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Articles by: Judith Harris

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    Despite Some Positive Signs, Italy Wrestles with Weighty Agenda

    Despite its creativity and some positive signs for the economy, Italy's agenda is weighed down by a series of particularly complex problems: a seemingly unstoppable influx of migrants, a public debt that continues to rise, a laggard economy, and corruption scandals that reach into almost unthinkable political and judiciary levels. On the bright side exports are up, the number of those employed has consistently increased since 2013, and industry confidence is also on the rise.

    Taking the problems one by one, the current upsurge in migrants is partly the result of events beyond Italy's control. In recent years Italy was generously lax in allowing migrants more or less easy entry because the arrivals tended to then move on to Northern European countries where they had relatives, such as Scandinavia or Germany. More recently, however, and which explains (if only in part) the sudden increase in migrants arriving on Italian shores and remaining here, is that Germany has cracked down on its arrivals and its expulsions while Spain and Morocco have signed a bilateral agreement limiting those arriving on the Spanish shores.

    Most importantly, the war in Syria makes Italy and especially Greece easier to reach. As of April, around 25,000 migrants, between 30 and 40% more than during the same period last year, had reached Italy, about half of them by sea. April 15, when 2,000 landed within 24 hours, was a particularly bad day. In 2006 Spain received 31,600 migrants from Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco while in 2015 that figure hand dwindled to 874.

    One result is that Italy has joined forces with Germany in seeking an EU mission to stop human smuggling. Together, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti and his German equivalent, Thomas de Maiziere, are promoting an effort to block West African migrants at the Libyan border with Niger. Libya is described as the springboard for those seeking to arrive in Europe, and the question becomes ever more urgent with improvements in weather conditions. Because Libya is crucial, a few Italian  commentators have expressed a certain cynical nostalgia for the Ghedaffi era.

    The migration statistics are painful, but what is worse is evidence–reported widely in Italian media this week–that investigators have found connections between the Calabrian-based 'Ndrangheta and the theft of government contributions for running an asylum center. During a dawn raid May 15 a total of 70 people, including Roman Catholic priest Don Edoardo Scrodio, 70, of Crotone, were arrested on charges that over the past decade a Catholic charity at Isola Capo Rizzuto, which housed some 1,200 migrants, was exploited by mobsters, who ripped off the public funding supposed to pay for migrants' food and laundry. Besides the arrests, police seized some $90 million of property. In 2012 the BBC dubbed the 'Ndrangheta "the biggest cocaine smugglers in the world."

    A more ambiguous scandal has also been haunting Italy: that some charity ships in the Mediterranean near the coast with Libya were actually in collusion with traffickers on land. This accusation was made by a Sicilian prosecutor who acknowledges that the charges have no solid legal basis, but the accusations have seriously damaged the reputation of certain of the rescue operators. And in the meantime the dead at sea have risen by 15% over the past year.

    The latest figures on public debt, as calculated by the Bank of Italy, show that it has risen to an historic level, 2,260.3 billion Euros ($2,504.7 billion), whereas only three months ago it had seemed to be shrinking. Just four weeks ago Fitch, citing "weak economic growth," downgraded Italy's credit rating from "BBB+" to "BBB," which the Financial Times explains is just two notches above speculative-grade. One problem: "banking sector weakness." (See: >>>) And indeed the media here are on a major bank scandal orgy.

    The economy continues to show slower growth than in the rest of Europe. Again citing Bank of Italy statistics of May 10, family consumption is down, and investments are lagging after six years of growth. Unemployment stands under 12%.

    In this litany of problems, the most perplexing to deal with may be immigration–and this, ironically, in a nation which in the last century and a half was itself of migrants who enriched the nations to which the emigrated.

  • Art & Culture

    Viva Arte Viva! The 57th Venice Biennale

    The 57th Venice Biennale, the world's oldest international exhibition of contemporary visual art, opens Saturday May 13 under the theme Viva arte viva, or "Long Live Living Art." Founded in 1895, this prestigious art show-of-shows is expected to attract over 100,000 visitors before it closes Nov. 26. On offer this year are the works of 120 artists from 51 nations. Many are quite young, and 103 of them have never before participated in a Biennale.

    In addition, 86 countries, which include the newcomer nations Antigua and Barbuda, tiny Kiribati and Nigeria, have pavilions showing the work of their own artists. These national pavilions include, representing Italy, three artists Andreotta Calò, Cuoghi and Husny-Bey in what is described by the authoritative critic Achille Bonito Oliva as a "convivial aesthetic dialogue" and "an exclamation of joy and the affirmation of art as the biological breath of all mankind." Curator of the Italian pavilion is Cecilia Alemani, who says her intention is less to give a systematic vision of today's Italian art world, but "more about offering a different kind of experimental platform for artists–a space for taking risks and trying new approaches."

