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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    Tensions Among Partners Soar as EU Elections Approach

    With the approach of the European Union elections May 26, tensions soar between the government partners as each battles to snare votes from the other. Albeit those to be elected will be seated in the European Parliament, election day here is being seen as a purely Italian referendum between the parties of the so-called "yellow-green government."

    This duopoly was formed just one year ago by the 5-Star Movement headed by Luigi Di Maio (the yellows) and by the Lega headed by Matteo Salvini (the greens).  Each of these leaders, respectively Minister of Economic Development, Labor and Social Policies, and Minister of the Interior, or top cop, is deputy premier. Mediating between them (to the extent that he can) since May 23, 2018, is Premier Giuseppe Conte of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S).


    The outcome of the May 26 election is obviously uncertain, but few here doubt that Deputy Premier Salvini will walk away with the largest chunk of the vote, besting, among others, Silvio Berlusconi. Traveling throughout Italy by costly goverment airplanes, a smiling Salvini campaigns at rallies taking selfies with his admirers, to the point that his opponents accuse him of not bothering to show up for work at the ministry he heads. This campaign style has been remarkably successful.


    Born as the Lega Nord, under Salvini's management only since December 2014, the party spread throughout Italy, including to a limited extent Sicily. His 12 months in government have been remarkably successful; just one year ago, when that yellow-green government was formed, his party claimed only 17.4% of the national vote. By contrast, Di Maio's M5S won almost double, 33%. That situation has been reversed in the course of one year. Until a few weeks ago, most pollsters gave Salvini up to 35% of the vote and Di Maio, 22% at best.


    Recent pre-election polls show Salvini's popularity shrinking by several percentage points, however. Armando Siri, senator representing the Lega and Undersecretary at the Ministry of Transport, has been a particularly close Salvini ally and until now his primary economic advisor. Accused among other things of corruption involving renewable energy and an alleged giant kickback, Siri was obliged to resign this month. Salvini initially fought to save Siri but eventually caved in, with Di Maio crowing, "On the morality question, [his remaining] would be self-destructive" for Salvini.


    Salvini, only slightly weakened, still leads the pack. In particular, his anti-immigrant campaigns are popular. Fear of migrants continues to rise in Italy to the point that "this is the question of the century...a theme that divides politics and society in our country." Quoting an investigation conducted by the European Security Observatory two years ago, fear of migrants stood at 45%, the highest figure in a decade. Among the causes: the influx of migrants upon the Italian coasts and news reports of violence associated with migrants elsewhere in the EU.


    Today, however, Frontex reports that by 2018 the illegal migration into EU countries had dropped by 25%and is now the lowest in the past five years, and about half of that of 2015. One million refugees flooded into Europe in 2015; by 2018 the figure had shrunk to 116,000, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


    Still, Salvini calls Mediterranean rescue ships "sea taxis," and has proposed a law that would impose a fine of $4,000 - $6,000 for each individual dragged out of the sea. Not everyone is enthusiastic about this: as economist Fabrizio Tonello of the University of Padua points out, this fine is relatively more than spies were given by the Nazis for each Jew denounced. "The SS paid 5,000 lire for every man to be deported to Auschwitz. Does drowning in the sea differ from being left to die in a concentration camp?" Prof. Tonello demands.


    The anti-immigrant attitudes run counter to the teachings of Pope Francis. "Jesus, too, was a refugee," said the Pope on Jan. 16, 2019. On a visit to Bulgaria earlier this month he said, "Today the world of migrants and of refugees is humanity's cross to bear." Not surprisingly, Italian right-wingers criticize the Pope, and, according to the Rome daily Il Tempo last Jan. 18, "Conservatives and sovereignists accuse him of sponsoring uncontrolled immigration in the name of a vague good-feeling or even as a substitute for civilization."


  • Facts & Stories

    In Naples, Camorra Clansmen Shoot Into the Crowds

    Her grandmother was watching four-year-old Noemi at play in the crowded downtown Piazza Nazionale in Naples when a young Camorrista fired at a rival clansman. A stray bullet struck Noemi, penetrating her shoulder and a lung, another injured her grandmother. Despite an emergency operation that took hours, she remains in a coma, and her life at serious risk. In protest at this casual shooting (and at the others before this), hundreds assembled in that very piazza to protest on Sunday, May 5. "DisarmiAmo," said a huge, homemade banner, which translates more or less to Disarm&Love.


    In 2018 Naples and its province were the scene of 21 murders, down from the 35 of the previous year. But shootings in public places between youngsters on scooters from rival Camorra clans continue. In March rivals, quarreling over a proposed marriage which one of the clans disapproved, held a shoot-out heard by the police station at Naples' Piazza Trieste e Trento. On April 9, a Camorrista was shot and killed and his son injured, again by a rival clansman, in front of an elementary school. And on April 19 a former convict was murdered in front of another preschool with the toddlers looking on.


    "The problem of security in Naples is intolerable," said Vincenzo De Luca of the Partito Democratico (PD), governor of the Campania Region. One who agreed was Antonio Piccirillo. The son of a notorious boss, he participated in Sunday's demonstration against the Neapolitan gang world and its casual shootings. Queried by journalists after he spoke to the crowd through a megaphone, Antonio said that, although he will always wish well to his father, who is in prison, he totally rejects the world of the Camorra. "For my father mine will never be total love," he said, "And he knows that, he understands. Indeed he says that only my position gives the errors of his life some sense. I don't want others to go through all this," Antonio adds. "I don't want others to come to the same end as so many have."


    Antonio's attitude is of particular interest. Serious students of the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian n'Drangheta believe that, while an increased police presence is useful, as Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S), immediately requested, and better intelligence is essential, the most important, albeit the most difficult, way to deal with the family traditions of the gang world is to address its cultural roots.


    Neapolitan police say that young gangsters ride around on scooters to shoot their guns in public places in order to show their importance. In fact, although the number of murders attributable to the various criminal organizations in all of Italy is in decline, the presence of those mafia societies is actually on the rise, but in other ways. To quote the national statistics-gathering agency ISTAT, "Homicides decreased strongly since the nineties, especially those with male victims) in 1990 there was one woman killed for 5 men, now the proportion is of 1 woman for every 2 men. This is due to the decrease of mafia and organized crime homicides too (generally men are killed by the mafia)."


    The mafias are simply busy elsewhere, and wherever money is involved. Only the latest political scandal involves a high government official close to Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega. Undersecretary Armando Siri of the Lega is under investigation by Milan prosecutors for alleged corruption and illicit contacts that appear to lead directly into the Sicilian Mafia. Di Maio, who is Salvini's partner in government, has repeatedly demanded Senator Siri's resignation ("if these are the facts," he specifies) because the case "casts a shadow on the government." There is also talk of Siri's "mafia contacts," said Di Maio. Speaking at a political rally in the Campania region near Naples, Salvini responded that, "In a civilized country trials take place in a courtroom, where a judge, not a newspaper, determines guilt."

    European elections are scheduled for May 26 in Italy. Will the daily revelations about political links to the mafias and the widespread corruption scandals that lead into mafia circles have an effect upon these elections? It would be nice, but the answer is that, despite heightened awareness, they most likely will not.    

  • Op-Eds

    May Brings Good News on Jobs and the Economy

    ROME -- Against all predictions, thanks to its export products the Italian economy managed to surge upwards. Albeit by a mere 0.1% in the past 12 months, the hike in the GDP suffices to foster confidence in a future which had, until now, appeared singularly bleak. During the last two quarters of 2018, the GDP had actually shrunk by -0.1%, leading to predictions that Italy was in recession. Offsetting this disappointing showing was, however, growth by 0.2% in the first quarter of 2019.


    Because May 1 is International Workers Day - the Italian equivalent of Labor Day - and celebrates workers, predictions before that national holiday were that there was nothing to fete. But the bearers of sad tidings were surprised at the news. "Italy has returned to growth, demonstrating the value of our economic maneuver," crowed Premier Giuseppe Conte. As headlines in both the mainstream daily Corriere della Sera and the left-leaning La Repubblica daily similarly proclaimed, Italy is no longer in recession.


    "The Italian economy is solid," said Economics Minister Giovanni Tria. ISTAT reports that the improvement in the economy is from across the board: from agriculture, including the fishing industry, manufacturing and services. Although local demand remains modest, this is offset by exports. A bonus is that the official (and reputable) statistics-gathering agency ISTAT, reports that unemployment stands at 10.2%, the lowest figure since 2008, according to Tria. All told six out of ten Italians are employed. Youth unemployment has also improved slightly, down from 30.6 to 30.2%. However high, the figure, which refers to Italians from 14 to 25, is better than any since the year 2011. "The country is taking off again," said Danilo Toninelli, Minister of Transport and Infrastructure.


