 1, Ett land faller sönder) and Ireland (chapter 3, Irland på liv och död). In chapter 2 (Hur hamnade vi här?) the author follows the making of the Euro and then compares the faith of two countries, Ireland and Iceland; both hit by the crisis, but the latter (outside the common currency) recovering better. Italy is not at all forgotten in this account: the doubts about its financial soundness have been recurrent amongst EU – and German in particular – leaders, for many years. However, Elmbrant warns (chapter 4, Skenbilden av krisen) against those, in Brussels as well as Berlin and Paris, who blame upon some countries ? the Southern European ones primarily ? the European financial difficulties, as the problem were simply that if one spends too much, then one has to pay back sooner or later. Elmbrant is well aware that Greece, with all the stereotypes surrounding it, has worked as a perfect scapegoat, but insists on the European dimension of the economic crisis. The trouble indeed is not the Greeks’ unreliability, but the EU powerlessness in the face of much bigger transnational financial powers. In this connection, it needs to be said that left-wing parties have definitely not been united and consistent in their (often late) condemnation of the abuse of power from private banks and finance at large.

It cannot miss, in this critical report about the EU state of health, a chapter on Angela Merkel, significantly entitled She who decides (5, Hon som bestämmer) and on Germany’s hegemonic role. The outcome of financial powers’ and Germany’s supremacy are described in chapter 6 (Europas stålbad), again focusing mostly on Southern Europe, but raising a more general question: the changing role of the Nation-State. Here Elmbrant mentions an article on The New Left Review by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck as crucial: the dismantlement of Europe’s social policies has restricted the ability of the State as far as mediating between citizens’ rights and Capital’s diktats is concerned, and by this move increased further the latter’s authoritativeness as well. There have been massive demonstrations against budget-restriction policies, at least in Greece, Spain and Portugal (chapter 7, De unga på marsch), but Elmbrant does not forget that up to now it is the Radical Right the political actor who seems to have taken more advantage from the crisis, and not the Left. Are the European Central Bank and Merkel right when presenting austerity as the only way out of the crisis or can young people protesting in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon point out to an alternative? The last two chapters are built around this question. 

After summarizing the different proposals currently discussed in the EU (in the end all related to the dilemma: more or less unity among member States? See chapter 8, Stopp i Brysseltrafiken), Elmbrant closes his report by handling the question of the future of the common currency (chapter 9, Har euron en framtid?). After looking at expert analysis and people’s mood his answer (well reflecting Swedish attitude to the EU) is: the Euro is doomed to collapse ? after all it has been a mistake from the beginning ? with consequences that in some cases will prove to be devastating.  And thinking at what is going on in many European countries we can easily believe that this apocalyptic scenario is not simply a kind of snobbery from the rich Nordic countries.   

Kristina Kappelin, Berlusconi – Italienaren (Stockholm: Brombergs, 2010)

Kappelin knows, and loves, Italy: there is no trace, in her work, of a superiority complex towards Italians – such folkloristic people! ? which is on the contrary a common feature of some foreign media when dealing with Italy. Rather, Kappelin tries to understand how came that a country with a unique cultural and historical heritage has let itself be bluffed by a man who has – perhaps irreparably – compromised Italy’s reputation in the world.

And the book is indeed not only about the founder of “Forza Italia”, but instead, as it is made clear by the meaningful title (Berlusconi. The Italian), about Berlusconi as embodiment of some national peculiarities, so to say.

Italy in the whole have not yet been able to reflect about Berlusconi’s almost twenty-year dominance over the country’s political and economic life, pressed as it is just now (February 2012) by a never-ending emergency – the risk of a financial collapse – which caused, in November 2011, the appointment of a “technical government” (i.e. voted by the Parliament but not resulting from the last general election) being charged with the task of crisis management. Furthermore, although “style” is significant – professor Mario Monti does not “peekaboo” the German chancellor (Kappelin reminds Berlusconi’s blunders in chapter seven, Tittut i världen) and seems not to be used to spend his nights with twenty- to thirty young girls at the same time – the common feeling is that there has not occurred any shift in economic and social policies, which remain unfair and not effective (at least in the view of re-launching the economy and not only balancing public finances). This sense of continuity prevents to look at “Berlusconism” as a close (?) period in Italian history.

