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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Center-left Party Splinter Weakens Italy

    Thanks to recalcitrant old leaders, the ruling Partito Democratico (PD), until only recently Italy's largest single party with about 40% of the electorate, has split into two. The leaders most responsible for creation of the new splinter party are two old-style leftists, Pier Luigi Bersani and Massimo D'Alema, who served as Italian premier from 1998 - 2000. As a result, the PD finds itself on the verge, if not of a nervous breakdown, of a new party congress expected to express new party leaders. Congress candidates to succeed former party leader (and former Premier) Matteo Renzi include Renzi himself, as well as Orlando and Emiliano.

     

    No one can take lightly the splintering of the center-left party that has dominated Italian politics for the past three years under Renzi, whose government was expected to bring youthful energy and reforms to a nation in severe economic decline. With the weakened PD, Beppe Grillo, head of the feisty Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), finds his party in pole position for a future government role. Before the split had come warnings of this, which went ignored. As one commentator noted, "Grillo is certainly the only one who can smile in a situation like this."

     

    Grillo, however, comes with his own problems. He remains under attack from some of his warriors, who accuse him of being less than democratic in administering his party, which he likes to define as only a "movement". Secondly, the M5S administration of the city of Rome --its most important and high visibility test under actual rather than rhetorical political terms -- has been less than successful under Mayor Virginia Raggi. She has lost an impressive number of her closest political consultants to scandal and judiciary investigations.

     

    The new party, born just this past week, has been baptized the Movimento dei Democratici e Progressisti (Democrats and Progressives Movement, MDP). Tallies of possible (but ever more difficult) future coalitions are already being made, based upon new polls. Results of the most recent, by Cartabianca for Rai3, indicated Feb. 28 that the M5S is the largest single party in Italy at 27%. The split slips support of the remaining PD down to 23% while the new Bersani-D'Alema left, or MDP, collects only 8%. Silvio Berlusconi, back again on the scene with Forza Italia, polls better, at 13%, but this is exactly the same result as for the Northern League (under Matteo Salvini, no longer particularly northern). None of the other five parties claims more than 5%.

     

    Speaking on a TV talk show last week on his return from a visit to Calfornia, Renzi publicly blamed D'Alema for the split. "It was conceived, written and produced by Massimo D'Alema." They could not tolerate anyone but one of their own running the PD, he added, even though today's problems for the left are called Trump and Le Pen. "I'd actually been wanting to leave politics for a long time but my wife and children, after some hot debating, talked me out of it. My children have to kow that their father can lose, but will not surrender. OK, so I lost this game -- let's see what happens in the next."

     

    Bersani defends the split by saying that it was Renzi "who did it all himself, the meltdown of the party [the PD]." There was nothing personal about it: "Renzi destroyed the PD, he emptied it of its democratic contents and weakened its ideals and political inspiration." For his part, D'Alema said that Renzi "must answer for how he governed the nation. I have trouble following Renzi -- I want to discuss serious problems. The party splinters do not interest citizens, the split had already taken place as millions of PD voters had already left the party, especially the leftist electorate. What we are doing is to put forward a constituency of the center-left that brings these forces back and gives them back pride in belonging to a real movement -- pride that was lost as the PD slid away from certain values."

     

    To obtain its 8%, the splinter has acquired more splinters. It seems to have the backing of those who had already left two years ago to form, under Nichi Vendola, the respected Sinistra Ecologia Libertà party (SEL), but which was itself dissolved last December.

     

    Renzi's election followed an historic election in February 2013, which showed the country split into three: the M5S and coalitions of the center-left and center-right. For the first year Enrico Letta governed, but was succeeded by Renzi in February 2014, heading Italy's 63d government in the 70 years since 1946. His successor, Premier Paolo Gentiloni, has to carry on, facing serious economic hurdles, including youth unemployment at 40%, lack of investments, and EU demands for Italy to reduce its gigantic public debt.

    Gentiloni enjoys the backing of Italian President Sergio Mattarella, opposed to early national general elections before the legislature ends after five years in early 2018. On the plus side, inflation in Italy now stands at 1.5%, preferable to deflation, and despite pressures from many quarters (including Renzi), elections are postponed until at least this autumn. The question remains of which rules will govern the elections, however. At present there has been no reconciliation of the two different laws in force in the Chamber and the Senate.

  • Proposed new stadium, with skyscrapers, culture-commercial center
    Op-Eds

    New Soccer Stadium for Rome? A Decision Approaches

    Many here agree that Rome needs a new stadium for soccer matches (in Italy, "football"). The prime reason for promoting a new stadium is that the Olympic Stadium, currently home for both Rome's rival Serie A soccer teams - AS Roma and SS Lazio - is not ideally suited for soccer matches. The result has been a remarkable degree of support across the board for the project, including from the powerful city hall management, the Soprintendenza.

     

    Initially Beppe Grillo and many in his Five Star Movement were opposed, but in recent weeks the position of Grillo himself and of the M5S mayor of Rome, Viginia Raggi, seemed to soften. With polls showing that six out of ten Romans want the new stadium, Grillo himself came personally to Rome this week to participate in the debate on the issue.

