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Articles by: Judith Harris

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    Italian Youth: On the Hunt for Jobs

    The Italian government was meeting today to discuss a plan to give a helping hand to the vast numbers of jobless or precariously employed Italian youth through concession of a "youth pension." The point would be to compensate for the high rate of youth unemployment, which stands at 40%. This is worse only in Greece (47.3%) and Spain (44.4%), according to European Commission statistics issued in a new, 260-page report, "Employment and social developments in Europe (ESDE)" covering the 28 member countries of the European Union.

     

    "On average, in Italy a person younger than age 30 earns 60% less than those whose are over 60," the report continues. Employment is particularly precarious due to short and badly written contracts which bring terrible insecurity to the young people. As the report also points out, young people with parents (and grandparents) willing and able to support them are bankrolled by the older generations, but this causes "a distortion" in family relations. According to Eurostat, two out of three live at home by comparison with one out of two in the rest of Europe and one out of three in the UK. As a result, a new poll shows that six out of ten have scant hope of achieving their parents' standard of living.

     

    Another distortion comes from the trade unions in Italy, whose membership is made up primarily of those who are pensioners: attend any union organization, and this fact is instantly visible. The left-leaning CGIL, for instance, is composed of 3 million pensioners, or 50% of its membership, whereas in Germany, Austria, Finland and the Low Countries pensioners make up only 15% of the trade union members.

     

    Other studies show that almost 20% of Italy's youth between 15 and 24, or one out of five -- that is, 2.5 million young people -- are classified as NEET: neither working, studying or in training programs. This is double the percentage of young NEETs in the rest of Europe, where the median is 11.5%, and higher than in Greece, Spain or Bulgaria, countries considered less economically secure than Italy.

     

    As economist Tito Boeri told the Commission of Constitutional Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies on July 17, "There is a very strong generational problem, in the way our social security [system] is dealing with the problem of youth." Boeri, a graduate of Milan's prestigious Bocconi University and post-graduate studies at New York University, is president of Italy's national social security institute, the Istituto Nazionale Previdenza Sociale (INPS).

     

    Today's cabinet debate is over whether or not to give unemployed youth a subsistance grant, or "youth pension," in the new phrasing. The question is complicated by the varieties of experience and training which young people have: should all have the same "youth pension"? Don't count your youth pension until it is hatched, however. Analysts here say that to concede this is unrealistic at this point -- but realistic in terms of future electioneering.

     

    One out of three Italian young people seek out their own remedy: migration abroad. Over half are from the South of Italy and its islands. Among the migrants is Olivia, 30, born in Rome. She had previously left Italy to work in Spain, but has since moved on to join the 630,000 Italians working in Germany. Visiting her family in Rome this month, she said, "Yes, the work conditions are better there, but it is close enough that I can leave Berlin once a month to come home to see my family."

     

    Olivia is among the 4.2 million Italians living abroad, of whom almost half are female. A report by the Fondazione Migrantes in 2011 showed that Italian emigration was concentrated in Europe (55.8%) and in the U.S. (38.8%). The greatest number of emigres came from Rome itself. Perhaps surprisingly, this isb double the number of emigres from Naples.

     

    On the slightly more positive side, the state statistics agency ISTAT points out that the negative percentages for youth employment also reflect a decline of 2% in the numbers of those between 35 and 49 in just one year, due to the lowered birth rate in their time. The figures tend to be further skewed by the longevity of the older citizens and hence their demographic effects.

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    Igiaba Scego's "Adua": Linking Italy's Past and Present

    Adua is a solitary woman, born in Mogadiscio but living since her late teens in today's Rome. She has no one better to whom she can bare her soul than the marble statue in front of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. To Bernini's sculpted elephant, upon whose shoulders rises a tiny obelisque, Adua whispers her most intimate and painful thoughts about identity, which are the warp and weave of this novel by Igiaba Scego. Among these painful memories are her relations with her difficult father, Zoppe, whom she sees as compromised for having worked as a translator in Somalia for Mussolini's Fascists, but who was himself a victim of Fascist violence.

