Italy's New Patriotism

Italians have never been particularly patriotic. Only 72 percent say they are proud to be Italian, according to a recent survey. More than 40 percent can't identify the colors of their national flag. They consistently confuse it with Mexico's tricolors.

All that may be about to change, if the flag-waving coalition government of Silvio Berlusconi has its way. For too long, the country's leaders seem to feel, Italy has been a largely geographic expression, somehow lacking a certain something in cultural unity. So now comes a slew of new measures to make Italy just a little bit more, well, Italian. For the first time in the country's history, laws have been proposed that would designate Italian as the country's official language. (As opposed to what, one might fairly wonder.) If all goes well, Italy will also soon get a bona fide national anthem, the "Mameli Hymn," long sung at football matches and public events but never quite rising to the status of an Italian "God Bless America" or "La Marseilles".

Parliament is even considering legislation that would make Pinocchio the universal symbol of "Made in Italy." No lie. Alarmed at how knock-offs of famed Italian products have cloned their way around the globe--from faux Guccis to ersatz mozzarella--the government proposes to stamp the legendary puppet on all good things coming from Italy. He of the Extensible Proboscis, ironically, would mark them as the genuine article.

No one can quite explain this sudden burst of patriotic fervor. Some think it reflects doubts about the newly enlarged European Union, with its homogeneous euro and love of uniformity. Others say it represents just the opposite: a step toward modernity, rather than any backpedaling toward the past. That's clearly the case with the language issue, for instance. For generations, Italians from the country's northern provinces--Lombardy and the Veneto----resisted efforts by Rome to anoint Italian as the nation's lingua franca, so to speak. Reason: they feared it would relegate their own dialects to extinction--never mind that many are protected by UNESCO, or that hardly anybody speaks them outside the home. But now? Having an official language is the way forward, one lawmaker explains, "not just to a unified Europe, but toward our own democracy."

Rome's cultural crusaders are now on full march. Right now, Parliament is about to pass a bill requiring radio stations to reserve 40 percent of their broadcasting hours for Italian-language shows. (Could Italians be tired of hearing Luciano Pavarotti singing English duets with rock stars like Bon Jovi?) And late last year it enacted another measure creating a "seal of authenticity," to be issued to restaurants outside the country claiming to be "authentic Italian." So far, more than a third of the estimated 55,000 Italian restaurants worldwide have been issued official Italian-government symbols of approval. No fee's involved. But the eateries must guarantee to use only Italian products--preferably imported directly from Italian distributors.

Italy is opening other cultural fronts as well. Under EU law, members can apply to protect certain clearly distinctive national delicacies--and the Italians have done so with a vengeance. So far, they have won regulatory protections for roughly a quarter of their 2,171 designated food specialties--more than any other European country. Thus if your cheese is made in Holland, it can't be called Parmesan. Likewise, your prosciutto had better be from Parma.

Authorities have also finally figured out that genuine Italian products--from designer stilettos to those Ultrasuede bags often on sale just steps from your favorite high-priced boutique--are also worth protecting. The Italian Trade Commission recently petitioned Parliament to write a bill that would require all made-in-Italy goods to be emblazoned with Pinocchio's face. Anything without it would be considered substandard, or even counterfeit.

Fair enough, perhaps. Yet there are dangers of going too far. Led by actress Sophia Loren, no less, the good citizens of Rieti, not far from Rome, just recently erected a monument to the now-defunct lira. (Maybe out of love for all those long-lost zeroes?) It's also easy to imagine Italy mounting an international lobbying campaign to insist that anyone buying a certain kind of cheese or olive oil ("Italian" dressing for your salad, anyone?) do so only from Italian suppliers, much as the French insist that real Champagne can come only from France. It's tempting to wonder what conceivably could be next. A little Pinocchio emblem, possibly, stamped on the backside of Michelangelo's David?