     

    The existing stadium, Rome's largest, is located at the Foro Italico complex, along the Tiber River just two miles from the Vatican. Its construction dates from the Mussolini era. Begun in 1928, its first tier was completed in 1932, and the whole opened for business only in 1953, in time for the for the Olympic games of 1960. Since then, it has hosted countless important soccer matches as well as other events, including rugby matches and concerts. In 1990 it was restructured and given a roof before it hosted six of the FIFA World Cup matches. Its last restyling was only seven years ago.

     

    For various reasons it is underutilized, however. With a capacity of well over 72,000, average soccer game attendance runs only half that, or between 35,000 and 40,000 for the Roma team, and a shade fewer for Lazio. For soccer, its grassy playing field is fine, but the field is surrounded by a broad six-lane athletics track. This track means that fans are seated at a relative distance from the game. Soccer fans, especially if seated in the upper tiers, are frustrated because they have limited viewing.

     

    In addition, there is a serious problem of traffic: in an area so close to the center of downtown Rome, this is congested even without the arrival of tens of thousands of soccer fans. A further aggravation is that public transportation facilities there are poor, with no nearby subway stop and only limited bus service. The proposed new stadium is more accessible, near a subway line.

     

    The cost of the new and more tightly focussed stadium, with steeper walls, seating 56,000 and no surrounding athletics track, is estimated at E1.2 billion ($1.26 billion). To be built in Roman outskirts at Tor di Valle, the project was initially proposed by Raggi's predecessor, Ignazio Marino, in 2014. Designed by American architect Dan Meis, it would be flanked by a public park, three skyscrapers and an entertainment area.

    Those promoting its construction say that it will foster economic development and help Italy in future bids to host European championships, while also bringing improvements to an otherwise rundown Roman neighborhood. That it would rise far from the center of town is a plus, in the sense that it would keep the huge crowds farther from the historical sites, but its opponents warn that the area is close to the Tiber and could make it subject to flooding.

     

    A top supporter is Francesco Totti, Italy's superstar soccer player and captain of AS Roma. "Let's do this stadium," he wrote Mayor Raggi on Facebook, in Roman dialect ("Famo sto stadio"). She replied in the same dialect: "Let's do this stadium" but added "while respecting the rules." ("Famostostadio nel rispetto delle regole").

    After having initially rejected it, Rome Mayor Raggi came around to supporting the new stadium, and two weeks ago sent a cordial note to Totti. He replied on Facebook #FamoStoStadio, that "I'll be happy to meet her, and maybe even toast the definitive okay for the new stadium which, I am sure, will be coming soon."

     

    Negotiations continue, with a possible final decision expected by March 3, or in time for the 2020 - 2021 season, as a hopeful Umberto Gandini, manager of AS Roma, told reporters earlier this week. However, negative opinions have arrived from the law office of the city of Rome as well as the Soprintendenza for Archaeology, in opposition to the Capitoline Soprintendenza.

     

    This Friday AS Roma and the politicians from Rome meet again for discussions about the project. "Will it get built? Maybe yes, maybe no," sentenced the conservative daily Il Foglio on Feb. 22. In fact, for the moment all is up in the air. City officials are echoing Raggi in saying, that if built, the stadium must be "within the rules," though what this means is unclear. "It's a TV soap opera," said Il Foglio. The no's seem to be slipping ahead. Despite Grillo's having said the other day that, "We can't say no to everything all the time," anti-stadium feeling had grown within his party. All he will say is, "It's up the Mayor Raggi." 

  • Op-Eds

    Preserving and Promoting Italy's Ancient Borghi

    In the library of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini formally proclaimed the year 2017 as the Year of the Borghi, devoted to promoting and preserving Italy's 1,000 ancient towns. Making the project all the more dramatically aurgent was the destruction of a half dozen of these because of the earthquakes that shook Central Italy last August and September. During the year, said Franceschini, "We will work to make our traditions and the culture of countless marvelous places better known."

     

    Not by accident, the idea of Italy's Year of the Borghi coincides with the United Nations designating 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, "whose aim is to celebratw and promote the contribution of the tourism sector to building a better world," said the UN in its January launch. (For details, see: >>>) Both the UN and Italy are urging a change in policies, business practices and consumer behavior so as to advance sustainable tourism and -- in the words of the UN -- help preserve the environment and foster prosperity, peace and understanding among peoples.

    Cultural tourism focuses upon new experiences with depth and is thus considered a crucial factor in maintaining the borghi as centers for hospitality and crafts. In fact, a few small ancient borghi, including one in Tuscany which attracts 15,000 tourists a year, are success stories, both for its inhabitants and for the visitors.

    However, Italian tourism has tended to focus upon a limited areas of the center and north. "Tourism in the borghi exemplifies sustainable tourism. It helps diversify the offer, and hence reduce the pressure on the usual ultra-popular tourist attractions," said Undersecretary Dorina Bianchi. "It promotes the authentic expression of the Italian way of life -- its quality and the rediscovery of a rich artistic and historical heritage." The borghi can be considered a brand, she added, for a relaunch of the tourism sector.

     

    Why is this necessary? Unless resources are provided to maintain employment in the borghi, their inhabitants risk drifting away. "But jobs can be created," said Franceschini, "as we know from the inspiring experience of the alberghi diffusi which have brought people, including youth, back to our historic towns." These

    scattered hotels are created by refurbishing abandoned buildings in the center of an historic town, creating a new style of tourism that has brought new life to old borghi. For instance, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, near l'Aquila in the Abruzzo, has had 23 houses restructured by Swedish architect Daniele Kihlgren, who is known as "the man who saves the borghi" (see >>>) Kihlgren also went on to restructure houses at the Sassi di Matera and has acquired five other borghi throughout Italy which, working with the local townships, he plans to restore. Some had been completely abandoned.

     

    One problem which emerged at the conference: that borgo residents pay the same taxes as those living in large cities, where the maintenance costs are higher. "We need revision of taxation," said one participant.

     

    Italy's state tourism agency Enit, working with 18 of the Italian regions, is planning promotional events in coming months in the U.S. as well as throughout Europe to stimulate this new brand of international cultural tourism. To this end last year Enit signed a convention with the association "The Most Beautiful Borghi of Italy."

     

    Domenico Lanciano, who lives in Badolato near Catanzaro, is the founder of the Movimento Europeo Salva-Borghi (MES, Movement to Save European Borghi). For Lanciano, the problem is not solely Italy's. "This is merely a first step toward saving Europe's 15,000 uninhabited or under-inhabited ancient borghi," he said in an interview Thursday. "We need qualified institutional representation in the governments of all the regions and nations and of Europe. We also need a new philosphy concerning the relations between the center and the outlying neighborhood (the periphery) and between city and coutryside. Without this decisional representation, without a new political philosphy, the risk is to have only folklore, propaganda, demagogy -- an aspirin for the terminally ill."

    To learn more, see #Italian Villages. And for a video of the project, see >>>

  • Facts & Stories

    After 67 Years, Sanremo Festival still Bewitches Italy

    In a nation of some 60 million, the grand finale of the Sanremo Festival draws an amazingly huge audience of over 22 million. Now in its 67th year, the Festival began Tuesday and concludes Saturday, Feb. 10, with the winner chosen from among 22 singers, including eight beginners.

     

    During its first night there was already a winner, given a standing ovation: the courageous rescue team, introduced on stage as "the heroes of the Mezzogiorno." These are the men and women representing the thousands who had raced to Amatrice to try to save lives after the earthquakes which flattened the ancient town of Amatrice in September.

     

    Introducing them in a pause between song contestants, co-host Maria De Filippi said, "Heroes are those who don't give up, who don't just sink into tears. They do their duty, they go home without publicity or pay. It is important for us not to forget them." With them was the rescue dog Thor, a labrador brought on stage in the Ariston Theater together with his owner, Fabio, volunteer with the Alpine Rescue team from Amatrice. With them were Italian Crisis Unit representatives from the Guardia di Finanza, Red Cross, Army, Civil Protection Agency and Fire Brigade. In another touching moment, homage was paid to the late singer Luigi Tenco, who died, perhaps a suicide, at Sanremo 50 years ago. (To see and hear him and the song he wrote, click here >>>)

    This was the third year when the amiable presenter Carlo Conti co-hosted the Festival. Conti, 46, was born in Florence and had worked as a part-time DJ and full-time bank teller from 1981 through 1985, when he made a debut on Rai1 as a presenter on a muscial show. An instant success, he later hosted the popular Sunday TV show "Domenica In" as well as a series of televized Miss Italy contests.

    Hosting with him was Maria De Filippi, also 46, a veteran presenter of popular TV shows and the author of two books. The fourth wife of TV star Maurizio De Costanzo, De Filippi conducted several popular TV programs herself, including "Saranno Famosi" (They'll be Famous), whose name was later changed to "Amici di Sera" (Evening Friends) the title of one of her two books. She and Costanza have an adopted son, three dogs and three horses, and she reportedly goes riding every morning.

    These co-hosts do not fit into the customary TV "star" firmament. Neither is exactly a sex symbol: at 46, both are middle-aged. And what a delight to have, on stage for a pop song contest, two people with interesting appearances, down to the glasses they each wear (your correspondent has worn glasses since she was ten years old). In a way, their presence, along with the choice of various types of music and singers of all ages, has helped to rejuvenate the Sanremo Festival.

    In musical terms, the Festival has always been noted for what is called the Italian melodic style, whose roots are from the bel canto and characterized by elaborate melody lines. A short essay on Italian music traces the version developed in the past half century to Domenico Modugno (who can forget "Volare"?) and to Nilla Pizzi and Al Bano. (Click here to see ). Most interestingly, Al Bano himself was on hand Tuesday singing, albeit without great praise from the usual early critics, the lyrical "Di Rose e di spine" (Of Roses and Thorns).

    The actress Nilla Pizzi, who died in 2011 at 82, has often been dubbed "the queen of Sanremo." She was a farmer's daughter, and won fame during the Fifties and Sixties, particularly for her song "Grazie dei Fiori" (Thanks for the Flowers), which won the Sanremo competition during the very first Festival year, 1951.

