Worries over Italy are not exactly new. The food may be scrumptious, the cities glorious and the people warm, but Italys huge public debt, more than 130 percent of GDP, has been a persistent threat to the euro. And while the countrys economy is finally recovering (though at well below the average EU rate), it continues to suffer from dismal productivity. A recent survey found the quality of life in Italy was among the highest in Europe. Yet, theres a big gap in living standards between north and south. Corruption is more widespread than in comparable Western European countries. Italian bureaucracy is legendarily obstructive. The courts are slow. And — sorry guys, but it has to be mentioned — Italy has more powerful indigenous organized crime syndicates than any other EU country. How did a founder member of the European Union, once the seat of Europes greatest empire, get to this point?
Well, such is the wealth and complexity of Italys heritage you have to reach back almost 1,500 years to get at the first person responsible …
1. St Justinian the Great
Circa 560 AD, Justinianus I (483 – 565), Byzantine Emperor | Hulton archive via Getty Images
Generally viewed as one of historys good guys, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian laid the foundations for the Roman legal system that is still used in much of Europe. But his determination to reunite the Roman empire by wresting back Italy from the Ostrogoths triggered one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
The so-called Gothic War began in 535 and lasted 19 years. It reduced the population of the peninsula by at least half, emptied cities and, worst of all, failed in its aim. By the time the war was over the country was no longer united. The Goths still had some bits and the Byzantines others. Italy was left in such bad shape it was unable to defend itself from the Lombards, who came marauding in a few years later. It was the Gothic War that shattered the unity of the Italian peninsula — a unity that would not be regained for another 13 centuries.
2. Peter III
This 13th-century king was the ruler of the Crown of Aragon, a confederation whose territory roughly coincided with the modern-day Spanish regions of Catalonia, Aragón and Valencia. Peters greatest claim to fame was the conquest of Sicily, which he completed in 1282. One of his successors reunited the island with the mainland, so that when the Crown of Aragon linked up with the Crown of Castile to form the Kingdom of Spain, the whole of southern Italy came under Spanish rule.
For many a historian, the long Spanish domination of the Mezzogiorno, as that part of Italy known, is the key to why its values are so different from those of the north. The aristocrats and hidalgos who became its imperial masters are blamed for infusing the region with a culture of leisure and an indifference to enterprise.
None of this, however, cut any ice with …
3. Giuseppe Garibaldi
The statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi is pictured in Piazza Castello in Milan | Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images
The most dashing figure to play a role in the Risorgimento — the “resurgence” of national consciousness that led to Italys unification — Garibaldi was a man of extraordinary courage and iron will. Unfortunately, some Italians believe. Many of his fellow patriots would have been content to let the process of unification fizzle out once the north, and maybe the papal state, had been incorporated. But not Garibaldi. He gathered a band of about a thousand volunteers and set off for Sicily to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy that ruled the southern half of the peninsula.
It was an insane idea. By any military logic, his band of zealots should have been wiped out. Instead, they survived and realized Garibaldis dream. In recent years, growing numbers of southern historians have argued that it would have been better if they had failed: that Italys resulting “occupation” of the Mezzogiorno led to economic decline and mass emigration. At the same time, many northerners feel that if only Garibaldi had settled for a more territorially modest Italy, the resulting state would today be one of the most enviable in Europe: well-run, mafia-free and prosperous.
4. Giuseppe Mazzini
Italian writer Giuseppe Mazzini, (1805 – 1872) | Hulton Archive via Getty Images
Another hero of Italys unification who didnt know when to let sleeping dogs lie, Mazzini was obsessed with Rome. It had been the capital of the Classical world, the hub of Western Christendom and so, he believed with an almost messianic conviction, it should be the capital of the new Italy. In 1871, just a year before his death, Mazzini got his way, and Rome took over the role of capital from Florence.
Ever since, Italy has been governed from a city imbued with the conservative values of the papacy. What is more, though Rome may be peerlessly beautiful, its inhabitants have long had a reputation for being idle, conformist, hierarchical, cynical and easily corrupted. The adjective traditionally applied to them by their fellow Italians is pigri (“lazy”), and the one most frequently deployed for their city is caotica (“chaotic”). Non-Romans can often be heard saying that, had Florence remained the capital, Italian politics might not have become so venal and disorderly.
