Italy and Yugoslavia, an asymmetrical love riding the economic boom

Tito e Sofia LorenThe Second World War did not only result in the massive physical reconstruction of Europe, devastated by the war damage, occupied by the victors, and divided by the Cold War, as told masterfully by Tony Judt and, more recently, Ian Buruma. As equally important was the work done on rebuilding the confidence and overcoming the chauvinism among the European nations and generating interest in the various cultures in Europe which, together, have laid the foundation for the longest period of peace on the smallest continent in the world. The culture and the media have played the key role in this, giving an opportunity to tens of millions of people to know and appreciate different aspects of life, culture and entertainment in other nations, formerly vilified by the nationalist propaganda.

In this social history, the relationship between Italy and Yugoslavia plays a unique role. The two nations, which shared a different yet similar history brimming with racism, massacres, occupation, refugees and forceful territorial claims in the aftermath of the London Agreement regulating the issue of the territory of Trieste and Istria, started to discover each other with Yugoslavia intrigued by the Italian lifestyle and culture, which, in the eyes of Tito’s regime, was an acceptable, good natured and cheerful variant of the Western consumer society.

 The fascination that started in the mid-1950s, partly still lasts to this day, resembling teenage love where two people will be forever connected. We are talking to Francesca Rolandi, a researcher at the University of Rijeka and the author of the paper “With twenty-four thousand kisses – The influence of the Italian mass culture in Yugoslavia (1955-1965)” about this long-standing “love affair” between Italy and Yugoslavia.

There is no relationship between two nations in the post-war Europe that has been filled with so much uncritical admiration like the one that Yugoslavia had towards Italy. Popular music, film, television, fashion, food… Italy was seen as the model to aspire to in all of the fields of the popular culture. But why Italy, and not, for instance, Austria, the country with which Slovenia has had historically close relations?

copertina libro Rolandi“I believe that this was more an international phenomenon than local. The Anglo-Saxon world has also had a fascination with Italy which was perceived as the home of good taste, beauty and harmony, and this view particularly prevailed in the early 1960s, while coinciding with the economic boom and the great success of the international cinema. Previously, Italy had an image of a country that was deeply affected by severe poverty and backwardness compared to, let’s say, Northern Europe.

In Yugoslavia, this sentiment was formed even before that, in the mid-1950s, because the foundation for comparison was different. If we consider the local level, I think that the image of Italy was imposed with such a great ease because Italy and Yugoslavia were two neighbours which could freely talk with each other in the mid-1950s despite the past history and different political systems. Of course, the image of Italy varied from area to area and was, for instance, much more positive in Serbia than in territories that have directly experienced fascism and the Italian occupation like the coastal Istria and Montenegro. Of course, they had a strong dislike for the Italian imperialism which sometimes encompassed the entire Italian culture that had been imposed by fascism and forced Italianization. However, mass culture, as a modern day international phenomenon that is, in essence, not related to national issues, was able to overcome these barriers throughout Yugoslavia and to convey an image different from that of the fascist Italy.

Even in the places where the memories of the Italian crimes were still fresh, the people watched Italian TV and it seemed that they had two different perceptions of the Italian people. Also, there were close historical ties with Austria which were more focused on the mutual benefit. The Yugoslav people went to Austria as guest workers (the so-called gastarbeiter), and they bought appliances there that were of better quality, but the admiration and the sense of unity was much less pronounced.

 The aversion towards the German-speaking world, contributed in part to the memories of the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, was alive for decades. Even though Italy was also an occupying country, the situation there was rather multifaceted. Italy was a country that was partly rehabilitated thanks to the Italian resistance movement. Many Italian partisans had fought in Yugoslavia, alongside with the Yugoslavs, and the Italian minority in Yugoslavia was not expelled from the country like the local Germans in 1945.”

We could make a parallel here – in the eyes of many Italians, Yugoslavia represented “Socialism with a human face”, while Yugoslavs deemed Italy as “capitalism with a human face”, i.e. less brutal and materialistic than other kinds of capitalism thanks to the double filter represented by democratic solidarity and the egalitarianism of the socialist and communist matrix. In the case of Italy, to what extent was this view merely a result of Yugoslavia’s aspiration and which aspects of it were acceptable, and even promoted by the party leaders?

