The national character of the Italians between history and invention

The national character of the Italians between history and invention

Michael Magno's Notepad

Coined by the French moralists of the seventeenth century, the term “national character” enters our literature with Giacomo Leopardi's Discourse over the present state of the costume of Italians (1824). But before the great poet took up his pen to tell us in prose, brutally, how we are made, the description of the character of the Italian had occupied the ingenuity of many European artists and kept awake the spirit of observation of a dense group of travelers who , particularly in the Enlightenment century, they came to our peninsula with the intention of completing their classical training thanks to the formidable experience of the Grand Tour. However, having left with ambitious cultural programs, they often returned home with notebooks full of anthropological maxims not exactly benevolent with the Bel Paese, like that of the historian Pierre-Jean Grosley: “L'Italie est le pays où le mot 'smart' est éloge” (1764).

From the late eighteenth-century polemics on the cunning of our ancestors, preceded by those on the ethics of the dissimulation of the Baroque man, to the nineteenth-century debates on individualism and the lack of civic sense of Italians, up to the theme of transformism in its various twentieth-century declinations: the result is a story of speeches that experience an impressive production and circulation of stereotypes about national identity, some of which are mentioned later. Giulio Bollati, in his essay on the transformation of the late nineteenth century (in L 'Italian. The national character as history and as an invention, Einaudi, 1983), wrote that the intention of the leaders of the old Left, from its inventor Agostino Depretis, the term was "synonymous with evolution" used to connote in a scientific-progressive sense the request to transform parties while eliminating the distinction between Right and Left, already weakened and often forgotten in post-unification parliamentary combinations. Transformism was born as a chemical equation: the passage from one state to another, from archaic to modern, from old to new ".

“But – continues Bollati – it had rapidly transformed into the opposite: immobility, association of several only apparent ones, in reality held together by the closure towards society. Hence indifference to the alignments, particular interests of individual capibastone exchanged with the general interest, fragile governments and in the hands of squads of deputies ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder, profiteering. "In this way – argues Bollati – transformism definitively takes on the pejorative meaning it has: distance between declared intentions and actual behaviors, ability to embrace the opponent's themes and words to empty them of meaning, willingness to allow oneself to be captured, conflicts in public and agreements in the corridor. Transformation is appearance, spectacle, indifference to the merits of the issues. Its purpose is power as such ”.

It was yesterday, but it feels like today.


The term "sublime" ("das Erhabene" in German) alludes in Kant to what is worthy of admiration and respect, as it shows – together – our insignificance and our superiority as rational beings towards him, as is the very famous case of the "starry sky above me" and of the "moral law in me". In a text published in 1757, “Inquiry on the beautiful and the sublime”, Edmund Burke, nicknamed the “British Cicero”, moves the concept from the ethical dimension to the vitalistic dimension of the passions; in particular, of the most blinding one, fear, which takes away from the mind any capacity to reason, also altering the individual's feeling of identity: "Everything that can arouse ideas of pain and danger, that is, everything that is in a some sense terrible, or which concerns terrible objects, or which acts in a similar way to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is what produces the strongest emotion that the soul can feel ”. Does it also apply in the face of a devastating pandemic? I doubt it.


Some have compared the pyrotechnic disagreements that are tearing the M5s apart to a sort of commedia dell'arte by Arlecchino and Pulcinella. I do not agree. In my opinion, their aesthetic form is to be found in another theatrical tradition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Italian futurist avant-garde exalted variety because it was marvelous and eccentric, anti-intellectual and popular, capable of actively involving the public and arousing its appreciation with shouts and shouts. "Let's create the scene", wrote Enrico Prampolini in 1915. We invent a show that must not depend on the word but on the free and unbridled imagination of the author, who must therefore not imitate reality but amaze, amuse, excite and deceive the spectators with the speed and sensationalism of his message. The "theater of surprise", as the title of a manifesto signed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Francesco Cangiulli says six years later, had to throw away any elite dross and become "alogical, unreal". Artifice, comedy, circus, unpredictability, sparse texts and insignificant characters were the canons and values ​​of Futurist dramaturgy. It is exactly the one now brought back to its former glory by the tour company of Grillo, Di Maio , Casaleggio and Di Battista.


First globalization, then the world recession that began in 2008, and now the pandemic: a scenario that over the last decade has severely tested the strength of representative democracy. Rivers of ink were thus spilled over his alleged crisis. There are those who, faced with the emergence of modern forms of oligarchy, of economic potentates and technostructures that empty the traditional seats of popular sovereignty, invoke direct democracy as a panacea. There are those who, faced with the growing difficulties encountered by democratic institutions in the government of mass society, on the other hand propose a further centralization of powers, which effectively reduces the length of traditional parliamentary procedures.

Lastly, Enrico Letta's invitation to rediscover the virtues of deliberative democracy was added ( Corriere della Sera , 1 October). It does not, in my opinion, deserve to be dismissed with a shrug. Provided, however, to avoid dangerous misunderstandings. Because deliberating does not mean – as is commonly understood – deciding, but indicates the phase of the public debate that precedes the decision. Of course, it does not end with the calling of an assembly in which everyone speaks freely. Here too, rules, procedures, the active presence of experts and institutions are indispensable to weigh the pros and cons of possible solutions to a collective problem, circumscribe the reasons for a disagreement or conflict, identify possible points of balance and compromise.

A dialogic process, in short, aimed at making a judgment not on what is true or false, but on what is right or wrong for a local community (the only level in which forms of deliberative democracy can have real effectiveness). I do not agree with the former prime minister, however, when he urges the left not to split on the concept of direct democracy of the Five Stars. For reasons of both linguistic and political hygiene, first of all. In fact, its most authoritative exponents continue to use both expressions as if they were superimposable, thus creating misunderstandings and misunderstandings. It is therefore necessary, if we want to understand the cultural background that first favored the birth and today the crisis of the M5s (which, I believe, will have as its inevitable corollary a split) to keep firmly the distinction between the two models.

All the more so if we consider that, in the lexicon of the pentastellates, the term direct democracy is often used as a synonym for participatory democracy. The latter returned to the fore with the new global movements of the early 2000s. But its origins date back to the sixties of the last century: it is then that in the United States it sees the light in the wake of the civil rights struggles of that period. Even if, in truth, among its constitutive features there was the same radical rejection of political representation whose perverse effects were emphasized: in particular, the passivity of the standardized individual. In conclusion, in the ideology of the pentastellates there is a double challenge to representative democracy. As Antonio Floridia argues, the first could be called "reformist": to develop some instruments of direct democracy – referendum, popular legislative initiative – within a system in which Parliament retains its centrality. The second challenge could be defined as "utopian": overcoming the representative system to arrive at a future without parties, in which – thanks to a click on the computer – any intermediation between citizens and institutions disappears ( A deliberative idea of ​​democracy , il Mulino, 2017).

These positions are also heard in progressive intellectual circles, according to which the crisis of representation must be addressed through mechanisms that should “de-politize” democracy: for example, the proactive referendum without quorum and the draw as a method of selecting the political class. Only in this way, in search of the specific answers that need to be given to specific deficits of democratic institutions, national and European, the search for easy shortcuts is replaced, where technocratic and populist recipes feed each other.

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Start Magazine at the URL on Sat, 17 Oct 2020 05:02:04 +0000.