Articles by: Maria rita Latto

  • 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)

  • Facts & Stories

    Abruzzo, the Earthquake, Hundreds of Victims...But What About the Animals?

    There are so many stories connected to an event like an earthquake. There are mostly ordinary stories showing extraordinary behavior, little miracles that often remain in obscurity. Some of them have to do with animals that, like humans, are also victims of the earthquake. For this reason veterinary aid posts are stationed in tents in order to help pets with physical injuries. Their presence is also a distraction for the homeless.

    There are many stories involving animals, especially those in the Dog Units. A few hours after the earthquake they had already been named “four-legged angels” because, thanks to their noses and stubbornness, they were able to find people still trapped in the rubble. They are heroes trained to save human lives in natural catastrophes, even though at times they themselves

    are hurt doing this hard job.

    Giorgina is an American terrier who injured her foreleg while digging, looking for survivors. At the veterinary aid posts it’s not unusual to see pets that have fractured limbs during the earthquake, or that are in a state of shock, like the cat Pallina. After the first tremor in the middle of the night, her owner took her and rushed out of the building. Both are now safe, sharing a tent. Since that horrible night, though, Pallina has refused to eat or drink. Every time her owner approaches, Pallina hisses and growls, a behavior that is unusual for a cat that was so affectionate before that horrible night.


    And there is Briciola, a small, soft ball of fur found under the rubble of the building where she lived, probably with her owners. “Probably” means that there is no information about her life before the earthquake because all the people living there were found dead. Briciola spent six days under the debris living inside a shelter created by a wardrobe. A fireman risked his life to save her, trying to reach the small dog that barked incessantly. Her small size inspired the name the firemen gave her, Briciola. Receiving a new name is a true rebirth and a baptism, the joy of being safe in a new identity and waiting for a new family. Her reactions, though, are the complete opposite of Pallina’s. In fact Briciola is so eager for caresses that she looks for tenderness from every person that approaches her at the Society for the Protection of Animals.

    There are also stories of owners desperately looking for their pets, like Pierluigi who for eleven days after the first quake had been searching for his dog Toby that fell out of the building where they lived in L’Aquila and disappeared. Luckily there’s a happy ending: Toby was found in a dog shelter in Sulmona where all of L’Aquila’s dogs without homes or owners have found refuge. This is a real miracle for Pierluigi, a young father of two daughters who considers Toby’s presence fundamental in helping his two children to recover from the shock after the earthquake.

    It seems that more than 8,000 cats and dogs have been left homeless or are missing. It is still possible to see animals wandering among the ruins in the streets of L’Aquila and the villages in that area. A huge number of pets and farm animals are believed to have died in houses and barns that collapsed during the first quake and many of them like Pallina the cat are showing clear signs of trauma. In L’Aquila, just a few days after the earthquake, the attention of some news correspondents from various parts of the world was drawn to a Yorkshire terrier walking in circles, ignoring a policeman’s offer of a sandwich. That was one of the many dogs that seem to be a pet, appearing healthy and well-fed,

    but wandering lost and frightened.

    There are stories with a happy ending, but there are also those dealing with people who have lost their animals and animals that have lost their owners. Jolanda and Sandrino Tarquini is a couple in their 70s now living in the tent city, whose 10 year old black pincher, Pisolo, died. They could not find a particular medication he needed, and the rain and chill in the tent contributed to his death. “He had a coat but he wasn’t wearing it,” the owner said, while his wife cried.

    There are also those weird stories such as a man who asked firefighters to accompany him to his apartment located in a hazardous area in the center of L’Aquila, where no is allowed without authorization, in order to feed his iguana. And many people living in the tent city are curious to know what happened to all those exotic, and in some cases dangerous, animals such as snakes and spiders that survived the earthquake but escaped from the cages they were transported in. It is easier to take care of the canaries and parrots that are present in many of the tents since they don’t require a lot of attention.

