Beppe Severgnini on the pandemic and rediscovering his values.
The sun was setting over Mantua, and the first day of Festivaletteratura was drawing to a close when Beppe Severgnini stepped onto his podium in front of the city’s Carlo Poma hospital, wearing a yellow shirt and carrying his latest book. Cello accompaniment by jazz musician Marco Remondini helped set the scene. For Severgnini, who has published books explaining the English to Italians and the Italians to themselves, today’s crowd was a little different from usual. Doctors, nurses, patients and police officers had assembled, socially distanced, surrounded by the electric blue of the Festival volunteers and banners.
The author had already tweeted the topic: 50 reasons to be Italian.
Severgnini does not consider himself a moralist, but he does like to make lists. And his latest list identifies 50 attributes of today’s “neo-Italians”: people who live in uncertain times, characterised by change and navigated with complexity.
After a brief introduction, the author dived straight into reason number 7: “we find unlikely heroes”. One of Severgnini’s personal heroes is Luca Nicolini, bookseller and one of the founders of Festivaletteratura. He recalled his late friend with sadness, joking that Luca would have been irritated to witness his emotional ramblings. Behind their masks, the crowd smiled.
Spirits needed to be raised, and Remondini’s cello music did the job, upping the tempo for the other 49 reasons, the good, the bad and the beautiful of the neo-Italians. Severgnini praised the heroism of key workers during the pandemic. “We now know how to choose between a nurse and an influencer,” he said, to enthusiastic applause.
On reason number 14: “we can say a lot with a few words, and viceversa”, he pointed out that there are eighteen different monosyllables which can be used to finish an argument in Italian. And on the subject of Italian cooking, the writer’s insistence that tortelli from Cremona are better than those from Mantua was greeted by more laughs and a bit of light-hearted heckling. Severgnini’s smile suggested that he had achieved his objectives.
Reason 35, “because the fields never get bored”, restored the peace, both regions being surrounded by rural lands. The author, who comes from a long line of farmers, talked about what the countryside means to him. He didn’t restrict himself to romantic imagery, reminiscing pungently about the smell of manure.
The final reason was accompanied by Bach on the cello. It was number 48: “now and again we fall down, but then we get back up again.”
We need more everyday heroism, Severgnini said. “Just like you,” he said to the scattered group in front of him, “I have been scarred by this period. We have all had to face up to certain truths, whether we like it or not. But our desire to gather, to spend time in the company of others remains unchanged.”