header i-Italy

Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    Sour Notes From Sanremo Festival Linger in the Air

    A few sour notes from the 69th edition of the Sanremo music festival still linger in the air, one month after the end of the festival February 9. Viewed on TV by at least 12 million, for most festival lovers -- and I am one -- it was a great success. A ticket for a seat in the stalls for the five-day festival in the Ariston Theater sold for $1,464 and, for one in the gallery, $763. Even so, setting a record, by Jan. 21 tickets were already sold out. "A magical week," sentenced the popular TV Sorrisi e Canzoni magazine. During the festival the New York Times celebrated Sanremo with a long article of praise: "Sanremo is a national gathering, like the Academy Awards in the United States," wrote Beppe Severgnini, the correspondent who was one of the judges. "It's a truce in quarrelsome times. It's predictable and reassuring."

     

    The winner, Mahmood (it is fashionable for a performer to use just one name), will represent Italy at the the international Eurovision Song Festival that will take place at Tel Aviv in May and is broadcast worldwide. In his quasi-rap song "Soldi" (Money), Mahmood complains about a girlfriend interested only in money. The child of a Sardinian mother and Egyptian father, in the lyrics Mahmood wrote a few words in Arabic, "Waladi waladi habibi ta'aleena." Elsewhere tucked into the lyrics are a few other references to a Mideastern connection that came as a novelty for Sanremo audiences:

    What seemed love was something else

    During Ramadan she drinks Champagne

    On TV there's Jackie Chan

    Smoking the nargile

     

    Presenting the songs and singers were musician Claudio Baglioni and actors Claudio Bisio and Virginia Raffaele. When Bisio announced the day after the festival that he would not participate in any future festival, the gossip mills churned. Reporter Anna Bandettini of Milan wrote that, along with the joy and success of the festival, came "polemics and disappointments." The festival week generated "enormous enthusiasm," she wrote, "but also a poisonous [atmosphere] affecting even an artist like Bisio, who is diplomatic and peaceable, and has his head on his shoulders." Bisio himself acknowledged only that, "At Rai TV it was heavy weather and all very complicated. Behind the scenes the atmosphere was of fear."

     

    Some saw a political connection. In the digital daily affaritaliani.it, critic Angelo Maria Perrino disagreed with this. For him, Mahmood's success cheated both TV viewers and the show's sponsor, the telephone company TIM. "Someone is bound to insinuate that Severgnini and company wanted to strike out at Matteo Salvini and his populist 'Italians first.' Maybe so, but that is not the point... The problem is that [the jury's selecting Mahmood] came at the price of those Italians who voted from home, paying for their phone calls out of their own pockets." This is simply "not serious," Perrino complained.

     

    In fact, this was a particularly contentious element. Mahmood was elected by two-thirds of the eight-member jury (63.7%) inside the Ariston Theater, but rejected by the thousands of phone-in TV viewers; only 14% of those chose Mahmood. By the same token almost half of those phoning in (over 46%) preferred the singer whose stage name is Ultimo (real name: Niccolò Moriconi), winner of the Sanremo Festival last year. The split between the TV audiences and the jurors inside the Ariston theater was repeated: only one quarter of the jury voted for Ultimo.

     

    In a day-after video of outrage, an angry Ultimo complained. "People paid their money to phone in and vote, but their votes were completely ignored by the journalists and jury," he said. "If an artist has three times the votes [Mahmood had], a jury of eight people simply cannot ignore this." (Watch the video >>)

     

    Some viewers simply disliked the rap concept and a certain lack of tradition, rather than Mohmood himself. Enrico Nigiotti's song "Nonno Hollywood" came in only tenth, but, played on the radio day after day in Italy, his song gained in popularity for its poetic sense and traditionalism. Nigiotti dedicated the song to his grandfather, and in one line he sings, "I hold tight to your advice/Because you know that here things are not easy...." His voice, the words, music and concept of a love song to his grandfather drew myriad admirers. One, Giuseppe C., wrote, "This song is a true masterpiece and you are the real winner at Sanremo." From other admirers: "This poem, dedicated to our grandfathers, is the true Sanremo music, which blends sentiment and melody." Said another: "This song will remain eternal in the history of Italian music and should have won at Sanremo." The song begins:

    Certain things hurt

    You can't hold it back

    There's no way to change what you don't like

    They say that with time all will pass

    But when will it pass?

    Fact is, it just doesn't pass.

