The New Barbarians

NICCOLO TUCCI, who has been living in the United States since 1938, is a contributor to various Italian and American magazines. This is the first of several articles which he is writing “in defense of the ancient Italians and their great culture against the New Barbarians and their great ignoranceHe is now completing two versions of a long historical novel: one in Italian and one in English, for what he calls “the unequalled pleasure of self-plagiarism.”



WHEN I came home to Italy after fifteen years in America, I found that it has been invaded by the Italians. These New Italians have hardly anything in common with those who lived here previously. They don’t speak or write the same language, they don’t want the same things, they don’t have the same features, and they don’t represent the same traditions. But they pretend they do. In fact, IN WORDS, no one is prouder than they are that they descend from everybody in history. They have the Renaissance in their breast pocket, the Middle Ages in the seat of their pants, the wisdom of the ancients in their shoes, and the historic sense in the wink of their eye.

It’s always “we” in their personal grammar. We have given the world the greatest art, we have taught the Barbarians how to live, we have created, sculpted, sung, we Michelangelo, we Monteverdi, Verdi, Palestrina, we Dante, we Petrarca; and they shoot these big names in your face as if it were an insult to the world that all men are not the painters and sculptors, poets and musicians, that they are.

You say that the Roman telephone system stinks (and it most certainly does): you have insulted the memory of Masaccio. You complain that the wrong the number is printed in the telephone directory (I can quote one right now: 848617 for Andrea Busiri, and the person who answers the phone says, “This is the wrong number.” You answer, “Sorry, this is tlie number printed in the directory.” The person says, “I know it is, but it is printed wrong.” You say, “Why don’t you give me the right number then?” The person answers, “Why should I be your servant?” You insist, “This is for your own good, to avoid being disturbed all the time,” and the person hangs up on you, saying, “And who are you to tell me what is good for me?”) and they say, “These things are not important to us. They are to you, savage Americans, but we have centuries behind us. Saint Francis did not use the telephone.”

And yet, for all our great ascetic training, for all the culture behind us, we, the descendants of all history, do not seem at all eager to live ascetically or to cherish our past. For we read nothing, visit no museums, and are now systematically destroying all of the monuments for which Italy is great in the world.

We are now building a huge Pulaski Highway over the Via Appia, and another, still uglier highway over the same Via Appia, right above the small church of Domine Quo Vadis, where Jesus Christ met Peter; and we also built a gasoline station right across the Via Appia from that church, a real, cheap gasoline station decorated with fragments stolen from the most sacred ruins of that same Via Appia, which we are plundering from statues, either whole or in bits, and from ancient Latin and Greek inscriptions. In Florence we have torn up some of the most romantic gardens that belonged, by the supreme rights of Culture, to the world, not to Florence only, and on the Grand Canal in Venice we are now planning to build a modernistic structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Grand Canal will look like Mona Lisa with a huge golden tooth.

We might be called Barbarians and not Italians, were it not for the fact that Barbarians usually descend upon a country from their uncivilized foreign abode, while we have sprung up from the holy Italian soil; we are a pure national product, and shall soon inherit the country to punish it for its historic pride, as no Barbarian ever, in his wildest dreams of revenge, dreamed of punishing it.

“Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini — What the Barbarians didn’t do was done by the Barberini ” was a common saying in Rome when the Barberino family, having produced a Pope and consequently become Roman Princes, plundered the Coliseum of its marble blocks to build the Barberini Palace, one of the baroque monuments of Rome. But the modern Barbarians do not build beautiful palaces: what they build is a row of huge, horrid, low-rent housing projects the like of which would be forbidden by the Housing Commission for reasons of taste in the outskirts of Newark, New Jersey. One of the most historic sights of Italy, the approach to the walls of San Sebastiano from the Via Appia, is now completely gone: what the returning exile sees in the Year of Our Lord 1954 is a mass of the cheapest, tallest beehives, towering over the sad brown towers that once guarded the jewel of all cities on earth.

