The holiday month of August used to be a time for Italian men to stay in Rome while their wives went off to the seaside, kids in tow. The husbands ostensibly had to stay in the city to “work,” though that was often a euphemism for spending leisure time with their mistresses, without having to worry about excuses or lies.
In cafés and restaurants, experienced waiters would pretend not to recognize their regular customers, now canoodling with their seasonal sweethearts. As the saying went, “Ferragosto moglie mia non ti conosco” which might best be translated as “It’s the middle of August—who are you again?” or, even more loosely, “Wife, what wife?”
But not anymore.
Like a prudish spoilsport, the European economic crisis is rapidly changing Italy’s social mores. Not only are wives increasingly working to support their families and, thus, also spending summers in the city, but it’s also becoming prohibitively expensive to support the accoutrements of a double life. Italy’s tough recession has made it difficult for philandering husbands (and in some cases wandering wives) to hide extracurricular expenditures like extravagant gifts and clandestine romantic meals on tight budgets, which means that the customary postcoital, five-course lunch following an illicit afternoon assignation have become a thing of the past. These days, paramours have to make do with take-out slices of pizza.
“There was a time when the couples here were all lovers, not spouses,” says Marco, a waiter at Café Delle Belle Arti, which overlooks the Villa Borghese. “It’s different now. We’ve got far more traditional couples in the summer months, and that changes the ambience.”
The government’s austerity measures and tougher tax regulations have also put a damper on things. Hiding a hotel bill from a romantic getaway by claiming it as a business expense is no longer tacitly accepted. Even the reintroduction of Italy’s property tax on second homes (abolished by Silvio Berlusconi but reinstated by Mario Monti) affects the love life of the Italians by making it tricky to keep that crucial pied-a-terre for midday trysts. “Giancarlo” who doesn’t want to use his real name for obvious reasons, is a 48-year-old married tax lawyer who recently was forced to rent out his bachelor pad in Rome because of the new tax burden. “It really messed up my romantic life,” he told The Daily Beast. For more than six years, he had met his lover, a 46-year-old woman who is also married, at the apartment for long romantic “lunches.” Without the apartment, he said, “we couldn’t find a way to hide a hotel bill, and it gets very old to try to keep up an amorous relationship in a parked car—especially at our age.” The two eventually split up.
The Italian psychologist Florinda Bruccoleri, who has studied the issue, recently wrote on her blog that, these days, ”infidelity is at least as stressful as the original marriage because of economic concerns. It’s hard to reconcile keeping the equivalent of two wives.”
The crisis has reached such proportions Italy’s most popular glossy magazine, Panorama, dedicated a cover story to the issue, under the headline: Anche l'amante e in crisi (Even the Lovers Are in Crisis). The piece elucidated the reasons behind the distressing loss of the “wife on the side” that Italian men have long enjoyed as a right. Blaming economic hardship and the ease with which affairs can now be discovered because of social media, the writer quotes a series of nameless men who say their lives feel incomplete without their inamorata.
For many married Italians, playing around has simply been par for the course. Another popular Italian proverb, “non c’e due senza tre,” translates roughly to “no two without three.” When said with a sly smile or a raised eyebrow, it is taken to mean that every couple has a third partner lurking somewhere in the background.
According to the World Atlas of Sex, a survey published last month in France (inevitably), Italians are the most unfaithful people in the world, followed (closely) by the French and the Spanish—the U.S. ranks 17th—though the survey, which is based on admissions of adultery, may be skewed by Southern European bluster.
Reliable statistics based on self-reporting are, of course, hard to come by, given the inherent secrecy and deceitfulness of the deed. (Who is really honest about their dishonesty?) A more accurate estimation of the prevalence of cheating, perhaps, can be found in divorce court, and last year, the Italian association of divorce lawyers published a study of infidelity based on a review of divorce cases over the last five years. According to the study, 55 percent of Italian men and 42 percent of Italian women have cheated, or are currently cheating, on their spouses. The study also found that the most adulterous age is between 40 and 50, and that more than 60 percent of all affairs take place between colleagues. And according to the study, 7 percent of married men cheated with other men in homosexual relationships, compared with 5 percent of women who sought out lesbian encounters.
In terms of the geography of extramarital relations, the lawyers found Milan to be the two-timing capital of Italy followed by Rome, Bologna, and Turin. The survey also suggested that cheaters were most commonly exposed by the discovery of illicit cellphone text messages. (A. Weiner, take note.)
But getting caught doesn’t necessarily cause a breakup. “In our country, infidelity is no longer seen in a tragic way,” says Gian Ettore Gassani, a divorce lawyer and one of the authors of the study. “Only 40 percent of divorcing couples split because of infidelity.” Let’s face it: these days, who can afford to be single?