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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • No TAP Commitee

    When Money Talks, Even for Governments, Who Listens?

    ROME -- Money talks, even for governments, but is anyone listening? The clash between Italy's prudent Minister for the economy and finance Giovanni Tria and the top political players overshadows all other arguments within the government.  The cast of characters: Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega, is both deputy premier and Interior Minister. Luigi Di Maio, head of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), is his co-deputy premier and Economic Development Minister. Formally above and negotiating between these is Giuseppe Conte, window-dressing premier whose role is to keep the peace between Salvini, the ever more powerful head of the far-right Lega, and Di Maio, who heads the rebellious, anti-establishment M5S, noteworthy these days for its downward slip in the polls.


    Worth noting too is that the usually cautious Reuters news agency summarized this clash in just three points: government "handouts" to the (presumably) poor; dropping the pension age; and raising money by increasing the national debt. Taking these points one by one, in his campaigning Di Maio promised handouts, and the upsurge in Salvini's popularity (now over 32% in the polls) has reinforced Di Maio's need to remain in the game. Secondly, a drop in the pensionable age would theoretically make room for young people to take the vacant jobs and save the government money -- just how much is uncertain. Thirdly, achieving some of the government's goals, such as the handouts, will require huge outlays of money. This implies borrowing, which would boost the gap between Italy's GDP and its deficit; at 132%, it is already the second highest in Europe after Greece.


    In a warning speech delivered at the annual meeting of the World Bank Group held last week in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, the highly respected Mario Draghi urged Italian politicians, in an obvious reference to the loudly anti-EU Salvini, to "calm down with the tone" in discussing the pro's and con's of the euro. Draghi is president of the European Central Bank and a former governor of the Central Bank of Italy. "Budgetary expansion in a country of high indebtedness becomes much more complicated if the euro is put into question," said Draghi, "[bringing] real damage as companies and households are then forced to pay higher interest rates on loans." By way of response Alberto Bagnai, a Lega senator who heads the Senate Finance Committee, tweeted that it is Draghi who should "calm down and stop mentioning the euro."


    The government's response to the criticism that it risks sinking ever more deeply into debt is to propose a bill dropping the highest monthly pension payment from the present E4,500 ($5,200) to E3,500 (c. $4,000). The highest earners of those accepting the lowered pensionable age would lose up to 20% of what was originally promised; those with lower annual earnings would lose from 10% to 3%, depending upon income.


    Speaking at a piazza rally in Rivarola Canavese near Turin, Di Maio said on Oct. 13 that by dropping the so-called "gilded pensions," the state would recover "over one billion euros." Tito Boeri, who directs the state pensions agency INPS, challenges the one billion euro figure, however, saying that it would involve 30,000 people and bring in no more than E150 million, or $173.4 million. Nevertheless the Conte-Di Maio-Salvini government is expecting the measure to become law within coming days and take effect immediately.


    Another tough issue facing the government is work on the gas pipeline known as the "TAP" (Gasdotto Trans-Adriatico) that goes from Azerbaijan to Italy, ending at Melendugno on the Adriatic Sea in Puglia. Although last April a government prosecutor ordered work on the TAP to be halted because damaging to the environment, beginning with an orchard of 448 olive trees damaged by planned construction of a tunnel through which the pipeline would pass.


    Di Maio's M5S had originally called for halting work on the pipeline, but now his governing partner the Lega is demanding work resume on it immediately. "The TAP is fundamental, but will not bring down the government," said Giancarlo Giorgetti, Undersecretary to the Premier and Lega spokesman, speaking at Arcore in August.


    "But it is completely useless public work," protested Minister for the South Barbara Lezzi of the M5S. In promoting resumption of work on it, the government is "traitorous."



  • Art & Culture

    When Tourism Becomes more Burden than Bounty

    ROME - Until now, tourism -- cultural as well as seaside and culinary -- has been hailed as Italy's magic beam, transporting the country beyond the losses from runaway factories and ever more present robots which replace workers. Nevertheless a small but serious reaction against the vast influx of tourists is becoming ever more evident, with protests over pollution and overcrowding. In Rome alone every day over 800 gigantic buses bring tourists in and out of town, in what is called in the popular press "a constant invasion," without a seasonal break.


    An example that enraged the city fathers was the killing, by one of these outsized buses on Saturday, Oct. 6, of the deputy prefect of Rome, the distinguished Giorgio De Franceschi, 54. The accident took place on Via Cavour only a short distance from the Colosseum. With his wife, who survived, De Franceschi was crossing legally in a downpour on a strip of white stripes, which theoretically oblige a driver to stop. Weeping in desperation, the driver said that he had pressed his foot on the brake, but the bus simply did not stop. Just last July a woman of 22 carrying a load of boxes was run down and killed by another tour bus on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a busy thoroughfare near Piazza Navona.


