In 1955, L’Arte di Arrangiarsi, a comedy starring Alberto Sordi, was released in Italy. Sordi plays a young Sicilian born at the end of the 19th century who survives the first half of the 20th century by sniffing out power dynamics and adapting accordingly: He becomes a socialist after falling in love with a young comrade; when Mussolini comes to power, he switches sides, climbing the ranks of the fascist government in Sicily; after the island is invaded halfway through World War II, he disguises himself as a communist, narrowly escaping the Americans and fleeing to Rome; finally, when their party wins big in the 1948 Italian elections, he joins the Christian Democrats.
The title of the film comes from the Italian reflexive verb arrangiarsi, literally translated as “to arrange oneself.” It refers to the skill of “getting by” or “making do” with what you have, describing a resourcefulness and ingenuity that is central to the Italian sense of self. In a country known more for what divides it—regional dialects, varying cuisines, the north-south divide—than what unites it, l’arte di arrangiarsi is treasured as a natural talent unique to Italians, a distinctive feature of the Italian national identity. When the magazine liMES conducts its yearly polls on the “pillars of Italian culture,” surveying readers on Italy’s distinctive traits, l’arte di arrangiarsi has hovered at the top of the list for decades, bested only by “family” and “our cultural heritage.”
This term is also often idealized by foreigners, a vision of quaint, pastoral Italianness, like an image of a nonna making fresh pasta on a wooden table in her olive garden. (“There’s [a] wonderful Italian expression: l’arte di arrangiarsi—the art of making something out of nothing,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Eat, Pray, Love, “the art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this.”) But as I waxed poetic on the phone with my grandmother about the Italian ability to make do, citing everything from our cuisine to our indomitable spirit in the face of adversity, she cautioned me: “watch it—arrangiarsi also means breaking the rules, doing things illegally, finding ways to get around your obligations.” Arrangiarsi is a chameleon: associated with entrepreneurship, innovation, fashion, cuisine, and art, it also—as the plot of the 1955 film suggests—connotes opportunism, cunning, and maybe a little disregard for authority.
Like so many terms,the cultural significance of arrangiarsi has changed as society has shifted around it, ping-ponging from one meaning to the next and oscillating between virtue and vice. Its popularity as a cultural marker dates to the years after the 1861 unification of Italy, when heavy taxes and land reform resulted in tremendous poverty and suffering throughout the country, particularly in the south, and Italians had to resort to ingenious strategies to make do. With scarce resources and often many mouths to feed, cucina povera (literally, “poor cooking”) was common during this period: taking local, seasonal ingredients—or old ones, like days-old bread or overripe tomatoes—to make dishes that are filling and tasty.
During this time, however, many Italians resorted to illegal activities and crime of both the organized and petty varieties. Commentators observed that—just like the Italian resourcefulness that could make Sunday dinner taste so good—this was a manifestation of l’arte di arrangiarsi. Here, they associated it with cleverness and opportunism, prizing both qualities as tools Italians simply used to get by. In 1921, literary critic Giuseppe Prezzolini wrote, “the ‘wise guy’ is revered in Italy not only for his own cunning, but for the reverence that Italians have for cunning itself”; Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini write that in the immediate postwar period “l’arte di arrangiarsi became associated with initiative, entrepreneurship, momentum and desire to rebuild…in the midst of chaos and with patches on their clothes [Italians] were indomitable, spirited, creative.”
In the 1970s, sport journalists introduced l’arte di arrangiarsi to the realm of soccer, citing it as an overarching philosophy for the Italian breed of the game: the catenaccio, or “the chain,” denoting a strong emphasis on airtight defense, man-marking, and counter-attacks. In An Intellectual History of Soccer, Mario Sconcerti wrote that “at the end of the 1940s the Italians were a people who made do[si arrangia]. We betrayed the Germans and were treated as enemies by the Americans. We were stuck in the middle, taking bullets from both armies, trying to escape from two enemies without ever finding a true ally in anyone.” As a result, “it was only natural that in soccer we developed our own style of counter-play, of ‘surprise soccer.’” Paolo Demuru puts an even finer point on it: “in soccer, you play like you are…in Italy, that means one thing: playing astutely and opportunistically.”
It shouldn’t seem odd that Sconcerti and Demuru vest such deep significance in a simple soccer strategy; l’arte di arrangiarsi is a touchstone of Italianness, conjuring up a shared history marked by invasions, regionalism, and authoritarianism, all of which Italians have managed—in one way or another—to overcome. But just as arrangiarsi can have two shades of meaning—ingenious or cunning, entrepreneurial or opportunistic—l’arte di arrangiarsi can also be harnessed in the service of more insidious tendencies; along with a immense patriotism, this cultural linchpin has also become code for a sense of ethnic superiority.
We see this, once again, in the world of soccer. Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera once invoked arrangiarsi to explain the 1970 World Cup semi-final win for the Italian national team against Germany: “Germans are really dumb: that’s why we’ve always beaten them. In soccer, tactical cunning counts—you can’t just rely on aggressiveness, hard work, athleticism and technical skill.” Four decades later, after Italian midfielder Marco Materazzi insulted France’s Zinedine Zidane’s sister in the 2006 World Cup final and was viciously headbutted in response, another sports journalist wrote: “The Materazzi incident is like one of those jokes where citizens of different countries try to deal with a situation in their own stereotypical way, and the Italian comes out as the most cunning.”
This ethnic superiority often goes hand in hand with l’arte di arrangiarsi being deployed by Italians against incursions from the outside. In The Italians, a 1964 monograph on Italian culture and values, Luigi Barzini wrote: “poor kids from miserable suburbs and hungry children from southern villages, who are used to making do [arrangiarsi], know exactly what I’m talking about . . . the Italian must defend himself . . . his safety depends on his individual skills and his innate cunning.”
Xenophobia and racism in Italy are not new, but there has been a resurgence in recent years as an influx of migrants and an economic recession have fueled the rise of populist leaders. In a country where thirty-five percent of young adults are unemployed, many Italians have turned inward, focusing on defending Italy from anyone deemed not really Italian, be it based on their immigration status or the color of their skin. The populist Five Star Movement and far-right Lega, which currently lead Italy in a coalition government and are Euro-skeptic (the former) and anti-immigration (the latter), came to power largely as a result of these sentiments, and since the elections in July, the country has seen an explosion of racially-motivated attacks.
As a symbol of Italian culture, l’arte diarrangiarsi is now being deployed to alienate, telegraphing what is“legitimately” Italian and what isn’t. A few weeks ago, a group of my cousins visited New York City, where I live, from Italy. I asked them about l’arte di arrangiarsi. They had just visited Little Italy and, pleasantly surprised by the vitality of the Italian community here, cited it as an example of Italian arrangiarsi: every red-white-and-green storefront selling cannoli reminded them of the generations of Italian immigrants who struggled to make do in a foreign, strange city, escaping destitution in the south of Italy only to find prejudice and poverty in America. These Italians’ ability to forge a community and maintain their culture, all the while spawning thousands of Italian restaurants wherever they set foot, was, for my cousins, a perfect example of the Italian ability to get by.
But my cousins weren’t happy to end there. “This just goes to show,” one of them went on, “that some ethnicities ‘have it’ and others just don’t.”
“What?” I asked.
“Look around you: why are there so many Italian restaurants and not that many African or Polish restaurants? Italians are just able to make do, and succeed, and other populations just aren’t. That’s why African immigrants are struggling in Italy. It’s simple.”