Italy in Books reading challenge: Camilla Cederna’s Casa Nostra: Viaggio nei Misteri d’Italia

Camilla Cederna’s Casa Nostra: Viaggio nei Misteri d’Italia, was my choice this month for the Italian Reading Challenge. Cederna, who died in 1997 aged 86 was a journalist and writer (see her obituary in English and Italian below) and these réportage pieces about what the subtitle refers to as “Italian mysteries” were written in about 1980.

Published in 1983 by Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, Casa Nostra: Viaggio nei Misteri d’Italia provides intriguing glimpses at the regional variations that are so much a part of Italy.

These include the tradition that Turin is a city if not rife with Satanic sects, at least with greater interest in such subjects than most. Personally, I have never found it to be at all noticeable, but I guess it depends on the company you keep.

Probably more intriguing are the two pieces, on Reggio Emilia, and Bovolone near Verona, which address the subject of the “economic boom” in Italy, and the outcomes for the many Italians who saw their income rocket in a very short time.

Underpinning the vast growth in wealth of the Italians in that period, and still a key feature of the present day economic landscape, is the black economy, the sommerso, in italian, what lies beneath. These chapters also address this subject.

Closely linked to the “lavoro in nero” is, of course, the on-the-job safety, or lack of it. Cederna goes to Brescia, the city whose fortune — since Roman times — has been based on its mineral deposits, iron in the first instance. Working in the factories, men and women struggled to keep up with their quotas, and often lost fingers, hands, and worse, in the process. With no established Health and Safety Directorate, there was no recourse. In some places, the unions helped but, usually, the matter was quietly forgotten. Ironically, the worst enemy for those hurt in the factories was not just the factory owner, who wanted the whole thing hushed up, but fellow workers who felt that only incompetents had accidents.

Moving south, via Rimini, which was fast becoming the European Fun Factory, thirty kilometres of beaches, hotels, restaurants, bars, and more along the Adriatic coast, Camilla Cederna comes to the south, and to the inevitable issue of the mafia. From blood-soaked power struggles between clans for control of lucrative smuggling routes, via attacks on legitimately-appointed officials such as the Director of the Abruzzo National Park whose very role is a threat to those who consider the area’s natural resources to be theirs to do what they like with, to the creation of entire societies where Social Security provisions, such as disability pensions, have been subverted to provide life-long incomes for the unemployed. Thanks to uncontrolled growth, other places have full employment, such as Solofra, near Avellino. The tanneries provide work for all those who want it. To the detriment of the environment and public health, though.

Not an easy read, Casa Nostra: Viaggio nei Misteri d’Italia by Camilla Cederna is a portrait of its time, the 1980s, but also speaks to us today: plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose.