The collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa on the motorway that links Italy to Monte Carlo and the French Riviera reminds me of one of the great American novels: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Here’s my attempt to modify the memorable first sentence of Thornton Wilder’s 1927 masterpiece about the role of God in our lives so as to make it fit the disaster which last month (August) befell the Italian port city where Christopher Columbus was born: “On Tuesday morning, August the fourteenth, 2018, the finest bridge built in the long-gone boom times one long half century ago broke and precipitated 43 travelers into the gulf below.”
I would add: “Perhaps it was significant that, according to a family of four who happened to be nearby, lightning struck the base of one of the pillars holding up the bridge moments before its collapse flung the vehicles of those doomed cascading into the void.”
In Wilder’s novel, set in the 18th century, five people are “flung” like “gesticulating ants” down into the void when “the finest bridge in all Peru,” linking Lima to Cuzco, collapses in 1714, and “By a series of coincidences so extraordinary that one must almost suspect some Intention” the catastrophe is witnessed by a Franciscan monk called Brother Juniper.
This “little red-haired Franciscan from northern Italy,” sent to Peru to convert native Indians, thus sets out to answer the question: “Why did this happen to those five?”
What he means is: Why did God kill them?
And he spends six years investigating their lives to find a scientific explanation as to why God did this to them and writing it all down in what becomes an enormous book which, needless to say, fails to answer the question.
His book is burned by the Spanish Inquisition as heretical, then so is he.
Brother Juniper’s heresy is never spelled out by Wilder, but we understand it to be his attempt to use science to explain God. On the eve of his death, he tries to understand why God wants to kill him, too, and has no answer for that, either.
These are of course “deep waters,” as Sherlock Holmes used to tell his friend and assistant Dr. Watson when confronted by an especially difficult case. But one thing we can say is that, whereas once upon a time in Western civilization people used to blame God or the Devil, nowadays in our scientifically plastic-wrapped world they blame other people. Once they investigated the victims of the bridge. Now they investigate the bridge.
Even—indeed especially—in Catholic Italy.
In Italy, for instance, after the terrible earthquake of 2009 in L’Aquila which killed 309 people, six top seismologists employed by the government’s Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi were put on trial and found guilty of manslaughter.
This is because one of them, interviewed a week or so beforehand on national television about the unsettling spate of earthquake tremors in and around the old city, had said that in his opinion and that of his colleagues there was no danger of an actual earthquake.
Their failure to warn people that an earthquake was imminent—an Italian court then decided—was manslaughter, and each was sentenced to six years in prison! They were acquitted on appeal—in 2015.
Yes, I know, this is Italy, where the judicial system is incompetent, arbitrary, and politicized, and let us not forget that Italy—as any Italian will tell you as if proud of the fact—is not a normal country where the jailing of experts who fail to predict an earthquake would surely be unthinkable.
But this bridge, built during the Italian economic miracle of the 1960’s after the dark days of Italy’s fascist dictatorship and the Second World War, was a symbol of hope in the future of this fascinating yet fiendish country.
Designed by Riccardo Morandi, an award-winning expert in reinforced concrete and despite this an expert in elegance as well, it was opened amid much fanfare by the president of the Italian Republic himself in 1967.
That such a bridge should break up during a diabolical summer storm after weeks of infernal heat is surely different from an earthquake.
It could not have been an Act of God. No, surely not. Or was it?
Nor could it have been an accident, or the result of a simple twist of fate. No, surely not? Or was it?
No. No. No!
Neither God nor “the whore Fate” as “She” was called by the Jacobean playwrights of the early 17th century in newly Protestant England had anything to do with it—did they?
No, someone—some human being—must be to blame.
In the immediate aftermath, a Genoa resident called Elisabetta told the BBC: “The state of the bridge always concerned us. Nobody has ever crossed that bridge with a light heart. Everybody has always done it praying that the bridge wouldn’t fall down. Today that happened.”
One or two structural engineers, now legally protected by hindsight, went public to inform us that the bridge was built to last only 50 years and that to patch it up periodically as had been the case was a recipe for disaster.
The company responsible for Italy’s motorways and therefore the bridge, Autostrade per l’Italia, is owned by another company, Atlantia, whose major shareholder is by a series of remarkable coincidences one of the global liberal elite’s favorite Italian companies—The United Colors of Benetton.