    By way of official reaction, Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) announced a plan to take effect Jan. 1, which divides Rome into three sectors. Zone 1, which covers the downtown historical center located within existing ZTL barriers, is to be off limits to the big tour buses (called, by the way, torpedoni, or big torpedoes) save for those carrying children on school outings. To make this more serious the tariffs for Zones 2 and 3 are being hoisted up by 1,700%. The tour buses' annual permits are to be replaced by  tickets that can cost up to $300 for each entry; the price is to vary depending upon how much the the vehicle pollutes (!) Needless to say, the higher fees will be paid in the end by the tourists. This plan, which was to take effect last summer, was postponed by six months after pressure from the tourist industry. The lame excuse for this delay, according to an official city spokesman, is that: "Tour industry programs are sold the previous year."


    Rome attracts some 40 million tourists annually, and gives work to 150,000, generating over 10% of the city's income. To survive, the big buses tend to drive in lanes where they are not permitted, and as a result in a year some 4,500 drivers were given tickets; another 13,000 tickets were handed out for other misdemeanors.


    The financial advantages of mass tourism are obvious. In 2016 alone, according to the Ministry for Culture and Tourism, entry fees for museums, archaeological sites and monuments brought in E174,988 , an increase of E20 million over the previous year. All told, Italian tourism contributes 11% of the GDP and employs 12% of the work force. But the problems remain, such as how to bring tourists near the Vatican. During the Jubilee Year of 2000 a system of mini-buses took over from the "torpedoes", which were left parked in the outskirts. A revival of this is suggested, but fails to consider the gigantic increase in Roman tourism in the past 19 years.


    Perhaps even more than Rome, Venice is particularly stressed. "For cities like Venice and other delicate sites like the Cinque Terre, I think we have to make tourism year round rather than just seasonal," said Evelina Christillin, president of the national tourism agency ENIT, speaking last summer to Sputnik News. "We have to explain to the tourists -- and here digital networks can be useful -- that tourism must be sustainable." This is simple in museums, where entries can be limited.  The Italian infrastructure must be improved, including train lines, she added.


    So who are the tourists? The number of Chinese tourists has soared in importance, and US tourism is also rising. Still, 70% are European, and especially Russian these days. According to www.fourtourismblog.it,  hit-and-run tourism is soaring. Back in 2015 each tourist spent 4.1 days here while this had dropped to just 3.6 days in 2015. For the future, according to that blog, the tourists will be the millennials -- that is, the under 30s, who will be seeking "the new, the diverse, the authentic experience." And greater attention should be paid to the disabled; on this, see ENEA0s Progetto STARe >>

  • Op-Eds

    Sergio Mattarella, 77, "Prudently Presidential"

    ROME -- Just like in Italy, in Germany, France, the US, the UK and elsewhere, voters are at loggerheads, and the loyalty to those old political parties that helped to weld people together show disarray, when not simply wiped off the chalkboard. As a result, ever since last Sunday, when huge and enthusiastic crowds turned out for Partito Democratico (PD) rallies in Milan and Rome, center-leftists have been crowing. They point out, in addition, that the crowds were often of young people with no memory of the political Italy of four decades back, characterized by old-line political parties.


    Still, the fact is that political allegiances have shifted from the party to the personal, and this makes of particular interest a brand new poll conducted by the reputable Demos & Pi and Demetra. All told, between Sept. 11-13 over 8,400 people age 18 and older were asked which politicians. they preferred. The result: the single most popular political leader in the entire country, with a stunning 65% of admirers, is Sergio Mattarella, 77, president of Italy since 2015. Few of his predecessors have achieved this degree of popularity, which analysts here are attributing to his "prudently presidential" style. The popularity of even the respected Giorgio Napolitano, Mattarella's predecessor, had sunk to 39% after his first three years in office, according to an Ixè poll reported on Rai 3.


    Trailing behind by only four points, is, perhaps surprisingly, Premier Giuseppe Conte. Despite being caught in a squeeze while mediating between the sometimes quarreling (and ever rival) deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini of the Lega and Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), Premier Conte is today Italy's second most popular politician. Salvini himself is favored by 60% of those interviewed and Di Maio, who once called for Mattarella to be impeached, by 57%. While these poll results are not predictors of a theoretical national vote, they are important because personalism has replaced old-fashioned party loyalty.


    So who is President Mattarella? Born in Palermo in 1941, he was graduated summa con laude from La Sapienza university of Rome with a law degree. He taught parliamentary law at the University of Palermo until 1983, when he was elected on the Christian Democratic party ticket to the Chamber of Deputies, where he served until 2008. Throughout those years he was an activist in the Catholic social movement, which advocated reform. He also published widely on constitutional law, particularly as applied to the Sicilian Region.


    His official biography fails to mention the single most crucial event in his life: the assassination of his older brother, the Christian Democratic  Piersanti Mattarella. On Jan. 6, 1980, while in his car en route to mass with his wife and children, Piersanti was murdered. Initially the assassination was attributed to neo-Fascist terrorists, but has long since been recognized as revenge for his battle against the links forged between Sicilian politicians and Cosa Nostra. The Jesuit educated Mattarella had set out to bring a halt to the racket over profitable public works contracts. His aim was to pass a law requiring serious building standards similar to those in the North.


