In a stylish apartment in the sleepy Tuscan town of Pietrasanta not far from Florence, a quiet revolution is underway that intends to sweep Italian macho men off their feet and into the kitchen.
At first glance Fiorenzo Bresciani has all the characteristics of an Italian romeo - the Robert de Niro good looks, hairy chest, seductive charm and a smile to swoon for. But here he is in his apron, with rubber-gloved hands pushing a mop around the tiled floor of his living room in much the same way he drives his car - fast and reckless. His wife, homeopathic doctor Daniela Tageli, remains busy behind the closed doors of her surgery on the other side of the hallway while her husband takes care of all the domestic chores.
He is not alone; there are 3,251 chaps in Italy who are challenging the reputation of Mediterranean men who don’t know one end of a mop from the other. Film stars such as Marcello Mastroianni and Al Pacino have portrayed Italian men with charming machismo while films such as The Godfather have given them an image of toughness that is stylish and dangerously desirable. So, it is a brave man who confronts the country’s macho values - based on money, seducing women and driving fast cars.
Defying the scorn of most Italian men, Bresciani went ahead and founded the Associazione Uomini Casalinghi ( The Association for Italian House Husbands - AUC) 15 years ago. It supports Italian men who want to help their wives with the housework, or newly divorced men who want to learn to look after themselves. It also supports those blokes who enjoy pursuits such as knitting and baking but are too ashamed to admit it to their mates.
According to Vando Borghi, a sociologist at the University of Bologna, the association’s growing membership indicates that many men are choosing to opt out of the workplace. "The labour market is becoming a much more stressful and absorbing place," he says. "There are some men who are thinking about taking on a different role in the family and changing the balance between family and work."
Fast becoming a media star in his own right, Bresciani appears regularly on Italian television predicting that the future for the Italian male is not Armani suits and gold medallions, but Marigold gloves and aprons. It is time the Italian male started learning the art of housekeeping, he exhorts.
"Women’s fingers may be smaller and able," he says, "but I’ve seen men do incredible things with crochet."
When Bresciani met Tageli 20 years ago, he was working as a butcher. "I decided to give up my job because I wanted her to be able to concentrate on her work. Her work is more important than mine; I wasn’t ambitious. She makes people feel better and I wanted her to concentrate on this without distractions.
"It wasn’t something that we discussed, it just evolved. I began doing the housework until finally I was doing it all. I was teased a bit by my friends but they could see I was still the same old Fiorenzo. I get great satisfaction in keeping the home nice and cooking great meals. Daniela can afford to have a cleaner if she wants, but I don’t want a stranger coming into our home and making a mess of it."
He continues: "My family are fine about it and my brother, Agostino, is also a member. When I was a child my father had an accident and lost his leg. He couldn’t work and my mother had to go out to work instead, so we saw my father doing a lot of housework. It was natural for me to see a man doing domestic chores and I could see how much my mother appreciated it. It isn’t fair for women to go out to work and come home and be expected to do all the work. Some men are realising this and are contacting the organisation for moral support and to pick up some houseworking tips."
Bresciani has the unlikely sympathy of Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Italy’s former dictator and topless model turned right-wing politician. "Things are changing in Italy," she says. "Roles are being reversed. If the men are doing the cleaning, it is because the women have stopped."
And it is true - times are changing. According to the United Nations, over 50 per cent of Italian women work full time, and the figures are increasing annually. But national statistics show that most working women do 100 per cent of the housework.
"Italian men have to take responsibility for household chores," Bresciani says. "The image of the macho Italian man is wrong. It always has been. Why should it be that men can’t show their feelings or try to help their wives? And if they do, why should they be considered cissies? Society is changing and we have to change with it. The wellbeing of the Italian family rests on the ability of women to move up in society and for men to move aside.
"But I don’t mean women should wear the trousers. Men must always retain their masculinity, which isn’t the same as being macho."
