Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Pre-Rinsing the News

    ROME  - Premier Silvio Berlusconi has brought a one million euro law suit against the newpaper La Repubblica for defamation.For three months now the Italian daily has relentlessly published a daily list of ten questions for which the newspaper demands answers concerning the Premier's private affairs. These alleged affairs went onto the public record when the Premier's estranged wife, Veronica Lario, wrote an open letter accusing her husband of having inappropriate relations with minors and of suffering from undefined physical problems. Last Friday Mr. Berlusconi's personal lawyer, Niccolo' Ghedini, a member of Parliament for the Partito della Liberta', announced he will bring defamation suits against selected foreign publications if he can "verify if there is the possibility to bring civil actions against those who went beyond the normal right to report events."

    The foreign newspapers will likely include the Spanish El Pais, the French Nouvel Observateur, and the British dailies the Times, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and  Daily Telegraph, all of which have not been reluctant to reveal piquant details. 
    By way of reply to the law suit against La Repubblica, the French leftist daily Liberation has begun publishing the same list in sympathy with the besieged Italian newspaper. "This is an intolerable attack on press freedom, and a disturbing signal for all of Europe," Laurent Joffrin, editor in chief of Liberation, explained.

    The legal action and threats coincide with worsening of relations between the Italian Catholic Church and Mr. Berlusconi. Following a series of knuckle-wrapping editorial rebukes in the Catholic daily Avvenire, which is the official publication of the Italian bishops, the chief editor of Il Giornale newspaper (which belongs to Berlusconi's brother) Vittorio Feltri responded with signal brutality. The result: Berlusconi's much-vaunted dinner appointment in L'Aquila to meet with the Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican Tarcisio Bertone was cancelled by the Vatican.

    Il Giornale then retorted Saturday that its "enemies" have been "unleashed." An editorial called the editor of Avvenire Dino Boffo the "chief moralist commited to launching anathemas against Silvio Berlusconi for his private affairs."
    Meanwhile, last week the New York Times joined the fray in an op-ed comment by a professor of social psychology in Milan, Chiara Volpato, "Italian Women Rise Up," in which she discusses the role of the Italian press in maintaining popular support for the Premier. 


    Understanding how that role works under Mr. Berlusconi, who owns outright three national networks and appoints the directors of the other three, of a total of seven, may be the most important lesson to be drawn from this tawdry affair. 

    His air-tight control over TV means that the scandals were mentioned in passing or not at all on six of seven networks. The brainwashing mentioned by Professor Volpato was unnecessary, for the news was pre-rinsed for the precise audience which keeps him in power, an audience composed especially of the elderly living in the depressed South. The medium not only is the message, but determines who receives the message.

    Nationwide, at most one-third of Italians over the age of 18 read newspapers (32% of those over 65). By contrast, 38% of those under 24 are TV viewers, but the figure rises to 57% of those over age 65, according to Eurispes, the research organization.
    More importantly, when asked what is their most important source for the news, over 43% responded that it is TV and under 27%, the daily newspaper. Calculating further that Mr. Berlusconi also owns newspapers and magazines which published only the scantest information about the scandals, with invective and anger but no details, the figure of those who knew anything at all about them cannot be more than 10%.

    Interestingly, Italians who defend Mr. Berlusconi say that his critics should pay less attention to "gossip" and more to the good things he has done for Italy, such as resolving the economic crisis--a claim he has made repeatedly on TV. He has not resolved the economic crisis, of course--no one has--but since he says he has, the claim becomes its own truth despite grim statistics to the contrary. One small example: 29% fewer jobs offered to the university graduates of 2009 over 2008.

    Manipulation of the news creates its own truth, and this is a danger for democracy.

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy Seen from the Beach

    ROME – For journalists this is traditionally the silly season, when anything goes, as long as it’s entertainment. Alas, this beach season has brought a host of serious problems. But don’t give up (or else skip to the last paragraf now): I’m saving the entertainment factor for last.

    The first and most worrisome are the floating seventy-three bodies of would-be migrants to Italy from Eritrea on the African coast. Their boat was in deep trouble, adrift with a motor out of order, when it was spotted by the English-speaking crew of a ship somewhere between Malta and the Italian coast five days ago. According to one of five survivors who made it to the Italian isle of Lampedusa, which is only a short hop from Libya, that crew offered a couple of bottles of water, and then disappeared. The crew did not notify authorities that a boatload of human beings was in grave danger, perhaps—the conjecture is here—because of a new (and doubtless well meant) law that would give any helpful crew a degree of responsibility for aiding and abetting illegal migrants. Reportedly ten ships saw them.

    When a body was spotted afloat off Malta, the Maltese authorities did not inform the Italians because that procedure, one, was unnecessary, and, two, if necessary, would have taken “four or five days.”

    The crude facts are that Italy is caught in a terrible bind. If they welcome migrants, more will come. If they do not welcome them, a few less will come, and more will die. There is no easy way out: be cruel or be besieged.

    Continuing our tour on the beach, there is an immigration fall-out kerfuffle up in North Italy, where a forty-something Muslim woman showed up in a public swimming pool wearing what’s called a burkini—a full-body cover that actually looks like a deep sea diving outfit. The mothers in the pool complained that the outfit “frightened” their children, and so the pool manager asked the woman to show the label on her burkini so as to ascertain that it met EU import rules. She declined; he argued that the health of his other swimmers was at risk. No comment needed: hypocrisy abounds—but will not resolve the immigration problem, any more than the recent agreement between Libyan leader Gaddafi and Premier Silvio Berlusconi has.