5. Agostino Depretis
Mentions of venality inevitably brings to mind this 19th-century Italian statesman. Born not in Rome but near Pavia, in the supposedly law-abiding north, Depretis was a dominant figure in the period that followed unification. He also has the questionable distinction of being the spiritual father of trasformismo, the practice whereby parliamentarians are persuaded to abandon the party for which they were elected and join another.
The right of parliamentarians to bounce around between parties like balls on a pinball table is enshrined in the 1948 republican constitution, which states that “every member of parliament represents the nation.” In their keenness to represent the nation, rather than the voters who elected them to parliament, more than a third of the members of the last legislature changed sides. Trasformismo is not only at the base of a fair bit of corruption but an important reason why Italy has so many changes of government.
Paradoxically, another reason for that is the legacy of …
6. Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) | Topical Press Agency via Getty Images
The bullet-headed, chin-jutting ex-socialist who virtually invented fascism governed Italy from 1922 to 1943. For all but three years at the beginning, he was its dictator. It was Mussolini who allied with Nazi Germany and led Italy into World War II. A big mistake. It resulted in Italy being invaded by the Allies from the south. The hard-fought campaign that followed, as the Germans retreated up the peninsula, left a trail of destruction and suffering.
Had the term been current, post-war Italy might have qualified as a failed state. Cholera and malaria were widespread, and it is estimated that as many as one in three of the women in Naples took to prostitution to survive. Though a certain nostalgia for fascism has survived among a minority of Italians, the failure of Mussolinis regime has left a deep aversion to the concentration of power. The result is an overelaborate system of checks and balances that includes two chambers of parliament with equal and identical powers. As a result, almost everything takes a long time to do in Italy — and can at some stage be undone. This is not a recipe for effective or stable government.
7. Giulio Andreotti
Giulio Andreotti | AFP via Getty Images
Few Italians since the Borgias have had as evil a reputation as Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democrat who was prime minister seven times and a minister in numerous other governments starting in the mid-1950s. His Socialist rival, Bettino Craxi (see No. 9), dubbed him Beelzebub. The increasing curvature of Andreottis spine gave him a Richard III look; his defenders (of whom there are not many) will tell you he used it to cultivate an image that made him feared and respected.
His partys founder, Alcide De Gasperi, said that Andreotti was “so capable in everything that he could become capable of anything.” In 2003, an appeal court in Sicily agreed: It ruled that, at least until 1980, he had collaborated with the islands Cosa Nostra and given its members a sense of being “protected at the highest level.” According to mafiosi who turned states evidence, he was known in the mob as “Uncle Giulio.” How much of the mafias delinquency can be laid at Andreottis door is impossible to know, but the shelter he afforded it is among the reasons Italy today continues to be plagued by indigenous organized crime.
8. Mariano Rumor
Mariano Rumor | Keystone/Hulton archive via Getty Images
Another Christian Democrat, his wrongdoing may have been less heinous than Andreottis, but it was arguably more expensive. As prime minister, Rumor promoted a measure that has since cost Italys long-suffering taxpayers around €175 billion. Presidential Decree No. 1092 of December 29, 1973 was a shameless attempt to secure the political support of Italys growing numbers of public workers. It stipulated that state employees could retire having made contributions for a mere 19-and-a-half years. If the public servant in question was a woman with children, she could retire even sooner: after contributing for just over 14-and-a-half years.
Thus were born Italys infamous “baby pensioners:” men and women who could embark on a life of dolce far niente — in most cases before their 40th birthday — secure in the expectation of a modest but guaranteed income. The right to “baby pensions” was abolished in 1992. But those still living on them remain a feature of Italian life. In 2014, it was calculated they numbered around a half a million and that, on average, they were receiving a monthly pre-tax sum of €1,500. Their cumulative effect is one of many explanations for Italys massive public debt of more than 130 percent of GDP.
But the man who probably did more than any other to pile it up was …
9. Bettino Craxi
Bettino Craxi | Keystone via Getty Images
Italys debt mountain started to grow in the early 1970s. But by the time Craxi became the first non-Christian Democrat to head a government since the war, in 1983, it was still only 65 percent of GDP. When he left office four years later, it had climbed to 89 percent. There were several reasons for the rise: overspending, waste, inefficiency, insufficient taxation, a central bank policy that boosted the cost of servicing Italys existing debts and — not least — corruption.