    The earthquake involved not only pets living in apartments; many sheep and other farm animals were abandoned and died of starvation because they could not be reached in time. Hundreds of cows and sheep were crushed in collapsed stalls.

    The generosity of the Italians has helped not only human beings. Trucks full of pet and farm animal food arrived in Abruzzi, along with materials to build kennels, and computer chip readers to identify pets.

    It’s one more chance to reunite pets with their owners and look for as many happy endings as possible. For further information on initiatives to help animals who survived the earthquake in Abruzzi, please visit ENPA's website.

  • Facts & Stories

    Auguri Rita! The Future After 100 Years

    An enormous cake with chocolate and strawberries: What could be a better way to celebrate my 100th birthday? This was probably Rita Levi-Montalcini’s thought as she sliced the first cake in a series of auspicious events and celebrations that started a week before April 22, the date when she will become the first Nobel laureate to reach the age of 100. The famous Italian Nobel prize winner shared her cake with the press, scientists, colleagues, and those who
    attended at aceremony held in her honor by the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI). During this event she talked about her life and also announced that on her birthday in Rome there will be a scientific conference on the brain. Levi-Montalcini, who also serves as an Italian senator appointed for life, shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine with the American Stanley Cohen for discovering mechanisms that regulate the growth of cells and organs. “At 100, I have a mind that is superior – thanks to experience – than when I was 20,” she said during the party. Italy, and quite possibly the world, has never seen a scientist and a woman like her

    Born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Turin in 1909, Levi-Montalcini fought hard for her career from the start. First, there was her domineering father who didn’t believe that women should aspire to higher education. Despite his opposition, she graduated with honors in medicine from the University of Turin just before the outbreak of World War II. Her first mentor was Giuseppe Levi, a prominent in neurohistologist at the University of Turin. (Neurohistology is a branch of neurology that deals with the minute structure of animal and plant tissues as discernible with a microscope). In her autobiography In Praise of Imperfection Levi-Montalcini refers to him as “the Master.” He was an outspoken antifascist, renowned for his alarming fits of rage. But he was also the man who introduced her to her first passion: the developing nervous system. Under Levi’s guidance, she developed a technique that represented the key to her own success, that of silver-staining nerve cells. In the late 1930s Mussolini imposed the racial laws which forced so many Jews, including Levi-Montalcini, to leave universities and go into hiding. She told the audience at the EBRI how after these anti-Jewish laws were passed, she had to quit the university and conduct research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home. Food was so scarce, she said, that after experimenting on chicken embryos, she would cook and eat the remaining yolks.
    “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments,” she said. “The best always comes from them. I should thank Mussolini for having declared me part of an inferior race. This led me to the joys of working, no longer at a university, but in a bedroom,” the scientist said. Between 1941 and 1943, Levi-Montalcini lived in a country cottage in the Piedmont region, and then went into hiding in Florence. After the Allied liberation of Italy in 1944, she worked as a doctor for refugees in Florence and in 1945 she returned to the University of Turin. Two years later she moved to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, becoming associate professor in 1956 and full professor from 1958 to 1977. During that period she became an American citizen. She then went back to Italy where she was appointed director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome in 1969, a position she held until her retirement in 1978. Among the many struggles that characterize her life, there was one in particular regarding her research that stands out. Part of the scientific establishment refused to believe in the existence of nerve growth factor (NGF), the discovery of which eventually won Levi-Montalcini the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with her colleague Stanley Cohen.

    “That discovery was huge; it opened up a whole field of understanding how cells talk and listen to each other,” said neuroscientist Bill Mobley of Stanford University, an admirer for more than 30 years. Hundreds of growth factors are now known to exist and they affect almost all facets of biology.

