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Articles by: Maria rita Latto

  • Holocaust Remembrance day in Europe and Italy

    January 27, 2010 also marks the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army. Survivors and other visitors arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oswiecim, Poland for the main ceremony. Up to 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished at the camp during World War Two. Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau of Tel Aviv, a Holocaust survivor, recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, while sirens wailed across the barracks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that his country would never allow anyone to erase the memory of the victims of Nazi Germany’s extermination camps. Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski recalled the pain of the Polish nation which was occupied by Nazi Germany throughout the war, but also acknowledged the unique suffering of Jews, who were targeted for extermination.

    In Italy, President Giorgio Napolitano hosted the celebrations at the Quirinale. “The Shoah,” he said, “was a tragic experience full of lessons and values. The rights of all peoples are inalienable, and among them is the right of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel to live in safety.” At Montecitorio, the Speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, introduced Holocaust survivor and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel who delivered a major speech to Italy’s Parliament. “Whether at the lowest level of politics or the highest level of spirituality, silence never helps the victims. Silence always helps the aggressor,” Wiesel told parliamentarians and top officials including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A source within Wiesel’s entourage later told Reuters that the words “highest level of spirituality” were a reference to Pope Pius XII who headed the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, and who is at the center of a debate over what he did or did not do to help Jews during the war. This is destined to remain a burning issue between Catholics and Jews, and Wiesel’s reference to Pope Pius showed no sign of resolving it. In his speech Wiesel also renewed his demand for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and called for the destruction of Israel, to be arrested the next time he leaves Iran. “He should be hauled off to the International Court of Justice to face charges for inciting crimes against humanity," Wiesel said.

    Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that remembering the Holocaust was a duty “so that this does not happen again.” Although this year marks the 65th anniversary of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it has been observed in Italy only since 2000. Berlusconi continued by saying that “for 10 years, Italy has remembered the criminal Nazi plan that ended with the extermination of Jews, Roma [gypsies], homosexuals and political opponents. The memory and history of the Shoah should be a warning for rulers and citizens, youths and adults, so that each person’s behavior may be inspired by respect for others, for human rights, for the dignity of the person, and the values of equality, freedom and justice.” Berlusconi plans to make an official visit to Israel late next week which will include a stop in the occupied Palestinian territories.

    At almost the same time, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at the Vatican, recalled “the horror of crimes of unheard-of brutality that were committed in the death camps created by Nazi Germany. May the memory of those events, especially the tragedy of the Shoah that has struck the Jewish people, encourage respect for the dignity of every person so that all men can see themselves as part of one big family,” he said.

    Throughout Italy the departed victims of the Holocaust were commemorated and honored in different ways. The mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, presented the keys of the city to Jewish writer Amos Oz during an event called the “Triviality of Evil,” organized by the Region of Tuscany and which hosted guests, victims of Nazi persecution, and nearly 9,000 students from schools all over Tuscany. 

    The Governor of Campania, Antonio Bassolino, used his website to discuss his visit to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, and promote his region’s support for the Train of Memory, the program in which 100 students from the Campania region travel from Naples to Auschwitz. Bassolino also stated that during the visit to the concentration camp, each student would adopt the photo of one of the millions of victims of Nazi violence.

    On the morning of Remembrance Day at Central Station in Milan, a train left from Platform 21 headed to Auschwitz. It was a way to remember the trains that left from that very track and brought so many Jews face to face with the horror of that concentration camp. This time, though, the passengers aboard the train included 600 students from schools in Milan participating in the “Journeys of Memory” event organized by the Province of Milan.

    In Rome, Mayor Gianni Alemanno hosted a celebration in Casilinoin front of an audience of Roma (gypsies) adults and children, many of whom traveled from other parts of Italy to participate in Porrajmos, a ceremony commemorating the extermination of gypsies, Roma and Sinti.

    Franco Grillini, the representative of Gaynet, expressed his bitterness over “the forgotten victims – the homosexual victims of Nazi-Fascism. On January 27, Soviet troops found Pink Triangles which had been left by interned homosexuals who had been brought there under duress by the Nazis. Homosexuals were not freed but rather transferred directly from the camps to national prisons, continuing the horror of incarceration.” 

    Renato Schifani, Speaker of the Italian House of Senate, was at the Risiera of San Sabba near Trieste, the only extermination camp in Italy. “Today I, too, am a Jew,” he said in his speech, wearing a yellow Star of David, the distinctive mark worn by Jews during Nazi persecution. 

    A dark shadow, however, was cast over the celebrations early in the morning when Jewish slurs appeared on the walls of several buildings in Rome, including on Via Tasso in front of the Museum of Liberation. The museum is particularly symbolic because during the Nazis occupation of Rome it served as a prison where so many cruel acts were committed against those who opposed the regime.

    The offensive graffiti demonstrates that despite the many celebrations there is still a very real risk that what happened during the Nazi period could happen once again. Episodes like this should be taken very seriously and not simply dismissed as acts of stupidity. This is why the value of memory lies in maintaining its vitality and actively preventing it from becoming a sterile celebration and allowing it to lose its power.

  • Facts & Stories

    Silent Tension and Harsh Debates. The Pope's Visit to the Synagogue of Rome

    Jewish leaders from around the world traveled to Rome for the German-born Benedict's third visit to a synagogue as pope, after visiting synagogues in Cologne, Germany and New York. It was an opportunity for him to follow in the steps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who in Rome, 1986 was the first pontiff to ever visit a synagogue.

    The disappointment in the Jewish community was prompted by the Pontiff's decision last month to position wartime Pope Pius XII closer to sainthood. Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius, pope from 1939 to 1958, was largely silent on the Holocaust and should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Among the victims there were more than 1,000 Roman Jews who were deported in 1943 from the old Ghetto neighborhood, across the river from the Vatican. 

    Piero Terracina, one of about a dozen survivors of the deportation, said he would not attend Benedict's visit. "I am convinced that if the Pope had come out, had made one single gesture, the Roman Jews would not have been deported, but that didn't happen," Terracina declared in the Corriere della Sera. The Vatican rejects these accusations, stating that Pius was not silent but worked behind the scenes because public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler. If this is so, why has the Vatican refused to open the archives from Pope Pius’ tenure to show proof?

    Furthermore, signing a decree attesting to Pius' “heroic virtues,” and practically paving the way for him to be beatified once a miracle attributed to his intercession is confirmed, was another negative fact in the eyes of the Jews. Jewish groups want the process frozen until more Vatican archives are opened to scholars. 

    Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy's rabbinical assembly, announced that he would not attend the visit on Sunday to protest what he said were a series of moves by the Vatican seen as disrespectful to Jews. "The Pope knew perfectly well that several weeks later he would be visiting the Synagogue and he knew how sensitive we are about the issue of Pius XII.

    Wouldn't it have been opportune to delay [the decision] by a few months?" Laras asked the Milan newspaper Il Giornale. On the other hand, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who hosted Benedict's visit to a New York synagogue in 2008, said he respects those made uncomfortable by the beatification plan, but told the Associated Press that "one should not be paralyzed by the past, one has to move on." Days before the visit, Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni tried to reassure the Jewish community: "It will be a meeting of peace, friendship, and mutual respect," he said. "But above all it will be an example of how to coexist even if we have differences." Cardinal Walter Kasper, the top Vatican official in charge of Jewish relations, said that "problems and difficulties will be open until the last day of history," but "the visit will not speak about the problems but about what we have in common." Kasper also said that the beatification is an "internal question of the Church" and has to do with the "spiritual judgment" of Pius, not his historical role.  