    Of course there is political fallout, most interestingly between the President of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini and Northern League spokesmen. For Fini, Italy should offer a degree of understanding of the immigrants’ cultures, and not expect them to adopt Italy’s immediately; for the League’s Roberto Calderoli, “Fini should say something more properly conservative” ("Fini dica qualcosa di destra”).

    This problem appears all the more intractable when the big quarrel in domestic Italy is over the national anthem by Mameli. The Northern League says it won’t sing the anthem because the productive North earned money for decades, and the money was siphoned off to the Mezzogiorno and then wasted. Here too there is hypocrisy; when I arrived in Italy the despised migrants were the Southern Italians who worked in the Northern factories, but rooms-for-rent signs in Turin still said “No Southerners.”

    My question here is—and I invite comments—if Italy cannot deal with its own internal issues, how can it come together smoothly enough to deal with the arriving hordes from elsewhere? The harsh fact is that people will continue to die in order to escape from Africa, and Italy is their gateway, but some will always arrive: take a look on any beach in Italy today, and African hawkers are selling everything from sweatsocks to buckets of sliced coconut. (A small caveat: a recent study of hawkers here showed that most are in fact Italians.)

    And now, the most famous beach scene of all: Capri, where someone dumped toxic waste into the Blue Grotto.

    As for the amusement, here it is. Noemi (of “Papi” fame) is on the Costa Smeralda enjoying a yacht holiday which has taken her only a few steps from the villa where she spent a rockabilly holiday with the Premier and a bevy of showgirls. The paparazzi just can’t get enough of her, and she is basking in the limelight. She so has made it big that, when a passerby asked how old she was, her sassy retort was: “Hey, don’t you read the newspapers?”

    I told you you would be rewarded by reading to the end. I’ve kept my word.

  • Art & Culture

    Hot Pot Stirs up Sizzling Debate

    ROME – Culture sneaks onto the agenda when least one might expect it. In a leaked tape recording of a private conversation, Premier Silvio Berlusconi revealed to a female acquaintance, the professional escort Patrizia D’Addario, that “thirty Phoenician tombs from 300 BC” had been discovered on his property near Olbia in Sardinia.

    The political opposition to the center-right government has raised a question in Parliament because under Italian law all such findings are automatically state property, and any discovery of archaeological sites must be formally declared to the authorities. Was this?

    Questioned on this by Corriere della Sera today, archaeologist Andrea Carandini, who heads the scholarly board of counsellors for the Cultural Heritage Ministry, hypothesized, “I am sure that he [the Premier] will have declared them to the local superintendency.”

    However, a statement by the National Association of Archeologists suggested otherwise: “If confirmed, this represents an important finding for the study of Phoenician expansion throughout the island, completely unknown to the scientific community”

     The scholarly issue is important because until now the Olbia area had been considered founded by overseas Greeks. Since no large necropolis exists without a nearby township, the new findings of Phoenician origin would change history, literally. 

    Elsewhere the Euphronios kalyx krater—that’s the one former Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving dubbed the “hot pot”—continues to stir up a sizzling debate in Italy.

    This exquisite krater showing the death of the warrior Sarpedon is the Sistine Chapel of Greek pots, an unexcelled masterpiece. It was made by the potter Euxitheos and painted and signed by Euphronios, leader of the group of artists who transformed black-figure vase painting to the far more sophisticated red-figure during the golden age of Athens in the early Sixth Century BC.

    The vase, as was suspected even in 1972, was stolen from a tomb at the ancient Etruscan site of Cerveteri, on the seacoast due north of Rome. It was illegally marketed to the Met by Robert Hecht, today an octegenarian, who is still on trial in Rome along with the Getty Museum’s former curator Marion True. Although Hecht claimed the pot had come from Beirut, in all likelihood he received it from the local Giacomo Medici, whose conviction for trafficking in looted objects was upheld July 15 by a Rome appeals court. (The court dropped his sentence from to eight years in prison, and he is free pending appeal to the Cassations Court, Italy’s highest.)

     In his book Making the Mummies Dance (Simon & Schuster, 1993) Hoving admitted to feeling a “near-sexual pleasure” when the million dollar purchase on behalf of the Met was concluded in 1972, “just underneath the crack in the door of the pending UNESCO treaty which would drastically limit the trade in antiquities.”

    Today the hot pot is back in Italy, returned with apologies from the Met, with fanfare, and placed briefly on exhibition in the Quirinal Palace before being put on permanent view in the Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia in Villa Borghese in Rome. This venue was chosen because the Villa Giulia museum houses all the greatest treasures of Etruria in Italy, and particularly from tiny Cerveteri.

    However, grumbling from American art lovers has followed. “I used to be able to walk ten minutes and see it,” moaned one disappointed New Yorker. Writing for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman observed, “Italians don’t seem to care” about the treasure in their presence—that is, they care less than the New Yorkers do. The implication is that restitution was a mistake; that the krater was basically better off in New York, and that the Euphronios is just one more pot, hot or cool, in  Italy, blessed with so much stuff that it does not know where to look first, or bother to look. Besides, as another serious academic observed, in Italy it is hard to find out where things are in the museums.