    Years ago I personally co-hosted a multi-lingual radio broadcast of the Sanremo Festival for Rai International radio. Our finest moment was when an Italian woman then studying in India phoned to say weepily that she was so grateful to hear our international broadcast, which made her homesick. However, within the Sanremo musical media we radio broadcasters were definitely second-class, and, instead of being inside the Ariston Theater along with the TV crews, so that we too could admire the fantastic lighting shows that often outshone the singers, we broadcast from inside a Rai truck at the edge of the red carpet.

    Still, one after another, into our studio truck came the song contestants. Some of these interviewees were fascinating, others challenging: the worst moment was my attempt to interview a fledgling songstress of 15. ("Uh, how was school today?") The best moments were when Nilla Pizzi dropped in. She would hop around the truck with teenage vigor and sing along, and on top of, the contestants' songs which we were transmitting worldwide. Fortunately, no one noticed this, and she was a Festival guest of honor at Sanremo in 2010, just one year before her death.

    Stay tuned! Saturday night is the grand finale.

  • The Cathedral of Palermo
    Op-Eds

    Palermo is Voted Italy's Culture Capital 2018

    From a list of ten engaging candidates, Palermo was voted the Culture Capital of Italy for 2018. The announcement was made by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini in Rome. For the honor Palermo bested Trento, Aquileia, Montebelluna, Settimo Torinese, Comacchio, Recanati, Ercolano, Alghero and the Eastern Sicilian townships of Erice and Elimo. This is only the second such event; in 2016 Mantua had been named the country's first Culture Capital.

     

    For the selection, each of the ten towns (short listed from two dozen) made its presentation before a jury of experts, headed by Stefano Baia Curioni, professor of the economy of culture. "We had many, many proposals of a very high quality," he said. "All these cities know very well how to combine culture, participation and the creation of a social capital." Two of the towns in the Palermo orbit, Monreale and Cefalu, are already recognized as Unesco World Heritage sites.

     

    Palermo's Arab-Norman history and its monuments played an important role in the selection process, as did its religious traditions including the Santa Rosalia festival, which takes place in mid-August. Another strong point in Palermo's favor is its historic Teatro Massimo, whose grand opera program for that year includes Verdi's Nabucco, Puccini's Turandot, Bob Wilson's Adam's Passion and a performance by the multi-ethnic choir Arcobaleno.

     

    In addition, there are modern touches: in 2018 Palermo will organize "Manifesta 12," a European biennal exhibition of contemporary art on the theme of rethinking the city. A particular strong point in the selection is Palermo's commitment to recognize the importance of migrations in the Mediterranean. Next October brings the second edition of its "Festival of Migrant Literature," with, among other things, presentations of videos and photography and discussions of literature, journalism, and publishing.

     

    Among the migrant literature festival organizers is Davide Camarrone, 50, author and Rai journalist in Palermo. His works include the docudrama screenplay for "Ce ne rocordermo di questo pianeta" (We shall remember this planet), dedicated to the late great Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia. "The word terraferma [roughly, land mass]" says Camarrone, "is the name the smaller islands give to the bigger islands. For those living on the isle of Lampedusa, the terraferma is Sicily. For Sicily, the terraferma is Italy and even Europe -- is is only a question of proportions and of relationships."

     

    Literature migrates from one place to another and from one era to another, he believes. "Were it not for literature, from one second to the next our cities would shrivel and our words would lose their meaning. "Literature migrates with people. It welcomes them, it accompanies them with their stories, by telling of their lives. In Palermo so many voices arrive -- they make the streets no longer gray, but bright with color. The youngsters then teach the adults, who know only the theories, by showing them how people live together."

     

    Another of the Migrant Festival organizers is author Evelina Santangelo, a graduate of the University of Palermo, who also studied English at Cornell University. Her first novel, "L'occhio cieco del mondo" (The World's Blind Eye), published in 2000, was awarded the prestigious Franciacorta, Mondello and Fiesole Prizes. Her latest novel "Non va sempre così" (It doesn't always end that way), was, like her other six books, published by Einaudi.

     

    In an introduction to the Festival, she said that the very etymology of the city's name, "Palermo" derives from "tutto porto" (all port). "It evokes the idea of a place where people are in transit -- they land, they go ashore, they go onto that 'White Sea in the Middle,' as the Arabs called the Mediterranean.

            

    "This is the sea of last hope for those trying to cross it by any means. It is a sea that is a challenge to the last breath of hope, and a challenge to the civilization of Europe. It has vital consequences,  just now, when the world is facing the most acute crisis of refugees since World War Two."

  • The court in session
    Op-Eds

    Joy and Despair as High Court Clears Way for Early Elections

    Italy's politicians were just settling down to dinner Wednesday evening when the anxiously-awaited Constitutional Court ruling over the Italicum, as the pending elections law is known, had them hopping out of their seats, some in despair, but mostly in jubilation. In the final, clipped sentence of its ruling the Court declared, "The election law is available for immediate application." This  clears the way for national general elections to be held, as early as this spring, one year before the formal end of the legislature.

