Is the Eternal City Crumbling?

Greying centurions, decay, Vatican and soccer scandals. Nothing boring about Italy.

By Steve Burgess 1 Jun 2012 |

Steve Burgess wrote this dispatch from Rome. Wasn't he just there a year ago? Yes. Yes he was.

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Roman centurion. Hard to catch a break these days. Photo by wsmith, Creative Commons licensed.

Standing guard at Trajan's Column, just off Rome's Piazza Venezia, is a very old centurion. Clearly a veteran of many campaigns, he looks like he could tell you about the Second Punic War first-hand. He is dressed in a leather breastplate with the requisite leather skirt, red cape and plumed helmet, genially waving his sword at passing tourists, offering to pose with them for a small fee. There are scores of men plying the same trade from the Colosseum all the way to the Pantheon -- supply seems to have outstripped demand in Rome's bogus battalion business. But this grey-haired, pot-bellied old soldier stands out. A man his age really ought to be off enjoying a well-earned pension rather than cadging coins from foreign invaders. Whether he's a sign of the times or just one old guy who put too much money into Facebook is anybody's guess. But there must be a few Romans who shudder and quicken their step at the sight of him. His historical outfit might seem too much like a depressing glimpse of the future.

Rome really doesn't look any different these days -- Rome never does. The crowds are still here and the shops busy enough. Recent tourists include Mark Zuckerberg who, unlike previous visitors the Goths, Visigoths and Vandals, had the decency to complete his plundering before entering the Eternal City.

But despite the tourist-business-as-usual veneer, most conversations with locals will soon touch on "the crisis," at least in passing. Europe's ongoing economic meltdown has created a sense of unease, but more of a habitual resignation. Italians are used to looking at their leaders with bemused disgust, so bigger problems are usually taken in stride as just a somewhat intensified version of normal. "Che casino," Italians often say -- literally, "What a whorehouse," but more akin to that old GI acronym, "snafu."

The current muttering tends to be aimed not at the Greeks or even the Italian government, but the Germans. In fact it never takes very much to inspire Italian resentment towards Germany at the best of times, which these are definitely not. And the sense that they are sitting up there in Berlin tut-tutting even as they consolidate their position as lords of Europe is enough to guarantee that German tourists might have to wait a little longer for their gelato this summer.

Infamy of Italy

There always seems to be plenty of controversy in Rome. Even the old centurions can get involved -- last April a couple of them were evicted from the Colosseum grounds for being too aggressive. TV video shows the resulting melee with plastic swords being swung as though at Hannibal himself. But one source of trouble -- the motherlode, in fact -- has finally dried up.

Silvio Berlusconi, the emperor of Italian infamy, the sleazy old clown who used to dress up and play president for his audience of hookers, is gone. It's nice to imagine Berlusconi on the street in one of those rented centurion outfits, or perhaps offering to shout "Bunga bunga!" at passers-by for a couple of euros. Although it's true that he lent Italian politics considerable entertainment value, it came at a far greater cost than it was ever worth. Besides, he's not even missed these days. The Vatican has obligingly filled the scandal gap.

"Have you been following it?" my Roman friend Oddone asked with evident relish. "It's quite something."

There's really nothing like a good Vatican scandal. The appetite for it goes deeper than the deepest abysmal depths of Dan Brown. At Rome's Campidoglio museum right now there is an exhibit titled Lux in Arcana -- the Vatican Secret Archive, even as the newspapers sold out front carry a modern variation on the same show. Letters leaked from the Vatican inner sanctum reveal cronyism, thwarted attacks on corruption, and possible quid pro quo payoffs for papal face time.


Perhaps Italians would have lapped this up under any pontificate. But it can't be a coincidence that this story is getting so much traction under a German pope, the erstwhile Cardinal Ratzinger. Hard to imagine Italians would have been so delighted had all this come out 10 years ago. In fact it seems unlikely it would ever have seen the light at all -- newspapers would not have been so eager to tarnish the reputation of one of the most beloved pontiffs of the 20th century. Seven years after his death John Paul II bobbleheads still far outnumber Benedict XVI models at Roman souvenir stands. (Historic suspicion of the Vatican aside, it could also be that the papacy of John Paul II was simply a different beast entirely, and that this episode reflects the more fractious regime of a man who is by all accounts a weaker and more detached administrator than his predecessor.)

At least a Vatican scandal is relatively harmless -- it's not as though the price of communion wafers will go up. Other Italian troubles are not so much fun. An ongoing investigation into soccer corruption recently snapped up Stefano Mauri, the captain of Lazio, one of Rome's two top-tier franchises, on match fixing charges. This prompted new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to suggest this week that Italian professional soccer be suspended for two or three years, to get its house in order.

Monti would have been better off suggesting a 20-communion suspension for the Pope. Cancelling Italian soccer? Scandalizzato! In his efforts to reform the inefficient and corrupt Italian economic system Monti has been given a great deal of slack by a public fed up with Berlusconi's shenanigans. But the man should not push it. Messing with Serie A football would offer the quickest possible route to a spot on the pavement outside the Colosseum, waving a plastic sword at camera-toting Koreans. Criticize the Pope if you like. Just don't mess with Italy's national religion.  [Tyee]

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