Culture /

Carabinieri: Feelings about Public Policy in Italy

“So how do you know who to reach in case of an emergency? It’s very simple: you don’t.”

They traditionally constitute a behavioral model within Italian culture, enjoying widely spread respect among the population. Their calendar is so popular I saw it hanging on the walls of more than one garage, instead of the usual ones with naked women. Carabinieri have been serving Italians for over two centuries. 

Next time you’re tempted to question public policy in Italy, think about it twice: we are so fond of respecting the law that we even have two different forces to make sure we do. With some variations.   

Unlike Polizia di Stato (State Police), Carabinieri are a military force in permanent public security service. The two corps have separate stations, different uniforms, and different emergency numbers to be contacted. Carabinieri have also responsibility for policing the military, with special divisions participating in military missions abroad, neither of which compete with the Police. In their deluxe edition, Carabinieri are called Corazzieri (Cuirassiers), and act as the guard of honour of the President of the Italian Republic. They’re essentially the equivalent of the British Coldstream Guards, with less hairy headgear. 

Rather confusingly, this means the jurisdiction of State Police and Carabinieri overlaps, and I suspect there might be a certain degree of rivalry between the parties. Last Spring, many Italian newspapers reported that in a town in the South two carabinieri fined a group of policemen who were enjoying their cappuccino too much, violating social distancing.

So how do you know who to reach in case of an emergency? It’s very simple: you don’t. Or rather, I guess you call the ones you like the most, which most of the time ends up being the Carabinieri. 

It is somehow startling that even after the grim events that stained the corps in recent years (cases of corruption, drug dealing, sex scandals, murder convictions, etc.), Italians’ faith in them doesn’t seem to relent.

Some of the affection might be due to historical reasons: Carabinieri have been here even before our Country was. Precisely since 1814, when the then King of Sardinia instituted the Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali (Royal Carabinieri Corps), with the aim of providing his kingdom (which, back then, was far away from including the whole Italian peninsula) with a police corp. 

They also feature prominently in Italian popular culture: from Carlo Collodi’s children novel Pinocchio (1883) to cinema and television.  

Vittorio de Sica and Totò, two of the most loved Italian actors ever, have worn the uniform on the big screen more than once. Luigi Comencini’s Pane, Amore e Fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams), 1953, tells the stories of a group of Carabinieri stationed in a small and impoverished village in South Italy, starring De Sica, who plays a marshal, next to Gina Lollobrigida. While in pre-production, the film subject was rejected by several producers as it was considered detrimental to the honor of the corp. A producer, who happened to be De Sica’s friend, finally obtained the approval of the Arma on condition that the protagonist was De Sica himself. Nearly ten years later, the actor played a Carabinieri marshal again, this time next to Totò’s unrivalled comic talent, in Sergio Corbucci’s I Due Marescialli (The Two Marshals), 1961, set in Italy during the final stages of WWII. 

More recently, Italian TV has witnessed a boom of series on Carabinieri, such as the successful Il Maresciallo Rocca (1996-2008); Carabinieri (2002-2008); R.I.S. Delitti Imperfetti (2005-2009); and the everlasting Don Matteo (2000- still in production). Not always consistent in quality, these series have nevertheless contributed to consolidate the stereotype of the Carabiniere as a good natured, accessible, and loyal character. 

Even the many jokes Italians make about Carabinieri, portraying them as dumb, end up being benevolent, while expressing a general aversion towards the authority. The ultimate one goes: “How many jokes have been made about Carabinieri? Actually, very few, most of them are true stories!”

There might be a kernel of truth in this. That time I had to report that my credit card was cloned, I ended up dictating the whole complaint to the young carabiniere on duty, who probably realised he alone couldn’t match my editorial line. As we wrote the text together, he gradually relaxed, and by the end of our collaboration we were friends. 

Pretty much like the performances of footballers and the love adventures of TV stars, Carabinieri can become a popular topic of conversation for the citizenry. 

It happened a couple of months ago, when the Arma received new uniforms, discussed in the press and on social media. And also some years ago, when somebody in Florence shared on social media a photograph of a muscly Carabiniere wearing sun glasses, extra-tight trousers, and leather boots, which became viral in just hours. The fact the guy looked like a character out of a Tom of Finland comic might have been part of the excitement. His uniform certainly helped. 

In Italy, even law enforcement agencies care about their appearance. Call it the “fascino della divisa” (the charm of the uniform). Arguably, Carabinieri have the sexiest around.