The room was full of casually dressed men and women who meandered around, batted their eyelids or stared at one another in penetrating ways. One red-haired woman in low-cut jeans and a tight blouse repeatedly glanced out of the corner of her eye at a fidgety, graying reporter.
Creepy, the reporter thought, as he did his best not to make eye contact with her -- or anyone else.
Later, the woman explained that sidelong glances are a major come-on. "It means a woman is ready to go. It's a guaranteed night in bed," she said.
And so it went at a lesson in seduction Italian-style, offered to eager, mostly middle-aged students who gathered recently at a farmhouse south of Rome to learn the art of the pickup. The wandering-eye session was just one of several exercises designed to teach students how to get the uomo or donna of their dreams into bed, if not into a lasting relationship. Everyone has the equipment, the teachers advised. Just relax and bring it out.
It may surprise foreigners that Italians, peerless seducers of legend, are flocking to formal lessons in how to beguile. Italy, which practically invented romantic love and spawned movie stars like Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and Giancarlo Giannini, has apparently forgotten how to woo. Plagued by overwork, reduced leisure and a sense of loneliness in ever more impersonal cities, "the Italians can't live on their myths any longer," said Maria Menditto, a psychologist and instructor at the seduction course. "People don't have time; people don't communicate."
Giuseppe Cirillo, a globe-trotting self-styled sexologist and seduction consultant, calls it "a crisis in human relations."
"Things are getting worse. Men and women are afraid of each other, afraid of making an approach, afraid of smiling. The idea of making idle talk at a bus stop has become horrifying. People immediately close up and think, 'But I don't know you,' " said Cirillo, who pioneered how-to flirtation classes six years ago.
At the same time, Italy has become virtually obsessed with the ups and downs of sexual attraction. Newspapers periodically publish ratings of European lovers. Recently, to everyone's dismay here, Finland finished higher than Italy. According to a recent pharmaceutical company survey, 59 percent of Italian men acknowledged sexual insecurity and 43 percent said they suffered from various sexual "disturbances."
Within that context a healthy appetite for know-how flourishes. Last spring, La Repubblica, one of Italy's largest-circulation daily newspapers, published a survey on the latest trends in attraction and seduction. Eyes, the survey found, remain the center of attraction for almost half of the men and two-thirds of the women. A majority said humor was the fastest way to the heart, followed by romantic chitchat. Nothing new or particularly complicated there, yet newspapers also reported that at beach resorts, among the usual offerings of yoga, salsa dance and aerobics classes, courses in seduction were booming.
At summer's end, heartbreak led 18 students to Menditto's course. They were quite open about why they had come.
"Italian men have no idea how to seduce anymore. They don't know how to play. They don't even look at you in the eye," said "Penelope," a brown-haired woman in her twenties. The participants had all given themselves nicknames during the course, in the interests of privacy. "They flee at the first sign of affection. They're so superficial."
"Mouse," a twenty-something male resident of Velletri, complained that there was no time to meet women. "I have to be efficient. There's a lot of competition out there and little time to make mistakes. This summer was a disaster. It would be one thing if I was a pro soccer player with lots of money. But I'm not. I have to learn."
"Silvy," a 40-year-old homemaker, said she was out to spice up her life. "I want to put discovery back in my love life," she said.
"I need a method," whispered a blond "Gardenia."
For the record, this reporter would rather spend a night playing Scrabble with Osama bin Laden than doing seduction exercises with total strangers, things such as squeezing hands, rubbing bodies together to the sound of movie music, and then talking about the "experience." But in the interest of discovery, I drove to this hilly town south of Rome for a weekend session.
"To be seductive, you have to be able to let go," Menditto, who wrote a book called "Feminine Self-Esteem," told her students.
There was a lot of loosening up. First, Menditto told the crowd to writhe around the room. Then there was the leaning on one another, and even being folded into someone's arms. Then there was the "power of the glance" exercise, with wandering and winking and so on. Then couples stood in a pair of rows facing each other and one side tried to entice the other using eyes only. I did a lot of eyebrow wiggling. My opposite, Silvy, smiled pleasantly and lowered her eyes in a shy way, edging closer. My eyebrows wiggled faster and faster. No longer the demure averted-eye maiden, Silvy rushed forward and grabbed my hands.
More direct approaches are pitched in Rome. Carlo della Torre, a self-described sexual consultant, says he was a failure at romance until he began to strike a balance between being the aggressive, macho type and the vulnerable guy. He also began wearing a silver pendant in the shape of a dragon. He offers lessons on the best places to seduce ("uncrowded beaches") and how to look ("always wear cuffs").
He teaches a kind of seduction judo in which the pursuer alternates between being a caveman and shrinking violet. "There is no seduction without vulnerability," said della Torre. "A woman will not choose someone she feels she cannot control."
A client calls on della Torre's mobile phone. "Don't be too polite," he advised. "It's good to make her understand you know the rules but can ignore them. When you get to her house, just toss your coat on the sofa. Don't hang it up. You will seem more spontaneous."
"He's learning to know when to attack and when to retreat," della Torre said after hanging up. "I would say the perfect seducer is someone with the body of a man and mind of a woman."
Della Torre doesn't think the Latin lover is heading for extinction -- he thinks the myth was overblown in the first place. "There were three types of Italian men. One is the rooster, the serial seducer who ends up just bothering women. Then there is the lap dog who is the servant for a woman. Then there is the man of means who can just buy affection. None of these are real seducers. A real seducer must provoke emotion," he said.
Giuseppe Cirillo, known widely here as Dr. Seduction, also offers step-by-step lessons, 14 to be exact, including the basic rule: No pickup lines like "Haven't we met someplace before?" Like della Torre, Cirillo suggests that weakness is a weapon in seduction. "It's good not to be too sure of yourself," he said. He opened a School for the Art of Seduction 16 years ago in Rome, and now travels here and abroad to give tips.
Italy's reputation for seduction comes out of the initial exuberance of its men. "This is a flame that is quickly extinguished," he cautioned. Moreover, barriers are building to the common flirt: sexual harassment charges, fear of strangers, the lack of time to fool around. Fear of disease is also getting in the way. "AIDS has had an impact. Strangers don't trust strangers," he said. He created a political movement called the Party of Free Condoms to promote safe sex. In the Italian press, he's now called Dr. Protection.
I decided to try a few techniques on my wife, who is Italian, over dinner.
"Why are you looking at me that way?" she asked.
"I learned it at seduction school," I explained.
"But we're in a Chinese restaurant," she said.
"Sei bellissima," I blurted out. "You're beautiful."
"Are you all right?" she asked, looking to see if anyone at the other tables had heard.
I tried to look hurt.
"Oh, come on," she said, suddenly wiggling her eyelashes. "If you want something, just ask for it."
This was my chance. "Let's have the kung pao chicken for a change."
She quickly said yes.