Italy, bravado and the Costa Concordia

ROME — The Costa Concordia wreck off the island of Giglio off the Tuscan coast is a shocking tragedy. But to Italians, the antics and psychological profile of Francesco Schettino, the captain responsible for the wreck, is sadly familiar.

In the age of Berlusconi, Italians — or many of them, at least — seem to pride themselves on bravado and rule-breaking, a fact that at least partially explains Italy’s current political and economic woes.

Consider the facts of the Costa Concordia tragedy, at least as they’ve been reported so far; a lot of details remain murky.

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The 52-year-old captain steered his ship dangerously close to the island, reportedly to show off on behalf of his headwaiter, Antonello Tievoli, who was born and raised on Giglio.

Tievoli’s sister used Facebook to alert friends and family to go to the seaside to see the ship as it passed close by.

"Come to see it, Antonello, we’re right on top of Giglio!” Schettino reportedly shouted to him across the deck. Moments later, rocks ripped a long gash in the ship’s portside hull, causing the vessel to immediately tilt to one side as it took on water and began to sink.

More then 4,200 passengers and crew were forced to flee. Schettino was among them, as he allegedly refused to oversee the evacuation of the crippled ship.

Days after the accident, more than 30 people are dead or missing, and Schettino has been charged with multiple counts of manslaughter, abandoning ship, unsafely steering it close to shore, causing a shipwreck, and ignoring age-old rules that give preference to women, children, and the disabled to disembark first.

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To many Italians, Schettino is reminiscent of 75-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon who was ignominiously ousted as prime minister two months ago.

Despite losing his leadership post, Berlusconi remains the owner of three national television networks and a major film studio. He is the dominant Italian political figure of the last generation, and a man who will go down in history for his apparently insatiable taste in very young women, an uncanny ability to sidestep legal problems, and his penchant for clowning around at staid international gatherings.

He also did nothing if he did not show a generation of Italians that a swagger and rule-breaking could seem virtuous.

“Italians have always been quick to think ‘me first!’” said Lorenzo Piermatteo, 36, a restaurant and bar manager in Rome. “I don’t say Berlusconi invented that point of view, but he certainly made it more acceptable.”

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Cecilia Paterno, a 29-year-old Roman school teacher agreed: “I believe that leaders lead by an example, and it will take a generation or more to remove the worst of the example that Berlusconi’s generation of leadership gave us.”

Anyone who has spent time in a major Italian city would find it hard not to avoid comparing rush-hour traffic to the navigational skills Schettino used to steer close to the shore of Giglio. A European study released last year said that Italians were among the worst in Europe at waiting in line.

This behavior poses a real threat to Italy. According to the current Italian government, the largest single reason that Italy is at risk of falling victim to Europe’s debt crisis is because too many Italians do not feel they should pay taxes. Inspectors under the current government of Mario Monti — an unelected outsider who rose to power thanks to pressure from markets and European leaders — have found Ferrari drivers who report near-poverty level income on their tax returns.

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For many in Italy, life is all about not playing by the rules, and doing so with a certain flair.

But Schettino’s comparisons with Berlusconi don’t end with their shared flair for rule-breaking. Schettino apparently had his own weakness for women. The latest reports say he may have been shirking his duties in order to spend time with a mysterious Moldavian woman who was allegedly on board illegally. 

Schettino and Berlusconi also share a knack for explanations that stretch belief. The captain claimed that his early departure from the sinking ship took place because he slipped on deck and fell overboard, landing in a lifeboat that took him to shore against his will.

Most importantly, it may end up being the case that like Berlusconi, Schettino may be undone by a recorded phone call.

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In the final weeks of his government, the beleaguered Berlusconi was done in at least in part by a series of recorded phone calls in which his sexual and criminal exploits were detailed. In Schettino’s case, it was his recorded telephone conversation with Gregorio de Falco, a captain in the Italian coast guard based in Livorno, the closest big city on the Tuscan coast that has vilified him in the public eye.

When Schettino said he could not return to the ship because it was dark and the ship was tipping, de Falco shouted back, “And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get on the bow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are. Now!” Later in the conversation, Schettino pleaded, “I want to go back on board but there is a boat in the way … [my boat] has stopped and is waiting.” De Falso replied angrily, “It has been an hour that you have been telling me the same thing. Now get on board!”

It is still not clear if Schettino followed de Falco’s orders to return to the ship. But when it comes to the notion that it is okay not to follow the rules, Schettino was already on board.

More on GlobalPost: AUDIO: Costa Concordia captain accused of abandoning ship

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