New-style party still parties in old style


Summertime in Italy is, of course, festival time. By this we mean festivals of every shape, size and cultural preoccupation you could possibly imagine.

The foreigner probably thinks of Italian festivals as arts-orientated happenings such as Venice film, Umbria jazz, Spoleto arts, the Rossini International in Pesaro or the open-air opera season at the Arena in Verona.

These indeed are mega-happenings in the arts world, but are only the very tip of a network that extends to every village and hamlet in the land.

At the heart of most local festivals is that intrinsically Italian ability to create a celebration out of eating and drinking, and not to excess either.

The basic ingredients of a successful festa usually include a variety of food and drink stalls, with crepes, sausages or whole roasted pig, called porchetta.

Depending on the event, though, the festa may well expand to include a live concert, book stalls, video stalls, a lottery and, nowadays, an Internet desk.

The whole open-air gymkhana cum ceili is nearly always set up in the town's main piazza and there is invariably no admission charge.

Many years ago the old PCI (Partito Communista Italiano) decided to harness and adapt the festa concept for its own ideological ends. It was a smart move.

The Communists opted to promote a series of summer Feste dell'Unita throughout the land, working up from grassroots level to one national mega-festa. As party gatherings go, they are a great deal more varied and entertaining than the average ardfheis at the RDS or Conservative Party conference in Brighton.

The original Feste dell'Unita were held as part of L'Humanite's

Parisian Communist fete in the 1930s, at a time when many Italian Communists were living in exile to escape the political persecution of the Mussolini fascist regime.

In those days they were largely fund-raising events intended, among other things, to sustain the party newspaper, L'Unita.

By the post-war period, however, the Feste dell'Unita had made a qualitative leap forward with an especially big and impressive event being organised in Rome in September 1948 to welcome back the PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, at the time recovering from an assassination attempt of two months earlier.

In those days, and to some extent even now, the Festa dell'Unita was and is the most important event in the party's calendar, at local branch or national level, a moment when organisational ability and the capacity to attract large numbers of non-party members are put to the test.

The old Communist party may now call itself Democratic Left; it may now for the first time ever find itself in government as the single largest component in Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left Uiivo coalition; but it knows only too well that the grass roots need constant cultivation to avert the danger of declining party numbership (680,000 card-holders in 1997) among a younger, cynical, post-Cold War generation.

Judging from the Trevignano version, it would seem that the Festa dell'Unita still exercises a strong hold on the party faithful, the ex-PCI members. For the occasion, people who usually never step outside their front door after 7.30 p.m. were to be seen still in the piazza at close to midnight. Divorced couples, excompagni, reunited for the party's greater good, while teenage daughters and sons were dragged out to sit and look bored for the evening.

The Festa dell'Unita might seem a nothing event until one relates it to the social events organised by the main centreright party in today's Italy, namely Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

Put simply, Forza Italia can organise impressive national congresses and conventions but nothing like a local festa, for the good reason that Forza Italia is not, and so far never has been, a grassroots movement.

Rather it was an overnight sensation, imposed from above by a combination of Mr Berlusconi's media clout (his three TV channels), his (once) winning appeal and his brilliant political salesmanship.

In the context of an Italian political stage on which Mr Berlusconi remains a significant player the Festa dell'Unita, for all its quirkiness and for all that it might well seem an anachronism, represents a welcome exercise in grassroots democracy. It is usually good fun, too.