The modern state of Italy has had, of course, a very complicated relationship with the church, starting with the framing of its constitution. As we noted, the document states that the republic is founded on labor, but then goes on to say, whose sovereignty belongs to the people. That wording was a compromise between the two parties who signed the constitution, representing the Communists on the one side and the Catholics on the other. The very road that leads from the center of Rome to St. Peter’s Square is the Via della Conciliazione, a nod to the famous compromise of power between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. Make no mistake; until very recently, the Catholic Church was a formidable force to be reckoned with, for both the left and the right. The Vatican is literally a 15-minute walk from Parliament. Seminarians roam the streets in white collars, pilgrims flood into Assisi and Rome. Thousands of precious cathedrals and monuments at every turn give testimony to the 1,500 years that the Catholic Church ruled nearly every aspect of life on the peninsula. One would think that all this would have a profound influence on the spiritual lives of everyday citizens.
In reality, young Italians today are just not very religious. A good portion of them still marry in the church, even if that’s one of the only times they’ll go there in their adult lives, except for perhaps baptisms and the occasional Christmas concert. Even the local adoration of Pope John Paul II appeared to be a case of saluting the man, not the rank. All this is to say that church attendance is very low for the under-60 set. Walk into a church in Poland on a Sunday and you’ll be lucky to find standing room. Go to mass in Italy and you can choose just about any seat you like. Chairs are set up for a mass outside of the Vatican in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. This can be seen as good news for practicing Catholics planning to move to Italy. You will certainly feel welcome in church, and, besides, what a church it is! Your local parish might have been built in the 15th century, with Renaissance frescoes in the chapels and ceilings. For those who have never witnessed Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square”simply put, it is Super Bowl Sunday for even the moderately devout. Obviously, Italy offers a unique spiritual experience for Catholics. For non-Catholics, well, not so much, though there is a little religious diversity. Rome has a historic Protestant presence. There are synagogues here and there in the major cities: Rome and Venice are home to centuries-old Jewish neighborhoods. Muslim communities are rapidly growing in the northern cities, with Milan hosting a very busy mosque.
To be honest, I’ve never been to that mosque, but I can’t help but get the impression that Muslims don’t feel embraced by Italian society. That may be comically understated. It’s difficult to forget the 2003 rendition and subsequent torture of Milan’s Muslim leader, Abu Omar, by CIA agents, who accused him of inciting terrorism. Or the 2010 arrest by Italian police of Abu Imad, the leader of Milan’s largest mosque, on terrorism charges. In fact, it’s surprising that his mosque was still in operation in the first place as authorities had threatened to close it for years. Other mosques have been closed down already, and construction of new ones has been effectively blocked across the country. We hear similar stories around the continent, along with complaints that this social experiment of multiculturalism has gone too far. So, it’s not going to be easy to be a practicing Muslim anywhere in Western Europe in this day and age, and Italy is no different. The Arts Italians are crazy about cinema”movie theaters are just about the only place in the country where everyone shows up on time. The masters of the silver screen found an eager public that didn’t seem to exist for fiction writers, at least not in the same numbers, in linguistically divided Italy. Though the country has its share of literati, there never seemed to be the same popular passion for theater and literature as is in, say, France or Russia.
That said, there are some very well-known Italian authors. Much of the world has at least heard of the Renaissance authors Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and possibly have read works by Alessandro Manzoni, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Gabriele D’Anunzio, or Leonardo Sciascia, to name a handful. Contemporary Italian writers like Umberto Eco and Oriana Fallaci regularly make the New York Times best-seller lists. But the cultural treasures of Italy known far and wide are not its books, but its music, art, and architecture. Italians have contributed more to these fields than perhaps any other people throughout history.
The first hint of Italy’s influence on music is in the terminology: It’s all in Italian. From the musicians’ guilds of Rome to the composers of religious madrigals of the Middle Ages, and onward to the inventors of opera in the 17th century, Italians steered music’s evolution for centuries and gave name to their innovations. Indeed, one of the perks of living in places like Venice, Padua, Milan, Parma, Bologna, and Rome is the opportunity to hear the works of composers like Verdi, Rossini, and Vivaldi in the very cities that inspired the music”and perhaps even played on Stradivarius violins, still proudly crafted in Cremona.
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