What does Berlusconi’s success reveal of Italy, according to Kappelin’s book? Basically, three aspects: the power of organised crime; the Catholic Church’s influence upon domestic politics and culture; the well-grounded male chauvinism.

The first two points (which particularly chapter sex, Maffian, and eight, Klockorna i Peterskyrkan, focuse on, although they are recurring issues all over the book) are frequently cause of embarrassments to Italians when talking with foreigners.

And indeed it would be unthinkable in Sweden – Kappelin is not so explicit, but the starting sentence of her book is: how come that Italians vote for Berlusconi? ? to pervert justice in the way Berlusconi did in Italy (by the notorious ad hoc laws, described in their origin and content in the chapter five, Konflikten med rättväsandet), and to witness powerless to the connivance between politics and criminality. This is due probably to a political tradition in Nordic countries which Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have described as a high degree of social trust, meant both as trust in other people, including strangers, and confidence in common institutions due to their transparency[1].

However, Kappelin’s thesis is that what explains why  a politician, who from a Swedish point of view is completely incomprehensible, has been so successful is, besides his relationship with organised crime on one hand and with the Catholic Church on the other hand (at least until the last sex affaires), male chauvinism: a key factor, the Swedish journalist stresses already in the Introduction, in understanding Italy’s decline, from the economic stagnation (now recession) to the lack of trust in the future. And in chapter one (Italien och Italienarna. En introduktion) Kappelin points out indeed that the country is like a journey back in time, in a masculine and sensual world, where “l’apparenza” (look)[2] means all and where a downward compromise has been achieved between the individual and the State: as you (State) do not accomplish your duties towards me (citizen), I am not bound to accomplish mine towards you. It is the triumph of the “furbo” (cunning fellow)[3].

With such a background, it is quite obvious that women have no chance, with few exceptions, to establish themselves as political and economic independent actors. Their unhappy fortune in Berlusconi’s Italy is the subject of chapter three (Madonnan, horan och Silvio Berlusconi): those that are good looking are reduced to nothing more than ornamental elements in a society ruled by old and unappeasable men and therefore appointed as parliamentary members and even ministers exactly because of their “apparenza”; the others, the common women, who are not mistresses of some sultan, are mostly doomed to insignificance in the economy and in politics.

Berlusconi, Kappelin insists on this point, has not invented male chauvinism, which on the contrary is well-grounded in the country’s culture; his sin with no redemption is to have turned this national inclination into a rule and the “velina”[4] (young girls almost naked whose only task in Berlusconi’s TV programs is to shake their body in alluring ways) into the ideal model of womanhood.

And thus we come to another valuable contribution of Kappelin’s book, after the effective part on women’s role as mirror of Italy’s decadence (and again here we could remind that on the contrary Nordic countries are on the top in the world’s gender equality ratios): to the huge concentration of media power achieved by Berlusconi much attention is drawn upon (see particularly chapter four, Makten over medierna), but this problem is not presented at all as an Italian peculiarity. Rather, Kappelin warns that also countries which have repeatedly condemned Berlusconi for his conflict of interest have no safe defence against such a risk.

The final part of the book focuses on how Berlusconi has changed Italian political style, turning electoral campaigns into sales where even the promise of one million – and not half a million, as Kappelin writes – new jobs can be sold to people in search of an encouraging fairy-tale, with immigrants welcomed as scapegoats (chapter nine, Dragkampen i Italien – resultat och misslyckanden), and on the dangerous meeting between authoritarian democracy and media populism (chapter ten, Auktoritär demokrati och medial populism). No one before Berlusconi, Kappelin points out, had dared to draw a comparison between Mussolini and himself with a kind of self-congratulation. But what the author argues is not that the founder of “Forza Italia” is the new Mussolini: the difference is that the latter aimed at building a new Italian,  whilst the former is satisfied with the existing one. The point is rather that the centre-right parties, with Berlusconi in the forefront, have taken over and reverted the “cultural hegemony” based since 1945 on antifascism as the key-source of national identity, and have systematically put down liberal institutions (starting from parliamentary and judicial powers) – and politics itself.