    " [Piersanti's] policy of the radical moralization of public life, based on the idea that Sicily needed to present itself with its  'papers in order', had upset the system of public procurement. His stunning moves were never before seen in the Island," according to Piero Grasso, former Anti-Mafia prosecutor who served as president of the Senate from 2013 through March 2018.


    Within three years of that murder constitutional law expert Sergio Mattarella was serving in the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, where he maintained a calm and composed facade. In a complimentary article in the Guardian last May, he was portrayed as a man with a strong character, smart, gentle and moderate, "but also stubborn." (See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/28/sergio-mattarella-italian-president-political-crisis)


    He is credited with helping to block the right-wing economist Paolo Savona's becoming Finance Minister, promoted by both Salvini and the M5S; Savona despises the European Union and promotes Italy's leaving the EU common currency. Mattarella also -- as usual, quietly and calmly -- criticized Salvini's policies against migrants,. These are the policies that left the ship Diciotti, with over 144 rescued migrants aboard, stalled in a Sicilian port for 10 days as Interior Minister Salvini refused to allow them to land. This being a violation of human rights, in what amounted to a reproach to Salvini, three weeks ago Mattarella said pointedly in Parliament that, "No citizen is above the law." Palermo prosecutors accuse Salvini of "illegally confining" the migrants.

  • Life & People

    Bumper Grape Harvest Brings Outstanding Wine

    ROME -- No need to be a connoisseur to know that Italy's grape harvests are often exceptional, but this year's is particularly outstanding. For 2018 the wine harvest throughout the country, which generally begins in September and continues through mid-October, has risen by 21% over last year's, thanks to the unusual combination of abundant summer rains and sunshine . The enologists are gloating not only about the boost in quantity, but, more importantly, about the exceptional quality of the grapes, based upon their analysis of the first 15% produced.


    According to the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, in its best year since 1999 Italy has returned to its former role as leader in European wine production, with 55 million hectoliters. Predictions are that the whites will best the reds "because the abundant humidity has eliminated the skins before fermentation and the reds' skins were often damaged.  Even production in France and Spain is below Italy's, whose industry earns  the country E 3.5 billion ($4.1 billion).


    Perhaps not coincidentally, accompanying these assurances of a bounty vintage year comes an amazing upsurge in wine tourism. According to the Italian vintners' association Assoenologi, since 2011 wine tourism throughout the country has grown by 25% and continues to grow, now approaching 14 million, above the European median. Some 12,000 wineries are specially prepared for visits by the public while almost twice that are open for direct sales to customers. At Montalcino the upward surge of tourist visits -- Russians, Chinese, Germans and Americans -- was by a stunning 125% and, in and around Chianti, by 35% over the past five years.


    Such visits may begin in the fields where grapes are grown, then proceed to the area of experimental micro-vinification, and on to the barricaia (in French, barrique) where the wine barrels are stored, often for many years, while the wines ripen. At the end of the tour comes the tasting, accompanied on some tours by a banquet. An example: a car service organizes a Chianti Wine Tour that begins in Florence and then moves on to Greve in Chianti, where visitors tour a 200-year-old butcher's shop  that sells, among other things, salami, wild boar ham and that favorite (of mine) local cheese pecorino. This is only the beginning, needless to say; the tour ends in San Gimignano. (For details of this tour -- and of course there are others -- see: >>).


    If this is an example of a comfy tour by mini-bus, some visitors like to make a slow tour of wineries, one a day, by bicycle. Dozens of special cycling routes through the wine country have evolved and are popular, including in Tuscan Chianti country, where olive oil tastings as well as light luncheons of local specialties often accompany the wine sippings. Whereas a cycling tour may take days, quicker tours, with a talk about the philosophy of making wine, are also readily found on the internet.


    Wine production in the Lazio Region in Central Italy is definitely on a smaller scale, but today 22,000 hectares here are devoted to grapes, and the quality in recent years has notably improved. Lazio wines now account for 3% of the whole, well below the quota in Tuscany, but nevertheless bringing earnings of $130 million.


    I have personally always favored the wines produced in the Alto Adige, where some of the vineyards are so steep that, when the snow melts and brings down some of the earth, vintners must trek the earth back up the terraced slopes, not by truck, but by hand. Advertisers there boast that their is the best of both worlds, "a perfect balance of Alpine air and Mediterreanean sun." Favorites there are Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau, Kerner, Vellier and Riesling. What we simpletons call simply "Gewurz" is spicy and named for the town called Tramin. Among these whites are also world-known varieties like Pinot and Chardonnay. The local reds are Schiava and Lagrein, but here too the better known international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are also found.