    The trade unions are at last beginning to take the economic realities into consideration. Until now they have remained locked into their early postwar stance of the CISL union associated with the Christian DemocratIc party and the Communist-dominated union CGIL. This did not change with the demise of both these parties in the Nineties. Apparently hoping for restoration of their former power, these two parties, plus the Socialist UIL, continued as if lifetime positions in factories and offices still existed and were not a thing of the past. Finally, however, Maurizio Landini, General Secretary of the CGIL, has proposed a unitary trade union "freed from the ideological draperies of the 1900s," in the words of reporter Roberto Mania, writing in La Repubblica.


    Landini brings a breath of fresh air to the Italian union world. Italy is still struggling with its consolidated history of lifetime positions, but today these are ever more part of that antique world. Among his first moves after replacing Susanna Camusso as CGIL head was to meet with so-called "precari" (workers without solid contracts) in Naples. These include delivery workers (pizzas included) as well as temporary workers on farms. Elected head of the CGIL on January 24 this year, Landini was asked when he thought unification of the unions could come about. His reply: "I think the time is now. Our being divided into three unions was a reflection of the opposing political blocs of the past century - an antique world." Some hard-line opposition within the big two parties is expected, however.


    Born in 1961, Landini was obliged to give up studies at age 15 to help his family by beginning work as an apprentice solderer in Reggio Emilia. Later he worked at Fiat Mirafiori plant, where he was head of a union in conflict with Sergio Marchionne. Press reports say that, again as a top union official, for years he fought for protection of the environment and health of the nearly 15,000 factory workers at the former ILVA, the notoriously polluted steel works at Taranto, known for its record number of tumors, many associated with asbestos.


  • Facts & Stories

    The Political Dimension of Facebook and Firearms

    The Easter holiday is normally a time to speak of peace, but not at the Roman party we attended. Matteo Salvini, who is Italy's Interior Minister, Deputy Premier and the head of the rightist Lega party, had just appeared in a Facebook photo embracing a machine gun, and few spoke of anything else. "He's right," enthused (now former friend) Maria over dessert. As the rest of us looked on blankly over strawberries and cream, she smiled. "When I was a little girl we didn't need anything similar, but times have changed. Today having a gun is a necessity."


    As this indicates, Facebook in Italy is as much a political power tool as anywhere else. What struck many was that Salvini himself did not post the photo, though some reports claimed he did. It seems that it was his clever spin doctor, Luca Morisi, 46, who is described as the "man behind Salvini's social network." When Salvini was criticized for clutching the gun, Morisi responded that the critics "are doing everything they can to cast mud" on the Lega. "We are approaching the European elections, and they are inventing all they can to stop the Captain [Salvini]. But we are armed and wearing helmets!" wrote Morisi in his own Facebook site.


    Morisi is considered by many to be the brains behind Salvini's victory at the elections. Until four years ago Morisi taught courses at the University of Verona in such subjects as "The Web Sites of Philosophy" and the "Philosophy Laboratory of Informatics." Born in Mantua, he edited a regular weekly page on informatics for its local daily "La Voce di Mantova". Morisi had been a Lega Nord provincial counselor from 1993 to 1997. He says that his relationship with Salvini came about because of Facebook: "I had a kind of falling in love," he told Milan journalist Matteo Pucciarelli, "due to my realizing his enormous capacity to manage a talk show. I recall that Salvini was the first ever seen with an iPad on [the TV show of] Bruno Vespa, and this made me curious since I am passionately interested in communication." Salvini, Morisi went on to say, "mixes the dimension of the private and of amusement with the political, that is his anti-political strength. He pays no heed to palazzo ritual."


    Joining Salvini's staff, Morisi set out to use social media to promote the man he dubbed "Il Capitano." His Facebook postings for Salvini included a competition to see how many "mi piace" (likes) the Captain's supporters could churn up. From 2 million prior to the national general elections last year Morisi almost doubled the post-election likes, which soared up to 3.5 million. Offered as the prize for the supporters who invoked the largest number of "likes" was the chance to enjoy "private phone conversations and meetings" and even photos with Salvini, that would naturally be posted on Facebook. Facebook shots of Salvini with admirers in cheering selfie crushes are routine. Morisi himself now has over 13,000 Twitter followers and 24,000 on Facebook, according to the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore.  


    Promoting easier gun laws has a long history. Founder of the Northern League, the local party that Salvini transformed into the nationwide Lega, which is now Italy's largest single political organization, was the largely disgraced Umberto Bossi. A decade ago Bossi called for "300,000 armed people in the valleys of Bergamo." Until recently, however, Italians save for hunters were not usually armed for self-protection. But as CBS News reported March 16, "Analysts say a growing sense of insecurity... are bringing a shift in Italy's gun laws."  In fact, last September new and less restrictive legislation was passed, making gun purchases easier. Gun owners can now possess up to 10 long firearms (double the previous five) and in the clip 29 short firearms bullets. Ownership of a gun license requires only reporting it directly to Carabinieri or police by certified email.


    In summer 2018 Salvini publicly supported the Italian gun lobby, already backed by fellow European gun lobbies. Albeit far less powerful than the NRA in the U.S., one of the most prominent of the European gun lobbies is FACE (European Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation), with 11 full-time lobbyists and a $1.2 million annual budget, according to the EU transparency registry. Meantime the EU is attempting to make gun laws, including over semi-automatic firearms, more restrictive in Europe.  


    Terror attacks as in Belgium and France are not the sole reason behind EU proposals for tougher gun laws, said an EU Commission spokesperson. "We cannot ignore that legal firearms have been used in other tragic events where children were killed in a school or young people massacred in a holiday camp. This directive is not about terrorism, but about firearms and public security." But FACE is battling this.


  • Art & Culture

    Italy Celebrates Leonardo Da Vinci 500 Years From His Death

    ROME -- During the last three years of his life, Leonardo Da Vinci served as the "foremost painter, architect and engineer" of France, in the words of the French King Francis I. Indeed, when Leonardo died at Amboise, France, on May 2 of the year 1519, legend had it that he died in the arms of the French king, as was depicted by French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in his famous painting of 1818, now in the Petit Palais in Paris. Da Vinci, 67, was buried in the Saint-Hubert Castle at Amboise. (For details on this, see https://www.fiorentininelmondo.it/it/home/620-la-morte-di-leonardo-da-vinci.html)


    As the 500th anniversary of his death approaches, Italy is honoring Leonardo Da Vinci with a series of exhibitions and events. Among the foremost exhibits is at the Scuderie of the Quirinal Palace in Rome, where the exhibition "Leonardo: Science before Science" is on view through June 30. Curated by Claudio Giorgione in collaboration with two Milanese museums, the National Museum of Science and Technology and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the Roman exhibition offers a fresh reading of Da Vinci's work in engineering, technology, art and thought at the dawn of the 16th Century, whose scientific revolution gave birth to the modern age. Associated with the Scuderie exhibition are lessons in a "laboratory for adults" in the technique of Renaissance-style fresco painting and drawing in perspective.


    Leonardo was born out of wedlock to a notary named Piero Da Vinci and a country woman named Caterina in a small town called Vinci near Florence. And in Florence he is being celebrated at Palazzo Pitti with the exhibition "Leonardo, The Landscape of the Mysteries," which includes a delightful drawing of the Arno River valley landscape painted by Leonardo in 1452, when he was only 21 years old.


    In the picturesque town of Sansepolcro, near Arezzo, the Museo Civico hosts the exhibition entitled "Leonardo Da Vinci: Visions, the Technological Challenges of the Universal Genius," curated by the Galileo Fiorentine-Civita Laboratories. The focus is movement, including inanimate flight. On view is a self-propelled cart that has been compared to an automobile. 3-D videos created by the Florentine Galileo Museum dramatically illustrate Leonardo's theories (see video). And for three months ending, alas, in January the Leicester Codex had been on loan from Bill Gates. That Codex is one of Leonardo's personal sketchbooks dating from 1504-1508, acquired by Gates in 1994 from Armand Hammer.


    In his youth, Leonardo worked for Ludovico il Moro in Milan, where he painted the now much restored "The Last Supper" on a monastery wall. Not surprisingly, Milan offers eight Leonardo exhibitions. Through coming months the Ambrosiana, to name only one, offers a selection of 46 drawings by Leonardo drawn from the 1,750 in his famous Codex Atlanticus, normally seen by only a few scholars. The nearby National Museum of Science and Technology, among Europe's largest devoted to science and technology, opens a three-month exhibition on July 19 called "Leonardo Da Vinci Parade."


    On view at the Ambrosiana will be 130 rarely visible models of Da Vinci projects - navigation, artillery, underwater engineering - built in the 1950s on the basis of Leonardo's drawings, along with fresco paintings by 16th Century Lombard artists. The models are unique in the world and include one of a flying machine made by Alberto Mario Soldatini and Vittorio Somenzi in 1953 on the basis of a Codex Atlanticus drawing. On two walls are paintings and frescoes, only rarely on view, on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera. The works by the artists in Leonardo's circle in Milan include some by Bernardino Luini, and others recovered from now destroyed churches, monasteries, and buildings in Milan.