    (The above is my translation: to hear and see the real thing go to this video >>)

  • Facts & Stories

    Rising on the Roman Skyline, Spires of Europe's Largest Mormon Temple

    ROME -- Located in the crowded Buffalota neighborhood north of Rome near a gigantic shopping center, the spires of a huge new Mormon temple make a striking addition to the Roman skyline. To be inaugurated in March, the 40,000-sq. foot building, under construction for a decade, covers 15 acres which include fountains and gardens. Inside is a roomy visitors center plus a family history center that will be open to the public. The entire temple is described as "religious and cultural center," . Of the 162 temples worldwide, this is the 12th to be built in Europe and the very largest; another is to be built in Portugal.

    The  Rome congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the formal  name) vaunts 5,000 members while all told Italy hosts some 26,000, scattered in 100 congregations. The relationship with Italy began when a Sardinian immigrant to Boston, Mass., named Giuseppe Taranto, known in the US as "Joseph Toronto", was baptized there and then returned to Italy with two fellow American Mormons in 1849. These early Mormon missionaries were particularly active in Piedmont, where they made proselytes in the Waldensian territory.

    In the visitors center is a wall-sized, five-panel stained-glass mural depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Under the direction of artist Tom Holdman, 25 skilled assistants  cut by hand and installed 6,000 pieces of colored glass. Incorporated in these stunning panels are gold coins that date from Jerusalem in the time of Christ plus salt from the Dead Sea and a shell from the Sea of Galilee. In an adjacent rotunda are life-sized statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles which replicate those created by the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen for the Church of Our Lady in Denmark. Thorvalsen, who spent much of his life in Italy, is the only non-Catholic sculptor to have carved a funeral monument in St Peter's Basilica for Pope Pius Vii.

    "The church is growing, and this new temple can be a determining factor in encouraging people to discover our church," said Elder Massimo De Feo. The aim is for the temple to be a place to know and to appreciate, he added. Unlike most Christian churches, the two spires soaring into the sky are not atop large places of worship. Inside are a series of fairly small rooms in which the aim appears to be a family-style friendship and intimacy. In its design energy efficiency including solar energy loomed large, with predicted savings of over 50% over building code minimums.

    Family history and hence genealogical research have long been a staple of the religion. As a result, at the press preview Jan. 14 an agreement with the Culture Ministry MIBAC for acquisition of genealogical data from Italian archives dating back to 1908 was announced. (As a footnote, at the same press conference one journalist asked if the Mormons still practiced polygamy. "No," came the answer. "That was abolished in 1905.") For further information, see: http://www.media-mormoni.it/articolo/tempio-di-roma

    Speakers also made clear that a key goal is to demonstrate their activism in Italian civil society, including with helping migrants. In recent years the Mormon church has made conscientious efforts to work together in charity projects with other organizations in Italy, including the Vatican and  Roman Catholic religious communities here. In 2015, 14,000 hygiene kits were prepared and distributed in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Sant'Egidio Community in Milan, Calabria, Palermo and Rome.

    That same year the Mormons donated to the Italian Red Cross a camp kitchen for preparation of 900 meals daily for the needy. The following year another 6,000 hygiene kits were prepared and delivered for distribution to Sant'Egidio in Rome. by The Mormon youth organization in Venice prepared another 3,000 such kits -- they included diapers, toothpaste, soap, toiletries -- distributed to refugees arriving across the Alps into Italy. Packages of underwear and shoes went to the underprivileged in Rome, and aid to the victims of the Perugia earthquake zone in 2016.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    "Solid" Italian Economy Wins Positive Fitch Rating

    ROME -- Last week Fitch Ratings of London and New York, one of the world's big three of international credit agencies, gave Italy a "BBB" rating, a signal that Italian bonds are investment grade, with low risk of default. Needless to say, "A" ratings, for higher credit quality, would have been better, but even so this fairly positive triple "B" was cheering for the many Italians worried about the economy. "As regards the sustainability over the medium term for the Italian debt, we see a moderate and positive potential," said the Fitch report issued Feb. 22. At the same time, to maintain that solidity requires the continued support of the European Union, says Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank.

     

    For Fitch, the diversity of the Italian economy is a plus, as are the strengths and talents of the Italian people. For the goverment, the BBB rating brought sighs of relief and, from the office of Premier Giuseppe Conte, an enthusiastic press release. "The Fitch evaluations confirm the economic solidity of our country. As was predictable, they reflect the transitory economic slowdown that is visible throughout the European continent.... [We continue] on the road traced in the budget so as to guaranteee development and social equity in Italy, while not ignoring the risks deriving from the international context."

     

    As Conte pointed out, among the economic strong points are these: that Italy's private sector is only moderately indebted; that the government's pension system is sustainable;  and that the economic bases of the country "are solid": export profits, the financial solidity of the Italian family and its capacity for saving, the solidity of employment, and the regained strength of the banking system.

