The Twisted Legend Of The Italian Lover

Where have you gone, Casanova? A new book surveys the dark side to the myth of the Italian male's seductive gifts, from ribald ancient Rome to Berlusconi's bunga bunga. But don't give up on him yet.

Mirella Serri

ROME — Theopompus of Chios, a historian from the 4th century BC, described the lack of inhibitions that the ancient Etruscans enjoyed in Histories Book 43. If a visitor knocked on the door of a gentleman who was indisposed, his servant would inform the visitor that his master was making love and would attend to him soon.

For both sexes at that time, it was normal to walk around naked and enjoy the open air. Or indulge in sadomasochistic pleasures, as is depicted on a grave in Monterozzo in which two men whip a woman who caresses them. Back then, it would be fair to say, there was a very different common sense of decency and management of personal privacy.

Skipping forward a few centuries, during Rome's Republican era, the scenery changed dramatically. Privacy was practiced — well, at least more than before. The erotic performances were not ostentatious, but the authority of the public figure depended on this. The pater familias, wrote Seneca, granted the right of life and death over his loved ones, and sex had to be active and never passive, never denying a man's role as ruler. Woe, then, if it became known that the women or slaves (bisexuality was widely practiced) tried anything for their own pleasure.

"The husband of all the wives, and the wife of all husbands," is how Julius Caesar was described, a true Roman and double winner — in battle and in bed.

The legendary leader is credited as an early embodiment of the Latin lover stereotype. Seduction has been an art for Italian men since Ancient Rome, and they're considered experts in many parts of the world.

The new Italian book Storia Erotica d'Italia (The Erotic History of Italy) by Cinzia Giorgio explains the legends from Casanova to the great dancer Rodolfo Valentino.

The Italian playboy stereotype is universally known, writes Giorgio, not only because it has ancient origins, but also because it has been kept alive for so long thanks to the persistent inequalities between men and women. It was sustained for centuries because of the Catholic Church and the foundations of patriarchal societies laid even further back.

From Raphael to Berlusconi

The ancient Roman historian Livy fed the legend that his countrymen were the only ones to be so passionate and gifted. He claimed that no direct sexual assault took place during the Rape of the Sabines, but a seduction based on promises by the Romans and then a betrayal of those promises.

This aura continued to illuminate the Italian male (as narrated by 13th century author Giovanni Boccaccio in his works, especially The Decameron) through to the Dark Ages, when the obstacles to conquering the fairer sex became almost insurmountable. The Canon Episcopi handbook for bishops described how to combat witchcraft, but also spread the idea that seductresses and abandoned hotels were accompanied by the devil. Yet, the medieval playboy retained his manly appeal.

A man's reputation was enhanced by the number of his conquests. One-third of the Renaissance great masters trinity, Raphael died at the age of 37 because of too much sexual activity, according to famed art historian Giorgio Vasari. The same goes for Ludovico Sforza, "the Moor," who had many close encounters with 16-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in The Lady With The Ermine.

Yet another example is the legend of Niccolò Paganini, composer and seducer, whose allegedly generous endowment fed many rumors. Former Prime Minister Francesco Crispi ended up on trial for his amorous adventures, and Benito "the ladykiller" Mussolini reportedly had multiple trysts daily — although each of them lasted a maximum 15 minutes. (Not to mention Silvio Berlusconi and his infamous bunga bunga parties.)

Accompanied by changes in the mentalities of women, the myth has lost its sheen. But, dear Italian men, don't lose hope! Madonna's T-shirt in the music video for "Papa expand=1] Don't Preach" that says "Italians do it better" is still pretty popular. Let the legend continue.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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