    In Rome, through September the Primoli Foundation has organized an exhibition at the National Academy of the Lincei devoted to "Leonardo in Rome: Influence and Heritage." Also in Rome: at the Palazzo della Cancelleria near Campo de' Fiori is a permanent exhibition devoted to Leonardo, with large-scale models of his projects.


    Close to Rome, at Civitella del Lago, on Lake Corbara in the province of Terni, was an exhibition entitled "On the Traces of Genius: Maps and Cosmography in the Time of Leonardo,". The maps on view - again, only rarely shown to the public - included 15th Century efforts to interpret Ptolemy's 27 world maps from his book "Geography," dating from the 2d century AD. It is believed that Leonardo, fascinated by maps and cartography, was influenced by Ptolemy in making his own maps of hydro-engineering projects for Florence, Milan, Arezzo, and the Vatican. (The Royal Library of Windsor owns Leonardo's complete world map, which was among the first to name the Americas, according to Christopher W. Tyler.)


    Furthermore, Turin offers an exceptional exhibition on Leonardo called "Designing the Future." On view through July 14 at the Royal Museums there are 13 signed works acquired by King Carlo Alberto plus the Codex on the Flight of Birds. Works on view include his celebrated self-portrait and the studies for the Battle of Anghiari. Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia's theme is "Leonardo Da Vinci, Man as the Model of the World" with 25 drawings by Leonardo including the celebrated Vitruvian Man and, on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the disputed "Madonna Litta." And finally, Genoa's Sant'Agostino Museum hosts works by 19 contemporary artists with works inspired by Leonardo, through May 31. The exhibit is called "Leonardesca."

  • Facts & Stories

    The Bosses of Finance, The Huge Power that Threatens Us

    ROME -- In his latest book, sociologist Pino Arlacchi, Italy's famed Mafia analyst, takes a broader look at crime than do any of his previous works. Published in Italy by Chiarelettere, "I Padroni della Finanza Mondiale, Lo Strapotere che ci Minaccia" (The Bosses of Finance, The Huge Power that Threatens Us), was presented at a book launch in Rome March  30. "I'd intended to call it 'The Other Mafia,' but then I realized that in fact it is not about illegality, even though this is a world that can impose extortions and even kill people," said Arlacchi. "It is about the corruption of the super-rich, who make laws in their own interests. They propagate a formal legality that justifies de facto illegality."

    Arlacchi's books include "Mafia, Peasants and Great Estates: Society in Traditional Calabria" (1980) and  "Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and the Mafia" (1983). After 1997 he became Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. As UN Under Secretary-General, he then launched an international campaign called "A Drug-Free World." Following election to the Italian Chamber of Deputies and then the Senate, he was elected to the European Parliament and is today professor of sociology at the University of Sassari.

    Speaking in public at a trial in 1994, the then head of Cosa Nostra, Totò Riina, declared that among his principal enemies was "that guy Arlacchi who writes books." For 13 years he was obliged to live under police protection after receiving threats from the Mafia. Despite all the trials and convictions, including as a result of the famous Maxi-trial in Palermo, which lasted from 1986 to 1992, and which this reporter covered,  the Italian Mafias continue to exist, Arlacchi acknowledges. "In the early Nineties we came very close to destroying the Mafia, but at the last minute we failed," he said in an interview with journalist Anna Germoni of Panorama magazine.

    Indeed, over the decades the Mafias have internationalized, and his analyses of organized crime have expanded beyond Italy, to become ever more trans-national. The postwar creation of the United Nations and an "international system was a great conquest," but then the crises of finance intervened in 2007-2008.

    Although for a quarter century the Italian economy grew by 8% annually, today's Italy has plunged into recession. Although the government optimistically claims that GDP will rise by 1% this year, the OECD this week predicts it will sag to a mere 0.2% . Future economic troubles come primarily, not from China or Russia, but from Italy's low economic growth, Arlacchi believes: "Our private citizens still have only very limited indebtedness, but our public debt is very serious. Even as other governments grow (Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, China), we face the problem of  poverty." Unless wisely guided by the state, the capitalist system, according to Arlacchi, can be "savage" and destructive.

    Other experts agree: behind these developments, according to Christopher DeMuth, writing in the winter edition of the U.S. quarterly "The Clairmont Review" (CRB), is the fact that special interest groups "evade democratic accountability and lead to overregulation and 'agency capture' by special-interest groups.... Agencies often go to extremes, or cut deals among insider groups, that could never survive a vote in an elected legislature."

    As an example Arlacchi pointed to the United States: "U.S. lawmakers are expected to pause to reflect upon the bills they are writing for possible  consequences to the economy. This means that, if it is a big corporation, you can't touch it; it has immunity. In the US only one banker has been convicted and sent to prison."