    In the U.S. pavilion is the noted Mark Bradford of Los Angeles, whose work is described as embodying content via abstraction. To this end he utilizes mundane materials such as pickings from LA streets, from Home Depot and from hair salons. A special concern: marginalized people. His work–says his website–reflects "his longtime commitment to the inherently social nature of the material world we all inhabit... Bradford renews the traditions of abstract and materialist painting, demonstrating that freedom from socially presecribed representation is profoundly meaningful in the hands of a black artist. See >>>

    For Paolo Baratta, Biennale president since 2008, "The Biennale is a great institution. It operates in multiple areas, partly for historical reasons, beginning with a theater festival back in 1895, to which were added what were then the 'new visual arts.'" To the Venetian calendar the world's first cinema festival was added in 1932. Later architecture was given its own pavilion within the Biennale, beginning with the exhibition Strada Novissima by architect Paolo Portoghesi. Today the Biennale still includes architecture and cinema as well as visual art, but also a Dance Festival that opens June 23; Theater Festival, July 25; and Biennale Music Festival, Oct. 29. "Multidisciplinarity remains the strong point of the Biennale," says Baratta. "And, beyond the greater of lesser influx of people and glamour, all the activities we produce here are of equal importance for us."

    Exhibition centerpiece is the vast Central Pavilion of the Gardens, whose curator is Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She is not a newcomer; in the past she curated both the French and Belgian pavilions. In selecting the artists to participate this year, Macel focused on the concept of otium, which she interprets not as not laziness, but "that moment of not working–of being available, of laborious inertia, of the work of the spirit, of tranquility, of the kind of inaction that gives birth to a work of art."

    At a time of great world tension, she explains, "Today's art is a testimonial to the most previous part of humanity–[the need for] a perfect place for reflection and freedom, and an alternative to individualism and indifference." Photographs reflecting this otium theme, chosen by curator Macel, are by Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic, who died almost one year ago. From his 1978 series called Artist at Work, several show the artist sound asleep on a cot.

    While curator Macel has searched far and wide for brilliant newcomers to the world art scene, the works of a few world art stars are also on view. From the United Kingdom comes sculptor Phyllida Barlow, 73, whose huge stone shards jutting out from a wall at the six-room British Pavilion, and her outsized weird grey boulders and columns are actually frightening. She has called her exhibition Folly.

    Among the most famous is Olafur Eliasson, 50, born in Copenhagen to parents from Iceland, and with studios in both Copenhagen and Berlin. For the Biennale, Eliasson is putting 40 refugees now living in Italy to work in an "artistic workshop," as he calls it, making lamps of Eliasson's design. In the end the lamps will be sold to help finance his project, which he has named Green Light.  "It's a 'green light' in the sense of a traffic signal saying 'Go,' come forward, you are welcome," he said in an interview in Denmark with Italian journalist Antonella Barina. The goal is to "contribute to the insertion of a group of refugees into society."

    Not all the exhibitions are official. As a veteran of previous Biennali, this reporter can confirm what a thrill it is to be there and to see some of the side shows–to see the very first Vatican pavilion (none this year, however), the exhibition by Yoko Ono (which ended with morning coffee with her), and, best of all, the incredible and deeply moving installations by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, which were half-size models of his imprisonment in China.

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    What's New at the Old Colosseum

    From plastic daggers to 3D adventures, the old Colosseum is up to new tricks, which include an exhibition illustrating its lively post-combat history. Eighteen months ago a police commissioner went to war with Rome's gladiators -- the ones armed with plastic daggers who hang about the Colosseum and the Roman fora so as to be photographed together with tourists willing to pay for the privilege. Rome's Mayor Virginia Raggi backed up this ousting of the faux gladiators in their gilded helmets topped with what looks like a red floor brush.

    Defiant, ten gladiators, forming the association they named  "Centurions Street Artists," took the case to a district court, where they pleaded that, without that income from tourists, they could not feed their families. Guess what: the centurions (the name means an officer in the ancient Roman army who commanded 100 soldiers) won the battle, and last weekend 15 or so were back at work at the Colosseum and near the Arch of Constantine. "They've recognized that we are artists," one boasted to journalists. 

    Truth to tell, this recognition may be only temporary, for the decision in favor of the "gladiators" was based upon a technicality, and the ban may be reimposed by the end of summer. Complaints have come to police that some have turned nasty when tightwad tourists, after being photographed with one of the self-proclaimed street artists, have paid less than the more or less standard price of Euro 5. To this the gladiators respond that they are not the offenders, and to prove it wish to have an official registry so that rough and rude outsiders cannot break into their ranks.

    Colosseum combat remains in the news on other fronts. Mayor Virginia Raggi recently complained that the national government was ripping off Colosseum ticket income and thus harming Rome, which suffers from overstretched finances. The reasoning behind her complaint was that, because the Colosseum has just formally been declared a national archaeological park, its contribution to Rome's income has been slashed.

    Responding in Parliament, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini declared, "This is false! It does not withdraw resources from Rome or the protection of the Roman heritage. Eighty percent of the income from the Colosseum remains in the city, and 20% goes to a solidarity fund for other museums, as has always been the rule." Behind the reform, which reduces Colosseum management from three institutions to one, is an attempt for greater efficiency, he explained. Indeed, its come has increased as the number of visitors to Italian public museums and archaeological sites has surged in two years from 38 million to 45 million.