    Other disputes that have strained Jewish-Catholic relations include Benedict's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop last year and his 2007 decision to revive Latin Mass, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews. 

    After so many controversies taking place over several weeks, the day of the visit to the Synagogue finally arrived. The Pope was welcomed with warm applause despite the chilly weather. Before entering, he placed flowers before memorial tablets marking two of the darkest moments in the history of the Jewish community of Rome: one commemorates the round-up and deportation of 1,022 Jews on October 16, 1943; the other recalls October 9, 1982, the day of a terrorist attack at the Synagogue in which a two-year-old child was killed.

    Among those present at the Tempio Maggiore were survivors of Nazi extermination camps who had decided not to boycott the ceremony; they were visibly moved when the Pontiff mentioned in his speech the Shoah, one of the greatest tragedies in human history. He called on Catholics and Jews to keep an open dialogue and work together to tackle problems, such as poverty and disease. "This rule urges Jews and Christians to practice, in our time, special generosity towards the poor, towards women and children, strangers, the sick, the weak, and the needy." Christians and Jews "share to a great extent a common spiritual heritage," but "often remain unknown to each other," he said. "It is our duty, in response to God's call, to strive to keep an open space for dialogue, for reciprocal respect, for growth in friendship, for a common witness in the face of the challenges of our time which invite us to cooperate for the good of humanity...." Benedict XVI also told the audience that the Vatican “provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way,” but he did not mention Pope Pius by name.

    There was a heavy silence indicating that tensions are still present and that there is an invisible presence, one that is impossible to ignore and continues to create an evidently embarrassing situation. 

    Although the Pope did not mention Pope Pius by name, it was inevitably uttered by the president of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, who observed that the Pontiff’s visit “will leave a profound mark,” not only from a religious perspective, “but most of all, the positive effect we hope it will have on civil society.” Pacifici also stressed his appreciation for the Pope’s “courageous position” on immigration. Recalling that his father, Emanuele Pacifici, escaped the Holocaust because he was hidden in the convent of the Sisters of St. Marta in Florence, Pacifici noted that thousands of Catholics had helped Jews, emphasizing that they did so “without asking for anything in return.” In this context he deemed the supposed silence of Pope Pius XII a “missed opportunity” that could have given courage and hope to those who fled extermination. Pacifici concluded his speech by stressing that the dialogue between Jews and Christians “can and must continue.”  

    The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, who presided over the event, remembered John Paul II's visit in 1986. On that historic occasion he referred to the Jews as “our beloved brothers.” It was the first visit by a pope to a Jewish house of worship and was an important step toward largely improved relations. “If ours is a relationship of brothers,” Rabbi Di Segni said, “we should ask ourselves quite sincerely where we are on this journey and how far we still have to travel before we can arrive at an authentic relationship of brotherhood and understanding, and what we have to do to achieve this.” And, referring to the previous days’ debate, he stated that while “the silence of God” is inscrutable, “the silence of man is on a different level” and “it does not escape justice.” Once again the presence of Pius XII is impossible to escape until the Vatican archives become accessible, clarifying any doubts and eliminating every shadow.   

    The wound is still present and it is impossible to recover from it. Several hours before the Pope’s arrival, Pacifici was outside the Synagogue talking with journalists and stated that he belonged to a generation of Jews who for many years refused to buy items produced in Germany as a reaction to the horror they had lived through, even indirectly. He also was also reminded of friends who for a long time would not take a plane that flew over German air space. Pacifici said that, luckily, those times are over. A German pope visiting the Synagogue is a small step and, despite the debate, his presence was an occasion to pray together, find common ground, and break the silence.

  • Facts & Stories

    “We Are Not Animals!” Italy’s Racial Riots and Their Aftermath

    "Those guys were firing at us as if it was a fairground," one of the men told La Repubblica newspaper. "They were laughing, I was screaming, other cars were passing by but nobody stopped them."

    The reaction to the events was furious. More than 2,000 African immigrants, most of whom employed illegally as farm laborers, blamed the episode on racism and gathered in the town centre to demonstrate against the shooting and their living and working conditions. Some chanted "We are not animals", others carried placards saying "Italians here are racist." Their protest continued leading to violence in the streets of Rosarno; the crowd set cars on fire, stoned the police, attacked residents and smashed shop windows. Police said that at least 60 people were wounded, including immigrants themselves, locals and policemen.

    This situation lasted three days. Some Italian residents, armed with iron bars and wooden staves, erected roadblocks next to buildings where immigrant farm workers live. Some local people occupied the City Council building demanding that the police cleared the immigrants out of the town. Domenico Ventre, the former head of civil protection department of Rosarno's council, condemned the rioting. "In Rosarno the immigrants are well cared of, and their reaction to this isolated episode is disproportionate," he said. "We cannot accept that they destroy our town and scare the citizens." Other citizens, afraid to venture into the streets, holed up in their homes, the media reported. "You would step out and buy some bread only because you have to eat, but if I could choose I wouldn't go out for an evening walk," said Renato Cortese, a top police official interviewed  for the evening news.

    The Minister of Interior, Roberto Maroni, in charge of State Police, sent over 200 police officers because of the highly inflamed situation; schools and shops were closed. Those who were injuried more seriously were three immigrants: two were beaten up with metal bars, doctors at the emergency room in a hospital near Rosarno said. One had kidney surgery and the other was treated for an eye socket fracture. A third was taken to Reggio Calabria for brain surgery.

    Several immigrants were arrested together with some Italians including two who tried to hit the demonstrators with their vehicles. Calm was generally restored on Saturday 9, with barricades erected by locals dismantled and shops open.

    Authorities, applauded by the locals, transferred more than 1,000 people, mostly illegal temporary workers from sub-Saharan Africa, to immigrant centres around Italy in an operation that lasted throughout Sunday. Even workers with regular residence permits left the town to escape a situation that a political commentator compared to the Ku Klux Klan racial violence in the United States in the 1960s. Immigrants without regular papers risk expulsion to their country of origin as the authorities began demolishing their former makeshift homes in Rosarno. Minister Maroni said the government had "brilliantly restored public order" and thanked the police for organizing the exodus "in an exemplary way."

    A protest of such magnitude was never seen in Italy before, despite frequent episodes of intolerance against immigrants—some reported by the media and many, too many, remaining untold for fear or humiliation.

    This time, though, something new happened. Hunger exploded. Immigrants had been camping out in tents and cardboard shelters within an abandoned cheese factory with no heating, running water or electricity on the outskirts of Rosarno. Human rights groups add that they are easily exploited by organized crime. Rosarno's priest, Don Carmelo Ascone, described their living conditions as "something similar to Dante's Inferno".

    According to the CGIL public sector union, about 26,400 immigrants were employed in Calabria's agriculture sector in 2007; fewer than 7,000 of them held regular working permits, a situation which is common all over Italy. And immigrants in Calabria add they earn illegally low wages, as little as 20 euros ($30) for a 12-hour day picking citrus fruit and other crops. Despite chronically high unemployment rates in Italy's underdeveloped South, many residents refuse to do the backbreaking seasonal farm work. This, coupled with frequent episodes of racism and intolerance, eventually sparked the riots in Rosarno.

