He was the Dominican friar who, at the fag-end of the 15th century, and in the midst of the Renaissance, told Florentines that they were – to paraphrase – a bunch of wasters.
The reaction was startling. Suddenly, fasting was fashionable, excessive drinking and gambling stopped, and fun in general was forbidden. Prostitutes were beaten and homosexuals could expect to be burned alive. The Medicis, Florence’s rulers, were sentenced to exile in perpetuity. By all accounts, it was not a good time to be a party animal.
“Repent, O Florence,” thundered Savonarola, who was as ugly as he was censorious, “repent while there is still time! Clothe thyself in white garments of purification.” And remarkably, Florentines did. Convents which previously couldn’t attract nuns now filled up like pubs on a Friday night.
Bitter as Savonarola’s pill was to swallow it was at least for a short while efficacious. Things had been getting out of hand and a period of retrenchment was required. Something similar, you might say, is necessary in Italy today. Its credit rating has been downgraded by Standard and Poor’s, which described its economic outlook as “negative”. Though the Italian government recently passed an austerity budget, S & P is not convinced it will do the trick. If it had its way, it would doubtless call on a contemporary Savonarola to grab the dysfunctional nation by the scruff of the neck and whip it into shape.
But where to begin? Where else but at the top. Much that is awry in Italy can be laid at the door of Silvio Berlusconi. Few days go by without fresh dirt being hurled at him. Nudging 75, when most men are happy if they’re walking without the aid of a Zimmer, Italy’s prime minister is carrying on as if he were Mick Jagger in his pomp. Just two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, Berlusconi claims to have had sex with eight women. We know this because he told it to an alleged prostitute. He also told her that he is prime minister only in his “spare time”. In Italy, where politicians spend just a couple of days each week in parliament, apparently this is not unusual.
Until now ordinary Italians, brainwashed from watching Berlusconi’s brainless television channels, have shown extraordinary tolerance of their leader’s antics. The pat explanation for this is that in Italy machismo is a way of life and that a leader who doesn’t have it is like a pencil without lead.
In that regard, as in so many others, Berlusconi is similar to Mussolini, a rapacious philanderer. Like Mussolini, Berlusconi inspires unfathomable love in men as well as women. He too has a reputation, however spurious, for getting things done and making the trains run on schedule. He is also, like Mussolini, arrogant and flamboyant, childish and ridiculous. Truth for Berlusconi is what the Italian commentator Luigi Barzini said it was for Il Duce, “what it looked like and what most people liked to believe”.
Increasingly, however, discontent is making itself heard in the land of extra virgin olive oil that Berlusconi has led to the brink of economic catastrophe. At first, the murmurings came from afar, aired in magazines such as the Economist and Time, which directed cataracts of criticism in his direction. As is his wont, he laughed them off and attempted to turn them to his advantage, claiming that they were motivated by anti-Italian outsiders. In fact, what dismays many well-meaning people about Italy is that a country that has given the world so much should find itself in such a distressed position.
No-one is to blame for this state of affairs more than Berlusconi. His hands-off approach to government and imperviousness to calls for his resignation symbolise the inertia that is endemic throughout Italy. Meanwhile corruption goes unchecked, bureaucracy chokes initiative, nepotism is rife, graffiti smears every wall, the rule of law is a charade, young, talented and educated Italians seek employment abroad and foreign workers are routinely discriminated against. And seemingly oblivious to all of this is Berlusconi, a shameless, shameful sham of a leader in dire want of a Savonarola.
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