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GP 8 March 2006: Patria Nostra and Genuine Fakes

Chatham.  Tom said, “Don, you have been everywhere in the world, like me.  What was the best?”  It was early spring, on Cape Cod, and we had gathered here, far from the cry of the city, to ruminate about the doings of a far-flung global company that was enjoying huge success.  Thirty-five years ago people actually thought about strategy, and we were daydreaming about this company’s future.  We had the place to ourselves, no tourists and little vegetation anywhere in sight.  It was still barren and frigid, when one is dependent on imagination and whiskey to banish ghosts and the reek of emptiness. 

Little gets decided at these confabs, but you do learn a devil of a lot more about each other before you re-board the plane and fly away with the succulent bay scallops which are the one blessed takeaway from such an adventure.  Don’s rejoinder: “Oh, without a doubt, Italy!”  And Tom agreed: “I thought you might say that.  I feel the same way.  Italy’s the place I want to return to.”  There is in this United States a secret society of celebrants bound together by their love of Italy and whose only agenda is partaking of the good life.  They run into each other everywhere.  Thinking about Italy is a whole lot more fun than fuming about balance sheets 25 years out.

Due Bigletti.  Colin Goedecke’s a New Yorker writer who started out at Georgetown University to become a diplomat, drifted into investment banking behind a Chippendale (which, incidentally, he had vowed never to do), but finally became a successful scribbler, which is his very consuming job today.  He’s like a host of other middle-aged fellows who left their skyscraper offices to become wine vintners, airline pilots, or organic farmers in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  They have put their white collar prisons behind them. 

By night he dreams about Italy and, through his wife, he has become at least half transformed into an Italian.  Like Tom, he mentally putts along the Via Appia all the time, and once in a while actually journeys back  to savor the streets of Rome.  If you will turn to “La Patria Nostra” in our Big Ideas section, you will be led to his “A Tale of One City in Four Courses,” which is a delectable account of his Christmas 2005 visit there.  There are tastes at every turn. 

As other Romans in America, his mind is always on the next trip, as he tells us here:

Due Biglietti Two Tickets
Due biglietti a Roma Two tickets to Rome
Per piacere Please,
La cittá di chiese— The city of churches—
Chiese e fontane. Churches and fountains.
Si, filled with holy waters. Yes, filled with holy waters.
Fontane dove viveriamo tutti les Romani. Fountains where all the Romans live.
Due biglietti Two tickets
A la cittá di Vespe To the city of Vespas
Vespe e autisti. Vespas and their drivers.
Si, the wingless wasps Yes, the wingless wasps
That swarm the great piazzas. That swarm the great piazzas.
Due biglietti Two tickets
A la cittá di caffe To the city of caffés
Caffe e gelati. Caffés and ice creams.
Si, gelati di tutti sapori, Yes, ice creams of all tastes,
Tutti pieno d'Italia. All full of Italy
Roma per due, Rome for two,
Per piacere. Please.

An Awful Swoon.  To read The Economist’s most recent Survey of Italy (November 24, 2005) is to conclude that the country is going to Dante’s Hell in a handbasket.  The economy is locked in structural inertia, the government is riddled with corruption at the highest and lowest levels, and the portents are all bad.  As we are fond of saying, however, “The sky is falling, so buy sky.”  When the prophets of doom are crying the loudest, then we are well instructed to give the patient another look.  Recovery is probably right around the corner. 

It’s an awful mess, but it usually is.  Then again, most of Europe has been in a funk, and some parts are just now coming back.  Germany, the world’s big exporter, is beginning to hum again, and the new leader Angela Merkel, for whom nobody held out much hope, is making a go of things.  Some of the German recovery will spill over to Italy, both having suffered from a pan-European, one currency straitjacket (i.e, the EEC) that is hamstringing the Continent.  To boot, Italy has some inherent strengths that many take to be weaknesses, but which, we predict, will lead to its renewal.  The Economist thinks the scale of its enterprises is working against it: 

Indeed, Italy as a whole became a case study in “small is beautiful.”  About two-thirds of manufacturing workers are in firms with fewer than 100 employees, compared with 37% in America and 31% in Germany.  Italy has more small and medium-sized enterprises than any other country in Europe: some 4.5m, or roughly one-quarter of the total in the EU 15…. 

On the Contrary.  We think these small private companies can re-invent themselves more easily than large multinationals, but it will take a while.  This stems from the fact that Italy is better at adding value than slicing costs.  Since it imports a disproportionate amount of its resources, it requires an extra dab of ingenuity to adjust to the huge change in the global economy.  Innovation is not an instant process. 

Ducati Ducati, the motorcycle firm, mirrors Italy’s ups and downs.  Dating back to 1926, it got started in the radio transmission business in Bologna.  Leveled by a world war, it came back to life in the motorcycle business, its premier models now on sale in 60 countries.  As our motorman expert says, its products have been staging a comeback over the last decade and, for sure, it is the Ferrari of the motorcycle world.  But it will have to recuperate from recent financial reversals and is darting off on a new strategic course.  It is a wonderful brand, and the company has a habit of coming back from the dead. 

Old Nation, Young Nation.  The Italians inspire optimism for the very reasons that one wants to go there.  There’s a mournfulness about the other Europeans—French, Germans, and all the rest—that one does not feel in Rome.  Many Europeans manage to be depressed even when they are doing well.  Tony O’Reilly, the onetime head of H.J. Heinz from Ireland, had it right in one of his endless stories.  He told of two of his countrymen perched at the bar in a Dublin pub during World War II.  During the depths of the war, Winston Churchill’s words crackled out of the radio, “The situation is serious, but not hopeless.”  Paddy remarked to his pal, “That’s the difference between the English and us.  In Ireland, the situation is always hopeless, and never serious.”  Ditto for Italy. 