    This spiral of violence stirred many reactions in the country. Opposition politicians accused Premier Silvio Berlusconi's coalition, which includes an openly xenophobic party, the Lega Nord, of failing to allow the immigrants to find proper housing and jobs, which are necessary to obtain regular residence permits. Minister Maroni, a member of the Lega Nord party, replied by suggesting that the violence resuted from a general failure to address the issue of illegal workers in the country.  "The situation in Rosarno, like in other places, is difficult because illegal immigration—which feeds criminal activities—has been tolerated for years and nothing effective was never done about it," he told La Repubblica newspaper. But the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party Pierluigi Bersani commented that it is Berlusconi and the right-wing that have been governing the country for most of the past decade: "Maroni is passing the buck ... We have to go to the roots of the problem: mafia, exploitation, xenophobia, and racism."

    The right-wing daily Il Giornale, owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, agreed that illegal immigrants should be kept out of the country. However, it added: "Once they are here, they cannot be shamefully exploited and shot at while they accept jobs that our unemployed sneer at."

    Father Luigi Ciotti, founder of the anti-mafia association Libera, pointed the finger at the 'Ndrangheta, the local criminal organization that dominates Calabria. "The mafia, which controls the region, cynically and pitilessly exploits the immigrants," he told the daily La Stampa. "The criminal bosses know that illegal immigrants cannot even try to rebel because they have no identity documents and therefore no protection from the state." According to Italy's main trade union CGIL, about 50,000 immigrant workers in Italy live in poor conditions similar to those in Rosarno. The union also accused the mafia of controlling the “industry” of illegal labor saying that immigrants are paid "miserable salaries and have terrible hours, similar to slavery".

    Agazio Loiero, the governor of the Calabria region and a member of the Democratic Party, told Sky TV that the violence was "unacceptable" but that the migrants had been "strongly provoked."

    Pope Benedict departed from the prepared text of his weekly Angelus blessing to appeal for tolerance. "An immigrant is a human being, different in origin, culture and tradition but he is a person with rights and duties who must be respected," he told the crowd in Saint Peter's Square.

    These words peace seem so far from the nightmare of Rosarno where tolerance was a mere word, a mirage in a desert of resentment, in a war of poor against poor. It is impossible to forget the images of the riots on television, the rage of exasperated locals, or those mothers holding their children, protesting under the windows of the Town Hall, yelling "Bastards! Shame on you!" against those who fed the immigrants after hours of absurd, surreal and yet so real fight.
    Is this the real face of Italy? Is this Calabria? Just two months ago, at the 10th Summit of the Nobel Peace Laureates in Berlin German director Wim Wenders told a different story about Calabria, where he recently shot his latest movie “The Flight”. Based on a true story, the movie is about two towns, Badolato and Riace, that opened some of the houses abandoned by Calabrian emigrants to foreign refugees, making a true miracle of social integration. Wenders described this experience as “the most beautiful thing of my life,” addying: “Utopia is not the fall of Berlin Wall, but what I witnessed there. People often talk of a global village and I believe that those two Calabrian towns are the perfect metaphor of this idea.”

  • Facts & Stories

    G8 Summit. The Obamas Visit Italy (and the Vatican)

    Images from the last G-8 summit are burned into the memories of those who have been following the event all over the world. How can one forget the expression on Michelle Obama’s face as she toured L’Aquila’s center looking at the destruction from the earthquake? The First Lady shook her head in disbelief as she stood in front of damaged centuries-old churches and other treasures reduced to rubble by the earthquake that claimed more than 300 lives. Michelle Obama walked along piles of debris through L’Aquila’s main square and in front of a destroyed government palace. The First Lady was concerned about the homeless children living in tents and she appeared moved by the many sad stories from the earthquake.

    Another image includes the residents of L’Aquila who toyed with President Obama’s campaign slogan, waving “Yes, we camp” signs as the U.S. leader visited the historic town square destroyed during the April earthquake.

    After her return to Rome from L’Aquila, Michelle Obama, joined by her daughters, took a private, 30-minute tour of the Pantheon, the well-preserved ancient monument with a massive concrete dome in the heart of the city. Isabella Rauti, the wife of Rome’s mayor, told the Italian news agency ANSA that the First Lady had spoken to her about her daughters, Malia and

    Sasha, saying: “I want to teach them that Italy isn’t just pizza.” It may be true, but besides Rome’s ancient monuments there’s also…ice cream! Malia and Sasha Obama were given the opportunity to make a tasty discovery, and the photos that appeared all over the world show another aspect of the U.S. President’s visit to Italy.

    Malia, 11, wearing sunglasses and a T-shirt with a peace sign, 8-year-old Sasha, dressed in green shorts, went with their grandmother to Giolitti, the capital’s best-known ice cream shop. The girls were given aprons and cloths and learned how to make ice cream, choosing blackberry and banana flavors, said proprietor Nazareno Giolitti. “Right after they made gelato, they tasted it straight from the machine, and the youngest said, ‘It really tastes like blackberries,’” he reported. Giolitti also said the two girls left with about 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) each of the ice cream they made as a special present for their mother. Giolitti showed Italian national TV a tub of some of the blackberry flavor the girls made, and said that after the Obama sisters left the leftover ice cream was quickly snapped up by customers. At sunset, Malia and Sasha joined their mother for a private tour of the Coliseum.

    After about 40 minutes, the trio left the ancient Roman arena, with Malia clutching a guide book. Sasha had changed from her shorts to a floral-print dress for the guided tour. The Roman holiday continued in the alleys around the Pantheon, where the paparazzi could not believe their luck as they met Michelle Obama and her daughters taking a walk in the heart of the city, looking for a restaurant.

    It was the image of a first lady demonstrating sincere simplicity, living her life as normally as possible. And, like all the American tourists who want to taste authentic “macaroni,” she decided to spend a special evening with her daughters in a real Roman trattoria eating pasta, “only pasta”. The chef, faced with the experience of a lifetime, outdid himself, preparing “un trionfo” of lasagnette al ragù, carbonara, amatriciana, fettuccine burro e parmigiano, and fettuccine al tartufo. It was unforgettable!

    The photo album of President Obama’s trip includes the image of a historical moment: the first-ever meeting between Obama and Pope Benedict XVI that took place in the Vatican on Friday, July 10. It was scheduled after Obama returned from the last session of the G-8 summit held in the central Italian city of L’Aquila. The meeting between Obama, a Protestant, and the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics was seen as an important moment because the two figures share similar views on helping the downtrodden and pushing for peace in the Middle East, but disagree on abortion and stem cell research.

    Obama first had a short meeting with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, followed by a private talk with Benedict XVI. His wife and their two children joined Obama at the end of the private talk with the Pontiff. Obama arrived at the Vatican under tight security, with much of the area around the Vatican blocked off; cell phone access was jammed as his motorcade passed. Obama was driven up to the San Damaso courtyard at the base of the apostolic palace where he was greeted by the Swiss Guard in full regalia.

    As pictures were taken at the beginning of the meeting, the Pope asked Obama about the summit and he replied: “It was very productive, particularly today.”

    The U.S. President and the Pontiff talked about Middle East peace, immigration reform, and sensitive bioethics matters. “The Pontiff told me that President Obama affirmed his personal commitment to try to reduce the number of abortions in the United States,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

    This meeting took place after signs from both sides indicated that were ready to begin a dialogue. The Pope had repeatedly expressed his eagerness to work with the American president. In an unusual move, the Vatican sent Obama a congratulatory message directly after his election; typically the Pope waits until the inauguration to congratulate a new president. He sent another telegram after Obama was sworn in, following with a telephone call.

