Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    Rome, Among World's Cities Safest From Violent Crime

    In his annual report opening the judiciary year Jan. 26, Giovanni Salvi, General Prosecutor of the Rome Appeals Court, announced that intentional homicides in the Eternal City have dropped from 20 in 2015 to just 10 in 2018. "This is important because it indicates the effectiveness of the public powers in dealing with organized crime, which is responsibile for most of the murders," said Salvi.


    Even before 2018 the number of voluntary or intentional homicides throughout Italy was fairly low. According to the national statistics-gathering agency ISTAT, that number fell by almost a third in the five years between 2012 and 2017, or from 528 to 360. During the same period the number of terror attacks in Italy also diminished significantly, from 462 to 291.


    The seizure in Rome of some $30 million from alleged mobster Ernesto Diotallevi is another indication of successful investigative work. He denies this: "The real cancer [in Rome] is politics," he said in an interview with the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano back in 201. "It is the State itself that creates crime. Me a boss? When I said that on the phone I was joking.... In Rome the Mafia does not exist."

    Prosecutor Salvi disagrees. In his report this past week he said that the notorious organized crime networks -- the Sicilian Mafia, the Calabrian n'Drangheta and the Neapolitan-based Camorra -- have successfully "exported" their criminal activities, including the drug traffic and slot machine chicanery, to Rome, where corruption remains "endemic." Of great concern is the "specific and historic trait characteristic of Rome -- the association of criminal violence, the public administration and business."


    On the more generalized and personal level, in Rome alone sexual violence rose by a quarter in just one year, 2018 over 2017, to 789 incidents. And although complaints about domestic violence have diminished slightly, "their persistence shows that domestic violence is an emergency," said Salvi. In the North petty crime remains a particular problem, beginning in Milan, in the lead with 8,500 complaints for every 100,000 inhabitants. Following Milan are Rimini (8,000) and Bologna and Turin (7,000 complaints).


    Break-in's of homes was almost 17,000 last year. A particularly grievance instance occurred in Neaples last week when an unemployed partner of a woman with three children beat the seven-year-old to death and sent his sister, eight, to hospital. The children, he said, were making noise and soiling a brand new mattress.


    In terms of drug consumption, again according ISTAT, drug-related crime has surged upward from 33,600 in 2012 to 39,500 in 2017. Italy is in the fourth place in the European Union for the use of cocaine and third for cannibis, official sources in Italy report. Cocaine use was of almost 2% last year and ecstasy consumption, 3%. Nevertheless this wa snotably lower than in Ireland, the UK and Holland, all with 9% or more.


    The warnings given in English to tourists begin with advice against pickpockets. "The pickpockets vary in appearance from gangs of itinerant teenage gypsies to well-dressed businessmen, and often carry something to cover their activities: a shopping bag, a map, or just a big piece of torn cardboard. There are also gangs of children who will mob you and, by the time you've shooed them away, your pockets have been systematically emptied." (See: information on crime against tourists) On the other hand, according to the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory, "American visitors are generally safe in Italy.... Most crimes committed against American tourists and visitors are petty theft."

  • Facts & Stories

    Throughout Italy, Holocaust Remembrance Day is Honored

    In Milan on Jan. 22, two thousand students applauded Senator Liliana Segre and TV host Enrico Mentana speaking in a jam-packed La Scala Theater. "I was a clandestine many years ago -- a terrified little girl who was denied the right for asylum in Switzerland," Segre recounted. To get to a Swiss border where she was turned away, she had been obliged to walk through the snowy woodlands, with the "help" of greedy contrabanders who are "today's equivalent of those paid for bringing immigrants across the Mediterranean."


    With her family she ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where her father was killed. "Racism led us to forget that the only race that exists is the human race," she went on to tell the students. "Never believe in totalitarianism. Always be informed and aware of what you want. Make your own choices. We are both the memory and the future."


    Also in Milan a Remembrance Day concert takes place Jan. 27 at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in memory of Primo Levi, with music by Mozart, Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein. Holocaust survivor Levi, who died in 1987, was a chemist, author and partisan fighter who was captured and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. His most famous book is "Se questo è un uomo" (If This Is a Man), published in 1947 and still in print and on Kindle as well, including in English.


    Remembrance Day commemorates the World War II genocide in which the Nazi regime put to death an estimated 6 million Jewish people, millions of Slavs and Poles, and hundreds of thousands of Roma (Gypsies), homosexual men and the physically disabled. As is also recorded, countless Italians did what they could to save as many as possible, but nevertheless after Sept. 8, 1943, some 8,500 of Italy's Jewish population of 33,000 were deported into German-controlled territories. There some 7,500 were killed, almost all at Auschwitz. Almost 500 of those were children under three years of age. (For a full historical account in Italian, see Prof. Giancarlo Restelli's informative website >>)


    In Rome the Shoah is honored by the tenth biennial art exhibition held among the ruins of the historic synagogue at Ostia Antica. "Arte in Memoria" (Art in Memory), curated by Adachiara Zevi, is absolutely unique as an exhibit of sculpture and installations set among the floor mosaics and four remaining columns of Europe's oldest synagogue. First built in the First Century, the synagogue was reconstructed in the 4th Century AD but abandoned and rediscovered only in 1961. Artists represented in this edition include Norther W. Hinterberger of Berlin, Zbigniew Libera of Warsaw, Ruth Beraha of Milan, and Karyn Olivier of Trinidad and Tobago, currently a fellow at the American Academy in Rome.


    A particularly touching exhibit is the long stretch of actual train tracks directed across the synagogue floor and toward the northwest, which is to say Germany. The work of the Polish artist Libera was introduced by an obviously deeply moved Vito Episcopo, a director of the Rome railways Ferrovie dello Stato. "Culture is still a great tool to foster understanding," he said.

    (On that synagogue, see the video in English >>)


    On exhibition in Rome on Jan. 25 at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni is the exhibition "Testimoni dei Testimoni" (Witnesses of witnesses), on Italian diplomatic efforts to deal with the persecution of the Jews between 1938 and 1943. Venice offers a Remembrance Day concert at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory in memory of Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco, and at the Castle Gardens a reading of war memoirs will be held.


    In Turin a marathon called Run for Mem (as in memory) is being held in the presence of two-time Olympic runner Prof. Shaul Ladany, who was just eight years old when he was captured and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Anna Frank died. Born in Yugoslavia, Ladany is an author and professor of industrial engineering and management at Ben Gurion University in Israel. He not only survived the death camp in Germany, but also managed to escape the Palestinian terrorist attack in Munich in September 1972, when eleven Israeli Olympic athletes and their coaches were killed.


    In Palermo the exhibition on how young people remember the Shoah opens in Palazzo Steri Jan. 28 (Ricordi Futuri 3.0 Diaspore in terra di Sicilia, or Future Memories 3.0 devoted to young people's concepts of the Holocaust). Together with Radio Spazio Noi and the Sicilian Institute for Hebrew Studies the conference takes place in the Regional Public Library on Jan. 24. Speakers include Mons. Salvatore Di Cristina, Bishop emeritus of Monreale, and University of Palermo law professor Giuseppe Verde.

  • Art & Culture

    Matera and its Sassi. Europe's 2019 Cultural Capital

    Of the 58 European Capitals of Culture since designation of the first, Athens, back in 1985, this year's selection of Matera is absolutely unique. Of the four Italian cities selected to date -- Florence (1986), Bologna (1999) and Genoa (2004) -- Matera is the first from the Italian South and has risen to international renown only recently by comparison.


    Matera has an amazing structure. The heart of the city is called I Sassi (the Stones), a warren of homes, restaurants, cafes and hotels (including one with an indoor swimming pool) all carved inside steep, stony hillsides. The three days of opening ceremonies bring theater and dance performances, world-class art exhibitions and 15 original light installations, aimed at illuminating the town's past. The important exhibition called "Ars Excavandi," which opens with the opening ceremony, is dedicated to the history of underground cities akin to Matera. Another, "A Story of Redemption," illustrates the reconstruction of the stone town of grottoes and secret alleys. (For details see: Matera 2019)


    At one point the town had been abandoned, but in the wake of the post-World War II it was rediscovered and, beginning in the 1980s, gradually reconstructed along modern lines. Curiously, Matera, whose grottoes have been inhabited since early Neolithic times, was actually the provincial capital of for over two centuries, or until the early 1800s. There is, of course, a Matera beyond its caves: those buildings and churches include its cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna, which dates from the 13th Century. Over time it was owned by the powerful Orsini of Rome; by the Tramontana, who built a gigantic castle there in the Renaissance; and, under Napoleon, by the Bonapartes.


  • Op-Eds

    New Year Forecasts for Italy Begin with the Economy

    ROME -- New Year forecasts for Italy begin with the economy, which experts say is not as healthy as they would like. Despite lively growth in 2018, the slow-down of the GDP during the third quarter that year is seen as a warning signal, consequent to the international economic picture as well as to local political factors. Goldman Sachs and Oxford Economics predict a growth rate for the entire Italian economy of under 0.1%, or about one-third of official government forecasts. Industrial production is expected to rise in the coming year by no more than that. In addition, the EU reduced growth prospects for Germany, which, like Italy, relies upon exports.


