Anyone who has seen Titian’s sumptuous painting The Worship of Venus might think that it is the ultimate expression of the Italian love for children. We are so used to tender Italian Renaissance images of infants-their tiny, chubby hands grasping a maternal breast, their dimpled pearly limbs-that we tend to think that it has remained a constant. Visitors to Italy, bewitched by the ease with which small children are accommodated and tolerated in restaurants, tend to believe the same thing. Surely this is the best country in the world to have a child, or to be one?
Until recently, I agreed. Charmed by the way our baby daughter enjoyed a triumphal procession down the main street of Cortona, with people stopping every few yards to pinch her cheeks and exclaim at her beauty, we thought of abandoning frigid Britain and moving there. After all, I spent my childhood in Italy, and my parents still live there. It is where I have set my new novel, the place I still think of as home. Wouldn’t it be lovely to give our children the same sense of paradise-of being greeted everywhere with enthusiasm?
But there were too many facts and experiences that kept popping up to spoil this picture-chief of which was the exceptionally low Italian birth rate. Where two, or even three children are the norm amongst English families, Italian couples tend to have just one. Or none. The only Italian woman I know with three children is married to an Englishman. She is pitied as a sort of deluded drudge for this by her countrymen. I myself, with only two, am often told what a big family I have. Unlike the Chinese, the Italians have not needed a law passed to force them to have only one child. Despite the Pope’s refusal to countenance contraception, they are no longer philoprogenitive.
I wonder whether, in fact, they ever were, and whether it is not the British, with our unlimited capacity for self-castigation, who are the true child-lovers of Europe. The writer Tim Parks, an Englishman married to an Italian, tells in Italian Neighbours of local astonishment at their struggles to get their children to go to sleep by eight o’clock. If you go to Italy on holiday, you will see dozens of children still being dragged around at midnight, or slumped in buggies. The reason for this isn’t that Italians…