    Reacting to the criticism in the New York Times, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi proposed that the hot pot be taken on a “road show” (his words) throughout Italy. 
    Bondi’s opponents (one of them, anyway) seem to agree. Speaking at a conference on cultural property held in Rome in mid-July, Bondi’s predecessor as minister and political rival from the center-left, Francesco Rutelli, who also happens to be a former mayor of Rome, blamed the present government for failing to have given sufficient publicity and air space to the objects repatriated so far from not only the Met, but from the Boston Fine Arts Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Getty in Malibu.

     In this context, the Culture Ministry has formalized creation of an office that will promote “valorizzazione” (public fruition) of the cultural heritage—that is, make the object more visible, more profitable to the Ministry and museums, currently underfunded because of current government reductions in the ministry budget.

    In other words, both present and former culture ministers are in basic agreement with the critics in the U.S.—that publicity (that “road show”) is the way forward, and that the beni culturali can be profitable businesses. Not surprisingly, one Italian citizen, Paola Lucia, has proposed renting out the Euphronios vase.

    At this point the distinguished archaeologist Prof. Salvatore Settis, director of the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa, Carandini’s predecessor as head of the Culture Ministry’s oversight board, weighed in. Writing in the daily La Repubblica July 23, Settis pointed out that the restitution of the hot pot and similar looted artifacts is based upon “the intrinsic nature of the public worth of the objects, and on their pertinence within an indivisible context linked to the place where they were found.” Renting cultural property to a foreign institution, Settis went on to say, would alter the very principle upon which the restitution was made, since the the return of an object would be requested in order to commercialize it—and in future no museum would dream of returning objects looted from Italy. 

    The Euphronios krater goes on view from September 22 through January 30, 2010, in Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome together with fifty-nine other objects recovered through the work of the Carabinieri Fine Arts squad, the Comando Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, celebrating its fortieth year of activity. Besides the "hot pot," on exhibit are  the ancient Roman group of the Capitoline Triad of gods (the only known examplar), Raphael's "Portrait of a Gentleman" and paintings by Bellini, Van Gogh, Renoir and Cezanne.

  • Art & Culture

    Whatever Happened to Culture?

    ROME. First it was the beaches, eclipsed by cement and the cleaner coasts of Spain and Dalmatia. Now some of Italy’s top museums and archaeological sites are showing a decline in popularity, reversing the trend for steady growth for the first time in two decades. Meeting in Rome last week the nationwide FederCulture, an association of public and private organizations which manage cultural and leisure-time activities, presented a bleak statistical report for 2008. The drop was particularly accentuated in the Naples area: a 12.3% decline in ticket sales at Pompeii, and a nearly 25% drop at the Reggia museum at Caserta. Few expect 2009 to be better—on the contrary, as the economic slump hurts tourism, it may be worse.

    The particularly grim figures for Naples are reminders that last summer’s burning piles of rubbish were punishing for the Neapolitan economy. In addition, the positive showing of Rome’s three principal archaeological sites (the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum), where attendance was up by 7.6%, may simply mean that visitors remained in Rome an extra day in order to avoid Naples.
    And yet even the Uffizi in rubbish-free Florence, with 1.5 million visitors, lost 3.8% of its visitors last year; by comparison, the Louvre, with some 8.5 million, rose by 2.4% despite the recession.

    Obviously the Louvre is far more spacious that the Uffizi, and its collections cover a broader range than any single museum in Italy or even the Vatican. Moreover, the Louvre draws upon a much larger local pool: some 12 million people live and in and around Paris, as compared with the 700,000 of Florence and its outlying small towns. However, money talks, and it is worth recalling that the French cultural budget is double that of Italy, at E 2,900 million as compared with Italy’s E 1,568 million.

    Another sign of the troubled cultural times: Italian families are spending almost 7% less per capita on the theater and on movie attendance. For this reason an ad hoc group of directors and actors presented a petition to the world leaders attending the G8 meeting in L’Aquila last week to ask for the subsidies they had previously received from the Culture Ministry to be restored.
    Italy’s budget for cultural spending this year amounts to just  0.18% of the national budget—a drop of one quarter over 2008. The government has announced that that budget will shrink substantially further over the next two years, in cuts that also affect libraries with their ancient archives and the hiring of personnel to replace the cultural heritage managers, whose median age today of 55 puts them on the shores of Golden Pond.

    Yet even when the much maligned foreign press raises its voice, the culture establishment here still reacts. When the New York Times stated (erroneously) that the famous “hot pot” purchased for the Met by Thomas Hoving in 1971, and returned to Italy this year, is now sitting unnoticed in an obscure Roman museum, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi did not deny this; in fact the vase is in the Etruscan Museum at Valle Giulia which, like almost all other Italian museums, has fewer visitors. Instead he accepted this as fact and announced his hope that the pot will go soon on what he called a “road show” to other Italian towns. The precious and fragile vase about to hit the road was decorated by the foremost painter of Attic vases, Euphronios, at the height of the Athenian civilization and is unique.

  • Facts & Stories

    A Walk on the Margins of the G8

        ROME. So now we know the names of the real protagonists of the G8 meeting, underway at L’Aquila, the beautiful, ancient city so sorely tried by the death-dealing earthquake April 6, which killed almost three hundred people. No, it’s not the world leaders discussing poverty and climate change, no no-global demonstrator, no party girl nor paparazzo.