    In a New Year's Eve tweet financial journalist Michael Pontrelli wrote that the government's budget program, called "the Maneuver," was a step backward on the part of the government, which, "In the end, caved in to Europe so as not to ignite infringement  procedures." For ordinary Italians, this risks coming at a high price, for, to avoid punishment from Brussels, the government is "putting its hands into citizens' pockets.... Brussels imposed a stop in financing measures which the government had deemed essential, like citizens' income and pensions at quota 100, but this will make the deficit explode," according to Pontrelli.

    As of Jan. 1, under the Maneuver, regions and townships are allowed to raise taxes upon citizens. This helps make the array of taxes expected to be levied upon citizens higher than ever, not to mention controversial, like the taxes the government had tried to impose upon voluntary organizations. All told, fiscal pressure may rise from the 42% of 2018 to 42.4% in 2019, and on to 42.5% by 2021. And the Bank of Italy has raised the cost of borrowing significantly, with effects upon businesses and families too.. (See: >>) "We have passed from quantitative easing to Quantitative Tightening," according to Alessandra Caparello of Wall Street Italy (See >>)


    On the other hand, predictions are that the spread -- that is, the amount the government must pay to refinance the public debt -- will remain beneath 300 points; at its worst in 2018 it had spiked up to 330. As Pontrelli points out, Italian relations with the European Union, which were testy at best in the past half year, showed improvement at year end.


    Also on the positive side, although some here have suggested that political uncertainty has been a factor in the glooming warnings, the latest view is that a plunge into early elections appears s less likely than even a month ago. Although the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) headed by Luigi Di Maio still is at loggerheads with their governing partner, the Lega headed by Matteo Salvini, the political situation suddenly appears fairly stable.


    A factor here is the literally unexpected political cool-headedness of  Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the professor who was called into government to arbitrate between the two parties (and deputy premiers) who are both partners and rivals. Suddenly the formerly fairly drab Conte, calling  himself "a guarantor" of the government, is quietly appealing to Catholic organizations that had been entirely overlooked by the M5S and the Lega. In so doing, he has moved closer to the Italian President Sergio Mattarella and is gaining in authority and respect.


    Once in government, Salvini's Lega quickly upstaged, outfoxed and out-social-media-ed Di Maio's M5S, to the point that six pollsters have just averaged his party's strength under 32% in a potential election. By comparison, Di Maio, who had started out far ahead of the Lega, may now claim only 27% or so. This reversal of strength had generated fears that Salvini, basing some of his support on anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions like blocking shiploads of rescuedmigrants from docking in Italy, would provoke new elections. However, most recent statistics show that the Lega has actually dropped several percentage points. And Prime Minister Conte is on record insisting, as does President Mattarella, that the present legislature will continue through its natural end in another 4-1/2 years. This prospect for stability is an important consideration for the health of the economy.


    Taking the long view, Italy's factory system is under attack by, guess what, robots. Those factories that already rely on robots to fulfill the tasks formerly performed by men and women require workers described here as "badanti" (caregivers) to make sure that all is working: that a robot is not broken down, that assembly line functions correctly. However, to become a caregiver of robots requires special training including in informatics so as to be able to communicate with the robot. If, as some here foresee, within the next decade fully one-quarter of Italian factory workers will be replaced by robots, those jobless because kicked off the assembly line will, if they want to go on working, require special intensive training (McKinsey Report cited in L'Espresso magazine, Dec. 30). Will they be given that training? Some will -- but it will be a challenge.

  • Art & Culture

    Keeping the Chaos From Italy's Most Popular Museum: the Uffizi

    Uffizi director Eike Schmidt, 49, met in Rome with a handful of foreign journalists Dec. 5 in what amounted to a summing up of his three years of managing one of the world's finest, largest and most popular museums. Under his stewardship, museum attendance rose from 2 million in 2015 to this year's estimated 2,5 million. "In the 19th Century the Uffizi attracted no more than five people daily," he said. "Now we have 5,000 a day and, on some days, up to 10,000. And we are attracting many more young people than in the past."


    Despite this 25% increase in attendance (and in revenue), art historian Schmidt's management reforms in the Uffizi mean that the crowds, which had surged ever larger with every passing postwar decade, today pose far less of a problem than in the past. "Previously fully half the visitors came in mid-summer and would sometimes have to stand in the heat in a ticket line for up to four hours," he said. This left relatively few visitors in winter. Once inside the museum, tour guides might arrive with from 50 to even 100 people, crowding out others anxious to see the most popular works of art. "It was chaos," he acknowledged. "Now, the groups are of only 20 or so, and the guides, who would previously speak loudly, are heard through earphones."