     

    To this a slightly more cautious Economics Minister Giovanni Tria commented that the forecasts for the European Union as a whole indicate a slow-down for "all the big economies" -- i.e., for Germany and France as well as Italy. In addition, EU rules, which were "approved in haste a decade ago," should now be revised to respond to today's economic situation.

     

    On the negative side, said the Fitch report, are, first, the extremely high level of the public administration debt and, secondly, the absence of "plans for structural adjustments." The political tensions within the government create risks: "The huge ideological differences between the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega will probably be a difficult test for the governing coalition. We do not rule out the possibility that the Lega may urge new elections, to return to their previous alliance with Forza Italia [Silvio Berlusconi's revived party] and Fratelli d'Italia [headed by rightist Giorgia Meloni]. Calculations show that together these three would have a majority of the members of Parliament."

     

    One of the quarrels within the government over its economy is the 28-member European Union, with its rules on public debt. "Sovereignist" proponents, dubbed "Euroskeptics" want their country to have at the least fewer conditions imposed by the EU. Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, head of the ever stronger Lega, is considered one of these Euroskeptics, in league with Marine Le Pen in France, the Law and Justice party in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary. With EU elections approaching this May, one of the questions being asked is how many of these sovereignists will win seats in the EU Parliament, and what a strong showing by the Euroskeptics would mean for the EU future.

     

    Italy's own most prominent spokesman on the economy is Mario Draghi, who, however, has warned against Italy's backing away from the European Union. Draghi, 71, president of the European Central Bank (BCE) since 2011, spoke Feb. 21 at the prestigious University of Bologna, where he was awarded an honorary law degree.  The EU is under threat, he said, but EU members should not give credence to the "sirens" of sovereignism. "It's not surprising that the outsider challenges to the European Union are ever more menacing," he said, but many confuse sovereignism with independence.

     

    Draghi argues that these critics are reacting to the prolonged economic crisis, as well as to the "inequalities" deriving from migrations and developments in technology. Together, he says, these have opened a breach in the economic and political order of the whole postwar era. Should a country revert to its own currency as a "sovereign" gesture, and that currency weakens, devaluation follows and with it inflation and problems with exports, leaving the country ever more poor. Still, as Draghi pointed out, recent polls in Europe show that over 70% of Europeans favor the EU. Without it, he said, Germany's GDP would be 8% lower than today and Italy's, 7% lower.

     

    A problem, he concluded: the tax dodgers who cost the nation at least 4% of its income and possibly as much as 10%.

     
  • Op-Eds

    Sardinian Shepherds Spill Milk to Make Their Point

    ROME -- Ever consider writing a letter to philanthropist Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft? Two years ago Sardinian shepherd Fortunato Ladu, from the town of Desulo near Nuoro, did just that. "Dear Bill," he began, "This island of 24,000 square kilometers is home to 3 million sheep, 700,000 goats and 200,000 cows. Would you be willing to sponsor our battle to help keep this millenary economic system surviving?"

     

    While I do not know if Mr. Gates was able to respond, today the island's shepherds are still fighting for survival. In Sardinia, sheep's milk is used to produce a number of cheeses, beginning with the prized Pecorino Sardo DOP. At present Sardinia hosts 12,000 sheep farms and 2.7 million sheep. In the words of the on-line Sardinian network Terraévita (The Land is Life), "This economic situation, unless it is handled quickly, risks degenerating, with unforeseeable social risks and turbulence." The turbulence is already visible, the result of the shepherds' loss of income. This month the price the shepherds received fell to E62 cents per liter, even as production costs rose to over E70 cents per liter.

     

    After protests from Sardinian farming associations, the Government, represented by Agricultural Policies Minister Gian Marco Centinaio, offered to pay the farmers E72 cents a liter. This means that the shepherds would earn almost nothing at all, for their twelve hour day and 7-day work week. This offer was the spark that triggered even more protests, and more precious spilt milk. It is easy to understand why. For a shepherd, the day begins at dawn, when sheep must be fed and watered, then set out to graze and later be milked by machines that require careful cleaning.  

     

    In fairness, a problem pointed out by Gavino Ledda, 80-year-old retired shepherd from Sardinia, is that the government has been subsidizing the farmers with EU funds providing E20 for every sheep in the flock. Implicitly, this EU subsidy "encouraged the shepherds to accumulate the animals" that require so much care, he said.

     

    "For the past three months we have been explaining that, with payments like that, we'd have to shut down the sheepfolds," said Luca Saba, director of the Coldiretti Sardegna farmers association.  Because the government's offer would barely cover costs, Sardinian shepherds protested by dumping whole rivers of their sheep's milk right into the street. A few rejected this and instead made donations of their milk, but the photos and videos of the milk being thrown away shocked the whole country.

