How Italy and Italians are seen by foreigners

How Italy and Italians are seen by foreigners

A talk by Concetta Perna

Concetta Perna is an Italian-born academic at Macquarie Uni. She’s also the president of the National Association of Italo-Australian Women and editing director of American publishing house Farinelli which focusses on books for students of Italian.

Concetta follows closely how Italy and its citizens are seen by foreigners and portrayed in the foreign media. Her thoughtful analysis was presented to our members on Thursday 19 September.

Concetta prefaced the presentation by clarifying that an ‘Italian identity’ is impossible to define due to vast regional and background differences. Political unification achieved in 1861 did not result in cultural unification. Indeed, soon after unification the statesman Massimo D’Azeglio in his Mémoirs stated “L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani” (“We’ve made Italy; now we must make the Italians”).

The talk was illustrated by some short videos. In the first, Pinocchio (Italy’s best known and loved toy), a mischievous character who wants to be liked, is shown as giving his creative best when free and unrestrained. Are Italians a bit like Pinocchio, Concetta wondered.

The second video presented a comparison of the portrayal of Italians in American films with actual crime statistics. The analysis showed a complete misrepresentation of the reality through negative stereotypes: Italians were overwhelmingly shown as criminal and violent whereas crime statistics show minimal Italian involvement in crime.

The third video showed Berlusconi (when he was still prime minister) as someone prone to gaffes and with a penchant for beautiful young women. The foreign media and foreigners in general were puzzled by the Berlusconi phenomenon where politics was mixed with money and sex, and ‘conflict of interest’ was not seen as an issue. Possible explanations for Berlusconi’s lasting popularity was a tendency for Italians to shrug their shoulders combined with the lack of a clear political alternative.

Concetta drew attention to the way Italians are generally portrayed (through the stereotypes of pizza, pasta and tarantella) and summarised the main features or characterisations over the decades since WW2. In the ‘50s the two-wheel Vespa got Italians moving; an ‘Italian style’ (fashion, design, architecture) acquired prominence in the ‘60s; the ‘70s saw a decline in our image due to the rise of the terrorist Red Brigades, but the ‘80s marked a revival associated with widespread prosperity.  Italy’s image took a dive again in the ‘90s due to perceptions of political dishonesty and incompetence although much attention was also given to the era of ‘clean hands’ (mani pulite) – the anti-corruption push. Concetta went on:

“People tend to forget the good things at the expense of the negative ones. For this reason the ‘Berlusconi case’ will remain in the memory of all for many years to come. Almost all the international press, including that of the Liberal Right, denounces the anomaly of a situation where the holder of an economic power of incredible size, holds also political power.”

Concetta argued that in general Italy is portrayed positively and affectionately on the strength of its art, architecture, fashion, design. She reminded us that “il bel paese’ holds 60% of the world art treasures – “we are an open-air museum”. Italians eat, drink and dress well. ‘Made in Italy’ is synonymous with ‘high quality’ and ‘aesthetically pleasing’. But the international media also covers the country’s fragility particularly with regard to its political system and economic weakness. Concetta noted that in recent times the main issue in Italy was whether Berlusconi should remain in Parliament despite his conviction for tax fraud, stressing that negative opinions on a country’s leader reflect badly on the whole country.

So, the upshot is that Italy is portrayed by the foreign media as a country full of paradoxes: while on the one hand it is generally viewed with great affection and respect for its ‘Made in Italy” and style, and is loved for its art; on the other and its political and economic realities attract negative coverage.

Yvette Devlin