The run-off round of municipal elections in Italy last Sunday and Monday brought welcome news to inhabitants of some major cities. In Milan, Giuliano Pisapia, the candidate originally from outside Italy’s opposition “center-left” Democratic Party (PD)–although supported by the PD?wound up beating the incumbent mayor, Letizia Moratti, whose administration since 2006 had been marked by its coziness with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition, by its seeming inability to rebut anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment in what is becoming a melting-pot city, and by its apparent reluctance to mount an aggressive campaign against corruption in city administration. Just as importantly, in Naples, Luigi De Magistris, a former crusading judge against the Mafia, handily beat Gianni Lettieri, a Berlusconi-party figure assessed by the courageous journalist and writer Roberto Saviano as an old-style political boss. After first-round victories in Bologna and Turin, the runoff elections also brought center-left blocs to victory in the smaller cities of Cagliari, Trieste, and Mantua.
Most major media have reported on these votes as repudiations of Berlusconi, who certainly identified his cause with that of Moratti in Milan. While the head of Italy’s state radio/TV (RAI) in the 1990s, the outgoing mayor worked mightily to favor Berlusconi’s media empire at the expense of the RAI’s independence; as education minister under the second Berlusconi government (2003), she attempted to impose a “discipline-oriented” and anti-diversity school reform package later jettisoned by the Prodi administration in 2007.
Yet what is not so evident outside Italy is how the major candidates victorious in these runoffs?Pisapia, De Magistris, and Massimo Zedda in Cagliari?all are associated with social movements or political circles more radically opposed to Berlusconi than has too often been the case with the PD’s vacillating policy.
Pisapia’s original base of support in Milan, founded on his years as a lawyer and professor dedicated to reforming Italy’s complex and unfair penal code and treatment of prisoners, was in the two major formations to the left of the PD, Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Liberty movement and the Federation of the Left (the Communist Refoundation Party and the Party of Italian Communists).
In a bold move, Pisapia entered the PD’s primary as an underdog and was given no chance on the grounds that his campaign was too “radical” to beat the right, but then actually won out over the official PD candidate. His victory in the general election was due to the widespread perception of voters that he is a reasonable, serious figure whose candidacy was not a product of the PD’s nomenklatura, and whose campaign addressed the city’s real problems: how to integrate immigrants, redress youth unemployment, maintain social services for the elderly, and create ecologically viable transport and neighborhoods while keeping the city affordable for working-class people. In the runoff, Pisapia won not only the traditionally “popular” neighborhoods of Niguarda, the Isola, or Porta Ticinese, but even the well-heeled centro storico, Milan’s historical core. While directly challenging the racist cries of doom in the event of his victory (“Milan a new Stalingrad”, “Gypsy-opolis”, or “The largest mosque in Europe”, the last an implicit challenge to Milan’s civic pride in its Gothic cathedral) which had been launched by the outgoing mayor’s camp and its social base, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League party, Pisapia’s campaign largely ignored the personal mudslinging against him carried out by an increasingly desperate Moratti.
While the campaigns were going on, the soundtrack for Pisapia’s movement, and some of the most hilarious critiques of Berlusconism, were to be heard in the brilliant musical commentaries, on the Web and live, by the anonymous video parodist known as “La Sora Cesira” (a reference to the stereotype of the tough, older working-class Roman woman), and by the “demented rock” band “Elio e le Storie Tese” (“Elio and the Strained Tales”). Sora Cesira (lasoracesira.blogspot.com) provided witty retextings of American and European pop songs, in a dizzying mix of standard Italian, Lombard dialect, and English, that skewered Berlusconi’s corruption and exploitation of young women. The full effect of these parodies is best perceived by listeners aware both of the original song texts, often in English, and of their references to the baroque complexity of Italian governmental nepotism and insider politics. In full accord with the sometimes surreal, musically eclectic, and highly poetic style of their inspiration Frank Zappa, Elio (aka Stefano Belisari) and his band (elioelestorietese.it), together with their frequent TV host Serena Dandini, offered witty new songs and parodies both in direct support of Pisapia and with pointed barbs against Berlusconi, Bossi, and Moratti.
The elections also expressed, besides citizens’ wish for better and less corrupt administrations, the sense that cities had lost their leading place in cultural innovation and their position as “moral capitals” of the country. This feeling is particularly pronounced in Milan, a city run efficiently in the immediate post-World-War-II period by a series of Socialist Party mayors, although without perhaps quite the international reputation for clean, innovative, and pro-working-class urban administration that a series of historic Communist Party mayors?Giuseppe Dozza (1945-66) or Renato Zangheri (1970-83), to name just two?brought to Bologna. In the heady years after the war, Milan consolidated its reputation as both the city of dreams for rural youth coming to escape poverty and isolation (as in Vittorio De Sica’s 1951 movie that provides the title of this article), and as Italy’s cutting-edge artistic laboratory, with individuals and institutions like Giorgio Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro, the La Scala opera house, the satirical theater of Milan’s Nobel laureate Dario Fo, the “popular” but also melancholy dialect poetry of Franco Loi, or the innovations in design and architecture on display at the Triennale exhibitions.
With the rise of corruption in the phony boom of the 1980s, epitomized by the “Bribe-opolis” scandals centered in the Socialist city administration, that civic sense of Milan’s special place in the national imagination began to disappear (this is well analyzed in John Foot’s 2001 book Milan since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity). Thus the sense of a real left opposition to the rise of Berlusconi and Bossi in the Milan of the 80s and 90s became deeply compromised.
Indeed, as Miguel Mora?the Rome correspondent of El Pa?s and one of the most astute foreign observers of Italy today?has pointed out, the most consistent and passionate resistance to corruption and ethnic fear-mongering in the city has been embodied in the two?personally very different but morally equally uncompromising?archbishops of Milan, Cardinals Carlo Maria Martini (1980-2002) and Dionigi Tettamanzi (2002-). At a time of the Northern League’s rise, the Jesuit Biblical scholar Martini spoke up repeatedly for a peace policy abroad and for tolerance, religious and ethnic, at home, while Tettamanzi has used his down-to-earth persona?he is known to lapse into Milanese dialect, traditionally a working-class parlance, to make his points?to argue for his vision of the city as a welcoming place for dialogue and integration between new immigrants, with all their religious and ethnic diversity, and longer-term Milanese (some of whom themselves are descended from domestic immigrants from southern Italy earlier in the 20th century).
When I spoke to Milanese friends on their cell phones celebrating at the victory rally in Piazza Duomo on Monday evening, I was struck by their unanimous conviction that only a candidate like Pisapia presenting a real left alternative could have beaten Berlusconi and Moratti (or, as the slogan of the Catalan Greens/United-Alternative Left in last year’s regional elections in Catalonia put it, “The crisis can only be overcome from the left”).
One of the signs in the square read “Milan and Naples liberated”?a clear reference to the April 25, 1945 liberation of Italy from the Nazis and Mussolini’s Republic of Sal?, celebrated every year in Piazza Duomo, but also a rejection of Bossi’s spurious anti-south, pro-“Lombard” rhetoric. I have been going to Milan for more than twenty years and, like my friends there, have never seen in that time an administration committed to social integration and the needs of the city’s most vulnerable. As Il manifesto put it, “The Left goes to town”. But now the hard work?that of implementing progressive urban policies at a time when international financial institutions attempt to impose austerity on working people in southern Europe as a whole?has only just begun.
Robert L. Kendrick has written two books on music in Baroque Milan. He teaches music history and ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org