     

    In Italy, the novel "Adua" was published by Giunti in 2015, and by New Vessel Press this June. with a translation into English by Jamie Richards. The author, Igiaba Scego, is often described as a "transcultural" journalist. She interweaves time, people, and tragedies, including today's: her character Adua is wed to a considerably younger husband. He was one of the desperate migrants who had landed at Lampedusa, and she met him when he was drunk at the train station in Rome. Ambiguity is the name of the game: she treats him kindly at times but then loses her temper. While fearing that sooner or later he will leave her for a younger woman, she knows that he needs her.

    Despite the past between the two countries, for both Adua and her father Italy loomed as a mythical state. Now, however, her father dead, she inherited the family home and daydreams of returning to the "brand-new, peacetime" Somalia. Still, as she writes with elegance:

    I love Rome in the summer, especially the light in the evening when the sun is setting. It’s hot, even the seagulls seem nicer and make you want to hug them.

    They dominate the piazzas, but here you are, my little elephant, and they don’t dare. Shoo, away from Piazza della Minerva! I feel safe when I’m around you. Here,

    I’m in Magalo—at home. My father had big ears too, but he was never good at listening, and I was never able to talk to him. It’s different with you. That’s why I’m

    grateful to Bernini for having made you. A little marble elephant holding up the smallest obelisk in the world. A toothpick.

    The character's name, Adua, was her Somali father's choice and recalls the famous Victory of Adwa of 1896, celebrated every March 1 in Ethiopia as a public holiday. At that time Italy had colonized two African territories, Eritrea and Somalia, and was keen to expand its African empire by invading and conquering Ethiopia. It failed, and the battle, in which 7,000 Italians and over 4,000 Ethiopians died, was the first ever decisive victory of a African army over a European army. Its outcome was Italy's signing the Treaty of Addis Abeba, which recognized Ethiopia as an independent state. In 1991 Somalia then saw a civil war, in which half a million people died.

     

    Carlo Lucarelli described her book as "a sweet sorrow that made me wish it were much longer," whereas a critic for the Huffington Post called it a "punch in the stomach." And acritic for Blog.Graphe.it wrote that the novel "provokes a disturbing sensation in the stomach for its harshness -- a contemporary story that we do not really want to know about because it is uncomfortable and capable of removing our easy sense of being extraneous to certain arguments."

     

    As this suggests, Igiaba Scego is a strong, intense writer, and this reader admits difficulty in grasping her account of the horrid racism inflicted upon black Africans. Having been raised in the North of the U.S., and indeed upon what was called during the American Civil War the Underground Railroad Freedom Trail, I knew little of the degree of racism Scego describes. But then, recalling the savage violence of Mississippi's Freedom Summer of 1964, in which friends were among the 700 Northern volunteers participating along with Southern activists, I was obliged to rethink.

    Until that time in what was the most racist and retrograde part of the American South complete segregation existed. During that year dozens of protesters were murdered, tortured, castrated and beaten, and there were 50 explosions. As later was shown, fully half the Mississippi police were members of the Ku Klux Klan; one of the murderers was a county sheriff, another a state legislator, according to a memoir by Nikole Hannah-Jones, published in The Atlantic.

    To order a copy of the book click here

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    Summer in Italy: Time to Celebrate a Sagra

    Mid-summer Italy is sagra time, when even the smallest town enjoys celebrating itself and its local identity, especially but not only through its culinary specialties, from wine to chestnuts, cheese, honey and even pumpkins. Visitors are welcome, and many will come as guests in agritourism farmhouses.

     

    The word sagra derives from the Latin word sacrum for "sacred." In antiquity the townspeople gathered together to celebrate, with the foods of the earth, important moments of communal life, with offerings to the gods in recognition of the abundance of a harvest. In Christian times the sagra was generally associated with the feast day of a patron saint and often included a solemn procession. Its religious character survives primarily in the word itself, and most of today's sagre involve foods as well as entertainment and sometimes a fair.

     

    Research shows that today the sagra is ever more popular. A poll conducted by Coldiretti, Italy's foremost national organization of farming with almost 10,000 affililiates, showed that six out of every ten Italians participate in the sagre.

