Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The Italians by John Hooper, book review

A book in English that explains what is going on in the beautiful and ailing country of Italy is certainly timely. The country’s economic position on the perpetual edge of default is hard to reconcile with the glamorous bella vita image that it projects. John Hooper, in his entertaining and revealing new book The Italians, examines an entire culture, its history and complex politics, making connections between past and present and providing a comprehensive image of “Italians” that sheds light on many aspects, but still leaves us somewhat in the dark about the real reason we’re in the mess we’re in.

The Italians by John Hooper book review

The Italians by John Hooper

Hooper, Italy correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian, would be a good dinner guest. Or at least that’s the impression I get from his book, which reads like a fascinating dinner conversation. Sections on the country’s early history, religion, the attitude to women, and the mafia are probably those that hold together most tightly. At other times, I found myself being pulled along a less linear path, spotting themes as they weave their way through the book.

Perhaps the best way to understand The Italians – both the book and the culture – is by looking at certain recurring themes. If you’ve spent even just a semester in Italy, you’re probably familiar with them. Hooper’s genius is that he sees how they connect to other, more important things, either in history or in recent economics and politics.

For example, we all know that Italians are famously well dressed and on the average more attractive than other populaces. What appears to be vanity, however, goes deeper. Appearances are assumed to be a representation of something else (p. 75), a code to be decoded. On the one hand, endemic sunglass-wearing Italians are the modern descendants of Castiglione’s courtier and his sprezzatura (p. 188); on the other, bella figura, or “coming off well”, is symptomatic of an underlying insecurity (p. 85). The theme of beauty or appearances crops up throughout the book as we start to build an understanding of what we see around us.

Sunglasses hide my insecurity | Photo copyright Marco Badiani

Sunglasses hide my insecurity | Photo copyright Marco Badiani

Another example of a theme that dominates The Italians is tradition, and by summarizing just some of Hooper’s logic on this theme, I hope to provide you with a reasonable review of the whole book. What attracted me to Florence in the first place, as an art historian, is its history and the way this history continues to be strongly present today. Formal traditions like processions on holidays mix with quirky ones like the way Italians insist on cleaning windows with newspaper rather than paper towel. There are also annoying traditions like hanging laundry outside rather than using a dryer, though conversely, this is one of the most charming things to photograph in Italy.

Tradition is highly present in gastronomy, and again, Italian food is one of the major draws for tourists. Personally, I am a huge fan of the cuisine and rarely crave anything else, but if I did want to eat something different, I’d be hard pressed. Many an expat has exploded with glee upon spotting cheddar cheese at a supermarket, and this Canadian is one of them (there are few foodstuffs that Canadians do well, but cheddar is top of the list). Why is cheddar so rare it’s cause for celebration? Hooper actually connects the lack of variety in Italian supermarkets’ cheese section to the country’s poor economy. But not in the way you’d think (it’s not because we can’t afford to import French brie): “It is this sort of stubborn adherence to tradition that has helped to preserve the integrity and identity of Italian cuisine. But in many other areas of life its effects have been profoundly negative – and nowhere more so than in the economy.” (p. 103)

The lack of cheese variety is connected to two other themes: mistrust of foreigners, and resistance to change. As for us foreigners, Hooper blames the past: for millennia, Italy looked like a good place to invade, and the peninsula was constantly fighting off invasions from every direction. “A people with a history like that of the Italians cannot but have a somewhat ambiguous view of foreigners,” he states, with the interesting correlation that they have a “fatalistic acceptance of the idea that it is quite normal for crucial decisions on the future of the country to be taken by foreigners,” (p. 30) something timely as we see Germany’s leadership in the EU dictating economic policy here. Mistrust of foreigners also involves their foods, which leads to good things like a prevalence of local (fresher) goods but also, alas, my lack of cheddar.

Laundry by Flickr user @Katri

Laundry by Flickr user @Katri

Change is another thing that Italians don’t seem to like very much, although I recently observed how Florence has changed relatively a lot in the past 10 or 15 years that I’ve been here. “Various explanations have been put forward to explain the Italians’ love of the familiar and mistrust of the new,” says Hooper (p. 106), including the fact that the country is particularly prone to natural disasters (lately we’ve seen one too many massive flood and earthquake). Another factor is the aforementioned history of oppression and violence, mostly from foreigners. The occasional attempt at radical change, like when Mussolini seemed like a good idea, backfired rather massively. So now, change takes place only after careful orchestration. And to make sure the balance of power never swings too strongly towards any one figure, power has been divided up amongst more political parties than you can count, creating a series of “checks and balances that served to block drastic reform” (p. 108).

