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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Battle over US - China Tariffs May Have Fallout for Italy

    ROME -- Experts here disagree over whether the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China will have an effect on Italy and its economy, and to what extent. In particular, if U.S. wine exports to China decline because of higher tariffs, Italian wine sales just may rise further, at a time when Chinese consumption is on the rise. At $86 million annually, U.S. wine sales to China are only half of Italy's, whose wine exports to China soared to $160 million in 2017, at least 29% higher than the previous year. Following wine are exports of olive oil, worth over $35 million. Italian pasta is also a favorite of Chinese dollars, with exports earning Italy $27 million.

    "For Italian vinters, [China] is a strategic market," according to the nationwide Federazione Coltivatori Diretti (Coldiretti), which represents 1.6 million farm owners in Italy. In an analysis based upon a report by the official statistics-gatherer Istat, Coldiretti reported that, as a market for wine, China is already fifth worldwide and first of all for acquisition of red wines. Besides wines, exports of fresh fruit may benefit, but not immediately; at present Italy exports to China only kiwi and citrus fruits. However, an agreement is being worked out for China to acquire Italian apples and pears plus dried alfalfa. 

    In the confrontation over tariffs, a domino effect is not excluded, however. Some here fear that President Donald Trump's next move may be to attack European Union imports, with what one expert dubbed "a return to the law of the strongest, with unpredictable consequences for world trade." Italian exports to the U.S. amounted to almost $41 million in 2017 and, to China, almost $14 million. represents the larger farm producers. Going well beyond tensions between the U.S. and China, Massimiliano Giansanti, president of the Confederazione Generale dell'Agricultura Italiana (Confagricoltura), warns that the situation could bring about a reaction on the part of the World Trade Organization (WTO), aimed at combatting an anomalous flood of products onto the European Market. "The commercial war could have a strong impact on normal international trade," says Giansanti.

    "Let's not forget that, in the battle between the two giants, U.S. and China, in terms of population Italy is about as big as just two Chinese cities," Alberto Rossi, market analyst with the Italo-China Foundation, told an interviewer this week. "But it is correct to analyze the situation as regards its impact upon Europe."  A risk seen here is that, with the markets in China and the U.S. frozen, a scantly controlled and shifting flood of destabilizing imports into European nations could result, harming the Europeans, "and in particular we Italians, who live off our prestigious exports," warns economist Angelo Baglioni of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.

    Already, Italy is not the sole European country selling wine to China; in 2016, Italy's $160 million in sales to China fell well behind the French, who sold an astonishing $965 million. In addition, "The battle over tariffs may weaken the economies of both the U.S. and China, with fallout effects," says Prof. Baglioni. "On markets of these dimensions, which no longer grow as much as before, it is inevitable that less is sold. The risk is real."

    A further complication is the scattering of production, sometimes in several countries,  of the luxury goods which are a hallmark of Italian marketing worldwide. Last Dec. 18 twenty-two of these luxury manufacturers created an association at the Milan stock market called Ptse Italia Brands. Among the Italia Brands founding fathers: Ferrari, Pirelli, Tod's, Piaggio, , De' Longhi, Brembo, Fca, and Campari. Some of these, including Geox, Merloni and Luxottica, already have some manufacturing facilities in China and elsewhere as well. Although still based in Milan, the Pirelli group of tire manufacturers was actually purchased for $10,32 billion by the Chinese firm ChemChina, and is its most ambitious overseas acquisition, according to the Financial Times.

     

  • Op-Eds

    Risk of New Elections Loom Over Quirinal Talks

    ROME -- On Thursday, the second day of formal consultations in the Quirinal Palace, the risk of new elections continued to cast a shadow over the talks guided by President Sergio Mattarella. "Italy has moved from bipolarism to bipopulism," was how one commentator synthesized today's political situation -- that is, from the decades of alternating center-left and center-right poles to the present, in which the two front-running populist parties fight tooth and nail to win control of a future government.

    The respective leaders of these two populist parties, Matteo Salvini of the Lega and Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) were Thursday's chief protagonists. Behind the scenes the two have been negotiating indirectly and, reportedly, directly as well this week, but neither is conceding his right to be premier. Salvini appears the stronger, for he dominates the center-right alliance which includes Berlusconi's Forza Italia (14% in the elections March 4) and Giorgia Meloni's tiny Fratelli d'Italia. Can and should that center-right, populist coalition, which won 35% of the vote, prevail over the most successful single party, the M5S with its 32%?