    To whittle down the lines for buying tickets,  timed entrances with reservations made via the Internet were introduceduf."Reducing the long ticket lines was also important for security reasons," Schmidt added. In fact, in May 1993 a powerful car bomb set by the Mafia exploded just behind the Uffizi, killing six and wounding 26. Three works were destroyed and another 30 damaged.


    According to Schmidt, despite the increase in visitors, the  overcrowding and long waiting lines are managed by expanding the museum spaces that can be visited; the Palazzo Pitti, closed for 20 years, was reopened. Year-round visiting is fostered by holding concerts, film evenings and special exhibitions, like the three currently on view. Over 90 new employees were added to the staff, 30 of them specifically to help the disabled.


    Some 440 years old, the Uffizi galleries were not initially destined as public spaces for works of art. As the name Uffizi suggests, these were offices, donated to the city of Florence by Cosimo I "the Great" and converted into a museum complex by Giorgio Vasari. Its centerpiece is the Gallery of Statues and Paintings, which includes a unique collection of Renaissance art plus precious ancient sculptures that had once belonged to the Medici family, such as the Hellenistic Venus found in Rome which they acquired.

    Besides the Uffizi itself, there is the collection named for Vasari and housed in the long Gallery that crosses over the Ponte Vecchio. Currently under restoration due to problems of temperature and humidity control, the Vasari Gallery reopens in 2020.

    Then there is the historic Palazzo Pitti, which itself encompasses four separate museums. Closed for 20 years, it was reopened only in 2015. In addition are the famous Boboli Gardens of statues and fountains that sprawl on a hillside overlooking the Arno River. Altogether, these now attract four million visitors a year, with the Boboli Gardens alone accounting for one million. The newest restoration is the Hall of Maps in the Palazzo Vecchio, in which 54 hand-painted maps from the Renaissance decorate what had been a Medici storage room.


    Schmidt, born in Freiburg im Breisgau, studied medieval and modern art history in Heidelburg, where he wrote his doctorate thesis on "The Medici Ivory Sculpture Collection in the 16th and 17th Centuries." In 1994 he was in Florence for a seven-year research stint at the Deutsches Kunstshistorisches Institut, and from 2001 through 2006 was curator/researcher at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Next came two years at Sotheby's, London.


    Schmidt is the first non-Italian to head the Uffizi. Along with several other foreigner museum directors, he was appointed under then Culture Minister Dario Franceschini. How long he will 

    remain appears uncertain;  gossip has it that Schmidt will take over leadership of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2020. "My four-year contract ends in October of 2019," is all that he acknowledged.


    Last year legal action to remove five foreign museum directors (Schmidt was not one of those under attack, however), was undertaken. A lower court determined, somewhat fuzzily, "No norm in our legal system exists that permits recruitment of foreign public managers" (Il sole-24 Ore April 18, 2018). The Culture Ministry immediately protested, and action on removing the five was supended. For former Minister Franceschini, "This is absurd: the director of the National Gallery [in Washington] is Italian, and the British Museum director is German. What damage to our image!"



  • Neapoletan Presepe
    Art & Culture

    The Search for Italy's Most Fascinating Presepi

    The very grandest  presepi incorporate hundreds of carved figures, and can be admired in the Renaissance and Baroque churches all over Italy. Most famous of these is the creche in which the Santo Bambino (Holy Child) is on display in the church atop the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, from Christmas through the Epiphany. The Holy Child is a venerated copy of the ancient original, now housed in a monastery. On Christmas Eve men dressed in traditional shepherd gear play their bagpipes as pilgrims climb the 124 steps that lead into the church.


    The presepe custom dates from the 16th Century. Initially only churches and the very wealthiest had them, and some families still devote an entire room to their presepe. Traditionally they are mounted on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; many remain in place through late January, with the addition of the Baby Jesus figure on Christmas Eve.


    Today's can be unusual. For the past 15 years a presepe at Lignano Sabbiadoro has been carved of sand. The town whose  name means "golden sand" is near Udine, in
    the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and its vast sandy beach is hugely popular in summertime. For the first time the Vatican's own imposing presepe this year is also of sand, from Jesolo. At Manarola near La Spezia the presepe is a light show that occupies an entire hillside, and is described as the "largest presepe in the world." Also unique: the 13  sq. M presepe at Massa Martana in Umbria sculpted of ice by Graziano Re. His daytime work is as a chef, but he is also known as the "king of ice," .


