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Simon and Schuster, Jul 3, 1996 - History - 352 pages
5 Reviews
In this consummate portrait of the Italian people, bestselling author, publisher, journalist, and politician Luigi Barzini delves deeply into the Italian national character, discovering both its great qualities and its imperfections.

Barzini is startlingly frank as he examines “the two Italies”: the one that created and nurtured such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino, and Leonardo da Vinci; the other, feeble and prone to catastrophe, backward in political action if not in thought, “invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.” Deeply ambivalent, Barzini approaches his task with a combination of love, hate, disillusion, and affectionate paternalism, resulting in a completely original, thoughtful, and probing picture of his countrymen.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - TurtleCreekBooks - LibraryThing

One of the better, if somewhat biased, reviews on "la vita italiana". Although a little dated and with some aspects of the book no longer applicable, it does still explain some fundamental aspects of ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - skulli99 - LibraryThing

Excellent. I like how Barzini added several chapters of "typical" Italians which is still relevant today as several centuries ago. My "favorite" Italian ? .........Cola di Rienzo ...what a character ...incredibe !! Read full review


The Peaceful Invasion i
The Eternal Pilgrimage
The Fatal Charm of Italy
The Importance of Spectacle
Illusion and Cagliostro
The Other Face of the Coin
Cola di Rienzo or the Obsession
Mussolini or the Limitations
The Pursuit of Life
The Power of the Family
How to Succeed
Sicily and the Mafia
Fornovo and After
The Perennial Baroque

Realism and Guicciardini

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About the author (1996)



Italians are pleased and perplexed. Every year since the end of the war they have seen the number of foreign visitors to their country increase at an incredibly rapid rate. The phenomenon has now reached unprecedented, practically inexplicable, and almost alarming proportions. In the 1950s the tourists numbered eight, ten, twelve million yearly. A little later, only yesterday, they were fifteen, seventeen, nineteen million. They have now passed the twenty million mark, a proportion of more than one tourist to every two and a half Italians, and the total is still growing. It appears that, if circumstances remain favourable, the travellers will reach thirty million within a decade, and will eventually match and even surpass the number of native inhabitants in the peninsula. Nothing daunts foreigners. Nothing frightens them. Nothing stops them. They arrive in a steady stream, by all forms of transport and even on foot, by day and night, from the sea or via the Alps. What is but a small trickle in the winter months grows in the spring to the size of a stream, and, in April, May, and June, turns into a monsoon flood, breaking all dikes, covering everything in sight. It begins to recede in September. It never completely dries up.

People come from all parts of the five known continents, from the old established nations of Europe and America and from the newly founded ones in Africa and Asia. The largest number come from the north, the vast, democratic, bourgeois, industrial north of Europe and America. Some now also come from Russia, in some ways the most northerly of all countries, organized parties of sightseers, behaving like military units traversing a dangerous territory inhabited by treacherous natives, as diffident and self-contained as Xenophon''s Greeks marching across Asia Minor. Russian tourists all wear the same box-like clothes, as new as those of provincial newly-weds, and ankle-length raincoats. They look well-fed, self-satisfied, and well-behaved. They appear eager to acquire as much culture, in all its forms, as rapidly and cheaply as possible. They have a disturbing resemblance to the diligent German tourists at the beginning of the century, the solid subjects of William II.

There are many travellers who, in order to obey the urge that drives them south, abandon their own countries, whose delights and tourist attractions are being advertised and celebrated all over the world. What do they seek that is better than what they left behind? Not many Italians willingly travel abroad in any direction, north, south, east or west. They always feel more or less exiled and unhappy in alien lands, and honestly believe the attractions of their homeland to be most satisfying. They are the first victims of the famous charm of Italy, never satiated with her sights, climate, food, music and life. Familiarity never breeds contempt in them. Neapolitans, for instance, after many thousand years, still gaze with the same rapture on their native landscape, eat spaghetti alle vongole as if they had never tasted them before, and compose endless songs dedicated to the immortal beauty of their women and their bay. Those Italians who travel abroad are, as a rule, the privileged -- Milanese industrialists and Roman princes who have adopted foreign ways, cabinet ministers, diplomats, newly-weds -- and the disinherited who go looking for work. They are usually all equally homesick abroad; the rich and the poor look for caffè espresso, a good Italian restaurant, wherever they go, and sigh for the day of their return.

