Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Cradle of Love

    For the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the fate of children born out of adultery was a problem. A Milanese high priest named Dateo therefore wrote in his last will and testament of February 787 that, “Not wanting the affair to be know, women who conceive as the consequence of adultery kill their own newborn infants, and in this way send the infants to hell without baptism. This happens because they [the women] cannot find a place to take them where they would be kept alive…so then they throw them into the sewers, the rubbish and river. Therefore I, Dateo, dispose the institution of an orphanage for babies in my house, and I intend for this orphanage to be placed legally under the power of Saint Ambrose.”

    This was Italy’s first orphanage, but it did not quite go far enough. In the year 1198 Pope Innocent III had a recurring nightmare of seeing new-born babies being fished out of the Tiber River—as he may well have seen in daytime. So distressing was this vision that the pontiff ordered the Santo Spirito hospital to install a wooden  “Ruota” (Wheel) behind a wooden door into which women could anonymously slip new-born babies they were unable to keep, then ring a bell before they fled into the night.

    The hospital still exists near St. Peter’s Basilica on the banks of the Tiber, and is still at the service of Romans, pilgrims and tourists. And so is the problem of unwanted babies, along with the Ruota. Although it was gradually abolished all over Italy during the 19th C., in recent years the Ruota has had a come-back as a heated cradle which is kept under constant surveillance (the cradle, not the mother) by a TV camera.

    Why should this be necessary in this day and age? Every year some 3,000 babies are abandoned in Italy. Three-quarters are children of Italian mothers, but the number being born to immigrant women is rapidly rising, to the point that women in Italy abandon eight babies every day of the year.

    Many such women are in denial, authorities here explain. Some are very young schoolgirls or immigrant older women who fear family, social or religious reactions. Others are terrified of the reactions of husband or partner who suspects an adulterous relationship. And some of the very poorest fear losing the job that supports the children they have already, and so many of these hide their pregnancies until the last moment. A few are prostitutes. Over half of the cases involved a single parent with other children and 22%, single individuals.

    Just as in the priest Dateo’s time, some of the newborns are dropped into dumpsters that will carry the baby into a rubbish tip where the child will be crushed. “We had three sad cases in 2006. Two babies were tossed into dumpsters and another left on the back ledge of a truck. All three were found and saved, but this told us that we had to take action,” Dr. Michele Paolillo, who heads the neonatal section of the Casilino Polyclinic of Rome, told a radio audience recently. “Another woman appeared with a newborn she said she had found on the street—but then she fainted, and we discovered that she was the mother. So we installed the heated cradle, and two months later had our first guest, who was rapidly adopted.”

    The social makeup of Dr. Paolillo’s Roman neighborhood is a mixture of very poor Italian families and new immigrants. As a result, of the 2,000 births in his hospital over the past year, 37% were born to non-Italian women.

    The present legislation needs retouching, he says, but in many ways is nevertheless “very avant-garde since a woman can give birth in a hospital and then, without risking penal action, can decide to relinquish the baby if she believes that in doing so she can give it a better life.”

    Why was the Ruota phased out during the 19th C.? Because as more babies survived in the families and the population expanded, more babies were abandoned to public services, with over 4,000 a year in Milan alone, or almost one of every three births (30%). The cost to the public and charities was seen as too high.

    The current revival of the Ruota began because of pressure from the right-to-life movement, whose supporters hoped that this would reduce the request for abortions, legal at public expense since May 1978. But social changes have outstripped the original ideological motivation, and for the past fourteen years Milan has been offering similar services free to the public. “We have a hot line that gives information of what’s available,” said Matilde Guarnieri of the Milan Region. “We think it’s our duty to ensure that both mother and child are safe so we also offer some support, including psychological, during the pregnancy.”

    At Abbiategrasso on Christmas Eve last year one such heated cradle was inaugurated by Mons. Masperi. Outside are instructions in five languages: Italian, Spanish, Albanian, Russian and Arabic. At the touch of a button the door opens to the cradle and remains open exactly one minute. If a baby is placed within, the Blue Cross operator plus three volunteers from the Centro Aiuto alla Vita (CAV) are automatically contacted.

    “We chose a place where there isn’t much light outside so that he mother won’t be frightened of being recognized, but is easy for an ambulance to reach,” one of the volunteers told a local reporter.

    The cradle was a gift from a local engineer, Signor Bernardi and his wife, following an incident where, hearing whimpering, a girl came down into the street and—thinking to find an injured cat—found a newborn. That baby lived—and so will others, thanks to what a local reporter called “the cradle of love.” 

  • Op-Eds

    Where’s the Joke? Not in the Senate, Alas

    Stefano Benni, the author of the beloved short story collection Bar Sport (1997), is one of the funniest men alive. But not even Benni can make us laugh about the government-proposed gag law that was passed in the Senate in a vote of confidence on Thursday. The bill now passes to the Chamber of Deputies, where an even more bitter battle is expected. 