    The A-list begins with the residents of L’Aquila’s tent towns, victims of the quakes, who lost their homes and, this week, have been more or less locked into their tents for reasons of G8 security.  And indeed the L’Aquila mayor has repeatedly complained that the townpeople have been cut out of events, literally. Others have complained that, “like highway cafeterias where you have to go through endless corridors to find an exit,” roads at L’Aquila that took three minutes to drive now take a half hour because of the imposition, for PR motives,  of lengthy detours that require all comers to drive past reconstruction projects.

    Other unseen protagonists: the firefighters, kept closer to (possible) action: one firefighter is assigned to each head of state as responsible for his evacuation in case of an emergency of any kind.  Carla Bruni, who arrived in the Abruzzo today in company with George Clooney. Clooney upstages everybody.

    Next comes President Obama’s mother-in-law. This being a country where la suocera occupies a crucial role in society, commentators here, and especially women who happen to occupy that same role, were delighted that the President would bring her along. In Rome grannie took the girls to Giolitti’s, a few steps away from Parliament, for ice cream cones. The owner invited the

    girls into the kitchen to help make more ice cream. Delighted, they did. Needless to say, photographers were not far away, and the photos showed the elder Obama daughter, Malia, pretty in loose shorts and a T-shirt printed with a huge peace symbol.

    Michelle Obama herself won kudos and endless written and radio reports for her arrival in a sleeveless yellow frock with a big green flower pin at one shoulder. Tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm the President and his wife will return to Rome for a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI.   

    Speaking of PR, you can already hear the sighs of relief coming from the organizers of the G8 because, so far so good, nothing untoward has taken place. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has had bad luck with previous G8 meetings: at the one held at Naples in 1994  he was served with notice that he was under investigation for corruption. In 2001 in Genoa riots left one demonstrator dead, and the city suffered severe damage. At this G8 venue rioters cannot get close to the damaged and suffering city, whose functioning access roads are easy to seal off. As a result, the no-globals were demonstrating mildly in Rome yesterday, where ten were arrested on more or less easy terms like “obstruction of justice,” meaning not getting out of the way of the police fast enough.

    Finally, the foreign press has been a major protagonist, seen by the Berlusconi camp as his enemy, incited by radical leftists at home to speak for them. And how they have spoken—and not only the Murdoch-owned Times of London. For weeks the foreign press world-wide has carried detailed reports of sleazy parties attended by young girls and more than one paid female “escort,” hosted by the Prime Minister until the wee hours of the morning. While he and his PR people have downplayed all this on various grounds (right to privacy especially), the issue entered the public domain because of a devastating open letter from his now estranged wife.

    There is no doubt that many foreign publications and broadcasters have treated Mr. Berlusconi harshly, even the Vatican has belatedly weighed in urging a return to morality. This week’s French magazine L’Express puts a grinning Berlusconi on its cover under the headline, “Enquête sur le bouffon de l’Europe, Berlusconi” (Investigation into the Buffoon of Europe). The British Times on Line shows a smiling Berlusconi holding a sign that says “G8”, the 8 shaped by a girl’s brassiere. In the US, CNN carried an interview with the confessed, very beautiful escort-for-hire, who has detailed her two nights with the Premier. And so on, and on, to Spain and even Asian publications.

          For this reason at yesterday’s G8 press conference following the meeting, reporters were not permitted to ask questions—any questions, not even on the issue of the day, climate change.

    The real question behind the scenes has been whether these seismic events regarding Mr. Berlusconi’s private life hamper his ability to deal with his peers at the G8. Indeed, one British newspaper picked up a report that in the G8 Italy might be dropped and replaced with Spain. Asked about this, one of his most senior colleagues and supporters in the Senate said, rightly, that this was technically impossible. (In any case, that would seem unlikely, for the G8 is being enlarged to include more countries.) However, he acknowledged, choosing his words carefully, any leader’s prestige or lack thereof influences the way his peers negotiate with him. 

    Because of Mr. Berlusconi’s control over his own three national TV networks and two of the three state networks of RAI, one question being raised on the talk radio shows here is whether or not Italy has freedom of speech. It is true that political censorship of newspapers and news magazines does not exist, but only 20% of the public gets its news from written materials. The remaining 80% take what they can get from TV, and TV is to some extent visibly manipulated. The RAI TG1 blackout of reporting of the sleaze events at Mr. Berlusconi’s homes in Rome and Sardinia has brought complaints from the oversight body of RAI; combined with the foreign press reports, it puts Mr. Berlusconi in the comfortable role of victim of foreign devils.

    A careful tracking of RAI TV shows manipulation as well as omission. At Viareggio, last week, where a train running off the tracks carried a load of gas that exploded in a devastating fire, the Prime Minister arrived and was greeted with boos and catcalls. On TV, however, there was applause which sounded artificial. In fact, a news report the following day reported that it was artificial. Secondly, the Italian Prime Minister attended a recent meeting of European foreign ministers, even though his own foreign minister was there. On that evening’s state-owned RAI TV news Channel 1 his presence was duly reported, illustrated by footage of a previous meeting, not with foreign ministers, but with heads of state (and hence more prestigious). The footage, in other words, had nothing to do with the event, and the actual foreign ministers meeting had been plainly used an excuse to show Mr. Berlusconi in a world leadership role.

  • Facts & Stories

    Council for the US and Italy. CEO of Fiat-Chrysler is the New Italian Chairman

    At its annual meeting in Venice this weekend, Sergio Marchionne accepted the nomination to become the new Italian chairman for the the Council for the US and Italy, the binational non-profit organization founded in Venice in 1983, which brings together men and women from both countries in banking, business and diplomacy.