  • Facts & Stories

    For Steve Bannon "Italy is the Center of the Political Universe"

    "We have no formal arrangement, we won't sign any formal document, but we are evangelists who are meeting to talk together informally," he said. As for his own role, "These parties are sophisticated. The best I can do is tell them to stay on your message. None of them needs me to win, but I am their cheerleader."


    Speaking at a packed two-hour press conference March 26 at the Foreign Press Association in Rome, he said that Marine Le Pen, President of the National Rally party in France, is perhaps the most outstanding politician on the scene today. Recent polls in France show Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron almost in a tie as they gear up for the May election, with Le Pen trailing behind the French president by just 1%. Bannon also expressed admiration for the German populists of Alternative für Deutschland and for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, enemy of environmentalists and gays, who has dubbed the United Nations "a bunch of communists."


    "These days the populist sovereignty movement has tremendous support, including from young people," said Bannon, adding that this upsurge in popularity was amply demonstrated in the March 22 vote for regional parliaments in the Netherlands. In that Dutch election involving 570 legislators, presumably a foretaste of the election to the European Parliament in late May, the far-right populist newcomer Forum for Democracy won more votes than any other party. "If the momentum continues as it is now, we populists just may end up with 50 to 100 MPs in the European Parliament," he predicted.


    Is there a China-Russian axis? he was asked. China is a problem, he conceded. "I love the Chinese people but not its government. As for Vladimir Putin's Russia, "the atmosphere between the US and Russia is currently poisonous, but going forward we must befriend Russia," he said. The goal is to eventually bring together the entire Judeo-Christian West, which includes Russia. It will take time: "Bear in mind that Russia's GDP is smaller than that of the state of New York, that it suffers from a demographic crisis, that it lives off natural resources, that it is managed by oligarchs and that it's a kleptocracy."


    The mainstream media are, in his view, "a disgrace." They are supposed to be self-regulating, yet no reporter is ever held accountable. "I think it's time they should be," he said, in words that, to most journalists, sound disturbing; worldwide over 250 journalists are now imprisoned because of their work, according to the annual survey of the committee to Protect Journalists, as reported in CNBC.


    Particularly harsh words were reserved for Pope Francis. "He is the Vicar of Christ." But when the pope talks politics at mass, as for instance when he spoke about the situation at the US-Mexican border, "He seems to think that all the world's problems are due to populism. Instead of politics or from the pulpit the pope should start focussing on the metastasizing character of the Catholic Church, which in the US is in terrible financial troubles through the RICO indictments."


    Several US prosecutors have attempted to use RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which dates from 1970, to prosecute Catholic Church dioceses for covering up child sex abuse. "This is the worst crisis for the Catholic Church in all time," he concluded. Bannon added that the pope has signed a secret agreement with China after a Vatican-China summit meeting, which he never talked about, nor released any details.


    Next week Bannon plans to continue his evangelizing and cheerleading in Spain.


  • Facts & Stories

    Italy Balks at Saudi Entry Into La Scala Opera Theater

    After lengthy and delicate negotiations, Italy is backing out of having Saudi Arabian oil money move into the La Scala Opera Theater in Milan. The agreement was for ARAMCO, the national petroleum and gas company owned by the Government of Saudi Arabia, to provide La Scala with € 15 million ($17.03 million). In exchange, a Saudi representative would have a seat on the board of directors at La Scala. Already in late February the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, handed over to La Scala € 3.1 million ($3.52 million) as an advance, described as private and personal, albeit via ARAMCO. Now -- say the Italian authorities -- that sum is to be returned.


    The financing was to be for € 103 million for five years. The La Scala orchestra in exchange was the creation of a music academy at Riad and to perform there two concerts and a performance of the opera "La Traviata," directed by Zubin Mehta. On the Italian side thus plan had been elaborated behind the scenes by the Austrian director of La Scala, Alexander Pereira, 62. But as news of the "deal" entered the public domain, opposition in Italy rose to fever pitch. "The entry into La Scala of a foreign government is inappropriate," said Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). Another fervent opponent of the arrangement is deputy premier and interior minister Matteo Salvini, whose rightist Lega party is partner in government with the M5S.


    For 15 years La Scala has been governed by non-Italians, beginning with the Stéphane Lissner, who is French and now directs the Paris Opera (slated to be replaced, however, in 2021). Alexander Pereira of Salzburg directed the Zurich Opera house and was chosen as superintendent of La Scala in 2013; one of his music-loving ancestors was a friend of Mozart. When he took over in Milan, elected unanimously, Pereira won praise not only for his musical ability but also for saying that he hoped to bring young people back into the opera house.


