• Peter Byrne

Picking up the Pieces, Teaching Italian Post-Berlusconi-Brexit-Covid

Ignazia Posadinu’s talk to the Berkeley Circle via Zoom was very much a matter of being given the bad news sweetly. Having studied, taught, and lived in the UK for more than thirty years her views were as far removed from the usual tourist chat as the distance between her native Sardinia and her present location teaching at the University of Essex. She began by taking us on what was her own trek through institutions. Her good fortune was to have arrived, with her Sassari B.A., at the University of Reading to prepare a Masters's Degree. Luigi Meneghello, a writer and resistance fighter, had inaugurated the study of Italian at Reading in 1948. It became a magnet for the diaspora of Italian intellectuals. The eminent linguist, Giulio Lepschy and his wife Anna Laura wound up their careers there. Posadinu taught in London at Kings College and the Royal Academy of Music before settling at the University of Essex.

At first sight, Essex U with its ‘Brutalist’ buildings—now national treasures—squatting among towers disconcerted Posadinu’s Italian eye. Nothing could be farther from the ivy-hung Gothic of Oxbridge. Worse,1990 saw the appearance of the popular caricature, Essex Man. His journalist inventor called him “breathtakingly rightwing, mildly brutish and culturally barren”. His mate was the Essex Girl, a dumb-blonde stereotype improved with silicone and several decibels of voice. Posadinu did not envisage a long stay. There were three students studying Italian. That was then and now there are a hundred studying the language and she is course director and in charge of an MA program of translating and interpreting.

To the nagging question of whether Italy or the UK appeals more to Italians who teach, she said there was a consensus. The UK was a better place to work. Although the salary was not always better, hierarchy weighed less, there was more flexibility and a teacher’s own ideas had a better chance of acceptance. However, day-to-day life was better in Italy, cheaper and sunnier, inside and out.

Posadinu’s remarks were fascinating about the status of Italy in British thinking during her years of residence. Glamour was the word for Italy in the 1990s, and not only in fashion, design, and football. At a distance Italy’s political instability even seemed exciting. The years of terrorism were dramatic and the mafia a prime source of subject matter for the entertainment industry. Dante had entranced T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Machiavelli seemed to interest British university researchers more than those of his native land. Writers like Lampedusa, Calvino, Pasolini and Sciascia were discussed at length. Umberto Eco intrigued readers by the variety of his perky output.

Italian films and Rome’s busy Cinecittà kept this interest on the boil. The latecomer directors of the so-called commedia all'italiana, such as Monicelli, Risi and Commencini, were less known than the classic figures in a direct line from postwar Neo-realism: Rosselini, De Sica Visconti, Pasolini, and Antonioni. The London public awaited a Fellini release like the next James Bond.

Alas, Posadinu had to tell us that at this point Italy’s own Essex Man reared his sleek head of a Twenties crooner. Silvio Berlusconi had broken through in the 1990s and held sway as the new century began. Unlike the British figure of fun, Berlusconi was all too real. His cultural deprivation was different too. The media tycoon was sentimental and clothed his vulgarity In a grotesque parody he took for style. The soft porn spectacles he imagined for his cronies produced only hilarity in a UK that, though suffering from tabloid blight, still recognised the ridiculous when they saw it. Their picture of Italy lost its shine.

Berlusconi’s boast of aiming his TV at ten-year-olds did more than hurt Italy’s prestige. It made British students of the language feel they had signed on to any easy course demanding no discipline and meant to be fun like a bunga-bunga soirée. Then a second blow fell on the teaching of European languages in the UK. Brexit curtailed demand, funds available, and the interchange with the countries concerned. It made for an exodus of teachers with foreign roots. The rise in tuition fees and living expenses further reduced the numbers learning languages.

Posadinu, not without charm, spelled out the bad news. The embarrassment of Berlusconi and a suicidal Brexit had reduced students of Italian by 40%. Italian was no longer fourth (behind Spanish, French, and German) in the choice of a language to study in the UK. Chinese replaced it though students rarely continued study beyond the elementary stage.

More woe had to be acknowledged with the coming of the pandemic. Posadinu admitted that working online could be useful and Zoom encounters productive, but they could not replace face-to-face teaching. Students lost focus and education itself retreated as a goal. She also noted that the Covid emergency had accelerated the tendency of students in the UK to be treated as irresponsible semi-invalids by the powers that be.

The novelist Elena Ferrante had been mentioned which brought to the mind of this listener the last triumph of Italian culture in the larger world. That began in 2012 when Europa Editions published an English language edition of L’amica geniale/My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan quartet. Other translations followed and were met with enthusiasm. Ferrante was soon being read widely in the world. Tourism picked up in Naples. Various media projects took off.

However, a downside was not far off and Ferrante’s Italian core would be discarded. A movie was made of her novel La figlia oscura/The Lost Daughter. The adaptation and direction were by the Hollywood actress and filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal. The main role went to the British actress Olivia Colman. Nina, the diffident, very young Neapolitan mother was played by the glamorous Hollywoodian Dakota Johnson who will not blow out thirty candles again. The Campagna beach of the novel became a Greek Island where the film’s publicity agent informs us Leonard Cohen had caroused in the 1960s. The novel’s Neapolitan clan was replaced by a loud-mouthed Italian-descended family from the borough of Queens, New York City.

Does all this matter? Absolutely. It drains La figlia oscura of substance and marks not an advance but a retreat of Italian culture before the soft power of imperial marketing and its need to simplify. The story is deeply embedded in a specific Italian context. The academic Lena has long since abandoned the ways and language of the Neapolitan world for those, quite different, of the other Italy. As every Italian knows, this involves more than a change of address. The novel is about Lena looking backward and inward with dramatic results.

All of Ignazia Posadinu’s news was not bad. She said there were promising bilateral projects in the offing between British and Italian universities. But the best news of all was that the Berkeley Circle now has its own special friend and correspondent behind the walls of Brexitland.



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