    The President also took steps to reach out to the Vatican, such as inviting editors and reporters from various Roman Catholic publications to the White House before embarking on his trip to the G-8 conference. President Obama “is eager to find common ground on these issues and will work aggressively to do that,” said Denis McDonough, Deputy U.S. National Security Advisor. He added, however, that there may be areas where the two leaders will not reach an agreement.

    Despite the best intentions of finding as much common ground as possible, problems between the Pope and Obama quickly surfaced. Less than two months after his inauguration, Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, which the Vatican opposes because it destroys fetuses. U.S. Catholic bishops criticized Obama for lifting the ban and later many of the bishops denounced Notre Dame University, a leading American Catholic institution, for giving Obama an honorary degree.
    Though the Vatican says that it still wants to continue to have a constructive dialogue with Obama on a host of issues, including peace, the Middle East, the environment, and the Muslim world.

    On a personal note, Obama handed the Pope a letter from Senator Edward Kennedy and asked the Pontiff to pray for the senator who is suffering from an incurable brain tumor. Obama telephoned Senator Kennedy just before leaving Rome for Ghana, said Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, who emphasized that no one but Senator Kennedy knew the contents of the letter.

    Michelle Obama, the couple’s daughters, as well as Obama’s mother-in-law and the girls’ godmother also spent time with the Pope, said Gibbs. Before her arrival at the Vatican, Michelle Obama and Malia and Sasha were given a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.

    According to press reports, the Pope gave Obama a little green book that was not the social encyclical published on July 7, Veritas in Caritate, which was the planned gift announced in a press office bulletin. The Pope also gave him the encyclical, as planned, in a special white leather edition. The green book, apparently added at the last minute since it wasn’t mentioned in the pre-visit press release, was an Instruction entitled Dignitas Personae (Dignity of the Person) published on December 12, 2008 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is a Vatican document which makes the philosophical and theological argument that human beings have a profound, inalienable dignity and lays out the basis for a just society, beginning with the defense of the most innocent of human beings, the unborn.

    There was a traditional exchange of gifts: Pope Benedict gave Obama a mosaic with St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, an autographed copy of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in

    Truth), the little green book, and a medal marking the fifth year of his pontificate. The President told the Pope that the mosaic, which was made in the Vatican’s mosaic studio, “was very beautiful” and would have “a place of honor” in the White House. Obama gave the Pope a liturgical stole that had been on the remains of St. John Neumann, the first U.S. male citizen to be canonized. Pope Benedict then told the President: “A blessing on all your work and also for you.” The president responded, “Thank you very much. We look forward to a very strong relationship.”

    After the meeting, Obama left the Vatican to fly to Ghana where he was expected at a state dinner in the evening. He had been at the Vatican for a little more than an hour.

    Father Lombardi, speaking to the press about an hour after Obama had left, said the meeting and the atmosphere were “very cordial and calm.” He said that “the president is clearly charismatic, and this was noted by the people around the Pope from the Prefecture of the papal household to the Gentlemen of His Holiness. He has a great capacity for treating people well.” Father Lombardi said the Pope told him afterwards that he was “extremely satisfied, content, and serene” with how the talk went.

    The Pope noted that the President spoke of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions and was sensitive to the Church’s position on moral issues, Lombardi said.

    The Pope also noted that Obama was an attentive participant and a patient listener, Lombardi said. In terms of international politics, Lombardi referred to the situation in the Middle East, saying that “there is a convergence of views,” especially over whether Palestine and Israel should be two independent states, whether settlements should be stopped, and that all sides – Israel, Arab states and Palestine – should be willing to talk, end violence, and agree to peace. He said both men underscored the role of education in the commitment to peace, especially to create a new mentality of peace.

    The Pope spoke of the Church’s role in education and President Obama recalled his early education in a Catholic school, Lombardi said.

    Father Lombardi stressed the importance of the meeting between the two leaders, saying that when two people meet personally and get to know each other, it is always a big step forward. He said that Pope Benedict and President Obama addressed each other in English, although two other people were present, Monsignor Peter Wells from the Vatican and an interpreter from Obama’s staff.

    When asked about the Pope’s gift of Dignitas Personae to Obama, Father Lombardi said that it “was not planned, but its meaning is clear.” Repeating himself, Lombardi said the Pope did not wish to stress differences, but rather to put topics and points of view on the table with “clarity and objectivity.” He again defined the meeting as cordial, serene, and very productive.

  • Life & People

    From Showbiz to Parliament. Is this the Italian Women's dream?

    Recently, the Italian media’s attention has been focused on issues that have little to do with politics and the upcoming European elections on June 7 and 8. Various words have reverberated throughout the country lately – velina, letterina, meteorina, and letteronza – words that vaguely mean starlet or showgirl and refer to the tall, thin, beautiful, and scantily-clad young women who appear on Italian television usually dancing, helping to present the show, and sometimes saying a few lines, all while looking provocative but not really doing anything at all. And these words, it seems, have very little to do with such an important political event.

    Since the first phase of candidate selection, news has surfaced of the peculiar way in which some parties have chosen potential candidates, namely Silvio Berlusconi’s party. In the premier’s mind, they should all, both males and females alike, be good-looking, young, and tanned. If they are also qualified for the position, well…so much the better! This criterion has characterized Silvio Berlusconi’s party since his first appearance on the Italian political scene almost two decades ago, and it has since been his

    “signature” on the types of candidates nominated. Year after year, his inclination towards a “physically perfect candidate” has increased, bringing with it the novelty of female officials and undersecretaries who could easily compete in beauty pageants. Stefania Prestigiacomo and Mara Carfagna are the best example of this.  

    The now notorious “Noemigate” has prompted many to reflect on how Italy has been and still is changing politically. Noemi Letizia, whose photos can be seen everywhere in the media, recently admitted her ambition of becoming a velina and her hope to use it as a stepping stone to bigger things, thanks to Papì aka Berlusconi. She is, in fact, merely following in the steps of many other representatives in Berlusconi’s party.

    Previous generations of Italians grew up with the myth of the diploma, that a college degree was synonymous with success and would be met with envy and admiration. Up until the 1990s, most average Italian parents supported their children in their studies and intellectual pursuits. The goal for them was to get a good job and steady employment, the so-called “posto fisso” in a government office. In the last twenty years, we have witnessed a new wave of television programs that are more focused on the “physical” rather than the “intellectual.” Television since then has influenced the behavior and shaped the expectations of everyday Italians, and it has become an attractive industry in which to work because of the desire to “appear,” to become famous, and, of course, because of the high earnings regardless of the quality or difficulty of the work.  

    Many young Italian women dream of becoming a velina or appearing on the Italian version of Big Brother (Grande Fratello) or other reality shows and, eventually, marrying a soccer player.

    My daughter, who is in her last year of high school at the Liceo Classico, told me that she has two friends in her class who put their photos online and have rather unrealistic expectations about imminent careers in showbiz. I went to her school on the last day of classes and asked them to tell me about their average day. Serena, a nice-looking brunette wearing fashionable clothes, starts laughing: “Well, in the morning there is the ‘torture’ that is school. Some days, though, there are casting calls or screen tests, so I’d rather miss a day of school. It’s so important – everything could happen on that day, it could be THE day, and I don’t want to lose out!”