    The 10-line sentence came after two days of lively debate and a dozen votes among the 13 judges. Their arguments during that debate will never be known; although the court will publish its arguments before Feb. 21, minutes are not taken at these sessions. Those celebrating the prospect of new elections begin with Matteo Renzi, who resigned as premier after the Dec. 4 debacle but remains head of the Partito Democratico (PD) party; Beppe Grillo, the ambitious former comedian who heads the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), and the Northern League's Matteo Salvini. The most obvious opponent of spring or summer vote is former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who, despite serious health problems, is anxious to return to active political life, impossible this year because of pending court cases alleging corruption.

    Already, with the failed Dec. 4 referendum on constitutional reform, the fate of the Italicum voting law, promoted by then Premier Renzi and approved in 2015 in the Chamber of Deputies, was seriously compromised. The Italicum had not been approved in the Senate, however, and Italian President Sergio Mattarella, himself a former high court judge, is known to have opposed holding new elections while widely divergent laws governed the two houses. The Italicum would also have essentially canceled the elective Senate.

    A crucial element was the Court's accepting the majority premium, which gives any party obtaining 40% of the vote a full majority in the 630-member Chamber. However, if, as is probable, no single party reaches that figure, the seats are to be proportionally distributed. While also advising caution in quick interpretations of the new ruling, experts here are saying that coalitions of parties can in theory run together under a single symbol, but while not discounted in the Senate, this would be hard to achieve in the Chamber.

    The sentence Jan. 25 referred primarily to those elements that were disapproved. A crucial element that was disallowed was a run-off ballot between the two parties obtaining the most votes. Under the Italicum, promoted on grounds of fostering greater government efficiency (read: more power to the premier), this would have permitted a run-off vote between the two parties winning the most. Italy is currently divided into three major parties, each with about one-third of the votes: the ruling PD on the center-left, the right currently headed by Salvini (who is trying to model himself on Marine Le Pen) and Grillo's anti-establishment M5S.

    In the now canceled Italicum run-off, whichever of these parties attracting the most outsiders would earn full title to a generous majority in Parliament, 340 seats (54% of the electorate). The new ruling, which strikes down this clause because deemed unfair to the electorate, brings the election laws governing the two houses into slightly closer harmony, thus paving the way for new elections while leaving the Senate itself unaltered. At the same time, the Court did not declare the Italicum totally unconstitutional, as its keenest opponents had hoped.

    Another aspect of what is being called the "New Italicum" involves the 100 electoral constituencies. Party bosses are still allowed to run in multiple constituencies, but a boss winning in several places could under Italicum choose which he would represent, and hence could keep those most faithful to him in office. In what is expected to reduce the risk of tight party control, the choices will be made by drawing lots. This watering down of the law reduces the power of the bosses.

    What next? The political leaders are expected to meet to discuss other possible ways to harmonize the election laws governing Chamber and Senate, or, in the words of President Mattarella, in his end-of-year speech,  "homogeneous and non irreconcilable."

  • Pantheon
    Op-Eds

    Pantheon: To Pay or Not to Pay, That is the Question

    It is a hot topic these days in Rome: should visitors to the Pantheon, which attracts almost twice the visitors of the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums, pay an entry fee? Or should a visit be free of charge, as it has been for centuries? That Rome needs funds to maintain its treasures is obvious, but the answer is anything but simple. The fact that this, the most venerable and popular of all Roman monuments, is both pagan temple and Christian church complicates the issue.

     

    The name derives from the Greek, "pan" meaning "every" and "theion" meaning "temple." It was constructed by the Emperor Hadrian around 126 AD upon the century-old ruins of another temple. In the center of its 142-foot dome of unreinforced concrete -- supposedly still the largest such structure in the world -- is a famous oculus, or hole, open to the sky.

     

    In a letter to the editor to a Roman newspaper, Ursula Verena Fischer Pace, one of the many foreign residents who love the city, wrote this eloquent protest against paying entry into the Pantheon: "I came to Rome in 1968 and since 1973 have lived here permanently. For me the Pantheon has been a daily visit; to see it, enter inside and stand by the tomb of Raphael is to savour the very air of Rome. It has made me understand the grandeur of the city, its antiquity, its Christian heritage. I cannot believe that I can be expected to pay to go inside, to see its interior illuminated by a ray of sunlight [from the oculus] or see a sprinkle of rain. The Pantheon is not a 'museum' -- it is the heart of Rome. Should I have to pay a ticket to walk by the Trevi Fountain or climb the Spanish Steps?"

     

    Interesting that Fischer Pace should specify the prospect of paying a ticket to climb the Spanish Steps. In fact, since no one is asked to do so, and the Steps were seriously damaged over time, a private sponsor, the jeweler Bulgari, has just forked out $2 million to have them repaired. Bulgari, understandably, remains concerned that after the reopening last September, the Steps may be damaged again very soon.