    Most famous of all in Italy is the Neapolitan presepe. The figures in the shops and stalls on the jam-packed Via San Gregorio Armeno are a year-round attraction for Italians as well as tourists, and tour operators advertise culinary-history tours which guide visitors through that colorful, narrow street even on the hottest summer days. With the changing times, true Neapolitan presepe lovers can fill out the missing miniatures in their Nativity scenes by ordering on line. Type in "presepi on line" on your search engine, and a dozen or more sites with fulsome catalogues pop up. A Neapolitan fountain with water pouring from it costs under $10 (Euro 8.41 including tax). Getting a bit fancier, a Neapolitan presepe group with several moving figures runs from $100 to $250. On offer for a background are light shows evoking a starry night.


    Of special interest are the presepi viventi, in which for a certain number of days and evenings real live figures represent the Holy Family along with live shepherds and their live cows, sheep and chickens. Our own village of 6,000 an hour north of Rome puts one of these on vew every year; the animals are alive, but the life-size figures are of plaster of Paris and wear attractive costumes made by the village ladies.


    Perhaps surprisingly, quarrels involving presepi viventi have arisen. Last Christmas a far right political party objected to an Abruzzi town's living Nativity scene because Maria happened to be black and African, and Baby Jesus, a 7-month-old baby girl. This was "blasphemous propaganda," said the complainant. As it happened, the Holy Family were represented by members of a 50-year-old religious community, Capanna di Betlemme, at Chieti. Defending their choice, one of the Community missionaries added that, "Our Saint Joseph was a recovered drug addict who became a volunteer and now helps rise again those who have fallen."


    This Christmas some objected to a presepe on view in the little town of Acquaviva delle Fonti near Bari in the South of Italy. Built with the approval and encouragement of the city fathers, it represents, first, a family of migrants whose boat has sunk as they crossed the Mediterranean Sea and, secondly, the war we must all undertake against plastic.


    My personal predilection is for the modest presepi which ordinary people make on street corners in villages like ours, Trevignano Romano. These are rarely fancy: across from a popular local cafe the waitress worked wine bottle corks into presepe figures. The figures were inserted, against a background she also created more or less from nothing, into a niche in a rock wall across the street. A woman who designs lamps and jewelery from perspex made an even more minimalist presepe. And a local baker always makes a cake topped with a presepe.


    For those living outside Italy, there is always next year to see the real thing. If you would like to know more so as to plan for a future Christmas holiday, take a look at Italian Association of Friends of the Presepe, with a map of Italy and presepe cities listed.


  • Vice-President of the Council and Minister of the Interior

    Matteo Salvini at the Foreign Press Association in Rome

    Speaking for over two hours Dec. 10 at the “Associazione della Stampa Estera in Rome”, Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini managed to smile while fielding dozens of sometimes challenging questions. On the eve of his visit Dec. 11 to Israel, he also announced that he would soon visit the United States. This provoked a slightly hostile query. "You are sometimes called Italy's Donald Trump. Is this true?" "Well, I don't have his money," Salvini tossed back with a laugh.

    Salvini is the head of the renamed Lega, the single most powerful party in Italy. He managed to transform the former separatist Lega Nord (which called for the North to secede from Italy) into what is being called a "personal party" -- his. From the periphery his Lega has soared to over 32% of the hypothetical vote, and his personal popularity to around 48% (Emg poll). By comparison with his partners in government, premier Giuseppe Conte, 46%, and deputy premier Luigi di Maio, mocked for dressing as if for his first communion, 43%. Salvini is predicted to become Italy's next premier, an important consideration because the risk of national general elections in the new year looms larger than even one week ago.


    His is a busy schedule. Earlier in the day, as Interior Minister, Salvini had been visiting the Roman periphery to oversee the expulsion of the last 40 migrants occupying an abandoned factory that had become a notorious hideout not only for drug dealers but also for refugees suffering from a whole series of serious diseases. Because the cleanup was expected, at least 550 of its occupants had disappeared by the time the police arrived. Those remaining, who now have nowhere to live, were mostly legal. "If Salvini thinks that I live better at home, why would I accept to live in this misery?" asked Josef, 26, from Nigeria. "I didn't run away because I have nothing to hide." With him was Diop from Senegal, who has a regular residence permit, and who became famous for having saved an Italian's life by yanking him up from subway tracks just as a train approached.


