A Consumer’s History of Modern Italy
The Fiat 600, which first appeared on the market in 1955, was the first car, Emanuela Scarpellini writes, that was ‘symbolic of the Italian dream’. With its soft rounded lines, gleaming white bodywork, narrow metal trim and ample windows it brought the idea of the family car within the reach of far more Italians than its forerunner, the interwar Fiat ‘Topolino’. ‘The first car to be designed with everyone in mind’, it had a top speed of 60 mph and was a world away from the massive elongated vehicles that people knew from Hollywood movies.
Many of the objects that came to embody Italian dreams were small and economical. This was because the country that the world knew through the shoeshines and bicycle thieves of neorealist cinema was in fact slow to embark on rapid growth and, when they came, the fruits of prosperity were very unevenly distributed. Scarpellini, a professor of history in Milan, the city that was the heart of the postwar miracle, highlights the lure of the American way of life for Italians, but she is also alert to the complex mix of change and continuity that marked actual lifestyles in the period that saw Italy emerge as an industrial power. Her book gives us the statistics of growth and lays out the broad pattern of change, but its greatest appeal lies in the way she guides us into department stores, car showrooms and family homes. Her journey through the rooms of a typical home at the time of the economic miracle reveals that kitchens were far more subject to change than bedrooms, where old heavy furniture was rarely replaced.
Scarpellini’s illuminating and accessible study also takes in gender roles. What it meant to be a man, as well as a woman, changed in the postwar decades, as the figure of the soldier was replaced by the car driver and the sports fan.
Football is often thought of as the primary Italian sport; Italy won the World Cup twice in the 1930s and remained a leading football nation in the postwar years. But John Foot shows in his gripping history of Italian cycling that it is impossible to write a complete account of the country’s vicissitudes in the 20th century without taking into account a sport that uniquely played out the hopes and struggles of the lower classes. Cycling demanded stamina, discipline and sheer guts and the men who made their mark in the sport came without exception from impoverished backgrounds. They were mostly uneducated and inarticulate (to the extent that they were the butt of comedy sketches on early television) but their legs did the talking for them.
Like Scarpellini, Foot is not content to convey the big picture; he explores numerous individual stories of heroic figures like Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali who, in their time, were great champions, but also the tales of the minor gregari who helped the champions to their victories. His Italy is not one of big cities, fast cars and motorways, but the country of back-breaking manual work, rural communities and proletarian leisure. Much more than in his acclaimed history of Italian football, Calcio, Foot describes values and ideals that were enjoying a last, glorious hurrah. His book offers a wonderful account of the rise and fall of the passion for cycling, a sport that inspired such intense devotion that its great and tragic moments are commemorated in numerous museums, shrines, monuments and private collections.
Neither author succumbs to the temptation to indulge in nostalgia but there is perhaps a parallel to be drawn between the corruption of ideals that was signalled by the spiral of doping scandals that tarnished professional cycling from the 1990s and the rise in the same period of commercial centres and factory outlets that highlighted a departure from the pattern of modest consumption that marked Italian towns and cities in the postwar decades.
Stephen Gundle is the author of Death and the Dolce Vita: The Dark Side of Rome in the 1950s (Canongate, 2011).
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