 “I fully agree with you and I would like to add to this the advent of the centre-left forces in Italy, as well as the fact that the political relations between the two countries really took off. For example, Aldo Moro was a great friend of Yugoslavia. There were definitely two levels to this – on one hand, for the Yugoslavs, Italy represented the only example of capitalism that could be touched and sensed because many of them frequently traveled to Italy. Considering all the countries from the Eastern Bloc, Italy shared the most commonalities with Yugoslavia, be it positive – the economic boom, or the negative – the contradictions that the economic boom brought with it.

celentanoYou couldn’t compare Italy to the United States or Great Britain.  For the Yugoslav leadership, the Italian mass culture seemed acceptable especially since it was cleansed off the subversive phenomena, the brutality of capitalism and a strong sense of individualism. The officials in charge of cultural policies actually supported the penetration of the Yugoslav rock and roll in the country because they believed that it would satisfied the young people’s need for fund and would enhance the image of Yugoslavia as a country open to Western trends. But they did not like rock and roll concerts, with its rebellious aspect or even cases of vandalism similar to those in the Anglo-Saxon world. They also did not like the artists who led dissolute lives, so Little Tony and Adriano Celentano were more acceptable versions.”

In the first few pages of this famous book “The Guide to the Serbian Mentality”, writer Momo Kapor speaks of Italy as the first contact that the Yugoslavs had with “the outside world” and compares the abundance and composure in Italy to “heaven for consumers” to the rough habits and the greyness of socialist society. Yet, as he points out in the book, the vast majority of Yugoslav citizens always returned home after visiting Italy and very few asked for political asylum. How do you explain this behaviour? Perhaps there was an implicit understanding among the population that has built an idealized image of Italy and preferred to return to the safety of the socialist system?

 “Well, first of all, I think we should abandon the stereotypical image of the Socialist bloc as a prison from which everyone wanted to flee. There were bloc countries that were different to the rest and Yugoslavia was one of them. In any case, since the conflict in the mid-1960s, many Yugoslav citizens asked for political asylum in Italy which was just a stop on their way to the United States, Canada or Northern Europe. Every migrant had different motivation. Such policies were generally predominant in the post-war period, but in the beginning of the 1950s, economic reasons assumed an even greater importance with many Yugoslavs fleeing from poverty or seeking better economic and working conditions. Gradually, following the 1962-63 economic migration, the things became more liberal in Yugoslavia which signed bilateral treaties with European countries in need of workforce.

Since that period, which rather unique among the socialist countries, Yugoslav people began working abroad legally, especially in West Germany, and there was no need to flee the country. At that point, even the number of the Yugoslav asylum seekers in Italy declined. By all means, the perception of Italy was not realistic but rather idealized and imagined, similar to the expectations that the Yugoslavs had about the future and the life across the border. This image was cultivated by those people who “tasted” what Italy was like when spending a few hours in Trieste, and not by those who actually lived there.”

As noted in the book, it was still an asymmetric relationship: the Italians, who were the subject of admiration, looked to the Yugoslavs with indifference or opportunism. Was this a one-way relationship, or were some elements of the Yugoslav popular culture still absorbed by Italy?

Beba Loncar was among few Yugoslavian actresses wngaged in Italian quality movies. This frame is taken from "Signore e Signori" directed by Pietro Germi (1966)

Beba Loncar was among the few Yugoslavian actresses engaged in Italian quality movies. This frame is taken from “Signore e Signori” directed by Pietro Germi (1966)

“The relationship between Italy and Yugoslavia was largely one-way and asymmetrical, especially in the period which I have researched. For Yugoslavia, Italy was as a symbolic gateway to the West and the influence of the country’s pop culture really represented a mass phenomenon. On the other hand, Yugoslavia fascinated a niche audience, especially during the period of the heightened interest in the Yugoslav political experiment. Yugoslavia also won international awards in the arts and film sector, some of its cultural products became known abroad – like Kusturica’s early films, and the image of Yugoslavia became one of a “holiday country”. However, its culture has never really impacted the Italian general public.

For Yugoslavia, Italy was mainstream, and for Italy, Yugoslavia was underground. There was an exception in the early 1970s when the Telecapodistria TV, broadcasting in Italian language, managed to overcome the language barriers and became very popular in Italy as the only alternative to the monopoly of RAI.

