SOMETHING IS KILLING THE GREAT ITALIANS

And I know what it is.

By Bill Tonelli

This is one of the lesser miracles of the digital age, I realize, but I just figured out that you can watch Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, in its entirety and without commercial interruption, on YouTube while running on a wi-fi-enabled treadmill. There you are, panting and sweating alongside everybody else at your gym, except they’re staring grimly at “Fox & Friends” or “Morning Joe” or at the readout telling them how many METS (whatever they are) they’ve incinerated in the past 10 minutes (not enough). Meanwhile, you’re far away and in black and white with Marcello Mastroianni, falling under the spell of Anita Ekberg in the fountain, or speeding down the Via Veneto in a convertible roadster, or at a decadent Roman nightspot in a tuxedo, smoking a cigarette, with the mildest, most nonchalant facial expression imaginable, a demigod of postwar Italian cool, a possibility of how you, also a human male, might look and move and seem, if only…

Even while witnessing so much beauty, a troubling question arises: Whatever happened to the great Italians?

I don’t mean Michelangelo or Leonardo or Galileo or Verdi or Enrico Fermi or Bruce Springsteen (half). I mean the great Italians who were global role models of masculine excellence, the ones who merely by their presence on the planet showed us what was possible (even if not in every case plausible). There used to be such figures — not many, but enough.

Now we have exactly none.

The fact that casanova is still a widely understood term is kind of miraculous — Giacomo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1789, and, without the benefit of mass media, social media, or really any media beyond the multi-volume memoir he wrote by hand late in life, he became a great Italian. At our particular moment in sexual relations he might not be remembered so fondly, or with such a forgiving eye: He was relentless in this arena, probably a rapist by contemporary standards, at the very least not such a nice boyfriend. That of course is the basis of his fame, but he found time and energy for a lot more — in addition to being a compulsive seducer he was also a revolutionary, a spy, a professional gambler, a soldier, a priest (temporarily), a jailbird (and then a famous escapee, from the Leads prison in Venice), and a duelist. In his memoir, he seemed to be constantly acquiring fine linens and other stylish raiment with which to adorn his amazingness. Really, if half of what he wrote was true, nobody since has come close. But at least some try.

Rudolph Valentino, the silent film star, was the original Latin lover and a slightly odd great Italian: Women adored him, but some men of the era thought him too effeminate to emulate (although plenty of guys wore their hair greased back as he did — they were known as “vaselinos”). The evidence of his greatness really came to light in August, 1926, when, at age 31, he died of a perforated duodenal ulcer (since named Valentino’s Syndrome). During his viewing, at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, more than 30,000 mourners showed up to get a two-second glimpse of the coffin. A riot broke out and more than 100 were hurt, among them police officers who were pushed through a plate-glass window by the crush. According to the account that appeared in The New York Times the next day:

In the judgement of police on the scene, the rioting was without precedence in New York, both in the numbers concerned and in the behavior of the crowd, which, in large part, consisted of women and girls. Many of these suffered discomfort and rough handling for hours for whatever satisfaction it gave them to be hustled by the dead screen star’s coffin and to gaze for an instant on his drawn, white face.

Time after time during the afternoon a dozen mounted policemen were forced to charge into the crowd, while women shrieked and yelled in terror and tried to scramble away from the horses’ hoofs [sic]. Feet were trod on, clothes were torn, shoes even were wrenched from their owners…

The mourners only went home at midnight, when Campbell closed its doors. Meanwhile, female fans around the world reportedly committed suicide upon hearing of Valentino’s death. That’s how any man worth his Y chromosome wants to be remembered. That’s Italian greatness.

Gianni Agnelli was a larger than life great Italian for the modern age — a rich industrialist, the power behind Fiat and Italy’s postwar economic boom, a billionaire who still found time and energy to earn the nickname, “the rake of the Riviera.” He was a sportsman (skiing, sailing, owner of the Juventus soccer team); a yachtsman (he liked to copter out to his boat and then drop naked into the sea for a swim); a driver of fast cars (nearly killed when his Ferrari crashed into the rear of a meat truck while going 125 miles an hour); a lover (of Anita Ekberg of the fountain, Jacqueline Kennedy, Pamela Harriman); and a fighter (wounded during the war when he was shot by a German soldier — in a bar fight reportedly, over a woman).

That’s a great Italian. Maybe the last one.

Recently, there seemed to be hope for Agnelli’s grandson, Lapo Elkann, who is probably the best-dressed man currently on the planet, an Italian dandy in finery of spectacular colors and patterns worn like a true heir to his grandfather’s rakish legacy. Even in his personal life, Lapo has been a man of great individuality and exuberance, if police reports can be believed. But even with all he has going for him, he has not yet managed to punch through the clutter and establish himself as a massively famous international household name-quality great Italian.

It’s possible no one could, or ever will again. As Robert Armstrong, the Financial Times columnist, recently pointed out, the world is suddenly short of any icons of male style, in the way that men such as Steve McQueen or Cary Grant once strode the Earth. This may have more to do with masculinity’s current struggles and anxieties than anything else, which show no sign of going away. And maybe this is what’s to blame for the shortage of celebrated Italian male greatness. For when manhood itself suffers — one could argue — Italians suffer most.

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Bill Tonelli is editor of The Italian American Reader (William Morrow, 2003).