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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Neapoletan Presepe
    Art & Culture

    The Search for Italy's Most Fascinating Presepi

    The very grandest  presepi incorporate hundreds of carved figures, and can be admired in the Renaissance and Baroque churches all over Italy. Most famous of these is the creche in which the Santo Bambino (Holy Child) is on display in the church atop the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, from Christmas through the Epiphany. The Holy Child is a venerated copy of the ancient original, now housed in a monastery. On Christmas Eve men dressed in traditional shepherd gear play their bagpipes as pilgrims climb the 124 steps that lead into the church.


    The presepe custom dates from the 16th Century. Initially only churches and the very wealthiest had them, and some families still devote an entire room to their presepe. Traditionally they are mounted on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; many remain in place through late January, with the addition of the Baby Jesus figure on Christmas Eve.


    Today's can be unusual. For the past 15 years a presepe at Lignano Sabbiadoro has been carved of sand. The town whose  name means "golden sand" is near Udine, in
    the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and its vast sandy beach is hugely popular in summertime. For the first time the Vatican's own imposing presepe this year is also of sand, from Jesolo. At Manarola near La Spezia the presepe is a light show that occupies an entire hillside, and is described as the "largest presepe in the world." Also unique: the 13  sq. M presepe at Massa Martana in Umbria sculpted of ice by Graziano Re. His daytime work is as a chef, but he is also known as the "king of ice," .


    Most famous of all in Italy is the Neapolitan presepe. The figures in the shops and stalls on the jam-packed Via San Gregorio Armeno are a year-round attraction for Italians as well as tourists, and tour operators advertise culinary-history tours which guide visitors through that colorful, narrow street even on the hottest summer days. With the changing times, true Neapolitan presepe lovers can fill out the missing miniatures in their Nativity scenes by ordering on line. Type in "presepi on line" on your search engine, and a dozen or more sites with fulsome catalogues pop up. A Neapolitan fountain with water pouring from it costs under $10 (Euro 8.41 including tax). Getting a bit fancier, a Neapolitan presepe group with several moving figures runs from $100 to $250. On offer for a background are light shows evoking a starry night.


    Of special interest are the presepi viventi, in which for a certain number of days and evenings real live figures represent the Holy Family along with live shepherds and their live cows, sheep and chickens. Our own village of 6,000 an hour north of Rome puts one of these on vew every year; the animals are alive, but the life-size figures are of plaster of Paris and wear attractive costumes made by the village ladies.


    Perhaps surprisingly, quarrels involving presepi viventi have arisen. Last Christmas a far right political party objected to an Abruzzi town's living Nativity scene because Maria happened to be black and African, and Baby Jesus, a 7-month-old baby girl. This was "blasphemous propaganda," said the complainant. As it happened, the Holy Family were represented by members of a 50-year-old religious community, Capanna di Betlemme, at Chieti. Defending their choice, one of the Community missionaries added that, "Our Saint Joseph was a recovered drug addict who became a volunteer and now helps rise again those who have fallen."


    This Christmas some objected to a presepe on view in the little town of Acquaviva delle Fonti near Bari in the South of Italy. Built with the approval and encouragement of the city fathers, it represents, first, a family of migrants whose boat has sunk as they crossed the Mediterranean Sea and, secondly, the war we must all undertake against plastic.


    My personal predilection is for the modest presepi which ordinary people make on street corners in villages like ours, Trevignano Romano. These are rarely fancy: across from a popular local cafe the waitress worked wine bottle corks into presepe figures. The figures were inserted, against a background she also created more or less from nothing, into a niche in a rock wall across the street. A woman who designs lamps and jewelery from perspex made an even more minimalist presepe. And a local baker always makes a cake topped with a presepe.


    For those living outside Italy, there is always next year to see the real thing. If you would like to know more so as to plan for a future Christmas holiday, take a look at Italian Association of Friends of the Presepe, with a map of Italy and presepe cities listed.


  • Vice-President of the Council and Minister of the Interior

    Matteo Salvini at the Foreign Press Association in Rome

    Speaking for over two hours Dec. 10 at the “Associazione della Stampa Estera in Rome”, Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini managed to smile while fielding dozens of sometimes challenging questions. On the eve of his visit Dec. 11 to Israel, he also announced that he would soon visit the United States. This provoked a slightly hostile query. "You are sometimes called Italy's Donald Trump. Is this true?" "Well, I don't have his money," Salvini tossed back with a laugh.

    Salvini is the head of the renamed Lega, the single most powerful party in Italy. He managed to transform the former separatist Lega Nord (which called for the North to secede from Italy) into what is being called a "personal party" -- his. From the periphery his Lega has soared to over 32% of the hypothetical vote, and his personal popularity to around 48% (Emg poll). By comparison with his partners in government, premier Giuseppe Conte, 46%, and deputy premier Luigi di Maio, mocked for dressing as if for his first communion, 43%. Salvini is predicted to become Italy's next premier, an important consideration because the risk of national general elections in the new year looms larger than even one week ago.


