Valerio Massimo Manfredi, author of the best-selling Alexander trilogy Featured

A personal view of Italian culture and style, strengths and weaknesses.

by 30 June 2009

“My love of Italy is deep and sincere, I even love the shape of my country, so unusual, in the form of a boot. This is how Valerio Massimo Manfredi, famous archaeologist and writer – from his pen flowed the Alexander trilogy, published in 55 countries and a hefty six million copies sold – expresses his feelings for this controversial land, a land that Italians both love and hate, probably in equal measure and, sometimes, also for the same reasons.

Professor Manfredi, why don’t you tell us about “your” Italy?
Italy’s heritage is unique in the world, a tradition that dates back a thousand years. Italy is infused with a beauty that is difficult to behold in other countries. Here, even a simple factory worker has innate and natural taste, thanks to the air of beauty breathed since birth. If someone wants to live to the max, they must live Italianstyle: living, dressing and eating as the Italians do. Fashion, luxury craftsmanship, cars, design… these days the great Made in Italy is our ambassador to the world, a job it does excellently.

What, then, clouds our “love for fatherland”?
Our country’s system of government is now inadequate: overly fragmented, inefficient, expensive, leading frequently to paralysis instead of solutions. Despite that, if we dig into Italy’s deeper layers, there are some honest men and women with solid values, and it is these whom we must call on urgently to guide the change.

What kind of future do you envision for our “Bel Paese”?
Italy will pull through, I’m sure. If we’ve lasted 3000 years we can last forever. Our country has made an essential contribution to all fields of knowledge and imagination throughout history – from antiquity to the medieval to the Renaissance and, ultimately, the technological age.

Who are the great Italian figures of the present day?
There are many, but often, sadly, I only meet them in the prestigious foreign research institutes. I’m thinking of people like Carlo Rubbia, the winner of the Nobel prize for physics in 1984, an absolute genius. Rubbia designed a solar power system that could almost wipe out the need to buy foreign energy and the ensuing debt. He built a prototype in Sicily that never came on stream, buried in a maze of bureaucracy. Rubbia now works for the Spanish. Likewise, Mario Capecchi, co-winner of the Nobel prize in 2007 for his studies on molecular genetics. A man who suffered a terrible childhood, his mother deported to Dachau and a foster family who abandoned him. Also rejected by his father, he was forced to take to the streets with other kids. In 1945, after catching typhoid fever, he was admitted to hospital in Reggio Emilia where he was reunited with his mother, who had been released from Dachau. He then embarked on the path that has made him what he is today. These people are Italians and there are many others like them, very many.

What are our ‘national defects’?
Our scepticism, conformism and corruption, the roots of this latter stemming from our ancient poverty: it is easier to be honest when you lack nothing. A pathological need to be the centre of attention. The obsession with “appearing”, which performs a double act with a system where public television backs commercial television. There was a time when our public television aired masterpieces viewers glued to the screen. I still have memoriesof Odissea with Franco Rossi or Pinocchio with Luigi Comencini, a moving programme, where this child, Pinocchio, was 100% fruit of a land of “damned” and extraordinary Tuscans. I think of Roberto Benigni, who plays Dante with tears in his eyes. But to go back to this child-puppet, he is the Italian metaphor: Italians are everything, but also the opposite of everything. We are the most beautiful, the most ugly, the most elegant, the most vulgar. Great because greatness often accompanies the worst things.

What would you tell readers wanting to take the ideal “Italian tour”?
That they will find magnificence in every corner of Italy. For example, Umbria, the heart of Italy. Saint Francis couldn’t have been born anywhere but in that naïve and seductive land. Tuscany and Turin. Cross the Apennine mountains from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian sea, passing through one valley after another, one carpeted in white flowers, another in yellow blooms, and yet another with poppies. Drive along the country and the secondary roads so as not to miss discovering tiny villages and towns wrapped up in themselves like onion layers. Don’t miss the Veneto region, nor the Dolomites. You must also go to Sardinia, as well as to Campania, the home of Paestum, the 5th-century Greek city still encircled by its ancient walls. Make time for Sicily and its incredible stratification of different civilizations. Go to Emilia, where you will find the true Romans, the ancient Romans whose cities are all ringed by the Emilia road built 2200 years ago and still in good working order. There is an Italy of laurel and myrtle, of larch and fir trees, of palm trees, towers, rivers, lakes and volcanoes. And, while on this latter subject, don’t forget to visit Herculaneum and Pompei. I can still picture the dreadful scene under the arches of Herculaneum quay, to which the people had fled when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD . People who had died buried alive, mothers embracing children, children clasping their puppies. Italy, at the end of the day, is a country in which the past always reawakens, telling us to “remember!”. As well as “shame on you”. For your own good.

A last personal question: what is luxury in the lexicon of Valerio Massimo Manfredi?
Luxury is superfluous, but an elegant superfluous, subdued, discreet. A car should have bold but classic lines – possibly Italian – reflected also in the architecture of the engine. In a watch, the face should be appreciated more than the case, clothing should be sombre, harmonious and the beauty of the fabrics should be admired at no more than three meters away. Cologne should be perceived only when brushing cheeks. I have a weakness for the tuxedo, with an English cut but made in Italian fabric and satin worn with Made in Italy shirt, shoes and accessories.

Ten thousand Greek mercenaries return home after aiding Cyrus the Younger in his quest to seize the throne of Persia from his brother Artaxerxes. The story is narrated in this book from a female view, by the beautiful Syrian Abira.