In this perspective, Berlusconi’s Italy appears as a political laboratory for the whole Europe. This is the somehow not expected conclusion from a non-Italian author, which enables the book to be not only a commented review of stereotypes about Italians (and about differences between Northern and Southern Europe), but a more demanding reflection about possible future developments of democracy at an international level. Out of Italy many have laughed when seeing Berlusconi’s blunders and listening to his hymn (“Meno male che Silvio c’è”), but – Kappelin warns – his “style” has become a model for a new generation of right-wing politicians, starting from David Cameron in the UK.

Thus it is not easy to get rid of Berlusconism as though it were a mere interlude in Italian history, perhaps cherishing the always comfortable thesis that it has been a further demonstration of the Gattopardo’s core idea: in Italy everything is to be changed so that nothing changes. On the contrary, Berlusconi, this is Kappelin’s conclusion, has substantially changed the way Italians look at themselves – and at the the others – as well as the ways of contemporary politics. And it will take time to go back to previous ones – or to find something new.


[1] See H. Berggren, L. Trägårdh, Social Trust and Radical Individualism. The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism, in The Nordic Way, Stockholm, Global Utmaning, 2010, pp. 18-19.

[2] In Italian in the book, see p. 18.

[3] In Italian in the book, see p. 29.

[4] The book has been written before the “Ruby affaire”.

Rhetorical Strategies in Legal Argumentation. Some remarks on the recent decisions of the Portuguese Tribunal Constitucional and the Italian Corte Costituzionale on same-sex marriage

I think that contemporary theories of legal argumentation have let aside the idea that the analysis of legal argumentations can show the judges’ hidden ideological and political positions by resorting to traditional legal arguments. Just as an example, it may be interesting to analyze the justificatory function of argumentations contained in two decisions taken by two constitutional courts, in Italy and in Portugal, on the same question. Why constitutional courts and not, for example, a court of first instance? Constitutional judges, apparently, do not need to persuade anybody: there is no higher judicial authority, and their interpretation of constitutional text is definitive. For this reason, one can assume that strategic argumentation plays little role in the arguments justifying their verdicts. I hope I can show that this assumption may not, fully, reflect the reality.

Now, let us consider the examples: two decisions taken almost at the same time by two separate authorities in two different countries on the same matter, same-sex marriage. Also the judicial course is almost the same: same-sex couples applied for a marriage licence, and their application was refused, on the grounds that same-sex marriage is a violation of the Civil Code. Finally, the couples challenge the ban in court.

The Italian case

In the Italian case, in April 2009 the Tribunal of Venice sent the issue to the Constitutional Court, claiming a possible conflict between the Civil Code, which does not allow for same-sex marriage, and article 3 of the Italian Constitution, which forbids any kind of discrimination, and article 29, which is the article of the Italian Constitution concerning family. The Constitutional Court ruled on April 2010 that the statutory ban on same-sex marriage is not a violation of the Constitution[1].

In the grounds of the judgement, the Court briefly mentions art. 3 of the Constitution (which states that all citizens “are equal before the law, without consideration of sex, race, tongue, religion”)[2], saying that this article does not prohibit any form of discrimination, but only unjustified or unnecessary or disproportionate discriminations[3]. So, the question is whether the ban of same-sex marriage is a justified discrimination. For this purpose, the Court begins by examining “for logical reasons”[4] (that are instead reasons based on the content of the article) article 29 of the Italian Constitution, which defines family as a “natural society based on marriage”[5]. This definition is clearly gender-neutral, but the problem, obviously, is the qualification of the family as a “natural society”. In order to clarify this qualification, the Court resorts to traditional legal arguments. In these cases, the main argument is obviously the naturalistic argument. Yet, this argument has become less effective in post-traditional and multi-ethic societies: for this reason, the Court resorts also to a psychological argument, saying that “with this expression, as one can deduce from the preliminary work of the constituent assembly, the constitutional legislator meant underline that the family has original rights, not derived from the authority of the State or of the legal order”. As we can see, the naturalistic argument is still implicit, but the strategy of the Court is to hide this argument, which ultimately states the unnaturalness of same-sex marriage, by resorting to the intention of the legislator. It thus shifts the burden of proof to the “Constituent Fathers”. This strategy comes out most clearly in the following lines. First of all, the Court states that a legal concept such as “family” cannot be “crystallized” (“cristallizzato”), say, entrenched in a stable definition once and for all (thus, the Court is apparently avoiding the naturalistic argument), but immediately thereafter it adds that one cannot push the interpretation of a statute to the point to distort the “nucleus” of the content of a norm, and cannot reframe the statute in a way which incorporates phenomena and problems that could not have been foreseen at the time of its promulgation[6]. Now, to say that a legal concept is not closed or “crystallized” is equal to saying that it can incorporate phenomena and problems not foreseen at the time of its promulgation. But we can leave this aside, for the moment. What it is clear is that the pivot of the argument is the definition of this “core” or “nucleus” of the legal statement that cannot be changed.