The new Italians are infinitely more “American” (in the abused sense of this word) than the worst Babbitt in the States. They care for nothing but machines, gadgets, Bigger and Better, and especially noise. And they could not care less for monuments, art, culture, all the things that surround them in Italy and of which they pretend to be so proud, simply because these are the things that foreigners admire. In fact their pride in their great heritage does not prevent them from destroying their towns and their monuments.

As Bernard Berenson said, when I urged him to use his authority against this daily murder, “The Italians hate their past. They had too much of it.” In other words, he believes that the past is to Italy an unfinished assignment, a reproach and an impediment. And as he spoke, with grief, for he is an Italian, an Ancient one, like every learned man on earth, I recalled my own feelings as a child, when everything I saw from the windows of my house in Tuscany was a task that remained permanently unfinished. There, on my right, a remnant of a bongo bard fortress. Who were the Longo bards? Which of the theories about their passage, their influence, their institutions, was correct? In front of me a modern structure left there by Charles the Fifth, in the year . . . ? Behind that hill the village of Ancliiano with the red peasant house in which Leonardo was born in the year . . . ? Here a church, half Komanesque in style, with a baroque facade, and with frescoes inside ascribed to . . . ? What was a lazy boy to do about all this? He was of course interested in everything, but he was also obsessed by the fear of a father who knew too damn much about what was outside the window, and if he mentioned one of these historic names without placing it in the right century and under the right King, Emperor, Pope, or local feudal lord, God forbid, it was like flunking an exam in school. And even though later I became interested in art, in history, in archaeology, the fact that all that knowledge was a must poisoned the pleasure of its acquisition, or, if it did not poison it, it certainly delayed it. One always felt one had achieved nothing spontaneous — one had only learned how to walk, how to behave in polite society, how to sit at table.

In other words, we youngsters were given the answers long before asking the questions, or even knowing what the questions might be. I recall, for example, that the way Roman history was taught (great virtues, great men, and great deeds, and all meaning how good we ourselves were) made the whole period and its monuments unbearable to all of us without distinction. We loved the Middle Ages, not only because that was a mysterious epoch, but also because these were the Dark Ages, the ages of which no one could be proud, when everything was abandoned and destroyed, the damned Romans especially, with their damned virtues that pleased our teachers so. I myself would gladly have destroyed the Via Appia, the Roman Forum, the Aqueducts, because they had been instruments of torture, not items of historical interest.

When Berenson heard my confession, he said: “I don’t have much to explain then. The Fascists, after all, were also members of that race of Barbarians, as you call them. They began the destruction that goes on now. In forty years there will be not one old Italian town left, because modern town-planners think in terms of transit, towns to drive through, not towns to live in, viabilità, non abitabilita. Italian towns are the highest expression of abitabilità, places where you could live, points of arrival, final goals, not appendices of a highway. Places for men, not for automobiles.”

These words by Berenson gave me at least one good clue by which to recognize the Invaders. Their hurry. The unquiet character of whatever they do. Hurried people are slow in their thinking as well as in their movements. They are parts of a general tenseness. And tenseness is a hardening up of the rhythm. The Italians I had known before were agitated but not hurried, passionate individually; therefore calm, relaxed about the world at large and concentrated on their own private world. They were “materialistic” as every human being worth his salt must be; they wanted the good things, not the money to buy them. Now they are intellectually greedy; they are one step further away from things than they were in the past. As paper money has replaced gold, and the miser who loves his yellow coins because they are his toys belongs in a distant past, so have paper passions replaced the solid passions of the past. Houses look like certificates of houses, and travel is a series of mental rubber stamps proving to us that we really have been where we have been. This is what, has transformed this ancient people into a mass of foreigners to their own country. They seem to be escaping from themselves.