    His is a busy schedule. Earlier in the day, as Interior Minister, Salvini had been visiting the Roman periphery to oversee the expulsion of the last 40 migrants occupying an abandoned factory that had become a notorious hideout not only for drug dealers but also for refugees suffering from a whole series of serious diseases. Because the cleanup was expected, at least 550 of its occupants had disappeared by the time the police arrived. Those remaining, who now have nowhere to live, were mostly legal. "If Salvini thinks that I live better at home, why would I accept to live in this misery?" asked Josef, 26, from Nigeria. "I didn't run away because I have nothing to hide." With him was Diop from Senegal, who has a regular residence permit, and who became famous for having saved an Italian's life by yanking him up from subway tracks just as a train approached.


    Not surprisingly, at the press conference at the Associazione della Stampa Estera just a few hours later, immigration was a main theme. Salvini defended himself skillfully from his questioners. "Sixty thousand came into Italy from Nigeria," he said, "and we sent back only a few hundred. I consider myself a guarantor of regular immigration -- regular and regulated. " On the other hand, whereas Premier Giuseppe Conte had assured Italian participation in the runup at Marrakesh for the forthcoming debate Dec. 19 at the UN on the Global Compact for Migrations, Salvini decided to stay away. However, "Fortunately the number of those dead in the Mediterranean is in decline, fewer are dead this year than last because fewer left, the number of cadavers found in Italian waters was 216 last year but only 23 this year, still too many."  All those legally in Italy are entitled to social welfare, he said, including health services. At any rate, "My priority is the 5 million Italians living in poverty."

    By coincidence on Dec. 11 Amnesty International, marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued its annual report on 2018 and prospects for 2019. The report criticized the Italian government installed in June 2018 for having "immediately distinguished itself through a repressive management of the migrant phenomenon...inflicting further suffering and undermining the entire system of maritime search and salvation." The government's recent decree on public security and immigration "seriously erodes the human rights of those seeking asylum, and will have the effect of actually increasing the numbers of those in Italy irregularly, exposing them to abuses and exploitation," said the report, which also criticized some Italian political parties for employing "racist and xenophobic" language during the recent election campaigns.


    Observers agreed that his tone regarding the European Union was slightly softer than in the past. "I intend to govern with my head and my heart," he said. "With all the humility possible, the Lega is trying to bring about a new Renaissance. I will do all in my power to find an agreement with the EU." 

    At the same time he attacked French Premier Macron as a mere "laboratory product."

    "I will do all in my power to ensure that Italy does not emulate France, with barricades in the streets," he said. And all possible to renovate a Rome-Berlin axis which can give new vigor to Europe, he added; "There will be no Italian Brexit." On other foreign policy issues, he said that Russia "is part of Europe and should be brought back into Europe."


  • Fear of immigrants is an economic theme: 58% say they believe that migrants take away jobs from Italians

    Annual Censis Report Shows a Weary Italy

    ROME -- As usual for the past half century, it arrives shortly before Christmas, but this December's annual Censis Report on whither the Italian society and economy is not exactly what Santa ordered. Censis -- Centro Studi Investimenti Sociali, or Studies Center for Social Investments -- is the foundation created by Italy's eminent sociologist Giuseppe De Rita, 86. In this, its 52d edition, Censis socio-economic studies show an Italy that suffers from fear of the future and, as the Italian press has headlined, is even nasty-minded -- a country in which education is neglected, the North-South divide worsens, and young people lack work.


    The report launches the term "psychic sovereignism," meaning a generalized and sorrowful sense of the loss of national sovereignty, accompanied by an upsurge of fear of "the other," beginning with immigrants. "The report portrays a country in decline, in search of the security it fails to find, ever more divided between the South, whose young people people leave, and a Center-North weary from trying to have kept the promises made about work, stability, growth and, above all, the future." This deep-rooted psychological fear is shared by 63% of those queried, and most severe among the unemployed and the elderly.


    One might dismiss this as anti-government propaganda, but journalist Rosaria Amato, author of the above quote from La Repubblica Dec. 6,  is a reputable constitutionalist, whose books include "Leggere la costituzione" (Read the Constitution) and "Stare alle Regole, Diritto ed economia" (Play by the Rules: The Law and the Economy).  The same synthesis is widely published elsewhere, including in the Catholic daily Avvenire.


    De Rita, born in 1932, initially worked for Svimez, the postwar agency that promoted development of the South. In 1964, together with colleagues Gino Martinoli of Olivetti and Pietro Longo, he founded the Centro studi investimenti sociali (Social Investments Study Center). Censis, now a foundation, was the next step. The idea of a serious sociological-economic study of Italy was first hypothesized by U.S. academicians, who then backed away from it on grounds that Italy was too fragmented and hence too complex. "Maybe they were right," De Rita acknowledges today, "but the fact remains that Italy is less hard to decipher than one might think.... People say that the Italians are made of quicksand -- an ensemble of individuals who find it hard to express themselves in a community." In the past, this sense of community was fostered by the leadership class, "which today is gone without a trace" (interview De Rita, Avvenire, Dec. 6).


