Carnal Knowledge

By Rocca, Francis X. | The Spectator, October 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Carnal Knowledge


Rocca, Francis X., The Spectator


Rome

Italy, says the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, is an archetypal 'low trust' society, where kinship bonds dominate and strangers are presumed enemies until proven friends. This may be the legacy of centuries of invasion and rule by foreigners, or (as I think in my blacker moods) the result of endemic dishonesty, but whatever the reason, the consequences are obvious to anyone who lives here. The structure of nearly all transactions, commercial and otherwise, reflects the assumption that both parties will lie and cheat as soon as they have the chance. Until a few years ago, many bureaucratic procedures were impossible without a certificate proving that you were really alive.

It stands to reason that such a society would have plenty of use for detectives. The Rome Yellow Pages carries 49 pages of ads and listings (compared with one and a half in central London, and two in Manhattan) for private investigators. These sensationally worded and illustrated solicitations, like the handbills that periodically appear under my windscreen-wipers, promise to uncover the truth about treacherous business partners, insolvent clients, delinquent children and, of course, unfaithful spouses. Fear of the cuckold's horns is the national preoccupation; and if adultery is not the national pastime, then detecting it surely is.

Not that Italians wait to get hitched before becoming suspicious. 'Pre-matrimonial investigations' is a prominently touted and increasingly popular service. The Tomponzi agency has reported a 45 per cent rise over five years in requests for check-ups on their clients' betrothed: their income, educational credentials, family origins, health and moral soundness. 'People are afraid to marry without precise information,' says the agency's owner, Miriam Tomponzi. In her short-skirted black cocktail dress, spike-heeled knee-high boots and ample mascara, she looks more like the femme fatale of pulp detective fiction than a detective herself. In fact, she is the country's most famous practitioner of her craft.

It is a role that she inherited from her late father Tom Ponzi, whom Time magazine dubbed the 'Mike Hammer of Italy', an unrepentant fascist and 280lb gourmand credited with bringing American investigative techniques and technology to his native peninsula. So powerful is the man's legend - and his brand - that his daughter has fused his Christian and family names into a single surname, and legally taken it as her own.

Tomponzi's resume boasts a master's in criminology from Cambridge and fluency in five languages. Just as useful, no doubt, is her sceptical view of human nature. 'One is never sure of anything. You know yourself perfectly, no? I don't know you perfectly. What we transmit to our partner is what we want to transmit.' Tomponzi attributes the increase in business among the affianced to the Italian divorce rate, still low by British standards, but rising as quickly as any in Europe. 'One wants to protect oneself more, to be more careful.'

Yet premarital inquisitions are nothing new. For centuries, a young Italian woman would not give her hand in marriage to an out-of-towner until her family had checked his bona fides with his parish priest. This custom was still in force a generation ago, at least in the countryside, but has faded with the authority of the clergy. As the therapist has usurped the good father's counselling role, it seems that the private eye has taken over as provider of intelligence.

When Justin Stares returned to his studies at the University of Bath after a year of teaching English in Rome, the family of the girlfriend he had acquired there hired a man to learn if he had other women in England. …

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