    The  shepherds' anger has turned the sheepfolds into "dynamite," in the words of Coldiretti president Battista Cualbu Feb. 11. "Tensions are running high, and it's out of control, as what's happening demonstrates. We are convinced that with mediation it can be resolved, but it's up to the industrialists to take action" -- industrialists the shepherds blame for keeping milk prices low.

     

    At the moment, that mediation is due to begin. At Tramatza 1,000 shepherds assembled to approve a position paper to be presented to Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Feb. 21, just three days before regional elections are to take place in Sardinia. Although Coldiretti says that the correct price would be at least E90 cents per liter, at present the shepherds' associations plan to ask that the price be boosted immediately to E80 cents a liter and, later, to E1 plus the VAT tax.

     

    And if Sardinia is today's most dramatic instance, the same is reflected elsewhere in Italian agriculture. In May 2018 Italy's official statistics-gathering agency ISTAT reported that throughout the nation income from agriculture fell in just a year by over 8%, while the gross value added within the sector was down by 5.4% (2016 over 2015). in just one year farming production was down by over 3% in both Sicily as well as Sardinia.

     

    It remains a knotty problem: can local agriculture -- that is, small farms -- help a world of robots and declining industrial production to survive? An encouraging factor is that Italian exports of foodstuffs, including cheeses, continue to grow. But, oddly enough, pecorino is an exception: during the first 11 months of 2018 its exports fell by over 30%, more than any other cheese (for full cheese export statistics see >>)

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    To TAV or Not to TAV, That is the Question

    ROME -- To TAV or not to TAV -- that is the question that divides the government, and threatens to bring European Union wrath down upon Italy's head. For the Treno Alta Velocità (high speed train) a projected 35-mile-long train tunnel is to be built linking Turin in Italy with Lyon in France and, by easing the connections, Naples to Paris. The tunnel would have independent galleries for trains going in either direction, and links constructed to stations en route. For this, the European Union contributed, last year alone, $930 million; if Italy halts the project the total the EU threatens to reclaim is considerably higher, dateing back to 2014.

     

    Back in 1980 a toll-road tunnel was inaugurated between Col du Fréjus in France and Bardonecchia in Italy. Only eight miles long, the Frejus handles 80% of the commercial traffic between the two countries, and is used by about a million vehicles a year. However, in 2005 after a fire in the tunnel killed two workmen, the Fréjus was shut down for weeks. Again in 2007, 2010 and 2014 it was again closed due to tunnel fires, fortunately non fatal.

     

    Today's TAV quarrel is heated and discordant. For the M5S, "Not a single centimeter of the tunnel has been completed," whereas, for the Lega, over 15 miles are excavated -- and last week Deputy Premier Salvini made a point of being shown on TV with the workmen inside of one of these. For his co-Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the M5S, future costs are wasted money whereas, for the Lega, completion would cost less than leaving it partially complete.

     

    The TAV debate actually began three decades ago after the French proposed a Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) that would cut through the Val di Susa. Backing the project in Italy were, among others, the Piedmont Region, the City of Turin, and local businessmen and industrialists, including Fiat through the Agnelli Foundation. In 1992, Italy and France approved the project, and the EU inserted the TAV into its list of 14 "priorities projects," slated to begin by Jan. 1, 1997. EU contribution to ongoing feasability studies have so far amounted to $473 million.

     

    In 2001 the two countries signed an agreement in favor of the project. This was ratified in 2003 again by the European Commisssion. Since then variants have been proposed every few years. The latest, approved in Italy in 2015, said that the almost 11 miles within the Italian territory would include 7.5 miles in the main tunnel; by contrast, the French portion would involve 28 miles of tunnel.

     

    In the early 2000s demonstrations by the "No TAV Movement" began. Just 11 months ago 4,000 at Sant'Ambrogio near Turin vicinity marched against the TAV. Shortly after the national general elections last March, the two-party coalition government linking the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), headed by Di Maio, and the Lega, headed by Matteo Salvini, took opposite sides on proceeding with its construction: M5S with the No Tavs, the Lega with those in favor.

     

    But meantime work had already begun, with construction in 2011 of a 4-mile exploratory tunnel to study the geology of the area within the mountain arc. No TAVs included local mayors and administrators. Some pelted trucks with rocks, blocked access to the work site, and organized round-the-clock sit-ins with camp kitchens and music. One claimed that, "The TAV won't be built, not because there's no money, but because they lack clear ideas and because we are here. All they can do is begin the work so as to grab the money."

     

    In a pitched battle against the tunnel workers on July 13, 2011, two hundred demonstrators and police were injured. Last Oct. 12 a Turin court convicted sixteen activists for violence during yet another demonstration in the Val di Susa in June 2015. Other court convictions in 2016 involved organized crime efforts to profit from transport of building materials to the site where work was underway.

