Italian Lakes (2013)

THE MODERN LAKES

The French writer Stendhal famously pitied “those who are not madly in love with them”, and even Sigmund Freud was quite potty about them. The sparkling Italian Lakes continue to seduce and bewitch, but beneath the glamorous wrapping beats the economic and political heart of Italy.

Life around the lakes is sweet enough with the three surrounding capitals Milan, Turin and Venice each exerting its distinct influence. From the sophistication of Como, with its vibrant cultural life and excellent restaurants, to the independent enclave and tax haven of Campione d’Italia on Lake Lugano, each lake has its own identity. Perennially popular with readers of British and German newspapers, Lake Garda is also the weekend haven for the landlocked residents of Brescia and Verona. Como is the favoured weekend retreat of the Milanese, who happily rub shoulders with the glitterati and celebrity-seekers. Little Orta is quieter, mystical and low-key. Yet all are effortlessly beautiful. “La figura” in Italian life always take precedence over “la sostanza” – the substance of things.

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Torbole, Lake Garda.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Along with the pleasures of dolce vita conviviality and gastronomy, all the lakes are awash with music, opera and film festivals. And in an area where it’s possible to water-ski in the morning, lunch at a sun-drenched lakeside café and snow-ski in the afternoon, life doesn’t get much sweeter than in this richly endowed corner of Italy.

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Café in Varese.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Everyday life

Yet what is life like for the ordinary people who live and work here, whose ancestors have grown olives and grapes on these shores for centuries and who now spend their working lives pampering the tourists? The underlying, uniting characteristics of the region are conformity, sense of ritual, food and wine and campanilismo – the attachment to one’s own bell tower, described by Stendhal as the “patriotisme d’antichambre” . Life in the lake district revolves around a clear sense of community. The sovereign appeal of the family remains paramount, and many of the most prosperous businesses are family-run.

Even in Lombardy, the most prosperous of Italian regions, there is a local-centred social and cultural life – Sunday lunch for 20 with three generations, ages seven to 70. It still continues, although many of the bigger towns have become very cosmopolitan. Brescia has the highest per capita number of immigrants in Italy. The influx has added a new, often vibrant dimension, with new restaurants mushrooming and horizons widening, as well as creating a degree of discord amongst locals fearful for their jobs and houses.

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Big glasses, big hair and black leather are super cool in Como.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Local industry and economy

Italy’s economic strength has always been in the processing and the manufacturing of goods, especially in small- to medium-sized family firms – inevitably, it is these businesses that have suffered the most in the economic crisis that has seized Italy over the last few years.

The major industries in the region are precision machinery, motor vehicles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, electric goods, fashion and clothing. The powerhouse is Lombardy, which has become a world leader in design, textiles and machine tools. Milan is the main money-earner, but each lake has its own source of income.

Tourism is a vital part of the economy of the region, with Lake Garda alone accounting for more than five million foreign tourists a year. Religious tourism is also increasingly popular, centred on the nine Sacri Monti, which were developed for pilgrims in the 15th and 16th centuries as an alternative to travelling to the Holy Land.

Furbizia

As Italy faces a serious economic crisis, there have been calls for an increased focus on solidarity, social responsibility and community spirit. However, in a country that has long prized the quality of ‘furbizia’ (roughly translatable as ‘cunning’), and in which family comes first, community second, these qualities might take some time to develop. As Tobias Jones comments in The Dark Heart of Italy , “Stay in the country long enough and you simply have to become ‘cunning’ in order to survive. With a shrug of honest admission, everyone in Italy will admit to having broken the law at some point (it’s hard not to if being ‘an accessory to tax evasion’ involves leaving a shop without the till receipt)”.

