Somewhere, far away, there lives a friend of mine.
An English speaker, so I reply in English.
My friend is one of those people who see things very differently from me, and probably, and precisely because of this, can help to see better.
This dialogue began as a discussion about demonstrations in one of the most unlovely parts of Rome against a group of refugees from various countries that the town administration had decided to dump there.
My friend, who has a healthy instinct for fighting against what he perceives to be the trend of our times, saw something positive in these demonstrations, adding comments against immigration into Italy by people from other countries, and something about an entity called the “White Race”.
Here, we believe that every voice must be listened to, thought over and if necessary answered. And this is what came of my answer.
Let me start with Florence, though you started with the outskirts of Rome.
This is only because I know every street in my district, and feel a lot more at home among these stones than among the crumbling high rise buildings that real estate speculators and mafiosi built in Rome in the Fifties and Sixties.
Buildings which slowly replaced the baracche, the tin-and-wood shelters where a picturesque humanity of labourers, prostitutes, petty thieves and others – from southern and central Italy – used to terrify the middle class of the centre of Rome: young coatti from the periferie used to come in from their other world every now and then and get fun out of punching well-dressed youths (special marks if they could strip off their fashion design jackets or boots).
I am curious about the expression you used – the White Race.
I know that in the USA this is something many people believe in, but it sounds truly out of place in Italy, where physical appearance never determined people’s fate (money mattered a lot more); and nineteenth-century positivist ideas about physical heredity are certainly not part of the Italian tradition, even though Cesare Lombroso was Italian.
Now, you suggest that Florence should find its gene pool and go back to the White Race.
Let me tell you a few stories.
Florence has always been split in two by the Arno river, which is full and powerful and noisy and brown these days, one could spend hours just listening to its roar, feeling the water spray in one’s face and watching the sea gulls.
On the northern bank, very basically, the rich and powerful, on the southern bank, the poor.
Which is why in Roman times, the northern bank stayed pagan almost until the end, while the southern bank, our Oltrarno, largely inhabited by Syrian immigrants as the excavations in Santa Felicita have shown, was the area of the people kept “out of the walls” and of the first Christians.
The first saint of Florence, Miniato, who – the legend says – after having been decapitated, proudly picked up his own head and took it to the top of the hill overlooking the Arno, is supposed to have been an Armenian prince. Or maybe he wasn’t, but the Florentines would have liked it that way.
The part of the Oltrarno I live in is the parish of San Frediano – dedicated to an Irish saint – but clusters around the Carmelite church and convent, established in 1267 to host the order recently reorganised by the Englishman, Simon Stock.
It is worth mentioning that in the Carmelite archive, there is a sixteenth-century document which is supposedly the transcript of a document of May 1st, 743, signed by the notary Rainerio di Simone, stating that the area was given to seven Carmelite friars fleeing from persecution by “King Omar of Arabia”. Though the document was obviously false, it shows how times have changed: refugees from the East brought legitimacy rather than fear.
Florentines have always been an ethnic mixture, and not only because of all the British (once one quarter of the population), Russians and Germans who settled there in the nineteenth century.
As one of the richest cities of Western Europe during the Renaissance, it drew immigrants from all over Europe, together with a large numbers of slaves.
Florentines at first bought their slaves from the Venetians and Genoese, but later procurement was done directly by the Tuscan Order of the Knights of Saint Stephen: the records of this order of pirates tell of the capture and sale of about 14.000 “Turks” between 1543 and 1642.
Slaves were mainly “Tatars”, Greeks, “Blacks”, Russians, Turks, “Saracens” from North Africa and people from the Caucasus.
A pretty female slave, in the 1370s, cost up to 70 florins; as soon as they bore children to their owners, the offspring would be sent to Florence’s numerous orphanages, giving rise to probably the most common Florentine surname, Degli Innocenti. Though it should be said that the son that Cosimo de’ Medici had with a Circassian slave proudly bore his father’s name.
The Archiepiscopal records of Florence contain a long list of “Turk”, “Moor” and “Negro” slaves who asked for baptism between 1599 and 1724 in the baptistry where every person born in the city, on Saint John’s day, was admitted into the community of the Florentine people.
As late as the seventeenth century, about twenty percent of the population of Livorno, the port of Florence where the largest slave market in Tuscany was held, was made up of North African slaves, who by the way had a right to their own mosque, the first in Italy. And Livorno was the only port in Italy where Muslim galley slaves were allowed to sleep on land and not chained to their oars.
Grand Duke Cosimo II also gave special privileges to any (free) foreigner willing to settle in Livorno, a reason why there is still a large Armenian colony there.