In order to make this definition more precise the judges resort again to the psychological argument, saying that «as one can deduce from the preliminary work of the constituent assembly, the problem of the same-sex marriage was completely ignored by the assembly, though the homosexual condition was not unknown». And again: «the constituent fathers, while writing the art. 29, made reference to an institution [the family] already shaped» in the civil code[7]. In other words: when the constituent assembly talked about “family” it made reference to heterosexual marriage because: a) by using the expression “natural society” they meant an institution pre-existent to the legal order (that is assumed to be the heterosexual marriage); b) during the session of the constituent assembly, nobody talked about homosexual marriage; c) in any case, while discussing this issue, the constituent fathers made reference to the civil code.

The first argument is obviously naturalistic, the second one presupposes the intentional silence of the legislator, the third one turns the discourse into an historic argument: “Because of the absence of references, we must deduce that the constituent fathers made an implicit reference to the civil code”, which ban, de facto, homosexual marriage[8]. In order to strengthen this opinion, the Court uses finally the systematic argument, in this case the sedes materiae argument: the following article of the Constitution, which is art. 30, concerns filiation and its effects, this means that the family “as natural society” is the family that can potentially procreate biological children[9].  So, all included, the concept of “family” intended by the Constitution is the traditional one. And we come back to the naturalistic argument.

Once the legal concept of family has been defined, as the judges did in their ruling, it is clear that this concept does not include same-sex marriage. For this reason, the discrimination between heterosexual and homosexual couples is not unjustified and, ultimately, the civil code articles are not unconstitutional on the basis of the article 3 of the Constitution, which only ban unjustified discrimination.

The Portuguese case

The Portuguese case is quite similar. A same-sex couple challenges the ban in court, saying that the ban discriminates on the basis of sex and sexual orientation, and that discrimination on the basis of sex is banned by the 1976 constitution. Moreover, in 2004 a constitutional amendment explicitly protected sexual orientation from discrimination[10]. In May 2007 the Court rejected the couple’s claim[11]. The couple then appealed to the Portuguese Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional). Similar is the judicial course, similar is the conclusion: the Tribunal Constitucional received the case in July 2007 and, in July 2009, decided that the constitution does not demand the recognition of same-sex marriage. Also the arguments used by Portuguese constitutional judges are quite similar. The plaintiffs based their claim on the alleged unconstitutionality of article 1577 of the Civil Codes (that clearly states: “two persons of different sex”)[12], but the Tribunal Constitucional, due to the fact that art. 36 of the Portuguese Constitution gives an ambiguously gender-neutral definition of marriage[13], ultimately decides to interpret the Constitution in the light of the Civil Code. The argument, roughly speaking, is that the Constitution only says “family”, generically, because it accepts implicitly the concept of family stated in the Civil Code. In order to strengthen this argument, which could appear unusual, the Portuguese Tribunal Constitutional resorts to the systematic argument, underlying the consonance between two different sections (the Constitution and the Civil Code) of the Portuguese legal system. In order to do this, they need something more: they need what we could call a “coherentist interpretation”, which can be obtained using the historical argument[14], the systematic a coherentia argument[15] or, more generically, a restrictive interpretative attitude as expressed by the brocard (legal maxim) ubi lex voluit, dixit; ubi noluit tacuit (“when the law wanted to regulate the matter, it did regulate the matter; when it did not want to regulate the matter, it remained silent”), a principle used in order to limit an excessively expansive interpretation that can go beyond the intention of the legislator[16].