    The Colosseum was built, beginning in 69 AD, on orders from the Emperor Vespasian. He lived long enough to dedicate it, but before work was finished he was dead. His son Titus made a second inauguration in 80 AD with feasting and shows that went on for 100 days, during which some 5,000 animals were sacrificed. The Colosseum could hold up to 50,000 spectators, among them slaves who watched, standing up in the top gallery. Its outside wall soars 55 yards high, and its staggering size for its time still amazes engineers.

    In March an innovative new exhibition, which explores the life of the monument after the last gladiatorial fight was held there in 523 AD, opened in the Colosseum and continues through January 7, 2018. During the Middle Ages the Colosseum had a lively existance, housing shops, churches and the residences of aristocratic families. The Via Crucis ritual, which began to be performed at Easter time in the 1500s, continues to this day. In the 1700s the Grand Tour poets, writers and artists discovered it, and under their influence the Colosseum became a place of romantic pilgrimage, especially by moonlight (and of malarial mosquitoes). By the end of the 18th century archaeologists had begun excavations and also restorations. The exhibition continues into the 20th century through the Mussolini era, with installations, paintings, photographs, etchings, and physical reproductions. 

    Aside from gladiatorial combat, new under the Colosseum sun is a high-tech startup called Tikidoo, which is offering a real tour of the Colosseum, improved by virtual reality, aimed especially at parents arriving with children. The offer, which depends upon the contribution of 100 licensed tour guides, is actually a lesson in Roman antiquity, and involves both sophisticated teaching aids plus actual visits to the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, in groups of up to 12.

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    Taking Pride in Italy's Outdoor Murales

    Last Friday, April 21, Rome celebrated its traditional birthday, its 2,770th from the day in 753 BCE when legend has it that Romulus founded the city. Among the celebrations was on the Tiber River embankment an outdoor concert dedicated to William Kentridge, the artist who had created, for the previous year's birthday fete, a 1,804-feet long frieze illustrating some 90 crucial moments in the history of Rome, see >>>. The performance, which took place below Kentridge's paintings at the edge of the river between the Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini, was directed by Roberto Gabbiani with solists from the Rome Opera and an 85-member chorus, accompanied by two pianists and five percussionists.

     

    Kentridge's mural "Triumphs and Laments" has been called the artist's most ambitious project yet, and Rome's largest. Its procession of Romans over time shows gods, heroes and men -- some good, some bad. Sponsor for the work, which required a dozen years of planning, was Tevereterno Onlus, a non-profit association that promotes improvements to the Tiber River area. Financing came also through crowdfunding.

     

    Born in 1955 in South Africa, Kentridge is noted for his prints, drawings -- often in charcoal -- and animated films. In gallery sales worldwide Kentridge's works command huge sums, including in the U.S., where Calvin Tomkins profiled him for New Yorker magazine in 2010. He is fond of Italy: in 2012, prior to his Tiber River frieze, he created a large sculpture in steel, "Il cavaliere di Toledo" (The Toledo Cavalier), located at the corner of Via Toledo and Via Diaz in Naples, adjacent to the city's subway station, famous for its lobby, a mini-archaeological museum.

    The technique Kentridge used for his Tiber River procession is "reverse graffiti," also called "erasing." To create the figures he utilized stencils that covered the accumulated filth on the walls, after which , the entire surrounding wall area was power-washed clean. Within a few years, therefore, the stenciled figures that are made of filth will themselves dissolve within new layers of pollution deposits.

     

    Before this can happen, however, graffiti vandals moved in almost immediately, putting their spray paint to work right on top of Kentridge's. Every day we who live in Italy are confronted by such graffiti vandalism, as in commuter trains whose windows are sometimes so overpainted with rubbish that the rider cannot see out. But on the other hand, serious outdoor wall murals also exist, and increasingly are attracting notice throughout Italy.

     

    In Rome, ten professional "street artists" have left large, colorful mural paintings -- dubbed "murales d'autore" -- along the otherwise bleak walls of the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA), the ring road that encircles the city. Their work near the elevated highways, entrances to and inside the walls of tunnels is sponsored by the road works authority ANAS with the blessing of the Culture Ministry. Among these street artists is Lucamaleonte of Rome, whose "Eden Effect" evokes the natural world of birds, flowers, animals. Another is by Spanish artist Julieta XLF, on a wall by the Via Aurelia, where she has painted a wolf and a siren, signifying the meeting and possible clash between East and West with a nod to Italian Etruscan art.

    The startling French artist Veks Van Hillik depicted the Roman wolf, symbolizing the nearby countryside endangered by rampant over-construction. Roman artist Mauro Pallotta re-interprets Roman baroque on a wall, while Camilla Falsini's skulls of oxen alligned on an altar refer to the sacrifices of Roman antiquity. Chekos is an artist from Lecce whose huge heads, under a bridge at Tor Vergata, are inspired by Nero and Agrippina. And the Florentine duo Furan and Camilo Nunez, both originally from Uruguay, on the GRA near the Via Trionfale, honor the memory of a six-year-old girl, depicted like a young saint.

