The Man Who Explains Italy

In the middle of August, my wife and our two small children went to visit her family in Milan. We arrived at Malpensa Airport at dawn and proceeded to passport control, where the immigration officer, as is customary with public servants in Italy, seemed vaguely put out that we’d interrupted whatever important business he was conducting on his phone. My wife handed over two Italian passports, for herself and our five-year-old, and two American ones. The officer’s mood immediately improved: now we were no longer simply an unwelcome distraction from his private affairs but in the much more interesting category of people he was legally obligated to reprimand. Our two-year-old, he explained gravely, was in violation of the law. As he was an Italian citizen by birth, he required an Italian passport; American passports, he went on, do not carry the names of the parents, and thus he had no way to know that the child, who has my surname, was in fact hers.

My wife, long accustomed to such bureaucratic snares, produced a scan of our son’s birth certificate. The process of obtaining an Italian passport, she explained with a series of complex hand gestures, was so arcane and so onerous! Our two-year-old was born in the first year of the pandemic, she went on, and you know how Italian administrative procedures were: you had to go to one office to get this form, and then another office to get the proper stamp, and the consulate in New York seemed only to be open for such services on every third Wednesday. The man at last permitted himself a commiserative smile: he knew how it was. Look, he allowed, he was a nice guy, so he was going to let us through this time. But we needed to be careful! If we had the misfortune to encounter a more severe officer on our way out, we might be denied exit from the country. When we departed, some two weeks later, we encountered another unusually availing guy willing, of course, to bend the rules just this once.

Lord Byron once remarked that, in Italy, “there is, in fact, no law or government at all; and it is wonderful how well things go on without them.” Today, Italy has a large government with a dazzling number of laws—more than ten times as many as Germany—and the country is full of bright, industrious people who spend an enormous amount of time and energy creatively breaking them. This problem has been a recurring theme for Francesco Costa, a thirty-eight-year-old journalist, who has, over the last few years, become a new-media phenomenon. The Italian media, like the Italian government, is largely made up of stodgy, insular institutions—places more interested in themselves, and the preservation of their own status, than they are in their readers. Costa, who began as an outsider blogger and podcaster, has been credited as a modernizing influence on the role of the reporter in Italian civil society.

Costa’s daily podcast, “Morning,” which is pronounced with a non-rhotic “R” and a phantom vowel at the end, attracts an intensely devoted audience, especially (but not exclusively) among the country’s liberal élite. The show, which appears under the auspices of Il Post, the news site where Costa serves as deputy editor, is subscriber-only—a rarity in a country where media properties have been slow to adopt new business models that have become common elsewhere. The young Italian novelist Vincenzo Latronico told me, “There are journalists who have been caught copying pieces from elsewhere who are still writing front-page editorials in the main newspapers—it’s such a different culture that it’s hard even to explain. Costa’s journalism would be at a high level in the U.S., but in Italy it’s way above what ninety-nine per cent of the other outlets offer. It’s like he appeared from outer space.” The conceit and the operation of the podcast are simple: Costa’s alarm goes off at 4:45 A.M., he reads up to ten daily papers in the next hour and a half, and he sits at his home computer to record a summary, with dry but opinionated commentary, of the day’s news. He edits out the ambulance sirens from outside his apartment, cuts the episode to thirty minutes, and exports the file himself. “The goal is to come out at 8 A.M.,” he told me recently. He continued, with the national shrug, “Sometimes it’s eight, sometimes it’s five minutes early, sometimes it’s five minutes late.” In a country riven by intergenerational frustration, he has an unusually broad subscriber base: he is at once respected by boomers and parasocially stalked by the youth. (When my wife texted her group chat of Italian expat professionals to say I was writing about him, the response was a flood of heart-eye emojis.) Luca Sofri, one of Italy’s first prominent bloggers and now a colleague of Costa’s at Il Post, told me that it is chiefly Costa’s singular talent that gives what seems like a mere press review such an unusual sway over his audience. “Francesco is simply bravissimo,” he said.

In a perpetual moment of Italian political turmoil, Costa not only aggregates and processes perplexing news—about gas prices or electoral procedures—with rare clarity but also comes at national politics from oblique directions, speaking to the country’s spiritual state with candor and dark humor. I had arrived in Milan at the tail end of the August holidays, when anyone of means abandons the cities to the tourists, and Costa dedicated the prefatory remarks of his podcast one morning to a typical story of Italian coastal melodrama. The episode was called “No Need for a Law for Everything.” Law enforcement had recently begun a “blitz,” scouring the public beaches for illegal “reservations”—places where vacationers have arrived before dawn to put down their towels or umbrellas before going home to sleep until midday, such that people who arrive at the beach at a reasonable hour can’t find a place to take the sun.

The story, he went on, provoked him to consider the activity of law-enforcement personnel who had to conduct these “blitzes.” It wasn’t just the time that they spent finding the offenders but the tremendous waste to follow:

An enormous amount of paper, of signatures, of stamps, of
authorizations, of service orders to seize fifteen umbrellas, and then
for each of these fifteen umbrellas imagine the amount of senseless
paperwork required to say, “We have seized on date X an umbrella with
a design of little hearts and flowers,” and imagine this entire
operation repeated for every single umbrella, towel, and beach chair
that had been seized, on every single beach where the forces of order,
instead of dedicating themselves to things we would call much more
important, had to devote themselves to these inspections?

