So, though unlisted in atlas or phone-book,
Her Garden is easy to find. In no time
one reaches the gate over which is written

Auden, Circe


The Italian Cosmos of History, on whose horizon Italy’s star as a national entity only appeared late, has for hundreds of years been turning on the hinge of la famiglia.

The numerous small kingdoms which existed all along were dominated by a few powerful families who stuck together for centuries and fought with other leading families, each with their own little territory. The result was a precarious existence, of course also and especially so for the less rich and the less powerful. For them, however, the famiglia also played a decisive, yet altogether different role – as a mainstay, the only source of security in risky times.

This has resulted in a very real, that is practical paradox – the Italian double bind. In this country the extended family – in some narrower sense its nuclear version – not only functioned as a bulwark against an always lurking social disorder, this same institution is also the main cause of that disarray.

According to Luigi Barzini – having worked in New York, an Italian insider/outsider par excellence – Italians and American Jews are rather similar. Both live in the Diaspora and in their Famiglia. They not only share a practical, illusion-free Weltanschauung, but also that ability to make fun of their own life and of their own oddities. The shared Witz, so to say.

Recently a second paradox was added. A dominant family life requires the vast production of children, for centuries really large families were the norm. Within a decade, however, Italy – along with Spain – suddenly underwent a metamorphosis and became the European country with the least number of children per woman. A complex web of factors is involved: Decrease of the influence of the Roman Church, hence the increasing use of the pill, mass participation of women in the labour market, though this relatively late, and now the possibilities of legal separation.

Couples, already actually separated for decades, could finally put the legal stamp on their affairs. Certainly, all this did not contribute to peace between the sexes. The result is a change from virulent machismo to an equally extreme version of feminism. Thus, women of the forty-years-and-younger generation have literally distanced themselves from Man, in the same movement losing lots of their precious and famous femininity.

When I left The Netherlands to live in Rome for half a year, there were thirty years between this and my last visit to the Eternal City. What I remembered of the town was surely the ‘young Italian woman’ – much more elegant, so much better dressed and considerably more flirtatious than her northern Sisters. I also remembered cars along sandy coastal paths leading to the beach, bouncing up and down, completely blinded by newspapers – a sign of both a churchy puritanism and the expression of a people’s will to take this into account as well as fuck around.

Now, parading soldierly, trousered and booted young women audibly march the streets of Rome. Like their New York counterparts, they don’t look a man in the eyes. Their social behaviour is also reminiscent of North American women – often solitary, focusing on employment, only flirting in ‘safe environments’, addicted to consumerism which not only fills their shelves, but also their beds – now and then.

Despite, perhaps even thanks to this revolution, the Italian famiglia and La Mamma still seem to form the hub of everyday life. The picture that Fellini managed to contrive in Amarcord is well-nigh timeless. Statistical research shows that nowhere in the world do so many young people for so long live ‘in’ with mom and dad, thus connecting to la famiglia – often till after the age of thirty, either out of sheer laziness, loneliness and/or financial reasons, but certainly also because it is there.

An absurd case I was allowed to witness from very close up.

An Roman acquaintance of mine, the mother of two sons of twenty and eighteen years, lives alone with her children. They occupy the two top layers of a building which in its entirety is the property of Daddy. This husband lives elsewhere. Like his wife, when young, he began his politically conscious life as an Italian Communist – rather a different cup of tea, this I know, than being for instance a Communist in the Netherlands or in Germany.

The family also owns two hotels. She studied psychiatry, he became an engineer. He originates from Sicily, which later made me think. She is originally a Mama Roma. Not all too long ago, the husband instructed his wife to give up both her university job and her practice as a therapist. Dad had enough of it, someone was needed to manage their two hotels personally.

She simply gave in…

Dad withdraws from the city and starts living on a large property, also owned by the family. There he acts the liberal, communist landowner – a true friend of his workers. Every now and then he visits Rome; he no longer lives at home and is continually criticizing his wife’s management of the hotels.

Italian employment laws were so screwed up, that an employee once appointed is sort of fixed in his job for life. Even if he performs no function, does not work well, insults his chef or even steals a bit now and then – to get rid of him or her is a huge problem.

The former communist wife understands that their hotels can only survive if a few changes are made – her employees do not agree and sabotage her plans. She goes to court and, very unexpectedly, wins her case. Which does not mean that she is finally rid of some of her hotel staff, because now Dad comes to town and reads her some serious Class Law. All by himself he reverses the decision of the court and tells his wife: “A communist does not treat his workers like you did!”

At her home are two sons living in, one with a costly education at the American School in Rome, the oldest one with his studies at the Management School at the University of Pasadena USA almost completed. The youngest son will soon go to study in Scotland. They lack nothing. Their Filippina – the Roman term for all foreign women who are hired to care for children, elderly people or entire families – acts as their second Mom.

Whenever I accompany my Woman of Rome in her car, a huge Land Rover, away during a trip or bringing me home, one of the sons is always summoning her via the mobile phone to take home some food and drinks for her boys. Often I have a bottle of champagne sitting in my lap. The hours during which the two young men want their meals are dictated to her and their Filippina. All this without reply.

At the very end of my stay in the Eternal City I am forced to witness the depth/height of postmodern, Italian family life. The second floor, a penthouse on top of their building, has become vacant because another family member has pulled out. With a view to the definitive return from America of Son number One, his mother – after some harassment – gives him this huge apartment. From now on he will have the best and most beautiful view of the surrounding woods and of St. Peter’s Cathedral.

After my friend and I have visited a splendid Borromini church and drank a glass of wine, I am invited to come and eat with her and the sons. On her ‘patio’, in her case surrounding the complete floor, we find a huge pile of garden soil. The son has thrown this mess over the railing of the top floor, along with some thirty huge flower and tree pots, all shattered now. Mom is asked to instruct the Filippina to clean up…

Did I feel bad! Yet, what to say or do… ‘Sicily’ came to mind.

Mama merely grumbles, then she goes to her bedroom to wash her face, immediately coming out again and screaming: ‘Where has my bed gone?’ Her grand lits-jumeaux has been moved out by her son’s friends and hauled up to the top floor, for him to sleep in. ‘So, where am I going to sleep?’ ‘On the bench, he answers,- you can buy a new bed tomorrow…!’

Once again, all this is taken for granted, although with some grumbling. Then the four us sit down for an extensive, gorgeous and even cheerful dinner – everything cooked and served by the Filippina. As if nothing has happened, which it does not seem to have happened for these three. Obviously, then, this is how things get done over here, in Italy.

In all this I cannot see but the signs of an over-extended communism. Like Dad like son.

The last time before my return to the Netherlands she collects me at the porch of the Dutch Institute which is situated on the edge of, yet inside the magnificent Villa Borghese, on the seat beside her, my seat, lays an American football – or so I thought. It turns out to be an enormous, lovely egg which, like the champagne bottles before, has to sit in my lap. ‘A gift from my husband’ she says, ‘- from his ostrich farm outside Rome’.


Sierksma – Rome, 2004


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open, where various pieces are published.

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