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    Lampedusa Mayor Giusy Nicolini, SOS Mediterranee Win Unesco Prize

    ROME -- The UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize for peace research went April 19 to Giusy Nicolini, mayor of the isle of Lampedusa, for her work in saving the lives of countless refugees and migrants. "Since she was elected in 2012, Nicolini has distinguished herself for her sense of humanity and her constant commitment in managing the refugee crisis and in their integration after the arrival of thousands on Lampedusa and elsewhere in Italy," said the jury motivation.

     

    "To be awarded a prize with this motivation," she said in receiving the award, "gives us hope for solidarity in Europe, where a sense of humanity has not disappeared, even though this is a moment when borders are being closed and walls raised as people speak of an invasion that does not exist. In that way we ourselves are at risk of drowning together with the refugees and migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea." Mayor Nicolini dedicated the prize to Gabriele del Grande, the brilliant Italian journalist and film director who has been brutally imprisoned in Mugla, Turkey, for having interviewed Syrian migrants on the border there. Del Grande is still detained by Turkish police and at present is conducting a hunger strike.

     

    Mayor Nicolini also had words of praise for Pope Francis, who made a pastoral visit to Lampedusa in July 2013 and placed wreaths in the water to honor those who had died. "He is the only one with clear ideas," said Nicolini on Rai Radio 3. "I hope that his teachings will illuminate the minds of the governers and of those Europeans who are to be voting shortly."

     

    Mayor Nicolini shares the prestigious award with SOS Mediterranee, the European association which works to assist the needy in the Mediterranean Sea. Previous winners of the Prize, which was created in 1989, include, for their efforts in seeking peaceful solutions to crises, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat and Francois Hollande.

     

    One of those migrants who drowned en route to the northern shores of the Mediterranean was Hamedu Baji of the Gambia. The eldest child of a blind man, he was a gifted soccer player but, after graduating from high school, could find no job at home, yet had to support his family. As a result he set out across the Sahara desert for Libya. After two months he was able to find a boat to cross the sea in hopes of finding work, but en route he and two companions drowned. He was not alone: during Easter week at least 663 refugees and migrants drowned, mostly when their rickety rubber boats -- which have a limited life span in the best of times -- sank during the crossing, mainly from ports in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa.

     

    Hamedu was a victim of the fair weather of the Easter week, which brought an upsurge of frail boats into the Mediterranean, with 5,000 arrivals over the holiday period. This brings the total arrivals during the first four months this year to around 27,000 --  24% more than during the same period in 2016. Among them were at least 2,300 unaccompanied minors. According to the Ismu Foundation, which studies multi-ethnic issues, 176,470 recent migrants are now living in temporary quarters in Italy. Of these, some 121,000 have formally requested asylum, up 46% over 2015.

     

    Clandestine immigration remains illegal. On April 12 the Italian Chamber of Deputies passed a new law, 240 to 176, which creates Centri di permanenza per il rimpatrio (Reception Centers for Repatriation), The new detention centers, one for every Italian region, are to be located relatively far f from large cities and town, and intentionally near transportation services so as  to facilitate the return of undesired migrants to their homelands. (This requirement is not facilitated by the fact that many arrivals lack documentation showing their country of origin, in part because the traffickers steal their documents.) Those migrants accepted for asylum can, if willing, work without pay in "jobs of public usefulness," according to the new law.

     

    The law creating detention centers has been widely criticized, however. A spokeman for the Italian branch of Caritas, Oliviero Forti, called it "a step backward" for weakening the level of protection for those legitimately seeking asylum. In the Senate, a bill was also introduced that would create channels for the regular entry for foreigners and which would allow legal migrants the right to vote in administrative elections. Promoting that bill is Emma Bonino, Italy's former foreign secretary and today the leader of the Radical Party. In an address to the Partito Democratico (PD) meeting in Turin March 16, Bonino said that "the migrants are a resource" and what is needed to deal with the problem are "original ideas."

     

    Radical Party Secretary Riccardo Magi points out that those, like the vice president of the Chamber of deputies, Luigi Di Maio, who conflate immigration and crime, "would do better to document themselves on the facts: recent studies show that legal migrants in Italy are no more likely than Italians themselves to be involved in criminal activities."

     

    On Wednesday a campaign was launched called "Ero straniero -- L'umanità che fa bene" (I was a stranger -- Humanity that does good), promoted by Oxfam Italy and a coalition of Italian mayors and citizen and church groups. "Ours is a battle for civilization," was one comment. "If we lose the values of our history, we will move backward 500 years. Accepting migrants is to respect humanity and human rights."

     

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    Renzo Arbore: "The Mythical Totò Changed Our lives For the Better"

    The Italian movie star most in the news these days is none other than the actor Totò, who died 50 years ago on April 15. The commemorations are extraordinary. Italy is dedicating the month of May, the annual Monuments Month, to Totò. Also on the grand scale, the city of Naples is creating a museum in his honor in the historic Palazzo dello Spagnuolo. On April 5, following a proposal by his admirer Renzo Arbore, the University Federico II of Naples granted Totò a posthumous degree, followed by a special broadcast April 16 on Italian state TV Rai2. For Arbore, "Totò was my myth, an artist who changed our lives for the better." Newsmagazines are full of tributes, and even our little town of Trevignano Romano, pop. 6,000, offered a free, month-long series of showings of Totò's less well-known films.