    "We are seeing the opposite of the Italian miracle, the dream transformed into a nightmare," said Censis director-general Massimiliano Valerii. The 14 months of growth in the economy last year raised hopes, but "under our very eyes the recent negative slump in the GDP was disappointing." Fear of immigrants was another economic theme: 58% say they believe that migrants take away  jobs from Italians. All told, some 63% of the Italians take a negative view of non-EU migrants, and 75% believe that migrants increase the crime rate.


    Youth appear a gigantic problem. Between 2007 and 2017 employment for those from 25 to 34 years of age fell by 27.3%. Fewer than 27% of Italians between 30 and 34 hold university degrees as compared with the EU median of almost 40%. The number of those quitting university between the ages of 18 and 24 (18%) is twice that in the rest of Europe. Only Ireland, Romania and Bulgaria spend less than Italy on education; Italy devotes just 3.9% of its GDP to schooling as compared with the European median of 4.7%.


    Referring to this December's report, President Sergio Mattarella declared that, "In society there can be no 'discards,' but only citizens of identical rank and equal social importance. A diverse view would put into discussion the very foundations of the Republic." The world can be improved, we can remain united in our community, and we can honor the word "equality" in our constitution, he said. To do so, we must definitively "set aside physical and verbal violence, hatred, intolerance and discrimination."


  • Spelacchio in 2017

    Trees, from Christmas Lights to the New Urban Forests

    ROME -- From Christmas trees like Rome's "Spelacchio" to projects to fight pollution through urban forestry, trees make news, and not only those in Rome which have been neglected and fall across downtown streets. To begin at the beginning, no sooner was it hoisted into place last year at Piazza Venezia, the very heart of Rome, than the official Christmas tree, a donation from the Val di Fiemme in the Trentino in North Italy, began to shed its needles. Almost instantly it was scathingly nicknamed "Spelacchio," which translates more or less to "Mangy" or "Baldy." The City of Rome, and especially Mayor Virginia Raggi, elected by the Movimento 5 Stelle, was criticized for having made a poor selection and for allegedly failing to keep the tree in good condition during the holidays. In so doing she "caused damage to the image of Rome," according to the ANSA press agency.


    So derided was the tree that it was given its own Twitter profile, #Spelacchio, which invited Christmas tree lovers to donate decorations to improve its glum look.  A sardonic Facebook page was also invented (ok, fake news). One of the Facebook pages carried a satirical photo in which Pope Francis sarcastically asks Mayor Raggi: "And I suppose now you want to make a Christmas creche?" When it was at last being taken down after the holidays, a little crowd gathered, pretending they were mourners at the poor tree's funeral.


    To avoid a repetition, this year the Rome city fathers and mothers have turned to a fancy sponsor, Netflix (watch the video) which allegedly is spending over $400,000 for a Christmas tree worthy of Piazza Venezia. "We expect it to be much more fun and spectacular," predicted Corriere della Sera, "even though admittedly we had become fond of Spelacchio. In the end it was dried up and sorrowing but in the end more amusing and 'human.'" The new tree, which will be raised in Piazza Venezia Dec. 8, is 21 meters tall and will be decorated with 600 glass balls and 3 km. of led lights. In Val di Fiemme, meanwhile, which spent over $55,000 to have Spelacchio dug up and shipped the tree and to Rome, the debate over who was to blame continue.


    Elsewhere year-round trees are also attracting media attention. From Nov. 28 through Dec. 1 the city of Mantua hosted the first Forum mondiale sulle Foreste urbane (World forum on Urban Forests) whose goal was to promote healthier and greener cities. Participating were representatives of governments worldwide and of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), of research institutes and universities, and of city planners and landscape architects. Other organizations: the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FA) and Urban GreenUP. The goal is to foster, including within crowded cities, the planting of trees in order to promote a healthier planet.


    According to the organizers, "The aim of this first Forum is to highlight positive examples of planning, design and management approaches of cities with diverse cultures, forms, structures and histories, which have used urban forestry and green infrastructure to develop economic and environmental services and to strengthen social cohesion and public involvement." Discussions focused upon how best to transform big cities from producing to reducing pollution. For the experts, one hectare of well maintained urban forest can absorb 300 tons of carbon dioxide, in the same way as do pluvial forests or tropical jungles. The reason: the urban trees tend to be younger and hence, requiring more nutrition, absorb more CO2. A single large tree suffices to guarantee oxygen for four people. The trees also reduce heat in the summertime by from 2 to 8 degrees C., according to Luciana Grosso, writing in L'Espresso of Nov. 30.


    Italians point out proudly that during the past 50 years the number of trees planted in cities as well as in the countryside has actually doubled. (This reporter has personally planted more than 30.) Paris is a model, planning 30 hectares of new public green space plus 20,000 new trees and 100 hectares of vegetation on rooftops and walls within the next two years. Madrid has announced plans to have vegetation planted atop public buildings.