    While the vote was being counted, the opposition senators on the losing side staged a walk-out, and the following day the nation’s best-selling daily La Repubblica, went onto news stands with a blank front page to show what it means to be muzzled. The beleaguered author of Gomorrah Roberto Saviano, who is Italy’s Salman Rushdie, wrote that the aim of the law is “not to defend the privacy of the citizen, but on the contrary it’s a law to defend the privacy of power itself—understood not as the privacy of powerful men, but of their business interests, including crooked.”

    When and if it becomes law, the bill will seriously clip the wings of magistrates and journalists investigating financial and other crimes. As many believe, it will whittle away at democracy itself, in a country whose democratic system of government dates only from 1947 and was won only in war.

    Before the law takes effect, that rare beast here, the opposition media (rare because Premier Silvio Berlusconi owns or controls the vast majority of the media, from movie and shelter magazines to film companies and TV networks), is offering readers a flood of details which in future can be published only at risk of giant fines and jail sentences for both journalist and publisher. The National Federation of the Italian Press spoke direly of this as one of Italy’s “darkest moments” for press freedom.

    And an authoritative American figure, Vincent Cannistraro, CIA veteran officer and former director of intelligence programs for the National Security Council from 1984 to 1987, in a telephone interview with La Repubblica said that his understanding is that the new law would attempt to make “the tool of wire taps completely residual—it would discourage them. But if so I fear that the costs  your country is preparing to pay in terms of security will be very high indeed….Such a disciplining of wire taps as you are discussing in Italy would be unthinkable in the US.” (my retranslation from Italian, fyi). 

    So what’s there to laugh about? Very little, but Benni tried. His conceit was that at an outdoor market he picked up a box of ratty old tapes. Taking them home, he played them (again, my translation from Benni’s fertile imaginings) and heard things like this:

    “Pronto, Napolitano here. Am I speaking with the Premier?”

    “This is the voicemail of Silvio Berlusconi, Emperor of Italy. If you wish to leave a message of congratulations, press one. If you wish to obtain a personalized law written just for you, press two. If you want to bring charges, call the number 89999999965432222 to leave a message with an operator who speaks Swahili. If you wish a gorgeous chick, press four. If you want to abolish the Constitution. press five. If you are a Commie, press the trigger and shoot yourself. If you are Bondi [Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, author of affectionate verses to Berlusconi], stop calling me your little cupcake. If you are Napolitano [President Giorgio Napolitano], press nine and leave a message after the beep.”

    “I am Napolitano. What I wanted to say is….”

    “The three seconds at your disposal are over. You may call again next month.”

    One of the left leaders predicted that the coming battle in the Chamber will be like the Vietnam war. Most eyes are turned to Gianfranco Fini, in hopes that the President of the Chamber of Deputies can somehow soften the blow. But the problem is that Fini, if he presses too hard, will bow to Berlusconi’s not very veiled threats to take the country to the polls. It’s a sort of political blackmail, for the problem is, what if elections were held and Berlusconi were to win? What then? 

    Not even Benni can offer us a laugh at that prospect.

  • Op-Eds

    Fini: “Other dangers” Lie on the Political Horizon. But Just What are They?

    ROME –At a meeting last week of industrialists from Confindustria, the equivalent of the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers, Premier Silvio Berlusconi proposed that its president, Emma Marcegaglia, replace the outgoing Economic Minister Claudio Scajola. (A frequent beneficiary of government contracts paid for most of Scajola’s $2 milllion apartment overlooking the Coliseum—“unbeknownst to me,” Scajola explained lamely before resigning).

    No one in the audience overlooked the fact that Berlusconi, in attempting to lure the popular Marcegaglia into his government, was angling to co-opt Confindustria itself, so when Berlusconi called for a show of hands, only three were raised. This blunt rejection by Confindustria from the audience of 3,000 economic leaders was a stunning rebuff, which the Premier brushed off  with a quick, “All right, but then don’t you complain about my government.” 

    Unperturbed, while in Paris last week Berlusconi blandly mentioned that as premier he, “like Mussolini,” never had the sensation of wielding power over Parliament. This blatant appeal for a more docile parliament was more than one of Berlusconi’s customary gaffes. The country’s top independent political commentators are warning of the grave risks inherent in the government’s attempts to nibble away at constitutional guarantees, which Parliament’s first and only post-Fascist president Gianfranco Fini, of all people, is battling to defend. “Our Constitution is the foundation and guarantee of the unity of the Republic,” Fini told a group of students visiting the Chamber of Deputies  the other day. Ambiguously he added, responding to the chorus of criticism at Berlusconi’s comparing himself to Mussolini in relations with Parliament: “Today it’s not a dictatorship that is threatening us, but other dangers.”  

    Just what those “other dangers” are was not explained. However, one element may be the present government’s dodgy reliance on passing legislation via government decree, which means that a given bill  immediately becomes a valid law for three months without debate. Similarly the government constantly calls for votes of confidence which also have the advantage for him of stifling debate in Parliament (as of March 2010, a record number of 31 over 22 months). Both political ploys have drawn fire from Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, whose position is so delicate and important that he seems almost palpably to be walking on eggs. An aggravating factor, as one commentator pointed out, is that most Italian citizens seem unaware of the gravity of the gradual but relentless attempts to erode the rights they enjoy as a result of their post-World War Two constitution. In the words of author Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), “Berlusconi is giving us a sort of ‘homeopathic’ coup d’etat. We’ll find ourselves in a dictatorship without even realizing it.”

    Besides bypassing Parliamentary debate, a double-whammy government-proposed gag law is soon to come to a vote. The bill would muzzle a publication’s rights to report what is happening, particularly as it concerns judiciary matters. Because Premier Berlusconi personally owns the largest three private Italian networks and wields nearly total control over the three state-owned radio and TV networks, the gag law will, if passed, actually apply only to the narrow margin of opposition newspapers, spearheaded by the best-selling daily La Repubblica, owned by Carlo De Benedetti. The gag law is opposed by the left, but also by such conservatives as editor Vittorio Feltri, whose newspaper, Il Giornale, is owned by Premier Berlusconi himself.  

    In addition, in all but a few cases the gag law would—and most likely will—eliminate or seriously curtail the judiciary’s use of wire taps, including in Mafia investigations. On grounds of privacy protection, for instance, no phone bugs can be placed in cafes, including those where mob bosses do their business. The author Roberto Saviano, for one, says that, if such a law had been in place at the time, he would “not have been able to write Gomorra.” No less seriously, businessmen doing deals that involve political kickbacks would be protected. Most of the country’s investigating magistrates and top police are doggedly opposing the legislation.  

    That the public is TV-dependent is beyond doubt. In a broadly-based survey both TV viewers and newspapers readers were asked questions about the economy, such as the Italian growth rate. The TV viewers described the economic growth as twice what it actually was. As a result, until this month the government has pooh-poohed the very existence of a financial crisis, but has now finally been forced to bite the bullet and agree to cut its budget deficit by 24 billion euro ($29.5 billion). The cuts punish countless already luring Italian cultural institutions and foundations, but they do include a 10% cut in salaries for Members of Parliament (cabinet ministers excepted) who are among the best paid in Europe.

  • Facts & Stories

    Mafia, Kinds of Applause & Saviano's Quotes

    ROME – The applause at the capture of Calabria’s most wanted mobster on the night of April 26 will go down in the annals of Italian organized crime. Giovanni Tegano, 70-year-old boss of the region’s capital of organized crime, Reggio, was wanted for seventeen years on charges of homicide, arms trafficking and Mafia association, according to the Italian press. When he was brought into police headquarters in handcuffs, the police applauded the team of their fellow male and female detectives who had finally captured him together with five younger associates. A jubilant Interior Minister Roberto Maroni sent congratulations. 

    But it was the applause the next morning that made the real headlines. Outside the Questura headquarters at Reggio a crowd of some 500 people applauded, not the police for their sleuthing, but Tegano himself, shamefully hailed as friend and martyr and—as several admirers shouted—“a man of peace.” As if this were St. Peter’s Square, a child was held overhead in the crowd for Tegano’s presumed blessing—and indeed the kindly-looking, white-haired crime boss in handcuffs managed to wave benignly and smile to his faithful followers.  

    A second shameful incident occurred over the weekend in Palermo. Mafia investigating magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife Francesca and three police bodyguards were murdered by the Mafia on the highway between Palermo and its airport in an explosion in May 23, 1992. Ever since then the tree in front of the apartment building in which the couple lived has been a symbol of resistance to the Sicilian Mafia. But on Saturday vandals stripped off the photos, poems and letters written in his memory and attached to the tree by well-wishers, especially schoolchildren. 

    At Perugia that same evening author-journalist Roberto Saviano, sharing the platform with former US Vice President Al Gore, addressed a packed theater as part of the annual International Journalism Festival. Exactly like Tegano in Reggio, Saviano is a hunted man, but for the opposite reason. Saviano’s book published in 2006, Gomorra, details the activities of the vicious Neapolitan organized crime networks that thrive by dumping toxic waste wherever it suits them and by controlling the Neapolitan docks where containers bring cheap Chinese goods (people, too) into Europe. Translated into 42 languages, with over three million copies were sold, in 2008 this literary phenemonon evolved into a wildly successful and horrifying movie whose director, Matteo Garrone, also won major prizes. For Saviano, all this success spelled personal disaster. He has received so many death threats that, like Salman Rushdie, he lives in perpetual danger and cannot be without bodyguards.

    The Italian offshoot of Al Gore’s non-profit investigative journalism TV channel, Current TV, featured a long interview with Saviano a week ago on its Italian platform, SkyTG24. Over-directed, with busy visual and sound effects that tended to obscure Saviano himself, the documentary was nevertheless fascinating and eloquent. 

    While Saviano and Gore spoke in the packed Perugia theater hundreds braved the chilly spring wind outside to follow the discussion on TV. They had lined up hours ahead of the debate in hopes of getting inside; luckily I had a ticket and managed to squeeze into a cramped seat at the back of a box on the fourth tier. Appropriately for the arrest of Tegano, Saviano quoted Mafia victim Paolo Borsellino, who worked with Falcone in prosecuting the so-called “Maxi-Trial” in Palermo, saying: “You don’t decapitate the Mafia. You eradicate it.” It is important, Saviano added, that any anti-Mafia struggle not be perceived as part of an ideological battle. However, “When the Center-left [coalitions] were in power, they said I defamed the Campania. And now that Center-right is in power, they are saying it.”  

    Last week Premier Silvio Berlusconi claimed that non-fiction books about organized crime such as Gomorra, mentioned specifically, and works of fiction have a boomerang effect by glamourizing the Mafia. To this allegation Saviano responded, “It’s painful to think that, when there’s a fire, you get mad at the firemen.” What he hopes, he concluded, is that words like “honor” can be restored to all Italians. “Truth brings honor to a country. It’s not being truthful to speak of 'men of honor'.”

    When Saviano spoke about how the mob works—he spelled out its connections with the politicians—he was obviously deeply moved. So was the audience, and he, exactly like the mobsters in the Calabrian street, was applauded by his fans, which is to say by that Italy which rejects and resists all the mobs. Indeed, Saviano’s standing ovation went on so long that, even from our distant viewpoint, he seemed close to tears. He was not alone.  

    A translated segment of Roberto Saviano’s talk in Perugia is at: His official website is:

    Both Tegano’s nighttime arrival at the Questura and the daytime applause can be seen at: (The text, quoting an AP report states incorrectly that “scores” of people died in the two years of ‘Ndrangheta warfare which left Tegano the victor in the early Nineties. That figure is actually estimated at 600, or almost one a day, similarly to the Mafia wars of Sicily in the Eighties.) 

  • Facts & Stories

    Emergency’s Emergency: Italian Medics Seized in Afghanistan

    On Saturday in Rome’s Piazza Navona a demonstration is  being organized in support of a trio of Italian doctors Matteo Dell'Aira, Marco Garatti and Matteo Pagani who were arrested without formal charges at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province of Afghanistan, accused by local authorities with involvement in a plot to have Helmand governor Guland Mangal assassinated.

    Evidence of the plot, according to the provincial authorities, was the finding of a cache of weapons and explosives hidden by Pakistan-based Taliban in a store room of a hospital built and run by the Italian medical charity, Emergency, whose founder is Italy’s Nobel Peace Prize candidate Dr. Gino Strada, 62. On April 13 the hospital itself was shut down and the staff, including those seized, sent to Kabul.  

    Many here in Italy maintain that the charges are trumped up, and that the Italians and the six local employees of Emergency, five of them Italian, who were also seized are themselves victims—though of whom and which side in the war is far from clear. Their situation was compromised by a now discredited report in the Sunday Times of London that the arms cache belonged to Al Quada forces.

    It was further confused by a second formally discredited report that the Italian doctors had “confessed.” And in the meantime, a crowd of 200 or so Afghani marched through the town yelling “down with Emergency.” 

    This war story is particularly sad to all of us who have followed Strada’s work, for Strada and his Emergency medical team are among the heroes of our time. Born and trained in Milan, Strada was performing transplant surgery before creating Emergency in 1994 as a non-profit and apolitical organization of hospitals active in war theaters. Since then Emergency has built and run field hospitals in thirteen countries, including Pakistan, Peru, Ethiopia, Somalia and Bosnia in addition to Afghanistan, and has helped some 3.5 million patients. Many victims treated—apparently far more than officials have reported—were  children who lost limbs to bombs and land mines. The child victims of war are so inured to suffering that, as Strada himself has remarked, they do not even cry from pain and the loss of a leg. 

    With apparent assistance from British soldiers, the three Italians and six local employees were seized at the hospital by Afghan security forces on April 10. Interviewed by Fabio Fazio on Italian TV the following day, Strada said that, “We immediately contacted the governor, who said he knew nothing about all this. But that very evening the governer told a press conference that the Italian surgeons were behind the plot.” 

    However, as Strada went on to say heatedly, “It’s ridiculous to think that people go to work in a hospital for years and then go about trying to blow everything up. Give us a story that’s a bit more credible.” However, he  acknowledges, it is not impossible that weapons could have been concealed by an employee inside the hospital store room: “I have no control over what the employees, including the guards, may be thinking—some may side with Karzai, others with the Taliban. Our checking system is fairly rigorous, but in a situation like this we can’t rule out that, among the 250 Afghan employees in the hospital, one could have lent himself to such an operation, either for money or because of blackmail.”

    Strada is the author of Pappagalli Verdi, Cronache di un chirurgo di guerra (Feltrinelli, 2010). The title, which translates as "Green Parrots, Diary of a War Surgeon", refers to a type of land mine produced by the old USSR. A brief excerpt: “In today’s conflicts more than 90% of the victims are civilians. Thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed every year in the world, and many more are wounded and mutilated…

    From the beginning the humanitarian activities of Emergency were concentrated in particular on the treatment and rehabilitation of the victims of anti-personnel mines, inhuman weapons of which Italy has been among the main manufacturers. For years Emergency has been attempting to have these weapons banned, and on Oct. 22, 1997, the Italian government approved Law No. 374 which bans the production and sale of these anti-personnel mines. But the 110 million mines still in the ground in 67 nations continue to injure, mutilate and kill.”  