     

    Totò was born February15, 1898, in the notorious dirt-poor, crowded and lively Neapolitan slum Rione Sanità. He was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Giuseppe De Curtis, and a beautiful street-poor beauty just 16 years old, Anna Clemente. Supposedly due to Giuseppe's father's wrath at their social gap, for decades Giuseppe refused to recognize his son. From time to time Totò's father would make handsome presents to her, but otherwise gave her and her son little financial help. To make ends meet, his mother, Anna, worked from home as a dressmaker.

     

    Only when that irascible grandfather died in 1921 did the couple finally marry. (See >>>.) In 1928, when Totò was 30 years of age, his father, Giuseppe, finally recognized him formally, but further judiciary trials were in store, and only in 1945 was the complicated story straightened out. At that point Totò acquired countless fancy names, plus a title:

     

    Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo, Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio, Altezza Imperiale, Conte Palatino, Cavaliere del Sacro Romano Impero, esarca di Ravenna, duca di Macedonia e Illiria, principe di Costantinopoli, di Cicilia, di Tessaglia, di Ponto, di Moldavia, di Dardania, del Peloponneso, conte di Cipro e di Epiro, conte e duca di Drivasto e di Duraz.

     

    Still, in the end Totò was most often known locally and simply (or not so simply) as Prince Antonio De Curtis. At 15, taking the stage name Clermont, the boy had made his acting debut in a local theater. He continued to appear on stage in Naples in comedies that reflected the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte. This is improvised comedy developed in the 16th century, in which a stock characters appear and reappear: "devious servants, old men, lovers and captains." In that form of theater, the exaggeration of character traits is fundamental. Popular in France as well as Italy, the Neapolitans added to it Pulcinello, the character who became, in England, Punch, as in the Punch and Judy shows. Part of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" was inspired by the commedia, as are the trio of characters painted by Picasso in "The Three Musicians" (1921). See at this link >>>.

     

    By 1932 Totò was successful enough to have his own company in Naples and five years later made his film debut in "Fermo con le mani!" (Keep your hands still!). With Italy's entry into World War II, he volunteered as a soldier, but was so terrified that, in an improvised performance, he feigned a heart attack and was released from the military, transferring to work on the railroads. At war's end he returned to the theater, becoming acquainted with the great actors Eduardo De Filippo and his brother Peppino.

     

    He had little cinema success, however, until the Fifties, when he was already starring in such films as "Guardie e ladri" (Cops and Robbers). Even then he maintained something of the Commedia dell'Arte, by clinging to a certain style of mechanical, marionette-like action, always wearing the same outfit: tight trousers, derby hat, brightly colored sox. His father had died in 1944 and, with her son's success, his mother converted her dressmaking business into a theatrical agency representing her son. Totò himself became a notorious womanizer, keeping a cot in his dressing room, "just in case" (again, according to his web page).

     

    Given this theatrical heritage, it would be easy to put Totò down to simplistic comedy. But he was not merely a comedian, for he managed to incorporate into the whacky exaggerations of the Commedia dell'Arte a moving and often subtle degree of humanity -- a sense of poignancy and even tragedy.

     

    Totò died in Rome of a heart attack. As one of his mourners, a fellow actor, recorded, "He was the last of the great actors of the Commedia dell'Arte." He is survived by his daughter, Liliana De Curtis. Six minutes of his funeral, as reported on Telegiornale new film, along with segments from his films, can be seen at this link.

     

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    As Ever, Crowds Flock Into Rome at Easter Time

    Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is celebrated today the Sunday before Easter, initiating Holy Week. Its name originates from the Gospel story where revelers waved palms branches towards the Messiah as he entered into the city on a donkey. The palms represent the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, but the donkey is a representation of Jesus’ humility and humbleness. 

    As Holy Week begins in Rome, the city is sunny and bright, buds are bursting from the trees, and tourists and pilgrims from all over the world are jamming the streets. Rarely has the Eternal City seen such an invasion of visitors. Statistics are not yet in for 2017, but last November over 1.2 million visited Rome. Of these, the Americans were in the lead, with an almost 5% increase over the previous year, followed by the Japanese and the British, similarly rising in numbers. They come for the museums and monuments, and among the drawing cards are a number of important exhibitions.

    But they also arrive for the religious rites, in part thanks to the continuing extraordinary popularity of Pope Francis. Following the Pontiff's Lenten retreat at little Ariccia outside Rome, he made a pastoral visit to Milan, where he was seen by over one million, and another April 2 to Carpi, also in northern Italy. On Palm Sunday April 9 he conducts a Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square and another on Holy Thursday, April 13, in St. Peter's Basilica. On Good Friday April 14 he celebrates an afternoon liturgy in St. Peter's and, that evening, the traditional Way of the Cross, also known as Stations of the Cross, in the Colosseum. The Easter Vigil begins at 8:30 pm in the Basilica on Saturday, April 15, while on Easter Sunday morning he celebrates a morning mass in St. Peter's Square, followed by the traditional papal blessing "Urbi et Orbi", or "to the city and the world."