    "This is a rediscovery -- the result of people's need to have a more direct relationship with the foods and the cultural traditions of their territory," the Coldiretti pollsters reported. "The lion's share of the events are the typical local and seasonal products, prepared strictly according to custom."

     

    Italy has an abundance of these local products identified with the territory. Wine labels, for instance, boast the territory by carrying three different designations, all guaranteed by strict Italian laws and certified by the European Union. The most rigorous to be found on your wine label -- and there are only a handful of these, the elite of the wine market -- carry the initials DOCG, for Denomination of Origin Controlled and Guaranteed by dint of geographic authenticity. The quality is guaranteed regarding the type of grape, alcohol content and the aging of the wine.

     

    Next on the label listing comes DOC, or Denomination of Origin Controlled, shared by some 505 types of wine. Another 331 Italian wines are recognized as typical of a certain region, and show on the label IGT for Indicazione Geografica Tipica (Typical Geographic Indication). For details, click here.

     

    Besides wines, also certified as regional specialities are 4,606 recognized traditional foods, from hams and sausages to cheeses. DOP or Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Denomination of Protected Origin) is the certified label for such guaranteed regional specialties as Prosciutto crudo San Daniele, or air died prosciutto from San Daniele near Udine, and for Parmigiano Reggiano, produced only in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua.

     

    These are among the types of specialties offered in stands in the local sagre, which now tend to include interesting events as well as the foods. This mid-July, for instance, the town of Canale, near Serino in Avellino, fetes, along with local foods, artists whose works line the narrow streets, piazzas and palazzo courtyards. At Mandas in the mountainous Sardinian Barbagia, the Sagra del formaggio -- a cheese feast -- begins July 16 and continues with local music, dancing, lectures on whither the pastoral culture, guided visits to cheese-making establishments and introductions to other traditional local foodstuffs such as breads,cookies and desserts.

     

    Moving toward the center-north of Italy, from August 10 - 20, the Sagra della Zucca (pumpkin) takes place at San Carlo in Emilia Romagna. A star attraction (and a personal favorite) are the area's fabulous home-made pumpkin-stuffed ravioli.

     

    Near Rome, Allumiere celebrates its Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar) festival beginning July 7. Also on offer as part of the sagra are tours of the famous local woodland, the Faggeto, where the ancient mines of aluminium sulfate are located. Another Sagra del Cinghiale begins July 7 at Tarquinia, site of the ancient Etruscan city as well as today's modern town. Boar is a typical local dish, popular for a pasta ragù as well as for sausage.

     

    Also north of Rome on July 8 and 9 is Formello's sagra, with folk dancing, a demonstration of acrobatics, games for youngsters, a literary prize award and a parade of locals in Etruscan dress, besides stands with local foods. And at Fabrica di Roma, near Viterba, from July 14 - 16 the Sagra della Pecora (Sheep sagra) takes place. Besides live bands -- marching bands and funky music from the 70s and 80s, demonstrations of the art of making sheeps milk cheese, or pecorino, and ricotta are presented. Needless to say, perhaps, the menu begins with the antipasto del pastore, the shepherd's first course, and ends with a cake made of sheeps milke ricotta and pears.

     

    (For a full rundown of sagre in every Italian region, with dates and details, click here

     

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    World Art Crime Experts Convene in Amelia

    At historic Amelia in Umbria, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) held its 8th annual international meeting June 23-25, with particular attention this year on the protection of the archeological and art heritage in the war-torn Middle East.

     

    The historic town of Amelia is as beautiful as the works ARCA seeks to protect worldwide. Believed to have been founded around 1200 BCE, Amelia is today home to over 11,000. Its streets are lined with gracious 15th and 16th century palazzi, many now b&b's. Flowers burst from window sills, and swallows flit over picturesque streets. Those streets are so narrow that driving through them is a challenge, and so most visitors park outside the imposing ramparts that encircle the city; fortuately a free bus circulates every 20 minutes.