    Elsewhere Strada is on record saying, “I don’t believe in war as a tool. It’s undeniable that as an instrument war simply does not work.” And on Italian TV he also said in 2007, “If man doesn’t chuck out this business of war, war will chuck out the history of mankind.” As for terrorism, it is “the war that generates war.”  

    To sign an on-line petition in support of Emergency and those arrested, visit the organization's website 

  • Facts & Stories

    Back in the Saddle with Silvio

    With the hurdle of last weekend’s regional elections safely behind him, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, 73, is solidly back in the saddle, and virtually certain to enjoy a three-year hiatus before another election can come along to unhorse him, if it can. Despite its campaign of “phony scandals” against him, “We have given the left a lesson,” Berlusconi trumpeted from Rome Monday evening.

    Berlusconi thus sails into both national general elections and the election of a successor to Giorgio Napolitano as Italian president in 2013 from a comfortable position. Still, the ride promises to be bumpy, less because of his humbled and quarreling opposition, than because Umberto Bossi, the partner who gave Berlusconi this victory against the odds, will claim his reward. His populist right-wing, anti-immigrant Northern League will now control most of the wealthy industrial North, winning in the Piedmont and the Veneto while doubling its results in Lombardy. “And now, federalism,” the gleeful League leader in Piedmont, Roberto Cota, promised.

    The political shellacking of the left can be put down to fragmentation and disaffection, with the result that, as a delighted Bossi proclaimed, “In the North the left disappeared.” The opposition Partito Democratico (PD) slumped from its 34.1% of the 2008 vote in national general elections to around 27%. A few spoilers out there are also being blamed, such as Antonio Di Pietro, whose Partito dei Valori in Lazio claimed around 10% of the vote. In Emilia, Beppe Grillo won 7% in another classic example of a protest vote.

    But the real spoiler on the left were the stay-at-homes, or around 1.5 million who abstained. Most of these demotivated Italians are believed to have been on the left, and indifferent to the pleas from the left leaders when not downright hostile to them. This is the high price still being paid for the two years of fractious government under former center-left Premier Romano Prodi.

    The left was not the only loser. Pier Ferdinando Casini’s Catholic party, which had sought to occupy a middle ground between right and left, fared poorly. And Berlusconi’s official ally, Gianfranco Fini, whose own rightwing political party Alleanza Nazionale merged into the PdL, has been increasingly and visibly at odds with Berlusconi. It is an election irony that Berlusconi’s PdL itself appears significantly weakened, its voting losses compensated by the Northern League victory. However, the relative strength of the League, vis-à-vis the weakened PdL, means that within the governing coalition Berlusconi will need to seize the high ground to mediate between Fini and Bossi—hence Berlusconi’s interest is to prop up Fini as counterweight. And this may explain why the Premier is now saying that he harbors no animosity toward Fini, whom he expects to bring back into the fold. In addition, Berlusconi’s presidential ambitions for 2013 make Fini’s support important, especially because, as president of the Chamber of Deputies, Fini will run that election, which requires a two-thirds majority for the first three votes, but a simple majority thereafter.

    Although the full official tally is not in, Berlusconi and allies in the Partito della Libertà (PdL), which previously held only two of the thirteen regions holding elections [of a total of 20], have bounced up to six. Besides snagging powerful Piedmont for the first time, they also won in hotly contested Lazio, where the better known and more experienced Radical party candidate, Emma Bonino, lost by a hair to her rival, former trade unionist Renata Polverini.

    Berlusconi’s staffers are saying that his star quality at a concluding campaign rally in the vast Piazza San Giovanni in Rome turned around what had begun to appear a lost cause. At that rally ten days ago the organizers claimed attendance by one million people, arriving in four special trains and 3,000 buses, even though the Ministry of the Interior cut that figure by three-quarters and said that the police counted fewer than 250 buses. (The Ministry doing the counting, by the way, is already in the hands of the Northern League.)

    Entering the campaign Berlusconi seemed weak. The ongoing recession has cost the country 500,000 jobs, and for the past two years the promised reform projects were on hold while Berlusconi dealt with the judiciary he openly despises and court proceedings brought against him. In the background were scandals involving paid “escorts” who took photos and made tapes in his bedroom and accusations, including by his estranged wife, of his affairs with underaged girls. But he campaigned accusing the left of “social envy,” and the same elements listed above seem to have boomeranged in his favor. The loss of jobs frightened many voters, who felt more secure with him. The accusations of his immorality evoked, if not social envy, than at least envy. A managed media, especially TV, helped; when the Milan trial of the notorious David Mills, accused of funneling overseas bribes on behalf Berlusconi, was dropped two months ago because it fell into praescription (that is, the legal terms of action expired), RAI TV Channel 1 announced, erroneously but intentionally, as its director has since admitted, that Mills was “acquitted.”

  • Facts & Stories

    Move over, Tony Soprano—you’ve had it

    ROME – Fuggeddabboud Tony Soprano and his Bada Boom style. With apologies to author George De Stefano, who is the brilliant analyst of the Soprano phenomenon, the homey, rough-hewn senior Soprano type is definitively passé in Sicily. The newer model Mafioso is more a Wall Street Gordon Gekko, with university degree and professional standing sufficient to make him welcome in the swankier parlors and on the more influential political platforms.