    Not surprisingly, at the press conference at the Associazione della Stampa Estera just a few hours later, immigration was a main theme. Salvini defended himself skillfully from his questioners. "Sixty thousand came into Italy from Nigeria," he said, "and we sent back only a few hundred. I consider myself a guarantor of regular immigration -- regular and regulated. " On the other hand, whereas Premier Giuseppe Conte had assured Italian participation in the runup at Marrakesh for the forthcoming debate Dec. 19 at the UN on the Global Compact for Migrations, Salvini decided to stay away. However, "Fortunately the number of those dead in the Mediterranean is in decline, fewer are dead this year than last because fewer left, the number of cadavers found in Italian waters was 216 last year but only 23 this year, still too many."  All those legally in Italy are entitled to social welfare, he said, including health services. At any rate, "My priority is the 5 million Italians living in poverty."

    By coincidence on Dec. 11 Amnesty International, marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued its annual report on 2018 and prospects for 2019. The report criticized the Italian government installed in June 2018 for having "immediately distinguished itself through a repressive management of the migrant phenomenon...inflicting further suffering and undermining the entire system of maritime search and salvation." The government's recent decree on public security and immigration "seriously erodes the human rights of those seeking asylum, and will have the effect of actually increasing the numbers of those in Italy irregularly, exposing them to abuses and exploitation," said the report, which also criticized some Italian political parties for employing "racist and xenophobic" language during the recent election campaigns.


    Observers agreed that his tone regarding the European Union was slightly softer than in the past. "I intend to govern with my head and my heart," he said. "With all the humility possible, the Lega is trying to bring about a new Renaissance. I will do all in my power to find an agreement with the EU." 

    At the same time he attacked French Premier Macron as a mere "laboratory product."

    "I will do all in my power to ensure that Italy does not emulate France, with barricades in the streets," he said. And all possible to renovate a Rome-Berlin axis which can give new vigor to Europe, he added; "There will be no Italian Brexit." On other foreign policy issues, he said that Russia "is part of Europe and should be brought back into Europe."


  • Fear of immigrants is an economic theme: 58% say they believe that migrants take away jobs from Italians

    Annual Censis Report Shows a Weary Italy

    ROME -- As usual for the past half century, it arrives shortly before Christmas, but this December's annual Censis Report on whither the Italian society and economy is not exactly what Santa ordered. Censis -- Centro Studi Investimenti Sociali, or Studies Center for Social Investments -- is the foundation created by Italy's eminent sociologist Giuseppe De Rita, 86. In this, its 52d edition, Censis socio-economic studies show an Italy that suffers from fear of the future and, as the Italian press has headlined, is even nasty-minded -- a country in which education is neglected, the North-South divide worsens, and young people lack work.


    The report launches the term "psychic sovereignism," meaning a generalized and sorrowful sense of the loss of national sovereignty, accompanied by an upsurge of fear of "the other," beginning with immigrants. "The report portrays a country in decline, in search of the security it fails to find, ever more divided between the South, whose young people people leave, and a Center-North weary from trying to have kept the promises made about work, stability, growth and, above all, the future." This deep-rooted psychological fear is shared by 63% of those queried, and most severe among the unemployed and the elderly.


    One might dismiss this as anti-government propaganda, but journalist Rosaria Amato, author of the above quote from La Repubblica Dec. 6,  is a reputable constitutionalist, whose books include "Leggere la costituzione" (Read the Constitution) and "Stare alle Regole, Diritto ed economia" (Play by the Rules: The Law and the Economy).  The same synthesis is widely published elsewhere, including in the Catholic daily Avvenire.


    De Rita, born in 1932, initially worked for Svimez, the postwar agency that promoted development of the South. In 1964, together with colleagues Gino Martinoli of Olivetti and Pietro Longo, he founded the Centro studi investimenti sociali (Social Investments Study Center). Censis, now a foundation, was the next step. The idea of a serious sociological-economic study of Italy was first hypothesized by U.S. academicians, who then backed away from it on grounds that Italy was too fragmented and hence too complex. "Maybe they were right," De Rita acknowledges today, "but the fact remains that Italy is less hard to decipher than one might think.... People say that the Italians are made of quicksand -- an ensemble of individuals who find it hard to express themselves in a community." In the past, this sense of community was fostered by the leadership class, "which today is gone without a trace" (interview De Rita, Avvenire, Dec. 6).


    "We are seeing the opposite of the Italian miracle, the dream transformed into a nightmare," said Censis director-general Massimiliano Valerii. The 14 months of growth in the economy last year raised hopes, but "under our very eyes the recent negative slump in the GDP was disappointing." Fear of immigrants was another economic theme: 58% say they believe that migrants take away  jobs from Italians. All told, some 63% of the Italians take a negative view of non-EU migrants, and 75% believe that migrants increase the crime rate.


