Returning to Italy to see family after a two-year hiatus made clear to me how far apart Europe and the United States have grown. In the summer of 2021, flying across the Atlantic not only demanded patience in complying with varying Covid testing requirements and distancing protocols; it also meant worrying about a virus (and its variants) that still wasn’t fully under control. But it’s not just the pandemic that has widened the gap. Italy and the United States are like two cousins struggling to recognize one another after a particularly painful separation, in this case a rupture with a clear and immediate cause: the Trump presidency. A longtime friend, the mayor of a city vital to the Italian tourism industry, told me, “Once it was clear that America would always be there for Italy and for Europe. Now, we don’t know.”
Italy, of course, was the first country in the West to face the full ravages of COVID-19. Recall the infection rates and death tolls of February and March of 2020, the images of a vacant St. Peter’s Square, exhausted health-care workers, and bodies awaiting burial. Just over eighteen months later, there are signs of recovery and revival. Consider the performance of Italian athletes at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics—the best in the country’s history, with more competitors than ever coming from different racial and cultural backgrounds, representing a country that still denies citizenship to kids born and raised in Italy by parents who are not Italian citizens. There was also Italy’s July victory over England in the European soccer championship game at Wembley Stadium in London. The Azzurri had won the European title only once before, in 1968. For Italians, the national soccer team’s successes are often linked to significant historical moments, regardless of the political regime. They become part of the collective narrative. Mussolini expertly exploited world championship victories in 1934 and 1938, as well as Italy’s gold-medal victory at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, turning them into symbols of Italy’s newfound international prestige. The 1968 European championship win represented a unifying moment for a country riven by deep political and generational divisions and helped rehabilitate the image of the tricolor national flag, which after long being associated with the nationalist rhetoric of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano party was waved in the streets and squares in widespread celebration. The World Cup victory over Germany in 1982 was seen as a turning of the page after a decade of political turmoil and domestic terrorism known as the “years of lead.” And because of Brexit, the summer’s vanquishing of England had wider political overtones; it seemed as if Italy, one of the founding nations of the European Union, was basically saying good riddance to the U.K. on behalf of the rest of its members.
It’s not just sport that gives Italy hope. Last year it chaired the G20 (nineteen countries plus the EU, accounting for 90 percent of global GDP, 80 percent of global trade, and 66 percent of the world’s population); in October, it will host the summit of G20 leaders in Rome. And though it may a while before non-Europeans visit Italy again in large numbers, tourism is slowly coming back.
But economic and political uncertainty remains. The seven-year term of President Sergio Mattarella expires in January 2022, and he says he will not serve a second (he just turned eighty, and in the history of the Italian Republic, no president has served two full terms). The Italian presidency is a position similar to that of a constitutional monarch, and in the recent past presidents have helped keep the Italian political system from succumbing completely to right-wing populism and, before that, Berlusconism. Queen Elizabeth II could not stop Brexit, but in May 2018, Mattarella stopped the populist government of the Five Star Movement from implementing policies leading towards an exit from the eurozone. He is also one of the last—if not the last—of the generation of Vatican II Catholic politicians. He has offered steady moral leadership during the pandemic, a time during which the sovereignty of Parliament, the rule of law, and the relationship between church and state have been tested in ways not seen since the 1970s, if not since World War II.