    Sara, the second girl aspiring to be a velina adds: “The days are almost all the same, school in the morning and in the afternoon there’s homework, as well as the gym, casting calls, screen tests, photo sessions, beauty contests. We often go there together. It could happen that one of us, or both, who knows, could be noticed and hired by some director or agent to appear in a commercial, on a quiz show, or on some other kind of show. It would also be good to be on a local television show starting out, just to be seen and recognized.”
    Claudia, 15, is listening and says: “There are so many showgirls who started out by getting a small part on a TV program. Just think of Simona Ventura,Alessia Marcuzzi, Elisabetta Canalis. Ilary Blasi had incredible luck and I want to be like her. Imagine – she started as a letterina on a show on channel five and now she presents the program Le Iene and…she’s married to my idol, Francesco Totti! Forza Roma!”

    Barbara, 18, attends the Liceo Linguistico that’s in the same building. She was left back one year but she’s continuing with school even if her dream is to be in showbiz. “In elementary school I already knew that I liked to be the center of attention. Every Saturday afternoon I asked my mom to take me to the Gilda [a famous Roman disco] for Baby Gilda afternoons. I was eleven and I was dancing on the cube. I felt very comfortable, recognized, admired. I have my photos online and I really hope I get noticed. Dancing is my specialty, even though I think I’m probably going to try the screen tests for the next season of the Big Brother. Right now I’m working part time as a ragazza immagine in a disco.”
    Laura, 17, listens and is horrified: “How can a mother take an eleven year-old girl to a disco and let her dance on a cube? Unbelievable!”

    Ludovica, 19, has a clear idea about her future: “I’m going to keep studying and eventually get a degree in music and the visual and performing arts. I’ll continue with the screen tests, beauty contests, and all that stuff to help pay for college. Last year I was hired by a local television station. It was a program on soccer, with debates and quarrels about the Roman soccer teams, Roma and Lazio. I had to sit on a high stool wearing a mini dress that had a deep, plunging neckline, while listening to everything without saying a word. My moment [in the spotlight] came when I had to read a commercial from a local business that sold bathroom fixtures. It wasn’t a great job, and had nothing to do with being a velina at all. Thanks to the income, though, I was able to buy my first car, even though it was a used one. It’s better than nothing, anyway…”  

    Better than nothing, anyway…the important thing is to appear on TV, to have even five minutes of celebrity while dreaming of becoming a velina. It’s the first step to a career that in the Belpaese could take you straight to Parliament….

  • Life & People

    Once Upon a Time….a Prince!

    The never ending fairy tale of Italian politics has a new character to enrich its surreal atmosphere. In fact, every classic fairy tale needs a prince. This prince is a 100% blue blood by birth. His full name is Emanuele Filiberto Umberto Reza Rene Maria di Savoia, Prince of Venice and Piedmont. He is the only child of Vittorio Emanuele, Prince of Naples, the son of the last king of Italy, Humbert II who died in exile. Emanuele Filiberto, the heir apparent to a crown that no longer exists, was born and raised in Switzerland because the male members of the Savoy family were exiled from Italy after World War II by a provision in the Italian constitution.
    The law reflected the Italian people’s disillusionment and disappointment with the Savoy dynasty, which stemmed from King Vittorio Emanuele III and Humbert II (Emanuele Filiberto’s great-grandfather)’s inability to contain Mussolini’s policies that eventually led to his dictatorship, countless tragedies, and Italy’s defeat in World War II.

    Emanuele Filiberto came to Italy for the first time at the age of 30 when the Italian state lifted the exile in 2002. A year later, he married French actress Clotilde Coureau with much fanfare in the Rome church where his great-grandfather, Vittorio Emanuele III, was also married. Before his return to Italy, he

    had already become famous by appearing on TV talk shows, mostly discussing sports and supporting his favorite soccer team, Juventus F.C., and starring in commercials. He also ran unsuccessfully for office as a candidate for the small political party called Values and Future. Months ago he also starred as a celebrity contestant on Italy’s version of Dancing with the Stars (Ballando con le stelle). He was convinced that by appearing on the show, Italians would “finally be able to understand who Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia really is.” He admitted to not being able to dance, and rejected criticism from monarchists for his decision to take part in the show, saying: “I live in modern times. It’s almost 2010. I have a family with two children to support. I’ve worked since I was 19 and no one has given me anything.”

    Thanks to the show, his wish for the Italian people to understand him finally came true. In fact, despite opposition from some of the jurors, one of whom defined the dancing prince a “piripicchio,” a sort of jester, he won. Viewers defied the decision of the official jury composed of famous people in showbiz, and gave Emanuele Filiberto 75% of the popular vote and one

    million phone calls in his favor, as well as a 60% audience share for the RaiUno TV channel. Since his first episode aired, the public fell in love with the tall, slim, elegant, and charming prince though his movements were described as “wooden” and “stiff.” After his win he declared: “I had the chance to be myself and that’s the ultimate victory for me.” Emanuele Filiberto thanked Italians from the “bottom of [his] heart” for this “absolutely unexpected” win.

    That triumph brought the dancing prince a line of clothing called Principe d’Italia (what else?), more TV appearances, and another attempt at politics, this time running for the European Parliament. He is a candidate for the UDC (Unione di Centro), a center-line party following the tradition of the DC (Democrazia Cristiana). The party’s secretary, Lorenzo Cesa, said: “Emanuele Filiberto will be a great surprise for Italians and European politics. I am convinced that he is an extraordinary and capable person. We are sure that he will defend the values we care about most, which are family and our Christian identity.” Prince Emanuele Filiberto will run in the North Western area, a part of the Belpaese traditionally linked to the Savoy family that has had an established seat in Turin for centuries.

    The young aristocrat shared his exceptional credentials: “I speak five languages, I personally know half of the European heads of state, and I’m related to the other half.” He also has specific ideas on how to approach potential voters: “My electoral campaign will focus on ordinary people in cafés, markets, discos, and young people who are on Facebook, for example.” Day after day, his behavior increasingly resembles that of an experienced politician, making the same rapid strides in politics as he did in dance. For instance during a television debate, a journalist asked his opinion about his family’s recent request of 200 million Euro from the Italian parliament in damages sustained by the male descendants of the Savoy family in exile. The prince, who had initially supported this idea, responded as a skilled politician and quickly rejected it with a less-than regal comment, calling it “stronzate.” With a family to support, such an about-face is rather awkward, even for a successful dancer like Emanuele Filiberto. Furthermore, such a statement bridges the gap between the prince and ordinary people which is the royal candidate’s primary intention. After so many years in exile, he has successfully upheld one of the basic tenets of Italian life, the issue of “tengo famiglia” that is at the heart of most of the Belpaese’s inappropriate behavior.

    Whatever the result, the man who won’t be king, Emanuele Filiberto Umberto Reza Rene Maria di Savoia, or Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia for short, will at least reach his goal of showing the world that he is “un Italiano vero” in every respect.


                                                          Ballando sotto le stelle and Emanuele Filiberto

  • Facts & Stories

    Addio, Addio, Mio Ultimo Amore...

    "Addio, Addio, Mio Ultimo Amore..."

    This is the title of one of the books written by Susanna Agnelli dedicated to Mount Argentario, the splendid archipelago in Tuscany where she served as mayor. Susanna Agnelli chose that natural oasis for her own private funeral service, and her ashes, according to her will, will be scattered in the sea on a stormy day.

