Lotharios no more: In defence of Italian men
A light-hearted story in the Magazine last week examined how the recession had affected the love life of Italian men, in some cases undermining their ability to embark on costly extramarital affairs. But Dany Mitzman, who has lived in Italy for 15 years, argues that most Italian men and women left the lover-mistress relationship behind a generation ago.
I admit that I am writing this from a personal perspective, having moved to Italy at the end of 1998 and met my partner in 1999. He is honest, faithful, considerate and not remotely sexist. In terms of the Italian male stereotype, he is very "un-Italian". Some women worldwide may add that, in terms of the general male stereotype, he is very "un-male".
But, in my experience, Italy is not the nation of adulterous Lotharios its reputation suggests. There are, undoubtedly, the Armani-clad, Ferrari-driving businessmen - let's call this "the Berlusconi model" - who keep mistresses in fancy downtown apartments near their offices, showering them with duplicates of the gifts they buy their wives.
But they are not the norm. Those of my generation I know can barely afford one apartment, let alone two, nor have they ever been able to.
And while, in the past, the wives would go off to the seaside with the children for the three-month-long school holidays - leaving the cat to play - in modern Italy, most kids are sent to the coast with their grandparents or go to summer camps, while both parents stay in the city to work.
Perhaps Italian men once deserved their reputation but I would argue that they have not been the Casanovas they used to be for a while now. Back in 2004, I made a radio report about the demise of the Latin lover. I attended a course on "speed seduction" held on the Adriatic Riviera, notorious to anyone who had ever holidayed there as Italy's most Casanova-rich territory.
Worse still, it was taught by an American. Yes, nearly a decade ago, the masters of seduction were already having to get in external professional help. The course was organised by local sexologist, Tania Bianchi. I remember her telling me that contemporary Italian men were disorientated and confused, and no longer understood what women wanted.
In other words, it is not only the men who have changed, it is the women too - 21st Century Italian women are empowered and independent. Who needs a man to keep you when you can rent your own apartment and invite anyone you choose? Some of the men attending the course did, in fact, complain of their sense of intimidation and emasculation: Italian women had become more aggressive and, well, like Italian men.
But, as a woman who has lived in Italy for the last 15 years, I really do not think Italian men philander more than men of other nationalities. In past decades, at the height of its popularity, tourists on the Adriatic coast would have seen Italian men at their worst - but they were mostly young boys, not mature men, operating in what they considered a flirting playground, not the place to go looking for serious relationships.
So, if this country's men continue to have a reputation as Europe's most ardent seducers, I wonder if maybe it is because the language of Italy is still romantic and idealistic and - at least for some of its men - sincere? Italians use the word "corteggiare", meaning "to court", and the men still do it! My partner "courted" me by leaving me little hand-written notes under my bicycle saddle and bringing me flowers every single time he came to see me. And I mean every single time. At a certain point, being a cynical Brit, I asked him to stop as my apartment was starting to look like a funeral parlour.
Something else has convinced me that the reputation of Italian men as womanisers who constantly cheat on their women is unjustified. Every week I read Questioni di cuore (Matters of the heart), the advice column in La Repubblica newspaper's Friday supplement. It is entertaining but also, from a sociological perspective, somewhat enlightening. The letters are answered by Natalia Aspesi, a well-known journalist who has become an agony aunt. Many of them come from men, often sad or bitter about their treatment by cheating women.
Just last week I read one from a single lonely man who thought he had met Ms Right. She had told him that she too was single and lonely, and that her ex had moved to the US. He soon fell in love, only to discover that her ex was not an ex and that he had not moved to the US. She had been living with him all along and had just wanted a bit of extramarital excitement, leaving the letter writer disillusioned and heartbroken. My point is that letters like this come from men as well as from women.
Incidentally, among the Italian couples I know who have split up for reasons of adultery, the unfaithful partner has often been the woman.
So, yes, "the Berlusconi model" of rich, have-it-alls who collect mistresses like cars and vintage wines may well exist, but even moneyed Italian men are not all like the characters in Fellini's La Dolce Vita or Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). If you ask me, the majority of today's Italian males are simply much-maligned regular European men.