    At Sabbioneta in Italy, Panguaneta, major producer of plywood panels, is working with Openfabric for the green installations called "Into the Forest". The installation at Mantua -- a centerpiece of the World Forum there -- features two huge basins placed at the famous Piazza Erbe and Piazza Mantegna. Each contains a selection of different plants which can be introduced into cities. At Piazza Erbe are trees, mostly evergreens, associated with the seaside; at Piazza Mantegna, a woodland from the plains. "We are aiming for the long-range development of urban forest strategies and a greener future," according to Miriam Tenca, from the marketing staff of Panguaneta.

  • Art & Culture

    Enjoy a Bird's Eye View of Ancient Rome

    ROME -- Architect Pirro Ligorio, born in Naples, was just 22 years old in 1534 when he moved to Rome and fell in love with the city and especially its antiquities. After publishing a book on the circuses and amphitheaters of the ancient city, his work and studies on Roman antiquity  culminated in his publishing in 1551 a giant map of reconstructed ancient Rome. Ligorio Antiquae Urbis Imago remained a hallmark study into the 1930s, when Italian archeologist Italo Gismondi began his 35-year project to reconstruct in plaster of Paris a model of Rome at the time of the Emperor Constantine (306 - 337). This 1/250 scale model, measuring 60 feet across, is in Rome's Museum of Roman Civilization.


    That four centuries passed between these two famous reconstructions of ancient Rome from its ruins illustrates the challenge of the task. Now there is a new version: ancient Rome in 10-gigabyte virtual reality. Thanks to it, today's students, tourists and Rome lovers can (almost literally) soar all over reconstructed ancient Rome in a balloon 100 yards above the city for a bird's eye view, or what is today called "panoramic visualization." From the balloon a series of "apps" that can be run on home computers will allow the viewer to drop down into those building that are most intriguing. Among the first of 15 or 20 projected apps is one allowing a descent into the Basilica of Maxentius.


    This newest version of ancient Rome was a long time coming. Forty years ago archaeologist Bernard Frischer, a summa cum laude graduate of Wesleyan University with a PhD from the University of Heidelberg, spent three years at the American Academy in Rome. From there he went on to teach Classics at UCLA and -- not incidentally -- Roman topography. In 2004, transferring to the University of Virginia, he founded the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory. Its goal: to utilize 3D digital tools that allow the simulation of cultural heritage sites, in order to encourage people to learn about them. Today classicist Frischer is also professor of informatics at Indiana University, where he continues to direct the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.


    This was the first such marriage of the very oldest and newest -- that is, the first attempt to use digital technology to recreate a vanished ancient city. It did not happen overnight. Speaking in Rome last week in a panel at the Foreign Press Association, Prof. Frischer, Director of Rome ReBorn, said that work on the project began 22 years ago. "We began with a scientific committee. Eventually it came to involve some 50 archaeologists, classicists and specialized technicians," he said.


    As a result, from the ruins of the buildings and from meticulous scientific studies some 7,000 buildings that cover 14 sq. km. of city space can be seen in 3D. The period studied for reconstruction is, like that of Pirro Ligorio, from the year 320 AD, under Emperor Constantine at the peak of the city's development, with over 1 million inhabitants. "After Constantine left Rome, for centuries very few new buildings were added," explained Prof. Frischer.


    Prof. Paolo Livorani is former curator of Vatican antiquities and a Rome ReBorn associate who teaches the urban topography of ancient Rome at the University of Florence. To the foreign press he explained that, "Since informatics change all the time, we must continually update our work. During the past year we have even been changing our views of the Roman Forum." The goal is not only to show the buildings, he added, but , from what is visible, to reconstruct the social life of that era. For instance, "From the street layout we can also gain an idea of the processions," he said.


    Classicism in virtual reality, or VR, has positive results for young people. Monica De Simone is director of the Rieti Civic Museum. "The students are already accustomed to computer language. This lets them become familiar with objects from the deep past that they would otherwise first see on a shelf in a museum," she said. "In previews of the project, the students and the public were fascinated."


    For internet blogger Anthony Vitello from Turin, "Schools in China are already using this. It's been shown that education via virtual reality is more alive than traditional education. You see Rome ReBorn in your school, and then you go to the Forum or into a museum, and you have an experience that is much more deeply involving. Studies show that students who have come to classicism in this way have greater retention of what they have seen."


    Costs are kept low. Customers worldwide already include museums, public libraries, schools and universities, as well as private citizens. VR headsets greatly enhance visualization of the city and permit the fly-over viewer to move around, pausing over what interests him. To learn more, and to see a sampler of Rome ReBorn, see >>



  • Rome under attack
    Facts & Stories

    Even the "Colosseum Park" Now at Risk In Rome

    ROME -- An Associated Press photo album of Nov. 17 showed dramatic scenes of the Eternal City: piles of uncollected trash, graffiti on monuments, clogged sewers, weeds overgrown in playgrounds and literally killer potholes so big they are now called "craters."  The photos went viral instantly, reprinted in media worldwide. Not even Italy could ignore a headline like this: "Sights of Rome include monumental eyesores." Still, the AP reporter concluded optimistically, Romans are now saying "basta" (enough), and City Hall administrators themselves are finally trying to fix the mess.


