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roger cohen
The Unlikely Triumph of Italian Nationhood by Roger Cohen New York Times

The Unlikely Triumph of Italian Nationhood
Italy coheres as America breaks apart.
By Roger Cohen


Aug. 14, 2020

SANTA MARGHERITA, Italy — In Italy there are seasons — and then there is the season. Summer comes, the country’s woes are set aside, and, to the eternal refrain of “tutti al mare” (“Everyone to the sea”), the exodus to the consoling coast begins. The national debt fades between sea and stars.


This year is a little different. Masks dangle from ears in the new insouciant look or are tied around elbows then used for a bump-greeting. Beach chairs are (anti-) socially distanced. With stores operating two-at-a-time limits, the line for focaccia is so long that people read an entire newspaper (and Italians still read them) as they wait. Americans have almost vanished, as have the Russians. Children’s beach chatter revolves around the all-canceling virus, which gives a new edge to games of tag.

The difference is the coronavirus, lurking like the knowledge that summer will end. Contained, almost defeated, yet out there beyond the drone of the chirping cicadas, leaving Italians in a limbo between liberation and fear.

Among Western nations, Italy was the first to be hit hard by the pandemic. The country learned the loneliness of a new form of death. Its doctors battled in extremis. It watched army trucks transporting coffins to remote cremation sites from the overloaded morgues of Bergamo.

Then, strange thing, after some initial missteps, Italy did what it has had the most difficulty doing since the unification of the peninsula in 1861: It cohered into a nation and brought a fierce national will to bear on the virus. It went into disciplined lockdown. It set aside, through a unified front, the old slurs exchanged between northerners and southerners, the old parochialism of city-states with longer histories than the nation they find themselves in, the old derision directed at its politics.

I am tempted to say that 2020 was the year of Italy’s emergence, 159 years after the Piedmont statesman Massimo d’Azeglio declared: “We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians.” Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but not without its truth.

Italy brought its rate of new infections — now about eight per 100,000 inhabitants — down to one of the lowest in Europe, lower even than Germany. It did so as the United States, which spent untold postwar treasure on keeping Italy stable, threw its doors open to the pandemic through leaderless fracture. This, in contrast to Italy, has been the season of American unraveling.

I mentioned the buzzing cicadas and their summer crescendo. In Aesop’s fable generally known in English as “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” but in Italian as “La Formica e la Cicala” (“The Ant and the Cicada”), the industrious ant spends its summer laying in supplies for the winter while the carefree cicada passes the time singing, or, as Italians describe improvident laziness, scratching its belly. When winter comes, as it does, the starving cicada begs the ant for food. The ant, vindicated, tells it to go dance away the winter.

Writing the other day in Milan’s Corriere della Sera, Antonio Scurati asked: “Dear reader, are you a cicada or an ant?” His fear, he said, was that Italians were tending cicada. The sun is shining, let’s live a bit and believe that the emergency has passed forever.

In this Phase 2 of the virus, with a rise in cases in countries including Spain and France, it’s an ant-or-cicada moment in many societies. I confess to being something of a cicada by inclination, not in slothful tendencies I hope, but in the belief that a life lived in fear and obsessive prudence is not worth living. How to weigh the cicada’s chirping pleasure against the ant’s cautious husbandry, a short happy life against a long inhibited one?

The answer is not evident. As with most things in life, it lies in balance. It’s equally hard to say at what point reasonable, lifesaving precaution over the virus becomes unreasonable, job-destroying, school-closing and life-quenching fear — harder still because rampant fear was a striking characteristic of many societies before the virus. For Italy, the overriding question is how not to suffer a chaotic relapse from the crisis-induced effectiveness of national unity.

There will be renewed division and disappointments, but I don’t believe anything can undo what Italy revealed of itself. Italy had a good war. To a degree unimaginable in Donald Trump’s America, and beyond even that of many Europeans, Italians showed what long history teaches: civic wisdom.

A summer fairy tale gripped Italy. It centered on Atalanta, the small soccer club of Bergamo, the northern town that was the virus’s epicenter. Against all odds, Atalanta reached the quarterfinal of Europe’s premier club competition, the Champions League, where, in an empty stadium, it played Paris St. Germain, the French capital’s rich Qatari-owned club. When Atalanta took the lead in the first half, a loud cheer coursed down the Italian peninsula.

I watched the game this week with Antonio Colpani and Laura Vergani, both from Bergamo. Colpani told me of his mother’s near death and his own battle with the virus. Vergani recalled the constant sirens and how one day they stopped because the streets were empty anyway and local authorities had concluded that the sound spread panic.

“We beat it,” Colpani said. “Non mollare mai.” He smiled as he uttered the phrase — Never give up — by which Bergamo lives. “Mola mia” in Bergamasco dialect.

Atalanta, unyielding, clung to its 1-0 lead until the last minute. Then Paris St-Germain scored, and a moment later scored again to win 2-1.

It would have been wonderful for the fairy tale to continue, but perhaps for Italy the agonizing defeat was a useful reality check in this summer limbo, a grain of ant in the song of the cicada.

“That’s life,” Colpani said, “Everything can change in a minute.”

By Roger Cohen
New York Times
14 Aout 2020

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