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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Nec Plus Ultra: Italy's Angry UltraS

Italian Ultras giving Fascist (Roman) salute.

This story by Wright Thompson on ESPN is a must read for anybody interested in Italy today. I found it surprisingly good journalism from ESPN.

I think the story has a couple of problems. The author resorts to some easy clichés about Italy. However, he does this to a much lesser extent than most things I have read, and he often uses these clichés in the service of reconsidering a side of Italian culture that gets virtually no coverage in or outside of Italy: the immigrant experience in Italy. Second, I think he could have made more clear the isolated nature of the culture of virulent racism represented by the UltraS, even if Italy, like many countries including the USA, struggles with issue of race and immigration.

Read the article for an excellent description of the phenomenon the Ultras, "super fans of certain soccer clubs, and UltraS, Neo-Fascists who use their fandom as cover for violence and violent speech. The line is not always clear. In the best light, Ultras of all types are still quite scary, using planned choreography and Roman candle pyrotechnics, they 'enliven" soccer matches around Italy and Europe. UltraS promote "Ultra- violence" (to adopt Burgess' neologism from A Clockwork Orange), in the past, against Ultras supporting other teams, but now against other races. They also yell racist chants against players on the field, both on opposing sides and even on their own team.

Where would Dante place the UltraS? For the complexity and contemporaneity of this issue, it is perhaps the hardest question this blog has had to handle. Please e\be patient with the length of this post.

 I think the UltraS go in Hell, Circle 5 of the Wrathful, Canto VIII.

Dante's wrathful (angry) are submerged in a lake of mud, wallowing in the misery of their own uncontrolled hatred. Their anger besmirches their reputation, obscures their humanity, and transforms them into a base nature. Constant conflict marks Dante's passage through the realm of the wrathful. One of the sinners attacks Dante...and Dante attacks him back. Once over the murky waters, perched on high towers and terraces angry fallen angels and wrathful Furies, including perpetually screaming Medusa!, block their entrance to the City of Dis. Dante recoils in fear, proposing to cut short his trip.

Io vidi più di mille in su le porte8.82About the gates I saw more than a thousand-
da ciel piovuti, che stizzosamentewho once had rained from Heaven-and they cried
dicean: "Chi è costui che sanza mortein anger: "Who is this who, without death,
va per lo regno de la morta gente?"8.85can journey through the kingdom of the dead?"
'l savio mio maestro fece segnoAnd my wise master made a sign that said
di voler lor parlar segretamente.he wanted to speak secretly to them.
Allor chiusero un poco il gran disdegno8.88Then they suppressed-somewhat-their great disdain
e disser: "Vien tu solo, e quei sen vadaand said: "You come alone; let him be gone
che sì ardito intrò per questo regno.for he was reckless, entering this realm.
Sol si ritorni per la folle strada:8.91Let him return alone on his mad road
pruovi, se sa; ché tu qui rimarrai,or try to, if he can, since you, his guide
che li ha' iscorta sì buia contrada."across so dark a land, you are to stay."
Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai8.94Consider, reader, my dismay before
nel suon de le parole maladette,the sound of those abominable words:
ché non credetti ritornarci mai.returning here seemed so impossible.
"O caro duca mio, che più di sette8.97"O my dear guide, who more than seven times
volte m'hai sicurtà renduta e trattohas given back to me my confidence
d'alto periglio che 'ncontra mi stette,and snatched me from deep danger that had menaced,
non mi lasciar," diss' io, "così disfatto;8.100do not desert me when I'm so undone;
e se 'l passar più oltre ci è negato,and if they will not let us pass beyond,
ritroviam l'orme nostre insieme ratto."let us retrace our steps together, quickly."

Today's UltraS belong here most obviously because of their manifest, and manifestly public, anger towards those they believe do not belong in Italy. Like the Furies standing guard on their terrace, the UltraS represent themselves as protectors of their city, culture, heritage, and race from outsiders. UltraS are only UltraS when they are in groups with an militaristic leadership structure, since their effect depends on display.  The Furies are protecting the evil dead. The UltraS? Perhaps they protect an idea of Italy that is as mythical as the founding myths of Rome itself. Their ideology is directly linked to fascist ideology of Italy as the master of the the Mediterranean Sea, or Mare Nostrum (our Sea). This ideology found voice in Mussolini who, from his own balcony in Piazza Venezia in Rome, persuaded Italians to support his mad folly of colony and belligerence. The UltraS are angry and they are as fearful as they are deluded.

The UltraS name itself recalls this isolationist ideology. As the title of this post alludes, Nec Plus Ultra were the words that Hercules carved on his Pillars placed on Western Extreme of the Mediterranean to serve as a warning from the Gods not to " go beyond" Europe. For the UltraS, this reclusion works reciprocally, as a Do Not Enter sign: Nec Plus Intra. With their violence the UltraS forcefully declare their entitlement to their anger, and seek to instill fear in others.

Dante's stance on these issues is complex. At times, Dante adopts the rhetoric of exclusion (I am not calling Dante a racist!), specifically in Paradiso XVI, at other times, Dante also fears what is beyond his world. Indeed, his fear in this canto is about what is beyond "oltre" or "ultra" the walls of the city of Dis. But, like Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Hell, he ultimately chooses to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules, to open himself up to the dangers of experience of the unknown. For this, Dante and Italy has been rewarded with his voice ringing out in the eternal discussion of virtue and knowledge (virtute e canoscenza) that defines culture. 

Fortunately, these UltraS only represent a far-right fringe on Italian belief, and for their angry words and deeds let them swim in the muck.


  1. Boccaccio might also have something to say since he talks about regional tensions--Florentines dislike of Venetians in the Frate Alberto story.

    1. Boccaccio likes to lament Florence's problems with foreigners as well, even if Dante names those from Certaldo in Par XVI!
      When writing this entry, I wondered when the idea of "Racism" began? I am sure there is an academic study on this, but I don't think we can talk about racism in the Middle Ages. Or can we?