    Despite her age, Levi-Montalcini still works every day, wearing elegant outfits, with the hair stylishly coiffed and her hands perfectly manicured. Her mornings are dedicated to her namesake European Brain Research Institute (EBRI)–Rita Levi-Montalcini in the suburbs of Rome, while in the afternoons she goes downtown to the offices of an educational foundation for African women that she created in 1992.

    Turning 100 is no reason to stop fighting. ““What I did in the past is not enough — there is only the future,” says Levi-Montalcini. She has never hesitated to use her senate position to push for better scientific research in the Italy. And today she has another important battle to fight, something very close to her heart: the survival of the EBRI, which she created in 2002, is now in financial jeopardy. During the celebration held at the EBRI, the new Nobel Hall was inaugurated and dedicated in her honor. Levi-Montalcini was asked if she felt moved by this tribute. “The only thing that still moves me is life. I am deeply moved because I was able to reach this goal after having lived a life feeling an authentic joy and continuous curiosity.” Her words addressed to an attentive audience reflected a spiritual testament to having high moral standards. “The absolute evil of our times,” she forcefully stated, “is to not believe in values.

    It does not matter whether they are religious or secular. The younger generation must believe in something positive. Life deserves to be lived only if we believe in values, because they continue on after our deaths.” Rita Levi-Montalcini’s speech ended with a desire addressed to young people: “I wish them the same luck that led me to take no interest in myself, but to always show great attention towards everything around me, towards the world of science without neglecting the values of society.”

    “And just think, I wasn’t born to be a scientist,” she added, a statement that surprised the audience. “I wanted to go to Africa to help people in need. As an adolescent, I dreamed of emulating Albert Schweitzer by helping to cure lepers. Now, in the final stage of my life, I can at last help those people who have been exploited for centuries. I can say that the only ideal I have ever worked for was to help others, and perhaps for this reason research has given me more than I could ever hope.”

    After such an impressive speech given with customary simplicity, Rita Levi-Montalcini, with her white hair elegantly coifed and wearing a smart navy blue suit, raised a glass of sparkling wine and toasted her long life.

    (Edited by Giulia Prestia)

  • Facts & Stories

    Lilly Ledbetter in Italy for the Celebration of International Women’s Day

    Lilly Ledbetter, who became a symbol for gender equality in the U.S. and elsewhere, was invited to Italy by the CGIL, one of the main Italian trade unions.

    The occasion was a special celebration of International Women’s Day at the Centro Congressi in Rome where she was given the symbolic “Non solo Mimose” award. Every year the award is presented to women who have struggled for equal rights in the workplace.

    Lilly Ledbetter has distinguished herself, and her case has become a sort of a milestone for the feminist cause. In 1979, she began working at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. As one of the first women working there, Ledbetter rose to management but was not paid as much as her male counterparts, some of whom ranked below her. Lilly made the decision to fight against this clear gender discrimination in court and won the case.


    The jury awarded her several hundred thousand dollars in back pay and more than three million dollars in punitive damages. However, Goodyear appealed and the case ultimately went to the Supreme Court. With a five to four decision, the court decided in favor of Goodyear. The antidiscrimination law that Lilly was using as the basis of her suit stated that a complaint had to be filed no later than 180 days after the first occurrence of discrimination. This technical issue was at the basis of the high court’s decision to rule against her. As Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion, this is an unrealistic issue because in the real world people may just not be in position to learn that they are receiving less pay than their coworkers who are doing the same job until long after the discrimination starts. And this was clearly the case with Lilly Ledbetter. As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Lilly received none of the money that the trial jury had awarded her. To this day, she bears the financial impact of gender-based pay discrimination in the form of a smaller pension and smaller social security payments. But Lilly Ledbetter didn’t give up. She kept fighting for the rights of others. She testified at congressional hearings and lobbied for new legislation that would consider the problem realistically and help to solve it. Through her efforts and those of many others, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is just the beginning of a journey toward total equality. Obama has made a strong statement by making this the first bill he signed as president, but even he has acknowledged that this is just the beginning.

