Monday, December 6, 2010

One way ticket, Cambridge to Florence

Letter from Italy by Philippe Ridet

"Historian, born in England, naturalised Italian" - this simple line from his biography made him in our eyes - how can I put it? - delectable. At a time when thousands of Italians dream of fleeing Rome for London, Milan for Paris and Bari for New York so that they can forget about Palermo and Silvio Berlusconi, there turns out to be a man, an Englishman to boot, who has undertaken the opposite journey. That was well worth an expedition to Florence, where he had set himself up.  Was he an eccentric? Someone who liked collecting passports? Did he have a lover? I had to go and find out...

Paul Ginsborg, sixty-five, has the discreet and gentle manners of a professor of contemporary Italian history (he is author of several books on the subject) and the unruffled delivery that makes taking notes easy. At the same time, he has kept an Englishman's taste for Shetland pullovers and a way of dissolving the Italian "r" sound to compensate for his inability to roll it as most foreigners do.

"I was a prof at Cambridge when, in 1992, the University of Florence offered me a chair", he explains in his apartment lined with books, situated two minutes from the Arno. "It was a radical choice but I've never regretted it".  He immersed himself in local life in Florence, quickly becoming a key figure in the first people-led anti-Berlusconi movements at the beginning of the decade. A Londoner, he was bowled over by Italy's charms. "I really do think that there is a gentleness in this country, a kindness towards people quite unlike anything in England.  Italy isn't haunted by dreams of grandeur and domination.  I've felt a greater lightness since I've been here".

So, do the English have a passion for Italy? Ginsborg explains: "The Garibaldi expedition aroused great sympathy on the other side of the Channel and England leant its support. That's how the Society for Italian Studies took shape, which has 200 members in London. The first biography of Garibaldi was written by his nurse, an English woman by the name of Jessie White-Mario".

But why take the plunge and become Italian? "Four years ago I started to think about the idea and I obtained Italian nationality in 2009. It's also a way of me giving something back to Italy". This episode is recounted at the start of a short but brilliant essay which has just been published by Ginsborg, Salviamo l'Italia.*  "Most of my friends were dumbstruck by the news of my naturalisation", he writes: "'But what prompted you to do that, and now of all times?' they asked. Some of them rushed to make sure that I had had the good sense to keep my English (sic) nationality. But the most caustic comment is still this one: "'From now on, Paul, you can join in with us when we say: I'm ashamed to be Italian!'"

These friends are going to be disappointed because the "new Italian" does not succumb to disparaging or excessively and unjustly criticising his adopted countryAmongst the plethora of books published to accompany the 150th anniversary of a unified Italy, Ginsborg's (which is steadily heading towards sales of 10,000) is distinguished by its objective, sometimes ironic and always stimulating, approach. Moving back and forth between the Risorgimento era and present-day Italy, Ginsborg tries to identify the essential elements of Italian society over the last 150 years, the rudiments which, in his opinion, would allow Italy to "save itself" and find an original voice that would secure its  place in the modern epoch. The historian has identified four elements: Italy's long tradition of self-rule in its cities; the predilection for Europe; the quest for equality; and "the importance of mitezza in its history as a social virtue".

Mitezza? Our bilingual dictionary suggests "kindness" or "gentleness" and we could add "bonhomie" if the word was not over-used and "pacifism" if it did not weigh so heavily. It might seem slightly surprising that such an idea, borrowed from the philosopher Norberto Bobbio, should spring up to support an analysis of contemporary Italy. Kind, the fascists under the command of Mussolini? Kind, the mafiosi? Kind, the men of Rosarno in Calabria who, in December 2009, shot at African immigrants as though they were rabbits? Kind, the politicians always so quick to insult their opponents?

But Paul Ginsborg is far from only being a gentle Englishman who has had his head turned by a political utopia. Although in love with Italy, he knows all about the obstacles and burdens that weigh it down: the Mafia, vote-catching, a Church that has too much power and... the weakness of the left, which drives him to despair. Whilst the country is left hanging following a political crisis of uncertain outcome, the politically committed historian is careful not to strike up the old refrain about the inevitable demise of the Berlusconi era.  "Even back in 2005 funeral orations were springing up in the press", he remembers. "Berlusconi is never more ready to fight than when his back is against the wall.  Everyone should remain wary".

Today Paul Ginsborg receives twenty-five requests a week to give lectures. At the beginning of the month he organised a conference on "Italy in the Time of Berlusconi" for the upper echelons of the Italian intelligentsia.  As a matter of  principle he rails: "And to think that it needed an Englishman to organise it!" There is a palpable feeling that the historian bemoans the amount of time taken eaten up by campaigning.

The professor has become a protagonist in a part of history that he only wanted to recount and it is now his turn to be caught up in the tritacarne or meat-mincer of Italian public life: Il Giornale, the daily newspaper belonging to the Berlusconi family, has devoted a vitriolic article to the book written by this son of "perfidious Albion".

* Let's Save Italy, published by Einaudi; no English translation available.

This article first appeared in Le Monde, November 29, 2010 and was translated by Culturissima's managing director, Dr David Winter.

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