    High on the secular schedule is the fascinating exhibition I Fori dopo i Fori (The Forums after the Forums). Inside the semi-circular, multi-storied forum built by the Emperor Trajan is what the archaeologists describe as evidence of daily life after the fall of Rome, or from the early Middle Ages through the Renaissance and the early 1930s. Over time craft workshops were tucked into some ot the old forum buildings, and churches and homes built atop crumbled layers of antiquity. Here too Giotto, Michelangelo, Giulio Romano and other great artists had homes, some of them subsequently destroyed to make room for other buildings. "Our goal," said Claudio Parisi Presicce, curator of the exhibit, "is to show that life in the Forums did not end in 113 AD, but continued until our own day."

    Beginning in 1932 Mussolini dug straight through the ancient Roman Forum area and its neighborhood of homes and churches, to create a broad (not to say pompous) parade avenue connecting Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. Today that avenue, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, partly lined with gardens, is being gradually narrowed as archaeologists recover forum areas that had been buried to build it.

    "In the course of almost three decades of excavating we removed literally ton upon ton of earth," said archaeologist Roberto Meneghini. Searching through those tons of dirt, he and his colleagues recovered a wealth of material dating from late antiquity through almost the present. Of all this, 320 objects are on view for the first time: pieces of carved ancient marble, painted medieval pottery from an orphanage once located on the site, a jug full of precious coins hidden away for safe-keeping, silver teaspoons, bits of jewelry.

    A second fascinating new exhibition, Colosseo: Un'icone (Colosseum, An Icon), tells the story of that building and its impact upon literature, art and even sociology. Like the Trajan's Forum exhibit, it tells the story of what happened after 523 AD, when it was no longer in use as a gladiatorial arena, and into our own day.

    For a time the Colosseum was used as a stone quarry. Its arches -- like those at Trajan's Forum -- served as animal stalls, workshops for craftsmen and homes for people. Some of these were even luxurious, according to catalogue authors Rossella Rea, Serena Romano, and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani. Above lived the Frangipane, who occupied the building from the 12th Century for two centuries, and transformed a part of the Colosseum innards into a hospital.

    Much of the exhibition is based upon new findings, and many of the objects and documents are displayed for the first time. On view is a model of the Colosseum created in the late 18th Century by Carlo Lucangeli, along with historical photographs, modern conceptual versions including by pop artists, and movie sequences from the archives of the Istituto Luce at Cinecittà.

  • The latest edition of Vinum in Alba (Piedmont)
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    Times Change, But Italy Still Kicks Up a Culinary Storm

    The big news in our little village of Trevignano Romano, 25 miles north of Rome, was that Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia was filming in one of the myriad nice cafes here.

    "Why in such a small town?" I asked, perhaps ingenuously. My tall Italian friend responded: "Food, I'm guessing. When Garcia ate in a restaurant here last year, he and his wife liked the food so much that she had the chef prepare a box of veggies and salad to take back home, to show their friends how real food should taste. 

    "I know because I waited on their table." It happens that the traditional lakefront restaurant in question has a garden where their own vegetables and salads are grown. That particular restaurant, moreover, is all hidebound tradition, and its menu has not changed in a quarter century, which is why its patrons love it. 

    But there is also the new in Italian cuisine. Culinary expert Maureen B. Fant, an American who lives in Rome, together with archaeologist Elizabeth Bartman conducts throughout Italy what they call "Elifant Archaeo-Culinary Tours." They are dedicated, says Fant, "to the kind of travel we like to do ourselves: visits to ancient remains punctuated by great meals and other food adventures." Archaeology wedded to cuisine: what could be more delightful?

    I asked Fant what, in her travels, she is finding that is new on the Italian culinary scene. "A certain amount of blending Asian concepts with Italian tradition is one trend," she said, "like the tunnied veal bundles I was served in a miso broth, in a Michelin-starred restaurant."

    More in general, she is also is noticing a "loosening of meal structures, partly due to modern life, partly to international travel by young Italians and tourists demanding food at all hours. Also, people just want to eat less, or less traditionally." 

    Another trend is street food, she reports, like the stall near the Testaccio market in Rome called "Strit Fud." It is not strictly speaking street food, she says -- "Rome has never had that save for squares of pizza and ice cream" -- but traditional snacks, like an omelette (frittata) with pasta. 

    Another newcomer is the "apericena" -- the traditional aperitif of a glass of wine or prosecco enriched with abundant snacks, sometimes from a buffet. This comes at the end of a work day, and, by comparison with a restaurant dinner, is inexpensive and fairly speedy. 

    Nevertheless, and despite the invasion of paninoteche that hustle sandwiches to tourists in downtown Rome, high quality food continues to thrive in Italy. This weekend, for instance, in the castles at Monferrato, in Piedmont, the 11th edition of Golosaria takes place (the name comes from goloso, which means "gluttonous," but in a friendly way).