    The theme of this year’s twentieth annual  workshop is the global economy and the possible elements which can or already are contributing to recovery. In his address to the Council, the CEO of the Fiat Group and Chrysler Group listed the problems facing the auto industries in both the US and Europe. “We carmakers have suffered from the crisis and the credit squeeze more than most so we have had to rethink and in effect reshape our industry. The old operating model failed; worldwide the two largest carmakers failed. Whatever we did before didn’t work, so it was back to the drawing board.”

    This month the union between Fiat and Chrysler was confirmed, and it is “a marriage made in heaven—we have already put together an outstanding selection of leaders.”

    Will it work? “The American market is ready for small cars—it has no option but to downsize,” he said.

    Marchionne had warm praise for the US approach under President Obama. The financial

    markets, labor leaders and management are all working in harness to rebuild the structure of the industry, he said. “I can bear witness that a profound sense of responsibility is being shown by every component of this concerted effort.”

    Last year Fiat won industry-wide recognition for its cars having the lowest emissions of any made by the big automakers. On the other hand, although natural gas is less polluting and relatively inexpensive by comparison with petroleum, natural gas distribution networks and automobile safety technologies have lagged behind, he said.

    The US and European goals are the same, but by contrast with the US, Europe lacks “a common vision—we are all looking at the trees and not the forest.” An overload of costly European regulations are “a huge burden,” he said, uneconomical and impractical. “The new approach is green, but that is only part of it, and we must be careful what we call ‘green.’” Some so-called “green things” simply don’t make sense, he added.

    Marchionne takes over from Marco Tronchetti Provera, Council President since 1994, who becomes Honorary Chairman of the Italian branch. Tronchetti Provera’s counterpart in the US is Samuel Palmisano, chairman and CEO of IBM. The American branch of the Council is headed by David Heleniak, Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley.

    The Council promotes US-Italian economic relations within the broader context of US-European ties, and its members are primarily business leaders with a personal and/or corporate interest in the other country. Serving on the original board of directors of the Council were, among others, Giovanni Agnelli and David Rockefeller.

    Marchionne, born in Chieti in 1952, began his professional career in Canada and has dual Canadian-Italian citizenship. He worked in Canada until 1994, then occupied increasingly important positions in the Algroup, headquartered in Zurich, where he became the corporation’s CEO. When the Lonza group split with Algroup, Marchionne remained with Lonza as CEO afer 2000 and then, in 2002, its Chairman. He became CEO of SGS Group in Geneva in February 2002 and is still chairman of that company, a leader in services of inspection, verification, testing and certification.
    He became CEO of the Fiat Group Automobiles in February 2005, and, in an extraordinary display of skill and energy, successfully rebuilt and relaunched the troubled Italian automobile group.

    To Council sessions and its elaborate dinners Marchionne always wore his trademark sweater. Just in from Hongkong, he was visibly fatigued but affable, bright and totally relaxed, an original whose model, if he has one, may be Bill Gates. His English has only the slightest accent, somewhere between Canadian and Italian, but he is eloquent. About seventy participants from both sides of the Atlantic attended the sessions, which concluded Saturday.

  • Op-Eds

    Rubbish and More Rubbish

    ROME – “Rubbish,” is how Premier Silvio Berlusconi yesterday described the ever more poisonous news reports in a scandal now in its fifth week. “I got rid of the rubbish crisis in Naples, and I can get rid of this.”

        But not just yet. The larger fact is that the “rubbish” has begun to cling, to the point that the growing malaise in the broader public cannot be ignored, even by those who favor a center-right government. As the editorial writer of  the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore opined today, “The sense of dismay [smarrimento, translated in Dante as ‘lost in a dark forest’] about the private affairs of the Premier is becoming palpable, and the wall built around him by his friends and defenders is getting ever higher.”

        This morning for the first time the Conference of Italian bishops, the CEI, weighed in with an editorial in their daily newspaper Avvenire, in which Mr. Berlusconi is urged to “respond to public opinion,” over allegations that paid female escorts have attended the Premier’s parties.  “As soon as possible there should be sufficient clarification to clear the air of the most pressing questions, which are being raised not only by political adversaries, but also from that part of public opinion which is not prejudicially adverse to the Premier,” said the editorialist. The current media storm at home and abroad has left the public at large “feeling lost,” the Catholic daily continued, asking rhetorically whether Mr. Berlusconi has so far defended himself as best as possible, and if he has had the best possible people defending him.

        The sense behind the wording is clear: Mr. Berlusconi has failed to offer a convincing defense, perhaps, to be charitable, because he has been ill advised.

        Neither the teenager Noemi and the birthday party business, nor Mr. Berlusconi’s irate estranged wife’s public complaints touched off a similar reaction. What made the Catholic Church in Italy enter this unsavory fray are new judicial investigations, which risk seriously tarnishing Mr. Berlusconi’s personal reputation.

        Magistrates in Bari have launched two separate inquiries into allegations of possible corruption attempts by a rich 35-year-old businessman, Giampaolo Tarantini, who dealt in hospital supplies and party girls, some of whom were hired and air-shipped to the Italian Premier’s personal residences in Rome and Sardinia. Put another way, the hypothesis is that political party favors were swapped for party girls. The inquiry has so far led to a half dozen paid female escorts, the most important of whom is former calendar girl, Patrizia D’Addario. As Corriere della Sera revealed Tuesday, D’Addario told the investigating magistrate in Bari that businessman Tarantini promised her E 2,000 for spending the night at the Premier’s residence in Piazza Grazioli, hard by Palazzo Venezia in Rome, but that she quit the party to stay instead at a hotel, and so was paid only E 1,000. (Reportedly her being denied a certain building permit further put her pretty nose out of joint.)