    Susanna Agnelli, known as Suni, died on May 15 at the age of 87 in a hospital in Rome from complications stemming from a broken hip. The third of seven children, she was a year younger than her brother Giovanni known as Gianni who was the president of Fiat, the automaker their grandfather started in 1899. When she was 13, her father, Edoardo, was killed in a plane crash. Ten years later her world was shattered again when her half-American mother, Virginia Bourbon del Monte, died in a car accident.

    Susanna Agnelli recounted her early life marked by tragedy with the loss of both parents in her autobiography Vestivamo alla Marinara (We Always Wore Sailor Suits).

    In an ironic and disenchanted voice, she narrates her bittersweet memories of one of the richest families in Italy during the Fascist dictatorship. In this bestseller, there is a gallery of characters who she met early in her life – famous people such as her grandfather and founder of Fiat, Senator Giovanni Agnelli, Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Curzio Malaparte, and her brother Gianni with whom she shared a close and special relationship. There are also ordinary people who made an impression on her life and influenced various aspects of her character. The most important person in this regard was her strict English nanny, Miss Parker, whose constant admonition “Don’t forget that you are an Agnelli” represented the leit motif of her childhood and gave her the awareness that a life full of privilege also required a deep sense of responsibility. Her strong personality led her to be viewed not only as a member of Italy’s powerful Fiat auto dynasty, but also as a key player in Italy’s post-war history.

    A Red Cross volunteer on a hospital ship during World War II, she began her career in politics in the 1970s when she became mayor of Mount Argentario, a village on the Tuscan coast where her family had a home. In this role she fiercely opposed real estate speculation in this natural sanctuary, demonstrating her strong character as a politician along with optimism, seriousness of purpose, and the ability to get things done. She then became a member of parliament representing the center-left Republican Party, and later member of the European Parliament. In 1983 she was named undersecretary of the state for foreign affairs, and she held this position until the early 1990s. It was in Lamberto Dini’s moderate administration that she became the first female in Italy to serve as foreign minister. In this role she used her pragmatism and straightforward language to great effect, undoubtedly rare qualities in Italian politics.

    Besides her intense involvement in politics, Susanna Agnelli also devoted much of her life to charitable and humanitarian causes, and in 1992 she introduced Italy to American-style philanthropy with a telethon, a major TV fundraiser for medical research that she headed.

    She also created Il Faro (The Lighthouse), a foundation where troubled Italian and foreign youth could learn a trade. In the 1980s she became a member of the UN International Human Rights Commission, and was also active in environmental causes with the WWF.

    After World War II she married Count Urbano Rattazzi. The couple had six children and divorced in 1975 after thirty years of marriage. In the early 1970s when the Red Brigade was threatening industrialists in Italy, Susanna Agnelli decided to live in New York for a period of time. Sunday brunches at her home on Park Avenue became legendary, bringing together a wide-range of notables including politicians and cultural icons such as Andy Warhol.

    Her unconventional style was immediately apparent especially in letting her hair go gray and wearing simple, smart pantsuits; these two style choices allowed her to exemplify the physical antithesis of most Italian celebrities.

    Her unconventional style was also reflected in her books along with her sense of humor. For many years she wrote a weekly advice column for the Italian magazine Oggi where she introduced a short, direct, and witty way of answering questions which was the magazine’s highlight for so many admiring readers. When a woman wrote to say that she and her husband were arguing about the name of the baby that they hoped to have, her advice was characteristically blunt: “Get a dog instead.”

    After the death of her favorite brother Gianni in January 2003, she was fundamental in keeping the family united during the crisis in the car industry. She foresaw the importance for the Agnellis to retain a majority stake in Fiat and not give into the temptation to surrender financial control to the banks.

    Her decision to go against part of her family, who in the end did agree with her, demonstrated in time that she was right. The family survived the crisis and Fiat’s latest success in the foreign market is a direct result of her tenacity and optimism. Susanna Agnelli led a very intense public life, yet she was so discreet in her private life and loyal to her “last love”: Mount Argentario where she decided to spend forever after her death on a stormy day.

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy, Where Discrimination is Legalized and Asylum-Seekers Become Criminals. But what about the Catholics?

    The warning of UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy is clear: if its policy of towing migrant boats back to the Libyan coast continues, it will be in violation of international laws. The Italian government has given Libya three patrol boats as part of a deal aimed at combating the flow of illegal migrants making the crossing to Italy. The agreement between Tripoli and Rome to maintain joint naval patrols in the Mediterranean was signed earlier this month. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will ignore the warning and proceed with a series of laws aimed to block the flood of migrants from Africa. On May 13, the right-wing Italian government, already under fire for sending several boats back to Libya, voted to impose stiff new penalties by

    punishing illegal immigrants with a fine up to 10,000 Euro ($13,670), and the who aid them will be liable for up to three months in jail. The bill also increases the period of detention for the identification of illegal immigrants from two months to six. Laurens Jolles, UNHCR’s representative in Italy, met Interior Minister Roberto Maroni to complain about the practice of deporting migrants intercepted at sea.

    Jolles said in a statement after the meeting that such repatriations contradicted the Geneva Convention of 1951. UNHCR says the hundreds of people deported in recent weeks included asylum-seekers, and it calls on Italy to take them back. Roberto Maroni confirmed that the repatriations will go ahead, as provided in the agreement between Libya and Italy. UNHCR said that almost 70% of 31,200 asylum requests in Italy last year came from immigrants who arrived on its southern shores.  

    Last week several boats were returned in a few days, with hundreds of desperate, clandestine migrants ferried to Tripoli by the Italian navy. The ANSA news agency said the latest batch included two babies and about 50 women.  

    Inevitably, Rome’s hard-line stance stirred up reactions by human rights and humanitarian organizations, from the UNHCR, as well as from the Vatican and Italian and foreign politicians. UNHCR spokesperson Laura Boldrini said on Friday that “the migrants were unable to make any demands for asylum because they weren't even received.”  

    The Vatican’s Osservatore Romano newspaper said Rome’s “obligation” was to help those “in desperate straits.” It also said it was “worrisome” that the migrants were not able to request political asylum. Monsignor Agostino Marchetto, the Vatican’s top official for migrant issues, said that sending the migrants back to Libya “violated international rules on refugee rights.” The European Commission said on Friday that it needed more details before it could decide whether Italy’s decision to send the immigrants back to Libya respected European Union laws. “We do want to know what is going on. At this stage we don’t have any details but we are going to monitor the situation,” a justice affairs spokesman for the commission said. 

    Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano also gave his opinion on Friday when he warned of an increase in intolerance towards immigrants in Italy. The president, whose role is largely symbolic, said increases in migrant smuggling “risked creating a diffused perception of insecurity and worrisome instances of intolerance” and cautioned against a “rhetoric that does not hesitate to incorporate intolerant and xenophobic tones.” 

    On Saturday Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi defended the policy of his government, saying it “conforms to European standards, international laws, and conventions concerning human rights that we have not violated.” The Italian premier made immigration and security his main platform in last year’s political election and seems to be repeating this strategy for the EU’s next elections in June as well. Beside the immigration package making irregular immigration a crime, the parliament is also deciding to legalize “citizens’ patrols” in cities to assist police in hunting and reporting any “illegal activities” perpetrated by immigrants. Silvio Berlusconi said that previous left-wing governments had “opened the doors to clandestine migrants coming from other countries, with an idea of a multi-ethnic Italy,” but that kind of society was “not our idea”, he added, trying to reassure all those Italians who are alarmed at the number of immigrants pouring into the country, particularly from Eastern Europe and Africa.

