The Concordia saga has shown Italy at its very best - and its worst

The triumph that has been achieved off the Tuscan coast is not a one-off

Share

Every politician worth their salt tries to bask in the reflected glory when their compatriots pull off an extraordinary feat – whether it be victory on the sporting field, a first in exploration, or a breakthrough scientific discovery. So when Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta this week hailed the salvage crew that righted the Costa Concordia cruise liner as “a source of great Italian pride”, it is tempting to dismiss his words as the usual hyperbole.

But Prime Minister Letta's joy at this landmark engineering achievement, the biggest such salvage operation ever undertaken, goes deeper than delight at an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. For the past 20 months, the wreck of this 114,000-tonne ship, which has been bobbing on the rocks of the picturesque island of Giglio, off the Tuscan coast, has become a metaphor for the shattered, beyond-repair Italian economy.

Only 25 years ago, it was the fourth largest in the world, a text-book example of an economic miracle in the post-war years. But then stagnation set in, with little or no growth, compounded by soaring public debt (now the second biggest as a proportion of GDP in the European Union after Greece) and political chaos.

This was presided over by a billionaire media mogul who should have known better, but Silvio Berlusconi preferred to play the part of the G8's court jester. His refusal to accept the seriousness of the situation – or to impress that fact on his voters – means that the prospect of Italy requiring a bailout remains a possibility, a disaster that could sink the whole eurozone.

Then there has been the ongoing spectacle of court proceedings against the Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino. There is little room for debate that his errors of judgement in navigation cost 32 lives, with “Captain Coward”, as he has been dubbed, claiming that he abandoned ship before his passengers only because he was knocked accidentally into a lifeboat.

Tales of trying to impress pretty young dancers (he is 52) on the bridge, or amorucci on the shoreline, abound as possible explanations for this tragedy. Schettino, in short, has been painted as the stereotypical Italian boy-man, unable truly to grow up even when responsible for more than 4,000 passengers and crew, still showing off like an adolescent to impress girls, and then running when it all went appallingly wrong.

Perhaps the ready adoption of Schettino as a classic blueprint for his countrymen wouldn't have been made quite so readily – and unfairly, I should add, as someone who has visited the country every year for the past three decades for family and work – had it not been for the Berlusconi effect. How, I never tire of asking friends there, can Italians have been taken in for so long by this pensioner playboy, with his facelifts, dodgy deals (he was finally convicted last year of tax evasion) and his unsavoury interest in underage girls? “Because,” more than one has remarked of the man who led Italy for nine years, on four separate occasions, making him the longest serving prime minister since 1945, “many voters still look up to him as a role model of how they'd like to be – rich, paying no tax and forever surrounded by pretty girls”.

Now, though, just as Enrico Letta's centre-left coalition is trying to restore some semblance of dignity to political life (including an ongoing debate about stripping Berlusconi of his Senate seat following a court decision to ban him from public life), the righting of the Costa Concordia offers the chance of presenting an entirely different image of Italy to the world.

Yes, the much-photographed master of the salvage crew, Nick Sloane, is South African, but the organisational hub of the whole £500m operation has been the ship's Italian owners and the country's Civil Protection Agency. It was to that agency's head, Franco Gabrielli, that Prime Minister Letta addressed his words of congratulations.

It is easy for those Brits who regard Tuscany/Umbria as a Chiantishire home-from-home to forget that Italians have accomplishments other than preserving beautiful farmhouses, landscapes and ancient ruins, or rustling up delicious feasts. They are also among the world's finest and most innovative engineers, as recent events on Giglio have demonstrated.

Their triumph there isn't a one-off. It may be fanciful to put it in a line that goes all the way back to building the Colosseum, Imperial Forum, the aqueducts, St Peter's Basilica, the city-on-the-water at Venice or even the extraordinary fifth-century BC Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia, but that same can-do Italian engineering spirit links them all. And it is alive and well.

Anyone who has driven around Italy will have experienced the tunneling prowess that makes Italians in demand globally for similar civil engineering projects. While we look set to spend decades debating the merits and demerits of HS2, the Italians plough on, undaunted even by their country's labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostile geography, with an appetite for the sort of dazzling infrastructure schemes that are said to fast-track economic wellbeing.

And, amid reports that suggest classic cars have proved a better investment in the recent years of economic gloom than even gold, property, fine art or antiques, the Italian Ferrari marque comes up repeatedly as the epitome of top-drawer engineering married with timeless style. Only last weekend, Rod Stewart's old Lamborghini Miura sold at auction at Goodwood for £900,000. However much we may like to celebrate our own genius in giving the world the E-Type, we've nothing to match the premium placed on these Italian thoroughbreds.

And its not just in luxury goods that Italian industry has proved its worth. They can excel at mass market. The beloved Fiat 500 that came to symbolise Italy's economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s now has a successor, the Cinquecento, currently proving to be another world-beater.

The Fiats, Pirellis and Candys of Italy's larger manufacturing enterprises may also have had their well-publicised woes, but it is Italy's small, family-run engineering businesses, mainly based in the north and centre of the country that give the lie to easy stereotyping of the country as all show and no substance economically.

These enterprises continue to be much prized on the world stage. In the run-up to the millennium, for example, De Beers produced a special collection of expensive diamonds to mark the occasion, but searched in vain for an engineering firm capable of making the precision curved hinges that were part of the design for the egg-shaped presentation cases. Until, that is, they were directed to a small family engineering firm near Venice uniquely capable of completing the task to the highest standards required.

It is a story that brings the argument about the country's image round full circle, points out one Italian friend. “These firms thrive by handing on these extraordinary skills from father to son. It's the best of Italy. But the flip side is that the same sons are also allowed by their mamas to become the sort of spoilt, pampered, preening Italian males typified by Berlusconi and Schettino. Can you have one without the other?”

Peter Stanford's most recent book is 'How To Read A Graveyard: Journeys in the Company of the Dead', published by Bloomsbury

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Nai or Oxi: whether Greece says Yes or No today its citizens will continue to struggle  

Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy

Rupert Cornwell
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test