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Giovanni XXIII

There were two John Twenty-thirds, to begin with.

The first was called Baldassarre Cossa, born perhaps in Naples around 1365, elected Pope by the Council of Pisa in 1410 and died in Florence in 1419. Indro Montanelli describes him as follows:

“Cossa had all the qualities that a priest should not have: he was an ambitious and shrewd politician, an able and rapacious administrator, a shrewd and ruthless general. Why he became a priest instead of a commander is not known. Even less is known why he was elected Pope, and at a time like that. According to his secretary Poggio Bracciolini, he had seduced two hundred girls, brides, widows and nuns. Nor did he intend to abandon this pleasurable activity, now that he had donned the tiara”.

He was obviously not the one in the Pope’s caress to which the Virginiana Miller song is dedicated. In fact, Giuseppe Angelo Roncalli, shortly before being elected as the ‘real’ John XXIII, declared that Cossa had been an illegitimate pope: an antipope, as he is still considered today.

Roncalli came from a poor family in the Bergamo area, and a few years ago he was ordained a saint by Francis. He was the first media pope, with traits of populism. It was he who inaugurated the crowd baths, the trips outside the Vatican, and the opening of the Church to the world and to nationalities other than those of Europe: in 1960 he appointed the first black cardinal, the African Laurean Rugambwa, the first Japanese cardinal (Peter Tatsuo Doi) and the first Filipino (Rufino Jiao Santos). He also appointed the first black saint, the Peruvian Martin de Porres, who had been on the waiting list for several centuries.

In 1959 he surprisingly convoked the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965 and was comparable in importance to the Council of Trent. He improvised the Moon speech, the caress speech, on the very evening of the Council’s opening (11 October). But the funniest thing is that, by who knows what miracle of sincerity, he was nicknamed ‘the Good Pope’: as if to say that given the role, this characteristic is not at all taken for granted.

And John XXIII, the good one, proves it during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962); the moment when global nuclear war probably came closest. He sent a message of peace to Krushev through the Soviet ambassador in Rome, to convince him to desist from the tug-of-war with Kennedy. And the crisis was resolved, but who knows, it is hard to say whether it was really thanks to him. We could look for the answer in history books, of course, but the paradox is that history is no longer written by historians: it is written by TV series, films, and even documentaries.

And I would also add board games and videogames. For example, the board game Twilight Struggle is dedicated to the Cold War (which is also online, and this is the manual). The title could be translated as The Uncertain Struggle and is a quotation from Kennedy’s famous appeal: “Not a call to take up arms, however necessary, but a call to bear the burden of a long and uncertain battle, a battle against the enemies of every man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself”. The game is for two people, rightly so, because one player leads the United States and the other the Soviet Union. To win you have to earn the most “victory points”, and at the same time expand your influence over the greatest number of countries in the world by playing the cards you have as best you can: for example, if I am the Soviet Union I can play the “Decolonisation” card, and this will allow me to put my pawns on one or more countries that have just become independent, making them pro-Soviet. Or I can play the ‘Suez Crisis’ and remove American influences from France, the UK and Israel.

If it is the USA, I can for example play the “CIA” (espionage) card, which forces the opponent to show me all his cards, allowing me to prepare possible countermoves. Or I can play the “Duck and cover” card, after the name of the personal protection technique designed to defend against the consequences of an atomic explosion: the “Duck and cover” card will allow me to lower the DEFCON index that measures the possibility of nuclear war, and at the same time gain victory points.

At any time, a player can use the “UN Intervention” card to negate the effects of the opponent’s move. There are videos on YouTube explaining how Twilight Struggle works, and there are also commented games: for example the one uploaded in 2014 by The Penksy File, divided into two rounds. The same guy put online a long series of games in which he plays online against other humans. You can also play against artificial intelligence. It’s a pity that in English it’s a bit hard to follow the explanations, but luckily there is also an Italian tutorial from 2011. I had bought the mobile version, it’s cheap and you really can’t play these games on such a small screen.

Certainly it is a complex game, but I think I can say that John XXIII, the good guy, does not appear at all. Perhaps it was difficult to draw the Vatican on a map of the earth, and even more difficult to measure in practical terms – which is all that matters in the game – the effects of its policies and encyclicals. Or maybe the problem is that we civilians (not to say “we teachers, artists, intellectual nerds”) tend to slightly overestimate the impact of spiritual forces on economics and politics. Therefore, it is a great disappointment to note that Twilight Struggle does not feature Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or even Pupo and Albano and Romina, who, as we Italians know, were the decisive Trojan horses that allowed us to crumble the Evil Empire.

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