Milan may be the design showcase but Como is the city of silk (for more information, click here ). Silk has been processed here since the 16th century, and today the annual production totals 3,200 tons with exports of around $1,000 million a year. Italy produces 80 percent of Europe’s silk, of which Como now produces 90 percent. The costly business of raising silkworms was discontinued in Italy after World War II, and today the fibres are imported from China ready to be woven, dyed and finished. Designers from virtually every fine house – Armani, Chanel, Ferré, Ungaro, Valentino and Versace, to name just a few – rely on silk from Como. The Mantero family and Antonio Ratti are the two giants. Mantero alone has a yearly output of 8–10 million metres (9–11 million yds) and boasts a starry client list that includes the French couture house Chanel, for whom they are the exclusive makers of their signature scarves.

But the Faustian pact with the Far East has caused lengthening shadows. The outlook for the textile and clothing industry is not bright. Until the beginning of the 21st century, Italy had been Europe’s leading textile and clothing producer for a quarter of a century. Then, in 2001, China joined the World Trade Organisation and foreign direct investment poured into the country. In 2004 alone, EU imports from China increased by almost half, prices fell by a third and imports of some products grew six-fold. In the 1970s, the clothing giant Benetton, based near Venice in Treviso, used to outsource clothes-making to home workers throughout the district. By 1990, about 90 percent of its garments were still made in Italy, but in the mid-2000s the proportion dropped to 30 percent and dropped right down to 10 percent in 2010. Benetton opened a Hong Kong office in 2006 to supervise the burgeoning supply chain in mainland China. Many mid-market Italian clothing brands followed suit and moved production to lower-cost countries such as Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania. There are currently around 1,500 clothing and textile firms owned by Italians in Romania.

In 2014 there were some good news however. After more than 50 years the Italian textile industry returned to growing silk worms − and in 2015 around 100 silk worm factories were operating in the Veneto region. The industry’s ambitious plan is to create 1,000 more factories in the next five or six years.

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Ermenegildo Zegna store, Via Montenapoleone, Milan.

Photoshot

Other survival strategies have been adopted by upmarket fashion houses, like chic menswear designer Ermenegildo Zegna, which has a factory near Biella (also known as “textile valley”). Ten years ago, Zegna gave serious thought to taking its production to China, but decided that its home-grown Italian skills and production systems were of greater value than making wages savings. Zegna is now selling rather than producing in China and has opened shops in 36 cities.

Keen to reinvent itself, in recent years the Italian textiles market has found origin labelling a useful sales tool: the ‘Made in Italy’ tag – a proud reminder of many centuries of craftsmanship – has attracted many luxury brands willing to pay the extra for the quality and prestige of Italy-made goods.

Design icons

The valleys of the mountainous province of Belluno may not always be sunny, but shades are probably every Italian’s most important fashion accessory, and it is around here that the vast majority of the world’s sunglasses are crafted by a coterie of family-controlled firms including Safilo, De Rigo and Marchon. The biggest of all, the Luxottica group, had net sales of $9 billion in 2015.

Matchless Italian design also has a home on the shores of Lake Iseo, where Riva began making boats at the beginning of the 19th century. Soon they acquired and perfected the Italian lust for speed, and in 1934 set a world speed record on water with one of their 1,500cc racers. The crowning achievement came in 1962 with the wooden-hull, sleek Aquarama, which retailed for £250,000. Plastic boats started to dominate the market, and Riva was sold to Vickers in 1996. But the reclaimed Aquaramas are still regarded as the Rolls-Royce of sports boats. The late Gianni Agnelli, the jet-set head of Fiat, was once asked to try one out. He was told that if he could turn it over, he could have it. Gianni tried, but, for once, he failed.

Around Lake Orta, the southern suburbs of Gozzano and San Maurizio d’Opaglio, known as “tap city”, have everything for bathroom delights and are the site of Giacomini, the area’s largest tap company. Omegna is especially known for household goods and designer kitchenware in Alessi’s Dream Factory. The original Alessi-design icon coffee pot was produced here along with female corkscrews, funky fly swats and all kinds of beautifully crafted – yet useful – domestic jewels. As Alberto Alessi has famously said, “I don’t think people buy an Alessi kettle to boil water,” but he concedes, “I prefer it if they work.”

