In last weekend’s national elections Italians overwhelmingly chose to make Giorgia Meloni the country’s first far-right leader “since the Second World War.” That’s the way most foreign commentators put it and I wonder why they don’t just say it straight: “since Benito Mussolini,” or—better—“since Mussolini’s Fascist government, which banned opposition and murdered its own citizens.”
It has been coming for some time, this “resurgence,” another word we use when we talk about the far-right. Many would argue it has been coming since the very day Mussolini was shot dead by Partigiani resistants and strung up for all to see in Piazzale Loreto in the center of Milan: for some, the slaughtered leader, hanging upside down with his clothes torn and bloody, was a symbol of freedom and justice at last; for others, of martyrdom and a brave vision abruptly curtailed. Or deferred.
In Italy, there was no great post-war reckoning with Fascism, of the sort seen in Germany with Nazism; no significant trials or cultural initiatives designed to confront the people with what had been done in their name. In Germany, a coordinated effort mounted by the Allies soon after the fall of the Reich produced documentaries and broadcasts to determinedly shape the collective memory when it was at its most fragile.
At the blunter end, national newspapers carried photographs of the concentration camps with the message “YOU ARE GUILTY OF THIS!” In Italy, however, after a spate of killings and amnesties, attempts to rid the country of fascism ran out of steam: the scale of collaboration was simply too large to begin to unpick from the social fabric. Public opinion turned against the purges. Things quietened down; it was easier for people to go back to work and get on with their lives. Things were forgotten or misremembered. Challenging questions were left unanswered, or were never asked at all.
In the war’s aftermath, a constitutional ban on reforming the National Fascist Party (and the Republican Fascist Party, which Mussolini himself had created in the desperate final days of the war) only led members to launch a succession of populist alternatives. The Italian Social Movement gave way to Tricolour Flame and National Alliance, which in turn gave way, in 2012, to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. New name, same condition, same promised panaceas. To set themselves apart leaders have used words like “neo-fascist” and, Meloni’s favorite, “post-fascist,” but any doubt about continuity of vision should be dispelled by the virulence of these parties’ conservative, xenophobic, racist policies, and by the image of the tricolour flame, which burns in the emblem of each. Burns fiercely; burns like a fever.
In Italy, there was no great post-war reckoning with Fascism, of the sort seen in Germany with Nazism; no significant trials or cultural initiatives designed to confront the people with what had been done in their name.
After the spectacle of Piazzale Loreto in 1945, people moved on; the collective memory fragmented and so faded easily. Disease became confused with cure. Could it have been any other way? Fascism, fires, fevers: these things are more persistent than we tend to allow. More persistent than memory even, which distorts down the years, becoming discolored and fainter with every new generation.
So that an elderly person, alive when Mussolini was at the height of his powers, can now turn to someone, as casual as anything, and say “Oh, but he did good things too, you know? He cleared the swamps! He gave us jobs! The trains always ran on time!;” and the other person—young, perhaps on the eve of casting their first vote—can answer “Yes, I know he did. I’ve seen it online.” An ember can reignite, a new viral strain or infection can take hold, a fresh buzzword or slogan can capture the people’s imagination. And it may feel like the lucidity of morning, but in fact the cool restorative night never came in the first place.
We are plague people, prone to fevers, false lucidity and amnesia. A history of rampant recurrent disease appears to have imprinted the Italian consciousness and conditioned the population to think always in terms of threat, contagion, eradication and return. And barriers. Natural ones: a mountain range, seventh-century plague doctors thought, would protect Florence from the worst of it; islands were a gift; soil, if the pit was deep enough, would protect the living from the mass of infected dead. And man-made ones: walls; doors; policed borders.
And lazaretti, quarantine centers built of stone and mortar—geometry set against chaos—or ships at anchor, a safe distance from the shore; strange temporary homes for people deemed dangerous. It took a new pandemic to remind the world that the Italians—or, rather, the Venetians—gave us the word “quarantine,” from quarantena, denoting a forty-day isolation period considered, for reasons steeped in Christian belief, to be sufficient for the purification of the body.
Through history, prayers, penitence and trinkets of devotion have been the first line of defense. During the plagues that ravaged the peninsula from the mid-1300s to the final major outbreak, the Great Plague of Milan, which lasted three years from 1629, the churches organized frequent processions that wound through crowded towns and cities, doing the disease’s job for it. Early on, the Black Death saw a resurgence in flagellantism, whereby sins were atoned for through public acts of self-inflicted pain.
