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Silvio Berlusconi is a changed man. From my summer vantage point in Florence, at least, the changes are clear. Gone – or at least subdued – is the “I’m no saint” swagger. The ready joke for all seasons is absent too, battered by scandals and Italy’s new place in the middle of the world’s financial turmoil. Instead, Mr Berlusconi has a new best friend – the reserved and formidably bright head of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi.
Mr Draghi is to take up the post as head of the European Central Bank in November, succeeding Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet. He was instrumental in getting Italy’s recent austerity plan agreed, even though it was twice as severe as the one the government had proposed earlier. More interestingly, Mr Draghi has also tempted his prime minister to transgress the one boundary that, until then, even he considered unthinkable: raising taxes.
The deal still has to be ratified by parliament, but Mr Berlusconi, whose promise has always been of lower taxes, has already said that higher taxes are now “necessary”. Political commentators – often with nearly two decades of their lives consumed writing about Europe’s most colourful leader – have been left groping for new descriptive phrases. Stefano Folli of Il Sole 24 Ore, a daily business newspaper, wrote that with his conversion to the cause of higher taxes “the last taboo of Berlusconism has fallen and with it the definitive transformation of a 17-year phenomenon is complete”. He continued: “One can say that Berlusconi, a perfect Zelig, has slipped into the clothes of a technician-premier.” Perhaps – but his language is still reassuringly baroque: “My heart,” the prime minister said on having announced his conversion, “is weeping.”
With his reputation as a tax-cutter in tatters, Mr Berlusconi is risking a change even closer to the hearts of most Italians – their holiday. Italians, and certainly Florentines, observe holidays with some rigour. Monday was ferragosto, the mid-August break in which most things not already closed, close. The cities are deserted of all but the tourists – although this means the central areas of Florence are still thronged – while the highways are murderous in every sense of the word.
Yet this well-entrenched holiday culture is now set to suffer a new blow from modernity. The package of deep spending cuts and steep tax rises agreed by the government and the European Union at the end of last week calls for an end to the ponti, or bridges of days off, which Italians love to construct between the weekends and the national one-day holidays – such as Liberation Day on April 25, Labour Day on May 1 and Republic Day on June 2. At present when these occur midweek, many take the opportunity for an extra long weekend. But the custom has proven a bridge too far for straitened times, and all such days will now be shifted to Monday. True to this government’s concern to please the Vatican, however, Italy’s cherished saints’ days are to be exempt: they will be celebrated when the saints wanted them to be. Bridges can still be thrown over holy waters, it seems.
For a city of such beauty, many of Florence’s famed citizens have given their names to terrible attitudes – and none more so than the man seen as the ultimate thinker of realpolitik, Niccolò Machiavelli. His masterwork, The Prince, is seen as every ruler’s indispensable handbook but some scholars have concluded that his reputation for double-dealing is undeserved. Perhaps it is time for a re-evaluation?
Columbia University law professor and public intellectual Philip Bobbitt certainly thinks Machiavelli gets a bum rap from history, and has completed a new biography to be published later this year or early next. Mr Bobbitt, author of Shield of Achilles and a thinker on grand strategy much admired by Henry Kissinger, among others, believes Machiavelli was a visionary who saw that the modern state was being created within the bounds of the feudal order. Seen in this light, his advice to rulers was aimed only at wise – if sometimes Machiavellian – rule, helping them to choose the best ministers to safeguard the state. Instead, his ungrateful clients continued to see their domains as personal fiefdoms, to be held by them and their families against all comers – and damned his advice as the work of a godless cynic.