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An afternoon in the sun with the paper.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Politics

In the 16th century, the writer and philosopher Machiavelli recognised even then that Italy is ever “waiting to see who can be the one to heal her wounds”. In modern times, there has been Fascism under Mussolini, communism, socialism and the longest-surviving government in Italy’s republican history, led by Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps a dubious distinction as he more than most betrayed freemarket economics. In La Bella Figura , Beppe Severgnini opines that “Italy is the only workshop in the world that could turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis”. He continues, “Silvio Berlusconi promised that he would be the captain who would turn the ship around but instead he concentrated on making his own cabin more comfortable and ran aground”.

On 16 November 2011, following a litany of scandals – from his involvement in the infamous “Bunga Bunga” orgies to corruption on a grand scale – Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister of Italy. In the wake of his resignation, amid the disbelief and, for many, euphoria that the 17-year tenure of “Il Cavaliere” had finally come to an end, there was fury at the rapidly emerging picture of a seriously ailing national economy. Until the last, Berlusconi had presented a glossed-over view of his country’s economic woes, protesting “the restaurants in Rome are always full”; in fact, Italy’s economy had been at a virtual standstill since the turn of the century – corresponding almost exactly with Berlusconi’s ascendancy – and in the last years of his tenure his failure to implement fiscal reforms in time to stem the crisis was the final nail in the coffin.

Wine Lakes

Italy exports more wine than any other country; its export value was estimated at $5.4 billion in 2015. The fertile land and warm climate of the lakes produces a great diversity of wines, from the rich reds of Barolo to sparkling, white Prosecco. Nebbiolo is the finest red grape in northern Italy, from which both Barolo and Barbaresco are made, and flourishes around the western shore of Lake Maggiore. Fruity Valpolicella and fine red Bardolino come from Lake Garda, dry Soave is produced east of Verona, and the wines of Franciacorta, produced around Lake Iseo, have been praised since Roman times.

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Saturday market, Salò.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Berlusconi’s successor, Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, was appointed to preside over a cabinet of technocrats until the economic conditions stabilised and new elections were held.

Looking to the future

The financial crisis succeeded where Italy’s liberal parties had failed to remove Berlusconi from power, but the country is no stranger to economic crisis. In the late 1990s, Italy’s manufacturing was overtaken by Asian competitors; lazy political leadership did little to boost growth, but the introduction of the euro helped bolster the economy. The advent of the global financial crisis in 2007, however, knocked Italy’s economy by more than 6 percent. Investors feared that Italy could not manage its mountain of debt and a further decade of stagnation loomed.

Mario Monti’s first move was to devise a radical package of spending cuts and tax increases. Particular focus was given to tax evasion, a widespread problem. His proposals were met with protests from both left and right. The core reforms, however, based on tax increases, were pushed through, marking a new age of austerity for an already cash-strapped country.

One of the most significant signs of Italy’s steady decline has been the emigration of its young people: in the past decade around 600,000 have left Italy’s shores in search of brighter prospects elsewhere. The country’s two-tier labour market is largely to blame for the exodus: while older workers enjoy the benefits of fixed contracts and generous pensions, younger Italians – often highly educated – struggle to find even poorly-paid temporary work.

Following the 2013 general elections, Enrico Letta succeeded Monti as prime minister – albeit for a short while. In 2014, he was replaced by the Democratic Party’s Matteo Renzi. With an ambitious package of reforms, the young and energetic former mayor of Florence managed to keep the budget deficit at a safe level and in 2015 a hopeful economic growth of 0.3 percent was reported. Expo 2015, hosted by Milan for the second time in the event’s history, also gave a boost to the economy of the city and the entire region.

For all his achievements, however, Italy’s youngest ever prime minister is faced with ever-persistent social woes and a financial crisis aggravated by waves of immigrants flooding the country. In October 2016, a referendum is planned to approve the constitutional reforms put forward by Renzi.