This radical chic High Street clothing store’s publicity campaigns are notorious for their shock-jock liberal virtue signaling and the latest one from June is no exception: a two page advert in Italy’s national press showing volunteers from an NGO “rescue” ship throwing life jackets to “refugees” in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya before ferrying them to the Promised Land (Italy).
Nowadays, the Benetton family, which went from rags to riches in less than 20 years after starting off in the 1960’s selling hand-knitted sweaters from a small shop in Treviso near Venice, makes nearly all its cash not from the rag trade but from running airports, motorway toll gates, and roadside diners in Europe and the Americas.
Autostrade’s Genoa area director, someone called Stefano Marigliani, assured Reuters, “The bridge was constantly monitored, even more than was foreseen by the law. There was no reason to consider the bridge dangerous.”
Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
In less than a week, the Atlantia share price dived 25 percent regardless and—according to Bloomberg—the Benetton family lost $2 billion of its estimated $13 billion net worth.
I am not a wealthy man, so who am I to say, but I suppose losing a couple of billion in a day or so just might make a man wonder about the meaning of his life.
Naturally, Atlantia and the Benetton dynasty deny guilt but have promised nonetheless to cough up €500 million ($584 million) to create a relief fund for victims and to rebuild the bridge within eight months.
This is the same multi-culty, no borders United Colors of Benetton that in 2013 felt compelled to donate one million dollars to the families of the thousand or so workers killed in a fire that destroyed a huge factory in Bangladesh which made clothes destined for, among many others, Benetton.
The collapse of the bridge required a dramatic response from Italy’s new populist coalition government of the Alt-Left Five Star Movement and the radical-right Lega, and it soon obliged.
Autostrade’s license to run Italy’s motorways—it proclaimed—would be revoked forthwith without awaiting the result of the judicial investigation, which, this being Italy, will take many years.
Lawyers pointed out to the populist government that, if they did so before guilt was established, they would have to pay many billions in damages. Tough, the populist government said.
Regardless of that, the government has a legal duty to ensure the safety of bridges, and yet only in June—it has emerged—Ministry of Transport officials just happened to approve a €26 million ($30 million) program, submitted by Autostrade, to repair “on-going loss of function” in the iron cables encased in reinforced concrete that held up the bridge.
This being Italy, of course, even at the end of the labyrinthine judicial process, no one will ever be any the wiser—just like Brother Juniper.
To anyone who is not Italian the simplest way to appreciate the sheer awfulness of Italy’s judicial system is to recall the case of the American student Amanda Knox, who was sentenced to 26 years in 2009 for the murder of her British flatmate Meredith Kercher. Held in custody awaiting trial after the murder in 2007 she was then found not guilty on appeal in 2011 and released. She spent four years, give or take, in prison. She returned to America—wisely, for the prosecution appealed, as they can in Italy, and as she suspected they would, and it was only in 2015 that she was acquitted definitively—eight years after the murder.
So did she kill her British flatmate? Who on earth knows. Thanks to Italy’s dysfunctional justice system.
It then emerged that in 2014 the comedian-turned-demagogue Beppe Grillo—the founder of the Five Star Movement—who is, as luck or fate or God or whatever would have it, from Genoa, had ranted and raved, as is his custom, during a speech in the main piazza of his home city against plans to build a second bridge alongside the old bridge to lighten the traffic load. “We must use the army to stop them,” he bellowed.
His eco-fanatical movement, which believes in la decrescità felice (happy economic decline), hates petrol and even opposes a vital high-speed rail network through the Alps linking Turin to Lyons in France.
And it emerged that the Genoa branch of his movement had said in 2013 on its website that fears about the bridge falling down were a “fairy-tale” and that it would survive “another 100 years.” On the day the bridge did fall down this message was taken off the website.
I myself have crossed the Morandi bridge many times since I first came to Italy several decades ago as a teenage hitchhiker trying to imitate Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, complete with poncho, cheroot, and hat. But it never scared me half as much as most nonmotorway roads in Italy, where there are rarely ever any cat’s-eyes or white lines in the middle or at the side—let alone the endless tunnels under the Apennines which run the length of the Italian peninsula.
