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Italy: Symbol of the Nation

5 minute read

Antonio Segni’s frail physique conceals a formidable will. Says a friend: “He is like the Colosseum; he looks like a ruin but he’ll be around for a long time.” Last week slight, silver-haired Segni, 71, proved the accuracy of the description. He outlasted his rivals during five days of cutthroat politicking and nine closely contested ballots in the Chamber of Deputies, was finally elected to a seven-year term as President of Italy. Quipped Antonio Segni’s partisans in a somewhat blasphemous parody of the miraculous vision that came to the Emperor Constantine as he marched on Rome in the 4th century: In hoc Segni vinces.*

Segni’s chief rival for the job, which combines ceremonial functions with such real political leverage as the power to dissolve Parliament and veto legislation, was formally undeclared but well known just the same. He was fellow Christian Democrat Premier Amintore Fanfani, who had recently picked staunchly pro-Western Segni as Foreign Minister to balance his new center-left coalition, the much debated apertura a sinistra. Fanfani figured that by stubbornly clinging to about 40 votes that Segni needed to win, the deadlocked chamber would promote him to chief of state.

Hollow Boast. Fanfani’s severe case of presidential fever was finally cured by six Cabinet members who threatened to quit if the Premier did not abandon his ambitions. Fanfani then released the 40-odd votes he controlled. As applause greeted the tally that clinched Segni’s election, Fanfani stared sullenly into the television camera. Taking defeat more gracefully was Segni’s closest open opponent, moderate Social Democrat Giuseppe Saragat, who, as a partner in the government coalition, may be named Foreign Minister to fill Segni’s now vacant position.

The Communists were bitterly disappointed. After Red votes swung the election to moderate Leftist Giovanni Gronchi in 1955, Party Boss Palmiro Togliatti cried: “When it comes to choosing a President, we are the ones who choose.” Last week, after the Reds backed Saragat in a futile maneuver aimed at pulling him farther left than Centrist Fanfani would be willing to go, the Communist boast had turned hollow.

Vanishing Vespa. Segni becomes President of a country that is more prosperous than ever—and less vulnerable than ever to the Communists. In the poverty-stricken south, income levels are still only half as high as in the industrial north, but Communist strength south of Naples is slipping. More than $2 billion in new industrial and agricultural developments in the south has created more jobs, raised the productivity of long-arid farmland. Foreign investors continue to treat Italy as a good risk; U.S. Steel is building a $16 million plant in partnership with the Italians. The unemployment rate is 16% lower than last year, wages have jumped 10%, and domestic sales are up 17% over 1961.

Italians are making the most of a new privilege: complaining about the high cost of refrigerators, washing machines and automobiles that they could not have afforded five years ago.

At the seaside restaurants of Ostia near Rome, fashionably clothed signori and signorine sneer at Americans in their slacks, sweaters and tennis sneakers. The publishing industry is booming, and Italy’s 60 movie sound stages steadily employ 27,000 workers, while Hollywood is on the ropes. Apart from sex and spectacles, the theme of Italian movies is changing: man’s fight to make a living is increasingly replaced by the effort to understand himself in a complex, prosperous society.

In the city streets, motor scooters, yesterday’s symbol of prosperity, have almost vanished, replaced by masses of automobiles—although to own a car, many Italians must still make sacrifices. Says one Milanese waiter, explaining why he is single: “O macchina, o moglie” (Either a car or a wife).

Neo-Tolstoyan. The Italian constitution regards the President as the living symbol of the nation, and for Italy’s paradoxical mood of economic prosperity and intellectual concern, the election of Segni was remarkably appropriate. A wealthy gentleman farmer from Sardinia,* Segni has given away 250 acres of his own rich olive groves to landless peasants; in 1950, as Agriculture Minister, he sponsored a far-reaching system of national land reform. Politically, Segni is a moderate conservative who is not likely to stand in the way of reforms planned under Fanfani’s opening to the left.

A lawyer by training, Segni is also an experienced politician (twice Premier: 1955-57; 1959-60) and a thoughtful statesman who describes his outlook on history as Tolstoyan. “Men in government,” he has written, “really have only an enormous capacity for doing harm. Their chances for doing good are very few and hard to come by.” As Italy’s President for the next seven years, Segni has a rare opportunity for doing good.

*Below a flaming cross that appeared in the noonday sky above Rome, Constantine saw the motto, In hoc signo vinces (By this sign conquer), which eventually led to his conversion to Christianity.

*In all of Italy’s long history, Sardinia has produced hardly any notable figures. Until Segni reached a political eminence, the island’s most famed citizen was Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1926 for a novel, Flight into Egypt. Before she died in 1936 she had written 28 novels about life on the “forgotten island.”

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