Continental Drift
cover story, spring 2002


Mary, Mary quite contrary
Italy struggles to come to grips with the Madonna-whore complex


Scarlet poppies, emerald spring grass and golden sunshine saturated the Via Appia, the ancient and venerated path into Rome. I was 19, a chipper and naïve Classics major on a quarter abroad, with two decades of mythology and history welling in my heart.

Here was Antiquity, the monuments, the irregular flagstones, the cyprus trees. Our class climbed a hill—just a bump, really, but the tumulus grave of a fallen hero—and settled down to picnic. Crusty bread, goat cheese, plump tomatoes, white chocolate. This day, it seemed, would blaze on forever, perfect.

“Excuse me,” a voice shrilled from below. “Do you mind? I’m trying to work.”

And so she was. Stiletto heels protruded from an open car door, as the little Fiat churned and thumped. In broad daylight, on a very popular road, amid ancient splendour, she was turning tricks. Perhaps it was appropriate somehow, prostitution being the world’s oldest profession. Yet this was not a happy hooker. Yes, she’d set up shop in public, but she hadn’t bargained on a skybox full of curious undergraduates and Latin scholars. “Go away, go away,” she bellowed. “Let a poor woman work.”

This foul-tempered temptress was my first and most memorable encounter with an Italian prostitute, though certainly not the last.  They girdle the city like sirens, unmissable, unmistakable in their gaudy scraps of clothes and crude makeup. Little subtlety is employed: women pose among the dry grass and roadside litter, flashing breasts and pubic hair at oncoming traffic. Their trade is carried out peasant-style on a blanket in the fields or, if lucky, in a small trailer nearby. Customers cheerfully button up their trousers alongside the highway, nonchalantly. After all, this is Italy. This is life. And this is love, of a sort.

Every culture has traces of the Madonna-whore complex, but none more than Italy. Gentle-eyed icons of the Virgin peer onto almost every street, as prostitutes stalk beneath. Italians must cope with two Marys quite contrary: the Holy Mother and the Magdalene. The resulting confusion, unsurprisingly, boils over into everyday life, expectations of behaviour and feminine identity. And it’s a mess, believe me.

Mary Magdalene
The women in question—literal rather than symbolic whores—number at least 30,000, including 25,000 expatriates (mainly from eastern Europe or Africa, without valid immigration papers). The government considers prostitution an epidemic, and frequently lures women off the streets with promises of aid and legal residency, or simply deports suspicious characters. Neither bait nor brute force has much effect, however.

Technically, sex for money is legal. However, most conceivable acts connected to prostitution are not: streetwalking, working in or operating a brothel, soliciting, pimping. Even “complicity” with a prostitute—say, renting one a room for shady purposes—can result in a prison sentence. Italy being Italy, such regulations are rarely enforced. As writer Folco Zanobini points out, “The Italian conception of legality is, on the whole, more elastic than rigid. A prohibition, a misdemeanour, an illegal action can all be circumscribed and rescaled by many exceptions.”

So the women prowl the roadsides, or advertise discretely as companions (accompagnatrice)  or masseurs (massaggiatrice). In the last decade, most Italian prostitutes have retreated into apartments. Two-thirds of outdoor sex workers now are foreigners, transsexuals or transvestites. Many of the remaining 40%, sadly, are IV drug-users.

Italy, with its unpatrollable borders and rich underground economy, is the European Union clearing house for illegal immigrants. Trafficked eastern European women are auctioned off as prostitutes, much like slaves in the 19th century, to Italian racketeers on a stretch of road between Trieste and Venice. Others, mere children, are smuggled from war-torn Africa via Britain.

However, despite the dark shadow of drugs, disease and kidnapping, Italians remain fairly tolerant of the oldest profession. The former Equal Opportunities Minister, brash Katia Bellillo, argued that “getting into the market for sex can be a voluntary choice and as such should be respected,” while fellow politicians lobby for decriminalisation, registers and health checks a là Amsterdam.

This is not a nation easily scandalised by sex, which is inescapable—couples dry-humping in the parks, blow-jobs in a toothpaste advertisement, topless talk shows (during the US election chaos, a leading newspaper even ran a front-page cartoon depicting Bush and Gore naked with Florida-shaped erections). Furthermore, the culture is steeped in Catholicism, with its melodramatic cycle of sin, confession, and redemption. Combined with a healthy disrespect for law and order, these factors help Italians turn a blind eye to prostitutes.

Of course, they wouldn’t want their brother to marry one.

Mary, Mother of God
“A few decades ago, Italian peasant women served men at a table and then ate their supper on the rocks of the fireplace. A little boy was taught to be capable (bravo), a little girl was taught to be good (buona). In traditional Italian culture, a woman was good if she was a selfless wife and mother, subordinating herself to husband, family, church and society,” writes historian Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.

