March, named for the god Mars, has to be the most significant month in our Italian heritage.
Today, the Ides of March, marks the assassination in 44 B.C of dictator Caius Julius Caesar, which set classical Italy on a new course from republic to empire – a transformation that guaranteed Italy’s leadership in world history.
The litany of events in March summarize who we are and how far we have come. March 10th 241 B.C., Sicily (named for the Italic Sicel tribe) became Italy’s “suburban province,” as Cicero put it. On March 1st, 222 B.C. the Italian peninsula, Sicily, and Sardinia became one state – Europe’s first, and one year before China’s unification. Centuries later, Sicilians ousted their French occupiers on March 30th 1282, commemorated as the Sicilian Vespers. Closer to our time, Italy was reunited on March 17th, 1861 when King Victor Emanuel II became the King of Italy.
Not to distract from St Patrick’s Day, but March 17th was the official day that Roman teenagers assembled throughout Italy to don their first togas and adopt their first names. The praenomina ceremony was like Confirmation today. Instead of taking a middle name, as we do, ancient Italic boys chose from a short list of first names like Caius, Lucius, Marcus, and Quintus.
For Italian Americans, March 14th, 1891 was a day of infamy when eleven innocent immigrants were brutally murdered by a New Orleans mob. President Benjamin Harrison conceded the injustice, and against the wishes of Congress, compensated each family with $2,500 from White House funds.
On a lighter note, March 6th saw the birth of Michelangelo in 1475, and comedian Lou Costello (born: Cristillo) in 1908. March 19th isn’t just St Joseph’s Day, it’s when the “swallows return to Capistrano,” California – an old mission named for an Italian saint.
This month of pandemic and anxiety may have revived the spirit of Italy. That country is now the epicenter of the coronavirus, particularly the northern regions where the death toll mounts. Italian political leaders have coalesced in a determination to show what mettle their nation is made of. Sixty million Italians are on lockdown today to suppress the spread of the virus. Suddenly, stuck in their homes, Italians are imbued with rare patriotic fervor – as from Mars himself. Italian flags flutter from many homes. The Inno di Mameli, the national anthem, is occasionally sung in unison across balconies, as well as inspirational arias.
The photo of an 87-year old woman, who just recovered from the virus, extending her fist in victory has gone viral (a fitting word!). The otherwise free-wheeling Italian population understands that the world is watching them and how they acquit themselves. As goes Italy, so goes Europe! We are witnessing an odd combination of emotional patriotism, usually exhibited during world soccer championships, and a national discipline thought long-buried with Fascism.
What will Italy and the rest of the world be like when the virus subsides? The economic losses are still mounting. For Italy, already strained with no growth, high unemployment, and debt-loaded banks, any recovery will be daunting. One of the reasons for its high death rate (over 1,800, to date) is its elderly population, the highest in Europe. The average age of those who have succumbed is 81. No wonder Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urges Italians to think about the safety of their parents and grandparents.
On the plus side, the Italian healthcare is universal and Italy has more doctors and hospital beds per capita than the United States. Italy also has more testing capability and is doing so. If it can keep the virus at bay in the northern regions, the odds are the health system will remain viable.
Speaking of odds, the city of Pavia in the hard hit Lombardy region was the home of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), the pioneer of odds-making. His Book on Games of Chance was the first analysis of probability in gambling. The key to beating the odds with the coronavirus is testing as many people as possible. Once you know who the carriers are, you can isolate them without mass disruptions. Ironically, Cardano himself survived a botched abortion by his mother. She, in turn, had escaped a plague before giving birth to him in Pavia. No doubt, Cardano’s interest in beating the odds started in utero! -JLM