The book talks about the rise of the myth of Italy in Yugoslavia between 1955 and 1965. When did this myth appear, or rather when did the Yugoslavs stop projecting their desires and aspirations onto Italy and started looking up to other role models? Was there a certain period or an event that led to disappointment and when did the image of Italy become more realistic?

“I would say that the Italian myth has never failed in Yugoslavia, but that it has changed. During the years in question, it had had a function of a filter to other cultural phenomena of the Western approach which, from the mid-1960s, started to penetrate the country more easily. More and more teens listened to both Yugoslav and American rock in its original form, skipping the Italian mediation. In terms of cultural influences, this situation became increasingly comparable to that in other European countries.”

Did this cultural hegemony affect the entire population considering it was used by the Italian public diplomacy in terms of soft power? And if it didn’t, was it the case of lack of interest, or lack of understanding of this potential?

 “I would say that it was slightly below its potential. There were many initiatives by the Italian diplomacy for cultural promotion in Yugoslavia, but these were essentially what we might call “high culture”, while popular music, television, and fashion were not perceived as cultural areas in the broad sense and cultural products circulated not so much thanks to state support, but thanks to purely commercial reasons. I do not think there was lack of interest but it was rather the Italian cultural officials having difficulty to understand this potential, at least in the period which I have been researching and working on. In this regard, the Yugoslavs were much more ready to seize the potential of mass culture and to use it, perhaps because they observed the fear and the repression from the beginning and they ultimately learned how use it for their own soft power when Yugoslavia began to open to the outside world in the early 1950s.”

 You have lived in Serbia for over three years and you still regularly visit the country. If you were to write an essay on today’s relations between the Italian popular culture and the Serbs, what aspects would you highlight?

 “First of all, I would say that Serbia has changed a lot since I set foot in it for the very first time. Ten years ago, it was a country that was affected by the isolation of the previous decade, and every foreigner who came was a breath of fresh air with people wanting to talk to him and being determined to reverse the negative image of the country, or the Serbs that people abroad had. Compared to Italy, people often mention Serbia as a symbol of greater mobility enjoyed during the time of Yugoslavia. Compared to modern day, up until 2009, Serbian citizens were required to have visas if they wanted to visit a Schengen country.”

During the so-called refrain era, we went to Trieste to drink espresso. I think that it is interesting to note that, since the traveling became more frequent, people have noticed that this Adriatic town is no longer the same and that it has lost a lot since the end of the era of Yugoslav shopping. Today, there is a sense of openness, the situation has normalized, and Belgrade has again become a major international capital. I believe that the relationship with Italy has remained strong and that there is a still the strong appeal of the Italian mass culture at different levels of society. It is very difficult to say how is Italy perceived today. We definitely don’t have the beauty of the 1960s and, unfortunately, the products of Italian culture that have arrived to Serbia are very commercial in nature. In any case, there is a great interest for the initiatives launched in the last few years which have been met with enthusiasm by the general public.”

The book is the result of an extensive research of archives, as well as the contacts you have had with the people who lived through the historical climate that you analyze. Is it true that the book could not be considered as scientific, but could be published for the general public to read?

 “It is not that often that I take a taxi, but when I do, every single taxi driver has a story to tell me about his trip to Italy or his relatives there. There are many anecdotes, especially about shopping in Trieste, and the strategies to avoid paying duties and smuggling the bought goods. Trieste was a town brimming with Yugoslav tourists, East European refugees, political emigrants, the informants of the Italian police and various intelligence agencies, and denim vendors that lived as mafia bosses. In Borgo Teresiano, you could buy clothes, dolls, spare parts for cars, passports, various foreign currency and anti-Yugoslav emigration publications. This is a border city that has definitely lost its memory, but, luckily, some people have been trying to recover it such as the Cizerouno Association from Trieste.”

Francesca_RolandiFrancesca Rolandi earned her doctorate degree in Slavic Studies from the University of Turin in 2012, with the thesis on the influence of Italian mass culture in Yugoslavia and is the recipient of the Vinka Kitarovic Award. She lived and conducted research in Italy (the Italian Institute of Historical Studies of Naples), Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia (the University of Ljubljana), Austria (the Centre for South-East European Studies, the University of Graz). She is currently is post-doctoral researcher at the University of Rijeka.

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