Swans Commentary » swans.com July 16, 2012  



The Muscle Of The Heart


by Fabio De Propris and Peter Byrne







(Swans - July 16, 2012)   Sometimes tiny things can stand in for others as large and mystifying as a national state. A little story, an image, a photograph can help explain a whole culture. So I would like to tell one little story about one game of football -- our "calcio," France's "le foot," the Anglo-American world's "soccer." It's a true story and to my mind reveals how Italy works. The game took place May 20 of this year in Rome at the Olympic Stadium, Naples versus Juventus. The Naples team is owned by the movie producer Aurelio De Laurentiis; Juventus, out of Turin, by the Agnelli-Elkann family who own the FIAT automobile manufacturer.

The game was to decide the winner of the Italian Cup or Coppa Italia. A victory in this competition doesn't compare to one in the national Italian league that Juventus topped this year. However, the Cup is important enough to bring together sixty-thousand fans in Rome and keep eleven and a half million in front of their TV sets for ninety minutes. In comparison to an American Super Bowl tiger, it's only a kitten. But the meowing is Italian and therefore very loud. The national importance of the contest is easy to understand. The best team from the north of the country meets the best team of the south in a stadium midway between the two in the nation's capital.

In Rome, the twenty-two players left the changing room and filed on to the field for the preliminaries. The Italian national anthem has to be sung before the final game of the Coppa Italia. A young singer named Arisa did the honors on this occasion. For the last couple of years her pretty love songs have pleased a middle-range public that likes watching TV and avoids both rock and electronic music.

The history of the Italian anthem is even shorter than my little story, but also tells us much about the country it celebrates. Mameli's Hymn (also known as Il canto degli Italiani or Fratelli d'Italia) was declared the national anthem by law only in 2005, although it was composed in 1847 and sung by patriots in the Risorgimento when the peninsula struggled for unity and against foreign domination. Giuseppe Verdi thought well enough of the music to include it in his Hymn of the Nations beside God Save the Queen and the Marseillaise at the London International Exhibition of 1862.

Skeptics, however, insist that Verdi's promotion of Mameli's Hymn was in reality a slap at the House of Savoy that assumed power in Italy in 1861 and immediately declared their Royal March the national anthem. Verdi, born in the Duchy of Parma (Italian center-north) was no admirer of the Turin (Italian northwest) Monarchy and yet was a fervid patriot. Indeed, he is as representative a figure of a united Italy as one could imagine. Today many Italians feel that the national anthem should be the music the crowd sang in the street, quite spontaneously, at his funeral. This was the touching hymn to liberty, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from his opera Nabucco: Va pensiero.

So at Rome's Olympic Stadium, Arisa's voice rang out a capella with Mameli's Hymn. Custom has it that players and public join in at such times. But many players on both teams were foreigners. Nobody but a few politicians in the VIP stand sang along with Arisa. Moreover, the Italian Coppa is sponsored by an important mobile phone company called TIM. This three-letter acronym with its international resonance doesn't call forth patriotism. The very name Coppa Italia has morphed to TIM Cup, which suggests a spare-change artist's tin cup held out in a long recession that with the credit crunch has become a permanent depression.

The racket of the stadium crowd all but covered over Arisa's amplified voice. Chants and sharp whistles of disapproval were aimed at both teams and any politician in sight. Naples fans preferred to sing of their city, reclaiming a grandeur lost in 1861 with the unification of Italy. They had summarized the work of a recent school of historians in an aggressive stadium chant. (Typical of this school is Terroni by Pino Aprile, 2011, ISBN 9788866216025, 312 pages. English translation by Ilaria Marra Rosiglioni, All That Has Been Done to Ensure That the Italians of the South Became "Southerners" 2011, ISBN 9781599540313, 233 pages.)