     

    The fundamental problem is the incredible wealth of the Italian cultural heritage. That heritage is so rich, complex and detailed, illustrating layer upon precious layer of Western civilization, that its upkeep and restorations are as costly, difficult and technically demanding as they are necessary, and indeed ever more necessary.

     

    As time passes, and the pressure of mass tourism and traffic pollution grow ever more intense, the situation worsens. This past week two youths jumping over the 12-foot tall entry gate at the Colosseum fell, and one was seriously injured. The next day a vandal painted a name and the word "Morte" (Death) in black on one of the exterior pilasters. The monuments of Rome -- all of them -- are at risk and require continual attention, including security surveillance. All this requires funding.

     

    City hall Special Commissioner Francesco Paolo Tronca and Superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce have listed 100 projects seeking sponsorships. One is Restoration of the Celio monuments atop that magnificent hill, expected to cost E24.2 million. Work on the cryptoportico of Trajan's Baths will require $23.5 million; the Torre Argentina temple area, $1.6 million; and the central archaeological area of the Forums of Caesar and Trajan, with removal of a section of the road Mussolini built between them, $3.2 million. Maintenance of Rome's 80 fountains will require another $11.1 million.

     

    Besides Bulgari, other private sponsors have stepped forward. Azerbaijan has contributed to a restoration in the Capitoline Museums, and Unilever and the Italian utility works Acea funded new lighting for the Imperial Forums. Not only monuments require funding: there is also grand opera and the theater. The huge complex of the Auditorium Parco della Musica, where the famous Santa Cecilia orchestra performs, attracts 2 million visitors a year for 1,200 cultural and musical events and conferences. It is subsidized by the Rome Chamber of Commerce (35% this past year). in the meantime, ordinary maintenance of Rome -- roads, rubbish removal, public transport -- continues to be neglected. As a headline in La Repubblica daily put it, "Chaos for rubbish and transport: The quality of life in the Capital is in the pits."

     

    Presuming that the 7 million annual visitors to the Pantheon contribute to maintenance of the monuments, this could only be a good thing, but among the politicians here opinions continue to be divided, and the Italian Catholic Church authorities have yet to speak on the question of funding or, for that matter, of security precautions.

     

    "Paying a ticket would be right if it helps to save our treasures," said Corrado Augias, popular TV presenter and former member of the European Parliament. Against paying is the authoritative art historian Tomaso Montanari, for, "The dignity of the Pantheon is intimately bound to the heart of our identity."

     

    A solution could be to require a very small payment, say of one Euro, for each visitor, the sums to be divided between church and state. Another, also suggested in letters to the editor, would be to begin with a test: suggesting voluntary contributions. It will be interesting to learn what i-italy readers have to say.

  • Colosseum crowd
    Op-Eds

    Italy Cradle of Culture, but do Italians Care? Yes

    A new report compiled by the national statistics-gathering agency ISTAT shocked many here for its showing that one out of every five Italians never, ever reads a newspaper or a book, or attends a cultural event of any kind, whether an art exhibition, a movie, concert, soccer match in a stadium or even a night out dancing. Fact is, however, that the figures are less distressing than at first sight. The actual percentage of those who dodge any form of cultural participation is 18.5% (and hence slightly fewer than one out of five).

    Even so, this figure means that more than four out of five Italians do participate in the nation's cultural life. Cultural consumption and participation are actually fairly difficult to measure. In Italy the data comes from counting attendance (how many museum entries, concert and theater tickets sold, etc.) as well as calculating actual participative activities, as in reading books and magazines.

    Perhaps the most encouraging news is that the number of visitors to the 4,740 Italian national public, local and private museums and monuments continues to break records, thanks in part to the many Sundays and holidays when free entry is offered. The total number of visitors for 2014 was 40.7 million, with the largest number in the Lazio Region around Rome, 18.5 million, followed by the Campania and Tuscan Regions, each with 6.5 million visitors. The following year, 2015, the figure rose again, with 43 million visitors whose tickets earned $163 million, according the Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who also has pointed out that this trend toward an increase in museum attendance is in contrast with negative trends in other countries. "These resources will be entirely devolved to the museums according to a system that rewards the best management and at the same time guarantees the smaller realities," he said. Franceschini has also broken with the bureaucratic tradition of appointing managers from within the system, by naming outsiders, including non-Italians.

    In addition, by comparison with the previous year, those Italians who read at least one book rose from 40.5% in 2013 to 41.4% in 2014 to 42% during 2015. The number of moviegoers similarly rose from 49.7% in 2014 to 52% in 2015; two years before this the figure had sagged by almost 8% so this revival is important. On the other hand, the bad news is that those who have no cultural participation whatsover tend to be from the Italian South (28.6%) with the curious exception of Sardinia, perhaps a result of its Piedmontese heritage. The South also shows a particularly low female participation in the national culture, by contrast with the North, where female participation is 10% higher than that of the men.

    Not surprisingly, newspaper readership is waning, down 3.2% in just one year. However, this is actually fairly positive by comparison with the United States where, according to Pew research covering the same year as the ISTAT report, weekday newspaper circulation fell by 7%, more than twice the drop in Italy, while U.S. print media advertising revenue sank by 8%. Whereas it is assumed that reading news on line compensates for the decline in hard copy newspaper reading, this is a fallacy, at least in the U.S., since only 5% read the news on solely on their desktop; another 5% on a mobile phone; and 7% on both. Even digital advertising revenue declined.

