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Tackling an international problem, from an Italian perspective
Although the word is Italian in origin, the problem of graffiti exists throughout the world. The gravity of the problem, of course, varies widely. Graffiti on the beautiful buildings of Florence is more discordant than it is on buildings in an already degraded neighbourhood of the Bronx in New York. If it is a graver aesthetic assault here, then what are the prospects for taming this plague in Florence?
The easy answer is that Italians are not particularly law abiding, so the problem is insoluble. Consider, however, the success of the smoking ban in public places in Italy. Many doubted that it would be obeyed, but it has been. Is there a renaissance of respect for the law in Italy? I doubt it. We have to look elsewhere for an explanation. I believe that after the new smoking rules were proclaimed, to smoke in public, especially in the immediate vicinity of others, was to make a brutta figura. So, cultural norms triumphed over habit. Of course, others may have a better rationale.
Yet a strong element of the culture in Italy is its strong aesthetic sensibility. This expresses itself in clothes, design, art, down to the way a package is wrapped at a store. Italian homes show a flair for interior arrangement and fanatic cleanliness. So one would expect that Italians, whose public spaces are some of the most beautiful in the world, would defend these spaces against the scourge of graffiti in a way that surpasses this battle in other nations.
Why has this not happened? One must consider another element of Italian culture: the general disregard for the cleanliness and maintenance of public spaces. The attitude toward public space is the exact opposite of that toward private space. There probably is no single explanation of the lack of concern for the public space, but my prime villain would be what a social scientist studying Italy calls familismo. The family is the sacred rock of Italian life. Furthering the interests of one’s family is the Holy Grail. As a result, a society in which people take seriously their civil obligations toward their fellow citizens is diminished. The public space is not my problem, not my family’s problem. It is something for the government, to which we pay our taxes (or, perhaps more accurately, to which we should pay our taxes) to take care of. If the government does not do so, it is no big deal.
I don’t wish to sound like an enemy of ‘the family,’ the prime source of joy and satisfaction in Italy. Like all virtues, however, when taken to excess, it leaks into the area of vice. To be sure, an analysis of the positive and negative roles of the family in Italian life and culture goes far beyond a discussion of the public space.
The results of the lack of respect for the public space, however, are obvious. Litter is omnipresent. The external maintenance of buildings and streets is poor. Finally, graffiti abounds.
I recently read a newspaper article (see ‘It’s war!’ in TF 124 and related article on page 5, this issue) about the city’s plans to enforce the rules against graffiti both in terms of apprehension of violators and the penalties meted out to them. This is one obvious approach to the problem. Another is to provide a public space where graffiti ‘artists’ are invited to practice their craft. Such approaches may have some effect, but when the underlying impediment is cultural rather than legal, I am not optimistic.
The situation, however, is not necessarily hopeless. In my years in Italy, I’ve discovered the Italians do unite around some issues and bring about necessary change. As we recently observed the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Italy in 1945, one could recall a strong, widespread (certainly not universal) movement in Italy to confront the German occupiers at the cost of many lives. Every time there is a natural disaster in Italy, citizens from all over the nation unite to aid to the victims. Italians can move beyond ‘what’s in it for me and my family.’ Consider far northern Italy, where the culture, for lack of a better term, is more ‘Germanic’: the public spaces are much cleaner. To make a successful effort against graffiti in Tuscany and Florence will involve a change in attitude toward public space in general.