  • Dream of Venice. Photo by Eugenio Novajra
    Art & Culture

    Writers, Photographers Fight to Keep Venice Alive and Authentic

    ROME -- Tourism to the lagoon city shows no let-up: an Airbnb report in late May showed that for every inhabitant in Venice there are 73.8 tourists, for between 23 million and 28 million tourists a year. As a result, the battle against the big ships that overwhelm Venice and its canals with tourists is being fought by politicians and groups of irate citizens. But it is also being fought in photographs and books that celebrate the city and its traditions.


    The photographs are particularly intimate and eloquent, for their creators -- Italian and foreign -- seek out the most evocative of the old ways and byways. Newest of these is "Dream of Venice in Black and White," an anthology of outstanding photos with an introduction by Tiziano Scarpa, Venetian-born poet and playwright whose novel "Stabat Mater" won the Strega Prize for literature in 2009. Editor is JoAnn Locktov, founder of  Bella Publications, which published "Dream of Venice" as the third in a trilogy on the lagoon city architecture and arts.


    Venice, writer Scarpa reminds us, lost its power and wealth when commerce and business moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. "Venice had to reinvent itself, little by little, from the seventeenth century, until it became a sort of Las Vegas or Broadway," he writes. It launched the cafe society trend, invented the business of grand opera, established gambling houses and offered "prostitution to suit all tastes, but also churches with high-quality orchestras," among whose musicians was Antonio Vivaldi. Even its famous Carnival was business, meant to attract foreigners given permission to walk around in masks: "Venice tried in every way to make its guests spend as much as possible."


    For literally a century, Venice made a living from its oil refineries and chemical industries, but in recent decades globalism took its toll, whittling away at  this source of revenue. Keeping the city alive today is what Scarpa calls the "foreigner industry." By this he means that not only objects like pieces of glass, but the Venetians themselves are being replaced with actual foreigners in shops, homes and financial activities. "So what can you do about it?" Scarpa asks. One way, he suggests, is to stay at home and leaf through books such as "Dream of Venice," which make the city "bloom with a light caress made up of splendid images."


    Writers too celebrate that authentic Venice. An example: the anthology of essays on Venice "The First Spritz is Free, Confessions of Venice Addicts," edited and published by Kathleen Ann Gonzalez, the author of "Free Gondola Ride," about the gondoliers of Venice. A sampler of tantalizing chapter titles from "First Spritz": "Venice, Mirror of the Soul," by Manuel Carrion; "Venice, A Comfy Cocoon" by Mayumi Hayashi; "You Have to Get Lost, by Luisella Romeo; and "Finding Titian's House," by Frederick Ilchman." For how to obtain a free download, go to ; print copies are available as well through Amazon and the like >> (True confession: one of its 35 chapters is my own.)


    Contrasting these photographic and verbal images are those showing the huge ships which drop literally thousands of tourists, all at the same time, into the narrow streets for brief stays. The fight against them continues: last month the mayor decided to promote Mestre as an alternative tourism mecca. Some 53,000 locals still live on the island, but much of what was once familiar has disappeared from their lives including food shops, replaced by huge new hotels, art galleries, stores selling Venetian-replica glass made in China. In the meantime prosecutors are investigating the results of the costly construction of the Mose, a movable steel dam that was supposed to deal with the problem of high water but has so far never functioned and seems unlikely to do so.


    Businessman  Luigi Brugnaro, mayor since 2015 with the backing of a center-right coalition, is the former president of Assolavoro, an association that is part of Confindustria. Last June demonstrations against what some call the "giants of the sea" were held, and in a scathing tweet Brugnaro commented that only 500 to 800 people participated, "many of whom came from outside of Venice....  You kept @comunevenezia for years under the blackmail of your manifestations. We think differently."


    Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Nuova Venezia Brugnaro said that, "We have been saying for a long time that these big ships must not pass through the Giudecca Canal. It's time to go ahead with the project for a new maritime port at Marghera." In fact, regional and government funds are already slated for improvements to that port and to a canal leading into it, preparing it to receive the mega-cruise ships. And just in time:  Venice tourism continues to grow  unchecked, and at Mestre foreign investors have put $81.4 million into new hotels that will accommodate 1,900 visitors.  In addition, ordinary maintenance in Venice is complex. On Sept. 13  it was announced that 4 million have been set aside for excavating 4 km of canals, to be freed of 15,000 cubic meters of mud. Already seven canals (rii) were cleaned at the cost of $1.2 million.


    Judith Harris is the author of Evelina: "A Victorian Heroine in Venice" (Fonthill Media, 2017)

  • Op-Eds

    Anti-immigrant Violence in Italy Draws UN scrutiny

    ROME -- It was midnight on a peaceful June evening on Corso Umberto in Naples, and chef Konate Bouyagui, 21 and originally from Mali, was walking home after his cooking stint in a coop restaurant he and friends had created. As he crossed the street, one of two men of about 30 fired at him through their car window, wounding him in the stomach. Taken to hospital, Bouyagui, known for his appearances on the popular TV food show Masterchef, survived the attack. The next day a press release from the City of Naples and a coop offered its solidarity: "It is obvious that from the words of hatred found on the social networks people are passing brutally to facts," said the release.