Imagine all of that, he instructed his listeners over their morning brioche and coffee, “multiplied for all the other superfluous, redundant, costly bureaucratic operations we’re forced to confront on a daily basis.” His voice, though still dry and deadpan, took on increasing urgency. “We have a law that simply says you can’t put your umbrella on the beach at night but that you can after 6 A.M. But is there a need for a law—must there be a law for us to adopt a comportment of banal manners, that is, don’t occupy a place you’re not using, on a free beach, and do it neither the night before nor at 6 A.M.?” He continued, “Does law enforcement in Norway have to carry out such ‘blitzes’?” He asked, “Or does it not happen because it doesn’t occur to anybody to do such a thing?”

He begged his listeners’ pardon for something that might seem so irrelevant, but he hoped that he had been understood in the spirit he intended. “We’re in an election campaign, every day we’re confronting and adjudicating promises to approve this or that other law,” he said. In the background, “Morning” ’s theme, “Gimme Shelter,” began to play. “Are we sure that all of this comportment—matters of civility and banal good manners—could or should have to be imposed by a law?” Couldn’t it just be up to us, he concluded, “to avoid a situation where law enforcement has to go to the beaches to verify who put his umbrella, or her beach chair, or his towel, on a public beach to unduly occupy a place? In other words, why not just try to regulate ourselves? This is ‘Morning.’ Let’s begin.”

A day or two after that episode aired, I met Costa, who is slender and bald and speaks with a pronounced Sicilian accent, one morning for coffee. We sat at a bar not far from his office, in Milan’s Zona Tortona, an old industrial district renovated to support the fashion and design sectors. He told me, “You can tell we’re journalists because we’re the worst-dressed people at lunch,” though he himself has adopted an offhandedly smart Milanese style. Unlike traditional Milanese brass-and-marble bars—where you can get a coffee in the morning and a drink at night, or vice versa—this was an airy, high-ceilinged space with large tables set out for the laptop cohort.

Costa was raised and educated in Catania, at the base of Mt. Etna. In 2008, he dropped out of journalism school in Rome and pitched a tent in a lakeside holiday community, where he blogged about Obama’s first campaign with unqualified enthusiasm. He sent out letters of inquiry to dozens of newspapers, but at the time he lacked the personal connections necessary to join the media class. Like many other young people of ambition from the impoverished south, he moved in his twenties to Milan, where he mixed with an entrepreneurial cohort of migrant upstarts. He developed a reputation as a young journalist who explained America to his generation of Italians. (His third book about the States, on the problems facing California, came out last week, and is already atop the best-seller lists.) In relatively short order, he was able to sustain his blogging with crowdsourced donations. Inspired by the success of shows such as “Serial,” he turned to audio, first with “Da Costa a Costa” (“From Coast to Coast”), a pun on his name, which became Italy’s first native podcast sensation.

Last year, he started “Morning,” which he describes as a side gig to his role at Il Post, an online-only news organization whose motto is “Cose spiegate bene”—or “Things explained well.” Though he noted that the site, which Sofri founded in 2010, predated the establishment of Vox by four years, he told me that his innovations were nothing new. “I wasn’t being a genius. I was just in touch with what was happening in the U.S., on blogs and in podcasts, and just copied what was working elsewhere.” In Italy, however, this came as a revelation. It was taken for granted that the establishment media wrote largely to and for itself. “They use jargon that people never use and don’t understand,” he said. “They provide no context.” Publications routinely made errors, which they rarely bothered to apologize for or correct. More important, they made no secret of their political affiliations—a center-left senator once described La Repubblica as “our Pravda”—and rarely dwelled on the routine hypocrisy that’s long been endemic to Italian political life. The business model of Il Post was basic precision, firmness, and comprehensibility. “We set out to explain everything like the listener is five years old,” Costa said. It did not take long for him to become one of the few sources that Italians could turn to for straightforward explanations of the deliberately illegible machinations of national politics. In July, the generally popular caretaker government of Mario Draghi—the third unelected banker-technocrat recruited to run the country since the nineteen-nineties—was brought down by the abrupt (and, given that almost all of the parties are now running on a continuation of his economic policies, largely pointless) withdrawal of support by the junior coalition partners, and overnight Costa found himself delivering daily coverage of the snap elections, which are to be held on September 25th.

For anyone who has paid even passing attention to the Anglophone press’s treatment of the political situation in Italy, Costa’s riff on umbrellas and banal good manners might seem like a glib reaction to an impending crisis for European democracy. In the past decade, Italy, along with many of its peer countries, has been destabilized by populist movements on the right and the left. Now it seems to many foreign observers that Italy’s next government will be a Fascist one. Polling has been stable, and a decisive victory is almost assured for a so-called center-right coalition led by Giorgia Meloni, who would be Italy’s first female Prime Minister. It’s not hard to gather why Meloni brings Fascism to mind. The Party that she co-founded, Fratelli d’Italia, arose from the ashes of Italy’s Movimento Sociale Italiano (M.S.I.), the postwar reconstruction of Mussolini’s base. Her party occupies M.S.I.’s former headquarters in Rome, she has retained its symbolism—a tricolored flame—and she frequently refers to “Dio, patria, famiglia,” or “God, country, and family.” Many of her followers have taken up the stiff-armed Roman salute associated with Il Duce, on the flimsy pretext that it’s a hygienic development in the wake of COVID. Mussolini’s granddaughter Rachele is a Party member, and a member of Rome’s city council.

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