     

    The battles continue. Although local communities have protested a presumed environmental impact, Deputy Premier Salvini, in contrasto with Di Maio, claims that once the tunnel is complete, "it will take a million big trucks off the roads, with eventual benefits for the environment." The M5S also objects that local highways need improvement far more than Italy needs to go from Turin to Lyon. Italy's Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, of the M5S, shouted on national TV on Feb. 5 that, "No one wants to go to Lyon anyway."

     

    No TAV was one of that party's short list of election promises, and, even as Di Maio and his party continue to slip behind in every poll, they cling to that position all the more. Those rejecting this oft-heard claim try to explain that this is only a miniscule portion the TAV link, which actually stretches 168 miles.  

     

    An updated estimate of the total costs, to be divided among Italy, France and the EU, is due to be presented within weeks. But to date a reliable estimate is that the total cost will be some $28 billion, with Italy's portion $9.8 billion, the EU $9.94 billion, and France, $10.2 billion. However, proposals to reduce the costs by postponing or even eliminating construction of some of the rail connections to stations in some towns are under discussion.

     

    Can this bitter, complex issue can bring down the government? Regional elections in the Abruzzo on Feb. 10 may give an indication. If Salvini's party surges further ahead, as polls suggest, Di Maio may be obliged to back down on the TAV so as to avoid being eliminated from the government and reducing his party to a shadow of its former self. In a complete reversal of their positions, latest polls show the Lega continuing to grow, with over 36% of the potential vote, as compared with the M5S,continuing to shrink, now down to under 21%.

  • Facts & Stories

    Rome, Among World's Cities Safest From Violent Crime

    In his annual report opening the judiciary year Jan. 26, Giovanni Salvi, General Prosecutor of the Rome Appeals Court, announced that intentional homicides in the Eternal City have dropped from 20 in 2015 to just 10 in 2018. "This is important because it indicates the effectiveness of the public powers in dealing with organized crime, which is responsibile for most of the murders," said Salvi.

     

    Even before 2018 the number of voluntary or intentional homicides throughout Italy was fairly low. According to the national statistics-gathering agency ISTAT, that number fell by almost a third in the five years between 2012 and 2017, or from 528 to 360. During the same period the number of terror attacks in Italy also diminished significantly, from 462 to 291.

     

    The seizure in Rome of some $30 million from alleged mobster Ernesto Diotallevi is another indication of successful investigative work. He denies this: "The real cancer [in Rome] is politics," he said in an interview with the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano back in 201. "It is the State itself that creates crime. Me a boss? When I said that on the phone I was joking.... In Rome the Mafia does not exist."

    Prosecutor Salvi disagrees. In his report this past week he said that the notorious organized crime networks -- the Sicilian Mafia, the Calabrian n'Drangheta and the Neapolitan-based Camorra -- have successfully "exported" their criminal activities, including the drug traffic and slot machine chicanery, to Rome, where corruption remains "endemic." Of great concern is the "specific and historic trait characteristic of Rome -- the association of criminal violence, the public administration and business."

     

    On the more generalized and personal level, in Rome alone sexual violence rose by a quarter in just one year, 2018 over 2017, to 789 incidents. And although complaints about domestic violence have diminished slightly, "their persistence shows that domestic violence is an emergency," said Salvi. In the North petty crime remains a particular problem, beginning in Milan, in the lead with 8,500 complaints for every 100,000 inhabitants. Following Milan are Rimini (8,000) and Bologna and Turin (7,000 complaints).

     

    Break-in's of homes was almost 17,000 last year. A particularly grievance instance occurred in Neaples last week when an unemployed partner of a woman with three children beat the seven-year-old to death and sent his sister, eight, to hospital. The children, he said, were making noise and soiling a brand new mattress.

     

    In terms of drug consumption, again according ISTAT, drug-related crime has surged upward from 33,600 in 2012 to 39,500 in 2017. Italy is in the fourth place in the European Union for the use of cocaine and third for cannibis, official sources in Italy report. Cocaine use was of almost 2% last year and ecstasy consumption, 3%. Nevertheless this wa snotably lower than in Ireland, the UK and Holland, all with 9% or more.

     

    The warnings given in English to tourists begin with advice against pickpockets. "The pickpockets vary in appearance from gangs of itinerant teenage gypsies to well-dressed businessmen, and often carry something to cover their activities: a shopping bag, a map, or just a big piece of torn cardboard. There are also gangs of children who will mob you and, by the time you've shooed them away, your pockets have been systematically emptied." (See: information on crime against tourists) On the other hand, according to the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory, "American visitors are generally safe in Italy.... Most crimes committed against American tourists and visitors are petty theft."

