If an urban paradise exists, it surely must be San Gimignano, the Tuscan hill town whose medieval stone towers look from a distance like a condottiere’s Manhattan. Nearby Volterra is not bad either, and as for Siena—they all exemplify the surprising excellence of Italian urban administration, in such marked contrast to the national governance. The Italians are the greatest exponents in the world of living modern lives in ancient surroundings, adapting them to their current needs without destroying them.
I was in San Gimignano for May Day and had just finished breakfast in my hotel (where, a few centuries ago, the Inquisition held its trials), when I heard a brass band approaching. Such jolly music drew me to the restaurant’s window, where the waiter also stood.
The brass band belonged to a celebratory procession of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista. It wasn’t a large procession, mainly middle-aged men bearing red flags, but with a small younger contingent flying the multicolored flag now used by homosexuals across the world. Oddly, all the party’s posters in the city sported this symbol, though nowhere have communist parties in power shown much tolerance toward homosexuality. In hard times, however, one takes one’s allies wherever one finds them. I couldn’t help but recall how, when I was a student, I lived with a hard-line Marxist, a kind of Savonarola of dialectical materialism, who saw homosexuality in the same light as Schubert lieder—namely, as a manifestation of counter-revolutionary petit-bourgeois pessimism.
The helpful, kindly, and obliging waiter threw a red carnation down to the procession. He was a communist, then, or at least a communist sympathizer. This sympathy was odd, because his entire livelihood, indeed the livelihood of San Gimignano, depended upon the presence of bourgeois tourists. Did he really hate those whom he served with such polite attentiveness?
The history of the Soviet Union evidently meant nothing to him—but on second thought, perhaps it did. For in the Soviet Union in the good old days, the waiter, not the customer, was king. He decided who, of the hundreds of people trying to get into his establishment, would get a table; and he decided what, if anything, would be served. In times of shortage, a waiter is a powerful man; and it is not
so unusual for the subservient to dream of being, one day, top dog.
Few come to Italy without thinking that it would be delightful to live there. The Italian peninsula, besides being surpassingly beautiful, shows more material evidence of human genius than anywhere else in the world; nowhere in the world is la dolce vita more dolce.
But it is not given to man to live in perfect contentment. As Horace said two millennia ago, “They change their skies, not their souls, who run across the sea.” Human discontent springs eternal, even in the most exquisite surroundings. Maybe that explains the major demonstrations in all of Italy’s major cities on the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death; many of those marching carried portraits of the Little Father of the Peoples that bore the legend: “We render homage to Joseph Stalin.”
During an earlier trip to Italy, I attended a neo-fascist rally addressed by Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra. A doctor who acts like a starlet and who has allowed nude photos of herself to appear in the media, she nevertheless received an enthusiastic greeting from the party faithful. “Duce! Duce! Duce!” they roared, their faces contorted in hatred and frustration.
But what frustrated them, and what did they hate? What motivates men to remain loyal to dreadful political ideologies, decades after their murderous failure has become inescapable? The Partito della Rifondazione’s website talks of “Liberation,” without stating what it is we will be liberated from. Boredom? Drudgery? All the little annoyances that result from being human? Or is it liberation from scruples that we desire?
The history of both the fascists and the communists suggests that it is.