    The proposed accord with the Saudis ran into trouble on two accounts. First, politics and especially objections to a possible (though never proven) direct role of the Crown Prince in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 59, after he was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The second is the fact that Pereira's contract expires next year, and there is open opposition to its renewal. This is Italy's most famous opera house, and sentiment for an Italian superintendent is strong in Milan after those 15 years of foreign directors. Pereira has "managed things badly," Milan Mayor Beppe Sala.


    The candidates for possible replacement of Pereira include Filippo Fonsatti, the Italian who is currently director of the Teatro Stabile of Turin, whose contract there continues until 2022. Still, foreigners are among those shortlisted. Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan in New York is another mentioned, along with Dominique Meyer, director of the Vienna State Opera, born in France. As the son of a diplomat, he grew up in German before studying in Paris and going on to work in the French Ministries of Economics and of Culture.


    On the other hand, ousting Pereira and sending the Saudi donation back home does not resolve the knotty problem of financing and managing grand opera. The superintendent must have a deep musical background but also be able to deal with trade unions. "An advantage of having an Italian superintendent is that he may be better able than outsiders to deal with the unions," said Cesare Mazzonis, who was artistic director of La Scala for a decade after 1982. Asked if sharing such a high cultural monument might serve to broaden the Saudi intellectual world, Mazzonis said diplomatically that it might do the opposite: legitimize an eventual laggard partner, "giving luster to those who do not warrant it."


  • Art & Culture

    Verona's Romantic Aura Now Comes at a Cost

    ROME -- Seeking romance, millions of tourists converge upon the gracious North Italian city of Verona. Recalling the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's tragedy "Romeo and Juliet," they come to stand where Shakespeare had Romeo stand beneath Juliet's balcony; some lovers are even married in Juliet's supposed home. Increasingly, this romantic aura comes at a price, however. Under the tutelage of Federico Sboarina, Verona Mayor since 2017, tickets are now required for what was once free.

    Juliet's house is located at 23 Via Cappello, not far from the famous ancient Roman Arena di Verona, where splendid opera classics are performed in summertime. The house, which dates from the 13th century, belonged to a family called Cappello, who came to be known as Capulets. It is no deterrence to romantic tourism that the world's most famous balcony was actually not part of the original 13th century house, but a 20th century addition, made from a sarcophagus dating from the 17th century.

    The romantic tourist hordes continue to descend upon Verona, bringing wealth to the city, but at a price. "Verona is literally submerged by couples convinced they are madly in love," wrote Giampaolo Visetti in La Repubblica daily. One consequence is that this treasure trove for the town and its budget is a "traffic catastrophe," Visetti wrote. Indeed it is: besides the traffic jams and pollution from the flotilla of tourist cars and buses, the influx mean that locals must fight to find a place to park.

    And there are other problems. At the rear end of the courtyard of Juliet's house is a much admired copy of a bronze statue of her, sculpted by Nereo Costantini in 1969. But since touching the right breast of the original was supposed to bring good luck in finding one's true love, it was caressed (literally) by thousands of tourists, and has had to be replaced by a copy. To preserve the original, it has had to be placed inside the house.

    The newest irritants are what are called "love locks." Verona could hardly avoid sharing in the worldwide fad of showing eternal love by attaching a padlock anywhere possible, on the roadside or especially on bridges. Complaints are that the million or so of these "love locks" in Verona add so much weight that they risk collapsing some walls. The padlocks must be removed, at a price for the city administrators. The chewing gum lovers use to post notes and letters vowing eternal love on walls or wherever they can find an empty place are less harmful, but when they eventually flutter to the ground they must be cleared away and the chewing gum removed from walls it has besmirched. To avoid this the city fathers have applied removable panels to the walls, but tending these too comes at a price.

    To fight back, the Verona administration plans to monetize Romeo and Juliet further. The courtyard and House of Juliet will soon offer what is described as a "multimedial emotional tour" complete with audioguide. The five-storey house will be embellished with cafeteria, restrooms, cloakroom and a small meeting room. Already entry into the courtyard, free until 2015, now requires paying a ticket, and entry into that house itself, which at present costs $6.80, will shortly bounce up to $11.38. Student discounts will no longer apply.  

    Those who want the full romantic effect can be married in that very house. Presently, Verona residents pay $683 per wedding; European Union citizens, $911; and, for those outside the EU, who include U.S. citizens, $1,140. And the truly romantic couple can spend their honeymoon first night in the house, sleeping on Juliet's bed.