    That is the message Italian investigators and commentators are drawing from the arrest in mid-March of a noted Sicilian architect, Giuseppe Liga, 60. A Mafia pentito named Isidoro Cracolici has described Liga—neatly cut short gray hair, glasses, jacket and tie—as the Sicilian Mafia’s “financial brain.” Prosecutors call him the newest boss of bosses, symbolic of a recent trend. “The era of the Corleonesi is definitely at an end, and Liga’s arrest confirms the mutation of the Mafia strategy into one that is clearly based on finance,” according to Sicilian prosecutor Antonio Ingroia.

    In addition to statements from those Mafiosi who are talking, Liga’s arrest came as the result of many months of traditional sleuthing by Italian investigators: wire taps, hidden microphones, physically tracking him and documentary evidence.

    By his own admission Liga, in addition to practicing his profession, was a leader of a Catholic worker movement, and involved in an action group of Catholics for dissent. At different times he reportedly supported and opposed the powerful Mafia associate Salvo Lima, linked to the Christian Democratic party of Sicily in the 1980s. As the Mafia’s financial interests increased since the years of daily Mafia murders in Sicily, so, apparently, did its need for a new kind of man, investigators in Sicily theorize. Other recent arrests of men supposedly above suspicion have included others with university degrees and a certain social standing. “Cosa Nostra is ever less a world apart and ever more integrated into the social and economic texture of our country,” Ingroia has said. “This was always true to some extent but the process has speeded up.”

    Even in the Sicily of the 1980s, when the Corleonesi won the battle for control of the drug racket that ranged from Hongkong to Manhattan and Rio, the social and economic distances were less distant that might appear, as I learned during an interview with one upper-class Palermo matron who admitted to me that she was surprised when her husband brought the not-yet pentito Tommaso Buscetta to their home one evening. Even a priest who was head of an association honoring Mafia victim Paolo Borsellino was arrested for money laundering. As his son Manfredo Borsellino has written, “The Palermo of the elegant salons is polluted and has been for a long time.” Indeed, as another well-to-do society matron in Palermo confided to me, her friends had invited “a few Mafiosi” to their New Year’s Eve party, to drink Champagne together, “for a lark.”

    (For the full text of the fascinating interview with Ingroia upon which this comment is based, see Il Fatto Quotidiano, March 23.)

  • Op-Eds

    In our Churches, On our Beaches. The Gypsies of Italy

     On Tuesday evening a band of Gypsies burst into Rome’s 1,700-year-old Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and stole...Our hearts.

    The occasion was a concert by the Rajko Orchestra of Hungary,  given a standing ovation for a virtuoso performance sponsored by the Sant’Egidio Community, which has worked with the Roma for decades. The orchestra, composed entirely of Gypsy, or Roma, professional musicians, performed with some eighteen violins, four double basses, clarinets and a zither. Unusual for a church concert in Rome, secular music predominated, and in a show of musical democracy as well as skill, various violinists conducted by turns, occasionally taking a small stroll while tackling Liszt, Massenet, Bach and the like. They could walk about: there were no music stands to get in the way, for not a single musician played from sheet music. 

    This week particular attention was being paid to the Roma at a pan-European conference organized by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants. In this connection, at Wednesday’s general audience at St. Peter’s, where the Rajko Orchestra also performed, Pope Benedict XVI called upon parish churches to make “a more effective commitment toward the Gypsies.” (Although the word Gypsy is often considered pejorative, the pontiff used the word “zingari.”)

    Coincidentally, at an academic symposium held under the aegis of the Rome center of the University of California, an Italian social worker with long experience in working with Roma, and three Roma themselves, met with American students. One of the speakers told the students that is integrated into Italian life to the point that his fellow Roma sometimes call him a “Gaggio,” as non-Gypsies are known. “I am here legally, I earn a living, and I am married with children—my daughter is in high school and wants to study law at university. But when I finally had money to rent an apartment in Rome, I was turned away,” he said. He still lives in a container in a camp.

     “By sponsoring the concert we wanted to present a different image of the Roma world,” Mario Marazziti, a spokesman for Sant’Egidio, told me.

     That image is a problem for the 150,000 or more Roma in Italy, as Nazi-style hate comments on Italian Internet blogs show (and the Nazis killed over 500,000 in Europe). The stereotype in Italy, and not only here, is that all Gypsies are thieves and beggars. A sampler: “They are parasites.” “How come they go around in Mercedes cars?” “Since none of them work, how do they live?” “Send them to a desert island with four tomato seeds.” “In the hospitals you always find Gypsies persecuting patients with demands for money.” “They sneak into the corridors and grab everything in sight.” “No people were ever so detested.” “They are a cancer on society. This isn’t racism—it’s the truth.”

    Lamberto Curatolo of the leftist political party Italia dei Valori in Piacenza puts some of this hate talk down to the Roma being trans-national, a condition used to justify “a new racial hatred, aimed at nationalistic self-celebration.”

