Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Dr. Bertolaso, How Could you Do this to Us?

    ROME – Here’s Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s latest quip about his involvement in last summer’s titillating scandal involving very young wannabe starlets and, at his home at Palazzo Grazioli, paid “escorts”: “You wouldn’t want me to be [Piero] Marrazzo, would you?” Marrazzo is the man who, after admitting involvement in affairs with transvestites, resigned his elective post as the Partito Democratico governor of the Lazio Region around Rome. Get it? It’s morally all right to have affairs with juveniles (as his wife has alleged) and with prostitutes, as long as they are female.

    What is true is that not even Berlusconi’s most enthusiastic supporter would put him on a pedestal as a model for boys and girls. And the only reason I belabor this point is that we now have another sleaze scandal, which involves the one man who has been hoisted upon that pedestal, but risks slipping off and, with him, our own confidence in whither Italy.

    Guido Bertolaso was about to be made a cabinet minister, thanks to his challenging work in handling first the Naples garbage tsunami and then the Abruzzi earthquake. Nothing so difficult can be called a complete success, but in both cases he demonstrated sufficient style, acumen and dedication that he, at least, became a national hero, someone every Italian can look up to. And this remained true despite his overly cavalier and self-praising words about the Haiti disaster relief, when he managed to offend the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton by calling the U.S.-led relief effort “pathetic.”

    The foreign press have been among the many who have had a crush on Bertolaso, as was evident when he was given star treatment at a press conference I attended at the Associazione della Stampa Estera. And the same was true in the Abruzzo, where we foreign journalists toured the quake relief zone with him at L’Aquila, together with the city’s mayor, who is from the Partito Democratico, but did not hide his admiration for the director of the Civil Protection. By profession a medical doctor, Bertolaso came to be called the “guardian angel” of the Abruzzo. The Alto Adige Region, which contributed enormously to the Abruzzo relief operation by sending prefab houses, was resentful of its help being largely overlooked. But inevitably Bertolaso’s successes became the star in the crown of Berlusconi’s government, for they showed the kind of can-do pragmatism, just get the job done attitude that Berlusconi has made a watchword of his administration. Bertolaso’s halo has reflected its light upon Berlusconi, whose successes have otherwise failed to create much after-flow.

    This past week Florentine inquiring magistrates put Bertolaso on a list of those under investigation for crony contracts. The same investigation has put Angelo Balducci, who is President of the High Council on Public Works, behind bars. The most serious allegation is of kickbacks of various kinds for construction projects in Northern Sardinia, launched for the G8 summit, which was held instead, upon a last-minute decision of Berlusconi, at quake-stricken L’Aquila, present President Barak Obama. Italian newspaper allegations, citing the Florentine inquiry, allege that Bertolaso received both “money in cash and sexual favors” in exchange for meting out contracts to friends.

    Bertolaso denies the charges and says that all will be clear. He also submitted his resignation, which was refused by Berlusconi. Bertolaso says furthermore that the allegations, based on wire taps,  that he received sexual favors at a luxury Roman sports-cum-night club, vaunting a “wellness center” and disco dancing, were incorrect because they were literally “massages” necessary to help him relax from his difficult job. The words in the leaked phone taps are to a degree ambiguous—“I’ve just arrived from the U.S. and if this afternoon Francesca could..I’d be happy if…a quick overhaul” [una ripassata].

    This reporter (and everyone else I know) would love to believe that a ripassata is just that—I’ve long had a private campaign to make Bertolaso premier—but then it is also alleged that the favors, massages or whatever he received were gifts from a major contractor with a sleazy reputation who had taken benefit from the fat contracts dished out, in haste and without competition, by the Civil Protection agency. More damaging still, a company belonging to an engineer who happens to be Bertolaso’s wife’s brother was allegedly among those beneficiaries, and this may be the toughest charge for Bertolaso to deny.

    It may be that this sorry tale shows that even the best have difficulty in fighting the system. As the old saying goes, Chi lotta con la merda, sia che vince, sia che perde, finisce sporco. He who fights with shit, whether he loses or wins, winds up dirty.

    Disclosure: I have a personal, deep vested interest in the Civil Protection agency. In 1980, when little Alfredo Rampi fell down a well outside Rome and all rescue efforts died, his mother, Franca Rampi, and a group of the volunteers who had worked on the Naples earthquake of a few months previous got together to create a lobbying group seeking creation of a Civil Protection agency, which did not at that time exist. To its credit, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro gave the group a room and a phone line. I was asked to handle press relations for Signora Rampi, and in this way I became a member of he lobbying group. Every weekday afternoon for one year we worked as volunteers, doing all we could in memory of the needlessly dead two-year-old boy and the Neapolitan quake victims to promote the creation of the agency. The lobbying worked, and I still think of Bertolaso’s agency as partly mine.


    Dr. Bertolaso, how could you do this to us? Et tu?  

    Update: Bertolaso Friday acknowledged that he may have overlooked some problem areas in the assigning of the  contracts contested by magistrates, which do not involve civil protection, but special events construction, projects such as a swimming pool center in Rome for international competition and the celebrations of the unification of Italy.


  • Facts & Stories

    Crackdown on Culture Crime: Italy’s Proud Carabinieri Art Squad

    ROME – Cultural heritage thefts were down by 14.5 percent in 2009 over the previous year. In addition, some 60,000 looted artifacts—from ancient to modern paintings, preciously inlaid Baroque furniture, archaeological artifacts, fine items of church décor and rare books—were recovered during 2009 for a total estimated value of almost $240 million. During the three-year period 2007-09 all crime has decreased, with thefts of cultural heritage dropping from 1,031 in 2008 to 882 in 2009.

