The Funny Wrath of Italy’s Viral Mayors

In March 2020, a video of Italian mayors scolding citizens for failing to stay at home went viral. Only ostensibly insignificant, these clickable white men reveal new forms and affects of digital governance at the heart of twenty-first century politics.

The camera tracks a man in a suit as he walks with determination toward an outdoor ping-pong table and shouts in Italian: “Ping-pong is not allowed! Go home to your PlayStation!” Cut to another man who sits at a desk, sighing: “Where are you going with these dogs with enlarged prostates? You’re all irresponsible, idiots!” A man wearing blue gloves and with a mask under his chin sits in front of the Italian flag, and barks: “All these hairdressers coming to your home! What the hell are they for? Who the hell is going to see you? […] You’ll have coronavirus in your hair instead of hair spray!” A seated man recounts telling a jogger: “You are not Will Smith in I Am Legend. Go home now!” A haggard-looking man howls: “How come everyone is a running enthusiast now?” and later lets out an exasperated, “Stay at home!” (Restare a casa!) (“Italian Mayor Shouts” 2020).

Is this a masculinized performance of rage, through which viewers can vicariously experience phallic Italian vehemence?

The final clip was taken from a March 15 video of Mayor Gianfilippo Bancheri as he urged the citizens of Delia, Italy, to abide by strict shelter-at-home orders; his full-length video has over a million views online (“Lo sfogo” 2020). The coronavirus outbreak has devastated Italy, with lockdowns beginning in the Lombardy and Veneto regions on February 23 and going nationwide on March 9, and with 224,760 cases and over 31,763 dead at the time of writing (Corriere della Sera, May 16). The compilation video of Italian mayors berating citizens for flouting stay-at-home orders was made by a London-based Twitter user and has over 1.3 million views on YouTube. The high view count, the English subtitles on the video and corresponding memes, and wide coverage on news media such as the BBC and CNN all point to the apparent amusement of the English-speaking world. At first glance, it shows us the vociferous and humorous pleas of mayors desperate to enforce the lockdown and keep populations safe. Yet given this horrifying and grave context, what are Italians citizens watching when they watch these frantic mayoral admonishments? And what exactly were non-nationals around the world laughing at here?

Is this a personalized public health campaign to inspire compliance? Absent from all these videos is any reference to medicine or science, rarely even the term COVID-19. Nary a reference to contagion or flattening the curve.

Is this an indirect way to perform Italian cultural identity? Many mayoral videos—only a fraction of which made the compilation—reference Italians’ love of the evening walk (passeggiare), quality time and shared meals with family and friends. Even the many references to covert hair and cosmetic visits seem to imply a kind of dolce vita Italy of beautiful-peopled piazza strolls (Vicenza Piu’, March 23). Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned against citizens who defy government orders with cleverness (furbo) (Corriere della Sera, March 8; Gentile 2020). Certainly, the notion of devious smarts and aggressive sociality has long characterized Italians; so, yes, the videos indirectly reassert this notion of the noncompliant yet hypersocial citizen. And while presenting a kind of nativist solidification of Italian character might appeal to Italian viewers, it certainly does not explain the deeper resonance of the video.

Perhaps, then, we can focus on the video’s most striking visual feature: the palpable anger of the all-male cast. Is this a masculinized performance of rage, through which viewers can vicariously experience phallic Italian vehemence? There is a clue in the term “outburst” (sfogo)—meaning to vent, explode, or unload—which appeared in the original YouTube posts and Italian headlines. Venting (sfogare) has etymological roots in the idea of gas gauges and combustion, literally meaning to let out the trapped liquid or gas. The videos were similarly titled in English language headlines: “Italian Mayors Lose Patience” (EuroNews, March 26), “Italian Mayors Rage” (Guardian, March 23), “Watch Furious Italian Mayors Lose It” (Huffington Post, March 24), “Angry Italian Mayors Scold People” (Washington Post, March 24), and perhaps the most frank, “Italian Mayors Are Losing Their Shit” (Vice, March 23). From the English speakers’ perspective, the video trades in some rather obstinate stereotypes of Italians: mob boss meets gesticulating talker meets ineffectual government.

