TORONTO - “Mr. Presidente, you are a Cafone”.
That’s how Gad Lerner – journalist, writer and noted Italian intellectual – characterized Silvio Berlusconi on live TV, January 24, 2011. The then Prime Minister, then embroiled in the Bunga Bunga scandal had called into the program to berate the Lerner for what he considered inappropriate attacks against himself, Berlusconi. Lerner responded with the epiteth: “… you are a cafone”.
In the Italian language, cafone has taken on the meaning that reflects behaviour that is rough, vulgar and absent of any signs of “cultured” upbringing – irrespective of social standing, financial status or geographic origin.
In his letter, which we published without edits in yesterday’s paper, Rocco Galati maintains that the term is used by Northerners to give offense to Southeners. The term is in fact used to indicate discourteous conduct, lacking in tact and embedded in ignorance not evidencing any the effect or trace of Castiglione’s “Galateo”, or decorum.
This fundamental difference of perspective on the use and origin of the word has lead to apparent differences on assessments of socio-political impacts.
For example, Silvio Berlusconi has been the recipient of this direct insult on several occasions. One of them became a quasi-reference point for others subsequent to a less than classy retort hurled by Berlusconi at fellow Parliamentarian, Rosy Bindi. The same Gad Lerner wrote, ”… had I been Rosy Bindi, I would have slapped out that incorrigible cafone”.
Beppe Grillo (not an infrequent visitor of vulgarities), Leader of the 5 Star Movement, on the 5th of April, 2009, posted an article on his blog about Berlusconi titled “The Ultimate Cafone ”.
From the writings of both Lerner and Grillo, there is no evidence of an allusion to Regional origins of Berlusconi (Lombardi) or of his social origins. They were drawing attention to his gruff, uncouth and unacceptable demeanour. In our view, Vittorio Zucconi was doing the same with Trump.
But they are not alone. On June 26, 2014, Senator Candiani, irritated by Matteo Renzi’s apparent disinterest in his intervention before the Senate, called the then Premier (a Tuscan) a “cafone maleducato”. He must have started a trend. The following July 29, Ernesto Abaterusso (regional Councillor from Puglia) called him an “arrogant, cafone Premier”. On the 1st of February, 2017, the Publisher of l’Unità, Sergio Staino, called him out as “Renzi cafone and liar”.
Clearly, few escape the discriminating eye of critics in Italian politics. On April 10, 2012, Ivano Marescotti of il Fatto Quotidiano had already referred to Umberto Bossi, Leader of the xenophobic, secessionist Lega Nord, as a “…loudmouth opportunist, cafone, racist and ignorante”.
Alan Friedman, celebrated journalist/correspondent in Italy for the better part of 30 years, perhaps having “absorbed” some of the Italian values, on March 4, 2016, characterized the Republican candidate in the primaries, Donald Trump, as “an underestimated cafone ”.
No one is immune from the penetrating scrutiny and judgement the word affords its user. In 2014, famous singer, Laura Pausini, from Emilia Romagna, was engaged in a celebrated encounter with a fellow beach-goer because she was “doing her nails” in public. The woman called her a “cafona”.
It is the same term that Marisa Bruni – mother to the model Carla, wife to president Sarkosy – levelled at now French President Hollande, whom she called disdainfully “a ridiculous cafone ”.
Some people wear the “title” as a badge of honour. Flavio Briatore, former Number one at the Renault racing team, laughed off the insult by self-identifying as “a winning cafone . Sound familiar?
In Italy, the term cafone is not exclusive to insults that appear regionally based. A “cafone ” can be a Venetian or a Furlano, a Calabrian or Emiliano, a Trentino or Sicilian. Cafonesco behaviour no longer connotates social standing: a Parliamentarian who vaunts his influence is a cafone ; the millionare who double parks his Ferrari on the streets of Milan is a cafone ; the person who does not mute his cell phone in the threatres of Bologna is a cafone , as much a cafone as the cigarette smoker in Florence who litters the streets with butts.
There are divergent views even on the origin of the word. One of them, repeated by Indro Montanelli, (venerated historian and journalist) in his history of Rome, where he attributes the genesis to a Roman centurion Cafo – who laid siege to Capua and subsequently parcelled out the spoils (territory) of his victory.
His followers, known as “Cafones”, and their manner became part of the lexicon of certain Southern Italian localities which terminology lead to usage in other parts of Italy.
It is true that in some parts of the Peninsula, more notably in the South, the term still carries with it a description of those who work the land – independent agricultural enterprises.
But the term long ago lost any allusion of disdainful reference by Northeners towards Southerners – if in fact this was ever the case… unless they were in the style of the “cafoni” above.
Too bad the English language does not have as eloquent and descriptive expression that prompted our reflection on Zucconi’s article.