EDITORIAL
from issue no. 03 - 2009

Preachers


Perhaps those who say that we politicians live in an unreal world exaggerate, but not altogether. It is fashionable to claim that the passage of time is impoverishing the content of thinking and debate. Generalizing, one gets things wrong, but it is certain that what dominates is a curiosity I shall call superficial, but perhaps would be better defined as frivolous


Giulio Andreotti


Giancarlo Pajetta speaking at a rally in Rome in 1948 <BR>[© International Photo/LaPresse]

Giancarlo Pajetta speaking at a rally in Rome in 1948
[© International Photo/LaPresse]

For long the habit of speaking – I use an eloquent word – as our parents taught us has been lost. The concern to appear cultured has declined, and we are becoming uncommunicative and boring.
Perhaps those who say that we politicians live in an unreal world exaggerate, but not altogether. It is fashionable to claim that the passage of time is impoverishing the content of thinking and debate. Generalizing, one gets things wrong, but it is certain that what dominates is a curiosity I shall call superficial, but perhaps would be better defined as frivolous. When I have the pleasant opportunity of meeting young people, I speak very briefly, inviting them – if they wish – to ask me questions, with complete freedom as to subject matter. Sometimes I feel disappointed, as when hosting a group of students the first question I was asked was how much coffee costs in the bar of the House and Senate. Legitimate curiosity, but not a priority. For the rest, contact with young people – students or not – serves me first of all for understanding how much remains and how much counts in people’s interest.
It is said that Parliament is the mirror of the country, to change the technique of debate there would have to be a decided variation in the street. The dog and the tail.
At the gatherings where old-style courtroom oratory is used (at least four adjectives for every noun), those who still today have to make a synopsis – in parliamentary jargon it’s called a summary – have no easy task.
Whereas one found a classic example of the compact European style, as compared to the redundant sort I shall call Neapolitan, in the speeches of President De Gasperi, both in Vienna and afterwards in Rome. Verbal overabundance and voice modulations of the theatrical type have no place in that type of pared-down communication, in which weight lies in the concepts, not the forms.
The style of President De Gasperi was very different. His training was in the Austro-Hungarian mode, whereby there was no room for adjectivising and redundancy because of the need, in the Parliament of Vienna, for simultaneous translation into several languages.
In truth, after the war, the survivors from the older generations spoke in a style that mixed the staccato and the orotund. Some of us when still quite young were sent to get ad hoc suggestions from great masters of preaching. They taught us how to speak and what should remain unsaid. I remember the exhortation to always ensure the possibility of a comprehensive summary in a few lines. There were those who exaggerated in… paring down, and expressed themselves almost in telegraphese.
Those of us who came to politics after an apprenticeship in Catholic Action (in my case the university branch) always aimed for a balance between form and content. It would have been depressing to win applause through oratorical tricks. There were those who did not avoid them and you could sum up in two lines twenty minutes of speech.
Certainly the art of oratory and the right tone have their place alongside the content of what one says. At the beginning it happened that some people did not know how to regulate themselves and howled words at small and attentive audiences.
Among the speakers of the postwar period Mario Scelba, an excellent Minister of the Interior in a troubled country not easy to give direction to, merits a place of his own. What struck one about him was not only the well-modulated tone but the use of a synthesis of language half way between Italian and the Sicilian dialect (known as “Siciliotian” because of him).
At the gatherings where old-style courtroom oratory is used (at least four adjectives for every noun), those who still today have to make a synopsis – in parliamentary jargon it’s called a summary – have no easy task. Whereas one found a classic example of the compact European style, as compared to the redundant sort I shall call Neapolitan, in the speeches of President De Gasperi, both in Vienna and after in Rome
De Gasperi’s speeches were of a different stamp. It was said of him that he thought in Austrian and translated as he spoke. But perhaps the correct assessment the people made of the president gave him almost automatic impact on the crowds.
Certainly, speaking in public, especially in the open air, is quite different from in closed gatherings or in specialist circles. In my early days I used to come out in a cold sweat. I remember my first rally, a few days after the Liberation, in Lanuvio, where I had been sent to stand in for the old former deputy Cecconi, who was sick. Among other things, I got there crammed in a three-wheeler kindly lent me by the tram company.
My experience as a student leader was of no help whatsoever. It was all different. However I got through it, relying on the advice of Cardinal Salotti (a fascinating preacher) to memorize the opening and closing sentence of my little speech: to start off well and, at the right moment, head for the exit.
The long parenthesis of the two decades of Fascism had made people unused to rallies. Apart from the easy technique of Mussolini’s speeches from the balcony of Piazza Venezia, also used by provincial officials of various sorts, who knew how to get themselves heard – even at length – making a meeting an exchange of feelings and impulses.
President Gronchi also excelled in our field with his very pronounced Tuscan accent and modulation of register. A particular style was used by everybody for those speeches: without platitudes but also without expressions that couldn’t be immediately understood. Of course, it’s true that the form also counted a lot, but if you were unable to get one or two basic ideas over to your hearers clearly, you had wasted your breath. The Communists, always more organized than the others, all went to elocution lessons (including Giancarlo Pajetta, who was already very good).
The radio, and later television, changed everything. Those who did not understand the profound difference from talking while looking into the eyes of the audience and judging the reaction ran into difficulties. As for that, open-air rallies are now very rare and expensive and require considerable organizational effort to ensure a decent result.
Whereas the novelty of rallies – after the Fascist decades – drew numerous and attentive crowds. Probably there were no more attractive ways of spending the evening or Sunday mornings (before or after Mass).
There was, in any case, an advantage (not everyone wanted or could do it) in urging people to ask questions. And interesting questions also arose. One day while speaking at a rally in the province of Rome, a voice cried out: “But do you know how much a kilo of meat costs?”. I knew, because my mother sent me to do the shopping, and I was a resounding success.
I don’t know whether there was truth in what was said of some “speakers”, that they had stooges in the crowd who shouted questions of an embarrassing nature so that the speaker could come back successfully with answers prepared in advance. However – without exaggeration – the technique of convenient interruption is always worthwhile. It serves to wake up a crowd that’s falling asleep, and to amuse people, something that can’t be achieved with speeches of a technical nature.
Important also, in the speaker, is the impact on the bystanders, to get a hearing and provoke at least some show of assent. And even today, when the media are overwhelmingly present, nobody will ever manage to take away the advantage of direct impact.
A rally addressed by Giulio Andreotti 
in Rome in 1948 [© Publifoto/Olycom]