        For so far unknown reasons D’Addario wore a concealed tape recorder to that Palazzo Grazioli party. The two taped bobbins she turned over to the investigators have not been transcribed so as to avoid their contents being leaked and are locked in a safe of the Guardia di Finanza.

        Some observers here argue that all participants at the Premier’s party are potentially vulnerable, for if one paid party girl can tape the goings-on at a party, so can others, with blackmail a potential risk.

        In the background the Premier faces a number of important events. First is next week’s G8 meeting, to be held at quake-stricken L’Aquila, where the world leaders will be hunkered down in Carabinieri barracks and the press kept at a tidy remove a two-hour drive away on the Adriatic coast. Then there is a forthcoming nationwide referendum which, if successful (most unlikely), could curb the Premier’s power.

        Farther distant in time, and far more important for Italy and its allies, is the future of political Italy itself: the risk of a collapse of the government and the calling of new elections barely a year after the one which gave Mr. Berlusconi a full vote of confidence; the ongoing tug-of-war over possible alterations of the postwar and anti-Fascist  Constitution; and Berlusconi’s ambition to succeed to Giorgio Napolitano in 2013, when the octegenarian President’s seven-year term ends.

        In the wings is Berlusconi’s on-again off-again party comrade in the Partito della Libertà Gianfranco Fini, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who did not fail to make a cutting remark or two about this latest scandal, to which an angry Berlusconi did not fail to respond.


  • Op-Eds

    Berlusconi Meets Obama. And We Fear Another Gaffe...

    ROME. Like many Italians, many of us born outside the country but who live in, delight in, pay taxes in and vote in Italy, were filled with apprehension. Media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, president of the Council of Ministers, was to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Monday. Would there be some embarrassing gaffe to add to the long list of Mr. B’s malapropisms? One hoped not—but then, if it happened, we could give a horrified giggle of discomfit. In a way, this was political schadenfreude at its worst—potential enjoyment of one’s own humiliation as an Italian lover.

    There was no lack of precedents. The Premier offended countless Italians and America

    s when he described the newly elected Obama as tall, good-looking and “sun-tanned”—“a compliment,” Mr. Berlusconi later explained, though most of us here recognized this way of speaking as racism with a wink of the eye under a gloss of Sixties-speak, and most definitely out of place. Mr. Berlusconi also made Tony Blair uncomfortable, as his lawyer wife Cherie recently told the British press, by appearing in a bandana head-scarf when the Blairs visited Sardinia. Photographers were nearby, and, “My husband pushed me between him and Mr. Berlusconi,” Cherie said, “and whispered, ‘If the British press sees me next to him with that bandanna, I’m in trouble.’”

    If you want to read more, just Google “Berlusconi gaffes,” and dozens pop up.

    Well, the good news is, based on speed reading of the official White House verbatim account of Monday’s meeting between the two heads of state, that all went well, without a gaffe or blooper. Indeed, the Premier spoke with an unusual amount of grace.

    Elsewhere this has not been the case, even recently. While addressing young industrialists a few days ago Mr. Berlusconi, photographed between two women, clowned, “I’m alone with them, and neither is a minor.” The joking reference was obviously intended to defuse his wife’s public allegations that he has been involved in unspecified flirtations with teenage girls. But such cheesy attempts at humor are embarrassing to listeners—a little like a street beggar in a very undeveloped country putting his finger into a sore so that you will pity him.

    Mr. Berlusconi does not need our pity. Although he likes to point out that he is a victim, he is the single most powerful man in Italy, and the richest since the early 1990’s.

    The man who deserves our pity is his young lawyer, Nicolò Ghedini, however. Ghedini today was listed in an Italian daily as among the five MPs least present and active in the entire Parliament. As Mr. Berlusconi’s personal lawyer, poor Ghedini has been extremely busy and active, including on TV shows, where his arguments often begin and end with, “Ma va, ma va, ma va” (Get on with you, dork). One of his recent actions was to prohibit publication of photographs by a Sardinian photographer of Mr. Berlusconi’s personal guests arriving at an airport and of these same guests, mostly young and attractive, lolling about the Premier’s villa in bathing suits; one chick was topless (admittedly, this is not terribly scandalous; topless female bathers can be gawked at on many an Italian beach in August).

    When the Spanish daily El Pais published the photographs, attorney Ghedini made the legal point that the Italian injunction against publication had universal application. Now that is an interesting legal construct, and in its way a remarkable gaffe. For if Italian injunctions have universal application, then an injunction issued in Indonesia or Indiana (consider the Mann Act) would apply here. What is disturbing is not that this is a gaffe: it is a reckless perversion of law, from the country whose ancient law systems are the basis for all European legal systems.

    In a polite allusion to Mr. Berlusconi’s current problem with scandals, the White House, an aide pointed out starchily, is not interested in personal questions. Mr. Berlusconi’s Hugh Hefner-style New Year’s Eve party attended by fifty playmates was definitely personal, but such twisting of the law solely for media purposes (Ghedini surely knows that he was talking legal nonsense), the constant bringing of law suits that make news briefly and then are dropped, the time wasted on legal defensive posturing instead of dealing with the economic crisis, go far beyond “gaffes.” The personal becomes a time-consuming smokescreen for a lack of needed action.

