A stop sign with a person looking tentatively into the world.

Italy in lockdown: The ultra-secular battle of laughing to avoid crying

The forced isolation to which the whole world had been subjected in March 2020 has triggered a reaction to social change caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This response diversified according to the national and cultural context, especially amongst the young people. COVINFORM project has recently published a bi-monthly report summarising an explorative analysis of memes to understand how humour was used to cope with the pandemic events and communicate with others, share specific narratives, and comment on experiences during the pandemic. This article presents a further discussion on the new viral form of ironic-artistic response, characteristic of the traditional context of the Mediterranean boot. However, this form or reaction finds its origins in a more distant past representing the stereotypical symbol of the average Italian in the world. This humour still persists today, even if it is different. It reflects the mechanism that has been successful for centuries in which the Italians make a tragic moment into their greatest expression of hilarity.

First, what do Italians laugh about? They laugh at misery, hunger, at the raspberry-like sound that the oppressed people make at the oppressor. While English laughter builds upon humour, subtlety, and allusions said between the lines, French laughter is based on a certain goliardia. In contrast, in Italy the raspberry is the most effective and desecrating form of laughter; it is also the daughter of loud and genuine laughter, as they would say in Naples. The attitude to the irony of Italy, known all over the world, has historical and cultural roots dating back to the Commedia dell’Arte of the 17th century. That period gave birth to characters of the calibre of Harlequin and Punchinello, who were born from the commediographers in the piazza and became icons of Italian comedy in the world.

The humorous moments in Bicycle Thieves and Open City Rome gave a new impulse to spice up tragedy with a little bit of irony. Italian cinema becomes comedy when the authors understand that a dramatic story told funnily and ironically works better. Italy has never had a taste for tragedy, and joking about one’s misfortunes has always been the preferred way out. An example of this is the authors themselves joking about the flaws of the Italians, even with quite polemical peaks. Through this mechanism of ironic self-evaluation of the characters, the typical traits of their alleged or real vices were emancipated: disunity, disorganization, lack of sense of common interest, and cunning. We are talking about a country that, systematically following these characteristics, during the various pandemic lockdowns, was disunited because it was divided by colours that were constantly changing and with regional presidents not coordinated on the positions to be taken during the second and third wave of Covid-19 contagions.

Disorganized because the conferences and live broadcasts were organized with little advance notice, the result of an unorganized political class debating over whatever. The lack of sense of common interest is personified by the president of Campania, a region of southern Italy, who autonomously decided to close the places of education (threatening to use a flamethrower) to prevent further waves of covid-19 while the whole of Italy had restarted. We must, therefore, take for granted (and I say this with full knowledge of the facts) that Italy is a country that makes drama and comedy the faces of the same medal, interconnected even if opposite to each other. I would define this as a sort of dramatic exaggeration of the absurd that throws in our faces and smiles at how much worse it can get. I laugh not to cry; a phrase used a lot within the Italian dialectic of all generations and strongly descriptive.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a process that entered our lives silently, slowly, and invisibly. From a fairly lateral point of view, it is safe to say that we were almost ready for a pandemic but not for a total closure or lockdown (as Italians like to call it). An anglicism that Italians like to borrow out of laziness or for a pseudo sentiment that I would define as posh and high-ranking, and that we do not find in any other Western European country. This cultural trait alone is quite hilarious.

Starting with these historical-chronological-cultural premises, it is only right to analyze the Italian irony.  The good old irony has been in the past decade connected with the brand new world of social media. The use of Instagram combined with irony forms a new way of laughing, strengthened in a tragic period caused by forced isolation. It multiplies the use of memes as a universal artistic language representing the collective process of appropriation and manipulation where people modify the meaning of an image each time. Some memes might make people laugh, and others might remain misunderstood because of hidden cultural references.  And this is exactly where national hilarity comes out.

Memes have become an integral part of the language of millions of people. These funny images shared on social networks, apps and messaging services, such as Whatsapp or Telegram, have brought them into the world of modern communication just as emojis did years ago. We are talking about a form of written communication between acquaintances and non-acquaintances who are content to elicit laughter – as with jokes and jokes aloud – comparable, in a very broad sense indeed, to the trends of Commedia dell’Arte and tragicomedy of the 1900s in terms of the number of productions, reproductions and copies worldwide. Finally, everyone seems to agree that funny memes, jokes, and laughter have been the most effective weapons against pandemic stress, enabling users to respond to emergencies in a more rational way and boosting confidence in people’s ability to cope.  Entertaining social content about global events can help people process the news without being totally overwhelmed.

Combining the two, at this point, I would like to consider the Trash Italiano account as one of the most influential Instagram accounts to date. The account with 4.1 million followers (which means 1 in 15 Italians follow this page) selects the right critical, cynical, and hilarious point of view representing the average Italian without generational distinction. Among the most present memes, there are certainly those on the now-former Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Conte was mocked for many of his characteristics; most of all his false northern accent acquired – since he is a native of southern Italy. These characteristics have now become a TV series appointment, in pre-announced speeches to which he always arrives late and the “dazzling beauty” not typical of a high-ranking politician. This eventually led to the creation of an account called Conte’s Girls. Around the world, only Sanchez in Spain was hailed for the same reason. There would be pages and pages to discuss the name given to the account but in extreme synthesis. “ Conte‘s girl” is a concept born with the Big Brother VIP and outlines a group of teenage fans hopelessly in love with the recipient, in this case, Conte, as it is a teenager for the frontman of a rock band. Obviously, all of this represents a blatant joke on fan page communities, making us feel like fans of our handsome president rather than citizens of a country he represents.

In conclusion, this article outlines how in moments of extreme desperation and isolation, the age-old Italian irony meets technology and creates new content and communities. Rido per non piangere is a formula that works, and if a winning team does not change, Italians will constantly find new hybrid humour that will cross worlds and cause the birth of other even more hybrid humour. We have noticed how natural it becomes, in this country, that even the highest offices are subject to satire of various kinds, especially popular satire; a social media satire of memes that makes anyone smile, even the recipient himself. In other words, Italians have been laughing ferociously at each other for two thousand years, and things will continue to be that way.

Author: Luigi Campaniello, Student of the Master in Sciences for Development and International Cooperation, Sapienza University of Rome

, ,