  • Facts & Stories

    Throughout Italy, Holocaust Remembrance Day is Honored

    In Milan on Jan. 22, two thousand students applauded Senator Liliana Segre and TV host Enrico Mentana speaking in a jam-packed La Scala Theater. "I was a clandestine many years ago -- a terrified little girl who was denied the right for asylum in Switzerland," Segre recounted. To get to a Swiss border where she was turned away, she had been obliged to walk through the snowy woodlands, with the "help" of greedy contrabanders who are "today's equivalent of those paid for bringing immigrants across the Mediterranean."

     

    With her family she ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where her father was killed. "Racism led us to forget that the only race that exists is the human race," she went on to tell the students. "Never believe in totalitarianism. Always be informed and aware of what you want. Make your own choices. We are both the memory and the future."

     

    Also in Milan a Remembrance Day concert takes place Jan. 27 at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in memory of Primo Levi, with music by Mozart, Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein. Holocaust survivor Levi, who died in 1987, was a chemist, author and partisan fighter who was captured and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. His most famous book is "Se questo è un uomo" (If This Is a Man), published in 1947 and still in print and on Kindle as well, including in English.

     

    Remembrance Day commemorates the World War II genocide in which the Nazi regime put to death an estimated 6 million Jewish people, millions of Slavs and Poles, and hundreds of thousands of Roma (Gypsies), homosexual men and the physically disabled. As is also recorded, countless Italians did what they could to save as many as possible, but nevertheless after Sept. 8, 1943, some 8,500 of Italy's Jewish population of 33,000 were deported into German-controlled territories. There some 7,500 were killed, almost all at Auschwitz. Almost 500 of those were children under three years of age. (For a full historical account in Italian, see Prof. Giancarlo Restelli's informative website >>)

     

    In Rome the Shoah is honored by the tenth biennial art exhibition held among the ruins of the historic synagogue at Ostia Antica. "Arte in Memoria" (Art in Memory), curated by Adachiara Zevi, is absolutely unique as an exhibit of sculpture and installations set among the floor mosaics and four remaining columns of Europe's oldest synagogue. First built in the First Century, the synagogue was reconstructed in the 4th Century AD but abandoned and rediscovered only in 1961. Artists represented in this edition include Norther W. Hinterberger of Berlin, Zbigniew Libera of Warsaw, Ruth Beraha of Milan, and Karyn Olivier of Trinidad and Tobago, currently a fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

     

    A particularly touching exhibit is the long stretch of actual train tracks directed across the synagogue floor and toward the northwest, which is to say Germany. The work of the Polish artist Libera was introduced by an obviously deeply moved Vito Episcopo, a director of the Rome railways Ferrovie dello Stato. "Culture is still a great tool to foster understanding," he said.

    (On that synagogue, see the video in English >>)

     

    On exhibition in Rome on Jan. 25 at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni is the exhibition "Testimoni dei Testimoni" (Witnesses of witnesses), on Italian diplomatic efforts to deal with the persecution of the Jews between 1938 and 1943. Venice offers a Remembrance Day concert at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory in memory of Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco, and at the Castle Gardens a reading of war memoirs will be held.

     

    In Turin a marathon called Run for Mem (as in memory) is being held in the presence of two-time Olympic runner Prof. Shaul Ladany, who was just eight years old when he was captured and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Anna Frank died. Born in Yugoslavia, Ladany is an author and professor of industrial engineering and management at Ben Gurion University in Israel. He not only survived the death camp in Germany, but also managed to escape the Palestinian terrorist attack in Munich in September 1972, when eleven Israeli Olympic athletes and their coaches were killed.

     

    In Palermo the exhibition on how young people remember the Shoah opens in Palazzo Steri Jan. 28 (Ricordi Futuri 3.0 Diaspore in terra di Sicilia, or Future Memories 3.0 devoted to young people's concepts of the Holocaust). Together with Radio Spazio Noi and the Sicilian Institute for Hebrew Studies the conference takes place in the Regional Public Library on Jan. 24. Speakers include Mons. Salvatore Di Cristina, Bishop emeritus of Monreale, and University of Palermo law professor Giuseppe Verde.

  • Art & Culture

    Matera and its Sassi. Europe's 2019 Cultural Capital

    Of the 58 European Capitals of Culture since designation of the first, Athens, back in 1985, this year's selection of Matera is absolutely unique. Of the four Italian cities selected to date -- Florence (1986), Bologna (1999) and Genoa (2004) -- Matera is the first from the Italian South and has risen to international renown only recently by comparison.

