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Italy’s Writing on the Wall

Summary:
It is often said that Italy’s divergence from the rest of Europe, in terms of per capita income, started either with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 or with the adoption of the euro in 1999. But this chronology masks a more profound transformation in modern Italy. PRINCETON – As the home of both the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, Italy has long been at the forefront of cultural developments in Europe and Western Eurasia. But it has also long served as an example of political decline. Edward Gibbon’s classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after all, was meant as a warning to the author’s empire-building contemporaries. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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It is often said that Italy’s divergence from the rest of Europe, in terms of per capita income, started either with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 or with the adoption of the euro in 1999. But this chronology masks a more profound transformation in modern Italy.

PRINCETON – As the home of both the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, Italy has long been at the forefront of cultural developments in Europe and Western Eurasia. But it has also long served as an example of political decline. Edward Gibbon’s classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after all, was meant as a warning to the author’s empire-building contemporaries.

Italy’s economic stagnation after the early seventeenth century was also held up as a cautionary tale. The nineteenth-century English critic John Ruskin implored members of Britain’s mercantile society to ponder the tragedies of Tyre and Venice. Describing Venice in “the final period of her decline,” he wrote of “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.”

Then came the post-World War II period, when Italy was the poster child for fruitful European integration. The country developed a cultural style that is still uniquely influential to this day, particularly in the domain of fashion, where it is a global trendsetter. Around the world, upmarket shopping malls, high streets, and airports are lined with boutiques featuring Italian designs (if not Italian products).

But now Italy has become a cautionary tale once again. Since its general election last March, the country’s political scene has fascinated and horrified international observers. The formation of a left-right populist government has led many to wonder if such a coalition is a fluke, or a symptom of the political and intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberal globalization.

It is often said that Italy’s divergence from the rest of Europe (in terms of per capita income) started either with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 or with the adoption of the euro in 1999. But this chronology masks a more profound transformation in modern Italy. The early 1990s, after all, is also when the old Italian two-party system disintegrated, with both the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Socialists succumbing to the Tangentopoli (Kickback City) corruption scandal.

Behind the headlines about corruption was the fact that older ideas about shared responsibility no longer applied. Thus, the dissolution of Italy’s two main parties led to even more – and more institutionalized – corruption, embodied by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A real-estate developer cum entertainment...

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