Another way that “tradition” or inertia continues in Italy is due to mammismo, the peculiarly strong relationship between spoiled sons and their mothers. They say mammismo is the reason so many Italian men live with their moms until they are forty, but recently there’s been an upsurge in generational co-habitation for both genders. This is due both to the sluggish university system (with its courses taught by over-65s) and to the incredibly bad job situation for new graduates. Faced with no stimulating job options at age 25 and parents who don’t kick them out, university grads opt to stay home while waiting for a good opportunity to come up, not contributing to the economy while enjoying the perks of mom’s cooking and laundry skills. Italian parents, despite the fact that you’d think they would be strict Catholics, seem pretty lose with the rules (especially for their boys), which is what made it possible for me to spend months cohabiting in my then-boyfriend’s bedroom. Treated more like adult renters who don’t pay or do laundry, you can see why they are happy to stay home.

Hooper demonstrates that “cohabitation between the generations holds the country back”, based on the results of a 2005 study that concluded that the main advantage to parents of having their children at home for so long is that they could better impose their own ideas and precepts. “Imbued with the ideas of a previous generation, bamboccioni are less likely to launch initiatives of their own, whether they be dot-com start-ups, sandwich delivery businesses or garage bands.” (p. 181). No punk music, but also no real revolts, other than the carefully staged “student protests” that take place regularly and involve chanting, from 9am to noon, absurd songs like Pink Floyd’s Another brick in the wall – if their English lessons were better, they’d not be singing “we don’t need no education” when supposedly calling for educational reform.

The theme of tradition crops up throughout the book, not only in the spots I’ve noted here. Combined with other themes, and weaving in and out of past and present, the reader gradually enjoys a greater understanding of “The Italians” as a people. These points are, of course, generalizations, though Hooper is careful not to make sweeping ones, and is very conscious of regional differences in particular (another major theme in the book). There are, for sure, exceptions to these general rules. Italians who marry foreigners, who love ethnic food, who travel widely, who let their children think for themselves, who love air conditioning or create start-ups. But holding together this web of complex relationships is an overarching structure, a political and social structure that has evolved through history and nature and that keeps the vast majority of Italians from breaking free.

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With thanks to Viking books / Penguin Random House for the advance review copy of the book.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    Very interesting review Alexandra, I definitely want to read this so when you have a copy free, pretty please? The idea regarding cohabitation between generations is compelling, while I have always thought that was an issue (I mean come on, what girl wants to wake up in a single bed with a cute guy and run into ‘mamma’ in the bathroom), it seems like there is more to this than just free rent in a bad economy. I also am intrigued by the amount that is changing, the Italians marrying foreigners that, as you say ‘like ethnic food’. Is this just something you see more in Florence, Rome and Venice and not much elsewhere to not have any real impact or is this a bigger trend than we realize and will we see a different generation addicted to their iPhone (naturally) but that speaks a few languages, likes Thai food and making their own ravioli?

  • arttrav

    Hi G, don’t worry, you’re on the lending list! Helen is first in line though because the two of us actually get to interview the author on March 18th, when he will be speaking at the British Institute (come!). My guess is I can hand you the book that day. I think it is right up your alley!

  • epaminonda

    La solita fiera degli stereotipi. Un classico.
    D’altra parte il Signor Hooper non è certo nuovo a queste cadute di stile.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Ognuno ha diritto ai propri opinioni. Credo che il Signor Hooper non abbia scritto un libro di stereotipi perchè è piuttosto più intelligente di ciò (ma ha letto la mia recensione?), ma non ho dubbioche abbia fatto diversi nemici Italiani, di cui uno è sicuramente Lei.

    Il libro non credo sia mirata agli italiani come lettori (senno, sarebbe in italiano), ma piuttosto a stranieri che vogliono capire meglio questo paese. E in questo credo che sarà un successo.

  • Jef

    “… annoying traditions like hanging laundry outside rather than using a dryer …” How preposterous. I suspect the only people to be annoyed by this excellent way to reduce the energy footprint and use sustainable and free wind and solar energy are immigrants like yourself who believe Italians should get their act together and ape wasteful North American practice, and who mistake normal housekeeping for “tradition”.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thank you Jef for expressing your opinion. Actually i fully agree that hanging laundry outside is energy friendly, and when I am in a climate that makes it possible to do so, I am totally in favour of it. I’m less in favour when it’s cold and rainy for months on end. Having options is nice :). The point really is that sometimes tradition overrides what is practical, and there are negative aspects to it. In the case of laundry, my guess is that we can connect the many hours spent hanging and unhanging and folding laundry to the fewer number of women in the workforce. Maybe the author can shed some light onto this for us!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Georgette,
    Your reflection makes me think… I wonder if we may be witnessing the last generation of Italy as we know it. Certainly, few of OUR friends fit the mold. On the other hand, I occasionally witness these little “italian” traits in Tommaso, like when he comments one someone’s outfit, so maybe we’re still in for more of the good stuff. There is unquestionably an agitation for change amongst much of Italian youth, but something tells me that the structure is going to make it hard for this change to happen. For every startupper there probably is someone who just wants a contratto permanente alla RAI.
    You’re next in line for the book loan after Helen :)
    AMK

  • lauradebenedetto

    That’s why Canadian and British cannot do that. It’s never sunny!

