I don’t think, I have ever encountered a population more obsessed with cleanliness than the Italians. Supermarket shelves and the cupboard below kitchen sinks in private homes boom with soap, soda, washing powder, cleaning agents and detergent for all intends and purposes. Magic concoctions that eat chalk, degrease cooking tiles, shine wooden, laminated or glass surfaces, remove damp spots or polish floors indoors and outdoors. As far as cleaning is concerned, Italians believe in efficiency, and to be efficient household products should be dedicated to one job only. Using universal mixtures that promise to clean everything indiscriminately is substandard and socially unacceptable.
Take a deep breath when you pass through a narrow street of old houses and inhale scent of artificial pine, lemon, lavender and eucalyptus characterizing the various detergents. And watch out for all the house-proud ladies who scrub the pavement outside their front door on a daily basis, before they empty their soapy water bucket in your shoes. Modern Italians like to keep the path clean.
With these experiences in mind, I was greatly surprised to read Charles Dickens description of the women of Genova in 1844.
According to Dickens’ ‘Pictures from Italy’, Italian women were “… very good-tempered, obliging, and industrious. Industry has not made them clean, for their habitations are extremely filthy, and their usual occupation on a fine Sunday morning, is to sit at their doors, hunting in each other’s heads. But their dwellings are so close and confined that if those parts of the city had been beaten down by Massena in the time of the terrible Blockade, it would have at least occasioned one public benefit among many misfortunes.”
It seems Italian cleanliness is not genetically or culturally defined after all, but a result of ordinary European progress, prosperity and increased focus on personal hygiene.