As Italy locks down a little more, it seems that the Italian people are being trapped in a pressure cooker that is about to explode.
I try to think of other things by watching videos of old comedians, on YouTube, reminding me of when I was young. It isn’t nostalgia, but it makes me forget about my dental practice that has temporarily ground to a halt, without actually dying.
The respite is short-lived. As soon as the video finishes, and silence invades the room, I search for ominous statistics on the net, hoping that Italy has reached the peak of the epidemic. But it hasn’t, despite the lockdown that started on 8th March. The Italian temperament doesn’t help. Italians are notoriously resistant to following guidelines and are allergic to self-discipline. The average age of the population – just over 45 – doesn’t help either.
But why are they bearing a third of the coronavirus deaths in a world where 7.7 billion people live side by side? Such a death toll would be atrocious anywhere, of course. Let us not forget that so many people die across the world, and their deaths do not affect us. As an example, how many people die every year from malaria, a figure that we don’t even know or care about? We are not moved, because malaria doesn’t move Europeans in the same way that the coronavirus does. The virus has penetrated our lands and is much closer to home.
My thoughts wander across the Alps, and land on a country whose outline resembles a leather boot. It’s not any old boot, though. Italy is a land that, despite its faults, fallacies, and shortcomings, represents an invisible pillar of my culture – all that is French about me, is derived from Rome. No two countries are culturally and historically closer than Italy and France.
The inextricable bond between the two, dates back to the very beginning of what historians refer to as “modern times.” Charles VIII assembled an army in 1494, and descended on Naples, where he was proclaimed king. He returned home, allowing the kingdom of Naples to fall back into Italian hands, but not without acquiring Italian artisans and artists to work for him at his court.
Francis I claimed his rights on the duchy of Milan, no sooner had he become king of France. French victory at Marignan allowed them to regain a foothold in Italy.
Italy was a divided country at the end of the middle-ages, with numerous states competing with each other. The Republic of Venice prospered thanks to its commerce with the Orient. The riches served to support artists working for the glory of princes, towns, and merchants. In Florence, Milan, Rome, and Venice, painters, sculptors and architects built a new world based on the eternal legacy of Ancient Greece, and newly found humanism. Together with scientific discoveries, this was the Renaissance – the world was reborn.
I remember with fondness, all the summer holidays that I spent in Nice, in the South of France, with my French grandmother. Listening to her speaking in the local dialect, for hours on end, I came to understand “le Niçois,” a fast disappearing mixture of Italian and French. Giuseppe Garibaldi, born in Nice in 1807, defined his “Nizzardo” as an Italian dialect with some influences from Occitan and French, and for this reason promoted the union of Nice to the Kingdom of Italy. Nice became separated from the County of Savoy. By a treaty concluded in 1860 between the Sardinian king and Napoleon III, the County of Nice was given back to France, as a reward for French assistance in the Second Italian War of Independence against Austria.
Such intricate cultural bonds and interactions, that pass into the way you are brought up, are difficult to completely understand. But those who have grown up in more than one culture will know exactly what I mean. What is happening to Italy affects me because, in a distant sort of way, Italy is also a part of who I am, and has influenced the way I think.