    Two of the most important recovered items—a Roman-era fresco painting hacked out of a wall and a precious black-figure decorated ceremonial Greek pot with handles (krater)—stolen from Italy but turned up recently at the auction house of Christie’s in New York.

    Most recently the campaign to protect the nation’s cultural heritage has showcased the ongoing trial in Rome of two Americans, former Getty Museum curator Marion True and the elderly Paris-based dealer Robert Hecht. As a result of this highly publicized trial, the Getty Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Cleveland Art Museum have all returned items which the Italians demonstrated were looted from its territory. This three-pronged effort to throttle clandestine looting and sales involved the successful coordination with the Culture Heritage Ministry, the Carabinieri, and prosecutors and magistrates.

    The advent of the Internet has both helped and hindered the illicit traffic. Specialized and general-interest web sites frequently sell looted items, but at the same time the Carabinieri-created website showing illustrations of stolen artifacts has been a successful tool. An example is the Pompeian fresco which had been stored for decades in a museum warehouse. No one knew when it was removed from storage, but in 1997 it was declared missing, and, thanks to the Internet, was found at Christie’s before it could be stolen.

    One disappointing setback: a father-so team Lebanese art restorers working in Switzerland, known as the Burki, were implicated with Robert Hecht. Some 500 archaeological items were seized from them but bureaucratic delays with justice officials in Switzerland meant that the statute of limitations ran out, and all the artifacts had to be returned to them. At present, according to the Carabinieri, of the 500 items, only 137 remain in the Burki possession.

    Archaeological theft is particularly important because by definition the looted items have no provenance certification, as would be required for selling, say, master works by Renaissance artists. For this reason independent experts like Prof. Noah Charney estimate archaeological thefts to amount to about three-quarters of the total. To address this, the Carabinieri now patrol the territory in helicopters and low-flying airplanes, which allow them to see, literally, the clandestine digs that would otherwise be invisible. As a result, on two sites looters were caught red-handed, and four arrests made.

    Put another way, both supply side and the demand side are under attack. Stolen archaeological items are harder to sell because collectors are frightened, and the more skillful sleuthing means that the number of known clandestine excavations has fallen by a stunning 76% in just one year as a result. Perhaps as a result, the number of counterfeit objects—“and particularly works of modern art,” said General Nistri—seized has risen enormously, by 427 percent in just one year.

    The problem remains, obviously, and especially in Central Italy (Lazio, Campania Regions), Tuscany and Lombardy.

    State-owned museums are better protected today than in the past, as the statistics also show. Museum thefts are down by 29% across the board. Relatively few take place in the larger museums, whereas the smaller, city-owned (and hence less protected by high-tech security) museums account for half of all museum thefts.

    Thefts from private collections, religious institutions of all kinds and historic archives remain a major concern. Church thefts dropped by almost 12% over 2008, but that year had seen a small boom in looting, and thefts from religious institutions of all kinds still account for 44.5% of the total. The relatively large number of archival materials recovered suggests that combatting this type of theft remains a priority.

  • Facts & Stories

    While Calabria Burns

    ROME – While Calabria burns, Rome fiddles (or rather, composes songs) and speaks of love.

    The burning is literal. In the town of Rosarno, Carabinieri and police summoned from elsewhere in Italy to quell Friday’s revolt by an estimated 2,000 immigrants (of a total in Rosarno of 5,000) found a stunning arsenal of weaponry in the hands of the local population. In one punishment squad car were large cans of gasoline at the ready for burning down the immigrants’ shacks, plus iron bars and clubs. Elsewhere police uncovered a cache of heavy weapons, from Kalashnikovs to a missile-launcher with its long-range missile ready for firing.
    The situation was grave enough that the clashes at Rosarno ignited a sympathy demonstration in Rome, with immigrants’ clashing there with police. On Sunday Pope Benedict XIV appealed for greater respect for immigrants, referring specifically to Rosarn.
    The battle that began in Rosarno, which lies more or less on the toenail of the boot of Italy, began with a couple of bored young hoods amusing themselves by firing an air gun at black immigrants returning “home” (so to speak) after work. This was not the first such incident, but this one spread from the streets to a highway on the outskirts, where local thugs set up improvised roadblocks. The hunt for the black devil then led into the picturesque countryside, where the immigrants live in shanties without running water (read: without toilets), not to mention electricity. “I came here to find Heaven. I found Hell,” said one despairing Ghanaian, who, as it happened, is a university graduate with a degree in engineering.
    Two black immigrant workers were kneecapped, others beaten. No one was safe: one local woman, seeing a black being beaten, intervened. To punish her, her fellow citizens destroyed her car. The flip side was that another local woman, a pretty young mother, was set upon by rampaging immigrant workers and had to abandon her car, which was then torched.
    But Rosarno is also the town whose elected mayor and and councilmen were legally declared ‘Ndrangheta-“infiltrated” thirteen months ago and replaced by a commissioner from the Prefecture, which is to say a police official.
    There is a connection between clandestine migrant workers and the town’s certification as a center for organized crime. Although it has existed only forty years, today Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta is Italy’s, and for that matter Europe’s, wealthiest and most powerful criminal network. Its fairly recent formation, as compared with the Sicilian Mafia or even the Camorra, is part of its success. The ‘Ndrangheta is still a family affair, whose comparatively recent migration into countries like Germany and the U.S. has made it difficult to penetrate. The Calabrian bosses live without the ostentation that the drug-rich Sicilian Mafiosi exhibited in the Palermo of the Eighties, but they wallow in money from cocaine, the arms traffic (police believe that the arms cache discovered Saturday came to Italy from Russia via Africa), extortion and agriculture. “How else can the consumer buy canned tomatoes in supermarkets for such a low price?” one investigator said.
    From a fairly low number of immigrant workers today Italy has something like 1.4 million. In the South these clandestine workers are seasonal: in summer they pick tomatoes, in the autumn olives, in winter oranges and lemons. By their own accounts, they work 12-hour days, for which they receive E. 25 ($37). Of this E. 5 goes to the caporale, or boss, who recruits them by the day, and another E. 2 or 3 goes to the driver of the bus who takes them to the farm offering work. Italian press reports say that these caporali are ‘Ndrangheta underlings or at least mob trustees. Needless to say, the pay is under the table, with no questions asked concerning labor laws, worker safety, working hours, job conditions, taxation, or welfare contributions by the employer.
    Sunday’s editorial by La Repubblica editor-in-chief Eugenio Scalfari listed the government ministries and agencies which ought to have taken notice of and dealt with this specifically Southern Italian problem : the Ministries of Agriculture, Labor, Productive Activities and the Interior, and the Prefecture, the Carabinieri and the Regional Governor. (To this list I would add the Ministry of Finance, since the plantation owners are not declaring taxes and not making welfare contributions.) So where has everyone been, he asks: how is it that no one in charge noticed the mob-related exploitation?
    Ironically, in the North, where the anti-immigrant sentiment is strong, immigrants are dealt with in a more coherent way, with a certain amount of community counseling and organization. The Northern League’s rhetoric continues to demand Italy for the Italians, and to attack those in the Church who urge better treatment of the immigrants, yet they know full well that their network of small- and medium-sized factories would shut down without the workers from abroad.
    Medecins sans frontieres (MSF) has a program to help immigants at Rosarno; to read its hair-raising report about conditions there, see:

  • Op-Eds

    Italy. Slouching into the New Decade

    Down at Ermete’s bar in Trevignano Romano on the day after New Year’s two of the grizzled men who still make their living on the land and fishing on the lake were talking. Reminding me of Cipputi and his fellow workman Bobo, popular figures drawn by political cartoonist Altan, the two were discussing Paolo Bonaiuti’s update on Silvio Berlusconi’s return to health. Bonaiuti is Silvio Berlusconi’s sometime speech writer and alltime sidekick. Indeed, he is so much a friend of the Premier that when Silvio speaks, Bonaiuti has been seen to mouth the words, laced with appropriate underscoring gestures with hands and sweeping arms.  
    First fisherman: “On the radio this morning Bonaiuti also said that Berlusconi’s spirits are good.”
    Buddy fisherman (long sardonic pause): “Not mine.”

    And who can blame him? Slouching into the new decade after the one best forgotten, the observer can hardly miss seeing that there are two conflicting sets of problems beleaguering Italy. The first are the distracting and futile political catfights. Their tone is nasty, and they involve such political leaders as the endlessly aggressive ex-magistrate Antonio Di Pietro on the left, the grumpy Northern Leaguer Roberto Calderoli on the populist right, and the no less aggressive rightist economist Renato Brunetta, today Minister for Public Administration. 

    Brunetta wins the prize for his lugubrious insult of last September, “Vada a morire ammazzata la sinistra che prepara colpo di Stato.” (The left that’s preparing a coup d’etat should be shot.) Considering that the Italian left (what left? where? which lefts?) could not prepare so much as a children’s party for La Befana, this gratuitous claim was needlessly antagonistic and certainly not part of any solution.  

    The same is true of the recent statement by Dr. Calderoli of Bergamo, whose contribution to  Church-State relations was this: “Nobody listens to a priest who talk politics.” The back story: Milan Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi was urging kinder treatment of immigrants, who, he said, should not be automatically criminalized, and the cities of Italy not “militarized,” as the far right in the North has demanded.

    In the second category are the real problems hurtling toward Italy, no less than other countries, but with a few specifically Italian aggravating factors. An example: the pending closure of the Fiat auto manufacturing plant in Sicily because each car produced there comes off the assembly line costing E 1,000 more than in the North. In an end-of-decade survey, one Italian economist was asked which European countries were in the worst trouble. He listed, in this order, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Southern Italy, and all of East Europe except Poland.  

    At the same time, despite the efforts of its famously capable businessmen and industrialists, the North of Italy is facing new risks that can potentially overwhelm social services there. ISEE is the organization which sets the official poverty-line economic benchmark. ISEE also distributes the permits that bring hand-out checks for families with more than three young children and distributes the permits that give the needy access to, among other things, free school books, university scholarships, day-care, maternity aid, invalid transportation, visiting nurses and, in Sicily, exemption from payment of the already cut-rate health service fees. Extracts from its annual report, published January 3 in the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore, show that one million more than last year made claims to free social welfare services. In the South one out of two citizens—50%--made these requests. 

    In the North the figure is half that, but with a new and rapidly increasing problem. The number of the foreign-born (and especially from Asia, Africa and East Europe), who are officially designated by ISEE as below the poverty line, and who are skillful enough to have learned the bureaucratic ropes, has literally tripled in the past three years, so that they make up 18%, or nearly one out of five of those in need of help from the local and state social services.

    And this is the interconnected problem: Italy needs its migrant workers, just as other countries do. But management of their needs and of their successful insertion into Italian society is complex and requires political and bureaucratic skills that are not yet available, given the rhetorical distractions. 