    Oh, really -- Is City Hall getting down to business at last? If so the results are not just yet visible, unfortunately, and among the so far unresolved bones of contention is the Colosseum itself. In one AP photo the sign indicating the way to the Colosseum is entirely obscured by ads. But tacky signs are the least of it. Far more seriously, the latest to worry even the non-experts is a project to create within what is now called the "Colosseum Park"  a "Services Center" -- that is, a covered area incorporating a ticket office, information counter and bookshop, doubtless to include sales of souvenirs. 


    "They want to transform the Colosseum into a megastore," was the angry reaction by Adriano La Regina, the distinguished former superintendent of Roman archaeology. "It is crazy. Beyond the security risks, from the archaeological point of view this would have a devastating impact," he said in a press interview Nov. 17. The area on which the "Services Center" would be built overlies some of the very earliest strata of the city, as yet unexplored, and La Regina's objection is that the planned commercial center is simply outsized. "To cover the area with cement for new buildings would be a desecration," he said. "It would entomb definitively an important historical area instead of allowing it to be studied."


    Whereas the Colosseum is under the administration of the national government through the Ministry for the Cultural Heritage, supervision of most of the rest (the exception is the Vatican City) falls on Mayor Virginia Raggi, who represents the anti-establishment party Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). Just last week she and her enthusiastic followers celebrated because she was found not guilty of a cover-up lie involving corruption allegations regarding her associates. On learning that her closest associate was under investigation, she contacted him saying, "I knew nothing of this."


    But as court records showed, she obviously did know. Still, although she was not actually cleared of lying, the court recognized that hers was not a criminal act, but a fib reflecting her political role. Luigi Di Maio, deputy premier and the head of Raggi's M5S, shares government with Matteo Salvini of the rightist Lega party. A group of M5S followers celebrated Raggi's acquittal by attacking the Italian press. Raggi, said Di Maio, had been a victim of the media inventing "fake news."


    Nevertheless, the attacks on Raggi for the dismal situation of Rome show no let-up, for, as the AP photo essay testifies, they are not the least bit fake, sad to say. Vittorio Zucconi, US correspondent for La Repubblica daily, commented that, "My starry-eyed American friends ask me to help plan their Roman holiday. They ask me to tell them the name of the best restaurant in the city (as if such a classification exists!). But I never know which truth to tell them: about the disgusting squalor you can see along the Tiber or the suffocating marvel of the sunset colors. Or should I warn them about the wild 'zoo' involved in a visit to the Colosseum? Or beg them to take it all as an adventure, a challenge, Rome being the city that has too much to offer and therefore seems to be ashamed of its own magnificence?" 


    So whose fault is all this? Many are blaming not only Raggi, but her predecessors. But that is not at all clear. Gianni Alemanno, mayor from April 2008 through June 2013, came from the far right and was accused of being a fascist, charge he denied. However, he was openly anti-immigrant and anti-Roma (gypsy) and took actions on both issues. In 2014 he was investigated for alleged Mafia association, charges that were dropped last year. However, in 2015, he was indicted on allegations of corruption illicit campaign financing.


    Allemano was succeeded by Ignazio Marino, a politically progressive surgeon who came to politics belatedly, and won the mayoral race in 2013. Prof. Marino served through Oct. 12, 2015, when he resigned in a storm of accusations that he had overspent on expenses. Two weeks later he withdrew that resignation but was nevertheless forced to leave office when 26 out of the 48 City Councilmen resigned. Put on trial after harsh accusations of embezzlement, fraud and forgery,  spearheaded by the M5S and the rightist Fratelli d'Italia, he was however fully acquitted Oct. 7, 2016, when the court ruled  that the alleged facts "did not take place." He had previously informed prosecutors that an organized crime network had approached him.


    However, in January 2018 an appeals court in Rome convicted him of having paid with his Rome City credit card some $14,000 for 56 dinners. At the hearing Prof. Marino reminded the court that he had donated $11,500 of his salary to the City of Rome in 2014.  (For his profile see ≥≥ )

  • Digging
    Life & People

    Worth Their Weight in Gold: Italy's Truffle Treasure

    ROME -- During this incredibly rainy autumn we were left for a time without electricity, water and, for two days, no internet. Plus a lightning bolt blew out our hot water heater, yet to be fixed. But never mind.  For truffle hunters, this year's soppy ground is all to the good. Truffles, these tiny bits of aromatic delight, live underground, where the more moist the dirt, the better. The wet earth means abundance, and also lower prices than last year. The prized white truffle, which presently costs up to $400 per hectogram (3.2 ounces), costs about $100 less than in 2017.


