As many people are aware, Italy is in the grip of a fertility crisis. Up and down the country, the once proverbially big, happy Italian families are imploding. No society in the world is ageing faster: in 15 years one-third of the population of Milan, Italy's economic and industrial hub, will be over 65.
Yet the flowers and the teddy bears piling up on a crumbling concrete wall in a Milanese suburb this week, the kewpie dolls strapped to the lamp-posts and the sentimental notes pinned to the trees - bearing words such as "angel", "sweet", and "beautiful" - indicate that the Italian love of small children, amounting almost to worship, has not been affected by the virtual disappearance of the real thing. Perhaps the fact that there are so few children around makes them all the more precious.
The bears and dolls are accumulating because this anonymous strip of asphalt next to a desiccated public garden in a sink estate south of Milan was the scene one week ago of a very nasty shooting. Late last Friday evening, a small-time drug dealer called Vito Cosco, aged 26, got into an argument with two young men, allegedly about money owing for drugs. One of the two punched Cosco, who went home and fetched a semi-automatic pistol and shot the two men dead.
In doing so, however, he also killed a 60-year-old pensioner walking his dog. And a little girl called Sebastiana Monaco, aged two-and-a-half, sucking a pacifier in her mother's arms, took a bullet in the neck. She died on the way to hospital. And not merely Milan but the whole of Italy has been talking of little else since.
A pensioner is merely an anziano, an "ancient", however innocent; the two young men who died, as well as the purported killer himself, are bluntly described even in the best newspapers as pregiudicati, losers. But little Seby Monaco was a bambina, a tesoro, a piccolina, and the tender innocence of her small life was made only the more poignant by the hideous anarchy of the place where she lived and the ghastly manner of her death. Of all the photographs of the murders' aftermath with which the newspapers here have been engorged, the one that seemed to get to most people was the shot of Seby's dummy lying on the street, encircled with chalk.
Whatever else Vito Cosco imagined he was up to when he rushed to the flat he occupied nearby (illegally, they say) with his girlfriend and two small sons, and grabbed his gun, killing a bambina cannot have been part of the plan. If he had merely rubbed out the two youths, the story would have been forgotten within a matter of days; Cosco would probably have high-tailed it to Calabria in the far south, the region where he comes from, and melted into the lawless enclaves of the 'Ndrangheta, Calabria's own version of the Mafia, and waited until the fuss died down.
Instead he must have understood pretty fast that he was in trouble up to his neck. He fled the scene of the shooting and drove in his (stolen) car to an address in central Milan, well known as a safe house for Calabrian thugs. There he took refuge. Improbably, it is claimed that he passed the early hours of the next day warbling in the karaoke bar in the basement. All Saturday and Sunday he remained hidden. But on Monday afternoon he walked up the road to a phone booth and, weeping openly, gave himself up. "I've done a terrible thing," he said. "I've murdered a bambina."
How much longer will Vito Cosco live after committing such a crime? He himself, according to leaks from the Carabinieri who arrested him, said that if he had had one bullet left he would have used it to kill himself. The cries for revenge from family and friends of Sebastiana's mother have been raucous; the local priest has called for compassion, but no one around appears to be listening.
"I'm going to be shot in the head," Cosco glumly predicted to the police. "I didn't want to kill the bambina. I beg forgiveness. I fired, then I remember hearing the voices screaming: 'The bambina, the bambina!'... They're hammering in my head, those voices, 'The bambina, the bambina...'"
The violent death of a little girl has melted the heart of this hapless punk, and achieved something that is equally remarkable: Cosco's trial for murder, in a country where justice drags on for decades, will begin almost at once.
If you canÃ¿t stand the heat, stay out of town
At last life is seeping back into Milan. When I moved into the flat of an absent friend a month ago, it was as if the population had been wiped out by plague, an epidemic from which only the extremely old, and immigrants from China and sub-Saharan Africa, were immune. "Oh, it's much better than it was in the summer 10 years ago!" returning Milanese tell me. Meaning a few supermarkets remained open, and you only had to walk two kilometres for a newspaper.
For weeks, the families of Milan have frolicked at the seaside, or cooled off in the mountains, while their elderly relatives, abandoned in cramped inner-city apartments in the relentless cruel heat, fended for themselves: watching television, cooking their frugal meals, tottering to the shops when it got a little cooler. Oh yes, and dropping dead, quite a few of them.
When they did finally go outdoors, they came face to face with Italy's future: because as Italians have given up the struggle to breed, the immigrants are the country's only hope. For many, especially in the north, this is not a cheerful thought. But they don't appear to have any other bright ideas.