ROME – In Italy, one lives surrounded by echoes of the Catholic past, but traces of its present can be a bit harder to find. Take a stroll any Sunday morning down a major Italian street, for instance, and you’ll find far more people sitting at coffee bars and shopping in open-air markets than flocking to church.
Yet every so often, you get a reminder that for all the country’s vaunted secularism and anti-clericalism, the Catholic gene is still active in Italian DNA.
The latest proof is a brouhaha that’s broken out over a new TV commercial from the Italian company Segugio (“bloodhound”), a website that offers comparison shopping for insurance rates. The commercial parodies the Last Supper, and the truly remarkable thing about the blowback it’s generated is that it’s not coming from ecclesiastics so much as secular commentators.
The commercial, which debuted in mid-September, also riffs off a long-standing Italian debate over which kind of pork should be used in the classic pasta dish spaghetti alla carbonara – guanciale, which comes from the cheek of the pig, or pancetta from the stomach.
The commercial opens with Jesus and his apostles arrayed on one side of a long table, imitating the scene from Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” while eating pasta. One looks up, clearly satisfied, and says, “Terrific! It’s so creamy … this pasta is a miracle.”
Judas offers a sour counter-note: “Yeah, it’s good,” he says, “but this is pancetta, not guanciale, so come on.”
Clearly exasperated, Jesus says, “Sure, Judas,” while a fellow apostle exclaims, “Judas, mama mia!” Obviously wanting to end the discussion, Jesus then says, “Listen, pass me the wine, quick …”
At that point, a bloodhound which is the advertiser’s mascot pops into the frame and asks the viewer, “Got the wrong company? Go to segugio.it.”
(One online wag speculated that perhaps a debate over the proper carbonara recipe was the real reason for Judas’s betrayal.)
Although there’s nothing overtly heretical about it, the whole idea of banalizing the Last Supper has rubbed many Italians the wrong way. In Thursday’s Corriere della Sera, Italy’s paper of record, columnist Aldo Cazzullo published reactions from readers, saying he’d rarely received “such a nearly unanimous chorus” of objections.
“If this is a mirror of our times, I’m not with it,” one reader wrote, grousing that the ad presents Jesus and the apostles as “coarse customers in a run-down tavern.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t soil the scene even more by showing nuns and female saints in miniskirts serving the wine,” the reader wrote.
“It’s flippant and disrespectful to believers,” another fumed.
“We talk a lot about the separation of church and state, which is sacrosanct, but that doesn’t mean reducing religion to a caricature or a fairy tale, above all out of respect for those who believe and who are inspired by religious values.”
Cazzullo himself added that the commercial “isn’t just offensive to religion, but to good taste.”
Pier Franco Quaglieni, another storied Italian journalist, opined along the same lines.
“The reference to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, used as a pretext for profane jokes, can’t help but annoy, if not offend, the sensibilities not only of believers but anyone who has respect for people’s religious sentiments,” Quaglieni wrote.
“This isn’t secularism, this is something that borders on blasphemy, and as such it must be denounced,” he added, comparing the Last Supper commercial with satirical vignettes of Muhammad published by the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” in 2015 that triggered global controversy and a terrorist attack.
Serena Gana Cavallo, another secular Italian journalist, also objected.
“How the times have passed in which blasphemy was a crime!” she wrote. “Now, in the epoch of the hypocritically correct, it’s become a punchline.”
She also argued that the commercial manages to be offensive to two religions at once – not only Catholicism but also Judaism, since Jesus and the apostles were Jews forbidden by religious law from eating pork, no matter which cut was used.
For the record, the Last Supper commercial is part of a series from Segugio along the same lines, one of which shows a clueless Caesar giving his good friend Brutus a set of steak knives as a present, and another with a young Italian knocking on his new neighbor’s door to borrow some flour only to discover the Italian equivalent of Pablo Escobar. In each case, the bloodhound pops the same question: “Got the wrong company?”
So far, there’s been no protest to the Last Super parody from official ecclesiastical sources, and there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell among ordinary clergy … perhaps because they don’t really need to say anything, since others seem to be doing it for them.
Once upon a time, there was a commonplace saying in Italian, scherza con i fanti ma lascia stare i santi, which basically means it’s okay to joke around with human things but you shouldn’t poke fun of the sacred. (Fanti literally means “infantry,” but more generally ordinary people.)
Today’s Last Supper controversy seems a reminder that while many things have compromised that once-homogenous Catholic culture, it can still make itself felt in surprising ways. Just ask the marketing execs at Segugio, for instance.