    This was just one of the 10 attacks on migrants and Roma in the past three months in shootings that have left one young man dead and a Roma baby perhaps paralyzed for life. As a result of this "huge increase in cases of violence and racism" directed at Africans and Roma, Italy is under investigation by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Also under investigation is Austria.


    This UN inquiry has troubled Italian commentators asking just when such vicious racism began, and what are its roots. One theory is that the problems inherent in migration -- a preference to ignore such a tough problem plus a deadly slow bureaucracy that delays granting permits -- have not been faced for literally decades for political reasons. Instead, Europe has mistakenly "chosen to privilege above all the idea of repatriating the migrants without guaranteeing respect for human rights," Bachelet has said.


    Public opinion surveys show that the "words of hatred" have become ever more politically functional, and not only in today's Italy. Migration is the single most important issue throughout Europe, and is shaping the entire political scene, as was demonstrated by Sunday's vote in Sweden, where a far right party bounced up to 18%. Here the more tolerant remind Italians that they were themselves migrants just a century ago, and that, in the larger picture, people have been migrating since paleolithic times. On the other hand some migrants, no less than some Italians (and Americans and British), have been justly accused of violence, with frightening propaganda exacerbating each incident.


    One who has meditated on this is Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri. "It's easy to imagine what I think about today's policies towards the migrants, since in my books I have written about their desperation," Camilleri said in a recent interview. "These are people who have escaped from wars or who are looking for work.... I think that to continue to play on fear of the other is a very dangerous game. He who sows the wind ends with a storm, and today too much wind is being sown. Italy has become a country that is moving backward, the way shrimp do."


    Giuseppe De Rita is Italy's foremost sociologist. In an interview he specified that, in his view, Italy is less racist than angry, a victim of "that rancor" which, since the 2008 crisis, has left  the middle class impoverished and the lower classes unable to rise. "A few seasons back this sense of rancor attacked the caste -- the politicians, that is -- but today it attacks the migrants, seen as the thieves of wealth," said De Rita.


    In point of fact, Italy is actually home to relatively fewer migrants than other EU countries. Polls taken in August by the reputable Istituto Carlo Cattaneo of Bologna show that Italians suffer from what is called an "error of perception," believing that one out of four of all those living in Italy is a migrant. In fact, according to Cattaneo, their real presence is of 7% , or less than one-third of that guesswork figure of 25%. People elsewhere in the EU are only slightly more realistic than the Italians, believing that 16.7% of the whole European population is made up of migrants whereas the real pan-European figure is of 7.2%.


    The Italian press also reports that when the Cattaneo figures are crossed with the NIM index elaborated by the Pew Research Center, Italy emerges as "the most extreme" of the EU countries in its negative assessment of migrants. Depending upon the education level, those without university degrees and those living in the South, calculate the number of immigrants in their midst diversely from those with degrees and in the North. The same hostility toward migrants and Roma extends to religious minorities including, obviously, Muslims.


    Other points of view exist. An article in the conservative daily Libero of Aug. 24 reported that the studies center Analisi Politica directed by Arnaldo Ferrari Nasi polled Italian thinking on immigration and on how the government is handling the problem. The result: 85% of those questioned want to see "the question of clandestines landing on Italian soil resolved with urgency and decision," and that the Italian state "should deal with this more severely." Of those queried, three-quarters described themselves as "fervent Catholics." This, said the Libero editorialist, means that the Church, while "always speaks of the acceptance [of migrants], is preaching in the desert."


    Translated into political action, deputy premier Matteo Salvini has successfully made the fight to stop migrants his banner, to the point that polls show his Lega party now claiming 32% of a future vote. According to sociologist Marzio Barbagli, Salvini's anti-migrant rhetoric has legitimized the already existing hostility toward migrants. And last Aug. 27 Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) warned that Italy would withhold its contribution to the European Union budget unless the EU contributed more to Italian efforts to deal with migrants landing on its shores.

  • Facts & Stories

    Back to School Time for Italian Youngsters

    ROME - Schools are about to reopen for Italy's students, although not without problems. One of these has been the disaster earthquakes wrought to school buildings. The good news is that in quake-stricken Sarnano at Macerata, a town severely damaged by a quake in 2016, a new school, constructed with anti-seismic technology, will open on time. The Giacomo Leopardi middle school, with facilities for sports and the arts as well as classrooms, was built in just five months thanks to private funding from two foundations: Diesel founder ("the jeans genius," he is called) Renzo Rosso's Only the Brave and the Andrea Bocelli Foundation. Bocelli, whose foundation invites contributions from donors, sang the Italian national hymn at the inauguration of the school last May. Among those also on hand: the popular Renato Zero. (See >>)


    In the village of Grottamare in the Marches, the school cannot open because its roof is at risk and the contract for its reconstruction turned into a bureaucratic battle. Children from nine classes will study in improvised classrooms in the town hall and in its library. This brings a personal memory. When my daughter attended a middle school in downtown Rome in the 1980s, a stone's throw from Parliament, the teachers warned students to walk close to the wall because the winding staircase was insecure (!) When I suggested to the principal that I would lodge a formal complaint, she asked me to desist, for, "To repair it would mean shutting down the whole school for a year."