    Youth appear a gigantic problem. Between 2007 and 2017 employment for those from 25 to 34 years of age fell by 27.3%. Fewer than 27% of Italians between 30 and 34 hold university degrees as compared with the EU median of almost 40%. The number of those quitting university between the ages of 18 and 24 (18%) is twice that in the rest of Europe. Only Ireland, Romania and Bulgaria spend less than Italy on education; Italy devotes just 3.9% of its GDP to schooling as compared with the European median of 4.7%.


    Referring to this December's report, President Sergio Mattarella declared that, "In society there can be no 'discards,' but only citizens of identical rank and equal social importance. A diverse view would put into discussion the very foundations of the Republic." The world can be improved, we can remain united in our community, and we can honor the word "equality" in our constitution, he said. To do so, we must definitively "set aside physical and verbal violence, hatred, intolerance and discrimination."


  • Spelacchio in 2017

    Trees, from Christmas Lights to the New Urban Forests

    ROME -- From Christmas trees like Rome's "Spelacchio" to projects to fight pollution through urban forestry, trees make news, and not only those in Rome which have been neglected and fall across downtown streets. To begin at the beginning, no sooner was it hoisted into place last year at Piazza Venezia, the very heart of Rome, than the official Christmas tree, a donation from the Val di Fiemme in the Trentino in North Italy, began to shed its needles. Almost instantly it was scathingly nicknamed "Spelacchio," which translates more or less to "Mangy" or "Baldy." The City of Rome, and especially Mayor Virginia Raggi, elected by the Movimento 5 Stelle, was criticized for having made a poor selection and for allegedly failing to keep the tree in good condition during the holidays. In so doing she "caused damage to the image of Rome," according to the ANSA press agency.


    So derided was the tree that it was given its own Twitter profile, #Spelacchio, which invited Christmas tree lovers to donate decorations to improve its glum look.  A sardonic Facebook page was also invented (ok, fake news). One of the Facebook pages carried a satirical photo in which Pope Francis sarcastically asks Mayor Raggi: "And I suppose now you want to make a Christmas creche?" When it was at last being taken down after the holidays, a little crowd gathered, pretending they were mourners at the poor tree's funeral.


    To avoid a repetition, this year the Rome city fathers and mothers have turned to a fancy sponsor, Netflix (watch the video) which allegedly is spending over $400,000 for a Christmas tree worthy of Piazza Venezia. "We expect it to be much more fun and spectacular," predicted Corriere della Sera, "even though admittedly we had become fond of Spelacchio. In the end it was dried up and sorrowing but in the end more amusing and 'human.'" The new tree, which will be raised in Piazza Venezia Dec. 8, is 21 meters tall and will be decorated with 600 glass balls and 3 km. of led lights. In Val di Fiemme, meanwhile, which spent over $55,000 to have Spelacchio dug up and shipped the tree and to Rome, the debate over who was to blame continue.


    Elsewhere year-round trees are also attracting media attention. From Nov. 28 through Dec. 1 the city of Mantua hosted the first Forum mondiale sulle Foreste urbane (World forum on Urban Forests) whose goal was to promote healthier and greener cities. Participating were representatives of governments worldwide and of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), of research institutes and universities, and of city planners and landscape architects. Other organizations: the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FA) and Urban GreenUP. The goal is to foster, including within crowded cities, the planting of trees in order to promote a healthier planet.


    According to the organizers, "The aim of this first Forum is to highlight positive examples of planning, design and management approaches of cities with diverse cultures, forms, structures and histories, which have used urban forestry and green infrastructure to develop economic and environmental services and to strengthen social cohesion and public involvement." Discussions focused upon how best to transform big cities from producing to reducing pollution. For the experts, one hectare of well maintained urban forest can absorb 300 tons of carbon dioxide, in the same way as do pluvial forests or tropical jungles. The reason: the urban trees tend to be younger and hence, requiring more nutrition, absorb more CO2. A single large tree suffices to guarantee oxygen for four people. The trees also reduce heat in the summertime by from 2 to 8 degrees C., according to Luciana Grosso, writing in L'Espresso of Nov. 30.


    Italians point out proudly that during the past 50 years the number of trees planted in cities as well as in the countryside has actually doubled. (This reporter has personally planted more than 30.) Paris is a model, planning 30 hectares of new public green space plus 20,000 new trees and 100 hectares of vegetation on rooftops and walls within the next two years. Madrid has announced plans to have vegetation planted atop public buildings.


