The joy of Italy, for a reporter forced by his cruel employers to spend most of his summer here, is that there are in fact two Italys. There is the Italy of the south—earthy, passionate, more attuned to North Africa across the water, seething with Mafiosi blood feuds and dark plots. The Italy of the north, prosperous, industrious, bustling, is linked to Europe’s values. And never the twain shall meet. It’s the Italy of the north that has made the country the fifth industrial power in the world, well ahead of Canada, and where the Italy of the south (the Atlantic provinces of the boot) resentfully send their impoverished to work.
There are two more Italys. The nation is terminally gaga over the 1990 World Cup— and a subsequent national nervous breakdown if the hosts do not manage to win it. (Italian self-esteem extends from the individual male to a state obsession with pride.) Soccer is the expression of the masses, but the country is fascinated with the opposite extreme: an aristocratic playground.
This would be the love affair with swift and expensive cars. This is the true home of road racing, the country whose topography invented the sports car. The billion-dollar industry that is auto racing around the world today started in Italy, where every commuter feels his integrity, if not his sexual credentials, is challenged by every driver in the next lane. It’s an asphalt jungle out there.
The World Cup is not just vulgar, shinbashing English louts (a product of Maggie Thatcher’s economics) over its month-long tenure. It is “Italia ’90,” a boastful country’s chance to show off its cultural breadth. Every single one of the 12 cities where the sweaty lads have performed has mounted extensive displays of the country’s effortless links with its past.
Cagliari, off on Sardinia, did Aida and II trovatore, not to mention Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. Naples had the Berlin Philharmonic and, as part of a month-long program, a ballet production of Romeo and Juliet in the amphitheatre at Paestum. Palermo, off in Ma-
fia-ridden Sicily, did Sophocles’s Electra. Most interesting, in the most artistic centre of all, Florence, is what has been mounted in the most prestigious arts forum of all. The Forte Belvedere commands the highest point in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The Renaissance edifice was redone as an art gallery in 1972, opening with a much-praised Henry Moore exhibition.
Since then, it has been the site of a number of acclaimed shows, from the works of Donatello through Pop Art to Black African sculpture. For the World Cup? What else but the proudest of Italian beauties—Ferrari. Only in Italy could the most respected art gallery in town devote its space to a car. If soccer is the country’s heart, the red cars of Ferrari are its soul.
Enzo Ferrari, acknowledged as one of the greatest Italians of the century, died two years ago. He made his red cars the expression of the country’s passionate personality, just as the
British racing green is an extension of a more subdued mentality. Huge glass cases encompass his classic cars on the hill overlooking the town that attracted Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Byron and Mark Twain. Tchaikovsky used to compose just down there, to the left. Silvered engine blocks, like sculptures, sit in the courtyard.
Just as Ferrari epitomized the genius for Italian car design, the Mille Miglia invented road racing. The celebrated race, before TV and three-foot-wide tires evolved into the billion-dollar, sponsor-festooned industry, was the No. 1 car event in the universe. From Brescia in the north, then along the Adriatic before cutting across to Rome and then back up through Siena, Florence and Bologna, it was the ultimate test of driving—1,000 of the old Roman miles.
It was cancelled in 1957 due to a “scandal”—the death of three drivers, including the great De Portago, and 10 spectators. It has just been revived and now is restricted to cars at least 20 years old—a rally rather than a race. Prince Michael of Kent takes part, along with three other princes, two dukes and one count.
As the George Plimpton of Canadian journalism, it seems only appropriate that your faithful agent attack the most difficult part of the course, that being the twisting, winding assault on the Apennines between Florence and Bologna with switchback curves that try the transmission and the compass. A white Alfa Romeo is selected as the steed, the only thing missing being the goggles, leather helmet and a TerryThomas moustache.
It is clear why spectators were wiped out, as witness the old photographs—no protective fences, no hay bales, just excited villagers standing with babes in arms as the great ones wheeled around the hairpin comers. Road racing meant racing past the pub door and the bam fence, and the technology of the cars eventually surpassed the ability of this course to handle them.
No probs though, for a closet Fangio whose heavy metal on the pedal makes the protesting navigator dizzy on the turns. There is a solution to the depressing sight of thousands of English slobs staggering through the World Cup, their white bellies seered by the sun as their minds are besotten with booze.
It is to rise above it, get in a swift white car atop green mountains, in clean air and indulge in the other Italian favorite sport where only the Walter Mittys of the world can dream— pretending that Enzo Ferrari is aboard rather than the nervous navigator, giving his advice on the line into the next perilous turn.
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