    This reporter has hunted truffles in Gubbio. Some years ago we asked the Contessa who owned the truffle territory just how she would describe the scent. "Ah," she said with a soft sigh, "it is like Chanel Number 5."


    The truffle season begins in early autumn and continues into early spring, but is now at its peak, and truffle celebrations are taking place throughout North and even Central Italy.

    The most prized white truffle stars at the 88th edition of the annual International Truffle Fair at Alba in Piedmont, which began Oct. 6 and ends on Nov. 25 (see >>. ). Needless to say, recipes matter, and among the events at that Fair are "The Ultimate Truffle Dinners," prepared by outstanding chefs. One of these is Michelangelo Mammoliti, 30, who was born near Alba and learned to cook at famous French restaurants before returning home to Piedmont. Among the specialties of this Michelin starred chef: a truffled pecan buttermilk cake.


    If Alba wins the most attention, truffle fairs take place elsewhere. In the Marches in Central Italy, the Appenine town of Acqualagna, near Pesaro and Urbino, hosts its 53d annual National White Truffle Fair. This year its new Truffle Museum - Truffle Experience was inaugurated, with digital displays, documentaries and, needless to say, the possibility to taste delicacies prepared with truffle. Another truffle festival, the Tartòfla, takes place near Bologna at Savigno, on weekends through Nov. 18, with market stalls, lectures in the town theater, special menus in local restaurants and tastings in the main piazza. Near Perugia at Calestano is yet another local fair, this one dedicated to the black truffles characteristic of central Italy. Here, in addition to stands and special foods, on offer on Sundays are guided visits to the places where truffles are found. Visitors are accompanied by truffle-hunters and their dogs, see >>.


    For truffle hunters, skillfully trained dogs, and especially (but not exclusively) hounds and English pointers, are a necessity. From puppyhood they are fed tiny bits of truffle. Later, scuttling through the woodlands of willows, poplars and linden trees, the dogs are able to smell the rich scent, even when the truffle is hidden as much as a foot underground. At sight of the canine excitement, the hunter, armed with a spade, runs to dig up the buried treasure.


    Black truffles are abundant even near Rome. Here the season is longer than in the snowy North, and black truffles are found year round save in the very hottest weeks of summer. Expert truffle hunters Matteo Lavorini and Matteo Mazzarini accompany visitors from Rome -- North and South Americans, English, Australians -- in small groups on truffle-hunting expeditions with dogs (their website see: Matt&Matt Truffle Experience). Most of these visitors are from abroad, and so cannot take truffles home with them on cruise ships or airplanes, so, with the newly found truffles, a luncheon is prepared and served. One of these lunches featured no less than nine courses of dishes laced with truffles.


    The Matt&Matt truffle hunts take place in Northern Rome at Canale Monterano, famous for its church by Bernini and at Tolfa, a town founded by the Etruscans. At our own Trevignano Romano (it too originally an Etruscan city) the truffle hunters climb the densely wooded Monte Rocca Romana where, incidentally, there is also a falconry park.


    Should you receive a truffle for Thanksgiving or Christmas, how would you serve it? Personally I prefer a pasta -- ricotta cheese-stuffed ravioli especially -- laced with cream and scattered atop with truffles in the thinnest possible scrapings. Far easier and more accessible are the potted truffle sauces now available for spreading atop chicken fillets or, for an aperitivo, on crackers or toasted bread. Buon appetito!

  • Uffizi in Florence

    Italy, Cradle of Culture, Curtails Spending on its Heritage

    ROME -- Italy's cultural heritage outshines that of any other European nation, but this has not prevented the government from slashing its budget for heritage maintenance. As is, Italian families spend only 6.6% of their finances on culture, well below Sweden, with 11%, and Hungary and Spain. The current cuts, which total $6,263 million, eliminate  subsidies formerly provided within the national budget.  Autonomous museums will lose $26 million in subsidies; movie houses, which have ever fewer audiences, will lose $4.5 million, meaning that some will close. Publisher will lose $427,000 in subsidies. And chopping away $141,000 from book stores is also harsh because of their continuing losses and stores shutting due to the competition from on-line publishing.


    Another $22.7 million that had been planned as a cultural incentive for youth has also been slashed. The goal of the bonus of Euro 500 ($570), which has been offered to every 18-year-old for the past couple of years, was to encourage young people toward "cultural consumption" by subsidizing their purchases of books and tickets to concerts, exhibitions, the theater, museums and such.


    Up to now at least 550,000 young people had taken advantage of the program, which was "an investment in our youth," said Senator Andrea Marcucci of the Partito Democratico, president of the cultural commission of the Senate. For Dorina Bianchi, Undersecretary of the Culture Ministry, "A country like Italy really has to invest in its youth. It is in our interest: culture and tourism are an economic lever."


