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
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