    Why has museum attendance surged so dramatically? One reason is that, under Minister Franceschini, a campaign has been launched to encourage the public. Art historian and former museum director Salvatore Settis, on the other hand, criticizes the new management trend for its bringing a "visible disinvestment on the part of the territorial Superintendencies, which have ever fewer personnel and resources" while required to handle more administrative responsibilities.

    The museum, in short, is not the whole story because, as Settis points out, the peculiarity of Italy's entire territory is the capillary diffusion of its culture throughout the land, "the perfect osmosis between the 'small' and the 'large,' between the museum and the city."

  • Migrants Boat
    Op-Eds

    Venice Prefect: Migration, the Problem of Problems

    With all the problems facing Italy -- dissolving banks, unemployment, carry-over scandals from last year -- it is heartening to see that kind hearts can still prevail. On a freezing night at year end in Rome, two young Carabinieri paramilitary police received a phone call from one of the nuns in the Sisters of Redemption house near the Vatican. A woman carrying a baby had knocked at their door asking if the two could bunk down there for the night. There is no more room at the inn, came the answer -- but then, watching the two leave, a remorseful nun phoned the Carabinieri and asked them to go find the mother and child, and help them find a place to sleep. "Go quickly," they were admonished. "They need you."

    The Carabinieri team, whose names were not released, began their search, which ended under the sheltering arms of Bernini's colonnade in front of St. Peter's Square. Clutched in her mother's arms was a three-year-old, Lucia, dressed only in a summer frock. The woman, Mireille, 33, had escaped to Italy from Congo and was a regularly registered migrant who, as it happened, had just been released from hospital and, perhaps due to a bureaucratic snafu, had slipped through the cracks of the social services.

    The Carabinieri bought them food -- milk, a baby bottle, clothes for the baby and a meal for Mireille -- and then took them to a hotel where out of their own pockets they paid for a double room with a bath on Via Gregorio XI. "You are my angels," said Mireille.

    "It's our job, we are Carabinieri," came the reply, according to the Vatican weekly Famiglia Cristiana.

    And in case anyone could forget the other suffering migrants, newspapers Jan. 2 front paged a photograph of a boat owned by Medecins sans Frontieres loaded with migrants arriving from North Africa. "The first of the year," trumpeted the headlines. Then came the ANSA bulletin that along the Sardinian coast on New Year's Day a boat carrying 15 migrants from Algeria was landing at Sant'Antioco.

    So what happened to Mireille and little Lucia the day after? No trace of them seems available, but in the meantime, at the Centro Accoglienza migrant hospitality center at Cona, a tiny town near Venice, Sandrine Bakayoko, a woman of 25 from the Ivory Coast in the camp while waiting for a reply to her demand for political asuylum, collapsed in a bathroom and died of a blood clot on the lung. Claiming that authorities had been slow to respond (called at 8 am, an ambulance arrived at 2 pm), migrants staged a savage demonstration Jan. 3, and locked 25 volunteer helpers into a container for some hours before release.

    The camp, a former missile base, now houses some 900 migrants. Conditions there are grim enough to have prompted migrants to keep a diary of problems there, especially of hygiene and health. Speaking to the press, Venetian Prefect Carlo Boffi said that "This is the problem of problems for Italy and for the European Union -- an extremely complex problem of Biblical dimensions, also because our country is a platform in the sea, and hence we cannot technically close our borders. The real problem is linked to the repatriation of people who are irregularly present in our territory. We need specific international agreements."

    However unpopular holding stations like that at Cona may be, he went on to say, "it would have been far more dangerous to have [migrants] indiscriminately circulate in our territory."

    Not surprisingly, already the new government headed by Premier Paolo Gentiloni has called for a crackdown on unregistered ("irregular") migrants. While Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni had warned that, "if the EU stays dogmatic with the idea that each country do whatever it wants on the migrant problem, it will end in disaster" (Interview, La Stampa, Oct. 4, 2016).

    "Not only -- the E500 million the European Commission had requested was blocked. It is my impression that for Europe the migration question had been resolved with the EU agreement with Turkey." Signed in Brussels March 19, this decreed that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as of March 20 would be returned, and that "for every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled to the EU." Just one year ago Italy had proposed a Migration Compact, but no action was taken. The boomerang intrinsic in the EU-Turkey compact, inevitably, was that migration into Italy soared.

    Despite all this, it would be an error to think that Italians, themselves migrants to North and South America a century ago, are universally hostile. The new book "Libertà di migrare, Perché ci spostiamo da sempre ed è bene così" (Freedom to migrate, Why we have always been on the move and it's better that way), by Valerio Calzolaio and Telmo Pievani, was the subject Jan. 3 of a lively debate in Palazzo Montecitorio chaired by Chamber of Deputies President Laura Boldrini.

    The theme: let us all go to see what is over on the other side of the hill. It is what we have all always done.