    Minister for Culture and Tourism is Alberto Bonisoli, 56. Running as a Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) candidate in the March elections, he won under 14%, but was nevertheless appointed to the present cabinet of the "Yellow-Green government," as it is called for the colors of the M5S and the Lega respectively. At Milan's prestigious business school the Bocconi, Bonisoli taught "innovation management," a course intended to show how to combine a product with the business process and organizational innovation, so as to enhance creativity in development.  He serves as president of Coordinamento istituzioni AFAM non Statali, an association of non-governmental institutions which include private schools of art, fashion and design. And he is also the former director of the Nuova Accademia delle Belle Arti in Milan.


    Bonisoli considers tourism "the Cinderella of the past governments" and, according to the Italian press, is hoping to entice more high quality tourism. "Culture and tourism in the future will be the chief providers of jobs, and for this reason one must foster the formation and valorization of a high preparation in, say, music," he is quoted as saying. He is also on the record as planning to invest at least 1% of the GDP, "if not more," in the cultural heritage, and to foster the "protection and digitalization of the heritage and in the culture scattered on our territory, and in particularly the peripheries" -- that is, the outskirts.


    His experience, however, appears limited as regards heritage management, which becomes ever more difficult with the budget cuts that would be tough in any country, but are literally stunning in Italy, with its vast and complex history, from its Neolithic settlements to ancient Roman artifacts and roads and cities through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, its 19th century historical sites, works of art and libraries, and, not least, its 20th century cinema heritage.


    Decisions on the radical cuts are not yet definitive, however, and Paolo Ambrosini, who is president of the principal association of book dealers, says he plans to protest to the cultural commissions of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. "I'm not speaking of just the culture subsidies," he said in an interview. "I am particularly concerned with the cuts in budgets for schools, research institutes and universities."


    Indeed, Italy is among the European countries which now spends less than ever for education. According to the pan-European statistics agency Eurostat, the percentage of GDP Italy devoted to education was 3.9% in 2016, the most recent data available for comparative results. Of the 20 European Union countries in the classification, the median spent was 4.7% of GDP. Within the EU, Denmark and Sweden invest the most in its youth while Italy, standing third from the EU lowest and below Spain, was among those investing the least.


  • Op-Eds

    Voices Raised in Political Boxing Match

    ROME -- Major elections take place only next May in the 27 member states of the European Union, including Italy. Nevertheless political voices are being raised in Italy these days, beginning in Rome Saturday, where thousands turned out for a protest demonstration against Mayor Virginia Raggi. "Roma dice basta" (Rome has had enough), chanted the crowd jamming into the Capitoline square under the office of the mayor, who was elected by the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S or Five Star Movement). A banner written in Latin asked, "Raggi, when are you going to stop abusing of our patience?" Another warned, "Raggi, a pothole is going to swallow you!"


    Of these there are plenty, and It is hard to underestimate the Romans' outrage. Potholes in streets have literally killed youngsters riding on motor scooters. Rubbish bins continue to overflow into the streets, attracting rats and even wild boar. A huge number of unmaintained buses have caught fire. A carelessly maintained moving staircase at busy Piazza della Repubblica, just one stop from the train station, collapsed, seriously injuring more than 20 Russian soccer fans, three of whom remain in serious condition in hospital. Further igniting Roman protests was the vicious rape-murder of a deeply troubled girl of 16 on drugs, whose body was found in an abandoned building on Rome's outskirts used by drug pushers.


    On the government level, Mario Draghi spoke Thursday in Frankfurt about Italy's proposed financial plan, obligatory for EU approval, but no sooner presented than opposed by the EU because, among other things, it hikes up the already substantial public debt. Called to speak on this was Draghi,  the esteemed Italian economist (his PhD is from MIT), who has served as president of the European Central Bank (ECB) since 2011. "It is not the mandate of the European Central Bank to play the role of mediator [between Italy and the EU]. I am confident -- not very confident, but confident -- that plain common sense will lead toward convergence upon some sort of agreement" between them. Draghi also called upon the Italian politicians to calm down.


    The EU commission granted the M5S and its governing partner, the Lega, headed by Matteo Salvini, three weeks to make changes in that budget plan, dubbed by the press "the deficit of discord," but both M5S and Lega refuse, saying it remains as is. "The maneuver [budget plan] is already just right," declared Salvini. "Our  financial maneuver is not to be touched." However, Italy's unhealthy economic situation, including the maneuver with its proposed increase in the national debt, already 132% of GDP, appears dicey enough that the spread between Italian and German interest rates bounced up, and ratings agencies Moody's and Standard and Poor bounced Italy downwards, below France, Germany and even Spain.