    In fairness, some are thieves. Italy itself has no lack of native thieves, any more than does the US, of course. But the thieving of the Roma is endemic and reflects the fact that generations of the vast majority of adults have never attended school and are hence illiterate and unemployable. The experience of a teacher in our village in North Rome, Trevignano, is typical. Returning home one day from school, she found a Roma woman inside her parlor, trying to make off with the family silver.

    Child exploitation is still frequent, and many children are forced to beg. I saw a teenage male Roma musician in Naples forcing a dazed child of five to beg on a commuter train at 10 am when the thermometer showed over 100 degrees. I then saw the same child still begging outdoors in a piazza at 10 pm. A recent documentary film aired on the BBC contained secretly filmed footage showing a girl of ten or so in Milan being beaten by her female Gypsy minder when the girl failed to produce enough alms. Some Roma girls are married off in their early teens to men over twice their age. Many are married as adolescents, and the fallout of these early marriages is the lack of mature guidance for their children.

    The children suffer further when the spontaneously created camps in Rome and Milan, the only home they know, are smashed by bulldozers before their terrified eyes. The idea is to persuade Roma families to move into new camps—some not yet built—that are surrounded by high fences and will have electricity, running water and strict police controls over who enters and who exits. A project also exists to fingerprint Roma children, so that they have precise identification. Not surprisingly, some Roma consider the efforts to give them IDs and to fingerprint their children as Gestapo tactics, and the rehousing akin to being put into a concentration camp. Even Father Paolo Cristiano, who has worked with the Roma for 17 years, describes the camps as “ghettos, far from shops and schools.”

     So can the Roma be integrated?

    Discrimination against them is undeniable.  On a Sicilian beach in July 2007 a Roma woman was seen grabbing a child by the arm and concealing the little boy in her long skirts. Alert bathers grabbed her, stopped her from stealing the child and nearly lynched her.

    Stealing? The child was running into a street where cars were passing, and, as was later learned, the Roma woman was trying to be helpful. “I have six children of my own,” she told a reporter later. “Whatever would I want with another one?”

    Father Paolo Cristiano, who has worked with the Roma for l7 years, believes that Roma could be integrated in the Italian society.

    “Their presence in Europe dates back to the 14th Century, but they have always been discriminated. This led to their developing a reaction against civil society. Today, having no documents makes it difficult to find work, and the lack of schooling aggravates this. Then they live in slums, without access to normal housing, and this keeps them apart. But they do want to integrate, have normal documents and send their children to school.” The lack of documents is a particular torment to those wishing to be integrated.

    “It is a bureaucratic choice for the convenience of the authorities,” according to Andrea Anzaldi, a representative of the European Roma Rights Centre. One Roma told a reporter in Rome in January that he has been in Italy for 34 years but is still officially a clandestine.

    Five years ago a study by the Opera Nomadi, Italy’s largest Roma organization founded in 1963,  produced its own in-depth analysis of the problems facing Roma children in school, with reference to the experiences of teachers and social workers. One of the most serious problems is language.

    For the children, Italian is often their third language after the Roma language and the language of their East European country. In addition, the Roma culture is oral, yet their own language has a relatively small vocabulary and is not codified. Study, reading, concentration, comprehension, grammar, and the transformation of thought into written form do not come easily, especially in a world in which words are presented as dogma, and can even seem weapons, by the elder.

    Yet change is coming, Father Cristiano believes. “Our first goal in working with them is knowledge and friendship—we try to have a personal relationship with every one, adults and children, to learn their basic needs, including spiritual.” At least in Rome, he says, almost all Roma children now go to school, a first necessary step in the difficult process—difficult for Italians as well as Roma—of entering the world of work. Many teachers are supportive, as are parents of non-Roma children who encourage integration. And indeed one Italian teacher wrote a long letter of heart-felt protest about a six-year-old Rom who loved school, but whose schooling was interrupted by the camps being torn down and the family transferred.

    And there are other spontaneous efforts to address that negative image as preludes to better integration. In the Northern city of Treviso, in reaction to the torching of a Roma camp two years ago, a club was created that now includes eighty photographers—professionals as well as amateurs—who specialize in photographing life in Roma camps. Last year the XYZ Gallery for Applied Arts held an exhibition of their photos called Zingari d’Italia (Italian Gypsies). The photographers’ goal, according to curators Fabrizio Urettini and Matteo Segna, is: “to liberate us, at least a bit, from the fantasy iconography of the ‘Gypsy’ as romantic, nomadic, criminal, anti-social and subhuman.”

  • Op-Eds

    Does Sex Make Italy Go Around?

    ROME – Stefano Benni is one of the funniest men around. In a short story in his book Bar Sport (1997) he describes the tubby retired high school professor who spends his days inside a café. From his table the prof examines—literally—the females who come into the bar. As each settles onto a stool, he gives her bum a grade.

    No one could be better positioned than Benni, therefore, to examine and grade the sexual goings-on of politicians and their hangers-on that have horrified and titillated Italian news readers, albeit while making a few men envious.