A rally addressed by Giulio Andreotti in Rome in 1948 [© Publifoto/Olycom]

I have on other occasions recalled the turmoil during a small rally with the mayor of Rome, Rebecchini, in Piazza del Risorgimento. The platform was tiny, like a Punch and Judy show. At one moment the audience became noisy when some women reacted by scratching in response to a disturbance of no great importance. There was a danger of being trampled on and, as I have said, I very much appreciated the calm of Rome’s first citizen who continued to speak as if he were addressing a perfectly quiet audience.
In the early postwar years Guglielmo Giannini, founder of l’Uomo Qualunque (The Common Man party), who had newly come into politics, had considerable success. With a shift away from the parliamentary and very proper language of politicians, Giannini sarcastically attacked the president, calling Parri Fessuccio (Little Blockhead) and not by his name Ferruccio. A disheartening success that I never tried to imitate, even when I had only benevolent attention from the listeners. When Giannini then publicly called the respected secretary of the Communist Party “asshole”, the shares of l’Uomo Qualunque went through the roof. Even if for a very short time the very proper Anglo-Saxon forms were abandoned.
There was also considerable success, but in closed meetings, for the dialogue form, modeled on the preaching of the Jesuits, called the “learned man and the ignoramus”. The latter had to be cleverer than the former so that at the end points had been clarified and people not left puzzled.
I don’t know whether these two-handed sermons still go on in small towns. Not in Rome any more.
A question about preachers in the churches suggests itself: how is it that once upon a time one used to hear very well what they were saying without them using – as now – a microphone.


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