Italians will see it as a metaphor for the rottenness at the heart of the Italian state and of the Italian establishment. For behind the tragedy of the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa this week is a terrible truth. Hundreds, if not thousands of bridges in Italy — say some experts — are deathtraps. And just as it is pretty common for apartment blocks, especially south of Rome, to explode as a result of gas leaks, so it is not unusual for Italy’s decaying infrastructure to cause appalling loss of life.
Yet, the country — beating pulse of western civilisation — is full of bridges built by the Romans, and priceless Renaissance city centres that are still standing. In Puglia, in the deep south of the country, there are olive trees that are 2,000 years old. So I see the collapse of the bridge in Genoa as a metaphor for the precariousness of life itself in Italy, where I have lived for 20 years, and have somehow survived.
Every aspect of life here is precarious — whether it is your job, your innocence, your freedom, your friendships, your marriage, or indeed your life. I do not mean that in Italy all depends on chance, destiny or divine intervention, and that the Italians have got nothing to do with it. Good grief no! Life is precarious in Italy precisely because of the institutions and culture Italians have created.
I used to admire them for all stopping their cars and pulling over so diligently when an ambulance came screeching up behind or towards them. I now realise they are motivated not by altruism but by terror — terror of being hit by the ambulance.
There are often attempts to put things right. Matteo Salvini, Interior Minister and leader of the radical Right Lega, now in coalition with the alt-Left Five Star Movement, has promised to identify and jail all those responsible for the collapse of the Genoa bridge. But this is what Italian politicians say every time there is a catastrophe and yet they continue to happen, with disturbing regularity. Eye-witnesses — in this case — say the bridge collapsed after being struck by lightning in a terrible thunder storm after weeks of infernal heat.
Genoa itself — where the founder of the Five Star movement Beppe Grillo comes from — has been hit several times in recent years by devastating flash floods. The worst, in 2011, killed seven people. In the 2016 flood, archbishops and editors accused elected politicians of “shameful” negligence. But nothing ever really changes because everything is paralysed by the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, as well as by its arbitrary judicial system. And, as a result, we all in Italy fear any interaction with the authorities.
The terrible earthquakes that have happened in recent years are the classic example. A friend of mine’s family own a lovely old house in L’Aquila, devastated by the 2009 earthquake. They still can’t move back home and his father, an architect, who knew how the system works, is now dead.
To sort out the infrastructure would require truckloads of borrowed cash, but Italy is a prisoner of the euro and its public debt is already 132 per cent of gross domestic product (the fourth highest in the world among major countries), costing euros 80 billion (Dh333.96 billion) a year in interest.
Top to bottom dishonesty makes things even harder.
In 2016, John Phillips, the then United States ambassador to Rome, told an audience at Milan’s Bocconi University that Americans invest more in tiny Belgium than in Italy — the Eurozone’s third-largest economy — and less in the European Union only in Greece, because in Italy it is virtually impossible to enforce a contract — thanks to the terrifyingly bad justice system.
The French philosopher, Montesquieu, had written in the 18th century that liberty has never flourished where the orange grows, and without liberty there can be no safety. Italy is a country of wild extremes, of great beauty and great ugliness, but you have to watch your step, every step of the way.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Nicholas Farrell is a journalist, columnist and specialist on Italy.