Pierre Cardin for Queen magazine, February 1962
Text Michela Tamburrino
Middle class is no longer an insult. This is the news. Not that the middle class has been eroded by the social recession and the outmoded habit of separated classes. The Marxist contempt for a certain idea of life has turned into the nostalgia that always accompanies something no longer with us. The bourgeoisie of the past just no longer exists, that’s all. Dismissed like that natural interface, the working class. Missing from general conversation. Gone.
But who were these bourgeois triggers of hate? Perhaps the industrialist, the statesman, the public official, the intellectual and the illuminated capitalist at Olivetti, or the commenda (stereotypical middle-aged paunchy Italian business manager, n.d.T.) mocked by Dino Risi, with his young lover and open-top sports car? For Massimo Cacciari, “the language of a certain faction of the European left and the workers’ movement, defined the middle class quite simply as the capitalist, the entrepreneur. But this is a simplistic idea of bourgeoisie.” In the sense that the middle class cannot just be identified by its economic dimension. On the contrary, in certain aspects it has nothing to do with this at all. Middle class is less an economic status and more a question of education, background, sensibility, and feeling. The middle classes stand out for their moderation and measure. Restraint in their relationships with others and expression of their feelings. Discretion regarding their states of mind. People of distinction, of doubt. Outmoded, anachronistic sentiments. And so that kind of bourgeoisie has become archaeology. Today we are seeing the victory of Trump and his wannabe fans. A decline in good manners and true sentiments that even Ernesto Galli Della Loggia writes about: “…An uncultured country in which every rule is superficial, any respect for it uncertain and incivility is rife. A look around is enough: ignorance, superficiality, bad manners, petty corruption, and unwarranted aggression are increasingly widespread and increasingly less subject to public condemnation.”
Whatever happened to the educational example afforded by the big families à la Pirelli, Crespi and Agnelli, with its international scope, instigators of the noble story of the Italian bourgeoisie, or better, simply of Italy, of modern Europe, the backbone of the nineteenth-century cultural and industrial revolutions, capable of edging the corrupt weak nobility further away forever.
The Crespi family in the Milan of the early fifties, for example, with the Corriere, the newspaper par excellence, gifted to Giulia Maria, known as “tsarina” due to her arrogant manner, ethics as guide for life, and the FAI (Italy’s National Trust) as a logical consequence. No beating about the bush, far removed from drawing-room style society. She had this to say, “I don’t even know if the idea of a drawing-room society still exists. There is great crisis among both the middle classes and the politicians. Great selfishness and little interest in the common good on the part of the powerful. In my opinion, this problem will get worse because so many people live below subsistence level and this never leads to anything good. I know some extraordinary bourgeois people, but many of their children are obviously no longer interested in the common good and leave Italy to go abroad. We should stop them though, because this country of ours is truly extraordinary for its varied territory and wealth of art.” A naïve hope that is destined to remain just that, as Italians drip out at a sustained pace. The winning class is suffering. The machines that replaced the workers are in the past, but the computer and AI will shortly be taking over from human intellectual labor. The big families are attempting to perpetuate their status by guaranteeing overseas study for their offspring, sustains the sociologist Domenico De Masi. The upper middle class are seeking internationalism, betterment outside Italy, penalizing the “moyenne” or middle stratum, who must make do with what they have locally.
The global vision is that of the Boeri family, very countertrend in terms of education and political passion, strong builders of relationships, they enjoy a Milan-flavored Kennedy-style dynasty made up of politics, civil and social engagement. An indispensable condition because, as Cini Boeri was wont to say, “in our family we have always breathed a love of civil society, there is no room for indifference.”
Indolence, rather than indifference, is the characteristic trait of the Roman bourgeoisie. Another question altogether, swallowed up by the powers that be with a proximity to politics that has made it cynical, lackadaisical, with the bad habit of trickery and deservedly suspected of a lack of transparency. A too strong aristocracy in a papal city that looked to the middle classes and accused them of being moneyed bumpkins, leading to the advent of “Il generone”, a term worthy of a Nobel prize used to indicate male gold-diggers who succeeded in marrying the wealthy daughters of businessmen, thus allowing them to get fat on the pickings without lifting a finger. Soft-centered and spineless, these bourgeois types are not exactly Rome’s pride and joy. Better, much better are their counterparts in Turin as depicted by Fruttero and Lucentini in their novel The Sunday Woman, the literary compendium of a city, in its own way bourgeois and undoubtedly influenced by the House of Savoy, shared by the Agnelli family and the Fiat employees who made up the forty thousand that with a single protest march buried modern trade unionism. Families, all with their own, often murky, mysteries.