The Virgin Mary, naturally, is the archetypal good woman. She is worshipped with near fanatic zeal: street shrines, churches, festivals, relics (some rumoured to contain the Holy Mother’s milk) and miracles abound.  Her statues are reputed to heal, walk, weep blood.  Pope John Paul II credits her with saving his life during the assassination attempt. And there’s even talk of the Catholic church recognising her on par with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The Madonna’s popularity has been steadily on the rise for millennia. She was a bit player until the early fourth century, when Epiphanius complained about cakes being left on her shrine. “She should be held in honour,” he said, “but let no one adore Mary.” His protest was unsuccessful: three decades later, she became an official doctrine at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Many claim her popularity stems from the ubiquitous Mediterranean Mother Goddess, transmuted into a palatable Christian form. Indeed, she has an almost pagan flexibility of character, often absorbing the traits and traditions of other saints. The Madonna of the Hens deals with the diseases of women, for example, while the Madonna of Pompeii quelled an eruption of Vesuvius in the fifth century. The Zodiaco di Maria, printed in 1715, identified over 200 subspecies of the Virgin worshipped in different parts of Southern Italy alone.

Writer Antonio Borgese observed: “Even the Christian mythology of the Italians slipped more and more from Christ toward the Virgin, becoming more like the religion of a female divinity. Christ himself passed from the cross to the
manger and the Virgin from the glory of the stars to the delivery bed and to the chair where she sat cuddling an eternal child. Maternity was brought into the foreground.”

So La Mamma continues to captivate Italians, who—particularly in the upper class—groom their daughters into little Madonnas: protecting but gentle, maternal but chaste, dedicated above all to the family. Ironically, this nation of mother-worshippers has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates—1.2 children per woman. The government predicts a 30% population drop in the next 50 years. Only 10 million Italians may greet the next century.

Italian women are marrying later, if at all, and postponing childbirth until their careers are secure (no easy matter given job shortages, especially among the young). This, combined with a shortage of nurseries, convenience foods and late-night supermarkets, encourages women not to reproduce. The Pope has begged married couples to “make more babies,” but the plea falls on deaf ears.

Italian women may love Mary, the self-sacrificing mother, but they don’t want to be her.

Mary Quite Contrary
In the dark hours before dawn, station after station broadcasts explicit porn—naked women squirming and parting their legs—as a teaser for phone sex lines. The country that venerates la mamma (their own and Mary, Mother of God) has also been home to a stripping housewife channel and elected erotic film star Cicciolina to Parliament on the slogan “I’m ready for action.”  Amid the clash of sense and sensuality, Italy struggles to come to grips with the sexuality, and roles, of women.

Mussolini insisted that all women were whores, except mothers, sisters, wives and daughters—and this blinkered mentality continues.  Traditionally, Italian men expect purity and obedience from their female relatives. Other women are sluts, not their own. And the Madonna-whore distinction is absolute, not fluid, not a continuum. Mixing the two extremes is unthinkable, as evidenced by the most terrible Sicilian curse, “puttana la Madonna” (whore mother of God). What could possibly be worse?

Everything concerned with good women is deemed sacred, thus off-limits erotically, fuelling the Italian need for fallen women, often foreign women, women outside the clan who can be corrupted with impunity. The blue eyes and blonde hair of tourists are a far cry from the typical Mediterranean mamma, therefore safe to admire without worrisome Oedipal overtones. Indeed, many Italian men become quite aggressive on the streets, demanding dates, hissing, even grabbing foreigners.  These harassers are known comically as pappagalli, parrots. Unable to lust after their own women, they crave the exotic. Repression only fuels their enthusiasm, earning these Italian stallions ridicule and a bad name among travellers.

So where does this dichotomy leave women? Provocateur Camille Paglia believes the answer lies with Madonna—the Italian-American pop star, not the Virgin—who bridged the mind-body gap. “Madonna has made a major contribution to the history of women,” she writes. “She has rejoined and healed the split halves of woman: Mary, the blessed Virgin and holy mother, and Mary Magdalene, the harlot.”

The Material Girl’s wisdom hasn’t blatantly manifested itself in Italy, but times are a-changing. And the nation has proved capable of immense and rapid revolution, when necessary. One of the world’s most aggressive women’s movements erupted here in the 60s and 70s. Despite patriarchal momentum and Catholic conservatism, feminists won a swift about-face on divorce, abortion, birth control and male domestic authority. And these powerful women are less and less willing to be pigeonholed by stereotypes, to play the good-girl, bad-girl game.

My money’s on Italy, for a new mix of sex and sensibility.

Stiletto heels
protruded from
an open car door,
as the little Fiat
churned and thumped.

In broad daylight,
on a very popular road,
amid ancient splendour,
she was turning tricks.

Two-thirds of
outdoor sex workers
now are foreigners,
transsexuals or trans-
vestites. Many of the remaining 40%, sadly,
are IV drug-users.
The country that
venerates la mamma
(their own and Mary,
Mother of God) has
also been home to
a stripping housewife
channel and elected
erotic film star
Cicciolina to Parliament
on the slogan “I’m
ready for action.”


Back to the portfolio