    To deal with their stalemate is Mattarella's first task, but it appears unresolved, making a second round of negotiations appear likely. With neither willing to cave in, various alternative solutions are suggested: name a respected third-party individual premier; form an all-party-backed coalition government; or create a caretaker ("technical") government to baby sit for a year or so. Even more likely are early elections. Indeed, accompanying Salvini Thursday was the Lega's Giancarlo Giorgetti, who, exiting from the Quirinal, told reporters that, unless the situation changes, new elections are the sole realistic choice.

    These may be convenient for Salvini, who can cadge votes from his coalition partner Forza Italia, while conveniently sending Berlusconi, 81, out to pasture. By the same token Di Maio may hope to continue to poach voters from the Partito Democratico, which remains in serious, visible disarray; it is no secret that many voters abandoned the PD for the Movimento 5 Stelle.

    Some suggest that, before any such decision be made, they watch the results of regional elections due April 22 in Molise in the South, where the M5S prevails, and April 29 in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a stronghold of the Lega. Others, including Berlusconi's associate Antonio Tajani of Forza Italia, who is president of the European Parliament, would gain time by waiting until after EU elections set for May 2019.

    Will Parliament go along with these leaders? Not necessarily, for the traditional party loyalty is now a thing of the past. In the election for Senate president, 40 M5S senators bolted their own party to back the Salvini coalition candidate Elisabetta Alberti Casellati of Forza Italia. With that loss of automatic devotion comes limited experience in government: for three out of every four MPs this is their first time in national office.  With a median age that has dropped to 44.3, this is the youngest Parliament in history.

    Of the parties, the very youngest is the M5S, with 21 MPs under 30 while another four are from the Lega and two from Forza Italia. Among the other newcomers: Angela Raffa, 25, of the M5S, elected from Messina in Sicily and trained in business, and Flavio Gastaldi, 26, electrician, from Cuneo, elected by the Lega. One youth from Naples, 25, is still studying law at university.  Their concerns differ from those of the old guard, like immigration, taxes, and EU obligations. "My goal," says Rebecca Frassini of Bergamo, 26, elected by the M5S, "is to fight against the brain drain and youth unemployment." Significantly, for it suggests that the Partito Democratico is a bit left behind, not one of its parliamentary group is under 30.

    But even as the parliament rejuvenates, the country itself is aging. The Italians are producing fewer children, and so are the immigrants who have settled here permanently. In the 1980s the  migrant population stood at 200,000 but is today over 5 million, for 8.4% of the population. Their declining birth rate, together with that of the Italians, means that the total population will decline and with it, the Gross Domestic Product [in Italian PIL]. "From 2041 their contributions to the work force will not be sufficient to raise the FGP, said a new study by the Bank of Italy.

    Already, the population decline is visible in the shuttering of a number of schools. The scholastic population in Italy is expected to drop from today's 9 million to 8 million by 2028. Already, "there are schools where the bells no longer ring, and rooms where the desks are empty," said a report in the weekly L'Espresso. "Today one school out of five of the 42,000 scattered throughout the country is no longer technically in use, but is inactive." In the North alone 6% of the school buildings have already been abandoned, and the situation is worse in the South.

               

  • The Italian Senate
    Facts & Stories

    For the Old and New Pols, it's Still the Ides of March

    ROME -- For the old and new pols charged with running Italy, the Ides of March are still approaching, which is to say the day when one or the other is done in. At the moment all the players are still alive and kicking, still aiming their knives at each other, with no one injured, but also no winner. Nevertheless deadlines loom.

    Still, there are novelties in the present situation. For the first time a woman was named Senate president, and hence achieved the highest official status in Italian history. Representing Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati was elected Senate president March 24 with the combined backing of the center-right coalition and the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). Born in Rovigo in North Italy in 1946, she served as Undersecretary for the Health Ministry in a Berlusconi-led government in 2003. Her specialty is family law, a field in which she tends to the traditional; in addition to experience in Italian courts, and especially in Padua, she has frequently argued canon law in cases in the Vatican.