    Schools reopen on different dates, depending upon the region and presumably the climate. Bolzano's schools in the mountainous Alto Adige were first, opening Sept. 5. Schools in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont opened Sept. 10, followed by Lombardy and Umbria Sept. 12. A host of others open only Sept. 17, with the very last in Puglia Sept. 20.


    For the schools everywhere, a serious problem, say many school principals, is a lack of teachers, which suggests that the cause is a lack of government funding. In Pavia the local press reports that the middle schools there would require 152 more teachers, and the high schools, 116. In Parma the teachers branch of the CISL trade union reported in August that a stunning 1,103 more teachers should be hired. The vacancies, said a CISL spokesperson, are due to retirements and transfers.


    For the very youngest students, a problem is vaccinations. A campaign against vaccinations, which may have been at least partly manipulated, means that many parents refuse to have their youngest children vaccinated. After a nationwide debate with countless educators protesting that unvaccinated children would endanger  the others, Education Minister Marco Bussetti offered an ambiguous way out, saying on Aug. 30 that school principals can accept children whose parents present a self-certificate that they have been vaccinated. "The law says clearly that children in class who bring a self-certification signed by their parents can be accepted," he said. Should things go wrong, the principals would have no responsibility since, "That responsibility lies with the parents," he declared. A goodly number of principals throughout Italy reject this, saying they require children to be vacciated.


    The children of immigrants are also changing today's Italian schools. Some 826,000 students -- 9.4% of the total -- have non-Italian citizenship, or 11,000 more than in 2017. Almost two-thirds were born in Italy and are hence second generation immigrants. More are boys (52%) than girls (48%). The largest proportion have Rumanian parents (19%) following by Albanians (under 14%) and Moroccans (12%). Other countries represented in the classroom are China, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Philippines, Moldavia. Almost all complete secondary school studies. The good news is that, of these, over one-third continue with university studies, aiming particularly toward a degree in social studies.


    One of the most intractable problems is the ever younger age of those trying out drugs. Today the age for a first use of a drug has dropped for boys to 13 and for girls, to 15. In an attempt to deal with this the Interior Ministry is hiring anti-drug police to serve as lookouts near schools, offering them short-term contracts at a total cost of $800 million.


    Another working to combat school children using drugs is Mauro Ioacoppini, 56, a consultant in legal medicine at Rome's "La Sapienza" University. Ioacoppini has developed workshops -- he calls them "laboratories against drugs" -- which he takes into schools. "The school is fundamental for prevention and to explain about the dangers," he said in an interview in La Repubblica daily. Do the students pay attention? "I have the sensation quite often that they just refuse [the concept] or are indifferent or even take it as a challenge." But not everywhere, he went on to say, particularly in areas where families have already witnessed a relative or friend with a drug problem.








  • Op-Eds

    Instead of Building Bridges Italy at Sixes and Sevens

    ROME -- The bridge at Genoa is not the only one to come down. Just when Italy should be building bridges for the common good, the country appears to be at political sixes and sevens. Foremost among the crucial issues: immigration. The ramifications of the Diciotti misadventure exemplify the problems.


    The Diciotti is an Italian coast guard ship that rescued 177 migrants in the Mediterranean August 16 and then, after Malta refused to accept them, took them into port at Catania. Initially they were welcomed by Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who twittered that, "The gallant men of the Coast Guard have done their part saving the lives of human beings 17 miles from Lampedusa." But when the ship docked at Catania, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to allow the migrants to disembark until and unless their future destinations were assured. At that point Toninelli backed down, and in another tweet declared that he "agreed" with Salvini's position.


    But not by everyone agreed.  The migrants were not permitted to disembark, and conditions aboard ship worsened day after day, to the point that a demonstration against Minister Salvini's position was held in Catania on Aug. 21. In Agrigento a prosecutor opened an investigation into Minister Salvini for sequestration of persons, illegal arrests and abuse of office. Catania and Palermo prosecutors also opened investigations.


    At that point 29 minors were released from the ship, but the others remained locked aboard even though Italy's Garante nazionale delle persone private della libertà, an association to protect persons deprived of their right to freedom,  protested that this was a case of serious humanitarian need. Similarly, the Catholic organization Caritas issued an appeal for "solutions that respect human rights and constitutional privileges." Oliviero Forti, Caritas chief for migration policies, called for an urgent solution showing "plain common sense and humanity, the sole way to guarantee social cohesion."


    When representatives of 12 EU countries, summoned to find a way to handle the migration question in the future, reached no conclusion, Salvini's co-Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio called for a hard line against the EU: "If redistributing the migrants [fails],  the Movimento 5 Stelle and I will not be disposed to give E 20 billion to the EU every year." The EU responded that Italy gives just E 3 billion annually.