    Di Maio, Salvini's governing partner in the "Yellow - Greens" (the coalition in political shorthand), also defends that budget plan. "We are going forward with it -- history is not written with 'if's'." The EU criticism brought scathing remarks from Di Maio's M5S colleague Rocco Casalino: "The M5S is ready for a huge vendetta.... Next year will be devoted to getting rid of a swarm of functionaries in the Ministry of Economics and Finance.... with knives. The real problem is that there are people in the Economics Ministry who have been there for decades. They are the old system, the have everything in their hands." Casalino's point is that these functionaries allegedly resist cutting costs, which inhibits the M5S from keeping its election promises for costly subsidies and pension revisions. And so, warned Casalino, "We will spend 2019 with knives, cutting out these pieces of shit." Needless to say, his words triggered a firestorm of protests. (For the full text see >>)


    Economics Minister Giovanni Tria, who is in open disagreement with the two deputy premiers, not to mention with Casalino, is trying to straddle a middle ground between EU and his government. "We cannot maintain the level of the spread at 320 for a very long time because it raises problems for our banking system, the weakest part," Tria acknowledged Oct. 27. And despite the two deputy premiers' hard line, some wiggle room just may be possible, according to press reports here.


    U.S. economist Dr. Allen Sinai, who heads Decision Economics in New York, believes that the EU is being too hard on Italy and too short sighted. For Sinai, Germany is being too rigid in forcing Italy into strict observance of the national debt ceiling. "Like other countries, Italy should be allowed the necessary flexibility to be able to adopt expansionist policies that lead to economic growth," he said in an interview in La Repubblica Oct. 28. The "fixed parameters are too rigid" , he said, and do not reflect economic reality.

  • Art & Culture

    Rome Museum Honors Rino Barillari, Fellini's "King of the Paparazzi"

    ROME -- It was Federico Fellini in the days of Rome's "Dolce Vita" who dubbed photographer Rino Barillari "King of the Paparazzi" -- and incidentally popularized the term. This month Rome's prestigious Maxxi museum honors King Barillari's 60-year career with an exhibition of his photos. Their taking brought him 76 smashed cameras and sent him to hospital emergency rooms no less than 163 times, with 11 broken ribs and one knife stab.

    Saverio ("Rino") Barillari was born Feb. 8, 1945, at Limbadi, near Vibo Valentia in Calabria. From there he left home, penniless, at age 14 to seek his fortune in Rome. Sleeping in the streets, he eventually earned enough to be able to buy, "on a whim" (his words),  a used Comet Bencini camera and begin work as a "paparazzo." He says he then "joined the wandering photographers" around the Trevi Fountain area and, to make ends meet, took photos of tourists there.

    The word "paparazzo" is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a "freelance photographer who aggressively pursues celebrities for the purpose of taking candid photographs." The word was actually invented by Fellini, who, in his 1959 movie, "La Dolce Vita", gave the name "Paparazzo" to the photographer character who accompanied the character of the scandal-mongering journalist Marcello Rubini. (For  a lively synthesis from the finale of that movie, see on youtube)

    On view on view in Rome's Maxxi museum are 100 pictures from Barillari's personal archive pf 400,000 photographs. The Dolce Vita actors and actresses of the Fifties are represented, along with examples of his famous scoops, such as the finding of a trove of photos of kidnap victim Paul Getty III; the personal effects of Pier Paolo Pasolini after his murder; a prison revolt in the Rebibbia prison in Rome; and Red Brigades terror attacks including of the dead bodyguard of Aldo Moro right after that kidnapping.

    From the outset the clients for Barillari's celebrity Via Veneto photos were the Associated Press, UPI, and the Italian press agency ANSA. But after the revolutionary year of 1968 he also photographed deeply serious Mafia and terrorist attacks in Rome, published in powerful local newspapers like Il Messaggero and Il Tempo. From those tough old days he continued shooting photographs, and this reporter ran into him frequently. Later in life he and his works were celebrated, to the point that the Xi'an International University of China named him professor of photography, and he was also named a "Commendatore" of the Order of the Italian Republic.

    In a recent interview with Candida Morvillo in the daily Corriere della Sera, Barillari was asked what it was like to be a Dolce Vita photographer. "It was thrilling -- one night I wept hearing Frank Sinatra singing in the street, but afterward there was a fistfight -- that's important, it was an instant of provocation; if the individual didn't want the photo, you got the best shot when you made him get mad." In this way Barillari enraged Peter O'Toole, whose punch in the face cost Barillari two stitches. "He was married, but I'd caught him with someone else, Barbara Steele. Later we made peace -- these folks knew that they needed us. Today they dodge us: they just go on TV and cuss, and think they're Oscar material," he told Morvillo.

    Actress Claudia Schiffer's bodyguard once tossed a bucket of water on him, because, as Barillari explaied, he had been trying to see if (as someone had written) her thighs showed cellulite. In yet another notorious incident, actress Sonia Romanoff shoved an ice cream cone into his face: "That morning she'd married an old geezer, and that evening I caught her holding hands with someone else."

    What about today's photography? "The smart phone is the agony of a paparazzo. But selfies ruin the individual because they do not tell the truth," he replied.

    Curator is Martino Crespi, based on idea of Massimo Spano and Giancarlo Scarchilli,  with an interactive sound installation by Federico Giangrandi for the Editorial Broup Bixio NEAR. Exhibition organizer is the Istituto Luce Cinecittà, with Camilla Cormanni, and with the contribution of the Ministry of Culture, and sponsors Master Card, Champagne Pommery and SIAE.