    In addition, with an average age of 44 in the Chamber of Deputies and 52 in the Senate, the members of the newly installed Parliament are the youngest in history. In addition, reflecting not only changing times but most of all the widespread desire for change and for a new style and substance, one out of three is a women (34.6%), the largest number ever elected to the Italian Parliament. This, says Michele Ainis, professor of constitutional law at Roma Tre University, shows that Parliament is back in power. "In the zoo of the institutions, an animal that we thought was extinct has returned after being suffocated by governments and by [governmental] decrees, and taken hostage by the leaders," says Ainis. What leaders? By the trio of Italy's most powerful politicians who dominated the past five-year legislature: Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia, Beppe Grillo of the M5S and Matteo Renzi, head of the the ruling Partito Democratico (PD). For one reason or another, all three were outsiders, and not one was even a member of Parliament.

    The timetable for seeing what effects these novelties may introduce is now fairly clear. On April 3 consultations begin for forging a new government. That this is tricky is obvious: Luigi Di Maio, 31, who took over the leadership of M5S (which people here now call simply "Stella" or Star), is at loggerheads with archrival Matteo Salvini. On March 4 voters gave populist Di Maio's Stella, founded only in 2009, the largest percentage of any party, 32%, up 6.6% over the previous election. But Salvini, flanked by Berlusconi and others in a center-right coalition, walked off with 35%. Salvini's own Lega won 17% (up almost 14% over 2013) vis a weakened Berlusconi, whose 14% was almost 8% lower than in the 2013 election-- which did not stop him from being infuriated with Salvini at the slightest hint of neglect.

    Each of these two, Salvini and Di Maio continue to claim the right to be premier in a new government. At present that still refuse to work together, and Di Maio continues to make occasional overtures to the great loser of the election of Partito Democratico, which fell by 6.5% to under 19%. Behind the scenes the two parties, Stella and League, reportedly quarreled over who was to be Senate president, without reaching an accord. The election of a woman as Senate president appears to have been their reluctant compromise. A problem for Salvini's League is the question of what if anything is now owed to Berlusconi. Salvini at present is attacking the Stella party for its placing a veto on a coalition to include Berlusconi. Speaking on a national TV program, Salvini insulted Di Maio, saying, "If he just goes on saying 'me me me,' I am going to respond, 'buddy, nothing is going to happen." Salvini is also ruling out an a-political technical government. At that point, the Stella people are suddenly winking at Renzi's deflated Partito democratico.

    So what now? Wait eight weeks and see. President Sergio Mattarella has indicated that he will tolerate no more than three rounds of negotiations over a future government, and that his deadline is May 31.

     

  • It is tough economic situation facing young Di Maio if he does manage to become premier of a M5S-dominated government. Small wonder then that last week this youth, born at Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples, made a trip to a Neapolitan church to kiss the relic of the beloved saint San Gennaro, whose blood is believed to liquefy annually.
    Op-Eds

    Center Stage: Luigi Di Maio for the Five-Star Movement

    NEW YORK -- Luigi Di Maio, head of the Five-Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle or M5S), has captured the imagination of foreign journalists. The most prominent media in the US have discovered and are writing about this 31-year-old politician, whose party copped over 32% of the vote in the turbulent national general election held March 4. In a stunning result Di Maio trumped no less a familiar name than former premier Silvio Berlusconi, running on a rightist ticket, as well as another former premier, Matteo Renzi, currently head of the severely weakened center-left Partito Democratico (PD).

     

    Despite his party's resounding lead over every other party in Italy, Di Maio's M5S failed to achieve the 40% necessary to take over control of the government -- at least not yet. However, on Friday the newly installed 630-member Parliament and 315-member Senate will begin electing their presidents, in a notable show of power and, not incidentally, of alliances that may pave the way forward. The central issue is just who is to succeed Renzi's successor Paolo Gentiloni of the PD as premier of Italy. Already this past week the PD rejected the M5S approach to share in government, leaving Di Maio to  play political footsie with the other big election winner, Matteo Salvini of the League.

     

    Their joint takeover of the government is not to be discounted despite the notorious reluctance of Italian President Sergio Mattarella for this solution. The alternative, as Di Maio points out with great politeness in his interviews, is a caretaker government for a few months and then a return to the polls. This is actually a rather nasty threat: in an autumn vote after a half year of campaigning the M5S is more than likely to enjoy an even greater success, winning that coveted 40% and taking over the government on its own.