As we can see, the two examples are analogous to each other. The main difference (which should not be underestimated) is that the Portuguese Constitution does not make reference to the family as a “natural society”. Actually, it does not specify how the concept of “family” should be understood. Using systematic arguments, the Portuguese Constitutional Court ultimately decided to interpret the Constitution on the light of the Civil Code, which explicitly declares that the marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. This could seem surprising, especially if we consider that the Portuguese Civil Code was drafted before the current Portuguese Constitution. Therefore, what the Court wanted to do in this case was, obviously, to transfer the responsibility of any decision to the Parliament.

Conclusions

The argumentative tools used by both constitutional courts are almost the same and they are neither surprising nor unusual. The use of arguments such as the systematic argument, the historical argument, the psychological argument, and the appeal to the (both chronological and topographical) coherence of the legal system, are part of a strategy to emphasize the consistency of the latter, even where there is no such consistency. In the Portuguese example, this kind of strategy has been the core of the Court’s strategy. In the Italian example, due to the constitutional definition of “family” as “natural society”, the Court decides to resort to the naturalistic argument. However, the use of the naturalistic argument, which has been more common over the past decades, is now ancillary because of its lack of persuasiveness. For this reason the Court chooses, perhaps unconsciously, to cloak this argument about the “natural family” into one about the coherence of the legal system.

One of the standing results of modern theory on legal argumentation is that we have to differentiate between at least two levels of argumentation. On the lower level, a judicial decision is justified by reference to an existing legal statement. But it is possible that, in a given case, no applicable rule exists, or that several rules exist, which support, however, different decisions, or even that the interpretation of an existing rule, which is in principle applicable to the case, is unclear. In these situations, we are compelled to progress to a second level of justification. On this level we have to justify which rule, or which interpretation of a rule, should be applied.[17] At the first level, logical deduction is sufficient: judges do actually reason deductively. At the second level the question could be basically, from an argumentative point of view, persuading the audience about the correctness of an interpretation.  For this reason, the second level is basically rhetorical, in the sense that strategic argumentation plays here a central role. In the two examples mentioned above, arguments are rhetorically balanced in order to persuade of the validity of the interpretation, while hiding political choices or ideological preferences by means of an appeal to the coherence of the legal system or to the “naturalness” of a social institution.


[1] Corte Costituzionale, Sentenza n. 138/210

[2] “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions”.

It is the duty of the Republic to remove those obstacles of an economic or social nature which constrain the freedom and equality of citizens, thereby impeding the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organisation of the country.

[3] Corte Costituzionale, Sentenza n. 138/210, 3, Considerato in diritto

[4] 9, Considerato in diritto

[5] “The Republic recognises the rights of the family as a natural society founded on marriage.

Marriage is based on the moral and legal equality of the spouses within the limits laid down by law to guarantee the unity of the family”.

[6] 9, Considerato in diritto: “è vero che i concetti di famiglia e di matrimonio non si possono ritenere “cristallizzati” con riferimento all’epoca in cui la Costituzione entrò in vigore, perché sono dotati della duttilità propria dei princìpi costituzionali e, quindi, vanno interpretati tenendo conto non soltanto delle trasformazioni dell’ordinamento, ma anche dell’evoluzione della società e dei costumi. Detta interpretazione, però, non può spingersi fino al punto d’incidere sul nucleo della norma, modificandola in modo tale da includere in essa fenomeni e problematiche non considerati in alcun modo quando fu emanata”.

[7] 9, Considerato in diritto: “come risulta dai citati lavori preparatori, la questione delle unioni omosessuali rimase del tutto estranea al dibattito svoltosi in sede di Assemblea, benché la condizione omosessuale non fosse certo sconosciuta. I costituenti, elaborando l’art. 29 Cost., discussero di un istituto che aveva una precisa conformazione ed un’articolata disciplina nell’ordinamento civile”..

[8] 9, Considerato in diritto: “in assenza di diversi riferimenti, è inevitabile concludere che essi tennero presente la nozione di matrimonio definita dal codice civile entrato in vigore nel 1942, che, come sopra si è visto, stabiliva (e tuttora stabilisce) che i coniugi dovessero essere persone di sesso diverso”.