Between 1995 and 2000 the Italian divorce rate increased by a staggering 39 per cent. "More men are living alone and don’t know how to look after themselves," Bresciani says. "They don’t know their ravioli from their spaghetti and are too embarrassed to ask. And some men like to do things like embroidery, but have to do it in secret because they are afraid of being thought homosexual or odd.
"When they contact the AUC they meet up with other men who like to sew and can talk about their hobby without feeling ashamed."
For Bresciani, the main reason for setting up the AUC was to enable women to concentrate on their careers. "Up to now Italian men have tried to suppress and dominate them and keep them indoors under their control. I wanted women to be able to relax with men who would give them more time to be themselves by doing a lot of the household chores. When men don’t help out in the home women can’t relax. She gets tense and stressed and it affects the couple’s emotional and physical relationship. When men take responsibility for their share of the housework, couples are more united and everyone benefits," he says.
Despite continuing criticisms from outside the organisation that it is for effeminate men and homosexuals, membership of the AUC has grown faster in the past five years than ever and last January it registered as an official organisation.
Each AUC group around the country meets every month to swap recipes and cleaning tips as well as discuss Italian football. Bresciani is preparing his apartment for the next local meeting and not a corner misses the attention of his duster. "I have to set an example as the president," he says.
At this meeting he is going to give a dazzling performance with his iron.
Very soon the room is full of men of varying ages donning aprons and catching up on local gossip and developments on the home front. Bresciani sets down a tray of fresh coffee and cups with home-made biscuits. "Delicious," says Michele Polidoni, between melt-in-the-mouth moments. "How did you make them?" Bresciani launches into the ingredients and promises to write the recipe down for members and put it on the AUC website.
Polidoni, 32, became a member of AUC after meeting Bresciani six years ago. "He told me about his organisation and I told him I’ve always loved cleaning. I was relieved to meet a man I could tell who wouldn’t laugh at me. Even as a little boy I was always polishing, dusting and sweeping."
Polidoni enjoys his hobby so much he works as a cleaner to supplement his income as a shop assistant in a hardware store in nearby Camagore. "For a long time it was something I did that I couldn’t really talk about with other men, although I’m not ashamed of it. When I heard about the association I thought I could pick up some more cleaning tips and pass a few on myself."
Polidoni thinks Italian women prefer their men to be macho. "I lived in Rome for two years with my girlfriend, but she left me because she said I liked cleaning too much, so I moved back with my mother. Maybe women prefer men who tell them what to do in the home and spend all their time in bars and driving fast cars," he says.
The men start to gather around Bresciani, who is now warming up his iron and laying out a pair of linen trousers on the ironing board. "Linen is very difficult to iron, and you have to lay a damp cloth over the fabric to get the creases out. Or, you iron it when it is still damp - but not wringing wet."
They watch attentively as he irons with obvious satisfaction.
Sipping his coffee, Mario Vaglio wants to reassure that housework does not affect an Italian man’s performance in bed. "We are still good lovers," he says, puffing out his chest. Still handsome and looking much younger than his 70 years, Vaglio, a retired legal clerk, says he never helped his wife, Marie Louise, with the housework throughout their 45-year marriage. "But since I am a pensioner and at home I have realised how much work women do in the home. I feel very bad and guilty that I never helped her. Now I help cook, wash up and do the dusting. We are able to spend more time together as a result."
In the evening, Tageli relaxes on the couple’s roof terrace overlooking the hills, where the white marble that was used by Michelangelo for his muscle-bound David is still quarried. She embraces Bresciani when he arrives with a full tray of coffee and more biscuits. "He’s a man in a million," she says.
He certainly is, but she acknowledges that not all Italian women are appreciative of a man who can tickle their fancy with a duster. "Women in Italy are in a confused state," she says. "They say, ‘I want a man like Fiorenzo’ and then when they get someone like him, they realise they prefer the traditional type of man.
"Power for Italian women traditionally lies in the home. They feel threatened by a man who can run a home as well as they can."
Wednesday, 1st October 2003