Cities regularly saw their populations halved. The fever struck, followed by aches that began in the head and reached the entire body. Then came chills, rashes, the relief of death. In the late 1470s, the Republic of Venice lost some 300,000 people. If the private prayers of the survivors had been spoken aloud, the cumulative sound would have been deafening. But still bodies piled up in the streets, every death the will of God. (And yet—people said—someone must have brought it in?)
Grocers, apothecarists and resourceful cooks, marrying faith and ancient learning, tried to alleviate the physical symptoms of a disease otherwise out of human control. Pomanders, pungent fumigants, pills, tinctures and syrups proliferated. Theriacs, advocated by Galen and revered as cures for snake bites and other poisons, were considered the most powerful, with lists of ingredients often running into the hundreds. Each item was weighed and blended carefully: rose water, sage, ground snake flesh, rapeseed, balsam, saffron, black pepper, cinnamon, parsley. Easy solutions for difficult conditions. Some recipes recommended soaking the mixture in wine for a time, before finally incorporating honey, which would allow the paste to stick to the patient like a second skin. It was most effective, physicians advised, when concentrated on the chest, close to the heart.
Before long, the pastes were being imported into Britain. They were known as Venice Treacle. But strict regulation of foreign goods fueled domestic production, too. An advertisement placed in a London newspaper in 1670, touted a “Famous and Effectual MEDICINE TO CURE THE PLAGUE”: a powder was to be mixed with liquid for the patient “to drink freely in their sweat,” a posset “with Sage, or Sorrel, and Dandilion.”
In early March 2020, my parents were on a cruise off the coast of Brazil and following news from home closely. The whole of Lombardy was in “lockdown” as were provinces in the Veneto and other northern regions. The world was watching Italy struggle and fail to contain the virus. And soon my parents started to notice that people onboard, with whom they had previously been friendly, were now politely, persistently avoiding them. If they struck up a conversation with anyone new, the moment they mentioned that they had come from Italy the atmosphere changed. Excuses were made and my parents found themselves alone. After a while, they started to tell people they were from England, and that helped, for a time.
When just a handful of infections had been confirmed in Italy, the attacks on people of east Asian descent began. Newspapers reported a case in Bologna, where a Chinese-Italian teenager was beaten up by a group of four men. “What are you doing in Italy?” they shouted, “You’re bringing us diseases? Get lost, you and your virus.” The scene was witnessed by a man, sitting on a nearby bench, who stepped in to help the boy. A report on Bologna Today says he was a Moroccan, and this reminds me that until recently “marocchino” was a catch-all term for any dark-skinned immigrant, a label akin to vu cumprà, whose mock pidgin Italian—”you buy?”—conjured desperate and untrustworthy street hawkers, pests.
There were other attacks. Chinese businesses were boycotted. The Chinese embassy expressed serious concern. A national poster campaign was deemed necessary: “The virus is the enemy, not the Chinese people.” In Naples, La Repubblica reported, a bus driver departing from Piazza Garibaldi saw a man with a suitcase—“un uomo orientale,” an “oriental” man—waiting to board and accelerated away from the bus stop. A passenger is quoted as saying, “He did the right thing, we don’t want the virus here.” Calls for a ban on all travel from China were soon followed by calls for a ban on all boats coming from Africa, where no cases of the virus had been reported. As one virus spread around the world, it awoke this old one, too.
Perhaps this is muscle memory. We have always grafted diseases onto select groups of people. During the fourteenth century, the Italians were gripped by the idea that certain people might be intentionally spreading plague. They accused local Jewish communities, which had, they reasoned, always wanted to eradicate Christianity. Men, women and children were burnt alive. In the fifteenth century, syphilis, meanwhile, was, for the Germans, the “French Disease”; for the French, it was carried by Neapolitans (who said it was French). In Turkey, it was the “Christian disease.”
In the nineteenth century, British colonists considered cholera to be inherently Indian, a product of an uncivilized way of life. Around the same time, the Americans were blaming it on the Irish and the Italians—destitute, filthy migrants who clambered off ships into crowded harbors looking for work. Their clothes were said to be saturated with sickness. In 1916, Italian immigrants were accused of causing an outbreak of polio in New York and on much of the East Coast, and two years later, along with Jews, they were shunned as bringers of influenza. We have forgotten what it is to be blamed, to be the scapegoat of a society’s ills.