     

    The subjects dealt with at the ARCA conference are comparatively grim, but important. According to Swiss research, one of every six paintings, sculptures and objects of antiquity sold today are forgeries. Nevertheless, the resources invested to combat art fraud remain fairly limited. A famous painting looted by a thief sneaking into a museum window at night may be hidden away for over a decade before it surfaces in one of the many countries, unlike Italy, which devote scant funding to cultural preservation.

     

    Often that stolen famous work cannot even be sold, and this makes the thieves clever people but poor businessmen, in the words of Forbes magazine. Although new scientific tests can show whether or not a pigment is one the artist actually used, or existed in his time, or whether the canvas is hand- or machine-woven, many galleries do not bother with checking this. A case in point is the ongoing exhibition of works by Amedeo Modigliani in Genoa, some of which appear sufficiently suspect that a formal investigation into a number of possible forgeries has been opened. (Genoa curators respond that all the works have been shown in reputable museums and galleries.)

     

    This year's conference, held in Amelia's Boccarini college adjacent to the town's archaeological museum, was chaired by the CEO of ARCA Lynda Albertson. Speakers in the session on conflict zones included archaeologist Layla Salih, who heads the heritage department at Nineveh and is a member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Dr. Salih's topic was the cultural heritage of Mosul, through which ISIS rampaged in 2013 and destroyed the ancient palace there. She had first visited Nimrud as a schoolgirl, and earned a PhD in archaeology from the University of Mosul.

     

    Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director-general of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, spoke on "Preserving Culture in Times of Crisis: Combatting the Illicit Trafficking of the Rich and Unique Cultural Heritage of Syria." Also speaking of Syria was Samer Abdel Ghafour, doctoral candidate and founder of the archaeology information network ArchaeologyIN. His subject: "What One Looted Object Tells Us about Syria's Looted and Laundered Heritage." These topics, listed, may sound dry as dust but after the speakers from war-ravaged Mosul and Syria spoke, a few were in tears.

     

    Other issues under discussion were trafficking in Bosnia & Herzegovina; prosecution of antiquities crimes in the U.S.; emergency evacuations of heritage collections; art and money laundering; but also how to protect the cultural heritage of Venice from the ravages of excessive tourism and high water.

     

    The conference takes place within the orbit of ARCA's annual 10-week post-graduate course on the theoretical, legal and practical elements related to art and heritage crime. Now in its 9th year, the ARCA's intensive course has been attended by students and specialists from 14 countries. Whereas universities worldwide offer individual classes on art crime and related subjects -- forgeries, cultural property protection -- ARCA's is literally unique as the first to provide an interdisciplinary approach.

     

    The students and specialists attending the post-graduate certificate program come from universities throughout Europe and the U.S., as well as from Australia and New Zealand. They study the prevalence of art crime, such as museum heists and gallery sales of forgeries, but also art and heritage law and how these interact, or fail to do so, on the international level. They also study art crime during wartime and theories of criminology as they apply to the study of art crime.

     

    American art historian and novelist Dr. Noah Charney, who is adjunct professor of art history at American University of Rome, was the founder of ARCA. Born in Connecticut, he graduated from Colby College, Maine, studied in England at the Courtald Institute and has taught at Yale University and in the summer program at Cambridge University. His course this year at Amelia was on "Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers and Thieves."

     

    Among the other instructors is the noted Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, forensic archeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Dick Ellis, director of the Art Management Group and formerly with New Scotland Yard, teaches a course in "The High Stakes World of Art Policing, Protection and Investigation." Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, teaches provenance research. Other instructors teach heritage law, analysis of art crime, risks within the international art market.

    (To learn more, click here)

    Participants range from youngsters interested in curating collections to mid-career lawyers and state officials, including two from the US Homeland Security.

     

  • Local election posters, Genoa
    Facts & Stories

    Elections in 1,000 Towns Send Shock Waves Thru Italy

    ROME -- Partial local elections have rocked Italy. For the first time since it was founded in October 2009 the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) was trounced in an election, winning under 10% in Parma, L'Aquila and Catanzaro. Until Sunday's vote in 1,021 townships throughout Italy, from Palermo in the South to Asti in the North, the party which had led the pack in recent months had never suffered a serious setback. The populist party created by former comedian Beppe Grillo had instead steadily gained consensus, year after year, to the point that the most recent national polls had indicated it as claiming over 30% in an hypothetical national vote.

