Piazza Venezia is not only the very heart of Rome, it is also the very centre of Italy. Literally, all roads in Italy do lead to Rome and are marked by their distance from the Campidoglio and the buzzing piazza beneath it.
The piazza isn’t as grand as Place de l’Étoile in Paris, but it may be more chaotic. Driving around it, over the slick, uneven cobblestones, is not for the faint of heart. No lanes, no rules, horns blaring.
Given the anarchy that defines driving in Italy – stop signs are mere suggestions, floating between lanes is the norm and passing on a blind curve while talking on the phone is commonplace – I was more than a little surprised to learn just how hard it is to get an Italian driver’s licence.
The theoretical test covers more than 4,000 rules, nearly every one of which is broken every day by every driver in Rome. Just like anarchy itself, driving in Italy is a deeply theoretical activity. If you are going to break rules, you must first know what they are.
It’s not enough to know you shouldn’t go down a one-way street just because it’s the shortest distance between two points. You also need to be aware of the exact number of kilograms allowed on each axle of a vehicle carrying merchandise but not people. You must also know the exact definition of the “road” and the “carriageway” and how long you should wait to drive after eating a heavy meal that might have included fried or fatty food.
In his classic study The Italians, Luigi Barzini claims that the jungle of Italian laws might be rooted in superstition: “Italians pass a complicated law, which is often difficult to apply properly, in the hope that it will work like an incantation and ward off that particular evil.”
If you add to this idea the fact that the Italian justice system is based upon the simple idea that La Legge non ammette l’ignoranza – The Law doesn’t admit ignorance – you begin to understand the need for more than 4,000 rules of the road. Every conceivable driving mishap has been named, and therefore perhaps magically robbed of its chance to occur.
In theory, at least, every Italian driver knows the laws. At the Autoscuola Mondial in the neighbourhood where I live in Rome, I studied for the theory test with a chatty group of 18-year-old Italians, all taking the test for the first time.