    During the two-day event, organized by the Club di Papillon, visitors will be treated to tasting menus but also to samplings of street food, accompanied by sports events and even a lecture on the arcane team sport of tamburello, actually played in a frescoed hall of the Castello di Morsasco

    Too late to arrange to be there? Then consider trotting up to Alba, of the white truffles, for the celebration of Piedmontese wines at Vinum 2017. Or wait for early autumn, which brings the festival called, simply, CHEESE, at Bra, organized by the city together with the Slow Food Italia organization. Besides a gigantic market of all kinds of cheese from all over the world, CHEESE will offer debates, tastings and lectures.

    Perhaps the reader will have noticed that Piedmont is also the home of Nutella, made from hazelnuts and chocolate. A new addition, derived from the past, is hazelnut oil, l'olio di nocciola. Because olive oil was wildly expensive, the less affluent farmers made their own oil from hazelnuts.

    That oil has now been rediscovered. "It all began when I was a student in the year 2000," says Mattia Pariani. After studying traditional techniques for food preservation at the Agrarian Department at the University of Turin, Pariani and two friends opened a laboratory in what had been a shoe shop. Today their old-new oil is exported to 24 countries. 

    Traditional foods continue to rule the culinary roost, of course. This weekend Rome hosts what is being called the Città della Pizza ("Pizza City") inside former military barracks on Via Guido Reni, where top chefs will conduct workshops in making pizza, give lectures and offer samplings (for workshop reservations, see www.cittadellapizza.it).

    This arch-traditional Italian food, which originates from Naples, is more popular than ever. Some 11,300 pizzeries exist in Rome alone, and the numbers continue to rise. Special recognition is going to Marzia Buzzanca, the first to reopen an eaterie of any kind in L'Aquila after the devastating earthquake there in 2009.

    In Milan, the daily Corriere della Sera is hosting a weekend event called Cibo e Regola d'Arte, which translates roughly into "Food and State of the Art." Forty events are on offer, under the watchful eyes of food writers and pastry gurus plus eminent chefs including vegan chef Simone Salvini.

    A novelty: a international prize is being awarded for the best food blogs. Called the Cucina Blog Award, it is offered by the newspaper, sponsored by Pasta Garofalo and Zonin1821. The six categories: Pastry, Wine and Spirits, Photo & Instagram, Writing, Social, Health. The winning "Blog of the Year", voted by some 3,000 Corriere readers and by a jury of culinary technicians, will be announced April 1. 

     

  • Bracciano Lake
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    At Risk: Lake Bracciano As Water Level Plummets

    One of Italy's most beautiful and least polluted lakes is at serious risk of drying up. The water level of Lake Bracciano, 20 miles north of Rome, has fallen by almost 6 feet in the past two years. Because this is still wintertime, experts predict that the water level will sink further in coming month because global warming, by raising the atmospheric temperature, means that more water than ever before evaporates with sunlight, especially in summer. As a headline in the daily Corriere della Sera declared ominously March 12, "Lake Bracciano is disappearing." The normal drop in the water level has been of only 3 feet annually for the past half century.

    Emiliano Minnucci, member of Parliament for the Partito Democratic, raised the question in Parliament with a formal interrogation addressed to Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti and to Graziano Delrio, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. "The continuous taking of lake water by Acea Ato2 is dramatic," Minnucci said. "The lake is at risk of dying because of this.... For Acea our lake is a bottomless resource, but this is no longer tolerable."

    Through Acea, the water from Lake Bracciano feeds the aqueducts of both Rome itself, with its almost three million inhabitants, and Civitavecchia, with its population of 63,000. For this reason, the water is regularly monitored for reasons of health.  Acea's defense is that it obeys the current rules for withdrawing lake water, an assertion disputed by environmentalists. The company "fully respects the contracts for concession of management of hydric service stipulated in June 1990," said an Acea spokesperson.    

    Nevertheless, concerned hydrologists, environmentalists and geologists speaking at a conference on the endangered lake held March 11 at Anguillara Sabazia, one of the lake's three townships, agreed that the danger is real. As a result of the severe drop in the water level, the underwater plants near the shore -- some extremely rare -- which feed the lake fish are left to dry and die, they warned. As the water recedes, the shoreline plants push inward, but the water bed there is already crowded, and so the plants, and hence the fish food, and the fish, die out.

    Birds too are affected. Some lay eggs on little floating nests near the shoreline or just on it. As the shoreline recedes, foxes, rats and people too seize their eggs. "This level of stress has not been seen in centuries," said Mattia Azella of "La Sapienza" Rome University. "The lake is a habitat for vegetation, with seventeen species of underwater plants, some extremely rare. It is unique in Europe."

    In addition, given its rich volcanic soil and gentle climate, the area is noted as a supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables for Rome. Here the problem is that the open fields and greenhouses are being irrigated with lake water drawn from wells drilled -- many illegally -- up to 1500 feet below the surface. At the Anguillara conference it was reported that up to 60% of the water lost in recent years is from this kind of irrigation.

    "That loss could be cut in half with improved technology," said Prof. Riccardo Valentini, climatologist at the Tuscia University in Viterbo, former researcher at the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California. "The irrigation is overdone. It's like overfeeding a child, just in case."
    The equilibirum between lake input from the water sources -- that is, rainwater and underground springs -- and output has been lost, in short.

