Italy Roundtable: The Beautiful Mess

italyroundtableBack in May of 2011, some Italophile friends and I started a writing group we called the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Each month we would choose a theme and write something Italy-related on our sites about that topic. For awhile, I posted those articles on my personal blog. (You can read some of my Italy Roundtable archives here.) After a long hiatus, we’ve decided to revive the Roundtable – and Italy Explained will be the new home for my contributions.

This month, in honor of a new year and the different paths our lives have taken in the interim since our last Roundtable post, the theme we’re starting with is CHANGE.

The fine ladies around the Italy Blogging Roundtable with me are Gloria of At Home in Tuscany, Alexandra of ArtTrav, Kate of Driving Like a Maniac, Melanie of Italofile, and Rebecca of Brigolante. You’ll find links to their posts on the theme at the bottom of my post.

I hope you enjoy this addition to the usual programming schedule here at Italy Explained, and I hope you also enjoy reading the work of other Italophiles!

Colosseum || creative commons photo by Max Goldberg

Colosseum || creative commons photo by Max Goldberg

One of the questions I have gotten repeatedly from would-be Italy travelers is, “How on earth am I supposed to choose where to go? There’s too much to see.” Yes, there is far too much to cover in the space of the paltry two weeks of vacation most Americans get each year. But take heart, I say, you can just pick up on your must-see list the next time you go back.

Italy, after all, has been there for centuries. It’ll be there when you go back.

The reply is sort of flip, but the underlying idea – the one I’m always trying to convey so people don’t overwhelm their itineraries – is that Italy won’t change between your first visit and your second, so you shouldn’t worry about “seeing it all” in one go.

But we all know it’s not true. Italy changes. Everything changes.

Piazza Duomo - Milano || creative commons photo by Michele M.F.

Piazza Duomo – Milano || creative commons photo by Michele M.F.

In some ways, it looks on the surface like Italy hasn’t changed in centuries. No, the Roman Forum is no longer a bustling main street of an enormous empire, but visitors have been touring the same sights for generations. The list of can’t-miss attractions hasn’t changed, and the “Holy Trinity” of Rome-Florence-Venice is still the most popular route travelers take. One of the things we love about Italy – that we count on – is that it won’t change. We want to plan a trip so we can see the same remarkable monuments and art and views that previous tourists praised. It’s why many of us go – to see the things we already know will be there.

Of course, there are changes, even to the cities and attractions we know so well. Venice, we are constantly reminded, is sinking, a process the nearly-complete MOSE project may actually halt. Rome’s Colosseum, one of the country’s most iconic symbols, has been undergoing a multi-year facelift (funded by Tod’s shoes), and the scaffolding is set to come down in 2016. The mystery of Pisa’s leaning tower was finally solved in 2003, 830 years after construction began. The Catholic church, headquartered in Italy and a major part of the national identity (despite being in its own independent country), is facing a seemingly endless parade of policy updates thanks to the new pope. Even Pompeii, frozen in time from the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius, is changing – more of the structures in the excavated city collapsed just last year.

Italy changes in ways that visitors don’t see, too. Those changes – which are not only common, they’re constant – are the kinds of things only residents notice. Italy changes political leadership more often than bachelors change bedsheets, for instance, but most travelers can’t name the Italian Prime Minister (or any national leader outside their home country, for that matter). After all, during a short trip in Italy the guy in charge is unlikely to have much bearing on your experience of the country.

Pompeii || creative commons photo by Carlo Mirante

Pompeii || creative commons photo by Carlo Mirante

That isn’t to say that Italy’s leadership always embraces the status quo. The current Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, spoke with The Washington Post last fall to say – several times – that Italy needed to change.

“We can change, and we must change. After years of [economic] stagnation, I think that this is the moment in which Italy can realize the things we’ve waited for for years. How many years has Italy spoken about labor reforms? How many years has Italy waited for constitutional reform and waited to cut through the red tape of bureaucracy? … Paradoxically, the crisis is the reason we must change. Without change, it is impossible to believe in the future.”

I agree with what he’s saying, though I’m expecting his tenure to be short-lived (as is the case with any other PM who tries to move the country in a new direction). Renzi seems to recognize that the task he’s set for himself is a challenging one. Later in the interview, he says:

“Everything must change in Italy. And it will change. … It is easy to explain but not easy to realize. If it were easy to realize, somebody else would have done it. Italy needs a radical change.”

In some ways, Italy is too comfortable with its status quo, and change would be too painful to the standard of living Italians think they’ll lose if they take the leap of faith Renzi is asking. There is so much corruption at every level of government – corruption that’s acknowledged and even expected – that throwing out the bambino with the bathwater almost sounds like the only solution.

Does Italy need a radical change? Probably. Will Renzi be able to manage it? That remains to be seen. And I’m not holding my breath.

In a 2012 article entitled, “Can Italy change?” author and long-time Italy resident Tim Parks said:

“When I first came to Italy thirty years ago, there was a lot of talk about change. It was always located in the very near future, but never quite in the present.”

That, to me, sums up Renzi’s challenge perfectly. Italians may be supportive of his ideas when they’re ideas, but putting them into practice – actually creating the “radical change” instead of just talking about it – may be one step beyond where Italians are willing to go.

In many ways, Italy will still be the Italy visitors have dreamed about all their lives, whether reformers succeed in changing the country or not. There’s a phrase in Italian that, to my mind, captures the two seemingly opposing sides of the country’s personality – the grace and the grit – that co-exist in such a symbiotic way. The phrase is “un bel casino” – a beautiful mess. Even if Italy makes the radical changes it needs to survive, I hope that beautiful mess endures. I think it’s my favorite thing about the country.

Venice || creative commons photo by Roberto Trm

Venice || creative commons photo by Roberto Trm

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What changes are my Italy Roundtable cohorts writing about? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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4 responses to “Italy Roundtable: The Beautiful Mess”

  1. Alexandra says:

    Nicely put, Jess. And welcome back!

  2. That quote from Tim Parks is just … perfect. I don’t know – is it the fact that we’re surrounded here by so much beautiful history that makes us unable to properly move forward? The sad thing for Italy is that those who really want to make a change move abroad, frustrated by the lack of forward momentum here. The ideal would be that Renzi could make a political and fiscal difference (or at least lay some solid foundations for whoever succeeds him) without altering the character of this ‘beautiful mess’. Here’s hoping …

    • Jessica says:

      I think another challenge is that even if someone in Renzi’s position has genuinely good ideas, ideas that in the long run really WOULD make a positive difference without impacting the way of life Italians love, he/she isn’t afforded enough time to see if the ideas work. Those political & fiscal differences have to happen really, really quickly, almost before anyone notices they’re happening, or there’s resistance.

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