     

    Matera has an amazing structure. The heart of the city is called I Sassi (the Stones), a warren of homes, restaurants, cafes and hotels (including one with an indoor swimming pool) all carved inside steep, stony hillsides. The three days of opening ceremonies bring theater and dance performances, world-class art exhibitions and 15 original light installations, aimed at illuminating the town's past. The important exhibition called "Ars Excavandi," which opens with the opening ceremony, is dedicated to the history of underground cities akin to Matera. Another, "A Story of Redemption," illustrates the reconstruction of the stone town of grottoes and secret alleys. (For details see: Matera 2019)

     

    At one point the town had been abandoned, but in the wake of the post-World War II it was rediscovered and, beginning in the 1980s, gradually reconstructed along modern lines. Curiously, Matera, whose grottoes have been inhabited since early Neolithic times, was actually the provincial capital of for over two centuries, or until the early 1800s. There is, of course, a Matera beyond its caves: those buildings and churches include its cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna, which dates from the 13th Century. Over time it was owned by the powerful Orsini of Rome; by the Tramontana, who built a gigantic castle there in the Renaissance; and, under Napoleon, by the Bonapartes.

     

  • Op-Eds

    New Year Forecasts for Italy Begin with the Economy

    ROME -- New Year forecasts for Italy begin with the economy, which experts say is not as healthy as they would like. Despite lively growth in 2018, the slow-down of the GDP during the third quarter that year is seen as a warning signal, consequent to the international economic picture as well as to local political factors. Goldman Sachs and Oxford Economics predict a growth rate for the entire Italian economy of under 0.1%, or about one-third of official government forecasts. Industrial production is expected to rise in the coming year by no more than that. In addition, the EU reduced growth prospects for Germany, which, like Italy, relies upon exports.

     

    In a New Year's Eve tweet financial journalist Michael Pontrelli wrote that the government's budget program, called "the Maneuver," was a step backward on the part of the government, which, "In the end, caved in to Europe so as not to ignite infringement  procedures." For ordinary Italians, this risks coming at a high price, for, to avoid punishment from Brussels, the government is "putting its hands into citizens' pockets.... Brussels imposed a stop in financing measures which the government had deemed essential, like citizens' income and pensions at quota 100, but this will make the deficit explode," according to Pontrelli.

    As of Jan. 1, under the Maneuver, regions and townships are allowed to raise taxes upon citizens. This helps make the array of taxes expected to be levied upon citizens higher than ever, not to mention controversial, like the taxes the government had tried to impose upon voluntary organizations. All told, fiscal pressure may rise from the 42% of 2018 to 42.4% in 2019, and on to 42.5% by 2021. And the Bank of Italy has raised the cost of borrowing significantly, with effects upon businesses and families too.. (See: >>) "We have passed from quantitative easing to Quantitative Tightening," according to Alessandra Caparello of Wall Street Italy (See >>)

     

    On the other hand, predictions are that the spread -- that is, the amount the government must pay to refinance the public debt -- will remain beneath 300 points; at its worst in 2018 it had spiked up to 330. As Pontrelli points out, Italian relations with the European Union, which were testy at best in the past half year, showed improvement at year end.

     

    Also on the positive side, although some here have suggested that political uncertainty has been a factor in the glooming warnings, the latest view is that a plunge into early elections appears s less likely than even a month ago. Although the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) headed by Luigi Di Maio still is at loggerheads with their governing partner, the Lega headed by Matteo Salvini, the political situation suddenly appears fairly stable.

     

    A factor here is the literally unexpected political cool-headedness of  Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the professor who was called into government to arbitrate between the two parties (and deputy premiers) who are both partners and rivals. Suddenly the formerly fairly drab Conte, calling  himself "a guarantor" of the government, is quietly appealing to Catholic organizations that had been entirely overlooked by the M5S and the Lega. In so doing, he has moved closer to the Italian President Sergio Mattarella and is gaining in authority and respect.

     

    Once in government, Salvini's Lega quickly upstaged, outfoxed and out-social-media-ed Di Maio's M5S, to the point that six pollsters have just averaged his party's strength under 32% in a potential election. By comparison, Di Maio, who had started out far ahead of the Lega, may now claim only 27% or so. This reversal of strength had generated fears that Salvini, basing some of his support on anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions like blocking shiploads of rescuedmigrants from docking in Italy, would provoke new elections. However, most recent statistics show that the Lega has actually dropped several percentage points. And Prime Minister Conte is on record insisting, as does President Mattarella, that the present legislature will continue through its natural end in another 4-1/2 years. This prospect for stability is an important consideration for the health of the economy.