    What national vote? The answer is that, since Sunday, there isn't none. Until the final results were announced June 12, the M5S, together with former Premier Matteo Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), had been shouting for national general elections to be held in early autumn, six months ahead of schedule. But since the PD -- and, more strictly speaking, Renzi himself -- also took a notable shellacking, the call for an early vote seems suddenly to have been dropped from the political agenda.

    Altogether 11 million Italians were entitled to vote in these partial elections. On June 25 a run-off between the two leading candidates will take place in almost all of the 25 largest cities. But already it is apparent that the big winners are the parties of the center-right, which successfully nibbled away at Grillo's M5S. Grillo is fighting back: "Don't fool yourselves," he vowed yesterday. "We are not giving ground." However, serious dissension within the party is reported.

    The Palermo election was closely watched in part because, on the basis of its Arab-Norman heritage, the city is UNESCO's culture capital for 2018 and will also host Manifesta, a contemporary art biennale that same year. The apparent outright big winner was Leoluca Orlando, 69, who had already served four terms as Palermo mayor. Backed by Renzi's PD, Orlando had presented himself to voters without that party's symbol, intimating independence from Rome. Losing to Orlando, with just over 16%of the vote, was Grillo's candidate Ugo Forello, 40, lawyer and activist in the anti-racket organization Addiopizzo (Byebyekickbacks).

    Another closely watched vote took place in Genoa, home to Grillo's M5S, but also an historically leftist city. Mayor Marco Doria, elected in 2012 with 60% of the vote, chose not to run a second time. With a turnout of under 49%, the two leading candidates, who will face a run-off June 25, are trightist Marco Bucci and left-leaning Giovanni Crivello. Bucci, with almost 39% of the vote, was backed by a pack of seven rightist parties (including Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the Northern League). Crivello won only 34% despite the backing of the PD and three other left-leaning parties. The M5S vote was of barely 18%, half of the votes accorded to the top two.

    Since the L'Aquila earthquake that shattered the city in 2009, some 4,500 new dwellings have been built at a cost estimated at 1 billion Euros, but the center of the old town remains largely abandoned. Administration in recent years has been under Renzi's PD, and on Sunday voters, with a turnout of almost 68%, gave Americo Di Benedetto, backed by the PD and eight other moderate mini-parties, over 47% of the vote. In the run-off he will face Pierluigi Biondi, who copped 36% of the vote with the backing of seven conservative parties including Berlusconi's reborn Forza Italia and a group representing Matteo Salvini of the Northern League, "Noi con Salvini." The Grillo candidate won less than 4%.

    At Lampedusa, Mayor Giusi Nicolini of the Partito Democratico gained worldwide applause for her careful tending of the island's flood of migrants since her election in 2012. Renzi had her join him at the White House for dinner with President Barack Obama. Just last week Nicolini received the UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize for the search for peace, whose previous recipients included Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. In Sunday's local election she was soundly defeated, however. Winning just 908 votes, or under 24% of those cast, she placed third out of four candidates -- too few for her to remain in the local administration.

    Although one might have guessed that the Northern League would win hands down at Lampedusa, it copped only 6% of the vote. Instead victory went to Salvatore ("Totò") Martello, who had been mayor 15 years ago. With the backing of a center-left coalition, he won 40.3% of the vote. Today Nicolini announced that she will run again for mayor, "though not with the backing of the PD."

     

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    Early Elections Loom - But So Do Gloomy Warnings

    Amid a chorus of warnings, national general elections are almost certain to take place this autumn, six months before the slated end of the legislature. Behind the demand for a general reckoning are three powerful forces: former Premier Matteo Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi's reborn Forza Italia, with a further push from Matteo Salvini's Northern League.

