Italy anniversary marred by Berlusconi sex scandal

By Robin Lustig
The World Tonight

  • Published
Gaeta locals dressed in costumes of Naples court
Image caption,
For those with money and connections life was good in the 18th Century

Indicting a prime minister on sex crime charges may seem a slightly odd way to mark an important national anniversary, but that's exactly what Italy seems to have done this week.

By one of those strange coincidences that Italy is so good at, the announcement that Silvio Berlusconi is to stand trial, accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of office, came just as the country was marking the 150th anniversary of its unification.

In truth, even before the indictments were announced, the anniversary celebrations were definitely muted.

Italy has little to celebrate at the moment. The prime minister is beleaguered, with the slimmest of parliamentary majorities; the economy is in the doldrums; and a vociferous regional party, the Northern League, on which the government depends for its survival, is seen by its critics as threatening to tear the country apart.

I've been travelling from south to north over the past few days, and everywhere people have been telling me the same thing: "Yes, we're all Italians, but the huge regional differences that define us make it feel like at least two separate countries."

The ancient port city of Gaeta, north of Naples on the way to Rome, is where the last great pre-unification battle was fought. People there say they still feel that what officially is called the unification of Italy was in fact the defeat of the south by the forces of the north.

For them, the anniversary was an opportunity to remember the glory days of the Bourbon court, based in Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They paraded through the narrow city streets, the men in period uniforms, the women in colourful silks and brocades, with elaborate powdered wigs.

Remember, said the city's mayor Antonio Raimondi, this used to be the richest part of the country, both economically and culturally. But now it's the poorest, with Naples a byword for crime and corruption.

As I headed north from Gaeta, I stopped off in Rome to meet someone with a direct personal link to the events of 150 years ago. Anita Garibaldi is the great grand-daughter of the revolutionary hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. She spends her days visiting schools up and down the country to teach the next generation of Italians about her forebear's ideals.

To her, this anniversary is an opportunity to remind Italians of what could have been, of what her great grandfather would have wished. He fought for a united Italy, but I asked her if she thought he would have been pleased at how it had turned out.

She said the answer was No.

What happened 150 years ago was that the forces of northern Italy, loyal to King Vittorio Emanuele II, defeated the Bourbon King Francis II, whose court was based in Naples. But Garibaldi wasn't too happy about how it turned out, and soon one of his sons was fighting with the "brigante", the brigands - southern farmworkers who took up arms against their new king.

Divided nation

So how did Garibaldi feel about that, given that he had fought against the Bourbons? His great grand-daughter Anita laughed heartily. "What did he say? He said: 'That's my boy!'"

If there is still a lingering regret in the south at their defeat 150 years ago, in the north there is a certain resentment that what could be a successful and prosperous nation is being held back (as some northerners see it) by having to subsidise and support the backward south.

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Commemorative parades are being held up and down the country

The federalist Northern League party taps into these sentiments: they campaign for more regional autonomy, so that each region could raise more of its own taxes - and keep them.

And that's what links the events of 150 years ago with Italian politics today. Silvio Berlusconi survives in office only because the Northern League keeps him there. He is, in the words of one analyst I spoke to, their hostage.

He has already tried - and failed - to introduce a "fiscal federalism" law that the Northern League is pressing for. And now, with the prospect of a criminal trial ahead of him, he needs their support more than ever.

Even after 150 years, in many ways Italy remains a divided nation. I've asked everyone I've met over the past few days what the word "Italy" means to them. The answers were many and various: "Home", said one man; "a nation of cheats", said another.

But two words came up again and again: culture - and food. On that, at least, Italians can agree.

Robin Lustig will be reporting from Italy on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 16/17/18 February on The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4 at 2200 GMT.