     

    Taking the long view, Italy's factory system is under attack by, guess what, robots. Those factories that already rely on robots to fulfill the tasks formerly performed by men and women require workers described here as "badanti" (caregivers) to make sure that all is working: that a robot is not broken down, that assembly line functions correctly. However, to become a caregiver of robots requires special training including in informatics so as to be able to communicate with the robot. If, as some here foresee, within the next decade fully one-quarter of Italian factory workers will be replaced by robots, those jobless because kicked off the assembly line will, if they want to go on working, require special intensive training (McKinsey Report cited in L'Espresso magazine, Dec. 30). Will they be given that training? Some will -- but it will be a challenge.

  • Art & Culture

    Keeping the Chaos From Italy's Most Popular Museum: the Uffizi

    Uffizi director Eike Schmidt, 49, met in Rome with a handful of foreign journalists Dec. 5 in what amounted to a summing up of his three years of managing one of the world's finest, largest and most popular museums. Under his stewardship, museum attendance rose from 2 million in 2015 to this year's estimated 2,5 million. "In the 19th Century the Uffizi attracted no more than five people daily," he said. "Now we have 5,000 a day and, on some days, up to 10,000. And we are attracting many more young people than in the past."

     

    Despite this 25% increase in attendance (and in revenue), art historian Schmidt's management reforms in the Uffizi mean that the crowds, which had surged ever larger with every passing postwar decade, today pose far less of a problem than in the past. "Previously fully half the visitors came in mid-summer and would sometimes have to stand in the heat in a ticket line for up to four hours," he said. This left relatively few visitors in winter. Once inside the museum, tour guides might arrive with from 50 to even 100 people, crowding out others anxious to see the most popular works of art. "It was chaos," he acknowledged. "Now, the groups are of only 20 or so, and the guides, who would previously speak loudly, are heard through earphones."

     

    To whittle down the lines for buying tickets,  timed entrances with reservations made via the Internet were introduceduf."Reducing the long ticket lines was also important for security reasons," Schmidt added. In fact, in May 1993 a powerful car bomb set by the Mafia exploded just behind the Uffizi, killing six and wounding 26. Three works were destroyed and another 30 damaged.

     

    According to Schmidt, despite the increase in visitors, the  overcrowding and long waiting lines are managed by expanding the museum spaces that can be visited; the Palazzo Pitti, closed for 20 years, was reopened. Year-round visiting is fostered by holding concerts, film evenings and special exhibitions, like the three currently on view. Over 90 new employees were added to the staff, 30 of them specifically to help the disabled.

     

    Some 440 years old, the Uffizi galleries were not initially destined as public spaces for works of art. As the name Uffizi suggests, these were offices, donated to the city of Florence by Cosimo I "the Great" and converted into a museum complex by Giorgio Vasari. Its centerpiece is the Gallery of Statues and Paintings, which includes a unique collection of Renaissance art plus precious ancient sculptures that had once belonged to the Medici family, such as the Hellenistic Venus found in Rome which they acquired.

    Besides the Uffizi itself, there is the collection named for Vasari and housed in the long Gallery that crosses over the Ponte Vecchio. Currently under restoration due to problems of temperature and humidity control, the Vasari Gallery reopens in 2020.

    Then there is the historic Palazzo Pitti, which itself encompasses four separate museums. Closed for 20 years, it was reopened only in 2015. In addition are the famous Boboli Gardens of statues and fountains that sprawl on a hillside overlooking the Arno River. Altogether, these now attract four million visitors a year, with the Boboli Gardens alone accounting for one million. The newest restoration is the Hall of Maps in the Palazzo Vecchio, in which 54 hand-painted maps from the Renaissance decorate what had been a Medici storage room.

     

    Schmidt, born in Freiburg im Breisgau, studied medieval and modern art history in Heidelburg, where he wrote his doctorate thesis on "The Medici Ivory Sculpture Collection in the 16th and 17th Centuries." In 1994 he was in Florence for a seven-year research stint at the Deutsches Kunstshistorisches Institut, and from 2001 through 2006 was curator/researcher at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Next came two years at Sotheby's, London.

     

    Schmidt is the first non-Italian to head the Uffizi. Along with several other foreigner museum directors, he was appointed under then Culture Minister Dario Franceschini. How long he will 

    remain appears uncertain;  gossip has it that Schmidt will take over leadership of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2020. "My four-year contract ends in October of 2019," is all that he acknowledged.

     

    Last year legal action to remove five foreign museum directors (Schmidt was not one of those under attack, however), was undertaken. A lower court determined, somewhat fuzzily, "No norm in our legal system exists that permits recruitment of foreign public managers" (Il sole-24 Ore April 18, 2018). The Culture Ministry immediately protested, and action on removing the five was supended. For former Minister Franceschini, "This is absurd: the director of the National Gallery [in Washington] is Italian, and the British Museum director is German. What damage to our image!"

     

     

Pages