Culture /

Italy On The Phone

“PRONTO? CIAO MAMMA! Sì, ti sento. Tu mi senti? Sì, mamma… Mi senti? Mamma, non ti sento! MAMMA?”

(HI MUM! Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me? Yes, mum…. Mum, I can’t hear you! MUM?). 

The 40-something man sitting in front of me on the train must have a pretty apprehensive mother, and I’m afraid the series of tunnels we’ve just entered won’t ease her anxiety. 

As the conversation livens up, I’m reluctantly dragged in: if the train isn’t late my fellow traveller will get off at Milano Centrale at 7:15pm, take a taxi and join mamma around 7:30pm… mmm… no, at a quarter to eight, more likely. I like this guy’s precision.  

We’ve finally got to the point of the call – what to make for dinner? – when I notice that at least three other passengers in our carriage are busy talking over their mobiles. Not bad for a seat in the train’s “silent area”. 

You see, it’s actually my fault. I made a fatal mistake. I forgot one of the most important unwritten rules in Italy: 

Thou shalt talk loudly over the phone, or shalt not talk at all. 

It’s probably to compensate for the fact that hand gestures can’t be seen by our phone interlocutors; we unconsciously raise our voices, involving everyone nearby in our dinner plans. And an aging population, mostly made of squads of concerned mothers, makes phone calls way easier than texting. 

It’s no surprise it was an Italian who invented the phone… because it was an Italian who invented the phone, in spite of what they’ve probably taught you in school. The paternity of the invention has long been debated, and it’s well-documented by an array of lawsuits, mainly involving Florentine emigrant Antonio Meucci and his nemesis Alexander Graham Bell.

Besides being Giuseppe Garibaldi’s best pal, Meucci, who had set up home in Long Island, submitted a caveat for his “Sound Telegraph” in 1871. When the caveat expired and Meucci wasn’t able to renew it due to hardship, Bell went ahead, secured his own patent and founded a company that made him as rich as Croesus.

Even in recent years, the matter was still so pressing that it required some serious governmental diplomacy. In 2002 a resolution from the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledged Meucci’s work in the invention of the telephone. That was enough for Italian newspapers to state the American Congress had declared Meucci the sole inventor of the telephone. Not that we needed it. We already knew it. In fact, in Italy we had known it since the very beginning. 

The telephone quickly became a status-symbol. 

In the autarchic 1930s and 1940s, Italian cinematography developed its own reply to Hollywood. Strongly supported by the Fascist regime, Cinema dei Telefoni Bianchi (White Phones’ Cinema) featured upper-class characters dealing with the most effective theme in narration since Homer: adultery. 

In a country that would prosecute extra-conjugal relationships as a crime against morality, these films would often be set somewhere else, preferably in Eastern Europe, in wealthy interiors typified by monumental staircases, refined Art-Deco furniture, and white telephones. As opposed to the black phones in bakelite, which were relatively accessible, white ones were pretty expensive and therefore came to mean affluence and economic progress, the symbol of a world hardly accessible to the majority of cinema-goers.  

After the war, telephony had a phase of expansion. Manual switchboards multiplied all over Italy and the number of telephonists, who would have to connect callers by inserting plugs into jacks all day long, grew with them. It was a highly gendered job: most telephonists were young, unmarried women.

Back then, making a call must have had a strong human feeling as telephonists would get assigned to a set number of telephone subscribers. Regular callers would have been able to recognize the voice of their telephonist. 

In a light tone, Gianni Franciolini’s 1955 film “Le signorine dello 04” (The ladies of the 04) plays with these dynamics, looking into the lives of five employees in a Roman telephone exchange. Incidentally, the film stars the immense comic actress Franca Valeri, who became famous in the 1960s for impersonating the character of Sora Cecioni on television. With elegance and razor-sharp wit, Valeri mocked the Italian society of the economic boom by impersonating a middle-class housewife: distracted beyond help, long-winded, gossipy, and unable to cut the umbilical cord. The gags would invariably start with Sora Cecioni calling her mum on the phone “Pronto, mammà?” – to carry on with a series of other surreal phone calls to hilarious effect. 

Meanwhile, in 1966, Mina’s song “Se Telefonando” (If Over the Phone) told the story of an intense and sudden passion that dies out so quickly it doesn’t give anyone time to explain what happened. “If calling you / I could say ‘goodbye’ / I would call you”. 

Mina refused another song over the phone, “Buonasera Dottore” (Good evening, Doctor) (1975), which was then performed by Claudia Mori and Alberto Lupo. Amusing and a little naughty, the song is a phone call between two lovers. A man who receives the call in the company of his wife pretends to be talking with his doctor, while his lover at the other end speaks to him in an eager voice. 

Television, which turned both songs into hits, quickly grasped the symbolic power of connecting people telephonically and used it to its advantage.

In the 1980s, the TV show Pronto, Raffaella?, starring the immortal Raffaella Carrà, put at its center the interaction with live audiences through various telephone games. Competitors from home would have to answer simple questions to win considerable sums, while Carrà would keep a telephone receiver against her ear the whole time. From her striking outfits (shoulder-pads for days) to the tacky scenography, the show was perfect in every aspect. Moreover, Pronto, Raffaella? assured there would be striking guests, not in the least: Jorge Luis Borges and Mother Teresa (it was the only television programme to ever interview her). Staying on topic, everyone shouted when a woman who had phoned to participate in the game revealed that her daughter with serious speech impediment miraculously managed to pronounce the phrase “Raffaella I love you”. 

Fast forward some forty years, Italians’ love for the phone (and for Raffaella) hasn’t changed one bit.