MY FATHER used to say that the best accusations are made in the first person, the best confessions in the second or third. Everyone understands that the faults a man discovers in another must be his own, or he would never recognize them. A jealous husband is an unfaithful husband. A man obsessed with the fear of disloyalty in others is himself disloyal. A merchant who does not trust his clients knows that ho himself cannot be trusted.

I see this with the New Barbarians, here in Italy, now. When they describe the Americans, they actually describe themselves. And what really leaves me speechless at times is that they and the Communists say the same things. I realize that no one will believe me, so I shall quote verbatim. Here is my conversation with Mr. B, a journalist.

B: I hear you didn’t approve of my artieles from New York.

T: Right. I did not. Why did you have to say such silly things about America?

B: What did I say that wasn’t true? I said the Americans were ignorant, they had no conversation, they were money-crazy, lacked a tradition. Isn’t that true?

T: How do you know it is?

B: I was there.

T: Yes, throe weeks. Always behind closed shutters, typing away descriptions of all sorts of things you never had time to see because you were too busy describing them.

B: I went out in the evening.

T: Yes, to see friends, or to the night clubs, always with Italians or with a few society people.

B: Listen, don’t be so American now. We Europeans don’t have to go and get firsthand evidence of whatever we feel. We know things intuitively. Americans are ignorant. That is a known fact.

T: llow ignorant ? What arc they ignorant of?

B: Our culture, for example.

T: And I suppose you know it. Do you read the classics all the time?

B: I have no time, I am too busy reading the papers and writing for them.

T: Back in our school days you were loo busy doing other things, running after the girls and preparing for exams by just learning by heart pages of nonsense about law.

B: So did you, for that matter.

T: Bight, that is why I remember so well. We did these things together. But I have found that Americans have read about our culture more than we have.

B: Never mind, it won’t do them any good. We have that culture in our blood, we breathe it, we exude it, we don’t have to read.

T: If we don’t have to read, because we know by definition, and it is useless for them that they read, because they never will become like us, this means that we are a superior race.

B: Why, could you doubt it?

T: Yes, I can.

B: You have become too American. You have an inferiority complex.

T: I do and I am proud of it. But you, who know so many things by birthright, don’t know how ignorant you are. In that respect, at least, you are ignorant too.

B: Oh, hell. I don’t care. All of America is not worth the façade of an old village church in Italy.


HAT was one conversation with B. A few days later we had anot her.

T: All right, you say that the Americans have no conversation. Did you converse with many of them, and in what language, if you don’t know English?

B: A on don’t have to converse. They have no conversation anyway, so what’s the point? One must be instinctive in these things. Where is your ancient European flair for things and people? Gone with the American wind?

T: I still claim that intuition is not conversation. And that you don’t know English.

B: All right, I don’t know English, but I know many people I trust, and have read many books, and all these people say and write that in America there is no conversation.

T: Mho are these people and what books have you read?

B: W hy are you so inquisilive?

T: Because I like to have a conversation with you. I never had one in America, if I must believe you, so now let’s have one right away. I am just conversation-starved.

B: What’s your complaint? What have I done to you? Are we not friends?

T: Of course we are, we have been since our school days.

B: So why have a fight? Who cares about the Americans? To hell with them. In fifty years we’ll all be dead, says the old Roman proverb. This is the wisdom of the Bathers. Believe me, it is the only wisdom. So stop fighting, and let’s go out to dinner.

This was our second conversation. So we went out to dine, and we had another conversation.

I must first introduce a few other members of our party. There were Miss X, Mr. Y, a multimillionaire, Count Z, and a few other people with their wives. Miss X said that B’s articles were so interesting and so true. Especially the one where he had described the baby-sitter in New York who leaves the baby unattended to go to a speakeasy. How true and how typical of American culture! “Before giving my opinion,” I said, “I would like to know how many here at this table have children.”Many had. “And of course,” I said, “you have servants at home to look after them.” They did. “In America,” I said, “a servant is a luxury. That’s why we have baby-sitters when we go out in the evening.”