     

    Each has its reasons for lobbying for early elections. Renzi's party commanded almost 41% of the vote in the European elections of 2014, but has lost ground ever since. When Renzi foolishly called a nationwide referendum on a proposed a constitutional reform he had expected to win last year, with 65% of Italians participating, he was trounced, 59% to 41%. That defeat precipitated his resignation in December 2016 and replacement by today's Premier Paolo Gentiloni.

     

    Further weakening Renzi's PD was the recent defection of his party's left wing under Pier Luigi Bersani. Polls conducted in late April gave Bersani's new mini-party, Movimento dei Democratici e Progressisti (MdP), perhaps 4% of future voters, and the PD reduced to under 27% -- hence Renzi's plea for a quick national vote that might curb further PD losses.

     

    Renzi's loss was the gain of what is now being called "Grillism." Beppe Grillo's M5S has steadily forged ahead of the PD, currently reaching some 27%, according to an EMG poll measuring "intentions to vote." Alligned with Renzi and Grillo is Berlusconi's renovated Forza Italia, which EMG estimates at copping around 13% of the vote.

     

    The battle for early elections is not yet won, nevertheless. New elections bring the risk of a possibly chaotic future for the government, plus leave a host of unfinished bills in Parliament. "Renzi is putting personal power before the interests of the country," thundered Mario Monti, senator and former premier, on May 31.

     

    The problems begin with writing a new law governing the rules for voting, just now in a tumultuous marathon session under debate in Parliament. In essence, two alternate versions are being considered: majority versus proportional rule. In the majority vote, or first past the post, the winner takes all; as presently written, if that winner gains over 40% of the vote, the party takes 55% of the seats in Parliament.

     

    The more likely outcome is a return to the former proportional system, in which each party wins the exact percentage in Parliament (Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) as earned in the polls. Here the weak point is that the system obliges the winners to form coalitions that are not necessarily easy to create or to manage. For Valerio Onida, former president of the Constitutional Court, however, this is not a defect: "The logic of forming a coalition, inherent in the proportional vote, reflects today's Italian political reality as well as voters' orientation."

     

    The proposed new voting law, Renzi style, would eliminate any party (or force it into wobbly coalitions) that failed to earn 5% of the vote. Those most antagonzied by this possibility include the moderately rightwing Alternativa Popolare (AN), which was created only last March 18 and is headed by Angelino Alfano, angry because until now his party has served as Renzi's prop in the present coalition government.

     

    Given the uncertainties, numerous serious commentators are begging for the big parties to slow down. The gloomiest prediction is that the proposed early elections will lead only to months wasted in trying, without success, to create a new coalition government, with months wasted until a second national general election has to be scheduled in the end. Opponents also point out that these past five years have been particularly unproductive. Not least, unfinished projects are crowded onto the Parliamentary agenda, beginning with the budget bill.

     

    At the moment, Renzi and Berlusconi are projecting a coalition together, sarcastically dubbed "Renziconi-ism." Such an alliance with Berlusconi would obviously antagonize those PD voters who had originally signed onto what they thought would be a Social Democratic party.

     

    There are alternatives to Berlusconi: Renzi could seek to work together with such relative national newcomers as the much admired former Milan mayor Stefano Parisi, who has just created his own new party, Energie per l'Italia. In theory, other small moderate groups, including even Alfano's newly minted Alternativa Popolare (AP) could make common cause with Renzi's PD.

     

    Alligned against a "Renziconi" solution are Grillo along with populist leader Salvini, an admirer of Marine Le Pen. Salvini's Lega Nord party (which has long since gone national) now commands perhaps 12.5% in a potential election. If the polls are right, together these two could have almost 40% of the vote. However, Grillo's supporters are loners, and this may prohibit these two from joining forces.

     

    New elections would mean tearing up a host of important bills, besides the crucial budget, pending before Parliament. One, dubbed the Anti-Mafia Code, would permit the seizure of property illicitly gained through corruption. Others are a reform of the statute of limitations; a law permitting a patient the right to refuse medical care at the end of his life; another granting citizenship to immigrants' children born or raised in Italy; legalization of cannabis for personal use; and, lastly, a law making torture a criminal offense (!)

