Italy’s economy has remained listless for decades despite the vigor of some sectors of manufacturing, agriculture, and engineering, where it is a world leader.
Few of its banking institutions are decisive actors on the contemporary global stage. Its media outlets serve up mostly derivative content and show little capacity for invention or depth. Its corporations and public institutions strain under the weight of century-old ills: gerontocracy, clientelism, structural rigidities that successive waves of attempted reform have failed to mitigate. There isn’t nearly enough investment in research and higher education. Personal incomes continue to trend flat and the prospects for younger workers remain bleak even in the gig economy. Design, once a hallmark of excellence and a signature of the “made in Italy,” has struggled to renew itself and, despite an abundance of young talents, the creative class has tended to flow and ferment elsewhere – in northern Europe, the Americas, Asia – despite Milan’s dominant role as host and promoter of global furniture and fashion fairs.
Inventoried from on high these realities appear disheartening. Yet they prove at odds with one’s “street-level” experience of a generalized sense wellbeing recently confirmed by Italy’s number one ranking in the Global Happiness Index. Whether such indices are indicative or not, I am routinely impressed at the sub-institutional level by the quality of the individual minds, talents, and skills that I encounter; by the imaginative capabilities – often operating in highly localized, small-scale environments – of artists, designers, businessmen, chefs, students, and the like. I am no less struck by the persistence of human bonds that elsewhere in the world have been sundered by the culture of 24/7 work.
Everywhere, amidst the bureaucratic wreckage and neglect, I encounter traces of creative juices bubbling up through the cracks in creaky centuries-old buildings, businesses, and institutional frameworks. There are the civic and ethical passions embodied by the rescue crews combing earthquake and avalanche devastated zones. The younger generation is the most well-traveled that Italy has ever produced, even if some of its liveliest spirits have sought a professional refuge in the expatriate world. The country’s much-vaunted quality of life, an atmospheric factor resistant to quantification, appears intact, perhaps against all odds.
While the contradictions inventoried above will not come as a surprise to attentive observers of il bel paese, there’s a more recent facet of Italian life that, though readily visible, strikes this outside/insider as underanalyzed and unassimilated: the Italy referred to here as la quarta Italia. If the “first” Italy was ancient Roman, the second was that of the early modern communes, and the third was the Carduccian post-Risorgimental nation state, the fourth comes bearing the fruits as well as the burdens of global migration as experienced in the early 21th century. Stated simply, its an Italy whose face is multiracial and whose culture merges the local and the global; an Italy whose identity is catholic in Greek sense of katholikos (whole or universal) without losing its sense of place.
Just like regionalism and localism, immigration has at once forged and posed recurring challenges to Italian identity. Every historical epoch has brought with it successive waves of demographic others: Albanians, Greeks, Catalans, Arabs, Germans, Croats, and Roms; religious minorities like the Valdensians or Jews; linguistic subgroups speaking German, Sardinian or Ladino. Most were slowly woven into the national fabric in the process of sustained cohabitations, framed within a cultural narrative in which the values of classicism, Mediterraneanism, or Italianness demonstrated their strength through the ability to ingest and absorb. Even in the field of 20th century architecture, projects as diverse as Adalberto Libera’s flattop Casa Malaparte, Giuseppe Vaccaro’s Palazzo delle Poste in Naples, and Carlo Mollino’s slope-roofed Lago Nero Alpine chalet manage to share enough core values as to seamlessly slot into a national history of the modern movement. Nativist fantasies left aside, Italianness has always been a fluid and absorptive quality thanks to which mythical constructs like the “made in Italy” concealed a reality of hybridity and cosmopolitanism or selective forms of globalism. Otherwise stated, Italy’s great strength has always been a weakness and openness: the peninsula’s congenital porosity.
Top image: Domus 605, April 1980 page detail. Adalberto Libera's Villa Malaparte, Capri, 1938
Jeffrey Schnapp is the founder/faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. At Harvard, he holds the Carl A. Pescosolido Chair in Romance Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is on the teaching faculty in the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and is affiliated with the Critical Media Practice program in Visual and Environmental Studies. Originally trained as a medievalist, his recent books concern the modern and contemporary epochs with a focus on media, technology, architecture, design, and the history of the book.
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