    President Obama was not the only international moment of excitement. Last week Colonel Gheddafi dropped in to Rome. The visit was marred when the President of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini decided that the Libyan leader had gone too far by making Parliament wait over two hours for a planned meeting. Fini showed dignity by calling off the meeting, whereas at midnight the Premier dropped in to Gheddafi’s Bedouin tent, set up in the garden at Villa Doria Pamphilj in Rome, to make amends. But in defending Parliament, that overly large but still important counterweight in the balance of powers, Fini stood out like a statesman. Who’d have thought it? Who would have thought that Fini, a man whose political career began on the far right, would be giving lessons in democracy? 

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    Representatives to the European Parliament. Reading the Results

    By Italian standards the final tally in all 64,328 polling stations, available early Monday afternoon, gave a fairly low turnout. Nevertheless, almost two-thirds (65.04%) of those with the right to vote did so—even though, indicating an unusual degree of alienation, voters turned in two million damaged and intentionally blank ballots, according to the Interior Ministry.


    The most highly publicized of the intentionally damaged ballots came when a Neapolitan middle-aged woman voter tore up her ballot in disgust. The reason: when 18-year-old Noemi Letizia, wearing black beachwear (Bermuda shorts and bodice top) showed up with a young man described as her manager-chauffeur and her parents, they were allowed to jump the queue of 100 would-be voters in a Neapolitan-area polling station. The polling station was shut down for ten minutes while Noemi voted for the first time and then air-kissed the attendants. From outside came shouts of “Shame, shame”—not, apparently, aimed at the young lady who has caused Berlusconi so much troublesome gossip, but at the polling officials who treated her like a celebrity and did not make her wait her turn in line.

        Initially Mr. Berlusconi had spoken optimistically of cornering 40% of the vote, a figure he raised in final days to 45%. This morning’s Il Giornale, whose proprietor is Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, reported triumphantly that the PdL share of the vote was “almost 39%.”  In point of fact, the party won under 35.3%, for 29 seats in the EU Parliament at Strasbourg. Only a year ago in national general elections the PdL support was of 38.4%.

        This 3% drop in consensus has several important implications. The most obvious is that the image of the Premier himself (and not, as his supporters claim, of the Italian nation or state), despite the massive media means at his disposal, has been damaged. If anything, public distaste for his flirting with young playmates like Ms. Letizia is the least of it; many here, women as well as men, see this as yet another sign of financial success. “He owns a soccer team and hosts parties with gorgeous women—how can we not envy him a bit?” as one voter told me on the way to the polls Sunday. Another voter told me, “My restaurant owner likes him—he said that under the Prodi government he had to file tax forms.”

        But that is not the whole story. One factor behind the slump in votes for the PdL is the lack of convincing reforms. Another is the economic crisis, which now has Italian families buying less food in the supermarkets. Some voters were shocked by the opening last week of the 101st legal action against Mr. Berlusconi, in this case concerning alleged abuse of military airplanes for personal use. Only two weeks ago British financial wheeler-dealer David Mills was convicted by a Milan court on charges of corruption on Berlusconi’s behalf.

        For the record, the ailing, squabbling Partito Democratico hoved in at 26.13%. But as with the vote for Mr. Berlusconi’s vote, given the circumstances, perhaps this was not a bad showing.

        The problem is that voters are turning away from “Mr. B.”, as he is being called here, in favor of openly protest parties—on the right, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, which has bounced up to 10.2%, and, on the left, to former magistrate Antonio di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori, which almost doubled its vote to 8%.

        This creates a curious scenario. The renewed vigor of the recalcitrant Bossi, who supports the Berlusconi party in the governing coalition, can only mean trouble ahead. Bossi will now demand more payback by way of those Federalist reforms certain to alienate Berlusconi’s other (and ambitious) supporter, Fini, whose party by tradition is staunchly nationalistic. To combat Bossi and reassure Fini, who has been cautiously taking his distance from Berlusconi, the Partito della Liberta’ may begin negotiating with another small party which it has most recently snubbed, but is waiting in the wings: Pier Ferdinando Casini’s Catholic-oriented Unione di Centro, which won almost 7% of the vote.

        Those with a long memory of Italian politics may notice a familiar  trend. Traditionally the Christian Democratic party of the Sixties and Seventies gained some 35% of the vote—one-third—and the Communist party, 25%, or one-fourth. Analysts like sociologist/historian Giorgio Galli pointed out that this apportioning, election after election, seemed to be physiological, the result of family voting tradition dating back generations which inhibited real change. In order to muster sufficient votes for governing coalitions, the Christian Democrats therefore had to ally themselves with partners with radically different agendas, at the expense of reforms. This long-term trend may still be at work, with the inevitable consequences of difficult shared governance.



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    European Parliament. The Right to Vote Seriously

    With elections to the European Parliament looming Sunday, it’s worth recalling that Italians take their right to vote seriously. With a median turnout for European Parliamentary elections of  66.5% (78.3% for national general political elections), Italy puts to shame other European states. Second-place France averages only 45.1% (62.7) and Euro-skeptical United Kingdom, a mere 31.6% (67.4%); Germany and Spain fall between the two.