    At Sabbioneta in Italy, Panguaneta, major producer of plywood panels, is working with Openfabric for the green installations called "Into the Forest". The installation at Mantua -- a centerpiece of the World Forum there -- features two huge basins placed at the famous Piazza Erbe and Piazza Mantegna. Each contains a selection of different plants which can be introduced into cities. At Piazza Erbe are trees, mostly evergreens, associated with the seaside; at Piazza Mantegna, a woodland from the plains. "We are aiming for the long-range development of urban forest strategies and a greener future," according to Miriam Tenca, from the marketing staff of Panguaneta.

  • Art & Culture

    Enjoy a Bird's Eye View of Ancient Rome

    ROME -- Architect Pirro Ligorio, born in Naples, was just 22 years old in 1534 when he moved to Rome and fell in love with the city and especially its antiquities. After publishing a book on the circuses and amphitheaters of the ancient city, his work and studies on Roman antiquity  culminated in his publishing in 1551 a giant map of reconstructed ancient Rome. Ligorio Antiquae Urbis Imago remained a hallmark study into the 1930s, when Italian archeologist Italo Gismondi began his 35-year project to reconstruct in plaster of Paris a model of Rome at the time of the Emperor Constantine (306 - 337). This 1/250 scale model, measuring 60 feet across, is in Rome's Museum of Roman Civilization.


    That four centuries passed between these two famous reconstructions of ancient Rome from its ruins illustrates the challenge of the task. Now there is a new version: ancient Rome in 10-gigabyte virtual reality. Thanks to it, today's students, tourists and Rome lovers can (almost literally) soar all over reconstructed ancient Rome in a balloon 100 yards above the city for a bird's eye view, or what is today called "panoramic visualization." From the balloon a series of "apps" that can be run on home computers will allow the viewer to drop down into those building that are most intriguing. Among the first of 15 or 20 projected apps is one allowing a descent into the Basilica of Maxentius.


    This newest version of ancient Rome was a long time coming. Forty years ago archaeologist Bernard Frischer, a summa cum laude graduate of Wesleyan University with a PhD from the University of Heidelberg, spent three years at the American Academy in Rome. From there he went on to teach Classics at UCLA and -- not incidentally -- Roman topography. In 2004, transferring to the University of Virginia, he founded the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory. Its goal: to utilize 3D digital tools that allow the simulation of cultural heritage sites, in order to encourage people to learn about them. Today classicist Frischer is also professor of informatics at Indiana University, where he continues to direct the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.


    This was the first such marriage of the very oldest and newest -- that is, the first attempt to use digital technology to recreate a vanished ancient city. It did not happen overnight. Speaking in Rome last week in a panel at the Foreign Press Association, Prof. Frischer, Director of Rome ReBorn, said that work on the project began 22 years ago. "We began with a scientific committee. Eventually it came to involve some 50 archaeologists, classicists and specialized technicians," he said.


    As a result, from the ruins of the buildings and from meticulous scientific studies some 7,000 buildings that cover 14 sq. km. of city space can be seen in 3D. The period studied for reconstruction is, like that of Pirro Ligorio, from the year 320 AD, under Emperor Constantine at the peak of the city's development, with over 1 million inhabitants. "After Constantine left Rome, for centuries very few new buildings were added," explained Prof. Frischer.


    Prof. Paolo Livorani is former curator of Vatican antiquities and a Rome ReBorn associate who teaches the urban topography of ancient Rome at the University of Florence. To the foreign press he explained that, "Since informatics change all the time, we must continually update our work. During the past year we have even been changing our views of the Roman Forum." The goal is not only to show the buildings, he added, but , from what is visible, to reconstruct the social life of that era. For instance, "From the street layout we can also gain an idea of the processions," he said.


    Classicism in virtual reality, or VR, has positive results for young people. Monica De Simone is director of the Rieti Civic Museum. "The students are already accustomed to computer language. This lets them become familiar with objects from the deep past that they would otherwise first see on a shelf in a museum," she said. "In previews of the project, the students and the public were fascinated."


    For internet blogger Anthony Vitello from Turin, "Schools in China are already using this. It's been shown that education via virtual reality is more alive than traditional education. You see Rome ReBorn in your school, and then you go to the Forum or into a museum, and you have an experience that is much more deeply involving. Studies show that students who have come to classicism in this way have greater retention of what they have seen."


    Costs are kept low. Customers worldwide already include museums, public libraries, schools and universities, as well as private citizens. VR headsets greatly enhance visualization of the city and permit the fly-over viewer to move around, pausing over what interests him. To learn more, and to see a sampler of Rome ReBorn, see >>