    Mr Berlusconi’s affirmations, which made headlines in Italian newspapers, were welcomed enthusiastically by the Northern League, which sees unchecked immigration as a threat to Italy. “This underscores a revolutionary change from the past,” said the Northern League representative Roberto Calderoli, recommending honorary party membership for Silvio Berlusconi. “Once upon a time there were just a few of us defending Italian identity, but now with the Prime Minister’s words we are in the majority,” Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said. He also added during an electoral meeting in Milan that the UNHRC “it’s not worth a fig” – not a particularly diplomatic statement which was awkwardly corrected a few hours later.  


    Among the many legal proposals aimed at tightening the screw on clandestine immigration, there is one striking proposal by Matteo Salvini, an Italian deputy from the Northern League party. His idea sparked the already “hot” political debate after he said that a certain number of seats on public transportation in his constituency of Milan should be reserved for Italians only, like those reserved for women and the handicapped, “because soon, if immigration does not stop, [local Italians] will become a minority to protect.” After condemnation from representatives of both the right and left, Matteo Salvini had to somehow backtrack and rectify his words, which he characterized as “a joke, a provocation.” The left-wing opposition compared the new direction in the right-wing government to the racial purity laws introduced in Italy in the 1920s by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  

    And what about the Italians? Are they agreeing with this new pre-electoral development in Berlusconi’s politics? Last week, during the TV program Ballarò, the authoritative pollster Nando Pagnoncelli said that 65% of Italians approve of the government’s bill on immigration, while 58% agree that clandestine immigration should be considered a crime. 59% think that it is right for a public officer to report an illegal immigrant.

    The Vatican’s position inspired me to go outside of a church just to see if Catholic opinions agree with the church’s position. Of course, I also asked ordinary people who were passing by. Concetta, 73, housewife, coming out after morning mass, approves of the government’s new politics: “There are already so many Italian delinquents, why should we also take those from abroad?”

    Her friend Elsa, 80, adds: “They arrive here, they don’t have a job, and then decide to steal to survive. They should steal in their own countries! We are tired of accepting all these people!”

    Stefano, 55, works in a supermarket right in front of the church: “The point is,” he says,

    “that when Italians are abroad they have to be very careful in terms of their behavior, while the immigrants here are aware that they can do whatever they wish without any police intervention. I can’t dare to imagine what will happen in our cities when there are 10 or 15 million immigrants.”

    Luigi, 47, school custodian, agrees: “After all, the law is a good thing because it follows the rules of Mother Nature and natural selection. The strongest ethnic groups survive, and the weak ones are destined to be extinct.”

    Carolina, 23, student, volunteer, and girl scout at that church tells me that she feels so sorry while watching on TV the boats full of desperate people who are rejected by our country. “Though,” she added, “there is a deep intolerance of immigrants in the public opinion, and not only among old people. I’ve noticed,” she concluded, “that this sentiment is also prevalent among the younger generations who believe the stereotypes that all immigrants are drug dealers, thieves, or criminals.” 

    The polls and the opinions of common people clearly reflect a sense of hostility and, in some cases, indifference towards issues that are apparently far away, such as civil wars and the persecution of dissidents in other countries. Sometimes, though, the moment of consciousness arrives, as history has demonstrated so many times before.

    In 1932, the German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote words that anticipated with incredible lucidity the tragic events that occurred a few years later – words which should always be a warning to the people of every country:    

    First they came to pick up the gypsies and I was happy because they pilfered. 
    Then they came to pick up the Jews and I was silent because they were unpleasant. 
    Then they came to pick up the homosexuals and I was glad because they were annoying. 
    Then they came to pick the communists and I didn’t say anything because I was not communist. 
    Then one day they came to pick me up and nobody was left to protest.

     (Edited by Giulia Prestia)

  • Facts & Stories

    Silvio...This Has Gone Too Far! Basta!

    Veronica Lario Berlusconi chose to express her displeasure in the most public way possibile, by sending an email to the ANSA news agency in which she said she and her children had “suffered” from Mr Berlusconi’s flirtatious and indiscrete behaviour with younger women. She also expressed her rage at the reports that Berlusconi’s political party was lining up TV showgirls and pin-ups as political candidates, defining it “shameless rubbish to entertain the emperor.” A former actress herself, Veronica said that the prime minister has shown a “lack of discretion in his exercise of power which offends the credibility of all [women], damages women in general, and especially those who have always struggled to defend their rights.”

    According to the press, a few days before Mr. Berlusconi held a meeting of his ruling center-right party Popolo della Libertà (PdL) to vet candidates for the European elections. They included a TV starlet, a former beauty queen, and a former contestant on the “Big Brother” reality show. Needless to say, the media’s comments have been rather sarcastic, and this stirred up Veronica Lario’s reaction: “I want it to be quite clear that my children and I are victims and not accomplices in this situation,” she said.
    Mr. Berlusconi’s wife also lashed out at the premier’s reported attendance at an 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia, a Neapolitan girl, saying she was surprised “because he never came to any of his children’s 18th birthday parties, even though he was invited.” Noemi, who was quoted as saying that she calls Berlusconi “papi” (or “daddy”) was photographed sporting a gold and diamond necklace the premier gave her as a birthday gift. “I can’t be with a man who is involved with minors,” the premier’s wife commented to the press.
    It is not the first time that the usually private Veronica Lario has publicly complained about her husband’s reported flirtations. Two years ago, she obtained a public apology from Mr Berlusconi after she wrote an open letter to La Repubblica (a left-leaning newspaper daily critical of Berlusconi) complaining about her husband’s telling TV starlet Mara Carfagna: “If I weren’t married, I would marry you immediately.” Carfagna is now Berlusconi’s minister for equal opportunity.
    After this recent public “attack,” Berlusconi went on the prime-time TV show Porta a Porta (Door-to-Door) hosted by Bruno Vespa on the state-run television station RAI to defend himself, this time offering no apology for his plan to sex up Italy’s image in the European Parliament. Instead, he started referring to Veronica as “la Signora,” indeed a distant and formal definition for a person who was his wife of 23 years, repeating that she should publicly apologize for embarrassing him and admit she was wrong. In his opinion, his wife was the victim of “manipulation by the left,” which had spread unfounded reports about why he is picking women from the showbusiness world and converting them into “politicians.” He claimed that this is due to his party’s willingness “to renew our political class with people who are cultivated and well-repared” — unlike the “malodorous and badly dressed people who currently represent certain parties in parliament.” He insisted that he would put the so-called showgirls, or young women, on his electoral list and personally accompany them on the campaign trail. He also said that the suggestion by his wife and the media that he has a relationship with an 18-year-old girl is a lie, and that his presence at Noemi Letizia’s party was due to his friendship with her parents. He then concluded: “This is a personal issue that pains me, it’s private, and it should not be talked about.”
    Since Veronica Lario erupted in public by email, an incredible phenomenon has taken place that should be studied by sociologists: the main news on Italian television and most other media outlets has not been the economic crisis or Fiat’s initial success in the US. Attention has been totally focused on this soap opera of sorts, with Veronica and Silvio as the protagonists. Early this morning, sipping my cappuccino at a café in Rome I heard people around me talking about this issue, commenting on the latest developments and supporting the premier or his wife with unexpected passion. It was like watching an episode that literally glued viewers to the screen, with the plot presenting the typical archetypes of the Belpaese: the betrayed wife, the libertine rich and aged husband looking for confirmation of his perpetual virility, the much younger woman, the sainted mother, and a series of yes-men from the emperor’s court who defend their boss.
    In an interview with La Repubblica Noemi Letizia said of Berlusconi: “Papi brought me up. He’s always been kind to me. I adore him. He calls me, he tells me he has some free time, and I join him in Milan or Rome. I stay there listening to him. That’s what he wants from me. Then we sing together.” Asked whether she hoped to run in the forthcoming regional elections, she replied: “No. I’d prefer to run for the lower house of parliament. Papi Silvio will fix it.” She also denied rumours that she was Berlusconi’s illegitimate daughter.
    The pathos of the soap reached its highest levels when Italian papers published pictures of the now-notorious birthday party, but also new ones suggesting that she could have been a secret, illegitimate daughter. The photos, indeed, showed an atmosphere that was as wild as a First Communion, with the premier toasting with the huge family and the many guests, grandmothers and waiters included. In the meantime, Italian creativity once again contributed to the lighter side of the situation when some bloggers created a fake website entitled “Brinda Con Papi” (Toast with Daddy), portraying thousands of “reinterpretations” of the shots of the party.
    The Italian Catholic daily Avvenire reprimanded the prime minister for his “self-declared weakness for actresses in the bloom of youth,” and urged the 72-year-old billionaire to control himself. “We know that a man of government is judged by what he achieves, for his programs, and for the quality of the laws that he contributes to passing,” it stated. “But neither should the quality of a leader, his style, and his values, be inconsequential—they cannot be. We ask that the prime minister be more sober, somber, and a mirror of the country’s soul.” The next day, a Vatican cardinal said that the prime minister’s behaviour “seems strange to us—over the top.”
    The last polls are showing that Berlusconi’s popularity apparently has not been hurt by his wife’s decision to divorce him. The premier, though, is conscious that the Italians do not care about what their politicians do in their private life, but many of them do pay attention to the church’s opinion. Not to mention that a protracted divorce procedure could lead Italians to take sides, with the risk that his female electors could sympathize with the “humiliated” Veronica, and decide not to vote for him anymore.
    Silvio Berlusconi has built his political career on a peculiar mix of his private and public life, by projecting the image of a family man while stressing his fame for virility, and by appearing in public with his children while surrounding himself with young women looking at him in adoration. As for the private aspect, Veronica’s email suggests that image may be fake. The next European election might reveal how the Italians feel about the public aspect of their emperor’s life.