    In the ancient fishing village cum modern dormitory suburb of Trevignano in Lazio, a beloved holiday tradition is to make Christmas-time Nativity scenes. The largest has a real donkey, real cow, goats, sheep, piglets and life-sized characters, down to and including an Arab vendor and a seated black beggar with only one leg, itself a comment. The most moving, by way of contrast, is a double Presepe scene carved into a giant rock. One miniature grotto shows the traditional Christ Child and the adoration of the Magi. The other shows the troubled Isle of Lampedusa, the goal of hundreds of desperate migrants every week. As a thoughtful hand has written, when a rickety boat loaded with would-be migrants sank just off the coast of Italy, the crying of a drowning babe was heard in the the waves—a reminder that many lack so much as a manger. And a reminder too that kind hearts, like the author of the “presepe” and Archbishop Tettamanzi, coexist with the ironically misnamed new politics of “love.”  




  • Facts & Stories

    The Attack on Berlusconi and the Vicious Climate of Italy's Political Discourse

    ROME— Following Sunday’s brutal attack by a disturbed youth armed with a powdered marble souvenir of the Milan cathedral, Silvio Berlusconi’s personal doctor reports that the premier is resting and in good spirits. Although his public commitments will be on hold for two weeks, he is expected to leave the San Raffaele hospital Wednesday.

    The entire hospital has been transformed into a bower of get-well floral offerings. “It looks like a garden in here,” marveled a nurse. The overflow is being sent to other hospitals. As for Berlusconi himself, according to Don Luigi Verzè, the priest who founded the San Raffaele, “He loves everyone, including his enemies.”

    Meanwhile his room in the San Raffaele hospital has become a Mecca for politicians of almost every stripe. Among the political pilgrims, there presumably to eat his words, was Pier Luigi Bersani, the new leader of the opposition party Partito Democratico (PD). Shortly before Berlusconi was injured, Bersani had told a crowd that the Premier is a populist “millionaire who plays the pipes, and all the poor fools (i poveracci) fall in behind him,” as the virulently pro-Berlusconi Il Giornale reminded its readers

    The rest of Italy is drowning in a veritable tsunami of comments. Everybody who is anybody, and also everybody who is nobody, has an opinion to offer. At the Café Magnolia at Campo de’ Fiori this morning, body builder Francesco said knowingly, “That Tartaglia may be crazy, but someone put him up to it. It was a plot.” (Intelligence chiefs here deny this firmly.) On the other hand, during a radio phone-in a father complained at the lack of help in the country for all mentally disturbed, who include one of his own family members: “The maximum hospitalization is only three days, and the subsidy for food, housing and clothing is only E. 220 a month,” he said.

    A deeply disturbing note: hundreds of Internet petition signatures praising the gesture, and launching cries from politicians for more controls over the Internet. Twitter has launched a vogue for pithy phrases, and so one Twitterer offered this nasty comment: “Twenty years a nut case, one minute of lucidity.” By the same token comments from the pro-Berlusconi side can similarly tend to the heinous, like this one, using the word “red” to mean Communist: “Gnaw, gnaw, Komrade, and your teeth will be consumed sooner or later in the red faeces of the sewer from which you will not escape.”

    One hotly debated question was whether or not Berlusconi’s wife Veronica, currently suing for divorce, had spoken personally with her estranged husband or not. The consensus: she phoned the hospital for an update on his condition.

    For twenty-four hours most serious political commentators hesitated to cast blame. But several serious themes are emerging. The first asks to what extent the vitriolic debate of the past six months has fostered a climate of violence. Even if this was the action of an isolated, disturbed youth, it would seem to reflect the harsh language and vicious climate that has become the hallmark of discourse between government and opposition, with each side blaming the other. Does the blood on Berlusconi’s face signal that Italy is in for a revival of Seventies-style Years of Lead, as many here have been predicting in recent months?

    A second theme is the Machiavellian calculation that Berlusconi will take genuine benefit from the outpouring of sympathy. Until Sunday’s incident he was definitely in political difficulty. But a political cartoon in Il Manifesto Tuesday said it all by showing a hand graciously offering a miniature cathedral as if a gift on a platter. Already, demands are being made for Berlusconi’s political program to be enacted, down to and including a revision of the Italian Constitution and a whittling away at the powers of the judiciary, which Berlusconi claims is left-leaning and overly politicized. The magistrates have created this atmosphere, Don Verzè charged in an interview in Tuesday’s Corriere della Sera. “This is the real reason why it is necessary to change the Constitution. The judiciary’s manhunt has created the context in which this aggression became possible. The magistrates have to be redirected back to their proper role, which is to be above and beyond politics.”

    The current, very important trials involving the Mafia and the Camorra bosses have been put onto a back burner. In one of these a Berlusconi former top aide, Marcello Dell’Utri, is on trial for the third time following two convictions for Mafia association.

    A third consideration is future protection of all heads of state everywhere. Berlusconi has always enjoyed what is called here a “bagno di folla,” or working the crowd. But now the risk, intelligence officers say, is for copycat crimes, perhaps with people throwing cell phones. Indeed, throwing the Duomo at Berlusconi was not far from being an imitation of the shoe thrown at former President George W. Bush during a press conference.

  • Art & Culture

    Leonardo Sciascia’s Mafia

        For Sciascia, others could talk, and he admitted enjoying their talk, especially at il circolo—the club. For him the circolo was pure theater, a late afternoon daily event when he was a young man in his native Racalmuto and, later, a meeting at the end of the day in its equivalent in Palermo—either in an art gallery or in Elvira and Enzo Sellerio’s publishing office (he was their first editorial director). Sciascia participated by being there, and watching. What he liked was for other people to talk, so that he could listen, study, analyze. Apply the wisdom acquired from growing up in a Sicilian town, studying in another Sicilian town to be a teacher, and then teaching Sicilian schoolchildren.  

