Silvio Berlusconi smiles after the Italian Parliament returns a vote of confidence in his government. (Photo: AFP)

Before May 13, some of Italy’s leading intellectuals were vehement opponents of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition; today their silence is deafening. Norberto Bobbio, the Turin philosopher and a moral authority of more than just the nation’s left, even circulated his extraordinary outcry on the Internet. And Umberto Eco took a position that was equally “anti,” calling for a “moral referendum” to defeat the populist villain. Now, after the electoral debacle, not a single line from either of these highly respected, internationally known individuals has been published: not from Bobbio, who can always publish in La Stampa, or from Eco, whose words have so often filled the center spread of La Repubblica. And in Corriere della Sera, where such prominent figures as Antonio Tabucchi and Claudio Magris regularly appear, there is nothing critical to read at all.

Two days before the election, The International Herald Tribune ran a front-page headline: “Berlusconi Challenges the Culture.” That is unpleasantly close to the truth, for the TV magnate now has a good chance to gain control of the state television networks, too, and to take them down to the level of the three channels he owns. Berlusconi’s dominance of print publishing is not quite as overwhelming. It is true that he recently purchased Giulio Einaudi Editore, the quality book publisher traditionally associated with the left, but he has been sufficiently clever not to involve himself directly in any editorial decisions there—yet. For now, all that matters is making a profit.

As for those who create culture, their reticence has been spectacular. Gianni Vattimo, the philosopher and a leftist member of the European Parliament, is one of the few with a powerful voice. He has calmed down his followers in La Stampa, saying that the election results represent simply “a mistake by the Italian electorate.” Many others said nothing more pungent than that. The editorial pages of the respectable press these days are marked by a kind of disappointed optimism: It won’t really be that bad. Let’s wait before we announce the end of Italy as we know it. Unlike the panic that broke out after Berlusconi’s short-lived 1994 victory, this time no one is packing his bags to go into exile.

But in fact there may be more cause to worry now, above all about the climate for debate created by what Eco has called the election’s verbal civil war. In 1994, Berlusconi conducted his campaign as though it were a soccer tournament, but this time he was an actor in an overwrought operetta. One of his allies, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, recently announced that after the coalition took power, heads would roll at state-owned television. Another ally used similarly martial rhetoric: “Take no prisoners!”

It will certainly not be hard to ruin the three state-owned channels, for they have, over many years, adapted to the unspeakable style of their private competition. Most Italians do not seem to be bothered that their media broadcast a uniform blend of commercials and entertaining idiocy. Nobel laureate Dario Fo, for a long time now one of Berlusconi’s most vocal opponents, is both worried and cheerful: As an artist, he survived the worst of what the Christian Democrats dished out; it would be laughable to think that Berlusconi will be able to destroy him. Fo is still appearing, together with Adriano Celentano, on a television variety show. As yet, no one has lost his job.

In the month before the election, there was significant unity in the cultural community against Berlusconi. The left’s last major effort centered on MicroMega, a cultural magazine. It usually came out every other month, but by the end of the campaign, it began appearing every week in order to maintain an elevated polemical temperature. The major forces and names gathered there to speak out against the right-wing coalition’s methods. Tabucchi and Andrea Camilleri, the most successful writer in recent years, offered their opinions. Director Nanni Moretti even produced a screenplay for the cause, while Massimo Cacciari and orchestra conductor Riccardo Muti joined forces in attempting to explain what culture ought to be. The heaviest intellectual artillery, however, came from Indro Montanelli, a very old journalist who remains both lucid and archconservative. His invective against this “extremely talented liar named Berlusconi” sounded much like what the far left has been saying, but he was no less convincing for that. All of this occurred in the uncertain but hopeful days before the election. Now such writers are still coming together in MicroMega. Its most recent edition, still a weekly, was very thin. It will return to bimonthly publication.

The most important voices of the cultural elite still exist, but many of them are grimly comic: Using metaphors from soccer, Tabucchi has explained the political defeat as a preference for Machiavelli over Leopardi. Cacciari has turned to even more scholarly sources, citing Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly and even Seneca. According to Tabucchi, part of the blame lies with former extreme leftists, who broke away from a just cause and are, according to Dario Fo, too willing to compromise.

Yet they are all merely talking among themselves. None of the wise words of Eco or Magris can be found in any major newspaper today. Instead, the press is filled with speculations about who will get which cabinet post. For consolation, the disappointed half of the electorate has returned to World Cup soccer.

The only truly resounding echo has come from Nanni Moretti’s biting statements at the Cannes Film Festival. Speaking in front of a confused group of French journalists, he reproached Fausto Bertinotti, head of the separatist-leftist Refounded Communists, whose leftist separatists refused to join the Olive Branch coalition [which supported Francesco Rutelli, the center-left leader, for the presidency] and thereby contributed decisively to Berlusconi’s victory. The dispute made its way to the Italian media, and passions on the left have not yet cooled. Moretti, whose film The Son’s Room was seen as a favorite at Cannes, made this movie in part with the support of state-owned television. Such sources of funding may dry up. But the old comrades did not want to compromise, nor did they choose to learn from 20th-century history.

Quarrels, finger-pointing, and the left’s defeat at the polls are not the worst problems facing Italy’s cultural elite. Worse still is the crass incompetence of the right in some respects. Berlusconi, for example, wanted to appoint the popular CEO of Ferrari as minister of sport and culture. This man was smart enough to refuse and to keep his job making racing cars. It is true that the center-left government has, in recent times, not had much to be proud of—its school and university reforms, for example—but it is doubtful that the right can effect any positive change.

The leading candidate for minister of education seems to be Rocco Buttiglione, a Catholic revisionist zealot who considered fascism to be a necessary response to communism. He claims never to have heard of discussions of the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo or the secret accord between Stalin and Mussolini.

For now, literate Italians are holding their political breaths. The Turin Book Fair, for instance, kept any ideological disputes at an unusual distance. The honors went to poet Mario Luzi, a sublime and completely apolitical writer. Turin’s own leading publisher, Einaudi, continues to distinguish itself with high-quality, progressive output. Berlusconi, who owns it, has so far shown his teeth only to smile. For now, the apocalypse has been postponed.