Moving to Italy meant moving from the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Repubblica Italiana, but with that change came an unexpected twist: whereas the Netherlands is a most informal country, despite the fact that it’s head of state is Beatrix, by the Grace of God Queen of the Netherlands, Princess of Orange-Nassau, etc. etc. etc., Italy is a very formal nation, even though the head of state is a humble, ageing former Communist partizan from Naples, Giorgio Napolitano.
Of course, his title is the highest achievable one: Presidente della Repubblica. But that doesn’t stop other people from using the grand title Presidente at all – any chairman can (and will) be referred to as such. And so, when my loving girl comes home from work talking about the visit from the Presidente in her office, I am left to guess: was Napolitano there? Was it the Presidente della Camera dei deputati – the leader of the House of Representatives, Gianfranco Fini? Was it the Presidente del Senato – the leader of the Senate, Renato Schifani? Was it the Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri – the leader of the Council of Ministers, Silvio Berlusconi? Or was it the president of the company?
Titles are everything in Italian life. Berlusconi never got a university degree, but he was once honoured by the state and is often referred to as Il Cavaliere – he is a knight in the Order of Labour. During the elections he used a song in which he was called Presidente: Presidente siamo con te / Menomale che Silvio c’è (President, we are with you / It’s good that there’s Silvio). Presidente in this song refers to the chairmanship of his party. Smart move.
In daily life as well people may refer to you by your title – if you have one. My girlfriend was called ingegnere by her greengrocer from the moment he learned that she had an engineering degree. She will never ask to be called thus – it was his choice to do so. Drama series on TV are full of people called dottore or professoressa; usually it’s the ‘lower class’ characters talking to those higher up in life. I can’t think of the word professoressa without hearing it in Roman or Neapolitan dialect (popular cities as backdrop for TV fiction) – which makes it sound like brufesseresse.
Frankly it strikes me as grovelling. Kissing up to those in higher positions in the hope of getting something back for your troubles. Probably unconsciously by now, but still. And that’s what this country is about, that’s at the heart of this deeply corrupted system. All strata of society know this and all try to gain the most advantage from it. The dignitary will use the weight of his function as an instrument of power and the commoner will grovel in the hope to be looked upon favourably. For in the end it’s not who you are which is important here, but who you know.