The Craxi years saw the consolidation of a pernicious arrangement whereby the cost of every public acquisition, from underground railway systems down to sanitary equipment for retirement homes, was boosted to create a margin that was then divided up between Italys mighty parties. After blithely admitting in court to his awareness of the system — and the Socialists involvement in it — Craxi fled to Tunisia, where he died in 2000.
The other reason to include him in Italys Dirty Dozen is that he allowed one man to gain control of half of the countrys television screens. That man, of course, is …
10. Silvio Berlusconi
Leader of Italian right-wing party Forza Italia (Go Italy) Silvio Berlusconi | Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images
Helped by a media power unparalleled in the democratic world, Berlusconi stormed into office in 1994 only to be felled eight months later. After a long spell in the wilderness, he was back in 2001 and has since become Italys longest-serving post-war leader. He could also make a case for being the Wests most successful politician, having been an important, if controversial, figure on the international stage since the days when George Bush senior was the U.S. president.
Berlusconis influence on Italy has been immense. His TV channels have helped shape the mindset of the nation (persuading Italians to, among other things, regard his followers, many from the neo-fascist right, as moderates). His constant denigration of the prosecutors and judges who have pursued him on charges including alleged judge- and witness-bribing, paying for underage sex (of which he was acquitted) and tax fraud (of which he was convicted) has undermined Italians already fragile respect for the rule of law. His objectivization of women (he made a former topless model his minister for equal opportunities) goes a long way toward explaining why the gender gap is still so wide in Italy, despite the countrys prosperity and sophistication.
11. Romano Prodi
Romano Prodi | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images
Now what on earth, you may ask, is such a genial chap doing here? How could this well-intentioned professor, who governed his country from 1996 to 1998 and 2006 to 2008, possibly have contributed to its ruination? To which many an Italian would answer: “Because he took us into the bloody euro.” When Prodi first came into office, it was widely assumed that Italy, whose public debts already exceeded 120 percent of GDP, could not possibly meet the criteria for inclusion in the single currency. But, after a visit to his Spanish counterpart, Prodi decided it had to. Spain was determined to get in, and Italy could not be seen to fail where its Mediterranean neighbor (and rival) succeeded.
Gaining access to the euro club became a matter of national pride, and Prodi successfully persuaded Italians to make considerable sacrifices to reduce the budget deficit while convincing the rest of the EU to turn a blind eye to its colossal debt. The eurozone was sold to the electorate as a kind of financial nirvana in which low interest rates would ease the burden, not only on the treasury, but on household budgets too. What neither Prodi nor anyone else cared to stress was that Italians would lose the freedom to maintain their competitiveness by devaluing the lira, and that only further (and perhaps never-ending) sacrifices would enable them to level the playing field on which they were expected to shape up against the Germans.
12. Roberto Maroni
Roberto Maroni | Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images
You might hear some more of this jazz-loving luminary from the right-wing Northern League party. Maroni, who served in senior positions in all of Berlusconis governments, withdrew into relative national obscurity five years ago as governor of Lombardy, the region around Milan. Maroni is a moderate in League terms. In January, he announced he would not be running again in the regional vote to be held at the same time as Italys parliamentary election on March 4. That encouraged speculation he was making himself available as a possible candidate for prime minister once the post-election wrangling begins.
But, particularly for young Italians, there is a big reason to not welcome Maroni back into government: As employment minister in the early 2000s, he sponsored the introduction of a law that, more than any, has skewed the labor market. By making it easier for bosses to hire mostly young workers on short-term contracts without eroding the privileges of older workers with jobs for life, the law created a generational gulf that has grown ever since. The difficulty of getting worthwhile employment that allows workers to build up their pension rights, take out a mortgage and perhaps start a family is a prime explanation for why so many young Italians flee abroad — and why so many who stay vote for the maverick 5Star Movement that polls indicate is now Italys most widely supported party.
The nightmare scenario — for the financial markets and Brussels — is a coalition between the League and the anti-establishment 5Stars. Both parties have ruled that out, but a fat lot that will mean once the results are known and the horse-trading begins. Not that the alternatives are much better: a right-wing government made up of parties that have promised the earth and may need to break Italys eurozone commitments to fulfil their pledges, or a “grand coalition” of left and right that would have difficulty agreeing on economic and social reforms.
Italys “dirty dozen” still has room for a few more entries.
John Hooper is Italy and Vatican correspondent for the Economist, and the author of “The Italians” (Viking, 2015).