    In Italy the difference in wages for females and males is among the lowest in Europe, though there is a wide gap in the overall percentage of working women and working men. According to The Economist, European Commission data in Italy shows that the gap between wages for men and women is “only” 4%. Not too much, if compared to the European average: in 2007 the hourly wage for women in Europe was 17.4% lower than men’s wages. In Italy, however, there is a wide gap between the 70.7% of working men as opposed to the 46.6% of working women. It’s a difference of 24.1% which is far from the European average at 14.2%.

    At this point, according to The Economist, it is not difficult to understand why the difference between the men’s and women’s wages is “only” at 4%: first and foremost, Italian working women are more qualified than men. Those men and women who are not working are literally outside of the job market, and are therefore not included in the overall calculation.

    And so in Italy the “almost equality” is not equal at all, and the only hope is to find our own Lilly Ledbetter who can change the rather frustrating situation for women in the Belpaese.  




  • Life & People

    “Oh, mamma mia". Nancy Pelosi's Six-Day Visit to Italy

    The first stop was at the Aviano Air Base. She was accompanied by seven other members of Congress, all Democrats, many of whom are of Italian descent like her. She met with Italian leaders, the Pope, and also visited troops in Naples. On Sunday she visited museums in Florence and paid tribute to Americans killed in Italy during World War II in a ceremony at the Anglo-American war cemetery outside the city. On Monday Pelosi met President Giorgio Napolitano, and in the afternoon she held a conference at the Chamber of Deputies entitled Strong Allies for a Secure Future. There, she said that the U.S. administration is committed to a “new era of cooperation” with its allies. She met with the Italian Chamber of Deputies Speaker Gianfranco Fini who gave her a surprise gift: the birth certificates of her grandparents. “We know how proud you are of your Italian roots,” said Fini as he handed her the certificates of Pelosi’s Abruzzo-born grandfather and her Liguria-born grandmother.


    “Oh, mamma mia, I wasn’t expecting this, it’s such a great thrill,” replied a teary-eyed Pelosi. Pelosi’s paternal grandfather, Tommaso Fedele D’Alessandro, was born on September 11, 1868 in Montenerodomo near Chieti, Abruzzo. Her grandmother, Maria Petronilla Foppiani, was born in Rovegno near Genova in 1894. Fini also gave Pelosi a photo of Montenerodomo from her grandfather’s time and a letter from the mayor of Rovegno inviting her to visit her grandmother’s birthplace. She expressed her pride as a daughter of Italian immigrants coming back to her parents’ country as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives which is the third most important position in the nation. “There have been so many comments regarding the fact that I am the first woman,” Ms. Pelosi continued, “though I am so proud of being the first Italian-American.”  


    On Tuesday she had lunch with Premier Silvio Berlusconi who once again confirmed the strong connection between Italy and the U.S. and said that “we can emerge from this crisis by working together.” Later Ms. Pelosi met Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. At a dinner at Hotel Eden in Rome, Frattini stated that Italy-U.S. relations are based on “friendship and trust” between the two nations, their governments, and institutions. He also expressed the “commitment of the Italian government to cooperating even more closely with the United States,” through NATO in areas such as Afghanistan, as well as Africa which is “increasingly important for our government.” Frattini told Pelosi that “if Italy can do something, you can count on its support.” Pelosi replied that Rome and Washington “must reinforce their ties and work together” to confront global challenges such as the economic crisis, climate change, and security. Pelosi also met Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa who stated that Italy plans to increase its troops in Afghanistan in response to a call from the United States.  


    On Wednesday Pelosi had a short audience with Pope Benedict XVI. She was the highest-ranking US official to see the Pope since President Barack Obama took office last month, and the meeting was seen as significant since the new Democratic administration is at odds with the Vatican over abortion, stem cell research, and other bio-ethical issues. In a statement, the Vatican said that Benedict XVI “briefly greeted” Ms. Pelosi and her entourage after his weekly public audience and “took the opportunity to discuss the requirements of natural moral law and the church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.” The Pope added that all Catholics, “especially legislators, jurists, and those responsible for the common good of society,” should “work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.” Apparently this was a clear message to Ms. Pelosi who, despite her declaration of being an “ardent” Catholic, is a well-known supporter of abortion rights.


