The old straight-armed Roman salute was back in fashion last month as the crowds swamped Michaelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome to welcome Gianni Alemanno, the newly-elected right-wing mayor of the Eternal City. The fifty-year-old native of Bari on Italy’s southern Adriatic coast easily defeated leftist Francesco Rutelli, who previously served as Mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001.
Alemanno was frequently attacked by the Left for his alleged fascism as a prominent member of Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale, formerly the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). The MSI was abolished in 1995 by its leader Gianfranco Fini, who refounded the party as the “National Alliance” seeking to move it closer to the mainstream of Italian politics. Mr. Alemanno had joined the MSI at a young age and became National Secretary of its youth wing in 1988. With the 1995 changeover, he founded the “Social Right” faction of the AN (along with Francesco Storace), which promotes social conservatism within the broadly-based Allianza.
Part of the mayor’s supposedly murky past includes his arrest in 1981 for a brawl in which a left-wing student was beaten with baseball bats. A year later he was arrested for throwing a molotov cocktail at the Soviet embassy, while in 1989 he was arrested for attempting to block to motorcade of President George Bush Snr. In each of the three incidents, Mr. Alemanno was acquitted.
Elected to the lower house of the Italian parliament in 1994, Mr. Alemanno served as Minister of Agriculture from 2001 to 2006 in the second and third Berlusconi cabinets. He was defeated in the 2006 race for Mayor of Rome by Walter Veltroni — now leader of the leftist Partito Democratico — but in the April vote he managed to defeat the former socialist leader Rutelli.
Alemanno’s critics have cited the cries of “Duce! Duce!” that greeted the new mayor as he took possession of the municipal offices on the Capitoline hill as evidence of a fascist undercurrent.
“People calling me ‘Duce’ makes me laugh,” Mr. Alemanno told the Sunday Times of London in his first interview with a foreign newspaper. “I’m not at all fascist and I think that today the word belongs to the history books. I’ve grown to hate all forms of totalitarianism, whether of the left or of the right.”
“I’ve never described myself as fascist,” he continued, “even when I was young, but in the 1970s and 1980s we on the right believed fascism was substantially positive. Now we realise it was totalitarian and generally negative, it has to be condemned.”
“It would be impossible for a fascist to be elected mayor of Rome,” the new mayor concluded. “Rome is a city that has solid democratic roots and that respects everyone. The Romans are not mad and neither am I.”
Mr. Alemanno has already proved keen on maintaining good relations with the Eternal City’s Jewish population. He sent a telegram to the Chief Rabbi of Rome upon assuming the municipal leadership, and flew the Israeli flag from the Campidoglio in celebration of the State of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary.
He also sent a telegram to Pope Benedict XVI, promising his “complete collaboration with the catholic community for the good of all Roman citizens”.
One of Mr. Alemanno’s more culturally significant campaign promises is to remove the modernist museum designed by the American architect Richard Meier which surrounds the first-century Roman monument, the Ara Pacis. Even the arch-enthusiast of celebrity “starchitects”, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times labelled the building a “flop” and a “major disappointment”.
“There’s a problem of compatibility,” Mr. Alemanno told the media. “The structure is surrounded by baroque buildings and, in that part of the city, any intervention must be in the same style”.
The left-wing literary critic Alfonso Berardinelli, meanwhile, has sounded a note of caution for Rome’s jubliant rightists. In an interview with Il Foglio, Prof. Berardinelli said:
“More than a victory of the Right, this was a defeat for the Left, which is unable to understand the physical nature of the city’s problems. Although I consider myself on the Left, I didn’t vote; I couldn’t have voted for Alemanno, but then neither could I vote for Rutelli. But here in Rome the electorate didn’t believe that Rutelli would sort out the city’s problems, whereas they were prepared to give Alemanno the benefit of the doubt.”
With regard to the allegations of fascism, Prof. Berardinelli said “Fascism is now a political anachronism and anyone who says they fear its return is nuts”. The Alleanza Nazionale, the Professor explained, “wants to sever all links” with its fascist past.
“Society wants a balance of stability and of freedom, and rightly or wrongly, this time round it was the message of the center-right in Rome that came over as sounding more authentic,” the Professor continued. “This is the advantage of a man who is not instantly likeable, and who is somewhat proud like Alemanno; they have a sense of who they are which makes them politically credible.”
Writing at the conservative, eurosceptic Brussels Journal, the English journalist and academic John Laughland hailed the latest right-wing victory in Italy and dismissed the British commentariat’s glib contempt for the state of affairs in the peninsula.
“Italian politics is often dismissed (in Britain at least) as nothing but a combination of opera buffa and artful corruption,” Mr. Laughland writes. “It is true that the country’s political life seems chaotic when viewed from outside; but that is true of Italian life in general, where the appearance of chaos in fact masks the reality of extremely professional organisation. Anyone who has taken a train or a bus in Italy will know this to be true (the contrast with Britain, for instance, is very unfavourable to the British). The Italians are masterful businessmen and very hard-working professionals, who continue to produce some of the world’s best products, from cars and kitchens to fashion and food.”
Speaking of Mr. Alemanno’s promise to destroy Richard Meier’s abomination at the Ara Pacis, Mr. Laughland had the last word: “If Alemanno does only one thing during his term in office, if he achieves this single act of cultural restoration or counter-revolution, then the entire election will have been well worth it.”