    Another favorite of tourists is Juliet's tomb, located in an ex-convent of Capuchin friars dating from the 13th century. As for Romeo, the house which tradition maintains was of Romeo's family, the Montecchi, is private and cannot be visited. And at any rate a sophisticated travel writer named Nina, writing online at travelboulevard, points out that there are far more interesting things to do and see in Verona than Juliet's House, "And to be honest, the idea is based on one big fantasy. But I must admit it: it's a great fantasy, and I love it." See >>




  • Facts & Stories

    Mimosa May Fade but Italian Women Don't

    ROME -- On March 8, International Women's Day since 1910, the Italian tradition is to honor a woman by handing her a sprig of yellow mimosa, among the earliest and loveliest of Spring flowers. But even as the mimosa blossoms fade, the women do not, and it is noteworthy that, well after Women's Day, interest in the world of women does not.

    The most outrageous news is from Ancona. There, four years ago, a Peruvian lass of 22 went drinking with two male fellow students. After abundant booze -- so she says -- she found herself the victim of rape by one of the youths while his mate allegedly looked on. Accompanied by her mother, the young woman went to police. Medical examination showed injuries typical of rape, and a blood test showed she had received a psychotic substance. When the matter wound up in court, the two youths received sentences of five and three years respectively.

    But then the two young men took the case to an appeals court, where in July 2016 a three-woman tribunal declared the lads not guilty and said that they suspected that she may just have been suing for money. The reasoning for their absolution: the girl -- described by the judges as "the sharpster Peruvian" -- is singularly unattractive, and looks too masculine for anyone to bother raping. "Her photo in the files confirms this," said a note in the judicial procedures. Further proof was that the youth, in his mobile phone, called her "a Viking," which is to say (if only in the opinion of this trio of judges) that she was too mannish. However, "this is not a beauty contest," one observer complained. The main complainant, thanks be, is the Italian court system, which overthrew the dodgy verdict and has ordered a full retrial.

    Speaking of judges and the Constitutional Court, on the brighter side is Judge Marta Cartabia, 55, only the third woman to serve as constitutional court justice. Nominated in 2011, she is a full professor of law at the Bocconi University of Milan. Wife and mother of three, in a March 8 interview she was asked if she ever felt discriminated against as a female. "Not particularly," she responded, "I consider myself above all sustained by the academic life where I can count upon genuine allies, by my own teachers and by my husband." On the other hand, she added, when she appears at events with her (male) assistant, he is always taken to be the famous professor and she, his assistant. "I do feel sometimes that I have a weightier burden than my male colleagues," she conceded.

    Another outstanding, and extraordinarily successful, Italian woman is astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, whose new book, "Diario di un'apprendista " (Diary of an apprentice astronaut), is being presented March 15. In her book Cristoforetti describes the 199 unforgettable days between Nov. 23, 2014, and June, 2015 she spent aboard the International Space Shuttle (ISS). Today, she said in an interview, her longing is to return into space. And because China is involved in future space explorations, she is now studying Chinese.

    Cristina Cattaneo, 55, is a forensic doctor whose work examining the dead amounts to the work of a detective. For years she has been working on the corpses and bones of the hundreds of migrants who drowned off the Libyan coast and especially those who lost their lives near the isle of Lampedusa. In her new book, "Naufraghi senza volto: Dare un nome alle vittime del Mediterraneo" (Drowned without a face: Giving a name to the victims of the Mediterranean), she writes that every item found on the remains tells a story, such as a Juventus T-shirt, a library card or the report card sewn into the shirt of a little boy. "Behind each object is a life," she says. Dr. Cattaneo works the team of the Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Odontology of the State University of Milan.

    Obviously not all outstanding Italian women are as famous as Judge Cartabia, astronaut Cristoforetti and forensic professor Cattaneo. International Women's Day also brought to the fore in Italy Elena Bairan, a baker in Rome's crowded San Giovanni quarter. In late afternoon every day she places a basket of bread and rolls in a corner of the bakery with a sign "Free Bread for Those Who are Hungry." She is hardly alone: any number of bakeries do the same, throughout Italy.

    It also made news that Italian women now approach power as bosses in companies and in the bureaucracy, with 52 women managers for every 54 men. On the other hand, the news was also broadcast, for March 8, that women in Italy continue to lag behind the men in most other positions of power. Among university presidents only 6 are women, by contrast with 76 men. One thousand women are mayors while seven times more are men. As for business managers, only 5,000 are women versus 17,000 men. In terms of jobs, women make up almost 50% of the employees and men, almost 69%.