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    Court Ruling Gives Italian Culture a Black Eye

    The last thing Italy needs is to give its cultural heritage a black eye, or, as Totti's countless fans might put it, an "autogol," whereby you score your own goal. But that is just what has happened. When Culture Minister Dario Franceschini opened the directorship of 32 of Italy's top museums to international, as well as Italian, art experts with managerial experience, there were huzzahs worldwide. As a direct consequence of Franceschini's reform and other measures taken under his stewardship, attendance at museums, including those with relatively few visitors in the past, has soared.

     

    On May 24, however, the Lazio administrative court tribunale, TAR, cancelled six of Franceschini's appointments on grounds that these directors are not Italian citizens. Those annulled by TAR were Martina Bagnoli, head of the Estensi Galleries of Modena; Eva Degl'Innocenti, National Archaeological Museum of Taranto; Carmelo Malacrino, National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria; Paolo Giulierini, National Archaeological Museum of Naples; and Peter Assmann, Palazzo Ducale of Mantua. The case against the non-Italian directors was brought to the tribunal by protesting Italian art experts who had themselves applied for the posts.

     

    Under Franceschini, the Culture Ministry issued a call for "maximum experts in the field of museum management, subject to rigid procedures of selection by a commission of experts of clear fame and highest scientific level." This reform was greeted with enthusiasm worldwide, and among the widely praised appointees was Eike Schmidt, the prestigious German art historian who has headed the Uffizi Galleries of Florence since 2015. Schmidt, whose appointment has not yet been cancelled, was asked if the TAR decision was distressing. "Frankly, I was far more shocked when the TAR allowed the fake 'gladiators' back into the Colosseum," he replied. "That seemed like a comedy sketch but instead was reality." But if the reforms are blocked, Schmidt acknowledged, "It will be a disaster."

     

    Franceschini's reform gave 32 museums full autonomy for scientific studies, organization, finance and accounting. On Aug. 18, 2015, he announced the names of the first 20 new directors of these museums. Seven were non-Italians even though not all his appointees are actually "foreign" citizens, but had worked abroad for many years. Bagnoli, for instance, grew up in Italy, before studying at Cambridge University in the UK and at Johns Hopkins in the US, and becoming head of the Baltimore Museum in Maryland. Degl'Innocenti was born in Pistoia and was graduated from Pisa before working at museums in Bretagna and Paris.

     

    On learning of last week's TAR decision, Minister Franceschini gasped, literally, "There are no words", before adding, "What a figuraccia for Italy" (translates to "this cuts a really bad figure for Italy). Along with an irate Franceschini, the former -- and probably future -- Premier Matteo Renzi was furious at the TAR. But the game is far from over, for, speaking for the government, Mauro Guerra, member of Parliament for Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), has requested the State Council, to which the TAR responds, to suspend the sentence. An audience on the question is slated for June 15.

     

    TAR itself has come under severe criticism for other of its actions. Besides readmitting the fake gladiators into the Colosseum area, where they have been accused of hectoring tourists, the TAR rejected a Venetian plea to disallow gigantic cruise ships from entering into lagoon waters. It also blocked funding for the restructuring Bari's historic Piccinni Theater and for maintaining the city's public fountains. In May 2016 TAR suspended restoration work on Andrea Palladio's Ponte Vecchio, also known as the Ponte degli Alpini, built at Bassano del Grappa over the Brenta River in in 1569.

     

    For its part, a key TAR defense is that the selection of candidates took part behind closed doors, and, for candidates from as far away as Australia, via Skype, rather than in public, where outsiders could evaluate the fairness of the process. The authoritative art historian Tomaso Montanari, who heads a group calling itself "Emergenza Cultura," says that the reform under Franceschini "was done in a rush and was technically poor."

     

    In addition, as other observers are pointing out, the TAR is non-political but must ensure that the laws are correctly observed. "The procedures for selection were poor in several points," the TAR pointed out. Besides the selection behind closed doors, no system of giving points to candidates appeared.