    Naples was the last stop where Pelosi met with U.S. servicemen and women stationed in the area. 


    It was a hectic trip that did not leave room for any personal time. Gossip columnists, though, report that Pelosi made a special appointment with a famous hairdresser in Rome, Fabrizio Narducci, who privately opened his beauty salon on Via Sistina for the illustrious guest. The night before, Narducci received a call from the U.S. Embassy to schedule an early-morning appointment for the next day. After the customary inspection by secret service agents, the car arrived with Nancy Pelosi accompanied by Lila Castellaneta, the wife of the Italian ambassador to the U.S. After almost an hour of down-time at the hairdresser when she momentarily became a “normal” woman who wished to have her hair shampooed and set, Pelosi returned to her role as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, ready to dive into the usual and exhausting series of bureaucratic meetings.

    (Edited by Giulia Prestia)

  • Life & People

    Sanremo Festival: the Mirror of Italian Customs

    This year Sanremo is in its 59th edition, an important goal for a show that was born in 1951 with among its aims, a wish to promote the use of Italian language when a good portion of the population still spoke regional dialects. In those years following World War II, the festival of Italian song was also seen as useful for helping people move on from the war period, as a distraction that could create economic developments in the field of entertainment, which had not been fully exploited in Italy as it had been abroad. At that time the city of Sanremo was still recovering from those last reverberations of war, and its Teatro Comunale had been destroyed by air bombings. There was a strong will to leave the past behind and restore the city to the center of tourism it had once been.

    The first editions of the festival aired on the radio, and then from 1955 onwards on television. In the beginning songs dealt mainly with banal, simple, familiar, somewhat anachronistic and surreal themes, such as poppies, ducklings, little houses in Canada, old boots. In 1958 Domenico Modugno’s cry “volare” represented a shake, a sort of awakening signaling that the society was changing, with a nod to rock and roll and other musical influences from around the world. The lyrics of the songs started to change too, drawing inspiration from topical facts. All this culminated in the first scandals that in every edition are a “must”, inevitable occurrences. Like in 1959, when Jula De Palma, performing a sensual song, “Tua”, spurred protests from viewers who thought her long dress too closely resembled a nightgown and that her sultry voice was too provocative. In 1960 Modugno’s song “Libero” was considered by some conventional thinkers as a threat to the unity of family. It can safely be said that since its birth there has never been a boring, uneventful edition of Sanremo! In 1967, though, the festival turned tragic: Luigi Tenco, a singer excluded from the competition for his subversive entry, a song that was a criticism of modern society, killed himself in his hotel room. There is still a dark shadow that hangs over that year of the festival, with a recurring hypothesis made by some of Tenco’s friends, who assert he was killed. The motivations behind his extreme act remain mysterious.

    The festival has been witness to the evolution of Italian generations and the influence of historic events on their society. For instance, “Proposta” by the group I Giganti, was performed at Sanremo in 1967 and represented a rejection of the war in Vietnam, with a refrain that incorporated the famous pacifist slogan “put flowers into your guns”. Another, “Chi non lavora non fa l’amore”, a 1970 song by Adriano Celentano, analyzes the difficulties of a worker on strike. From the Sixties on, many of the songs of Sanremo treated the problems of everyday life and the competition left space for gossip about the festival’s cast, not just the singers. With time it has become a customary event, snubbed by intellectuals, but avidly followed and commented during its broadcast. It may seem paradoxical, but especially in the last years, the festival tends to be commented even before it begins, because of the many rumors and gossip items propagated by agents and press reports, seeking to work up as much attention as possible. Of course, emphasis is given to everything but the songs themselves, which should be at the center of the event!

