Country on the Brink A Search for the Source of Italy's Malaise

The sun in the south, the mountains in the north and stunningly beautiful cities in between: Life in Italy, one might think, is just short of paradise. But residents of the country are deeply unhappy. Why?
The City of Bagheria in Sicily: Lagging far behind its potential

The City of Bagheria in Sicily: Lagging far behind its potential

Foto: Maria Feck / DER SPIEGEL

Is it really possible that the residents of a country envied worldwide for its "italianità," for its vigor, elegance and culture, are actually, deep inside, unhappy? Almost every second Italian makes precisely that claim, the highest such value in Europe. Between the Brenner Pass in the far north and the island of Lampedusa in the south, a share of the populace more than twice the EU average feels lonesome and neglected. Two-thirds are afraid of losing their job. Life expectancy keeps rising in the country, but the birth rate continues to break records as it plummets.

Nowhere, not even in Britain, is EU membership as unpopular as it is in Italy. The number of young academics bolting the country has doubled within just a single decade, and among those people who remain, a form of "dissatisfaction" is on the rise, one that "goes beyond mere anger," the pollsters at Censis have found. Foreigners and minorities are increasingly seen as scapegoats, according to the institute.

But why? Six years and three failed governments after my arrival in Italy as a foreign correspondent, I set off on a trip looking for answers.

A good place to start the search for the source of the malaise is where unemployment is among the highest in Italy and where the country lags furthest behind its potential: in Sicily . The island is home to Michelangelo Balistreri, a one-of-a-kind bundle of energy. In addition to running a sardine factory, he writes poems in the local dialect, is a singer and also finds time for anti-mafia activism.

During a tour of his factory and of the attached museum, he explains why his island continues to stagnate, despite it being one of the country's most attractive and fertile regions. Silence leads to paralysis, Balistreri says, and fear bears no fruit.

He himself has made a small fortune with canned fish, and has made headlines with his fight against organized crime. When he was presented with a demand for 100,000 euros in protection money - from a former bodyguard of the murdered anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone – Balisteri refused. Not only that, he reported his would-be extortionist to the authorities, who hauled him into court. It was a dangerous move, but the decision, Balisteri says, was liberating. "If you pay protection money, you become a mafioso yourself."

Bagheria, located in the "triangle of death" in western Sicily, is considered a Cosa Nostra stronghold, particularly since the 1980s, when the crime syndicate used an abandoned nail factory to torture and murder its opponents, before dissolving their bodies in acid.

The days are over in which the main question in viewers' minds ahead of the evening news was: "I wonder who they killed today." Less blood is now being spilled. But the mafia's claim to power is just as strong as it has ever been. The mayor of Bagheria enjoys the backing of the former president of Sicily, a man who spent five years behind bars for supporting the mafia.

Michelangelo Balisteri in his sardine factory: "If you pay protection money, you become a mafioso yourself."

Michelangelo Balisteri in his sardine factory: "If you pay protection money, you become a mafioso yourself."

Foto: Maria Feck / DER SPIEGEL

Located on the coast east of Palermo, Bagheria was founded as a wealthy suburb, full of villas, a past that is still apparent from the manors of former nobility from the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, with an unemployment rate of 38 percent, it is the poorhouse of Italy.

Bagheria is a prime example for why the highly indebted country of Italy, which boasts the third highest economic output in the eurozone, seems stuck in place and why so many people in the country view the future with a significant degree of trepidation. The city of Bagheria, after all, essentially has all it needs for success, including a magical coastline and restaurants that serve up tuna tartare, oysters and sea urchins.

Nevertheless, the place wears the "maglia nera," the black jersey, awarded for last place in the national employment statistics. And part of the reason for that ignominy is the fact that the mafia continues to maintain a chokehold on the people of Bagheria.

The beaches between Bagheria and the outlying district where Balisteri's sardine factory is located are mostly filthy. And the region's stagnancy seems to be part of the plan: When the Oscar winner Giuseppe Tornatore, a native of Bagheria, wanted to make a film in Sicily, everyone was pleased. But there was just one minor request: the technicians and extras were to come from the Cosa Nostra. Tornatore opted to film in Morocco instead.