“When I was a girl it was malaria everyone was scared of,” Nonna told me one day, when I had called to update her on my parents’ predicament.
“It was very common,” she said, “and very dangerous. You would get a fever and twenty-four hours later you were dead.”
I asked if it was malaria that took the first baby Manlio or the twins, but she didn’t know. “It’s possible. You prayed it wouldn’t happen but there were cases. The marshes were not far from here.”
Malaria, a sickness in the blood, is ancient but with us still—a historical constant, like the famous mosquito preserved in amber. Though it was eradicated across Europe decades ago, it is rife in Africa. Medicine has not yet found a solution; vaccines work, for a time, and then they don’t.
Calls for a ban on all travel from China were soon followed by calls for a ban on all boats coming from Africa, where no cases of the virus had been reported. As one virus spread around the world, it awoke this old one, too.
This shapeshifter has gone by many names: camp fever, ague, intermittent-, swamp- or marsh-fever. Until the turn of the twentieth century, when the female Anopheles mosquito was identified as the cause of infection, the marsh air itself—heavy with the smell of stagnant water and rotting vegetation—was assumed to be poisonous. Mala aria, bad air. Paludismo, swampism, or, I suppose, swampitis.
The beggars and brigands who hid out in these inhospitable water-lands, whose hair and rags were thought to be impregnated with the “seeds” of contagion, were viewed with fear and revulsion. Like Caliban, they could summon “all the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats.” Their touch was the kiss of death.
Since Roman times, the plan had been to drain the swamps, to render them inhabitable and agriculturally useful. But successes were few and short-lived. Some say the fall of the Roman Empire can be linked to a particularly bad outbreak of malaria, or “Roman Fever,” as it was then known. (I write this a few months after the Italian government collapsed in disagreement over how to handle our own pandemic; the country is now on its sixty-ninth government since the end of the Second World War.)
The Sisyphean struggle against the waters continued for centuries, but the Fascist era into which Nonna was born brought an intensification. The aftermath of the First World War had seen a steep rise in cases of malaria, especially in the Veneto and the Friuli, where fighting had made it impossible to carry out routine maintenance of dredged lands. Quinine tablets were widely distributed, at great cost to the administration.
In 1923, a year into his reign, Mussolini put his characteristic spin on an edict from the late 1800s and declared war on the putrid waters. I wonder if he didn’t feel a particular outrage because malaria was a disease that contaminated good Italian blood.
The bonifica delle paludi—the reclamation of the swamps—was the propogandists’ dream come true. It was, they said, Italy’s panacea: once these wastelands were rendered fertile and buildable, people would no longer need to emigrate in search of a better life. Because, in a sense, the loss of thousands of fine, strong Italians had, for at least half a century, been the nation’s most debilitating illness. Not only was the constant population drain a source of embarrassment for the government—not to mention concern: Italians abroad were Italians out of control—but all too often the migrants themselves suffered great indignities. So, a promise was made: Italy’s total livable, farmable land would be increased by a third.
Returning to land south of Rome, partly drained by Augustus centuries earlier, a workforce of former soldiers put in place a system of levees and pumps, and, in 1932, on the soil that emerged, Mussolini’s architects built Littoria, whose pale stone architecture, simple but ostentatious, with a tall clocktower at its heart, shone like a beacon of cleanliness and renewal.
A few years later, Pontinia was erected nearby, and people, primarily from the Veneto and the Friuli, flocked to the area to make their homes afresh. Strange that this proud Christian nation should forget so readily God’s admonishment against building on soft ground.
“That was a good thing he did, you know?” Nonna said. “People don’t like to admit it, but it’s true.”
I say nothing when Nonna says such things. He was let down by those around him. He lost control of the generals. He was misled, people forget. These lines, residua of her formal education, I think, don’t seem to fit with the other things I know about her, so mostly, I let them wash over me and try to forget. I can’t bring myself to engage because, I confess, I’m frightened of what else might come out.
Sometimes I think of zio Gioacchino and imagine him showing Dirce and Leo around his garden in Sheffield, not long after the end of the war, once everything that happened had happened, with heaps of bodies across Europe to prove it. And those photographs of Mussolini and the others bloated and hanging upside down from the roof of the petrol station in piazzale Loreto. Was there talk of good things then, or is it the passage of time that has allowed such expressions to emerge, like gaudy winter blooms?