          When I interviewed him in the Seventies (I had known him already for some years), I would ask a question, which would be followed by what was for me an embarrassing, seemingly endless pause. He thought before speaking, just as he thought before writing. Perhaps that explains why he always went to Paris every winter, to tour the art galleries there. He was not expected to speak to the paintings, though they obviously spoke to him in a language he could understand. Paris and its arts were for Sciascia, a Mecca, and he always went there, from Palermo, by train. Why? Because that was how it was done, slowly, the noise of the swaying train cars drowning out all but one’s own thoughts (and the travelers must take the train to Palermo to know how much the cars sway and rattle on the old railway lines, quite unlike the Eurostars humming from Naples to North Europe). 
          I once asked Sciascia about his writing technique. By then I knew what to expect, and so I steeled myself for a long and painful wait. 
          In his own good time he replied after meditating. “Once I tried to rewrite something. It was awful. I vowed never to do it again. Ever since I think of what I want to write and then in the summer I go to Racalmuto for three months and I write it. I never rewrite a word.”  
          In this way he was himself a maffiusu, one of those silent men who are surrounded by arm-tugging underlings who do the talking for him. Sciascia was hardly alone: many Sicilians did not talk, and what they did not talk about was the Mafia. Indeed, when Sciascia was first writing many still proclaimed that it did not exist at all.  
          In a way his name said it all. It came from the Arabic, he told me, and it meant veil.

          In the Sicily of Sciascia’s era all seemed veiled, and nothing more so than the Mafia. But silent, thoughtful Sciascia helped to tear away its veil in his book of 1968, Il Giorno della Civetta, The Day of the Owl. The book about a Carabinieri captain who investigates a Mafia murder became a movie directed by Damiano Damiani starring Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero, with a screenplay by the late, gifted Ugo Pirro. The film version was more or less damned by one American critic as “depressive.” Indeed—but then so are all Sciascia’s books. 
          Only apparently detective stories, they plunge us into the  deep well of corruption, they illustrate how political collusion with the Mafia (and not only with the Mafia) works, they read us the rules of a subtle game with cruel rules. Even the landscape darkens. As Gerard Slowey writes in his introduction to a 1998 reprint edition of Il Giorno Della Civetta, “Sciascia’s Sicily in this book…is a land with little colour, where the greenery serves only to highlight the ominous grimness of the chiarchiaro and the people dressed in black…” (Manchester University Press).

          In his own words, “I was born in Racalmuto. As Pirandello liked to say, ‘the place of my involuntary sojourn on this Earth.’” Elsewhere he refers to Racalmuto, the town fifteen kilometers northeast of Agrigento surrounded by barren moutains, as “the dead village.”  
          His birth January 8, 1921, concided with the dawn of the Fascist era. He lived through the abortive assault on the agrarian, godfather Mafia under the Fascist Prefect Mori; through wartime and then the Mafia’s postwar rebirth as an urban force, first in contraband and then in the building trades, inevitably linked to politics, before the Mafia assumed control over the global drug market after 1978. 

          Sciascia’s subtle portraits of Sicily mark his novels and essays, but he scandalized many when he attacked, in an article that appeared in Corriere della Sera Jan. 10, 1987, what he called the professional anti-Mafia caste, “i professionisti dell’anti-Mafia.” Just what he meant by that remains a matter of debate. Perhaps he felt simply that “everyone anti-Mafia isn’t made of solid gold,” to quote writer Santo Piazzese, writing in Venerdì di Repubblica this Sept. 11. 

          Certainly, some of the key Sicilian protagonists at that time flaunted an heroic anti-Mafia stance for personal aggrandizement. Above all Sciascia was deeply suspicious of the mafiosi turncoats--i pentiti--whom he mistrusted, but whose revelations were the substructure of the famous so-called maxi-trial in Palermo in 1987. His writing the article offended many, particularly since that trial prepared by Judge Falcone produced more convictions than any previous Mafia trial, where white washing was more common. He believed that it was all too massive, too much tarring all with the same brush. To recognize a certain ambiguity, even in the difficult prosecution of alleged mafiosi, does at least provide a key into Sciascia’s way of thinking.

          The essence of Sciascia—the essence of Sicily, for that matter—is ambiguity, and, needless to say, he did not quite explain himself.

          An interdisciplinary conference was held at University College London in November entitled “Leonardo Sciascia’s Defiance: Literature, History, Politics.” Explaining the purpose of the conference, the organizers wrote, “Sciascia’s swift canonization raises important questions about the perception of literature, the discursive possibilities of political protest and the relationship between high culture and politics in present-day Italy.”

                            * * *
    To learn more, see J. Cannon, The Novel As Investigation: Leonardo Sciascia, Dacia Maraini, and Antonio Tabucchi, University of Toronto Press, 2006, and Jane C. Schneider and Peter J. Schneider’s Reversible Destiny, University of California Press, Berkley, 2003, and
                            * * *
    Judith Harris, who has been visiting Sicily since 1961, has written extensively about the Mafia. She covered the murder of General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa and the maxi-trial in Palermo for Time magazine and for the Wall Street Journal and was a field producer for the BBC-TV two-hour documentary “Mafia Wars.” She is at work on a novel, The Sicilian Bride.