Factory-owner Balistreri continues to be under police protection, but he seems to not have a care in the world. "You can also defeat the mafia by singing," he says, grabbing his guitar and launching into one of his favorite songs. It is a song about Colapesce, a fisherman's son who, in the Strait of Messina, prevented a column from collapsing which, according to legend, holds up the entire island.

The metaphor remains applicable today, says Balistreri: Colapesce, he says, stands for those who risk their lives to battle the mafia and seek to protect Sicily from collapse. "In the sea, sharks feast on sardines – unless they swim close together with the others." Sicilians, he says, should follow the sardines' example and stick closer together in the fight against the clans.

With 46 percent of Italians claiming to be unhappy despite having greater private wealth, a longer life expectancy and better weather than people in most other European countries, it is tempting to believe that the grumbling is the product of a fear of losing something. Because no matter what they do, whether its eating deep-fried rice balls in Palermo, presenting the latest in beach fashion at the "prova costume" in Ostia or showing up in evening wear for the season premiere at the Scala in Milan, only very few Italians seem particularly grouchy in their daily lives.

But their deep disgust with everything having to do with the state, widely seen as voraciously greedy and uncaring, has grown since the onset of the 2011 economic crisis. Migration across the Mediterranean  as well as the European Commission's alleged paternalism have reinforced a comprehensive feeling of an external threat. The average Italian, Sicilian Andrea Camilleri has written, isn't particularly concerned with the outside world. "It is enough for him to know the location of his home, his church, his pub and his city hall. His curiosity does not extend beyond that."

A mountain of garbage in Rome: "Where are are the unforgettable exhibitions and concerts?"

A mountain of garbage in Rome: "Where are are the unforgettable exhibitions and concerts?"


The widespread lack of interest in the country's real problems plays right into the hands of the populists. Italy's lethargic productivity, the corruption and the unwillingness of the ruling class to step aside in a timely manner to make way for the younger generation? Neither the right-wing Lega under Matteo Salvini  nor the Five Star Movement spends much time on such issues. Together, the two parties won an absolute majority in the last election with a message that can be reduced to the following: The poor Italians are doing worse and worse through no fault of their own. Such propaganda provides fertile soil for resentment.

According to official EU statistics, Rome is less livable than either Bucharest or Sofia if you ask the city's own residents. The Facebook page belonging to the group "romafaschifo" – Rome sucks – is full of posts about the aesthetic downfall of this "savaged" city, as the journalist Corrado Augias would have it.

Christian Raimo, 44, refers to himself as a "ragazzo delle borgate," a guy from the suburbs. A radical leftist who grew up on Gramsci, Freud and Marx, he currently earns his money as a writer, as a translator and as a teacher at Dante Alighieri High School. "My salary there is 1,430 euros per month, less than my mother's pension," Raimo says. "On top of that comes the recent addition of 700 euros for my job as cultural councilor on the city council," he says.

And indeed, the dreamer, utopist and pamphleteer ("Roma – città di merda," or "Rome: City of Shit") decided in June 2018 to get involved in politics. He is now in charge of culture in the Roma III district in the city's northeast. He doesn't spend much time at his desk in city hall, though, preferring instead to be out and about – in places where it's painful to go, places that Social Democrats have long since ceased visiting.

"All leftist achievements from 1970s Italy, both social and cultural, have been gambled away. Where are all the unforgettable exhibitions and concerts?" Raimo asks, before answering the question himself: "They don't exist anymore." Rome, he says, has become a "city of ultimate consumption, while the political class lies "in ruins." It is something that, as a Roman, he is unwilling to accept.