     In the background is a solid sociological analysis of Italian sexual uses and customs, the work of Marzio Barbagli, 71, author and sociologist at the University of Bologna, whose books are translated into English. His newest book, written together with fellow sociologists Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna of the University of Padua and Franco Garelli from the University of Turin, is La sessualità degli italiani (Il Mulino), and offers the results of some 7,000 interviews on sex with Italians between the ages of l8 and 70.

    We already knew it, but one of the

    book’s chief conclusions is that, although the condition of women in Italy has changed considerably, gender inequality remains more acute in Italy than in other Western countries. A synthesis of Barbagli’s investigation results, published in La Repubblica on February 24, also shows that:

    INFIDELITY: Among men, 81% do not accept a partner’s betrayal as compared with 89% of women. The lower the educational level achieved, the greater intolerance of infidelity.

    NUMBER OF PARTNERS: Ah, the crux. While eschewing infidelity in their partners, a mere 14% of the men say that over a lifetime they have had only one partner, as compared with 50% of the women. Among those admitting to over 20 partners, the male promiscuity rate stands at 12% and the female, just 2%.

    ORGASM: An occasion for fibbing. Among men, 83% at least say they achieve this “always” as compared with 34% of the women. Perceptions differ, however. Nine men out of ten believe their partner always achieves orgasm, whereas, when asked, only seven women out of ten say they have.

    AGE OF FIRST RELATIONSHIP: For men born around WWI, the age was just under l8, and for women, 22. Today, the age is l7.4 for men—a decline of just a few months in almost a century—and for women, l8.5 years.

    : Four out of a hundred men over age 18 say they have never had a sexual relationship as compared with six women.  

    Now to Stefano Benni. He makes the point that, whereas the sociological study showed that Italians are wonderfully happy with sex, the powerful and privileged are the exception, for they are obliged to resort to paid escorts and/or “masseuses” of one sex or another, sometimes offered as freebies from business associates.

    Since they are obviously unhappy, they need help, says Benni. He therefore proposes they be given courses in flower arranging, divorce action counselling, ballroom dancing lessons and prepping for brilliant conversation. Instead of Viagra and cocaine, they should be taught to prefer lemonade and Nutella. Parties should be arranged for them on the lines of high school proms, to which those taking the cure cannot arrive in limos or private planes.

    “Without taking these measures,” Benni concludes, “the male example of homo politicus is destined for sterility and extermination. If they remain corruptors and mafiosi, but become chaste and virtuous, you’ll see—we’ll go on voting for them.” 

  • Facts & Stories

    No Laughing Matter

    Reading the print-outs of phone taps is one of the most vilifying pastimes, but necessary in a country where justice moves, if at all, at snail’s pace. The leaking of phone taps is a way of flinging damning information, which might otherwise disappear into the meanders of power, into the public arena so that at least the ordinary citizen can pronounce judgment. Having read whole volumes of Mafia wire taps, I’d thought I’d become hardened. But I was wrong. Worse still than the accounts of the Mafia cemetery in a bay off Palermo (I am putting this politely) was a conversation, published as a leaked wiretap by Florence magistrates during Carnival week.

    The Abruzzi quake took place at 3:32 am on April 6, 2009. A few hours later two eminent builders anxious for juicy contracts were chatting about the news on a phone that happened to be tapped on orders of Florentine magistrate Rosario Lupo, in charge of investigations into suspected crony contracts funneled through the Civil Protection Agency so as to avoid the otherwise necessary oversight and competitive bidding. Here’s how the conversation went:

    “You better pay attention to this quake stuff because we’ve got to get rolling right away. We don’t get a quake every day.”

    “Yeah I know” (laughter).

    “Naturally, the poor things.”

    “Well okay.”

    “This morning at three-thirty I was in bed laughing.”

    “Me too. Well, ciao.”

    In this tragedy 150 died, 1,500 were injured and 70,000 were left homeless, and so, not surprisingly, the Abruzzesi reading the wire tap chat were not amused. The day after it was published a group wearing T-shirts and carrying signs reading WE WERE NOT LAUGHING broke through a police barricade to demonstrate in the off-limits, unrestored historic center of the Abruzzo capital, L’Aquila.

    Among the towns near L’Aquila where there was the least to laugh about was little Onna, a medieval town whose name comes from the Latin unda (onda in Italian), wave. During World War II Nazis shot and killed seventeen of its citizens in June 1944.

    The quake flattened seventy percent of the town, and of its 350 citizens, forty were killed. From a news report of 4:30 pm on the day of the quake: “Onna, tiny suburb of L’Aquila, is no more. It was razed to the ground. No more houses, only rubble and in a field a long line of coffins. Tears, silence and in the air dust and so much pain, as if after a bombing. This town is the very symbol of the tragedy that has struck the Abruzzo.”

    This week, for the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, journalist Sandra Amurri interviewed Onna citizen Giustino Parisse, who lost two children, Maria Paola, l8, and Domenico, 16, as well as his 75-year-old father and his home, flattened along with the others at Onna on that laughable April morning at 3:32 am. Giustino Parisse and others among the Onna survivors are currently collecting funds to help the victims of the Haiti quake, and Parisse has already made contact with an official adoption agency there in hopes of adopting two Haitian orphans.

    It makes you want to weep with joy that people like the citizens of Onna exist, despite it all.