  • Facts & Stories

    Supergrass Gaspare Spatuzza links Italy's Premier Silvio Berlusconi to the Mafia

    ROME – Unusual for orderly Turin, police blocked off all access to the street where a court met in session on Friday. The reason: Mafia supergrass Gaspare Spatuzza was to give evidence in the appeals trial of Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, co-founder of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s political movement Forza Italia in 1993. Two hundred journalists, including numerous from the foreign press, had already obtained accreditation to the Palermo court, meeting in Turin for reasons of security.


    Dell’Utri, born in Sicily, has already been convicted by a lower court and sentenced to nine years for outside support in a Mafia-type association. He also plea-bargained on charges of fiscal fraud, for which he received a sentence of two years and three months. He has admitted knowing a Mafia underling named Vittorio Mangano, who—according to a Palermo court—acted as a protector of the Berlusconi children in the family villa at Arcore during the Seventies, when North Italian industrialists were plagued by kidnappings for ransom; other industrialists sent their families to live in Switzerland for the same reason. In 1984 he became a director of the Berlusconi financial group Fininvest.


    New allegations by Mafia “pentiti” go beyond the possible personal role of Dell’Utri. The claim is that the late Mafia-implicated long-time mayor of Palermo Vito Ciancimino was actively involved in negotiations between the government in the early 1990’s and the Mafia bosses, who were seeking more lenient treatment in prison and other favors. The chief source for these allegations of secret negotiations is Ciancimino’s son, Massimo, who has given inquiring magistrates copies of documents inherited from his father which, he says, list the Toto Riina-led Mafia’s requests from the government. Massimo Cianicimino’s house was burgled shortly after this report made headlines in Italy. Supposedly Vito Ciancimino acted as go-betweens together with a Carabinieri colonel.


    The theorem behind all this—and the reason why so many journalists attended today’s trial session—is that, if Spatuzza and Ciancimino are to be believed, the Mafia had two seasons of anti-state violence intended to show its muscle prior to any bargaining. During the first period Judge Giovanni Falcone and Prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, heroes of the maxi-trial in Palermo, were murdered in 1992. The second period was during the turbulent year of 1993, when a technical (“babysitter”) government was installed by President Francesco Cossiga, and Forza Italia was created as a political action movement. That year a series of Mafia bombings took place, not in the South, but in the North of Italy (Rome, Florence, Milan). One at the Uffizi Museum killed six. These bombings have been seen as threats to the cultural heritage of Italy and to tourism, as opposed to more conventional Mafia crime.


    At midday Friday Spatuzza took the witness stand, speaking behind a screen as had Mafia witnesses at the famous maxi-trial of Palermo in 1986. In his testimony today Spatuzza affirmed that a mafioso named Giuseppe Graviano had claimed that Dell’Utri and Silvio Berlusconi were their points of reference. Supposedly a note—a pizzino, in Mafia parlance—exists saying that the meeting would be “as  usual in the cemetery” with our friend the [unnamed] senator.


    No further evidence yet supports this or other claims, and a judge has pointedly declared that Premier Berlusconi is absolutely not under judiciary investigation. Indeed, according to Spatuzza, Graviano identified his alleged political contacts simply as “the folks from Canale 5.” Although Canale 5 TV network was and is a Berlusconi property. not surprisingly, Berlusconi’s supporters scathingly call this the open season for hunting down Berlusconi, a victim—to quote Libero, a rightist newspaper—of a “media-judiciary circus.”


    Nevertheless, as a result of Spatuzza’s claims, Graviano will be heard by the court via a video-conference along with two fellow Mafia associates, his brother Filippo Graviano and Cosimo Lo Nigro, on December 11.


    On Friday the leaders of the Italian left parties, with rare exceptions, shied away from harsh reactions to the claims by Spatuzza, saying that they would await the outcome of the judiciary process. Until confirmed, Spatuzza's declarations amounted to hearsay, and even the often fractious Antonio Di Pietra, the former magistrate who heads the party called Italia dei Valori, was cautious. 
    In an interview with the Rome daily Il Messaggero Luciano Violante, former magistrate as well as former president of the Chamber of Deputies, warned that Spatuzza may still represent the Graviano Mafia clan, and that "the Mafia does what it wants only when it has a purpose." In this case, he suggests, the purpose may be to signal that the Mafia considers Silvio Berlusconi on his way out. In this case they are showing their availability to potential successors. Who? Violante does not say, but the obvious conclusion is that the Northern League is creating splinters elsewhere, including in Sicily, and that this interest in future alliances  may explain the maneuvers currently taking place behind the scenes. On the other hand Giuseppe Ayala, yet another former magistrate (as a prosecutor he worked with Judge Falcone), said, "One can hardly remain indifferent" to Spatuzza's allegations.
    Meanwhile Berlusconi's allies retort that the Mafia is attacking the Premier because he has worked to eliminate organized crime. Berlusconi's erstwhile enemy (and possible successor) Gianfranco Fini agreed: "The Mafia is attacking Berlusconi because he combats it." Berlusconi's lawyers say they intend to sue Spatuzza.


  • Art & Culture

    Sicilian Opera at La Scala. Director Emma Dante's Unorthodox "Carmen"

    ROME – The opening of the grand opera season at La Scala Theater in Milan, which will take place as always on the feast day of Sant’Ambrogio (Saint Ambrose, that is) on December 10, is first and foremost about music, and is also an emotional, political and fashion event, but rarely more so than this year.

