Why Florence is the perfect setting for Theresa May’s big Brexit speech

British Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to travel to Florence to give a major speech on Brexit has led to raised eyebrows. But the Tuscan city is actually the perfect setting for her talk, argues Andrew Glencross, senior lecturer at Aston University.

Why Florence is the perfect setting for Theresa May's big Brexit speech
Florence. Photo: Greg_Men/Flickr

Theresa May has chosen an inspirational setting, Florence, for her Brexit speech on September 22nd. The British prime minister is not known for her flights of fancy, so what might link this storied Tuscan city, whose art and architecture draw millions of tourists annually, to the political project she seeks to promote?

Florence has served as a canvas for legions of writers in search of a backdrop to explore the enduring themes of love, conflict, creation and destruction. British novelists are no exception, so we might expect to hear May name-dropping E.M Forster. Or, if something more colourful is required, Robert Harris, the creator of cannibal killer Hannibal Lector (Harris attended the trial of the Monster of Florence).

A highbrow reference might be the once widely-read Romola, by George Eliot. This complex historical novel is set in the time of Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican monk intent on purifying the city whose power reached its apogee during the bonfire of the vanities. Then again, the monk’s fanaticism recalls some of the worst rhetorical excesses of the Brexit debate, so perhaps that’s a subject best avoided.

Lessons from Florentine history

A favourite way to promote a positive vision of the UK without the EU is to point to the rich history of British involvement in European affairs. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, peppers his global Britain speeches with references to the British diaspora and its long history. A local case in point is John Hawkwood, an infamous mercenary whose service to Florence is commemorated in a famous fresco in Santa Maria del Fiore, better known on the tourist trail as the Duomo.

Hawkwood's fresco. Photo: Wikipedia

Hawkwood was contracted to wage war on behalf of Italian cities constantly at odds with their neighbours in medieval times. Florence itself secured many victories over its rivals, which enabled the civic government to flourish. That success is embodied in stone by the Palazzo Vecchio that dominates Piazza della Signoria (where Savonarola met his own fiery end).

But as with the UK as it embarks on departing the EU, Florentine politics always needed to take account of the world beyond. Quarrels between the Guelphs and Ghibellinesin effect the first modern political parties – were founded on questions of competing international allegiances since Italian cities were caught in a power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor.

There is another uncanny echo from the history of Florence’s struggles for self-government in the political writings of Machiavelli and Dante. These writers understood that the jealously guarded independence of city states such as Florence weakened Italy as a whole. The solution these thinkers promoted was Italian unity – just as 20th century Italian statesmen such as Altiero Spinelli advocated European integration to survive international power politics.

All hope abandon, ye who are about to listen?

Even if Dante’s political ideas would not further May’s agenda, she could find solace in the Divine Comedy, the masterpiece of Florence’s favourite son. The poet’s depiction of what he witnesses in his descent through the ten circles of hell is structured according to the logic of contrapasso. Sins are punished by the opposite action of the crime committed. Flatterers, therefore drown in a sea of their verbal diarrhoea made real. Nothing could please the pro-Brexit British tabloids more than to invoke the grotesque imagery of the Inferno to decry the EU’s demand for a multi-billion euro bill as punishment for daring to leave.

Dante's Inferno. Photo: rutger_vos/Flickr

However, rumours are swirling that May will in fact concede ground on the payment dispute in order to boost the chances of securing a “special partnership” after Article 50 talks have concluded. This special partnership is a recurring theme in May’s Brexit rhetoric, just as the Madonna (for instance Giotto’s altar piece housed in the Uffizi) was a ubiquitous reference point in Renaissance art. Perhaps because both offer a beguiling vision of something pure and worthy of devotion.

Giotto's Madonna. Photo: Wikipedia

Here the prime minister ought to heed the tale of Henry James’ short story, The Madonna of the Future. If she has not read it, she can find a copy in the British Institute, home to the library of Harold Acton – a personification of aristocratic free movement prior to the EU. Set in Florence, James’ story recounts the tribulations of an American artist who spends years working on a portrait of the ideal Madonna, a project he talks about incessantly. The painful climatic scene sees the narrator, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, barge his way into the artist’s studio, where he discovers a canvas “that was a mere dead blank, cracked and discoloured by time”. It’s a painful and telling lesson: the grander the setting and the more grandiloquent the discourse, the greater the potential for eventual disappointment when nothing of substance materialises.

Andrew Glencross, Senior lecturer, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.