At the high tide of the tourist season, from early June till late September, visitors fill every empty space available in Italy. Trains, buses, boats, restaurants, churches, museums, Greek and Roman ruins, chapels, concert halls, historic landmarks, and famous belvederes, whence romantic landscapes (two stars in the guide books) can be admired, are packed to capacity with foreigners. One literally finds them everywhere, often at one''s table, unknown friends of friends, sometimes even in one''s bathroom and bed. They also fill a couple of universities, Perugia and Urbino, set aside for them, where they study the language, imbibe the Latin sun-drenched culture, make love, go swimming, and feed themselves cheaply on pasta, olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic. American universities sometimes hold summer sessions, in art appreciation, history of civilization, and related subjects, in some ancient villa on a hill-top near Florence with a view over the whole city, or a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Swedish and Norwegian workers'' clubs have purchased wooded strips of deserted Italian coastline, where they have built their own club-houses and recreation centres.

There are sultry days in July and August when the cities, emptied by the natives, are almost completely taken over by the swarms of dusty and perspiring foreigners. During the siesta hour, when even the carriage horses sleep under their straw hats, the relentless tourists finally slow down. They bivouac everywhere. They recline on park benches, kerbstones, the stone brims of fountains, or ancient ruins. They place their heads over their crossed arms on café tables for a siesta among the empty bottles, the dirty napkins, and the recently purchased souvenirs. They then really look like a tired and bedraggled army after a fatiguing battle, who have occupied a city abandoned by their fleeing enemy. They have conquered. The place is theirs.

I am not talking here of the minority, the experienced foreigners who know why they come to Italy and what Italy is. Many have come here before and know their way about, others have never been here but somehow know what to do and what they want. They all avoid the heat and the dust, seldom visit the obvious places but, when they have to (the obvious places are often the most desirable), they go at convenient hours, when the crowd is away and the air is cool. They wear ordinary clothes, the same as everybody else. Some are in love with nature, others with art, culture, archaeology, or music. Some like meeting people and making friends, others discover little-known beaches or unexplored islands. There are those who make lengthy detours, to see some little-known masterpiece, and those who like food and wine and know the trattorie which only few natives and no foreigners have yet discovered. There are many who speak the language well. These easily disappear in the background. They do not interest me here. There is nothing peculiar about them. I am talking of the vast majority of tourists, the millions driven by some unknown urge.

They are so punctual and numerous that their mass arrival, in the eyes of ordinary Italians, appears as irresistible as a natural event, as ineluctable as the seasonal return of migratory birds, swallows, quails, or partridges, driven by instinct; or as an anthropological phenomenon like the migration of nomadic tribes seeking green pastures for their herds. The impression is heightened by the fact that many of these travellers look somewhat alike to Italian eyes. They dress in garishly-coloured clothes, much as the members of the ancient barbaric hordes once did and as the Gipsies and Berbers still do. A great number of Germans, Scandinavians, Britons, and Dutch have pink skins, which the sun seldom succeeds in tanning a decent brown but reddens to the tender colour of prosciutto or covers with freckles. They perspire freely in the heat, under their nylon shirts. They wear barbaric sandals. They have dark glasses over their eyes and their heads are bare or covered with cheap straw hats on whose brims are printed or embroidered the names of cities, sanctuaries, beaches, islands, or other famous landmarks.

There is something mysteriously significant about the behaviour of many of them. A mild frenzy takes most of them and transforms them once across the Italian border. It resembles the irresistible excitement which captures some living organisms and makes them forget themselves and everything else, when, like salmon going upstream, they obey some deep and secret impulse of Nature; or the intoxication, the gentle and sweet delirium, which makes all honeymooners quietly mad everywhere in the world and honeymooners in Italy doubly so, both because they are on their honeymoon and they are in Italy. Like all newly-weds, in fact, many ordinary travellers seem deliciously drunk with new illusions and hopes. The sedate professional man, the sober shopkeeper, the loyal employee, the rigorous scientist, the stern educator, the tidy housewife, the bespectacled spinster, the innocent maiden, the virtuous wife, the resigned husband, all behave as they probably never dared to behave before and as they probably would not behave publicly in their native habitat. More exactly, they behave as if they had shed the rôles assigned to them and the personalities bestowed on them by Nature, because such rôles and personalities had suddenly become repugnant and alien to them; or as if all the rules of the game of life had been changed or suspended. Some seem strangely deprived of all, or part of, their customary discernment, of their powers of control and discrimination, and of the scepticism, diffidence, prudence, suspicion, and fear necessary for survival in most countries. They get into all sorts of scrapes. They make friends with all sorts of people. They look at all things with indulgent and dewy eyes, apparently ready to love, admire, understand, or, at least, excuse and forgive almost everything, the good, the bad, the indifferent, the repugnant. They are often easily swindled, but many do not always mind if they are.

Most of these visitors from Northern Europe drink vast and indiscriminate quantities of wine. They drink, with