Ma Mussolini ha fatto anche cose buone, “But Mussolini also did good things”: a common phrase in Italy, increasingly so as distrust in democracy grows and social media creates fertile ground for historical revisionism. Spend enough time in the country and you will hear the words spoken, sometimes by the person you least expect. A good, kind person. Imagine it being slipped into conversation casually, muttered wistfully, like the refrain of a half-remembered hymn. Think of it bobbing up to the surface like a cork in water, or a body—it startles you that way—and consider the heft of that opening “but,” and all that lies bound and weighted below.
There’s a book with precisely that phrase as its title, in which Francesco Filippi, a historian of mentality, unpicks the most (let’s say) misremembered claims made in favor of the Fascist regime. I bought a copy a couple of summers ago, while I was staying at Nonna’s, in the old bookshop in Maniago’s main piazza. Its black spine punctuated a row of pastel-colored romance novels near the shop’s till, where someone must have discarded it at the last minute, and the familiarity of its title—as intended—struck me. I took it home, half thinking it would be good to have some quick statistics to hand should Nonna and I end up having that conversation. The other half of me knows we never will.
while it’s true that two children from Burkina Faso were being treated for malaria on the same ward, it was human error—the re-use of an infected needle—that was responsible for transmission.
I carried the book around the house with me, meaning—I think—to read it between meals, chats and games of briscola. I left it lying about—a lazy, inchoate provocation, perhaps. And as usual, I scribbled notes in the margins and underlined more of the text than not, especially sentences that state the blatantly obvious, as if in preparation for an exam. For example:
The foundation of a possible totalitarian future also relies on the rehabilitation of the totalitarian past. To show the reality of that past is a first step in preventing that past from becoming future.
In the following pages you will drown in ‘facts’, reconstructed with unassailable and almost maniacal precision, even if it must be said that yes, of course, fascism also did ‘good things’ … It would be science fiction if, in twenty years, it hadn’t, right? Even a broken clock, wise men say, tells the right time twice a day.
Double-underlining denotes loud agreement or, I suppose, relish. I mark-up books like other people write diaries: performatively, with future readers in mind.
The bonifica delle paludi, I read, was not a success. Of the millions of hectares promised, only a fraction was delivered. There was not enough viable land for everyone, and what there was tended to be physically and economically exhausting to maintain. During the Second World War, channels were neglected again. Some, especially in the north, were a gift to retreating Weimar soldiers, who flooded them on purpose, surrounding the partigiani with filthy, malaria-infested waters. Much of the work of reclaiming the land then fell to future administrations or was abandoned altogether.
Pontinia and Littoria, renamed Latina after the war, are still standing, though. Hundreds of thousands of people live there now, among an extraordinary number of non-indigenous eucalyptus trees, planted to absorb the soil’s excessive moisture. One of Italy’s tallest skyscrapers, the Torre Pontina, was erected in Latina in 2007. Residents go about their daily lives, travel to and from work, pick up the children, drop them at their grandparents’, and forget how this place came to be built.
They forget that where they stand was once water; they forget about the deadly swamps. But the soil remembers and the stones of some of the buildings, too. Metal surfaces are acutely susceptible to red rashes. The canals and dikes require constant attention. And in the centre of the town, the pale clocktower ticks, marking time until the waters return, and their war ends, properly this time.
Il Duce did not eradicate malaria, either. (I dog-ear this page at the top and bottom and run a thick wavy pencil-line the length of the text.) It took the Marshall Plan and vast quantities of American DDT before the World Health Organization could declare the country free of the Anopheles mosquito and, so, of the disease, in 1970. The ecosystem was devastated for decades.
The spectre of malaria won’t be dispelled so easily, though. I read about a case a few years ago, when a four-year-old girl died in a hospital in Lombardy. Some worried that the death signaled the return of an old problem. The girl had not been abroad, only to the Venetian coast for a brief holiday. The infection’s provenance was a mystery. Some Italians thought they knew how this had happened: African migrants, coming off boats, had brought malaria with them and passed it on to the child.
The day after the death, the conservative daily Il Tempo ran the frontpage headline: Ecco la malaria degli immigrati. “Here is the malaria of immigrants.” In fact, while it’s true that two children from Burkina Faso were being treated for malaria on the same ward, it was human error—the re-use of an infected needle—that was responsible for transmission. But that’s a detail, a different story even, and not everyone is interested in hearing it.
Header image via Il Laboratorio di Malariologia.
Excerpt adapted from Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi. Available now in the UK and on May 2, 2023 in the US via Fitzcarraldo Editions.