Divorce, Italian Style

How the plan to save Italy by cutting it into pieces was hatched at a small restaurant in Rome. Or so one could imagine…

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It all started -- as many Italian political stories do -- at a quiet corner table at a small restaurant in a mossy alley in Rome, shadowed since 1599 by the imposing facade of the Church of San Nicola da Tolentino, a humble monk venerated for centuries in the east.

It all started — as many Italian political stories do — at a quiet corner table at a small restaurant in a mossy alley in Rome, shadowed since 1599 by the imposing facade of the Church of San Nicola da Tolentino, a humble monk venerated for centuries in the east.

Tullio — an old favorite of Romans and tourists alike — still allows its regular patrons to light up cigarettes despite the draconian anti-smoking laws imposed in 2005. It thus attracts a regular clientele of politicians, fat cats, and the attendant crowds of hangers-on: Russian beauties, Versace-clad lobbyists, real estate developers with suitcases of euros, and one recent spring night, your humble columnist.

In Italy’s latest crisis, the conversations taking place over mozzarella di bufala and pappardelle at Tullio may ultimately be a better indicator of where the country is heading than the endless debates in Parliament. When Italy is stuck in a nasty reality, that’s when fantastic dreams take over. After all, Tullio is just a few blocks from where Anita Ekberg took her famous dip in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.

Italy has been waiting for a new cabinet since February’s inconclusive elections, which left former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right and challenger Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left in a virtual tie, while Beppe Grillo, the rambunctious former comedian, raises hell thanks to his nearly 9 million populist votes. Wise old President Giorgio Napolitano is on his way out, with only a few days in his tenure, and there is no agreement on his successor. The presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, but with a single, crucial power: nominate the prime minister and decide when, and if, to dissolve his cabinet. The president rarely gets to touch the ball, but when he does, it’s almost always a penalty kick that decides the game.

This was just one of the reasons for worry among the three VIPs sitting around the corner table that night. Filling his third glass of amarone, a former senator with a strong link to the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church bitterly remarked, "We have no friends left. This new pope only cares about his wretched favelas. He does not wear Prada shoes, but crummy stuff bought on sale in Buenos Aires, and cooks his own spaghetti. Ambassador Thorne — Secretary Kerry’s own onetime brother-in-law, you dig? — told a bunch of students they act like Grillo’s militants to reform Italy! It’s like me joining Occupy Wall Street, right? Barbara Spinelli, the daughter of Altiero Spinelli, a founding father of the European Union whose sacred name is inscribed all over the official buildings in Brussels, now praises the moral strength of Grillo and his party, 5 Stelle. We are doomed!"

"And India?" interjected the second diner, a socialite from Milan, whose beautiful new face had been sculpted by a surgeon trying to duplicate Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s chic features. "What do you make of India? They are putting two Italian Navy officers on trial, almost arrested our ambassador, and we did not even flinch. We are Rodney Dangerfield at the G-20: ‘We don’t get no respect!’"

"No respect. Was Rodney Italian?" the senator asked gloomily.

The third guest, in his early 30s, was meticulously dressed, with a shining Jack Emerson tie knotted to perfection. No wine for him, only a glass of Pellegrino, and no cigarettes. "I am training for the marathon," he said, nibbling at a plate of steamed rice. He looked around, making sure the owner of Tullio would grant them privacy, and then quietly offered his plan: "We do have a solution. The pope will not care. The Americans pivoted to China. And the politicians, who cares about the politicians anymore? The country wants a new cabinet? Well, why not give them three new cabinets in three new capitals?"

The restaurant had gone very quiet, the room filled with a haze of cigarette smoke like in the good old days. "Italy’s current problems go back farther than Berlusconi, the EU, or even World War II," said the health nut. "The seeds of this crisis were sown in the late 19th century, when Italy was united into one country. So why not reverse the process? We had enough of Risorgimento; let’s have a Dissolvimento!"

The young man flipped open his MacBook and start scrolling through the beautifully illustrated charts that explained his audacious plan: "The north of Italy is already ruled by right-wing secessionists, the Lega Nord. So Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Turin, Milan, and Venice would go to form a newly cast Ducato del Nord. Its factories are still very competitive in the global market, and many areas are growing faster than Germany. It would thus join the fiscally conservative party in the European Union, under Chancellor Merkel and the Scandinavians. Tight borders along the Po River, protected by Ferrari-designed speedboats, would separate the productive, innovative, worldly northern duchy from the socialist center."

The young man deftly punched on his keyboard, popping up another map: "Here we have the ‘red’ areas of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, otherwise known as Repubblica Centrale. There the Democratic Party can play at will with its firebrand socialist experiments. They may even implement a 75 percent tax bracket, like Hollande in Paris. Should the economy eventually stall in the Repubblica Centrale, they can always deploy troops alongside the French in Mali. Wag il cane. Trade unions will negotiate their contracts without a fight. Welfare handouts will never be cut. Repubblica Centrale will go hand in hand with Obama, Hollande, and the rest of the tax-and-spend global crowd in the G-20."

His plan was tighter than his silk tie: Naples, the south, and Sicily would go back to the old Regno delle Due Sicilie and leave the euro altogether. "The long-standing debt will be covered with Russian money," the young man said. "The oligarchs are dying to leave hapless Cyprus and find a tax haven in the Mediterranean. The Italian Mafia will link up with the Russian mafia. Sicily will be like the Cayman Islands, but with better food and only a cheap Ryanair flight from London and Frankfurt."

The young man’s dinner companions were intrigued. "Why the ‘BBB’ logo on the new coat of arms?" the lady asked.

