Can Europe Make It?

Shared histories: Austria’s interest in Italy is still very much alive

"Call it a Europe-building exercise imposed from above, if you must. For me, cynicism had no place on screen last night.”

Alessio Colonnelli
11 November 2019, 5.36pm
Scampia on ORF

If you think about it, Italy and Austria could well be the strangest of neighbours. Their languages differ like night and day, yet their respective histories are intertwined. The latter ruled over large parts of the former for a long time. In Italy’s north, where the Habsburgs dominated unchallenged from Trieste to Milan, the word svanziche is still occasionally heard. It means ‘dosh’, from the German zwanzig, or twenty, as in twenty Kreuzer, a currency used in Lombardy and Veneto under Austrian rule.

Italy, on the other hand, eventually reclaimed its own independence over the course of various wars, the last one being WWI. It did so too zealously, perhaps: Italy not only ended up annexing the southern part of Tyrol; it tried to strip it of its Germanic nature (mostly inhabited by German speakers and just a few thousand Italian ethnic at the time) by also calling it Alto Adige, a name bearing no reference to its Austrian past. And it’s still called that, despite a welcome change in attitude from successive central governments, although the expressions Sudtirolo – also spelled Sud-Tirolo – and sudtirolese are gaining prominence in the Italian media and literature.

So, South Tyrol had been for many decades at the centre of a sort of cold war between Vienna and Rome. That being said, it is also fair to point out the ‘love’ side of this relational coin. Well, love may be too big a word.

‘Affectionate curiosity’ is more like it. An example of this was a prime time broadcast last night (November 7) on ORF1, the Austrian public television’s main channel. Reporting from Scampia, the Neapolitan area notoriously ridden with organised crime, journalist Katharina Wagner reported on the ongoing recovery of this densely populated neighbourhood: revamped public spaces, kindergartens functioning again, ordinary people safely reclaiming social life in the streets.

Scampia on ORF1
Scampia on ORF1 | Screenshot:

Not just that. Viewers learned that Scampia now has a successful women’s football club. Another sign of life thriving again; of individuals making the great Mediterranean way of life – the envy of Europe’s north – theirs again, after many years in the dungeons.

Vele on ORF1
Vele on ORF1 | Screenshot:

Yes, because even the so-called Vele – described as the “Neapels Wohntürme” (Naples’ towering blocks) from Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, quickly and shoddily built in the aftermath of the 1980 earthquake in the nearby province of Irpinia, a perfect if crumbling hideaway for gang members – are thankfully and finally going to be torn down. The end of a Dickensian tale of misery, with plenty of undeserved shadows and no legitimate sun.

Vele on ORF1
Vele on ORF1 | Screenshot:

Wagner did a great job; she also talked to a mother of a disabled youngster, killed in 2004 by the Mob as he couldn’t move out of the way fast enough. It’s taken her 11 years to prove he wasn’t a criminal himself. Hundreds of innocents, injured or assassinated; cases of mistaken identity or just for no reason at all, won’t be easily forgotten.

Police station in Scampia
Police station in Scampia | Screenshot:

Now, Naples is worldwide famous – on a par with Venice, Florence and Rome. After all, it used to be the stunning capital of a kingdom half the size of Italy. A few centuries ago, Naples was even Europe’s largest city. So, it may seem normal for the average citizen of a neighbouring nation to know a thing or two about this ancient port with a Greek name. Naples will always make news.

Innocent victims, Scampia.
Innocent victims, Scampia. | Screenshot:

Yet, the underlying tone of this ORF1 broadcast revealed something warmer than that; it was characterised by special qualities: absolute fairness, for images of grotty surroundings, humble homes and a chief constable interviewed over its 20-year engagement against local crime in its modest-looking office remained with you long after the report was over; and tangible cheerfulness, a happy-for-you feeling for things improving.

Call it a Europe-building exercise imposed from above, if you must. For me, cynicism had no place on screen last night. Just the very opposite.


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