    Nor did Salvini back down. "No one will land in Italy unless Europe wakes up, does its part and begins to welcome them, as we have done in all these years," he said on TV. As for his being put under investigation in Agrigento, "I am anything but worried, go ahead if somebody wants to arrest me.... My objective is the Australian 'no way,' and all those on the Diociotti are illegal immigrants."


    The United Nations refugees agency UNHCR appealed to Italy to let the migrants disembark. And former Premier Paolo Gentiloni said that, instead of blocking the ship, "the Interior Minister should explain on the basis of what law he is holding migrants aboard the Diociotti for 10 days now. And if there is no such law, as is evident, he ought to put a rapid end to this abuse of power."


    Eventually 17 were authorized to leave the ship for health reasons; a few suffering from TB, women from rape. Only 13 disembarked when four women refused to leave without their family members. In the end, all the migrants could disembark, thanks to an agreement involving the Church in Italy, Albania and Ireland. Di Maio was pleased: "The government remained compact, we played like a proper team." Salvini crowed that he was "proud of fighting to defend our borders and protect the security of Italians and the future of our children."


    But that is not the end -- on the contrary. Foreshadowing the future, Salvini met Monday with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, the tough guy whose economic policies, said Salvini, could be a model for Italy. In turn Orban lauded Salvini as "the sole politician who blocks the migrants in the sea... Salvini defends the borders in Europe. He would win elections in Hungary, he is very popular for having blocked the migrants." (See >>  )


    For the future, Salvini seems to want to opt out of the EU in favor of a union with Hungary and other formerly Communist East European countries. To this end he seems particularly eager to have early elections take place in Italy as soon as possible. The risk is the "impetuous" growth of Salvini's Lega, in the words of one commentator here. His goal: premiership without Di Maio, whom he is overshadowing, and without the premier Giuseppe Conte. Exactly for this reason Di Maio and Conte, less than anxious to see their Movimento 5 Stelle vote dribbled away, see little choice but to cave in to Salvini. "He will use the promises, incompatible with the commitments to Europe, to demand that Giuseppe Conte and his government ignore the pacts and parameters" of Europe, said another middle-of-the-road commentator. "It is blackmail."

  • Facts & Stories

    Still Deep in Shock, Genoa Soldiers On

    ROME -- Still deep in shock from the tragic collapse of the Morandi Bridge, causing the deaths of at least 43 people, Genoa nevertheless is soldiering on. "The city has the intelligence to improve itself and to learn how to prevent such disasters in the future," said architect Renzo Piano in an interview August 14, shortly after the collapse. Piano, a native of Genoa,  is world renowned for designing the Whitney Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Shard skyscraper in London.


    A peculiarity of this hard-working industrial city, which boasts the busiest port on the Tyrrhenian Sea, is its geological structure. "Genoa is vertical, rocky, steep, and with deep tempestuous waters," Piano pointed out. In fact, tucked between sea and a steep ridge of mountains, the inhabited area of the central city, founded in the 5th Century BCE,  is fairly narrow, which means that the population density there is acute. And that is why the killer bridge, which crossed directly over apartment blocks to connect the two far ends of Genoa, loomed so important when it was built in the Sixties.


    So now what? No one has ever accused the Genovesi of being less than industrious, and the locals, from Mayor Marco Bucci to ordinary citizens, must look ahead to build a viable future for themselves and for their children. Because the collapse of the bridge cut the city in two, subways are being kept open until 1 am, and 42 extra train links have been provided, along with free bus service from Bolzaneto and Rivarolo to Brin.


    "A new road artery reserved to the big trucks will open soon," Mayor Bucci says. "I see a strong will to react, from the people in the factories who have fought to offer us machinery and cranes. The other night the electricity company Ansaldo sent a giant turbine to help out under the bridge. There is the will to react: we have had to face an enormous drama, but we shall give it our best effort. We lost four traffic lanes but will build five."


    A few months ago Enrico Musso, professor at the Department of the Economy of Transportation at Genoa University and a former senator, presented a transportation project that called for new streetcars, more train station stops, advanced connections from airport to town and more links via water. At the time many put down his proposal as a daydream. Now it is being incorporated into a broader proposal on sustainable transport for Genoa, being presented to Mayor Bucci on August 23. Already, plans for a new steel bridge are already being drawn up.


    First, however, the entire broken bridge must be torn down and its huge cement components removed as soon as possible. To do so, the homes of those beneath the bridge will have to be torn down, which means that housing and appropriate funding for their inhabitants must be arranged quickly.


    The Genovesi called the Morandi Bridge their Brooklyn Bridge. The flaws behind the collapse are still being studied by technicians, but at the moment three stand out. First, the steel rods seem to have withered inside their handsome cement casing. Secondly, the techniques utilized to measure the soundness of those rods were outmoded, sometimes simply by tapping a hammer. Third (and this is debated), no one in the Sixties imagine the amount of future stress that would result from the heavily loaded, gigantic trucks passing through Genoa from its port to the rest of Italy.