  • Giovanni Fattori, Macchiaiolo
    Op-Eds

    2016: The Italian Year That Was

    January began with Pope Francis calling the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In the course of the year 22 million would come to Rome -- somewhat fewer than the hotel keepers had hoped, but nevertheless, despite fears of terrorist attacks, all went smoothly and without incident.

    Not all went so smoothly with a handful of Italian banks, in deep trouble for having issued non-performing loans. Among these, Monte dei Paschi of Siena, the oldest bank in the world and Italy's third largest, caused the greatrest concern. In hopes of better times, in January thousands were fired, a new CEO was appointed, and private investors were begged to give a helping hand. As we shall see, nothing worked.

    On February 3, the body of Italian grad student Giulio Regeni, who had disappeared in Cairo Jan. 25, was found, showing signs of brutal torture, apparently under the auspices of the Egyptian secret services. Relations between Italy and Egypt would remain tense. In December an Egyptian informant will admit tipping off the spooks because, speaking with him, Regeni had asked awkward questions.

    By the time the important exhibition of 40 works by the Impressionist master Claude Monet, on loan from the Museé d'Orsay in Paris, closed at Turin's civic modern art gallery, GAM, on Feb. 14, it had been seen by 314,000 visitors.

    In March, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey intended to block migrants from flooding into Greece. As a result, they flooded into Italy, as we shall see in November.

    April - Rightist politician Matteo Salvini, head of the now nationwide Northern League, met in Washington with Donald Trump, whom he praised for promoting "legality and security" as opposed to the "disastrous nicey-niceyness (bonismo) of Obama and Merkel."

    At the Bramante Cloister near Piazza Navona in Rome, an exhibition of paintings by I Macchiaioli opened, through July. The influential Italian movement was created in the Caffè Michelangelo in Florence in the 1860s.

    May 11 brought definitive passage of a civil unions bill pending in the Senate since October 2015, making Italy the 27th Europea country to recognize same-sex unions. The Italian version, however, was watered down by eliminating stepchild adoption.

    June took Italians to the polls for local elections. In Milan, Giuseppe Sala, considered the savior of the previously scandal-tinged Expo, was elected mayor with the backing of the Partito Democratico (PD). Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) walked off with two show-case cities, Turin and Rome. While M5S mayor Chiara Appendino has avoided scandal, Rome's Virginia Raggi has been deeply enmeshed in it ever since that June 19 vote.

    July - A train traveling in Puglie on a single track crashed into another on that same track, killing 23 and injuring 50 The result of human error, the crash was interpreted as testifying to the delays in updating infrastructure in Southern Italy.

    August - In Amatrice in Central Italy, an earthquake of 5.9 degrees killed 298 people and essentially destroyed this historic city. Other and still stronger quakes also struck two other historic cities, Norcia and Macerata, but with no victims.

    September - An important Claude Monet exhibition opened in Parma, through Dec. 11.

    Throughout October, the Rome Teatro dell'Opera presented six modernized performances of Puccini's "Tosca," inaugurating an extraordinarily successful and for once break-even season under the guidance of superintendent Carlo Fuortes. As a Doxa survey showed, 40% in the audiences were newcomers to grand opera while, for the first time in years, there was a healthy contingent of young people; only 13% were over 60.

    November - The press published the news that 168,000 migrants had landed on the Italian coasts since January while 5,000, at least, had drowned in the attempt.

    Rome offered two outstanding exhibitions: paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi at the Palazzo Braschi and the dawn of the Italian still life, as inspired by Caravaggio, at the Galleria Borghese.

    December was a particularly busy month. The La Scala opera house in Milan opened its season Dec. 7 with a brand new production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Staging and sets by Alvis Hermanis reconstructed the original version of 1904. Four days earlier a special preview for youngsters had been held. Take a look at: http://www.teatroallascala.org/en/season/2016-2017/opera/madama-butterfly-preview-under30.html

    Parliament gave final approval to the TAV, the highly controversial high speed train link between Turin and Lyons.

    On Dec. 4 Premier Matteo Renzi was trounced in a constitutional reform referendum, and forced to resign. His successor is Paolo Gentiloni, who said in a year-end press conference that his will be "continuity with the government team" of his predecessor.

    At year end Italy agreed upon a bailout of E 8.8 billion ($9.2 billion) for the troubled Monte dei Paschi of Siena, half again more than forecast at the beginning of the year. To fund this and the other troubled Italian banks, the Parliament agreed to boost the national debt by up to E20 billion ($20.9 billion). For the bailout, the government is expected to kick in E. 6.5 billion ($6.8 billion) and the rest funded by the bank's institutional investors. Speaking to Bloomberg news, Jeroen Blokland, portfolio manager at the asset manager Robeco Group in Rotterdam, said that, while the problems at the bank are very serious, "the good news is that the European Central Bank (ECB) thinks it is solvent."

    Italian Christmas shoppers spent over E3 billion ($3.14 billion) on gifts, but press reports are that "many of the recipeints are now preparing to sell them on, as they try to claw back the cash spent" in order to buy something they actually want.

    Happy New Year!

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