Here’s a tip. When the Foreign Office advises against going somewhere, hop on the next plane. The mandarins have advised against visiting Italy because of Covid-19. It’s as bizarre as everything else that our rulers have said about the virus. Confirmed cases in the UK are currently more than twice as high per 100,000 as in Italy. Anyone with our welfare at heart should be telling us to go to Italy at once. I left the next day. The Italians could be forgiven for serving us our own medicine and quarantining all arrivals from the UK. As it is, they test you at the airport, and quarantine is only required if you test positive. It is rational and very efficient. It takes only ten minutes and costs nothing.
Generally, however, the Italian government has much to answer for. It was the first democracy to lock down its people, thus giving political cover to most of Europe to do the same. The impact has been catastrophic. The effects can be seen everywhere: familiar restaurants permanently closed, small workshops out of business, factories on the edge of disaster, each one signalling a ruined business, wrecked lives and more jobless. The papers report that suicides have tripled since last year. Yet there is still joy in the streets. In Parma, the restaurants and street cafés are so crowded that on Saturday nights there is not a table to be had, in spite of the absence of tourists. In the largest public square of Mantua, tables for 20 are laid out on Sunday for extended families celebrating the First Communion of their eight-year-olds. But behind the joy, there is a sense of foreboding as the state prepares to suppress life in the name of saving lives. Across Europe, governments are borrowing the language of war in ever more strident pronouncements. But the clichés of war cut both ways. ‘None will break ranks though nations trek from progress,’ wrote Wilfred Owen about the ‘march of this retreating world/ Into vain citadels that are not walled.’
In a café in a corner of a cathedral square, I am getting through the novels of Giorgio Bassani. His is no longer a name to conjure with, but he was a great figure once: the man who published Lampedusa’s The Leopard after nearly every publishing house in Italy had turned it down; the author of The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, inspiring the elegiac film which Vittorio de Sica contrived to make even better than the book. Bassani died in 2000, but he is a spirit for our time: humane, balanced, a writer in a long, liberal European tradition. His six short novels about Ferrara under the shadow of fascism and war and the fate of its doomed Jewish community, have a haunting beauty which still resonates. They tell us much about the destructive effects of collective political passions. Bassani once said about his mentor Benedetto Croce that he ‘loved liberty, like a religion’. It was his rule for life, and it is not a bad one.
Italy is the only European country where Brexit is viewed with some sympathy and the British are not assumed to be off their heads. It is an odd state of affairs. The country benefited spectacularly from the EU. It transformed itself in a few years from a society of peasants and small craftsmen into an advanced, export-oriented economy based on engineering, cars, pharmaceuticals and consumer electrics, with an impressive standard of living. The Italians were insulted when Boris Johnson, then masquerading as a diplomat, cited prosecco as their emblematic export. Italy’s fatal mistake was to adopt the euro for reasons of prestige. It lumbered them with an artificially high implicit exchange rate, depressed growth and real earnings, and pushed them into a permanent recession. It is a warning of the danger of embarking on economic projects for political reasons. These days, you don’t hear much from knowledgeable Italians about the opportunities offered by Europe.
Next week I have a virtual lecture to deliver at Cambridge on the legal and constitutional implications of Covid-19. It helps to be out of the country if one is to think straight. I feel too strongly about the long-term implications for my country of its willing submission to social control. Distance helps. Not far from here, there is a small town called Sabbioneta, which was once the seat of a miniature state. Its rulers played at dukes. They built a powerful defensive rampart around their tiny capital, as if it would be the prime target of any invading army. They conjured up a stuccoed sculpture gallery and a grandiose theatre. Imperial delusions and absolute power over other human beings are intoxicating pleasures. Wandering through its streets, an innocent fantasy came into my head. Perhaps our own Boris Johnson could be harmlessly employed playing at prime ministers in Sabbioneta, instead of London. Dominic Cummings would make a good Grand Duke.
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