“What tin uncivilized habit,”someone remarked.

“I would never leave my children with someone I did not know.”

“This is something,”I said, “you don’t know. If you lived there you would. But this is not the point I wish to score. I want to say that there are no speakeasies in America any more. They disappeared from the country and the language back in l934. So why does B have to speak about things that don’t exist?”

“Here comes the censor,”said B. “You don’t realize that the Italian reader wants to hear about gangsters and speakeasies. He remembers the word, he wants to feel that he has been to America, and it is my job to entertain him. I will tell him of gangsters and speakeasies.”

“But isn’t that dishonest?" I asked.

“How American of you!” said Miss X.

I gave up, finished eating while B resumed his description of American culture.

“Their freedom of the press,”he was saying, “is worthless. Editors don’t let anyone write as he pleases. They force their style on him, they rewrite him, because the truth to them is what the people want to hear. And whoever does not conform with these standards can starve to death but will not be published.”

“What can you expect of such Barbarians?" said Miss X. “Everything is commercialized, there is no spontaneity, nothing at all for the artist. These are the same people who have destroyed Cassino, don’t forget.”

“And are rebuilding it now like a copy of its ok! self,”said the Count, who is a Venetian.

“Antonio,”said I, “didn’t you do the same in Venice with your famous Campanile, in 1913, when the old one disintegrated?”

“Yes,”said Antonio, who is proud of his home town. “The town decided to have it rebuilt exactly as it had been, on the same site. It was the shortest, most synthetic decision of the Town Council. It was expressed in four words: ”era, coni era — As it was, where it had stood.'”

“And how about Cassino, then?" I asked.

“But that was destroyed on purpose by our enemies,”said the millionaire. “When I think of the monuments they have destroyed, my heart bleeds.”

“So does mine,”said a fat gentleman at the end of the table. “The Americans . . .”

I did not bother to listen to the rest. I only inquired who the fat man was. “Don’t you know him?” said the Count. “He is one of the richest contractors in Italy. He owns housing projects around the Via Appia. And he is now in charge of all the new highway system that will connect these new sections of Home with the Via Appia Nuova. Billions, he owns.”

“And who is that other man there?" I asked.

“That,”said Antonio, “is a publisher. He publishes almost all the comic strips in Italy. He is about to do the Divine Comedy.”

“How wonderful!” I said, and went over to him. “Are you the man who is going to publish the Divine Comedy in comic strips?" I asked.

“Yes,”he said proudly, “I am.”

“With many naked female souls in hell and other sales-promotion angles?”

“What can you do?" he asked, lifting both hands toward the restaurant ceiling in an impulse of rogatory prayer. “What can you do in this vulgar age of ours? That’s what the readers want.”

“Have you asked them?”

“The figures speak for themselves. Even the cheapest comic strip in Italy outsells the most successful book twenty to one. This is the influence of America, my friend.”

“Must be heartbreaking for you,” I said. “But tell me something now: has it ever occurred to you that the readers might prefer a taste of the real thing to the exciting drawings illustrating it?”

“What do you mean by the real thing?”

“Rape, murder, theft, arson, public floggings, and other such exciting spectacles. They would pay any price to see these things enacted, or to take part in public demonstrations for the education of other readers.”

“You are joking,”he said. “You forget that this is a civilized country. There is a difference between the comic strip and the real thing.”

“Also,”I said, “between the real thing that is poetry or prose and the fake thing that is its comic strip edition.”

“If that is what the people want, do you expect me to starve in order to educate them?”

His wife was looking at me with obvious hatred, and fidgeting with a huge diamond ring. She had almost all her fingers armed with rings and terribly hard stones, so I decided to withdraw from the battle before she hit me.

“Damn Americans,”she whispered to herself quite audibly. “They want to teach us how to live.” Then, to me: “The Divine Comedy is a great poem. America does not have such a poet as Dante Alighieri.”

“Right,” I said. “He’s all yours.”