[9] 9. Considerato in diritto, “Non è casuale, del resto, che la Carta costituzionale, dopo aver trattato del matrimonio, abbia ritenuto necessario occuparsi della tutela dei figli (art. 30), assicurando parità di trattamento anche a quelli nati fuori dal matrimonio, sia pur compatibilmente con i membri della famiglia legittima. La giusta e doverosa tutela, garantita ai figli naturali, nulla toglie al rilievo costituzionale attribuito alla famiglia legittima ed alla (potenziale) finalità procreativa del matrimonio che vale a differenziarlo dall’unione omosessuale”.

[10] Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, art. 13, 2: “No one shall be privileged, favoured, prejudiced, deprived of any right or exemptedm from any duty on the basis of ancestry, sex, race, language, place of origin, religion, political or ideological beliefs, education, economic situation, social circumstances or sexual orientation”..

[11] Tribunal da Relação de Lisboa, acórdão 6284/2006-8, 15/02/2007

[12] Art. 1577 (“Noção de casamento”): “Casamento é o contrato celebrado entre duas pessoas de sexo diferente que pretendem constituir família mediante uma plena comunhão de vida, nos termos das disposições deste Código” (corsivo mio); art. 1628 (“Casamentos inexistentes”), comma e): “É juridicamente inexistente […] o casamento contraído por duas pessoas do mesmo sexo”.

[13] Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, art. 13, 1 (“Everyone shall possess the right to found a family and to marry on terms of full equality”) and 3 (“Spouses shall possess equal rights and duties in relation to their civil and political capacity and to the maintenance and education of their children”).

[14] A recepção constitucional do conceito histórico de casamento como união entre duas pessoas de sexo diferente radicado intersubjectivamente na comunidade como instituição não permite retirar da Constituição um reconhecimento directo e obrigatório dos casamentos entre pessoas do mesmo sexo. (cfr. Gomes Canotilho e Vital Moreira, Constituição da República Portuguesa Anotada, vol. I, 4.ª edição, Coimbra, 2007, pág. 362).

[15] Mas a circunstância de a Constituição, no já citado n.º 1 do seu artigo 36.º, se referir expressamente ao casamento sem o definir, revela que não pretende pôr em causa o conceito comum, radicado na comunidade e recebido na lei civil, configurado como um «contrato celebrado entre duas pessoas de sexo diferente». Argomento sistemático-concettualistico (dogmatico).

[16] Na verdade, se o legislador constitucional pretendesse introduzir uma alteração da configuração legal do casamento, impondo ao legislador ordinário a obrigação de legislar no sentido de passar a ser permitido a sua celebração por pessoas do mesmo sexo, certamente que o teria afirmado explicitamente, sem se limitar a legitimar o conceito configurado pela lei civil; e não lhe faltaram ocasiões para esse efeito, ao longo das revisões constitucionais subsequentes.

[17] A. Soeteman, Deduction in Law, in F.H. van Eemeren (ed.), Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, 1987, p. 102.

Giulio Santagata, Il braccio destro. Quindici anni di politica con Romano Prodi (Bologna: Pendragon, 2010)

Perhaps, the nearly three dozens of foreign citizens–British, Canadian, American, Icelandic, German, Mexican, Taiwanese and Scandinavian–who asked me this question were simply devoid of the knowledge, the economic interests, the political background, or the spiritual attitudes that have led millions of Italians to choose Berlusconi as their national leader and international representative. On the contrary, far from being a neutral question, all of these inquisitive foreign citizens displayed invariantly their genuine astonishment at Berlusconi’s electoral success, for they were unable to perceive in his public persona anything positive or appealing.

Most commonly, their negative perception of Berlusconi was associated with sad, stereotypical notions about Italy and the Italians, such as being lecherously over-sexed, endemically corrupt, and in bed with the Mafia. Sometimes, however, their negative perception was more sophisticated. In particular, there appeared to be recurrent concerns that billionaires or media moguls à la Berlusconi could establish new parties and seize self-servingly the democratic processes of their own native countries. In this perspective, my interlocutors seemed worried that some sort of “Berlusconism” could cross Italy’s boundaries and take over the rest of Europe, analogously to the historical experience of fascism, which emerged in Italy and was later adopted in as different countries as Portugal and Germany.