As a result, in moments when he isn't traveling throughout the country giving speeches on the dangers of "eternal fascism" and "barroom windbags," as he refers to Salvini, Raimo is doing what he can to strengthen grassroots resistance to such dangers by arranging for regular infusions of culture. "Grande come una città" – Great Like a City – is the name of his event series, and it's not just the variety that is great, which includes readings, concerts and films, but also the size of the audiences the events attract. Raimo says his goal is "open-air education." Given what he calls the "mass-infantilism" that has infected Italy, given that reading for pleasure has become a rarity in the country of Dante, there are, he insists, only two possible standpoints: "Io me ne frego" – I don't care – or "Mi impiccio" – It's a concern of mine.

Raimo, for his part, has made his choice.

The rail journey from Rome to Venice occasionally hits speeds of 300 kilometers per hour. It is a ride in a high-tech train that cuts directly through a landscape of astonishing beauty, past cities such as Florence, Bologna and Padua. Evidence of hundreds of years of culture fly past the window.

Italy's north-south orientation stretching across more than 10 degrees of latitude led former cabinet member Ugo La Malfa to say that on a map, his country looks like a person who is standing with her feet in Africa but is grabbing onto the Alps with her hands, almost as if she is trying to pull herself into the center of Europe.

Arrigo Cipriani at Harry's Bar in Venice: "This is a city facing cardiac arrest, petrified, with no identity."

Arrigo Cipriani at Harry's Bar in Venice: "This is a city facing cardiac arrest, petrified, with no identity."


The rifts cutting through the country are rooted in history. "It's as if Italy is made up of two countries that in 150 years haven't been able to achieve an acceptable level of mutual rapprochement," writes the weekly newspaper Panorama. Gross domestic product in the north is almost double what it is in the south and the unemployment rate is two-thirds lower.

Having arrived at the Santa Lucia train station in Venice, passengers flood into the narrow streets and onto the passenger boats. Starting in July, visitors will be forced to pay an entry fee into the city of between 3 and 10 euros per day. But for Manfredo Dina, his colleagues and patients, nothing will change.

Dina is a psychiatrist, and those traveling to Venice for psychiatric treatment will not be required to pay the entrance fee. It is one of the 27 exceptions to the new rule that is designed to slow the deluge of visitors to the city. In truth, though, it will probably just increase the city's revenues.

"Venetians are Levantines at heart, businesspeople," says Dina. "That means that nobody here wants to slow tourism. Our mayor is the perfect embodiment of that mentality." The city's top civil servant is a chiseled character with the charm of a bulldozer. He made his fortune with a temp-work agency. When asked what the entry fee is supposed to accomplish, he speaks in vague yet grandiloquent terms of his vision of "transforming Venice within three years into a salon for the world."

For now, though, the city's reality is a far cry from that airy future, with up to 30 million tourists overrunning Venice each year. The mayor himself sees very little of it: He lives in Mogliano Veneto on the mainland. And he's not the only one: Just 53,000 people now live in the historic city center. As recently as 2013, that number was 10 percent higher. In the 16th century, three times as many people lived in the center.

Life in the heart of Venice is expensive, with tourists driving up the prices, while the city itself is being abandoned. Cruise ships continue to pour day-trippers into the narrow streets, with the vast, floating hotels still allowed to cross the San Marco Basin. The fact that such things haven't been banned is "emblematic for our country's inability to make decisions," says Paolo Costa. But who, if not he – the former head of the Port Authority, former Venetian mayor and former member of cabinet with excellent connections in Rome – could have brought about such a change?

There are many native Venetians, dignitaries like Costa, who bear a share of the guilt for the downfall of what was once Europe's grandest city. Who didn't read about the four young Japanese travelers who, in late 2017, were charged 1,143 euros for lunch in the Osteria Da Luca, a world-famous incident that the daily paper Corriere della Sera even called "a metaphor for conditions in Italy"?

Few people know, however, that the restaurant is operated by an Egyptian man who leases it from a Chinese man. He, in turn, pays a five-digit sum every month to the real owner. Or, rather, paid: Professor Franco Rendich, a renowned expert in Sanskrit, died in late August at the age of 88. He was praised for "his love of Venice" and buried in the city.