    The concerns over the collapse have rung alarm bells elsewhere, for, "This could have happened to any of us," said Christophe Berti, editor-in-chief of Le Soir. "The collapse is surely the symbol of an aging Europe, which is losing its image of development and modernity it had back in the Sixties. The tragedy could have struck Belgium, France and any other nation in Europe." Or in the U.S.; as one example, at Fairview Park in the industrial area of Cuyahoga Country a bulky, multi-span bridge has had to be closed and risks demolition. Nearby in Cleveland is the Central Furnaces Bridge, whose western approach has had to be removed, leaving it a bridge to nowhere. And the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Bridge, built in 1956, has been abandoned.


    Life in Genoa goes on. Work on an important new road is now done on three shifts, around the clock; due for completion next April, it is expected to be functional by November. Genoa's famous International boat show, the Salone Nautico, with more than 1,000 boats on view, goes forward as planned from September 20 through 25. At Palazzo Ducale, the center of culture in a deeply cultured city, an exhibition devoted to the great Genovese violinist Nicolò Paganini, born in 1782 begins in October. "This will be an extraordinary occasion for people to know the city, to appreciate an event that involves top contemporary artists, beginning with Ivano Foassati, its curator," says Palazzo Ducale president, the Genoa-born actor Luca Bizzarri.

  • Wall fresco, Priapus
    Art & Culture

    Consolidation Work at Pompeii Reveals New Fresco of Priapus

    ROME -- Working to consolidate a fragile long wall at Pompeii, archaeologists have just discovered a hitherto unknown fresco painting of Priapus, weighing on a scale his huge phallus against a pile of coins. At his feet was a bowl of fruit. "Just one more tale of sex and money," a modern viewer might say with a yawn. But for the ancient Romans living at Pompeii before its destruction in 79 AD, Priapus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes, represented the origin of life itself.


    This is the second painted Priapus found at Pompeii. The other, similarly weighing his phallus, was in the well known House of the Vetti, excavated in the late 1890s. In that roomy house were found both a fresco with a similar Priapus weighing his phallus on a scales, in a doorway entrance, plus a statue of him, probably used in a garden as a fountain. As journalist Antonio Ferrara points out, the door remained open throughout the day so that passersby could not help but take note of the image and hence of the owner's wealth and power.


    Unlike Herculaneum, which lies deep beneath hardened rock, Pompeii is buried no more than ten feet below the surface under a fairly shallow layer of solidified volcanic detritus  (pebbles, dust). Pompeii was therefore relatively easy to excavate, and in fact two-thirds of this rich commercial city are excavated. However, for decades the complex and expensive work of protecting and preserving that already excavated two-thirds of the town has had priority, and no new excavations have been permitted. The problem is that the unexcavated one-third looms as a wall hovering over the excavated houses, temples and roads.


    The Priapus fresco, at the entry way of a  posh villa near the splendidly restored House of Marcus Lucretius Frontone, came as a truly unexpected gift. In the same wealthy household, in addition, a number of other handsome paintings have been found; on a nearby wall is the painted face of a woman -- a matron, the archaeologists call her. Elegant frescoed decorations also cover a wall in a bedroom near a garden area.


    The area abutting the unexcavated part of Pompeii is being shored up during consolidation work underway in Regio V, Insula 6, on the crowded Via del Vesuvio, the long road that crossed Pompeii from North to South. Involved in the current consolidation work are,  along with Via del Vesuvio, the Via dei Balconi (the Street of the Balconies) and the Via delle Nozze d'Argento (the Street of the Silver Wedding). The famous House of the Silver Wedding there is one of the most elaborate of all the villas at Pompeii, but has been closed to the public for decades. Happily its restoration is slated to begin this coming autumn,.


    Massimo Osanna, director general of Pompeii, explains that, "Pompeii is at a turning point in archaeological research, not only for these exceptional finds that literally thrill us, but also because a new scientific and interdisciplinary approach to their study has been adopted." Working together are geologists, architects, vulcanologists, engineers, restorers and specialists in paleobotanics, archeozoologists, physical anthropologists and restorers.  Another example of the results of the new approach, thanks to the current work on consolidation and restoration work, was the discovery last April inside the well known Central Baths of the skeleton of a child of seven or eight. The skeleton was found just a few inches (10 cm) below the surface, and is now under study in the Pompeiian research laboratory.


    The new work on Pompeii comes via the Grande Progetto Pompei, or Great Pompeii Project, passed in 2012, with support from the European Regional Development Fund as well as from the Italian government. The Project, which requires careful oversight of contracts, involves a half dozen Italian ministries together with Italian and other universities and research centers. Among its aims: reduction of hydro-geological risk by securing unexcavated embankments, as along the Via del Vesuvioo; consolidation and restoration of masonry and decorated surfaces throughout the site; protection of buildings from weather exposure; and expansion of video-surveillance.


    Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened, a Story of Rediscovery (I.B. Tauris, London, 2007, 2015)