  • lauradebenedetto

    You’re review convince me about the low level of this book full of cliche on Italians. I’m not wasting money and time in buying and reading this useless book so I just answer your few points: 1) an Italian wearing a pijama will always be smarter than an Englishman in a suit. Appearances mean Italian lifestyle fashion good taste and being healthy and clean 2) Mediterranean diet is worlwide recognized as the healthiest one – olive oil, pasta, fish, vegetables and fresh cheeses (in Italy and France there is an enormous variety of local cheeses so we don’t really miss Cheddar). I did not know that in UK and Canada you could easily find mozzarella di bufala or taleggio for example. And good wines instead of Irish beer. Then traditions are part of history and culture, aren’t they? 3) in UK if you want to attend University in a different city government will pay you college and accomodation. Not in Italy. But in UK there is a deep gap among social classes. A working class student won’t never attend Oxford or Cambridge. Here a few topic about a so-called “Inglesi” book. 1) gli inglesi non hanno il bidet ma la moquette nel bagno 2) gli inglesi sono classisti e ubriaconi. But I do hate cliche. I am not the Italian of this book.

  • Jenna Francisco

    The duality of tradition–the fact that it’s important to identity yet holds people back–is a problem everywhere. One theme of the book that I’ve been curious about in Italian society for a while is higher education. Because I work in education and in a place where innovation is extremely important, I cringed when I read that most of the courses are taught by 65+. While I have many colleagues of that age who are wonderful, I also recognize that having professors that students can relate to and who are more likely to use stimulating methods of instruction is key to successful learning.
    I’m sure any look at a culture will include cliche and generalization, but I am curious how the author deals with this. Will read it soon. Thanks for the well written review.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Jenna
    Actually that statistic about elder professors is one I recently read in the news. Here is the link, I know you don’t read Italian:
    http://www.corriere.it/scuola/universita/15_gennaio_22/universita-atenei-italia-solo-13-professori-giovani-d7252098-a1f9-11e4-8580-33f724099eb6.shtml

    The astounding number is this: there are 13.239 professors in Italy and only 15 of them are under 40 years of age. The average age is actually only 52. 25% are over 60 years old.

  • lauradebenedetto

    Forse e’ questione di mia ignoranza ma non mi vengono al volo in mente 2/3 startup inglesi o canadesi di successo. Mi aiutate?

  • lauradebenedetto

    Have you been in an English college? They dress up like Harry Potter and talk at formal dinners with menu written in French with a glass of cherry and smoking pipes. And they still have the Royal Family.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    It’s not sunny in January in Florence either. (Canadian summers, on the other hand, can be very hot and sunny, and would be ideal for hanging laundry outside.) I love hanging my laundry in the summer wind and sun of the Maremma, but not in the city winter; actually my biggest issue here is the pollution and dirt, as well as occasional pollen and bird-poo, that sticks to the laundry if you leave it out too long.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Non c’è dubbio che noi conosciamo molti startupper (aiuta essere proprio nell’ambiente come lo sei tu!). Io non ti so dire esempi canadesi perchè non vivo in Canada quindi non frequento e non conosco quella gente. Credo che lo stesso valga per il UK. Noi siamo particolarmente attenti e informati su questo mondo in Italia – e su tanti altri aspetti del nostro paese. Purtroppo stando qui, ho perso un po di contatto con il resto del mondo: sono molto interessata nell’osservare quello che mi sta vicino, appunto.

  • lauradebenedetto

    In fact in Florence Milan Turin and Potenza and Taranto in the South in the buildings where I used to live it’s not allowed to hang laundry outside the windows. Maybe in popular and periferic parts of cities you can. Then those grandma underpants…

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    That is such an interesting point Jenna! I never even THOUGHT about that but why not? I agree that you have less to identify with when most of your professors are so much older. It’s nice to have a good mix. I know at my university in California, I had younger mentors that even now still follow my progress and helped me in so many different ways, like a big ‘brother or sister’….

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    Why not talk about cliches once in awhile? I think most people understand that there are so many exceptions :) but heck I know I loved reading Un italiano in America by Beppe SevergniniIa and agreed with much he had to say about our culture. I know many Italians that don’t fit the ‘mammone’ mold but than again I know a lot that do and that doesn’t mean that it can’t be talked about. I have yet to read this book so I can’t comment in detail but just to point out a few things, I have spent a lot of time in France and you find other cheeses quite regularly, like cheddar and parmigiano. From what I saw, they didn’t seem to mind having other options with their (superior in my opinion too) cheeses ;-).