Osteria Da Luca is still in operation, as is the pub, Harry's Bar, where Rendich enjoyed the pleasures of retirement. On a recent morning, an elderly Venetian gentleman was there as well: Arrigo Cipriani, born in 1932 and one of the city's most famous restaurateurs. Over the years, Harry's Bar has played host to a number of luminaries, including Ernest Hemingway, Arturo Toscanini, Charlie Chaplin and Peggy Guggenheim.

Cipriani welcomes his guests in a double-breasted suit and surrounded by tuxedo-clad waiters, exuding a surprising amount of energy for someone who has already decided what is going to be on his gravestone. He would like it to read "sto da dio," which means "I'm feeling divine" or "I'm with the Lord," depending on your reading.

When asked what is wrong with Italy and what will become of Venice, Capriani says: "We used to be a city of 150,000 residents – no, citizens – but today it's just a third of that. This is a city facing cardiac arrest, petrified, with no identity." Maybe it would do the Venetians some good to "start over again at zero."



The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 8/2020 (February 15, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

It is a scathing diagnosis, arrived at in one of the most beautiful cities in the world by one of its greatest sons. But who, if not the city fathers and other dignitaries, are to blame for the Venetian decline? Who, if not they, are to blame for the impression that here, too, among the facades of sublime beauty, the citizens are bemoaning their fates with such fervor? Is it possible that even here in Harry's Bar they are sometimes choosing the easy way out? Is it possible that there is some truth to customer complaints on the internet that they were served pre-mixed Bellinis in dowdy glasses for the price of 22 euros a pop?

Perish the thought! The whiners are likely Freemasons, Capriani says. "Harry's Bar is the best restaurant in Italy," he hisses. Plus, who says that the majority is always right? "Just because there were 40 million fascists in Germany," Cipriani says in parting, "doesn't mean that fascism is the right thing, does it?"

About 1,500 kilometers north of the poorhouse of Bagheria is St. Leonhard in Passeier. The village is located in the autonomous region of South Tyrol, a region home to the kind of political continuity that is completely foreign to the rest of Italy. Since the end of World War II, the region's governor has come from the South Tyrol People's Party. Without exception. And since 1960, there have been only three occupants of the region's highest office.

Currently, the lawyer Arno Kompatscher holds the reins, the 48-year-old son of a village blacksmith from Völs am Schlern. In his office in Bozen, Kompatscher is clearly proud of the fact that South Tyrol leads Italy in almost every statistical category, even birthrate. "It's obviously a function of optimism," says Kompatscher, himself the father to seven children.

Essentially, South Tyrol enjoys full employment. "The core of our success story is self-administration. We get 90 percent of our taxes back from Rome or don't even send them to Rome," he says. Kompatscher also believes some regionally specific character traits play a role: "Sicily, for example, is self-administered as well, but doesn't benefit much from the status."

The governor says: "It's not that we South Tiroleans are better people than the Sicilians, it's because we have a different approach to the res publica, to the public good. "Here, people have 90 percent faith in the province and only 10 percent in Rome."

In other words: Working with and for the people is a recipe for success. That is particularly true for Sankt Leonhard. The community of 3,500 people has an unemployment rate of just 1.9 percent, the lowest in the entire country. It is an island of prosperity beneath steep mountains slopes that can only be used for grazing starting in May, once the last of the snow melts.

What, though, can the rest of Italy – what can Sicily, Venice and Rome – learn from this miniature paradise? Perhaps the careful allotment of resources and respect for the inheritance of those who came before.

The most recent report from the researchers at Censis, which was released just before Christmas, noted that Italy was in danger of degenerating into a "fearful, mistrust-ridden society." Almost half of all respondents now support "a strong man in power" who no longer must submit to elections or parliamentary approval.

It is an alarming find. In parting, though, this correspondent nevertheless has hope that the Italians will stay true to their legendary talent for mastering crises with grandezza. The Italians have a wonderful saying for painful moments: "Ballando non duole il piede." Your feet don't hurt when you're dancing."

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