Even when classifying crime, middle-class crime has its own, quite distinct characteristics. There is no more seemingly bourgeois woman than Franca Leosini, who on television talks about brutality with the levity she shows when drinking her afternoon tea. A member of the upper class who always lays her cards on the table before the middle classes, “I have never been false in public. With me, what you see is what you get.” She investigates types, victims, the guilty and motives. For Leosini, middle-class crime is different primarily because of the perception we have of these stories. Simple folk never trigger a hotbed of gossip, of morbid curiosity for everything that embellishes the fact. You could write a novel about middle-class crime. The Grimaldi murder is memorable in that sense. Anna, a wealthy signora from Neapolitan high society with a penchant for journalism, was the lover of the powerful news editor at the city’s most important newspaper and was killed at her villa by, so the charges read, the latter’s jealous wife, who was then tried and pronounced innocent. Italy also lapped up the Gucci case—villas, boats, jewels and a wicked fortune teller. Patrizia, married to Maurizio, an heir belonging to this great family, who intended to leave her. The woman resolved the question on her own in the hall of their home, sliding from absolute luxury into jail, spending years as a prisoner who always claimed she was innocent. And there’s your novel, in the same vein as ‘money doesn’t bring you happiness’ to the delight of all those poor fans of retaliation. The situation was almost the same with Countess Vacca Agusta, who died in Portofino, falling from her villa. Here again, nothing was clear and nothing will ever be clear, in a warren of interests, lies, revenge, and debauchery. We must delve into English literature for the tools to decrypt what went on. In Dickens, to cite the best of them. For Franca Leosini mention must be made of The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère. “I find myself in the role of the author who becomes passionate about the story of his main character, capable of building a life out of nothing. He gets married, has children and, just as they are about to find him out, he exterminates his whole family. Carrére goes to prison and reconstructs this incident that involves the upper middle class.” Because again in this, the bourgeoisie has a small advantage, in the power of culture and often, of money. Money that helps you escape, money to buy what you need and who you need, money that is largely at the origins of the crime itself and the patronizing, all-bourgeois belief that they will get away with it.
In literature, in the past more than now, there are those who treated the middle class really badly. Pier Vittorio Tondelli, studied in the fine book by Roberto Carnero, Lo scrittore giovane (The young writer). We travel back to the eighties to enjoy a Todelli who keeps his distance from the previous generation. He embodies the dilemmas shared by his peers; slaps the middle classes, focuses on those on the edge, the emarginated, those far from middle-class respectability, and uses a blasphemous language, a mimicry of speech. Unlike middle-class Pasolini, Tondelli came from a simple family he decided to scandalize. While in some of his books Pasolini carries out literary censorship, Tondelli does not because he is a son of the sexual revolution. He thought it was possible to follow an alternative through the poetry of a transgressive licentiousness, which is a hedonistic, and also protesting political element, with subversive characteristics. It was in the eighties when Tondelli was caught up in the reflux, the abandonment of ideology and a recourse to the private dimension, in full disco-style stroboscopic hedonism. The values of consumerism, attributed by default to the middle class, were promoted by the television, which had become all powerful. “Today Pasolini’s prophecy has come true: the population, values and disvalues common to all classes have all become bourgeois. Middle-class lifestyle models have gone beyond class distinctions and even those who are struggling look to bourgeois life.” Natalia Ginzburg’s family in Turin in her Family Lexicon is a typically middle-class one. The Levis, antifascist Jews described between the 1930s and 1950s. That’s Lexicon because the paths of memory travel along the recall of phrases, sayings, slang expressions that act as a code.
A progressive class driving change in the nineteenth century, but which once it had gained hegemony lost its best traits. Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia, the latter upper middle class, would argue about it in heated tones. Anna Folli became infatuated with this during writing of her book Morante Moravia, una storia d’amore. Moravia is described as the son of a well-to-do family who detaches from this background due to illness as an adolescent. Having shunned annoying bourgeois rules, Moravia, an artist at the age of eighteen, in a sanatorium, wrote The Time of Indifference. He held great store by the distinction, and saw the bourgeoisie as an antithesis to being an artist. But despite himself he had all the mannerisms of the middle class. Morante, on the other hand, did not. She came from the people, she was an artist without having had to fight for it. She suffered a sense of inadequacy, compared to the aristocracy, an inferiority complex. They only mixed with artists. While Moravia used the bourgeoisie purely as a means of describing a society in decline, Morante wrote about the people and the lower middle class with economic and cultural problems. “In 1968 they saw him as part of the middle class, to the extent that he was contested at one university. Morante was one of them, a teacher.” Their story is set in Rome, so that is the world portrayed in the novel, the ministries, office workers, that state mentality not found elsewhere. It is the drifting of a middle class on the brink of collapse, unsupported by a less than illuminated political class. “It sounds anachronistic to talk about social classes today, with the recession having had repercussions right across the board and categories of workers once considered bourgeoisie and privileged no longer regarded as such. Lawyers, freelancers. This is the concept of middle class that needs rethinking,” claims Folli. Literature has stood back and now films tell the story of actions by the middle class with more truthful and catastrophic accents. Above all sarcastic, as only Mario Monicelli knew how: more than Fellini, like Buñuel and the Vanzina brothers in the post-bourgeois figures of the broker, the manager, the businessman. Even the symbols of the middle class have changed. The Cartier Tank watch is bourgeois, the kitchen in the living and the design piece are too, as are the item of contemporary art and the luxury of free time for oneself. Studies abroad and eco-sustainability, a house in the country and a visit to the stands at Art Basel and having read The eclipse of the middle class by Giuseppe De Rita and Antonio Galdo. To understand who you are.