Arisa, or Rosalba Pippa, was born in Genoa (Italian northwest) to an internal immigrant family from a village near Potenza (Italian southwest). She managed somehow to hold back her tears, soldiering on with courage and even heroism. She finished the anthem. After she left the field and her microphone was removed, an amplified male voice filled the stadium, asking for a minute's silence. The public was to remember the victims of the earthquake that had that very day shaken the Emilia area (Italian center-north). They were also asked to recall the female student killed and others severely wounded in a bomb attack on a high school in Brindisi (Italian southeast). An unknown attacker had placed a three-bomb device on the school wall, setting it off by remote control on the morning of May 19 just as students were gathering.

With the request for a minute of silence in the stadium, chants and whistles stopped abruptly. Only a solitary voice piped up, "Napoletani di merda" (Neapolitan shit merchants), but nobody answered back. Feeling for the homeless of the seismic disaster and for the victimized schoolgirls filled that minute to overflowing. Many other Italian regions, north, south, and center had suffered from earthquakes in recent years. Most Italians had some connection or other with school children. For that minute, emotion brought the nation together in an awareness of a common tragedy. A flow from the heart had momentarily glued the pieces of the national puzzle together. A pity it was not a thought-through awareness of a common history and a shared cultural identity.

Naples won the game and the cup (2-0), but that is unimportant to my story. What matters are those moments before the game that were a spontaneous show of the spirit of a country called Italy whose rational and intellectual capacity starts working only when deep feeling sets hearts pumping. In the following days, earthquakes multiplied all over the center-north and northern area. For the moment twenty-seven were dead and dozens hurt. Medieval churches and modern buildings suffered equally.

On June 7, a sixty-eight-year-old man, Giovanni Vantaggiato, admitted to the Brindisi school bombing. His statements were confusing. He claimed to have carried out the deed alone out of personal disgruntlement. His small business had been prey to a scam and, though the con-man had been caught and punished, Vantaggiato had been left obsessed by the wrong done him. He insisted that he had nothing in particular against the school or the girls, one of whom he had murdered. He blushed and said he had been "stupid."

Vicious and criminal stupidity seemed the right description for Vantaggiato. He wasn't insane. He was simply a small businessman whose enterprise had been on the rise. He had a modest yacht that he loved above all things except his immediate family, which he shepherded with harsh affection. They were part of his success. He had planned to explode the bomb at the school in the morning and in the afternoon take his family for a picnic at sea. May weather can be blue and softly breezy in Puglia.

The scam that outdid him in shrewdness, plus who-knows-what elements of the current economic situation, had thrown our small businessman off course. Poisoned is not too strong a metaphor. His life had always gone forward, that is to say, upwards. His existence was completely circumscribed by his possessions, which included his family. He was a pious materialist and a believing paterfamilias. If what he owned diminished, he diminished. The very thought made him strike out at what wasn't his. It happened to be a girl's high school.

Italy's recent history being what it is, conspiracy theories flourished. The school bore the name of "Francesca Laura Morvillo Falcone," herself a judge and wife of Judge Giovanni Falcone, one of the most effective enemies ever of the Italian Mafia. The couple was murdered with their bodyguards in a devastating bomb attack planned and executed by the Mafia twenty years ago (May 23, 1992) on Highway Twenty-Nine near Capaci, near Palermo in Sicily. But whatever its crimes, the Honored Society isn't stupid and had nothing but disdain for Vantaggiato's brainless egotism.

At the end of May 2012, many Italian schools were involved in the memorial for the deaths of Laura and Giovanni Falcone. Students from all over Italy arrived in Palermo on two ships, Navi della legalità, or ships for legality. Vantaggiato, for his part, claims to have prepared and exploded his bomb out of nothing more than personal frustration: "I don't know why." Feelings, emotion, and heart are a one-size-fits-all explanation that in the end explains nothing. There are people whose sense of themselves is simply their bank balance. A perfectly sane petty bourgeois entrepreneur who couldn't accept a contretemps in his commercial career -- which for him was life tout court -- acted according to his lights.

The heart needs a strong muscle, not only in Italy, but in Europe and in the rest of the world. But blood must be pumped beyond self, family, city and region, beyond my team and my country. The rest of the world functions on red corpuscles too. Veins and arteries may well connect the planets. And it would be churlish to stop short of the Alpha Centauri.


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. Peter Byrne on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


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Published July 16, 2012