Back to the future as Italians reclaim their honour: The public is being given a history lesson in an attempt to root corruption out of daily life, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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The Independent Online
A STRANGE and long-forgotten word has leapt from professorial bookshelves, shaken off the dust of decades and is competing with the daily scandal bulletins for the attention of the nation. The word is ethics.

It is starring in the media, it is the subject of conferences, debates and books. Can Italy put ethics into public life like its northern neighbours, or is corruption, fiddling, lying and cheating, as film director Federico Fellini says, 'in our blood'?

The country's colossal political corruption scandals have triggered a collective moral catharsis. As staggering revelations and arrests become almost routine, the realisation is growing, at least among thinking Italians, that they themselves, with their own dubious public morality, share much of the blame. The Italian revolution means not just getting rid of corrupt politicians, or even changing the political system, but also changing the basis of public life.

'The parties and politicians who took bribes worth billions of lire were kept in power with the explicit consent of voters who avoided declaring incomes worth tens of millions of lire, obtained by not respecting rent controls, or who cheated the treasury by buying smuggled cigarettes,' commented La Stampa.

'Either the Italian revolution will be an ethical revolution, or it will not be one at all,' says one commentator, Ferdinando Adornato, in La Repubblica. 'Certainly we have to pass through an ethical revolution,' agrees Italo Ghitti, one of the Milan magistrates involved in the investigations. 'It means simply that if we want to regain a sense of being united around certain values we have to regain respect for legality. There is a widespread feeling here that the basic rules of civilised coexistence are being constantly evaded and circumvented.'

Many commentators bewail the lack of civic conscience. 'We Italians are used to avoiding responsibility, to seizing only the benefits of a situation. The idea that one has rights only inasmuch as one performs one's duties is not well-rooted,' says the philosopher Salvatore Veca.

One of the most important news items of last week passed almost unnoticed here: the Milan magistrates have opened investigations into a large number of landlords who avoid rent controls by insisting on two contracts with their tenants, one for the legal amount, the other for an illegal and often much bigger sum. This is one of the most widespread fiddles in Italy, along with tax-dodging. The magistrates' investigations have seemingly put a stop to political corruption, now they are taking on private cheating.

Can Italians change? Prof Veca says it will be 'a long and wearisome business'. Robert Putnam of Harvard University, author of a new book on Italian civic traditions, believes: 'Italy is at the beginning of a process which will take at least five years.'

More precisely, perhaps, it is likely to happen in some areas faster than others: Prof Putnam has produced a map showing that civic sense is stronger in the North, particularly Trentino-Alto Adige, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, and weakest in the South, particularly Campania and Calabria.

Others, like Federico Fellini and any Italian taxi-driver you care to ask, doubt it. 'The danger,' warned La Stampa 'is that . . . once scapegoats have been found Italians will cheerfully absolve themselves and will continue with a kind of behaviour incompatible with a modern society and bribes will become the rule again . . . And there will be no point in changing the electoral system . . . if everyone continues to act as before.'

With the political world as they knew it falling apart and a severe economic crisis as well, Italians are currently divided between merchants of gloom and those who want to galvanise the country out of its slough of despond. Or between those who think it is 8 September and those who say it is 25 April. The first school is led by the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, who in a moment of deep despondency recently warned that 'an atmosphere of 8 September is growing among parliamentarians, there is extremism in some political groups, doubts and indecision among others; I ask myself whether it is possible to carry on like this.' He meant 8 September 1943 (dates here are shorthand for major historical events) when Italy was effectively divided in two - the Allies in the South and the Germans in the North and Centre. The King and Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the head of government, fled to Brindisi leaving the Italians in chaos, leaderless, confused and demoralised.

'We are not at 8 September,' wrote a leading journalist, Enzo Biagi, in l'Espresso. 'Why not aim for 25 April?' This was Italy's full liberation by the Americans and British in 1944, the end of totalitarianism and war, a fresh start for democracy. 'This is not zero year,' agreed Giovanni Spadolini, Speaker of the Senate. It is 'year one'.

The 'get up and go' brigade seem stronger than the pessimists, or at least more vocal. Endearing tots call 'Fozza Itaia]' - baby-talk for 'Come On, Italy]' - from hoardings, courtesy of a publicity company. The government has set up a hotline by which the public can report public services that work well so the rest can learn from their example.

As Italians examine themselves as they have not done for a long time, the idea of patriotism is also coming out of mothballs. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro has called on Italians to think of 'Italy above all else'. 'Italians: a little patriotism does not do any harm,' said a headline in La Repubblica recently, as another commentator, Giorgio Bocca, discussed what makes a person Italian. This kind of patriotism seems aimed at reassembling Italy's self-image rather than any vulgar, fascist-style nationalism.

And history is coming back. In response to an appeal by President Scalfaro for more awareness of the country's history, the Education Minister, Rosa Russo Jervolino, has picked history, and with it civic education, as one of the subjects that candidates for the Maturita, the secondary school-leaving exam, will be questioned on this year - which means they will mug up on it.

History and civics, it is agreed, have been badly neglected for many years: how many Italian youngsters know what 8 September or 25 April were? How many know what resentful politicians mean when they say they are being subjected to a Piazzale Loreto (the Milan square where the fascist dictator Mussolini's dead body was hung upside down and brutalised by the crowds)? How many know what are the actual functions of the magistrates whose investigations have precipitated the revolution they are witnessing? After decades of deadening immobility, suddenly Italy's history seems very close again.

ROME (Reuter) - Antonio Gava, a former interior minister, was involved with organised crime while he was Italy's senior law-enforcement official, a magistrates' report said yesterday.

The Christian Democrat faction- leader held meetings with leaders of the Naples version of the Mafia, the Camorra, the report said.

(Photograph omitted)