But in the Italian political landscape, these are not just angry mayors. These are mayors who, especially in their original video messages, were threatening government force and escalation. In the full versions of these videos as well as in several other mayoral posts on social media, we find what was left out of the funny YouTube compilation—a pivot toward a more serious governmental response. Mayor Antonio Decaro has nearly two million views of a somber video in which he closes a public park in Bari (“Coronavirus, il sindaco di Bari” 2020). Decaro confronts cyclists, walkers, and other strolling citizens and we see them vacate the spacious greens and paths, culminating in his solemn closing of the gates. Salvatore Cosma, mayor of Tursi, threatens penalties for violations of the lockdown order (Quotidiano del Sud, March 17). Amedeo Bottaro of Trani warns of fines and military intervention (Trani Viva, March 5). Gianfilippo Bancheri of Delia, included in the famous mash-up, cautions citizens about fines and legal penalties. Carlo Bo of Alba warns of fines up to €3,000 (IdeaWebTV, April 4). Cateno De Luca of Messina—whose supposed likeness to Benito Mussolini spawned another thread of videos and memes—threatens an opaque but ominous “trouble” (guaio) for any citizen leaving home (Rossellini 2020; Sicilia, April 7). The comedic “watchable” quotient of straight-faced men dangling relatively minor penalties and fees might be in their straight-faced delivery of over-the-top rhetoric. Perhaps most severe is Vincenzo de Luca, president of Campania region, who issued a bold message to any students intending to celebrate university graduations: “We will be sending armed police and we will be sending them flamethrowers.” Is this a flexing of local state powers in an already withered and dispersed welfare state? Perhaps we might read these long-form videos as authoritarian government porn, with the exclamatory “stay home” (restate a casa) the equivalent of the money shot. Jokes aside, Paul Preciado (2020) dubs the “constant production of a regulated and quantifiable pleasure” fundamental to our new “pharmacopornographic” biopolitical regime.

Italy’s politics has been dominated by a mediatized theatrics characterized by post-truth and engaging spectacle.

To Italian viewers, however, the angry white mayors would resonate with popularized images and videos of angry youth and the rage-filled rants of Beppe Grillo, founding leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S, Movimento Cinque Stelle). Grillo, a former comedian and founder of M5S masterminded a populist surge in Italian politics by channeling the anger of disenfranchised citizens into public events such as “Vaffa Day” (F— you Day), grassroots meet-ups focused on venting citizens’ frustrations over the existing political system. On February 29, he launched the hashtag #WeAreAllChinese (#SiamoTuttiCinesi) with an image that merged the top half of a Chinese man’s face with his face (La Repubblica, February 29). Grillo proclaimed the hashtag a sign of solidarity. For some it was an indirect response to the governor of the Veneto region Luca Zaia’s hideous remark, also issued in a video message, that “the Chinese eat live rats” (ibid.). Yet the Twitter feed alone shows that some interpreted Grillo’s hashtag as racist and reacted with rage by calling him an “idiot” (cretino), a “bloody bastard” (maledetto bastardo), and even telling him to “drop dead” (estinguiti). Others criticized Italy’s Left as antiracist to a fault and—citing his 2019 trips to the Chinese embassy—suggested Grillo might have insider ties to Beijing. Regardless of the particularities, Grillo’s intervention into national debates about coronavirus governance was predominately carried out via blog and meme (#onemoreangryitalianman).

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former deputy prime minster known for his leadership of the right-wing Northern League (Lega Nord), has also joined in the posting of angry videos. Recognized as a far-right xenophobe and regularly referred to as fascist, Salvini posted a video of migrants landing in Italy on February 23 with the phrase, “It’s simply insane that the landings continue as if nothing had happened, this government is every day more reckless and deplorable.” He called for making Italy’s borders “armor-plated” (Nugent 2020).