     

    Post-election maps of the vote show a net division in the country between the parties of these two leaders, which outpolled all the others including Berlusconi's, Salvini's coalition partner. The League, characterized by anti-immigrant, definitely hard-right vote, cornered the rightwing vote in the North. The M5S swept the entire South, but its constituency was radically diverse. Young people in droves backed what is described in Italy as a party of anger. There it was not fear of immigrants, as bandied about in the North, but awareness of an empty future and of the economic disaster of the South, which trails well behind the economy of the North.

     

    All told, according to the Bank of Italy last month, the GDP rose by 1.5% in 2017, but is expected to slip to 1.4% this year and to only 1.2% for the two subsequent years. Confcommercio, the association of businesses, predicts a slightly lower annual GDP (PIL, in Italian) of 1.3%. In January consumer confidence dwindled, according to Istat, the state statistics-gathering institute, in a trend linked to the uncertainties of the Italian future. According to the latest Confcommercio report, "Together with the most recent data on confidence and employment, the drop in consumer  sales throws a shadow over the possibility of achieving, in 2018, growth similar to that of 2017," the report continued. Nor is it a healthy sign that consumer demand has drop by 0.2% even as service costs have risen by 0.1%.

     

    This is the tough economic situation facing young Di Maio if he does manage to become premier of a M5S-dominated government. Small wonder then that last week this youth, born at Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples, made a trip to a Neapolitan church to kiss the relic of the beloved saint San Gennaro, whose blood is believed to liquefy annually. The M5S is an Italian novelty, not a relic: it was born in 2009 as an online movement -- specifically not a party -- challenging the old ways. Its supporters are either young new voters or have migrated from the standard parties of right and left. The movement's stated goals: end corruption and tax dodging, cut taxes, protect the environment, improve education, foster innovation and have direct democracy through online voting.  

     

    Italian commentators say that the M5S leaders, comic Beppe Grillo and marketing guru Davide Casaleggio, who replaced his late father Gianroberto Casaleggio in the party hierarchy, selected Di Maio for his cleancut looks, his youth and leadership qualities, which, it was theorized, would make him acceptable to ever more voters in the center.

     

    Di Maio did not complete his formal education (engineering, law) but emerged early in school and university as a political leader, who did not follow in the footsteps of his building contractor father Antonio, onetime member of the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano. In 2007 young Di Maio joined an early version of Beppe Grillo's proto-M5S movement and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2013. So powerful was the M5S by then that Di Maio was rocketed into becoming its vice president. In this month's vote he won 82% of the online votes in his party, and at Acerra was elected for the second time to Parliament with over 95,000 votes.

     
  • Life & People

    Remembering Aldo Moro 40 Years After Kidnapping

    ROME -- March 16 marks the 40th anniversary of the day when Aldo Moro was kidnapped and five of his bodyguards were killed by Red Brigades in a military-style ambush on Via Fani in Rome. None of those who lived through that event will ever forget the deep sense of anguish and fear for his fate that marked each of the 55 days that passed before his body was found,  stuffed into the trunk of a car parked on Via Caetani near Rome's Piazza Venezia. 

    The car in which the murdered Moro was found had been left more or less midway between the headquarters of the Christian Democratic party and the Communist party. I happened to be nearby on Via del Corso, when the blare of countless sirens screamed instantly that his body had been found. I ran immediately in the direction of the sirens and in that way became an early, horrified witness to the discovery of the body.

    Just who was Aldo Moro? Born in Maglie near Lecce, he came from an educated family: his father was a school inspector and his mother, an elementary school teacher. Graduated in law from the University of Bari in 1939, he began teaching there just three years later. This was wartime, and Moro entered the army in 1942 as an infantry soldier and later served in the air force. Not long afterward he became active in a secret circle of Catholic-oriented, anti-Fascist young politicians. Some of this cohort went on to found the Christian Democratic party (DC), which would play a crucial role in governing Italy for four postwar decades after the fall of Fascism. 

    In 1948 Moro, a practicing Catholic who continued all his life to attend mass before his teaching and political commitments, was elected to Parliament on the DC ticket, becoming undersecretary for foreign affairs in the cabinet of the staunchly Catholic statesman Alcide De Gasperi. In the meantime Moro had married Eleanora Chiavarelli in 1945, and the couple had four children. He continued to teach at Bari University until 1963, when he transferred to the University of Rome.

