The Right Conquers Rome. Is Italy about to Break the Mould?


Different languages have different words for a major defeat or rout. They are often borrowed from the most inglorious episodes in respective national histories. Thus the French word for a terrible defeat is “bérézina”, a reference to the disastrous Battle of Berezina in present-day Belarus in 1812 when Napoleon’s already retreating troops were decimated by Marshal Kutuzov. The Germans often use the term “Stunde Null” (“Zero Hour”) for the same purpose: this was the term used to denote Germany’s state of total devastation after the unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. The British, rather eccentrically, use the word “Waterloo” to mean “defeat”, even though they were the victors in that Belgian village in 1815.
In Italian, the expression is “Caporetto”,in memory of the Battle of Caporetto fought at what is now Kobarid in Slovenia in 1917, the subject of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. The expression has been much used in the newspapers in recent days to denote what happened to the Italian Left at the recent parliamentary and local elections. The Left, and especially the extreme Left, has indeed suffered a historic defeat, losing control of the government, both houses of parliament, and the City of Rome, which it has held for most of the last quarter century.
Apart from the return to power for a third term in office of the vigorously anti-Left Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the Right’s victories in Italy include spectacular successes for the (admittedly reformed) extreme right. Gianfranco Fini, who was Deputy Prime Minister in the last Berlusconi administration, and who rose to power by taking over the old fascist party and “democratising” it to create the Alleanza Nazionale, is now President of the Parliament. The Mayor of Rome is Gianni Alemanno, also formerly of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, Mussolini’s party; Alemanno is the son-in-law of Pino Rauti, a veteran politician from the extreme right. There were apparently fascist salutes on the Campidoglio (the Capitoline hill where town hall of Rome is situated) on Tuesday in celebration of his victory.
This is in addition to the very high score achieved by the Northern League (9% of the national vote): in many ways the Northern League is more right-wing than Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale, campaigning much more vigorously against immigration and Europe than Fini does. The Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, indeed once called the EU a “Stalinist” organisation, the only minister in any European government ever to use such vigorously anti-EU rhetoric since the EEC was created in 1957.
Italian politics is often dismissed (in Britain at least) as nothing but a combination of opera buffa and artful corruption. It is true that the country’s political life seems chaotic when viewed from outside; but that is true of Italian life in general, where the appearance of chaos in fact masks the reality of extremely professional organisation. Anyone who has taken a train or a bus in Italy will know this to be true (the contrast with Britain, for instance, is very unfavourable to the British). The Italians are masterful businessmen and very hard-working professionals, who continue to produce some of the world’s best products, from cars and kitchens to fashion and food.
In politics, the Italians combine their well-known flair and kindness with a Latin proclivity for interesting political ideas. Above all, Italian politics are profoundly original: it has often been remarked that the country which appears to have no significant international profile is, in fact, a laboratory for political movements which then catch on elsewhere. No Bismarck without Cavour; no Hitler without Mussolini.
If Italy is indeed in the political avant-garde, there is surely no thinker whose work has had greater political influence in the post-war politics of Europe than the great Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Like many Marxists an excruciatingly boring writer, Gramsci famously formulated the idea that the Left should grasp and consolidate its power by establishing cultural hegemony. Whereas Marx and Engels thought that the revolution would come about as a result of impersonal and inevitable historical processes, and whereas Lenin argued that instead the revolution needed to be directed by a highly disciplined, centralised and violent revolutionary party, Gramsci argued that the Left should wield power not only by means of violence and coercion but also by infiltrating the cultural institutions of the state in order to be able to dictate the very terms of reference of the political debate itself.
We are all familiar with what this means in practice. Huge swathes of political discourse are kept off limits by taboos established by the Left. Immigration is perhaps the most obvious of these; those politicians in Europe who have campaigned against mass immigration, like the Front national in France or the Vlaams Blok (now Belang) in Flanders, are demonised as extremists. Some people have managed to campaign against immigration without being so demonised – Sir Andrew Green of Migration Watch in the UK, the Conservative Party and large sections of the British media are examples – but their campaigns have been either muted or unsuccessful or both. This is in spite of the fact that Western Europe continues to suffer from very high levels of net immigration, which are putting huge strains on social relations and the state.
Is Italy about to break the mould? I have always regarded Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the Alleanza Nazionale, as a dismal opportunist. But judging by the language coming out of the mouth of the new Mayor of Rome, as of other Italian politicians, this will soon change. Alemanno has said that any foreigners convicted of crimes in Italy will simply be deported. The temperature has been rising steadily in Italy, and especially in Rome, as vast camps of Romanian gypsies have sprung up in the capital city and elsewhere, from where petty and serious crimes are systematically committed. One would have thought that a promise to apply the law as it stands was a fairly uncontroversial proposition, but when the Front national said it would do the same thing in France, it was denounced as extremist. Italy has already started applying these measures and one can only assume that, with the new political hegemony of the Right, they will continue and be amplified.
If so, Italy will indeed have contributed to what I hope will be sea change in European politics. By breaking the taboo in Rome, the taboo may be broken across Europe. But what about cultural hegemony? Here, too, there are signs of optimism – stronger signs, perhaps, than the promises made on political subjects. For the new Mayor of Rome has also promised to dismantle and remove a new building which has only recently been put up in the centre of the Eternal City and which is, to use his words, an “insult” to it. I refer to Richard Meier’s building which now houses the Ara Pacis, a great Roman monument erected to the glory of the Emperor Augustus.
The Ara Pacis has been undergoing restoration for years, and the work on the new building to house it, on the banks of the Tiber near Piazza del Popolo, has also dragged on for as long as I can remember. Now that the building has been unveiled, we can see the true horror of what Meier has constructed. A disciple of the worst architects of the 20th century, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe – who also espoused its worst political ideologies - Meier puts up culturally Bolshevik buildings which are identical whether they are in Indiana or Barcelona. They all look like car dealerships on the outskirts of Nicosia. The monstrosity which he has created for the Ara Pacis is not only a repetition of his other horrors elsewhere; it also severely disfigures the architecture of Rome which is otherwise a gloriously organic harmony. You can see pictures of it here and pictures of his other buildings here.
Alemanno promised to dismantle the Ara Pacis building when he campaigned for Mayor in 2006. Now he has renewed that promise, albeit saying that it is not a priority given the more pressing security concerns of the capital. No doubt all such political promises can fall victim to the pressures of inertia and opportunism. But if Alemanno does only one thing during his term in office, if he achieves this single act of cultural restoration or counter-revolution, then the entire election will have been well worth it.


Thank you for calling such buildings "monstrosities." I resent being made to feel like a philistine for hating this type of architecture. I love art and know quite a bit about it for someone who is not an artist or an art historian. I have spent many years educating myself about art and cultivating my taste, and I reject the suggestion that my distaste for certain kind of modernist architecture is due to my lack of sophistication. I believe that very minimalist architecture based on simple geometric shapes is harmful to our sense of well-being because it creates a sense of sensory deprivation in our brain that has a constant need to scan for patterns. So destroying such buildings is not only a symbolic gesture dismantling the leftinst cultural hegemony, it is also the question of public health.

And, by the way, I absolutely hate the new Getty Museum building. It is ugly, it lacks unity. And, on top of that, the architect (the same Meier) blatantly disregarded the reality of the hot California climate by creating huge open spaces that accumulate heat and make it unbearable to be there on most days of the year.

Italy in the van

An excellent article. A name like Alemanno is very appropriate for someone whose fight is significant for the whole of Europe.