Giulio Santagata’s new book offers a different answer to this frequent, value-laden question that I was put so often over the past fifteen years. It does so by recounting with great analytical skill, vivid personal participation and significant intellectual honesty his own experience as Romano Prodi’s “right hand” over the past two decades of Italian political life—Romano Prodi being the one and only left-wing candidate to ever beat, twice, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy’s general elections.

The book comprises three sections, which are devoted respectively to: the history of the political alliance called “the Olive tree” (13-46); Santagata’s organisation of numerous electoral campaigns (49-87); and Romano Prodi’s two short-lived governments (91-146). Together, these three sections reveal the inner frailty and the limited outreach of the political coalition that supported Prodi’s candidacy and governments.

The main factor at play with regard to the coalition’s inner frailty would appear to have been the sheer number and variability of the political parties that formed it. Many, short-lived, endlessly reinventing themselves in search for an invariably evanescent appeal, these parties shared a common fear and a common fault. First of all, they were all afraid of a strong leadership, whether Prodi’s or anyone else’s. Secondly, they regarded each other not much as allies, but as competitors. Eventually, the need for visibility of so many parties and party leaders worked against Romano Prodi, given that his alleged supporters were busier attacking each other than striking jointly at Berlusconi and at his right-wing agenda.

The limited outreach of the same parties was due in primis to the limited resources and media connections available to them. In this respect, Berlusconi’s being a media mogul and billionaire running for office who, more or less manifestly, told newspapers and TV broadcasters what to say, did make a difference. Still, the obstinately self-referential aims of left-wing professional politicians does strike Santagata as equally relevant, for these quarrelsome political leaders claimed incessantly to know better than their own voters, who clearly liked the notion of a unified Italian left. Inevitably, such better-knowing strategists were shown to be tragically out of touch with their potential voters’ hopes and demands.

It must be realised that some of the hopes and demands of the Italian voters were likely to be the result of cunningly induced dreams and fears, which right-wing politicians were better able to exploit. After all, these politicians had contributed decisively to give shape to them, thanks to Berlusconi’s tight grip on Italy’s mass media. Similarly, some hopes and demands were clearly the expression of the vocal plethora of small- and medium-scale interest groups that Prodi’s government was trying to overcome in the name of liberal “modernity” and ever-useful “national interest”. Others could be even the desiderata of Italy’s organised crime and endemic corruption—sad stereotypes are not necessarily off the mark all the time.

Yet, a third element should be considered as well. Santagata hints at it in the final section of the book, in which he discusses the disastrous effects of the ongoing global economic crisis. The recipes that were proposed in the fifteen years of Prodi’s political career were very much in tune with those of, say, Britain’s New Labour or Germany’s social-democrats. Prodi’s governments were eager to liberalise the economy, privatise what little was left of public banks and State-owned industrial concerns, and, to a significant extent, ride the wave of rampant financial activities. Like Blair and Schroeder, Prodi was willing to embrace globalisation as a positive force. In this economic perspective, the difference between his novel “post-communist” left and Berlusconi’s right was not so pronounced.

On the contrary, the only voices to criticise left-wing liberalisations, privatisations and the embrace of globalisation were a handful of so-called “radicals” on the left of Prodi’s left, and even fewer old-fashioned nationalists on the right. Everybody else, the “moderate” and “right-thinking” majority, had taken aboard the “univocally liberal and free-market thought” that had once characterised staunchly right-wing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (144).