I was not surprised to read this in The Spectator the other day by Richard Madeley, a famous British television journalist, who has a French holiday home on the Côte d’Azur near the Italian border:
Down here near Nice, you find most locals unsurprised by the catastrophic Genoa bridge collapse. The Italian border is only a few miles away but most people will find any excuse not to cross it—including my wife and me. In fact, these days we don’t go there at all. . . . Collisions in tunnels are the worst kind—confined space, darkness, lack of access—yet the Italians have for years allowed their vital link between the Côte d’Azur and Amalfi coast to deteriorate into deadly darkness. Three years ago, after a hair-raising near-miss with a heavy lorry in the Stygian gloom, I vowed never to drive into Italy again.
But worse even than Italian roads are Italian drivers, who go way too fast and way too close to the vehicle in front, as if they are on a mission to kill not only other people but themselves to boot.
It is not because they are drunk that Italians drive like this, because heavy drinking in Italy is socially unacceptable. A drinker is una brutta figura, and an Italian however bad or ugly must present at all costs in public una bella figura. It is instead, I think, because the Italians are a very highly strung people.
Inevitably, they see the collapse of the Morandi bridge as a metaphor for the rottenness at the heart of the Italian state and of the Italian Establishment.
Hundreds if not thousands of bridges in Italy—say some experts—are deathtraps. And just as it is pretty common for apartment blocks, especially south of Rome, to explode as a result of gas leaks, so it is not unusual for Italy’s decaying infrastructure to cause appalling loss of life.
The global banking crash and its economic consequences forced successive Italian governments to slash investment in roads from €14 billion ($16 billion) in 2006 to €4 billion in 2010, the level at which it remains.
Yet the country is full of bridges built by the Romans, and Renaissance city centers that are still standing. In Puglia, in the deep south of the country, there are olive trees that are 2,000 years old.
I prefer to see the collapse of the bridge in Genoa as a metaphor for the precariousness of life itself in Italy, where I have lived for 20 years and have somehow survived.
Every aspect of life here is precarious—whether it is your job, your innocence, your freedom, your friendships, your marriage, or indeed your life. I do not mean that in Italy all depends on chance, destiny, or—as Brother Juniper would suggest—divine intervention, and that the Italians have got nothing to do with it. Good grief, no! Life is precarious in Italy precisely because of Italians.
We all live in fear of the knock on the door in Italy because it is impossible to be innocent in a country such as this where the bureaucracy is so labyrinthine, the tax burden so crushing, where it is a crime to leave a bar without the receipt, and where in practice whatever the accusation you are guilty until proven innocent.
In Britain, it never even crossed my mind that my employer would not pay my wages each month. They just do. In Italy, it is a different story. Not even people who work for the government are safe.
I worked for a regional newspaper here for several years. In 2013 the owner stopped paying staff. I gave up after three months without pay, but many colleagues worked on for two years for free—and then the paper folded. The owner, it emerged, had stolen €20 million ($23.4 million) in taxpayer cash from the newspaper. (The Italian press was until very recently subsidized by the state.) No one ever got any money, not even via the courts. Our contracts were, in practice, worthless.
John Phillips, then U.S. ambassador to Rome, told an audience of students at Milan’s Bocconi University in 2016 that Americans invest ten times more in tiny Belgium than in Italy—the Eurozone’s third largest economy—and (as regards E.U. members) less only in Greece, because in Italy it is virtually impossible to enforce a contract, thanks to the terrifyingly bad justice system.
The French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in the 18th century that liberty has never flourished where the orange grows, and without liberty there can be no safety. Italy is a country of wild extremes, of great beauty and great ugliness, where you have to watch your step, every step of the way. Thanks to a combination of geography, climate—and the Italians.
I do wonder, though, what Thornton Wilder and Brother Juniper would have made of that bolt of lightning which struck the Morandi Bridge by a series of extraordinary coincidences just moments before it broke.
Not to mention the survival—described by everyone, whether believers or not, as miraculous—of a tiny number of those precipitated into the void, such as a man and woman from Eastern Europe who just happened to be en route to France for a holiday and were trapped for four hours inside their crushed car beneath chunks of the fallen bridge before their rescue.
Surely God had nothing to do with any of that either, did He?