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The power of the starting point

The power of the family in Italy in the 25 years that range from the period following the Second World War to the end of the 1960s is testified by a formidable series of indicators concerning marriage and children. Everyone got married. The annual rate of marriages was systematically between 7 and 8 per thousand, with peaks of more than eight marriages a year per every thousand inhabitants, more than two to two and a half times the current rate (3.4 per thousand). The average age of women when they married was the lowest ever, around 24, as opposed to the almost 31 of today. Not only were the bonds of the couple institutionalized in or with matrimony, but 97-98 per cent of marriages were celebrated in church. Thus the bond chosen by almost all couples was that with the highest rate of responsibility. Lastly their goal, indisputably, was to have children. In that period birth rates were recorded that were soon to become exceptional, peaking at more than a million births a year (about half the number of those recorded in the mid-1960s) in a population seven million less than that of today when rather fewer than 550 births are recorded per year.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Winter Cottonwoods East V” (1954)

In the light of these figures no effort is required to understand how the demanding post-war period, the challenging reconstruction, the transformation of the Italian economy from agricultural to industrial and the economic miracle, were as many phases which at the same time posed crucial challenges for the country’s future which Italy faced using, or rather relying on, a means that might seem somewhat inappropriate but instead proved to be its true winning weapon, in a certain sense its profound soul: what we today describe as the traditional family, the family formed of a heterosexual couple with children.

Far more than the 20 years of Fascism, when moreover the inequality of women was so marked as to make the family constitutionally inadequate for growth and progress, is that very special quarter century, whose features may even be described as extraordinary, which represents the triumph of the family; a triumph that seemed to know no obstacles if it is true, as it is true, that it was not to be even touched by the revolutionaries – and precisely at the level of morals and lifestyles: the 1960s. The highest rates of weddings, births and marriages celebrated with the religious rite that Italy had ever known were reached during that decade.

The most marked peculiarity of that family and at the same time the trait that most clearly distinguishes it from families today, lies in the conception it has of itself and that all its members have of it. That family neither is nor considers itself the point of arrival. Those who marry know and obviously accept – happily accept, it is said, precisely in the light of the data – that it is only a starting point, a firm, solid and reliable starting point. People start from the family to build their own place in the world. They do not stubbornly wait to get that place and move on to building a family only later, once they have obtained it. It is a family – the family of the above-mentioned quarter century – which does not wait for its individual components, the couple, to have already achieved what is necessary in order to provide it with firm foundations and prospects. Solidity and prospects are built and achieved as the family develops. It is a family that has its meaning, its sentiment, right at the starting point. From the starting point it measures its progress and that of its members, of their commitment, their work in time. And since it takes stock of itself beginning from its starting point it is not afraid of the future that cannot but follow. It fixes its gaze on the future, it is not nourished simply by the present, even though it knows very well that it must busy itself today if it is to reach the future.

Today’s family is a family that claims to fulfil itself from the end. From the goals it has already reached, from the objectives it has already achieved: the stages the individuals have already passed through, the sentimental experiences that have already led to rings, a sexual awareness that has matured, studies completed, a secure job, adequate housing. It is a family that asks itself for the promises already given – brought as a dowry by the man and by the woman – be kept. And it fights to consolidate what it already has, what the individuals have already achieved “before” creating a family. In this way the family clings to the past and fears the future, it is formed with great difficulty, it no longer possesses – or possesses far less – the cement of achievements to be made as a family. And the more it demands all the right conditions to avoid running risks in the time that is to come, the more risks it runs and it falls apart.

It is exactly on this boundary between two ways of thinking of and achieving the family that one finds the transition of a family vowed like a football team to play on the offensive, open, creative, and courageous, to a family which, again like a football team, closes itself into its own field and only manages to develop a defensive strategy: few openings, areas of risk and conventional relations with others. Moreover the great shortage of children, of boys and girls and of adolescents, even to the fulfilment of the greatest age in Italy today (10 out of 60 million, one per every six inhabitants, far fewer than 12.4 million inhabitants of 65 plus) limits all the opportunities and possibilities for encounter between adults and between the families themselves. The family thus ends by losing its sociality, its “being” society, which not by chance it feels ever stranger, more remote and hostile.

The more it wishes to lock up the result of its future in a safe, this is the conclusion, the more that result becomes problematic to it and is distanced from it.

Roberto Volpi




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020