    This year, however, one song by Povia is already under the media lens for its contentious topic. The title is self-explanatory: “Luca era gay”. Generally the lyrics of song entries are released before the contest. And so it was year too, with the exception of Povia’s lyrics which were kept unknown. Naturally this built curiosity around his song, and meanwhile the title alone had the effect of mobilizing Italian gay and lesbian associations. Indeed Povia declared that in his opinion it is possible to heal from homosexuality, as he considers it an illness. Gays and lesbians prepared a series of protests in Sanremo to raise awareness on a subject “that cannot be viewed as a musical-media operation, representing an ever-present wound for all those homosexuals in Italy who are still fighting against homophobia and ignorance”.

    There are further controversies regarding the payment of Paolo Bonolis, the show’s host, who stands to make one million euros: a “scandal” according to critics who feel the sum is unwarranted during a time of economic crisis. Bonolis defends his remuneration, claiming that he has worked on the Sanremo project every day for the past year and that the sum given to Pippo Baudo for the last edition of the festival was almost the same (900.000 euros). Roberto Benigni’s paycheck for the event, 350.000 euros, has also been seen as excessive. The representative of the center-right party PDL, Maurizio Gasparri, challenged Benigni, a famously outspoken leftist, and proposed he do the right thing “as man of the left, and give the 350.000 euros to the redundancy fund beneficiaries”. 

    The appearance of contestant Mariano Apicella on Sunday February 22 is also highly anticipated. The Neapolitan, a former unlicensed park attendant who used to sing traditional songs while “at work”, was “discovered” years ago by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi during a visit to Naples. Apicella’s life was radically reversed by the encounter: today he is rich, famous and together with Berlusconi, the co-author of three albums of romantic Neapolitan music. Paolo Bonolis dares not confess it, but the icing on the cake for his edition of the festival would be the surprise appearance of the premier during Apicella’s performance.
    The 59th edition of Sanremo is ready to provide its usual supply of scandals, gossip, distractions: an event often criticized, sometimes loathed and yet secretly and hungrily watched. Representing a sort of holy ritual before springtime, Italians have not been able to give it up ever since that fateful first show in 1951.

    Fiorello-Benigni a Sanremo 2002

  • Facts & Stories

    Inauguration According to Italian Newspapers

    Hope, fear, the economic crisis, skepticism, are just some of the sentiments expressed in our press.