In Salvini’s fantasy for impenetrable national borders, we find yet another white man whose anger invokes fascism not just authoritarian escalation. In calling for antifascist anthropology and analyzing the failed 2016 constitutional referendum in Italy that many dubbed Italy’s Brexit, Lilith Mahmud (2020) lays bare what we need to see when we look at authoritarianism in Italy: “White supremacy is at the center of fascism, despite revisionist amnesia.” White men’s anger fuels white supremacy; it particularly enjoys the privilege of being taken more seriously than women’s anger and poses a genuine risk of inciting violence. Their anger is not fueled by rogue ping-pong players. Rather it reflects their feelings of resentment and embattlement over the loss of white privilege at the hands of incompetent local governance, and at losing their ability to control public space and citizens. As one Italian friend put it, many mayors were “passed over” (scavalcati) and indignant in having to follow the edicts of a prime minister who likely holds a different party affiliation. The mayors’ rage is not really in response to a wayward citizenry, but encapsulates the thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control. The mayors become the demagogues of lockdown resisters and the clowns of ineffectual leadership. In this sense, the mayoral video might be seen as a kind of propaganda by and for Italians.

Yet given this horrifying and grave context, what are Italians citizens watching when they watch these frantic mayoral admonishments? And what exactly were non-nationals around the world laughing at here?

Yet this is not propaganda for flaccid threats, but rather for digital governance. Here is where we need to take the medium—the viral video in this case—seriously. Put differently, the neatly packaged mashup or meme form of the white male anger upstages the content of the mayors’ rants. Perfected by former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in the 1990s and 2000s, Italy’s politics has been dominated by a mediatized theatrics characterized by post-truth and engaging spectacle (see Molé 2012; Liston n.d.). Yet Berlusconi’s technological medium was the television whereas the Five Star Movement—whose 2018 government produced Prime Minster Conte—have made the internet and digital technology their loci of support and control, from grassroots online organization and meet-ups to digital platforms and algorithmic party software. In the algorithmification of democracy, data is the most precious resource in consolidating political power, the visible (e.g., computer, smart phones, social media) and invisible parts (e.g., algorithms, tracking, privacy invasion, disinformation) of digital media have defined a new political era (see Couldry 2017; Besteman 2019; Gusterson 2019). One of the hallmark moves of digital governance is the effortlessness of such videos: the engaging “content” makes it harder to see the surveillance, personalization, and commodification, let alone the imprint of human design and technological infrastructures (see for example, Bogost 2015). The mayor video is a political product that competes for new viewers who might happen upon the video because of built-in Google or Facebook algorithms, and who might share it in turn, propelling the video onto new screens and new political potentiality. The mayoral mash-up is part of a global political shift where Italy has once again been an innovator: it’s politics made clickbait, Italian style.

Theorists of humor and most comedic audiences recognize that surprising juxtaposition makes for good jokes, and in the mayors’ video we find an unusual combination of divergent politico-economic paradigms. On the one hand, these are white men blowing their gaskets (sfogarsi), calling to the mind a mechanical machine and its attending paradigm: capitalism, whiteness, paternalism, industrialism, science, and hefty materiality. On the other hand, it is a two-minute video of white men blowing their gaskets, conjuring instead a virtual machine: digital technology, algorithms, sophisticated editing, instantaneous circulation, dangerous authoritarian tendencies, and chimeric materiality—content that obscures form. What we witness, then, is a calculated performance, a kind of noncombustible combustion. And, alas, the punchline: the mayors’ impotent potency lives in a new political regime where the machine is the viral video.

Noelle Molé Liston teaches at New York University in the Expository Writing Program. She is the author of the award-winning 2011 monograph, Labor Disorders: Mobbing, Well-being, and the Workplace and forthcoming, The Truth Society: Science, Disinformation and Politics in Berlusconi’s Italy.

Pandemic series banner image
Image description: Grey text reads “PANDEMIC” on a black background. Layered on top are illustrations of individuals performing common activities during lockdown: one person carries an armful of toilet paper, a pair of people have a book open, one person sits in front of a computer screen displaying an emoji with a heart, and another person bakes bread.
Caption: Scenes from stay-at-home life by Charlotte Hollands, produced for the PANDEMIC issue of Anthropology News magazine.

Charlotte Hollands created artwork as well as spot illustrations of experiences from social distancing life for AN’s pandemic issue. Hollands is an illustrator, artist, and ethnographer who is developing new ways to use illustration within social science research and is currently completing her first graphic nonfiction book, written by Alisse Waterston.

Cite as: Liston, Noelle Molé. 2020. “The Funny Wrath of Italy’s Viral Mayors.” Anthropology News website, June 19, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1445

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