Letter from Umbria

Letter from Umbria

Joanne Barkan asks whether globalization is turning Europe into a museum

It’s a trite observation, but April in the region of Umbria in central Italy is breathtakingly beautiful: olive groves in new leaf, small vineyards with tidy rows of meticulously pruned plants, ranks of green hills receding into a blue mist, medieval towns that seem to grow right out of the hilltops, churches decorated with some of Western civilization’s most prized early Renaissance frescoes. Of course I loved seeing Umbria again. It also reinforced a vision I have of Europe’s future. In fifty years, all of Europe will be a museum catering to a half-billion upwardly mobile Chinese tourists.

Venetians have been saying for thirty years that their city is nothing more than a museum. The flow of commuters demonstrates this. Before the 1970s, Venetian workers commuted daily across the lagoon to Mestre and Porto Marghera on the mainland, where they had industrial jobs, mostly in chemical plants. By the mid-1970s, they could no longer afford city rents; then heavy industry began to decline. Now Venetian workers live on the mainland and commute back to Venice every day for jobs in the tourist industry.

Umbria has its own version of this transformation. A harsh system of sharecropping, mezzadria, still dominated the economy in the early post–Second World War period. In the 1950s and 1960s, the children of sharecroppers left the region en masse to escape poverty—just as the children of peasants fled the South in the same period. In Umbria many of the old case coloniche—the buildings where landowners housed their sharecroppers along with a few animals—have been sold and remodeled into spiffy weekend retreats for city dwellers and foreigners. Elderly former sharecroppers and some of their middle-aged children now work as decently paid caretakers and gardeners for the weekenders. It beats sharecropping by a lot. In the “art towns” that attract tourists, specialty-food boutiques selling Umbrian olive oil and wines line the streets between architectural monuments.

Beyond the tourist industry, Italy’s economy is sputtering, having produced a meager 1 percent growth in 2004. The European Union (EU) will likely impose sanctions on the country for going too far beyond the limit set for budget deficits. Italy has also been losing ground in the global economy. From 1994 through 2003, Italian multinationals increased sales abroad by only 0.9 percent; the EU average was 12 percent. Fiat, still Italy’s largest private employer, continues to lay off workers. In April a consortium of banks saved the company from financial crisis by agreeing to convert a huge loan into a purchase of 27 percent of the company’s stock.

Textile and garment manufacturing—an important industry in central Italy—has been drowning in the tidal wave of Chinese imports. Statistics for the entire EU are staggering. Since quotas ended in January, imports of Chinese sweaters to the EU have increased 895 percent, slacks for men an...