    The first page of the Corriere della Sera synthesizes the new president’s speech in the title “Obama, An Era of Responsibility” and in the first eleven pages there is full coverage, from the most serious issues to the light ones: gossip, apparently, is also appreciated by readers. Included is an interview with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, who admired Obama’s words: “The moral leadership of the USA is coming back again”. The political philosopher Paul Berman noted that “It was an appeal to the spirit of the nation”. There was also news of Wall Street’s further decline, dropping 4%, an event that had never occurred on Inauguration Day 
    La Repubblica headlined with “The Hour of Responsibility” and dedicated nine pages to the event. An entire page was devoted to the first lady’s outfit and to her strong character. On that same topic Jamaican writer Zadie Smith remarked that if Michelle Obama “had been a white woman no one would have criticized her attitude”. In Vittorio Zucconi and Alexander Stille’s comments certain novelties that Obama will bring were underlined: first of all, the farewell to “the Bush ideology” and a different approach to foreign policy. Then, an analysis of Obama’s language, full of symbols, even religious ones, and references to God, Lincoln and Martin Luther King. 
    The center-right daily Il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family, featured a front-page title emphasizing that the new president’s “opening” towards Islam and the fall of Wall Street were conspicuously absent elements in “the crowning of the first black president”. The editor, Mario Giordano, rather sarcastically asks, after having heard the speech: “Is that all, dear Barack?” And in his editorial Giordano shares that he is unable to be moved by what happened in the United States. “I hear opinion-makers talking about a global turning point –he continues- about an epochal event, I’ve witnessed the euphoric attitude shown by ministers attending  the fashion parades, and unfortunately I am unable to feel part of all this. I am sorry. All I can see are traces of honest rhetoric, some sparks of vigor and a handful of good feelings. We can and ‘volemose bene’ (that is an exhortation to love each other in the Roman dialect, used in a sarcastic way, ndr).”       
    It is impossible not to note that Obama’s Inauguration, an amazing real-time TV show, was followed from every part of the world. Every part of the world BUT Italy. In fact two of the three official national channels, Raiuno and Raidue, did all but snub the ceremony. By law every Italian watching these channels has to pay a tax to receive their broadcasts. This should mean that all main events, especially those connected to the news and to important contemporary facts, merit full coverage and should be considered a priority. Additionally, the three free TV channels belonging to Mr. Berlusconi also decided not to show the ceremony live. The reason for such an omission is a mystery.
    Only a few minutes were dedicated to the President’s oath on Canale 5, one of the premier’s networks, then shortly afterward, supposed audience favorites such as Big Brother, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and local crime news returned to the airwaves—evidently they are a priority compared with the Inauguration of the first African-American President in the history of the United States. This attitude is rather inexplicable when other moments like, for instance, the press conferences of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, are given considerable space—and sometimes are even shown twice, at different times, to give another chance to those who had the misfortune of missing them the first time.
    The pay-tv channels such as Sky and other cable channels were connected to Washington with complete coverage. What a pity that not at all Italians could enjoy this privilege, especially those who pay for a yearly subscription to the national channels! The most cynical pundits observed that Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, lacking his own opportunity to take a televised oath, decided to ignore what was happening on the other side of the ocean, since he retains control of the national channels and his privately-owned stations. Could it be true? Indeed, when a journalist asked the Italian premier why he wouldn’t go to Washington for the Inauguration, he replied that he is a “protagonist, not an extra”!
    Italian opinion of Obama is mainly positive. I asked students, common people and relatives, and all expressed feelings of hope and faith in the capabilities of the new president. I was very surprised, for example, to hear Giovanna, 52, an elementary school teacher, declare that Obama is her president, that she “looks to him because the situation in Italy is incredibly depressing”. Giulio, 18, a student, told me that he envies the Americans “because they had the courage to change, to give power to a young man who had spent relatively little time in political office, and furthermore…is black!” Elsa, 90, a retired postal worker, is literally in love with Barack Obama, she “would marry him” and is so sure that “he will solve all problems with patience and capability”. This Obama-mania has endured for months, increasing and winning over more fans day after day. Here in Italy there is a sense of weariness because of the political class’ apparent inability to renew itself. Unfortunately, at least for now, it seems almost impossible that a miraculous Italian Obama will arrive on the political scene and finally lift our country to a mature and developed democracy.

  • Art & Culture

    Luigi Barzini. Italy, Europe & America

    “Italy has been unstable since the Visigoths sacked Rome in 456 A.D. It will remain unstable indefinitely.”


    “Italy is universally considered a particularly unpredictable and deceptive country. . . . There are no sure guides to what Italy is and what it might do next. Italians themselves are almost always baffled by their own behavior.”