    Emma Dante, a brave new theater director from Palermo, is entirely new to opera, and yet is presenting what promises to be an extremely unorthodox version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. All Milan is buzzing with anticipation (“Will Carmen be gay? A trans?”), and when tickets went on sale November 23 for a special cut-rate performance to take place December 4 for young people, the box office window was slammed shut within 120 seconds of its opening, and on-line tickets were sold out within exactly fifteen minutes. All twelve regularly scheduled performances have also been entirely sold out for months.   

    “Her vision is of Carmen as universal,” said Stephane Lissner, the French superintendent who runs La Scala. For Lissner, Dante’s vision embraces, in the opera, “the South and women’s condition there, and superstition.” So what does that mean?

    Speaking to Natalia Aspesi for La Repubblica, Dante herself explained: “The women in my theater performances are dumbed down (scimunite) whose context of rage, pain and submission has made them into idiots (rincoglionite—okay, mine is a polite translation). But Carmen is no victim, she’s a rebel who breaks every rule and doesn’t bother with politeness. She knows her destiny is death because of her longing for freedom, and she goes knowingly toward it…..This production is the fruit of considerable forethought, and is certainly not intended as a provocation. I tried only to insert a little virus into this world so far from my own, in part to understand if one can try experimentation within grand opera.” 
    In 2005 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone—today Vatican Secretary of State—took issue with Dante’s production of La Scimmia, in which a nude youth who plays the ape of the title appears on a cross. When it was presented in Genoa, where Bertone was at that time archbishop, he tried to prevent is being performed. 
    One opera blogger called Dante an “out of left field” choice to direct Carmen at La Scala, but also a “Sicilian prodigy.” The lead singer is Anita Rachvelishvili of Georgia while the sulky, handsome Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott (who is married to the gorgeous Russian soprana Anna Netreko) will sing Escamillo. Don Jose will be sung by the popular German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann.  


    Taking with her the stage, costume and lighting designers, Dante toured Palermo seeking atmospheric signals appropriate to her Carmen. In some scenes the sets have therefore Sicilian-inspired religious symbolism signifying death, with, in the foreground, brightly colored costumes. The result is a Carmen that is very strong, vibrant, but with more than a hint of violence as Don Jose attempts to “abuse” Carmen, in the words of Rachvelishvili.   


  • Facts & Stories

    A Week in Politics, Italian Style

    ROME – the movie that has Italians and foreigners talking—and gasping and laughing away a bitter tear or two—is a political documentary called “Videocracy.” It has won prizes and, while even ads for it are banned from being broadcast on state-owned RAI TV, it is circulating in some Italian cinemas. The work of a Swedish-based Italian from Bergamo named Eric Gandini, 42, it begins with a strip tease in a stage-set Milanese cafe, to enthusiastic applause from a handful of ordinary-looking slobs. The strippers are unprofessional, unsexy housewives, doing awkward bumps and grinds as part of a game show. This would be beneath anyone’s radar screen except for one fact: these embarrassing amateur strippers starred in a show produced by the proto-TV Berlusconi network in Milan in the Seventies. They raised the curtain on the historic birth of trash TV Italian style, and also of the Silvio Berlusconi media empire.

    Fast forward to last week in Italy, whose high court just stripped the Italian Premier of his immunity from prosecution while in office, an immunity that existed thanks only to a bespoke law called the “Lodo Alfano,” now overturned by a vote of 9 to 6. In that vote two judges considered conservative broke ranks to vote against, and two considered progressives voted for maintaining the “Lodo,” thus leaving scant justifications for allegations that the immunity stripping was part of the ongoing “plot” which Signor Berlusconi believes has the world against him. This plot hatched by his “opposers”—the word “opponents” has also been stripped from the Partito della Liberta’ political lexicon—is the work of foreign media, elite parasites and local Communists.

    The eighty lawyers who prepared the Premier’s defense, led by Nicolò Ghedini, acknowledged that everyone, even a president of the council of ministers, is equal under the law in Italy, but still the application of the law can be stripped away, depending upon that individual’s status.

    My own first question was: what the heck is a “lodo”? The good folks at the Encyclopedia Treccani explained that the word comes from the Latin root LAUDUM, meaning lodare or to laud someone, i.e., to give approval. A lodo is therefore a collegial decision or judgment that, however, needs ratification from a praetor. Alfano was the name of Berlusconi’s Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, and the law came into being in 2008; a previous law along the same lines, known as the Lodo Schifani, had been declared unconstitutional in October 2009. It was therefore not much of a surprise that not even a berlusconi of lawyers could cook up an argument to maintain his immunity from prosecution.

    Berlusconi, needless to say, is outraged and has gone so far as to intimate that revelations about the private life of the chief justice who made the decision can be expected. No less seriously, he has blamed Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for essentially betraying him by having signed into law the “lodo” in the first place, a charge which Napolitano denies with his customary dignity.

    And yet prosecutions there will be, one involving British banker David Mills, already convicted in Milan for accepting Berlusconi bribes in exchange for giving false testimony concerning business funds. A second case involves allegations of false accounting in the purchase of TV rights by Mediaset and a third, underhanded means for stripping Mondadori publishing interests from Carlo De Benedetti; that latter case has already whacked Berlusconi with a gigantic fine. Against a background of sexy sleaze and party girls, it is not a pretty picture.

    Berlusconi has two defenses. The first is that the Parliament, still solidly in his favor, is likely to push forward the date for praescription, meaning that if enough time is wasted before all this comes to trial, most will fizzle out. The second is to accuse anyone who criticizes the Premier of being anti-Italian—anti-Italian wine, anti-Italian tomatoes, anti-Italian showgirls, anti-Italian whatever. To combat this, he has ordered a new anti-foreign press squad to bombard us with good news about Italy, which is to say about himself.