Italy has had a bit longer to think about it, dating of course back to the Roman Empire.  When you have had that many yesterdays, you may tend to believe there will be a tomorrow.  And you have a rich culture on which to draw when creating products that have a little more dash than those of your neighbors but also in devising a life style that has more artfulness to it.  Americans have all this to look forward to, when we get another 1,000 years or so under our belts.  It’s fair to say that the whole of Italy is a living museum where the totality of what it was usefully permeates everything that happens today.  Its mysteries were unsettling to American novelist Henry James, who jousted with its duplicities but actually was more at ease writing in England. 

It’s an old culture.  But a young country.  It is just coming up on its anniversary: as a modern nation, it only came together in March 17, 1861.   And Rome, its capital, waited one more decade, until 1870, to join in.  Even today San Marino and the Vatican are still independent.  It’s possible to say that Italy is still in the process of becoming a modern nation state, even as some historians say that the idea of a nation is becoming outmoded.

This very stubborn streak of localism in the Italians is part of their charm: there’s no mistaking one town for another, as so often happens in one suburb or another across the U.S.A.  Along the Venice Canal one night, we listened as different members of the Italian mob argued about the merits of Venetian music vs. Napoli music: we sided with the very ebullient Napolese. 

The Art of Life.  Our contention here is that the essence of Italy transcends art.  The key is that art has welded itself onto life.  Italy, which some dare to call the sickman of Europe, can claim to be a leader in living.  We discussed one sign of this back in “La Dolce Far Niente.”  Italy is the home of the Slow Food movement, headquartered in Bra.  Righteous eating, it’s thought, has no truck with modern fast food: good food is grown slowly and correctly, prepared with love, and eaten sitting down at length interspersed with good conversation.  Anything else is unhealthy, unhappy, and uncivilized.  There is a beauty to living.  Quietly the Slow Food movement has taken hold in a host of countries.  Fast and furious food hardly ever turns out well, with the exceptions of good espresso or Tokyo sushi. 

Foundations of Genius.  Nancy Andreasen, a research psychiatrist out at the Univerity of Iowa, is just out with The Creating Brain.  She has long been mapping the brain using imaging techniques.  Now, as she tells us, she is determined to have a bit more fun.  Always having had an interest in brilliance and creativity, she is revving up her studies of genius.  Interestingly, she chooses the Renaissance in Florence as her favored historical vehicle for getting a handle on what part genetics and what part environment play in the creation of genius.  Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo particularly attract her eye. 

Of course, she might have gone elsewhere, to some other time.  But it’s hard to skip by Italy if you have a love of art and creativity.  Here lies the Italian competitive advantage which, at its best, teaches us how life should be lived.  This art of life is the question that thinking people in all developed countries are finding more compelling, as many of them observe the pursuit of happiness and happiness itself to be biting each other’s tails off.  There’s a living to be made by those who can offer modern man more contentment. 

Genuine Fakes.  John Myatt of Fairoak, England is now out of jail and his brush is back in hand.  For a while he turned out Van Goghs, and Gleizes, and Dufys, which were peddled as the real thing by his sidekick John Drewe.  He had gotten started in counterfeiting because of a divorce and a run of bad luck which had found him in debt with children to raise.  Apparently he is a nice fellow, who only made minor profits, and the judge let him off with 4 months, unlike the more avaricious Drewe, who made £1.5 million and drew real hard time.  Now, with his wife Rosemary, who sings with him in the church choir, he runs their above-board Genuine Fakes business, and he looks forward to retiring to a real painting career someday.  (See the New York Times, March 4, 2006, p. A4.)   He has come out the depths by giving the world honest-to-gosh quality fakes properly labeled for what they are. 

Ah, maybe that’s what the Italians are up to—creating genuine fakes out of their very rich past and reaping a living.  There’s more than one wise man who has said that there is nothing that’s really original.  But then, can we do a beautiful, truthful counterfeit of something worth imitating?  For Italy there is life to be had from inspired re-creation. 

P.S.  Often enough, people say “life imitates art.”  But what we are learning about, and where the Italians excel, is the merger of life and art.  It’s a seamless act where we do not know where one ends and the other begins.  Such is the case with the immensely funny British comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a 2006 release incorporating a farce about the making of Tristram but, as well, a retelling of the actual Sterne novel.  It is this interpenetration of art and life in Italy that puts that country in the vanguard of the West. 

P.P.S.  We have previously reviewed Nancy Andreasen’s Creating Brain and the Christopher Chabris review of it in “Marked by Genius.”  Both are worthwhile.  Chabris does a very successful counterfeit of the book in his one page review.  Andreasen looks at several aspects of genius, including its relation to mental afflictions.  Both could spend a bit more time on the therapeutic aspects of creativity. 

P.P.P.S.  In the “Great Cork Controversy: You’re the Tops” and in many other places on the Global Province, we argue that the U.S., the land of high costs and diminishing natural resources, must move from a value-subtractive (where we are stuck now) to a value-additive economic strategy.  That makes the Italian case very interesting. 

P.P.P.P.S.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, now catching the political correctness virus, has decided to return some works of art to Italy that had been snatched from the country.  We find it entirely in character that Italy’s diplomatic negotiations should focus on art, not war.


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