I’ve never been to Italy, but I’ve been hearing crazy things about the place my whole life. Even as a kid I knew the country was an American ally and NATO member but at the same time I kept hearing the Italian Communist Party was huge. Every so often on the evening there’d be stories about terrorist bombings or groups like the Red Brigades or various Mafia factions running around murdering, kidnapping, and causing mayhem. In later years blood-soaked violence faded from the headlines only to be replaced by the sordid details surrounding Amanda Knox’s trial, subsequent imprisonment and release and the corrupt, despotic, larger than life reign of Silvio Berlusconi. Taking all this into account, as well as the nation’s natural beauty and climate, thousands of years of impressive history, world-class food, wine and fashion and beautiful works of art and to me you have a country that’s as beautiful as it’s broken.
This belief of mine, whether it’s grounded in reality or not has inspired me to read about Italy. Back in 2013 it was Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s 2008 best seller The Monster of Florence. In 2015 it was 2005’s The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. I enjoyed both books and neither of them did anything to change my views of Italy. Always eager to yet another book about Italy, imagine how happy I was one Saturday morning at the public library when I came across a copy of Tobias Jones’s 2003 book The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country. With a subtitle like that, how could I go wrong?
Jones, a Brit, moved to the Italian city of Parma to teach English at the local university. (One of my favorite stories from his teaching days is the one about three different female students decided to give speeches on the importance of fine Italian lingerie. Let’s just say all the young men in the class, who had all been sleeping suddenly woke up.) He spent four years traveling around the country trying to learn and understand as much as possible about his new home. Jones weighs in on Italy’s second religion, soccer and the widespread belief certain referees favor certain teams. He also looks at the deep scars stemming from the Years of Lead, a period of far left and far right perpetrated violence lasting from the late 60s into the 80s. As expected he discusses the country’s suffocating bureaucracy as well infamous corruption. Jones also spends time discussing Silvio Berlusconi. Thanks to his media ownership, populism, shady business practices and authoritarian methods Italy’s leader comes off as one part Benito Mussolini, one part Vladimir Putin and one part Donald Trump.
In retrospect The Dark Heart of Italy feels like one of those books that didn’t blow me away when I read it but after time grows on me. Let’s just say if you’re planning on visiting Italy, I’d grab a copy of this book to read on the flight over. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.