“Badly behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a phrase frequently (falsely) attributed to Eleanor D. Roosevelt or, still more often, Marilyn Monroe. Never has any sentence more truly exemplified its own meaning: who has ever heard of the phrase’s actual author, Pulitzer Prize- winning historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich? Perhaps only the well-informed few, not because of Ulrich’s reluctance to be “bad,” but because — and this is the point of her statement — so many women, well-behaved or otherwise, are overlooked in so many countries’ national narratives.
In Italy, this fate has befallen many men, too. Surely, you’ve heard someone being described as “Machiavellian,” “Berlusconian,” or even “Salvinian.” But when was the last time you heard anyone’s behaviour compared to a positive role model? And how often has that role model gotten an adjective of his or her own?
To be clear: “Machiavellian” is a term that acquired a negative connotation over time and in repeated misinterpretations of The Prince‘s author’s fundamental meaning. What started out as a treatise on the proper and most effective governance of a state somehow got twisted into a how-to guide to ruthlessness and notoriety. While “Machiavellian” once meant “clever, poised, informed, and impartial,” it eventually came to mean “cold, calculating, scheming, and shrewd.” Bad behaviour is too tantalizing to pass up as the most likely reason for memorableness, it seems.
But what if from now on, instead of focusing on the Berlusconian, Mussolinian, Salvinian figures in our surroundings, we were to look at those that eschewed this kind of easy definition? What if we were to attribute adjectives to the do-gooders among us? We might find that the contributions of the well-behaved, the kind, the honest, by far outweigh those of the others. We might find ourselves with too many adjectives to handle.
I want to draw your attention only to two such Italian figures whose names might easily be lent to exemplary behaviour: Rita Levi-Montalcini and Sandro Pertini.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was not the first Italian woman to win a Nobel Prize: she was preceded by Grazia Deledda, the Sardinian author whose enchanting descriptions of her native island earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 — though not without controversy. Sixty years later, in 1986, neurobiologist Levi-Montalcini was awarded the same prize in the category of Physiology or Medicine for her work on nerve growth factor. She is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is her lifelong appointment to the Senate, in 2001, exclusively on the merit of her scientific contribution. More than that, born in Turin in 1909 to a Sephardic Jewish family, she survived Italy’s strict nationalist agenda, and its various consequences for Jews, under the Fascist regime. And rather than display resentment for the country that stripped her of her academic title in 1938 and forced her into hiding from German invaders five years later, she volunteered her medical services to the Allied Forces and dedicated herself to the service both of Italian soldiers and prisoners of war following Florence’s liberation in August 1944. Her list of accomplishments both precedes and follows her Nobel win and is rooted in the pursuit of her work even when the odds were stacked against her, even with the Nazis at her doorstep and a hair away from discovering her secret home laboratory. Her life was not free of missteps, however; in 1993, she was criticized for her relationship with a pharmaceutical company that paid the Italian healthy ministry for early approval of one of its drugs. But her perceived wrongdoings are overwhelmingly overshadowed by the importance of her contribution to the international scientific community, and by the example she was able to set both for women and for Jews in Italy.
Sandro Pertini is remembered fondly by Italian liberal-leaning citizens as one of the few great left-wing Presidents of the Italian Republic in history. Like Levi-Montalcini, he, too, lived through both wars, leaving his mark on Florence in doing so. Though a declared pacifist, he nonetheless enlisted in the Italian army in WWI and went on to become a decorated lieutenant in the service of his country. He spent the majority of the Second World War interned at Santo Stefano Island as a result of his involvement in a series of anti-totalitarian efforts, and joined the resistance movement after his release following Mussolini’s arrest in 1943. Doing so put him in a precarious position: before long, he was arrested by Nazi soldiers and sentenced to death, but eventually freed during a partisan raid. He dedicated the rest of his long life to the reconstitution of his nation in the dissolution of the monarchy following the Second World War. First a member of the Constituent Assembly, then president of the Chamber of Deputies, he climbed his way up the political ladder without compromising his anti-colonial, anti-violence, fiercely socialist ideals — he spent his years in internment protecting Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s revolutionary diaries– and, in 1978 and at 81 years old, was elected President of the Italian Republic. He is remembered as The People’s President — accessible, available, sincere, humane, and fair to all regardless of religious belief (he was a declared atheist) or social class. He was as well-versed in politics as he was active on the political scene: he held both a Law degree from the Università di Genova and a Political Science degree from the Università degli studi di Firenze. He was a shining example of progressive leadership in a time when it was most needed.
It is easier to make one’s mark aggressively than diplomatically. One needn’t look back in order to see so clearly: we are surrounded by examples of it every day. Achievement requires a certain degree of impertinence; history is made of badly behaved people — Levi-Montalcinis with secret labs, Pertini’s in flight from Nazis and Fascists. But wouldn’t it be to the betterment of all for us to cling fast to the examples of “bad behaviour” rooted in a larger project of kindness, a concern for the fate of humankind rather than personal gain, the advancement of a personal agenda? We could all stand to be a little more Pertinesque, Levi-Montalcinian, wouldn’t you say?