    These quotations show a deep sense of humor and hide, but not too much, a sad resignation. They were written more than thirty years ago by Luigi Barzini Jr., one of the greatest Italian journalists and writers of the twentieth century. His father, Luigi Sr., was a famous journalist too, an editor of the Corriere della Sera, and an adventurer. His book, Peking to Paris, documented a 1907 legendary motor race over that route, run while he was accompanying Prince Scipione Borghese. Following his father’s path, Luigi Jr. had a really adventrous life. He worked as a journalist throughout his existence, even though he can also be considered a writer and acute thinker. Born in 1908, he studied in Italy and at Columbia University, also working for two New York newspapers. After graduating he came back to Italy in 1930 and became a correspondent for the Corriere della Sera. He returned to the U.S. to follow the events before World War II, writing keen coverage of the New Deal, the 1936 elections and America’s mood on the eve of a terrible war. Shortly after Barzini’s return to Europe, Hitler invaded Poland and he was sent as a correspondent to London. In 1940 he was jailed in Rome as an opponent of Mussolini’s regime, after which the Fascists confined him to forced residence in a village. After the Allied liberation he returned to publishing, becoming the chief editor of several newspapers and magazines, and a writer. His most famous books are Americans Are Alone in the World (1953), The Italians: A Full Length Portrait (1964), From Caesar to the Mafia (1971), O America When You and I were Young (1977), The Europeans (1984). He died in 1984. Barzini’s most famous book, The Italians (1964), is a rich cultural portrait of his people made using a unique style and a language entertaining to his readers. Barzini elegantly creates unforgettable drawings representing vices and virtues of the Bel Paese’s inhabitants and his acute analyses are so topical, with a “prophetic” characteristic typical of great intellectuals. He presents to his readers two Italies: one of them was the homeland of geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino. This outstanding Italy is opposed to another one that is weak, unable to react, backward in political action, “invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.” According to Barzini, “Italians have always excelled in all activities in which the appearance is predominant: architecture, decoration, landscape gardening, the figurative arts, pageantry, fireworks, ceremonies, opera, and now industrial design, stage jewelry, fashions, and the cinema. The paradox is that a country that gave an important contribution to the idea of modernity, the land where politics became a discipline, thanks to the writings of Machiavelli, keeps producing throughout the century politics that are more picturesque than practical, politics that care for appearances more than for serious and responsible action”. Thoughts that also describe contemporary Italy to a tee!


    In his writing he supports the theory by which Italy is more a geographical concept than a real nation and that its inhabitants live on “public lies” and “private truths”. He points out that his peers have lost their faith in any kind of government and that they may never achieve enough self-confidence to exert real control over international economic or political affairs. Barzini thinks that the only fundamental institution in the country is the family, within which Italians practice “virtues other men usually dedicate to the welfare of their country at large; the Italians’ family loyalty is their true patriotism.” However, Barzini explains, the strength of the family is not only a defense against disorder, “but one of its principal causes.” Barzini’s words show his deep turmoil of feelings, a mixture of disillusion, love, hate, sarcasm, sense of humor, words that could have been written just yesterday.


    His capacity to “read” the worlds that surround him permeates all his writings. For example in 1977, after having spent years in the U.S. both as a student and a worker, he wrote the essay O America: in it he pointed out how hard it is to present to the Americans a modern image of Italy. “I translated aloud writings by Leopardi and Dante, - Barzini wrote in O America- also to show that Italy is not only tomato sauce and cloves of garlic.” He was clearly referring to the immigrants arriving in America in miserable conditions at the end of 1800s and at the beginning of 1900s: in some way they must be considered the ancestors of those who nowadays take long boat journeys to emigrate in foreign countries. Among them, we can also include those who have fed the waves of immigration in Italy in recent years. In this case too, Barzini’s gift for anticipating events is more than evident: he recognizes the necessity for integration and cooperation, leaving no room for stereotypes. Going back to 1954, we find further evidence of the impressive gift that makes of him an acute observer.


    In fact, when in Americans Are Alone in the World he talks about the differences between Europe and America his words sound incredibly suited to modern times: “We, in Europe, know little and decide nothing . . . They, the Americans, are alone in the world and carry war and peace on their lap, and . . . nobody can really advise, help or guide them.”


    The reader approaching his writings admires him wholeheartedly but also wonders, what would his opinion be on today’s politics, the contemporary world, the U.S after 9/11, the recent economic crisis? What would Barzini have written on these matters?