And today there is a large and deeply religious Georgian colony, which celebrates its four-hour-long Mass every Sunday in the church of Santa Elisabetta delle Convertite, a short walk from my home (the “Convertite”, of course, were former prostitutes).
Now all of this fits smoothly into the physical setting of our part of the city: changing family names, changing appearance of people, is something of small import as long as the streets continue to be narrow and the paving stones disjointed; as long as every time you go out of your house, you can greet people and chat with them; as long as there is respect for what all the past generations did here, whether blood ancestors or not; as long as people are still poor enough to smile and joke.
Obsession with blood and titles is a characteristic of those who have neither: think of the fantastic array of pseudo-Orders of Malta which make a living turning mechanics into knights.
What does matter is where the blood flows, which is into our children: a community arises much more around the healthy need to have our children live well, than on fixation about the past.
Because the past, for somebody who loves history like I do, is an extraordinary resource, and in a place like Oltrarno, you feel it in everything. But at the same time, the terrible thing about it is, you cannot change anything about it: whatever you do, the horrible things the Turks/the Greeks/the Germans/the Ancient Romans/the Jews/the Russians/the Muslims/the Shiites/the Christians (etc. etc.) did to somebody fifty, a hundred or a thousand years ago, will never change.
Ghosts, they say, keep repeating the same things, cursing the same hands, without any chance any more of changing the bloody spots… and they instill their obsessions into the heads of the living.
Touch each stone, think how old the tree is, think of the procession of incredible geniuses and artists that used to walk these streets, but never let the past eat you alive: this is what tradition, in the best sense, may mean.
Rather, think about what you can do, how to keep and transmit living beauty, never let your enemies, real or imaginary, eat up your brief life…
Living in these streets means that there is a true feeling of community, a kind of economy which arises from sharing all kinds of little things (“sorry, could you pick up my child at school tomorrow, because I’ll be late – Oh, I have good olive oil to share, come over and I’ll give you some!“), interest in what the old people say, because they speak to us about our places and our lives, and an eye which can see and think over each thing that happens to our world.
This means that Anastasia, who is a Rom from Romania with a pretty Indian face, not only cleans houses during the day, and works as a cook in the evening in the restaurant, but lives in a small flat with lovely wooden beams centuries old, where the children of her daughter’s class come together – the other day they were all intensely studying Ancient Greek history.
What can destroy this?
There are many converging elements, but I’ll speak of one.
There is a lady who used to have a bakery downstairs.
Though she inherited it from her parents, she never bought it, just rented it. She is a many-generation Oltrarnina, who has the same rough friendliness towards all the people “like” her that drop in, whether they be Florentines too, or Neapolitans or Senegalese or American.
The other day, I found her bakery had been closed down. I tracked her down to ask.
She replied, “my landlady said I had to pay 5,000 euros a month rent or get out”.
Now, who can pay 5,000 euros a month rent, for a shop? The only people who can do it are the mafia, who can easily invest that amount, but want to get at least ten thousand euros a month out of it. And there is only one way to do that: sell hard liquor to young people, put on blaring music and keep the place open all night.
Who are the young people? Mostly Americans, belonging to the White Race (it doesn’t matter to me, but it appears to matter to some people), because they come from families rich enough to send them over to drink for a year at one of the 43 American universities which have branches here in Florence.
When residents find tall blonde girls shrieking, vomiting or making love at three in the morning outside their windows, they tend to move away.
And the community life which had held on for two thousand years begins to break up.
Yet, a part of the community life are Americans too, people who appreciate the district, want to learn something of the life, love the art. A lot of them are tall, blonde and fine people: the violent and destructive flow of capital cares little about people’s appearance.
Every community has to face some Ceauşescus, as did Romania’s villages.
Ceauşescus come in many varieties: some tell you that Industrial Progress under the State is the answer to everything and send the bulldozers in to save you from reactionary superstitions.
Some tell you that the Free Market and Capital will solve every problem you have, and if you lose your house and job, who cares, all this global planet is the same, just move along, move along, and if your mind isn’t where the market trend is fluttering, you deserve to sink into the mud.
And some come and tell you that you have to rip out part of yourselves, part of your living body of people, to satisfy some abstraction they call race.
But one must never give one’s lives to these Ceauşescus, even by thinking too much about them. The worst thing your enemy can do to you is pervert your mind, by making you thingk about him.
Growing once again on this sliced trunk, in the garden they stole from us, looking at the hidden back of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Carmine, where the Renaissance began…