11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 16



Rome's Yellow Pages carries 49 pages of listings for detective agencies. Francis X. Rocca finds that in Italy infidelity is big business — for some

Rome Italy, says the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, is an archetypal 'low trust' society, where kinship bonds dominate and strangers are presumed enemies until proven friends. This may be the legacy of centuries of invasion and rule by foreigners, or (as I think in my blacker moods) the result of endemic dishonesty, but whatever the reason, the consequences are obvious to anyone who lives here. The structure of nearly all transactions, commercial and otherwise, reflects the assumption that both parties will lie and cheat as soon as they have the chance. Until a few years ago, many bureaucratic procedures were impossible without a certificate proving that you were really alive.

It stands to reason that such a society would have plenty of use for detectives. The Rome Yellow Pages carries 49 pages of ads and listings (compared with one and a half in central London, and two in Manhattan) for private investigators. These sensationally worded and illustrated solicitations, like the handbills that periodically appear under my windscreen-wipers, promise to uncover the truth about treacherous business partners, insolvent clients, delinquent children and, of course, unfaithful spouses. Fear of the cuckold's horns is the national preoccupation; and if adultery is not the national pastime, then detecting it surely is.

Not that Italians wait to get hitched before becoming suspicious. 'Pre-matrimonial investigations' is a prominently touted and increasingly popular service. The Tomponzi agency has reported a 45 per cent rise over five years in requests for check-ups on their clients' betrothed: their income, educational credentials, family origins, health and moral soundness. 'People are afraid to marry without precise information,' says the agency's owner, Miriam Tomponzi. In her short-skirted black cocktail dress, spike-heeled knee-high boots and ample mascara, she looks more like the femme fatale of pulp detective fiction than a detective herself. In fact, she is the country's most famous practitioner of her craft.

It is a role that she inherited from her late father Tom Ponzi, whom Time magazine dubbed the 'Mike Hammer of Italy', an unrepentant fascist and 2801b gourmand credited with bringing American investigative techniques and technology to his native peninsula. So powerful is the man's legend — and his brand — that his daughter has fused his

Christian and family names into a single surname, and legally taken it as her own.

Tomponzi's rdsume boasts a master's in criminology from Cambridge and fluency in five languages. Just as useful, no doubt, is her sceptical view of human nature. `One is never sure of anything. You know yourself perfectly, no? I don't know you perfectly. What we transmit to our partner is what we want to transmit.' Tomponzi attributes the increase in business among the affianced to the Italian divorce rate, still low by British standards, but rising as quickly as any in Europe. 'One wants to protect oneself more, to be more careful.'

Yet premarital inquisitions are nothing new. For centuries, a young Italian woman would not give her hand in marriage to an out-of-towner until her family had checked his bona fides with his parish priest. This custom was still in force a generation ago, at least in the countryside, but has faded with the authority of the clergy. As the therapist has usurped the good father's counselling role, it seems that the private eye has taken over as provider of intelligence.

When Justin Stares returned to his studies at the University of Bath after a year of teaching English in Rome, the family of the girlfriend he had acquired there hired a man to learn if he had other women in England. Stares was appalled when he was told, but the young woman herself found nothing remarkable. Her paternal grandmother had earlier hired the same agency to follow the girl's mother.

Even once a relationship is over, such snooping can continue. After one southern woman I know broke off with her boyfriend, the man's parents commissioned a dossier on her subsequent romantic life, reasoning that it would encourage their son to get over her.

Not everyone can afford professionals, whose fees easily run to hundreds of euros a day. Yet Italians are ingenious improvisers. A poll a few years back found that ten

million of them every year engage in some form of `do-ityourself spying. Such home sleuthing presumably includes checking a spouse's mobile for incriminating numbers and text messages, the topic this summer of a front-page article in Corriere della Sera by Barbara Palombelli, wife of the centreleft political leader Francesco Rutelli. (Imagine Cherie Blair offering such tips in the Guardian.) A subsequent magazine cover story on this subject inevitably featured La Tomponzi's take, including her finding that Italians are 54 per cent more likely than Englishmen (but 4.6 per cent less likely than Germans) to lie when confronted with cellular evidence.

Amateur espionage can mean far more than peeking at hubby's Nokia while he's in the bath. It can turn into a passion for which ordinary people risk livelihood and freedom. Ten years ago, a woman I'll call Paola, resident of a prosperous northern city, helped out a friend with an apparently unfaithful lover by taping the suspected Other Woman's conversation. Some time later, when Paola needed a similar favour, her friend was glad to reciprocate. Later the two came to the assistance of yet another. By this time they'd discovered that they had a knack. Today Paola is one of five women in an informal spy ring that serves others (including the occasional man) who share their original plight. The five, all in their thirties, will accept no compensation beyond a thank-you meal for their services, and do not solicit clients, since their activities are, as Paola cheerfully admits, 'highly illegal'.

Like the X-Men and other comic book superheroes, each woman has a special power. A hospital employee checks on treatments and test results, particularly for venereal ailments. ATM withdrawals, credit-card purchases and account balances are the province of the team member who works in a bank. A member who works in a local government office can verify birth dates — 'People lie about that a lot,' Paola says — among other useful facts. Many a caller and text-sender have been tracked down by the member employed at a mobile network.

Paola, a beautician by profession, is an exception to the special-skills rule, but gamely pitches in however she can, checking for tell-tale garments on subjects' clothes-lines and pulling letters out of postboxes using chewing-gum and string. She has also found that she has a talent for phoning men, pretending to have misdialled, and engaging them in flirtatious conversation to gauge their propensity to infidelity.

The delighted pride with which Paola recounts these exploits suggests that there is more driving these women than the zeal to expose romantic perfidy. It is the same spirit that can animate an entire Italian town to follow a supposedly private love affair as assiduously as the standing of their favourite football team. Mistrust alone cannot explain Italians' taste for spying, professional and otherwise. The reason lies as much in the nation's love of and manifest flair for both spectacle and sport.