          Just possibly, however, the Italian commitment to go to the polls could decline this time around. The past month’s campaign has been rife with distasteful allegations that Premier Silvio Berlusconi hosted young playmates at parties, and, now, counter-accusations that his estranged wife, Veronica, has a boyfriend. Even anti-immigrant sentiment has taken a recess as the quarrel has focused on the playmate question, which has brought worldwide negative reactions nowhere countered by attempts to defend Berlusconi’s reputation.

    Furthermore, what began as the Premier’s perhaps foolish participation at an 18-year-old girl’s birthday party, then his misstating several times how he came to know her, has escalated into revelations of a Hugh Hefner-like party on his estate attended by scores of lissome young ladies, including the girl herself. At least one guest, a male chanteur and co-author of Berlusconi’s pop songs, was photographed at an airport in Sardinia descending from a military airplane, which was apparently being used, illegally, for private purposes.

          Elsewhere, as the Deputy Director of the London Times has pointed out, a politician would already have been obliged to resign. But until that photograph, the scandal mongers have offered much that was disturbing (and a heck of a lot of fun for readers), but evidence of little that was demonstrably illegal.  

          Mr. Berlusconi’s reputation took another blow when a Milan court convicted his British lawyer, David Mills, of receiving bribes from Berlusconi. Mr. Berlusconi himself had been a co-defendant until a law was passed, under his aegis, disallowing prosecution of a sitting senior politician. Mr. Mills had been a consultant to Mr. Berlusconi on off-shore tax havens. As a result, even Time magazine referred to Italy as “Berlusconistan.” But perhaps under the same argument which protected the Premier from prosecution in the Mills case, this too will go nowhere.

          Theoretically, nevertheless, a lower turnout of disaffected conservative voters, especially ethically-minded Catholics, could affect the vote and whittle away at Mr. Berlusconi’s Partito della Libertà (PdL) and his prospects as successor to President Giorgio Napolitano.
          Mr. Berlusconi himself does not expect this to happen. He sidesteps the attacks with a smile and a wisecrack and says, on the contrary, that the daily doses of nasty headlines are boomerangs turning in his favor. As the Premier told an Italian audience last week, the public opinion surveys he reads indicate his personal popularity at 70% and that in Sunday’s vote the PdL vote will make a strong showing of around 40%. His populist party—an occasionally uneasy triple axis amalgam of his personal supporters, the Northern League of Umberto Bossi and the Alleanza Nazionale of Gianfranco Fini—would therefore remain solidly in the lead while the splintered, fractious Italian left continues to wallow in acrimonious doldrums.

          That Mr. Berlusconi remains popular with a substantial number of the individuals in the electorate is a fact, and he knows it; indeed, along with the judiciary system he has been attacking Parliament itself, and threatening to go directly to “the people” for legitimacy, as if “the people” had not elected the members of Parliament and the Senate.
          However, no less than the gossip columnists, money talks. Here’s what it’s saying, for better and for worse, in the mouths of three of the most authoritative Italians.

          1. Fiat automaker CEO Sergio Marchionne is winning kudos worldwide for saving Italy’s biggest manufacturer from bankruptcy and for sealing the merger deal with Chrysler. Marchionne, 56, was educated in Canada and had worked in both Switzerland and France before taking over Fiat just five years ago. “There was a smell of death," he told a British journalist this May, because Fiat had run up €8 billion of losses in the previous four years. To revive Fiat, "We spat blood.” Today, the company turns out 2 million cars a year, and Fiat shares have risen notably.

          Mr. Marchionne cautions, however, that the entire auto industry is in dire trouble, making mergers  necessary if Fiat is to remain competitive. His new agreement with Chrysler, which gives him a 20% stake in the U.S. automaker, has been praised even by the American automotive industry, but he still needs another partner. A similar deal with Opel has just foundered, and so Marchionne is known to be looking elsewhere, at Peugeot Citroen or Saab in Europe, or in Latin America. If it fails, real trouble lies ahead.

          2. The respected and independent Mario Draghi, governor of the Bank of Italy, predicts a 5% or more decline by the end of this year in Italy’s GNP. Although the worst effects of the worldwide recession have been avoided so far in Italy, with no major bank failure, in the first quarter this year bankruptcy proceedings were 55% above those of the same period last year and almost all concerned small companies. Tens of thousands more jobs remain at risk, particularly in companies too small to obtain state aid. A 35-year-old geriatric hospital employee told me yesterday that he has not been paid his wages for over three months, and that he fears the worst.

          3. Speaking in Trento last week, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president of Fiat and ex-President of the Confindustria (Italy’s association of manufacturers) listed three problems which require urgent attention:
    --Unduly low tax revenues. Italy holds the European “record for tax dodging,” even though most middle- and working-class employees pay taxes.
    --The economic and social gap between the Italian North and the South, the Mezzogiorno, which has increased, not decreased, in recent  years. (To Montezemolo’s words I would add that this gap is aggravated by the continuing influence of organized crime. A sign of the times: the garbage pile-up in Palermo.)
    --The lack of reform of Italian state bureaucracy and public administration, inefficient beyond the tolerable. Berlusconi’s own people know this, but two weeks ago Roman public high school principals called on parents to contribute cash to funds to pay for missing essential school supplies. By way of responding to their appeal, Italy’s pretty Education Minister Maria Stella Gelmini, 34, said arrogantly, “If they don’t like it, they can go work someplace else.”  

          Sunday’s election will tell us at the very least which matters more to voters, ethics or tolerance of human frailty, upbeat telepopulism or the dingy discipline of elementary economics. In Italy, it may not be the economy, stupid. And it is most probably not ethics, either.