Wednesday, 23 February 2011

18 February 2011

TURIN -- As you may have heard on the programme, I’ve been travelling in Italy this week, gauging the mood of the nation as the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, prepares to face charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of office, and as Italians mark the 150th anniversary of the country’s unification.

I’ll be on air tonight from Turin with the third of my reports, and I’ve also written a piece for From Our Own Correspondent, to be broadcast tomorrow at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4.

I thought you might like a taster of what I’ll be saying:

When I lived in Italy more than 30 years ago, the words that most people associated with the country were mafia, spaghetti, Fiat and Michelangelo, not necessarily in that order. Now, I’ve been back, and I found the country confused, depressed and uncertain.

I’ve been travelling from the faded, crime-ridden city of Naples in the south to the industrial and commercial hubs of Milan and Turin in the north, and at each stop I asked the people I met: “If I say Italy to you, what do you think of?”

“Cheats,” said a young jazz musician in the historic university city of Padua, where once Galileo was a student. “Complicated”, said a social worker as we looked out over the Bay of Naples towards Mount Vesuvius.

A few days ago, I was in the pretty port city of Gaeta, just over half way between Rome and Naples. It was where the last, great pre-unification battle was fought, where the Bourbon royal family took refuge after Naples fell to the armies of the North. Gaeta suffered a terrible siege, tens of thousands of people died. To mark the anniversary, the townspeople paraded through the streets, many of them dressed in period costume. It wasn’t so much a celebration of unity as a demonstration that even after 150 years, a distinctly, and defiantly, southern identity still survives.

Still, despite its history, Italy is now one nation, and I’m not sure it’s really any less united than, say, Spain, with its Basques and Catalans; France, with its Bretons and Corsicans; even the United Kingdom, with its Scots, its Welsh and its northern Irish.

These days, Italians all watch the same TV programmes – most of them on networks owned or controlled by Mr Berlusconi – and at least in part because of the influence of television, they do now speak the same language. That wasn’t the case even 50 or 60 years ago, when most Italians spoke regional dialects rather than the Italian of the literary giants like Dante or Mazzini.

The young musician I met in Padua told me that he feels he’s visiting a foreign country when he goes south to Naples. And this is a man who spent many years living in New York. Naples is crumbling, it’s dirty, the people drive like maniacs – so to a northern Italian, who’d feel perfectly comfortable in Berlin or Vienna, going south is a bit like ending up in Cairo or Beirut.

As for Mr Berlusconi, he’s as defiant as ever. He insists he won’t be resigning ahead of his trial in April – and in a strange way, he is himself now a unifying influence. He’s originally from Milan, which is where his business empire is based, and where his bunga bunga parties were held, but he has as much political support in the south as in the north.

And when hundreds of thousands of Italians took to the streets last weekend to demonstrate their opposition to him, they filled the piazzas in dozens of towns and cities the length and breadth of the country.

The word on their placards was “Basta” – enough. The fate of their prime minister – and perhaps even the fate of their country – now lies in the hands of the judges.

By the way, The World Tonight can now be downloaded free of charge as a podcast, which means that if you happen to miss a programme, you can now catch up on you way to work the next morning. Just go to

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