In brief, a monolithic faith in the correctness of free trade and free-market economics was established in Italy too, both left and right of the political spectrum, soon after the collapse of the USSR. Certainly, there were the few exceptions noted above, but they were marginalised as a nostalgic leftover of the Cold War era. The seventy-year-old Soviet alternative to liberal capitalism had been proven utopian by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, with it, any serious challenge to free trade and free-market economics. As a result, liberal capitalism was glorified not solely as the only path ahead, but also as the right one, as though the failure of the Soviet remedy meant that there had never been any pathology to begin with. Yet, after twenty years of “moderate” and “right-thinking” Thatcherism, the global economy entered in 2008 such a dramatic global crisis that even Berlusconi’s own minister of financial affairs was heard calling for “more public intervention” in the economy and “the unspeakable communist word ‘nationalisation’.” (144)

Possibly, as Santagata suggests, the result of this global crisis is that the left will stop being ashamed of its traditional socialist lexicon and reformist aims, thus rediscovering “ethics, equality, welfare, labour, solidarity… capitalism, sustainability, redistribution of wealth.” (144) Whether Romani Prodi will be the most credible Italian political leader to be at the helm of this counter-counter-reformation, though, is far from clear.

Thomas Jefferson, I dilemmi della democrazia americana, translated and edited by Alberto Giordano, with a preface by Dino Cofrancesco (Novi Ligure: Città del Silenzio, 2007)

On the contrary, the ruling political coalitions in the 1980s, centered on the two-prongs of the Christian Democracy and the Socialist parties, got rid of every sense of measure in spoiling public resources and making recourse to inflation and public debt – which, in those years, rocketed from a normal 60% of GNP to more than 100% (so that we, our daughters and sons, and a host of unpredictable future generations are, and will be, paying dearly for the glorious “statemanship” of those years). 1992 marked a turning-point for the old political establishment: the “Mani pulite” (“Clean Hands”) trials, filed by independent public prosecutors in front of an independent judiciary sent a lot of politicians and fellow transactors and businessmen into jail, and even a former prime minister, acclaimed by somebody as one of the greatest Italian politicians of the XXth century, flew abroad to avoid prosecution. After a while, however, old politicians found a way for taking advantage of the wise advice of Fabrizio, the beloved nephew of Prince Salina (“It is necessary that everything does change for everything to stay as usual”). This way was the founding of a new political party by an influential businessman. This businessman won three elections in the last fifteen-years, qualifying as a perfect demagogue (his party is being defined by his followers as a “charismatic party”), and putting his own private interests on the top of governement and parliamentary agendas. The public sphere deteriorated heavily in those years, and is still deteriorating, for the demagogue and his allies proceeded systematically to turn politics from a civil, though sometimes tough, confrontation of opinions among rival parties into a war against internal enemies, while at the same time undermining the foundations of the Republican Constitution.

 

In such a situation, the selection of eight writings and seventeen letters by Thomas Jefferson translated, edited, and clearly introduced by Alberto Giordano may indeed provide a sample of an ideal, good, politician, to be used as a standard for criticism and improvement in the Italian political life. For instance, Jefferson upheld free public education for all, as a way to provide future citizens with the learning necessary to control politicians and protect democracy; he opposed public debt, arguing that present generations have not the right to bind future generations to pay for it; he opposed religious “fanaticism”, we would now say “foundamentalism”, as one of the most serious dangers for a democracy, while upholding religious freedom and toleration, provided religion is properly considered as a private business of each believer.

Italians should take the Jefferson model, however, with two caveats.

To begin with, Jefferson supported a few, quite unpalatable, views, even for XVIIIth century standards: think about slavery (he was not an uncompromised abolitionist), women (their proper place is home and family management), and native Americans (to be civilized under the protectoship of wasps). But this is a minor drawback, from our point of view and the way society and culture have evolved in the meantime.

Furthermore – a point I consider the most serious flaw in Jefferson’s political thought – he deemed democracy to be capable, by itself, to protect and guarantee to citizens the individual rights he wisely wanted to be ascribed to them in a constitutional Bill of Rights. On this path, we cannot follow him (though we may appreciate his romantic idea of a democracy made up by small businessmen, small farmers, and small manufacturers, with a small government to decide upon). Nay, democracy by itself is prone to become the prey and toy of demagogues; and only a firmly established constitutional democracy, endowed with a sovereign constitution and judicial review, like the one Madison and Marshall cherished, can do the tremendously important trick of a serious protection of individual rights against abusing majorities and the interest-groups pulling its wires. So, to conclude: welcome to Jefferson’s essays, but, as Don Ferrante suggests, con juicio. The book also contains a learned “Preface” by Dino Cofrancesco, where the most recent essays on Jefferson are analyzed and discussed.