     

    An amendment to Franceschini's museum reform was being presented May 31 in Parliament as part of the very complex financial maneuver. Whether or not this will save the day is not clear. Meantime a nervous Ministry must select 14 candidates to manage nothing less than the Colosseum -- and among those under consideration are a number of non-Italians.

  • Op-Eds

    Statistics illustrate How Italy Loves and Lives

    What is romance worth? Multimedial retailer QVC Italia, which sells products on line by broadcasting on multiple platforms including Sky, had statisticians from an outfit called Human Highway try to figure this out. The results were meant to calculate what love brings in terms of spending on clothes, food, beauty products and even household necessities. Three levels of loving were calculated. The least, E100 ($112), was spent upon his or her saying, "I love you" -- enough, perhaps, for a fancy dinner. A bit more, E127 ($143) was splashed out when he or she declared, "You are all mine." More, if not a gigantic amount, E450 ($505), was spent when the couple exclaimed, "Let's get married!"

     

    In respect to the fashionable journalistic term, full disclosure, this reporter is obliged to confess that, however less than brilliant a student of economics, I spent a good deal of university time studying economic theory, still a terrific way to begin analysis of most problems. And so, if the above research gives us a picture of the value of love in real, rather than imaginary poetic terms, other current statistics also contribute to a snapshot of Italian life at a time of radical social change.

     

    Translating love into marriage, it may come as a surprise that these are on the rise. In 2015 194,377 marriages were celebrated, 4,600 more than the previous year, according to a recent report by Istat, the reputable public statistics-gathering service. This serious turn-about seems to reflect two things. The first is the slight upsurge in the economy (and especially exports); during the bleak years between 2008, when the recession began, and 2014, some 10,000 fewer marriages were celebrated every single year. As an aside, of all these marriages, just over 12% were between an Italian citizen and a spouse with a foreign passport.

     

    A possible secondary cause is passage of a new law speeding up the bureaucratic business of divorce. In fact, in the current turnabout, church marriages waned and those celebrated in town halls rose 8% more in 2015 than in 2014. Statistics also show that the average length of a marriage before divorce now stands at 17 years. At the same time, the number of divorces rose to a striking degree, up 57% over 2014; again, that radical upsurge is considered primarily due to the new speedy divorce law. Even so, at the time of divorce the average age of the husband is 48, the wife, 45.

     

    In terms of culture, Italians can take pride in the fact that 30% visit museums while one out of four (24%) tour archaeological sites. Half of those over age 6 have been to the cinema recently. At almost 49% of the total, women read more books than men, 48.6%, over the past 12 months. Nine out of ten, male and female, watch TV habitually, and 52% of the men and 42% of the women read a newspaper or news magazine at least once a week.

     

    The perhaps most dismal picture concerns Italian youth. In 2016 Italy fared worst in the entire European Union for the number of its young people,  2.2 million between the ages of 15 and 29, who neither attend school nor hold down jobs. Not surprisingly, therefore, two out of every three Italians of up to the age of 34, or 8.6 million (68%), still live at home with their parents. "In Italy, the children of the leadership class go to university and become in turn part of the managerial class. Working-class youth have trouble entering the job market, which still offers above all non-qualified jobs while those jobs on the intermediate level simply disappear," according to Rosaria Amato, writing in La Repubblica daily.

     

    As a result, the November 2016 Istat figures also demonstrate that the entire class system in Italy is changing, and rapidly. The old, familiar working classes in Italy are now divided into subgroups. Those jobs which require no qualifications are increasing while the intermediate levels are disappearing, with obvious, serious political repercussions for the future.

     

    And so to health and old age, Italy's elderly live longer than most in West Europe, to 83.2 years by comparison with the European average, 81 years; in the U.S. the average life span in 2014 was only 79 years of age, a tribute, perhaps, to the attention paid to nutrition as well as to the existence of a still functioning public health system.  On the other hand, current statistics indicate that the families suffering from real poverty have risen from 11.5% of the total in 2015 to 11.9% last year, while the number of families at risk of falling into poverty are seen as almost 29% of the population today.

  • Op-Eds

    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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