"It will be the Regno’s motto, darling: beaches, beauty, and banks. Let’s face it: The old Republic failed to build a productive industrial network in the south. Now let those southerners print liras hotter than Vesuvio; they’ll survive."

The senator puffed his Toscano cigar for a while and then closed his eyes and whispered, "The Plan. I love it! Back to the old ways. United we sink; divided we stand. All’italiana, no more globaloney! If the Economist and the Financial Times don’t like it, let them complain at the next Bilderberg meeting."

The lady, however, was still doubtful: "What about Sardinia? You forgot the other island, my friend," she said with a wry smile.

"Not at all," the young man rebutted. "Here’s Sardinia!" he said, pointing to his final chart. "Sardinia is to be gerrymandered and sold to th
e highest bidder. Germany wants it for vacations? Great, we have 1.9 billion euros of public debt. Let Frau Angela shave at least 150 million off, and the old island is hers. Those grumpy beer-drinking Germans complain they are paying for dissolute Southern Europeans? Let’s sell them a bit of it. In fact, they’ll have a whole island as collateral. Putin needs a Mediterranean harbor to replace Syria? Well, it’s there’s for a debt write-off of 50 billion euros. Hey, we’ll throw in the Cagliari soccer team to play in Dagestan! Even China can buy a piece, or the Saudis, Brazil, India. And Ducato del Nord, Repubblica Centrale, Regno delle due Sicilie, and the good people of Sardinia will share the money in equal parts. Capisci?"

"Deal," the lady nodded, touching up her makeup.

"What about Rome?" came a voice from behind the bar. It was old Tullio himself, born and raised in the capital. "What are you going to do with the Eternal City? Sell it as a souvenir?"

The young man was unruffled: "We’ll rent Roma to the pope. He’ll rule the city without owning it. The new states will get a share from tourism income, and this time we won’t need some troublesome Garibaldi to win back the old capital. It’s a piece of cake," he said, apparently forgetting about his marathon and taking a spoonful of the senator’s creamy tiramisu.

And so it went. While congressmen and senators were squabbling, the trio pulled strings, made phone calls, sent emails, Facebooked, DMed, talked to friends and partners in Berlin, Paris, London, and made the rounds in some venerable basilicas at Vespers.

But there was still one obstacle in place: President Napolitano. The president had once been a regular at the restaurant as well, and it wasn’t long before he caught wind of the plan through his old friend, Tullio.

At dinner one night, the president was worried, and he spilled the beans to his wife, Donna Clio. "How can we stop this plan?" he said. "It’s so crazy that in Italy, it might just work."

Mrs. Napolitano had only two words for her husband: "Call Mario."

There are very few Marios Italians recognize by their first name: Balotelli, the African-Italian enfant terrible and soccer star; the brothers of Nintendo fame; Prime Minister Monti; and Draghi, the European Central Bank president. Napolitano immediately put in a call to Frankfurt.

Draghi, another lifelong Romano, listened respectfully to the president and then called his old friend the senator for a chat. The two briefly discussed the job market in the United States, euro worries after the Cyprus debacle, views on growth in China and Brazil, and then came to the real reason for the call. "Think, my friend, what a mess it would be if Italy were to break apart," Draghi said, letting on that he had been fully informed of the plan. "The south paying up debts in steel-heavy euros while taxing people on wafer-light liras. The Mafia rampant. The center entrenched in an old socialist model, soon to be shunned by international money. Debt ratings would plummet. And what about the north? For a while, they would be relieved not to have to pay for the southerners they detest, but soon enough, they’ll lack the population to man their schools, police stations, assembly lines, hospitals, even the army."

"So, then what?" asked the senator.

"Well, they could open up to Arab immigrants, but do you think that would make those Lega Nord racists happy? Ha! And so, facing bankruptcy, the south will slap tariffs on northern goods. And did you know that two-thirds of Italian companies, most of them in the north, are still selling only in the national market? They’ll go belly up. Meanwhile, the new Italian states will be kicked out from G-8 and G-20, and we’ll be relegated to a minor partner in the EU and the U.N. Overnight, Italy will morph from a senior player in the world system into a bunch of Andorras!"

So the plan to split up Italy again folded, mushier than overcooked pasta scotta. Yet the stalemate was as dangerous as ever, the parties paralyzed in an endless argument. With less than a week left in Napolitano’s mandate, there seemed no solution — even wise old Tullio seemed to despair.

Then one day, an energetic young man entered the restaurant. He was wearing a bomber jacket, honoring, he said, Fonzie of Happy Days. He ordered a bistecca alla Fiorentina and smiled, chatting a bit with Tullio, who filled him in about the triumvirate’s stillborn plan. As he carved at his steak, they talked politics, and the young man offered a few of his own ideas: that the moribund Democratic Party should enter the digital age, that he wanted Berlusconi to lose the elections but did not consider his voters enemies, and that he understood why people voted for Grillo but that he detested populism. His solution? "New elections, soon."

"What is your name, son?" Tullio asked. "Matteo," he answered.

"Renzi? The mayor of Florence?" Tullio inquired.


Matteo smiled again, wiped his hands, and flipped up the collar of his Fonzie jacket.

"Grazie, Tullio. Who knows?" he said, as he made his way to the door. "Maybe I’ll be up here in Rome a bit more often.… Ciao!"

"And why not?" said Tullio to himself, as he collected the plates and silverware. If the idea was to go back to the Renaissance after all, why not with a prince from Florence at the helm?

Gianni Riotta, a columnist for the daily La Stampa, teaches at Princeton University and works on big data at IMT Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca.

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