  • Facts & Stories

    FIAT. “Fix It Again, Sergio”

     FIAT = “Fix It Again, Tony”. For decades this acronym has been an American joke on the famous Italian car maker, playing on the low quality of Fiat cars. The moment of “revenge” has now arrived for the small company in Turin. Fiat’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne, has been asked to save Chrysler, a giant in the American car industry. This is not the first time that someone with an Italian last name has saved Chrysler. The same thing happened almost 20 years ago with Lee Iacocca who, thanks to his intuitive knack for launching successful new car models, was able to turn the company around in the 1980s.

    Sergio Marchionne has a new challenge. He is a man who has already shown his ambition and proved his abilities in 2004 when he agreed to resuscitate Fiat from near-death. Born in 1952.

    .He returned to Europe as the CEO of a Swiss chemical firm and a product-testing company partly owned by Fiat’s Agnelli family. He became a member of Fiat’s board in 2003 and, while the family struggled to manage the company that legendary Senator Giovanni Agnelli founded in 1899, Marchionne became its CEO. The Agnelli family was in upheaval; its long-time patriarch, Gianni Agnelli had just passed away, soon followed by Agnelli’s brother, Umberto, leaving no direct family successor with the Agnelli surname. Soon after, young John Elkann, the son of Margherita Agnelli (Gianni’s daughter), became Fiat’s vice chairman.

     Marchionne returned Fiat to profitability in 2006 for the first time since 2000, after less than two years at its helm. The consensus in the Italian economic sector at the time was that the only thing he could do was to preside over the company’s dissolution. Instead, the stock price doubled in one year during a period of crisis in Italian car sales, and Fiat was able to increase its market share because of its dominance in the small-car segment. What was the secret to achieving such a goal? According to Massimo Vecchio, an analyst with Mediobanca, it was the CEO’s strong character and lack of diplomacy: “When Marchionne took over the company,” Vecchio told the media, “he was literally firing one manager a day. There was a leadership problem and nobody wanted to make hard decisions. The communication from top to bottom was slow and wrong. He also changed that,” the analyst added. “He reduced the layers of management and gave a more direct view of where the business was headed. And of course his ego is very big, and sometimes people who had clashes with him were basically fired. Looking at his style from outside, it seems awful, but he delivered.” Marchionne stripped away layers of management, including 10 percent of the roughly 20,000 white-collar workers in and around Turin. He also started selling as many Fiat engines and car parts as possible, even to rivals, apparently going against the company’s interests. He no longer offered steep discounts on Fiat cars, in order to stop profit losses. He showed his ambitious nature in recruiting a new engineering boss outside of Fiat to work on 23 new models between late 2007 and the end of 2008. His dynamic attitude is at the polar opposite of the dominant economic mood in Italy, which was, and unfortunately still is, lethargic. And it is this attitude that has dramatically reduced the production time for new models from four years to only 18 months. This reduced production time paved the way for the revival of Fiat’s classic Cinquecento, or 500, a new mini-car that in a short time has become a best-seller throughout Europe. Marchionne commented on this important achievement by making a comparison, and once again demonstrating his wish to dominate the car market and become number one: “I like to think of the Cinquecento as our iPod.”

    Rumors surrounding Sergio Marchionne not only concern his professionalism. Photos of him wearing blue sweaters instead of traditional business suits regularly fill the pages of Italian and international magazines, along with stories about his love for cars. In 2007 he made headlines when he crashed his Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano on a highway in Switzerland.

    On April 30, Marchionne made his biggest and, according to some, riskiest move: he entered into a partnership with Chrysler that could give Fiat a majority share in the American company. In fact, Fiat’s current 20% share in Chrysler could rise to 35%. This was obtained with not one penny down, but in exchange for Fiat technology valued at some $8 billion. This was made possible by the deepening financial crisis that has crippled the automotive industry and, of course, with Sergio Marchionne’s insight. According to Dennis Redmont, head of Communication, Development, and Media at the Council for the United States and Italy, “Marchionne is a Canadian for the Americans and an Italian for the Italians, but as a member of the board of directors of UBS, the Swiss banking giant, he is also a banker for the Swiss. And these are the three key components of the deal: Italian culture, North American culture, financial culture. This tripod is the key, because today you have to have someone who knows banks and financial details.”

    Now everyone in the U.S. is looking at Italy’s “cutting-edge technology,” as U.S. President Barak Obama said this past week in Washington. They are looking at Italy because they “have achieved what no one in Detroit could,” namely, they took “a company on the verge of collapse and made it profitable.”

    This is a radical transformation for a company like Fiat, which for years has been seen as the ailing man in the European car industry, with models considered dated, peculiar, and unreliable. It’s time to change the old acronym into a brand new one: “Fix it again, Sergio.”



    (Edited by Giulia Prestia)