    Lake Bracciano is almost penny-round, with a  surface that covers almost 22 square miles, and a maximum depth of perhaps 525 feet. Encircling it for 17 miles is a narrow road, believed to have been first built by the ancient Romans, and today a favorite of Sunday cyclists. All is overlooked by a single quiescent volcano high above Trevignano, Monte Rocca Romana.

    In the deep past the water sources feeding into the lake included three small lakes to the east, situated upon slightly higher terrain. Of the three, today only one remains: tiny Lake Martignano. Today's main source thus remains rainwater, which pours down into the lake from the ring of hills around the basin, and especially from the  northern lake shore of Trevignano Romano and Vicarello, a nearby promontory. Rainwater also feeds the myriad underground springs in the lake, whose bubbles surging up to the surface are readily visible and even felt underfoot while wading in the water.

    Lake Bracciano was created by what scientists call "tectonic collapse," when a gigantic magma chamber, emptied of its lava by millennia of exploding nearby volcanoes, caved in upon itself perhaps 600,000 years ago. Due to its volcanic origins, for over a mile the shore of Trevignano Romano is lined with a retaining wall of gigantic black boulders that had been wrenched from the basalt rock walls of the volcanoes.

    For the ancient Romans, this was Lacus Sabatinus, named perhaps for "Sabus" or "Sabatio," a divine precursor to Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, religious ecstasy and madness too. Livy relates in his Volume 6 of The History of Rome that the people of Sabatia were made Roman citizens in 387 BCE as members of the "Tribus Sabatina", one of twenty-two "rural tribes" represented in the Roman Senate. Gradually Sabatia came to be considered almost as important as Caere, today's Cerveteri, on the seacoast.

  • Op-Eds

    Celebrating International Woman's Day Italian Style

    Rugby is not the only battle being promoted for March 8. The Culture Ministry offers women free entry to all Italian state museums on that day. In addition, a poetry competition whose first prize is E 1,500 is announced this week and dedicated to "Work insecurity: reflections in the eyes of women." Its focus is, not women managers and other professionals, but the often rough experiences of caregivers, babysitters and others who have held less upmarket jobs. The all-female jury, made up of journalists, poets and a delegate from the Labor Ministry's law office, is co-sponsored by the Anmil Women's Group. For details, see >>>

    Migrant women workers here are particularly vulnerable. Magdalena Jarczak, then 20, came from Poland in 2001. An accountant but just then jobless, she and her sister, 19, were promised by a recruiter that, working just three months on a nice farm in Italy, they would earn enough to live an entire year at home, and enjoy benefits: a regular contract, free accommodation, travel expenses reimbursed. In this way they found themselves working on a farm ten-hour days for "months of hell, without a break -- and the bosses who'd taken away our passports pocketed the money," she told an interviewer >>>

    Jarczak took special care, despite the long days of heavy field work, to learn Italian. In this way she overheard the bosses saying that she and her sister were about to be put into prostitution. In the dead of night the two fled. Knocking on the door of a house, they found an elderly couple, who, despite being obviously frightened, kindly took them in, hid and helped them. Jarczak now is provincial secretary for the CGIL union group which protects agricultural workers at Rignano Garganico near Foggia, close to where she herself had worked at 20. Today she is married and has three children. "The battle for rights is still difficult," she says. On occasion she takes her two eldest youngsters with her to visit farm workers. "They have to know that bad things exist in the world but I want them to have a brighter future."

     

    Over all, men in Italy still earn 1.8% more than do women, and female start-ups are only 13% of the total so far this year. Italian women riding the crest of the wave are not in short suppply, of course. Lucia Annunziata, 67, journalist and author, continues as among Italy's most authoritative talk show hosts for her RaiTV3 heavily political broadcast "In Mezz'Ora" (In half an hour). She also writes a political comment for La Stampa. In the deep past she was in the US as correspondent and also served for a time as president of Rai and then director of Tg3.

     

    Another success story is Federica Zanon, a chef who won a top slot in last year's National Federation of Chefs culinary championship. Her entry in the section Artistic Culinary Art was a painting in fragrant herbs, which she called "The Divinity of Flowers." Actress Carolina Crescentini, 37, a graduate of Rome's Centro Sperimentale, has appeared in fourteen films and was nomated for a David di Donatello Best Supporting Actress in 2008 for her role in Parlami d'Amore (Speak to Me of Love) directed by Silvio Muccino.

     

    For most Italian women, however, statistics show that finding a job as a manual worker has become more difficult than in the past as deindustrialization has taken its toll. Experts acknowledge that Italy has been slower than other European countries to shift women into the workplace where higher skills are requested. To quote Sonia Bertolini, sociologist with the University of Turin, non -qualified service jobs still prevail. We need to develop soft skills, she told an interviewer with La Repubblica. "We are convinced that we can do it alone and that our individual relational skills will sufffice. Instead we have to learn to privilege group output -- skills that are not yet being taught."

     

    On the other hand, says Francesca Contardi, head of EasyHunters agency and a former teacher at University Lius of Castellanza, near Varese: " For women, the reduction of manual labor jobs with limited added value, and the consequent increase in activities with higher intellectual and relational quality, are an opportunity to acquire a greater presence in the work place."

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