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    Same problem, in my building, you can only hand laundry in the inner courtyard but not outside in the front of the building in view of the public. Which honestly I wouldn’t want to anyway since there are so many vespas and cars passing by :). I do wish I had one of those washer/dryer combos..

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    dalla mia breve esperienza a lavorare in un ambiente di startup, è che qui sembra come il startups cercare di rimanere sempre in vita (capisco perche’) senza lasciarsi fallire quando qualche volte sarebbe giusto. Credo che l’idea di startup è che è venga da una grande idea – anzi un’idea originale, ma è un rischio, e che la maggior parte di loro hanno fallito. Ma bisogna anche insegnare alla gente che è ‘ok’ a fallire, che ci si può fermare e cambiare, e provare qualcosa di nuovo, in un modo diverso o forse con gente nuova. Che non ho personalmente visto tanto qui ma I would like too :). rimango ottimista perché ci sono alcune persone davvero sorprendenti con un sacco di talento qui.

  • StephinOttawa

    Hmm.. I have to admit that this is the kind of broad-sweep book I usually avoid like the plague, for reasons suggested by some of your other commentators (I feel a sympathy for Laura). It strikes me as odd that he is both an expert in Italians and Spaniards (“The New Spaniards” is the title of a previous work by the author). :) In fairness though I shouldn’t comment further without reading it, which I may do to see how he handles the economics. Despite writing for the Economist, his academic background is in history I think.
    Incidentally, we do do cheddar well, but Canada is a dynamic, complex, and young country that has changed a great deal since you left it for grad school! :), even in the stodgy domain of food culture. In fact, the artisanal cheese market is a case in point…:) Oh and for Laura: Research In Motion was a very successful Canadian start up (the Blackberry). OK, so market dominance is no longer there…but it once was.
    Fun read!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Steph, nice to see you back on the blog again!
    I didn’t mention RIM/Blackberry cuz I don’t consider them a startup (they once were, but I think Laura wants to know about companies considered startups right now, ie younger than 3 years. Do you know any? I am sure there are, but don’t hear about them…)

    I also had the same premonition and fear that I would hate the book, think it had nothing to add to what I already know about Italy, etc. I thought “how could he know both Spain and Italy so well.” But like you, his job titles made me give him a chance and somehow he really has gotten a good grasp on Italy. I probably would have never read the book had the publisher not sent it to me, but I’m glad I did, and I’m pleased that this article has generated so much conversation!

    Cheers
    Alexandra

  • StephinOttawa

    I have to admit that I don’t pay a lot of attention to startups (especially less than three years!), although I’m always hearing about new ones on Ottawa Morning (though I’m usually groggily trying to drag myself out of bed at the time). In the domain of older start-ups, I think Shopify is Canadian though. Yep: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-money/business-funding/a-rare-startup-success-story-shopify-hits-1-billion-milestone/article15892998/. There’s also Hootsuite media out of Vancouver. My brother would know more!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    And I use both shopify and hootsuite! In fact I loved phoning shopify’s customer service and hearing their Canadian accents.

  • StephinOttawa

    Your question was useful – I fell down a rabbit hole at lunch yesterday looking up young startups. There are a whole bunch in Vancouver, Toronto, Waterloo and Montreal that sound quite interesting. I’ll follow from now on!

  • Debra Kolkka

    Wow! Hasn’t this sparked some savage replies? I am half way through the book and I am enjoying it. The author refers to The Italians by Luigi Barzini, which I think is a better book. It was written in the 60s, so perhaps the author thought he might update it a bit. Maybe that is why he chose the same title.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Debra
    I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. I haven’t actually read the Barzini book. I think Hooper more than updating is lending homage to the earlier book.
    I guess savage replies are to be expected, though I thought more to the book than to my blog post :) It’s not easy to encapsulate a whole country in a book, someone is bound to be upset… Anyway, if you and I and various other “foreigners” enjoy it, it’s a good book!
    Cheers
    Alexandra

  • Charlotte

    The Barzini is the classic text on the Italian personality.

  • lauradebenedetto

    Thanx Stephin. Very interesting comment! I’d like to know who Hooper and his English wife are going out with while in Italy. I guess with other expatriates talking about the Italians (and before that the Spanish) defeats. We’ll survive (ce ne faremo una ragione).

  • StephinOttawa

    I work as an economist so I am very reluctant to make generalizations about an entire culture. I think you can pull out some patterns using data and rigorous analysis, but even then you have to be very careful about how you state and caveat the conclusions. I would have to read the book to make a true evaluation, and I would caveat my own remarks by saying that facing some facts about how a culture deals with economic realities is extremely useful, but to this point I retain a healthy skepticism. In addition, although I have spent some time in Italy and have an Italian partner, I don’t live there and so I am not in a position to make a deep assessment.