    And this is a particularly interesting issue to me as a foreign journalist, but also as a writer, and so I spent some time yesterday searching details of rhetorical devices from ancient Rome to the present. My best answer is that this argument (love me, love my country, hate me, hate the tomatoes grown in Sicily) is a sophistic fallacy. I invite those better prepared to give us a more precise rhetorical term.

    So how are Italians in the street reacting to this? I have in the past week touched base in Naples and Florence as well as Rome, and the most obvious effect is that the clash is embittering and divisive, and this may be the most serious and enduring fall-out. “It’s a continuation of a kind of civil war,” a journalist from Florence told me gravely. From an old-line feminist leader in Rome: “I’m so depressed about it all—everyone I know has no desire to do anything.” From a young journalist in Naples: “I’ve just been hired by the right and hate them but I need the money.” From an MD in Cortona: “We need Silvio—the others are merda.” From a Tuscan family court judge: “All men need sex with women. What’s the fuss about?” From a Roman housewife: “Who else is there—just look at the messy left.” From Berlusconi’s daughter Marina, 43, from his first marriage: “The aim is to overturn the verdict of the electorate.” Her father, she said, is the victim of a “manhunt.”

    The word victim is significant, for it is hard to see that the most powerful and wealthy man in Italy is anyone’s victim save, these days when he is making one gaffe after another, his own. Among the latest, besides issuing sinister threats against a judge, was to dump on Rosy Bindi, a progressive Catholic, whom he insulted by calling her “less intelligent than beautiful.” Bindi being less than beautiful, and knowing it, she reacted sharply that she was not one of the women available to him. This launched an avalanche of signatures on an on-line petition in her support. As for this reporter, echoing JFK in Berlin, “Ich bin Rosy Bindi.”

  • Art & Culture

    L’Aquila: Riccardo Muti and Music for Hope and Brotherhood

    L’Aquila – This was Italy at its best. Wild applause, tears of joy and pain, and a stirring rendition of the Italian national anthem concluded an open-air concert Sunday evening of intentionally patriotic and purely Italian music by Bellini and Verdi. The deeply moving concert was held against a backdrop of mountain peaks at sunset Sunday evening in the heart of the zone devastated by the earthquake April 6.


    Riccardo Muti, between engagements in Salzburg and Chicago, directed an all-Abruzzese scratch orchestra and chorus of three hundred, including students from the famed conservatory here, itself severely damaged.

    The performance took place on a temporary stage mounted within the Finance Guards’ barracks compound in which the leaders of the G8, including President Obama, recently met. The large open space where the stage was mounted had been specifically utilized for the funerals of the 300 earthquake victims. Ending the concert, Muti said that while conducting the music he felt that he and all the musicians were also communing in an ideal sense with the spirits of those who had died.

    In a meeting beforehand with a delegation of the foreign press, Muti had stressed his own Neapolitan and Pugliese roots, and spoke movingly of the way in which can music help to bring people together and foster reconstruction of a community that has suffered so deeply.

    For an observer, it was an incredible experience, with a strong political edge. The Italian national anthem by Mameli is being rejected by the Northern League, and Muti—who opened the concert with the anthem—then performed it a second time as an encore. At that point he replaced his formal black jacket with one borrowed from a firefighter and descended into the audience of nine thousand to salute Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who was greeted with an extraordinary roar of applause.

    Also on hand, representing the government, was one of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s top
    advisors, Gianni Letta.
    In the days before this extraordinary event Civilian Protection personnel had called upon quake victims, tent by tent, passing out invitations to all those interested. Nine thousand attended. Because the concert was for them, the first thirty or so rows were for those still living in tents; the VIP’s were placed well behind. Many in the audience were dressed in finery, but a great many of the 100,000 affected by the quake came wearing jeans and gym jackets, or whatever was available in their temporary housing.

    The concert concluded a summer arts festival called Campi Sonori that is part of the local citizens’ commitment toward cultural as well as the more customary forms of reconstruction.
    Guido Bertolaso, the engineer who heads the reconstruction efforts for the government, told journalists that priorities for reconstruction is going to young families, and particularly schools and housing. Although 60% of the area’s schools were damaged or destroyed, new schools are being built by construction companies working around the clock, and schools will start on time, he announced with legitimate pride.

    Journalists also toured some of the new housing, almost ready. “We made one key decision,” said Bertolaso. “No containers. I just returned from one quake zone, Foligno, where after years people are still living in containers. We are building regular homes as well as using prefab wooden structures—our enemy is the snow, but we shall be ready.”

    He pointed out that the fairly recent previous earthquakes, such as in the Irpinia in late 1980 and in the Belice Valley in the Sixties, took place in areas with a relatively low number of inhabitants and small, scattered towns. “The only comparison with this one is the 1905 Messina earthquake,” he said.

    L’Aquila is one of Italy’s top 20 “cities of art,” with an important cultural history, fine historic buildings, a university and music conservatory. “We decided to maintain the area’s social viability of the community,” he said. The basis for reconstruction planning is to maintain its unique culture by creating the possibility for young people to remain in the area—hence the emphasis on cultural reconstruction. Even the conservatory will reopen in late November in temporary quarters.

    Physical reconstruction of the city center will proceed at a slower pace. Visitors to town’s famed historic center see spiderweb cracks across the facades of buildings, tie bars and their equivalent of tie wrappings that keep the buildings from collapsing. The entire old city center is still under guard, off limits to all but a few. But at the civic theater a brand new elegant auditorium was just inaugurated.