    At that time the DC was squared off against the Italian Communist party (PCI). The Communists had been financed by the Soviet Union in the same way that the DC itself had received a helping hand from the US. In the early Sixties the DC was divided into two separate wings. On the right were the "Dorotei", a large faction headed by Giulio Andreotti. Opposing them was the more progressive Catholic faction headed by Moro, and hence called the "Morotei." Since the end of the war the DC had held a stranglehold over the government, which meant that, given the PCI links to the Communist world, there was no alternating of right and left. Desiring change, in 1963 Moro opened the government to the Italian Socialist party (PSI), led by Pietro Nenni, and became premier of a center-left coalition.

    As that center-left coalition gradually floundered, in 1978, Moro, by then president of the DC,  proposed that the DC head a government once more, but that it accept outside voting support from the Communist party.  Neither the Americans nor the Soviets were thrilled by the accord, the first of its kind in Europe, dubbed the "Historic Compromise." The murderous assault and kidnapping on Via Fani took place on the very morning when Moro was to present the new Communist supported government in Parliament.

    The assault was by a team of commandos of the Red Brigades (BR), a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization created in 1970 in Trento in the wake of widespread student unrest, and which expanded into Milan, Reggio Emilia and Turin, and then on to Rome, Genoa and Venice. At the time of the kidnapping 46 Brigatisti, including BR founding father Renato Curcio, had been on trial in Turin for almost two years. Their defense was that they were acting in the same way as partisan fighters had during World War II. That trial was so difficult that 210 lawyers refused to represent BR members while 40 of those asked to be jurors also refused out of fear.

    The Brigades' choice of Moro as victim was in its way casual. Well funded from an earlier kidnap for ransom, the BR in Rome  worked for five months, meticulously preparing the assault. According to an excellent anniversary reconstruction by Ezio Mauro in La Repubblica, the BR were undecided about which DC bigwigs to kidnap. The other two considered were Andreotti himself and former premier and Senate president Amintore Fanfani. Meticulously trailing each of these three, they found out that while Andreotti was in constant full public view, Moro's car and his bodyguards in two other cars drove regularly down a small road, the Via Fani, where there was limited possibility of their being observed. The only shop, a florist's, had just been shut down.

    Once he was in their hands,  the BR placed Moro in one (and perhaps more) 'prisons' and called upon the government to release 13 of their imprisoned members. As time passed, from his 'prison' Moro sent long, hand-written letters to his family, to his fellow party leaders and to the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi. Some of the recipients refused to recognize the letters as authentic. The crucial question was whether or not the Italian government should negotiate for Moro's release.

    Of the politicians, all but Craxi, we are told, refused to negotiate with the Red Brigades for his release -- but then Pope Paul VI launched a campaign to negotiate for Moro's release in exchange for money. Even the pontiff's plea for negotiation was ignored. For reporter Ezio Mauro, negotiations would have been an error: "The only possible solution would have been -- had the state apparatus been more efficient and less polluted -- to find his prison and free him. I remain convinced that firmness in dealing with the terrorists was the right choice."

    Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories have abounded, in part because the planning appeared so excellent that, it was initially assumed, only skilled military, perhaps of some foreign country, could have carried it out. "Both Moscow and Washington opposed Moro's policy as dangerously destabilising for the postwar European order which the great powers sanction at the Yalta conference in 1945," Philip Willan wrote for the Guardian back in 2003. "Suspicion continues to this day that the CIA or KGB, possibly both, may have played a role in his violent removal from the political scene. At the very least, they did nothing to secure his release."  And in the meantime the Historic Compromise was abandoned. 

    For The Guardian article click here >>

    For a full account of the Moro affair in English written in 2012, click here >>

  • Luigi Di Maio, Leader of the Five Star Movement
    Facts & Stories

    Shock Election Results Signify Dawn of 3d Republic

    ROME -- The shock waves of this election, with a 73% voter turnout, have swept away the entire political system that has managed Italy for the past two decades. Dominated by populist parties, this is now being called the dawn of Italy's Third Republic, a term that is purely political rather than technical or legal. 

    During the First Republic created after 1948, Christian Democrats and Communists together, decade after decade, claimed two-thirds of the vote. But this  essentially collapsed with the Berlin Wall and the rise to power after 1993 of Silvio Berlusconi, who went on to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades. In what was dubbed the Second Republic the political arena was bipolar, divided between center-right and center-left.

    Today that bipolarism lies in tatters and, with it, the Partito Democratico (PD), formerly the largest of the vaguely idealistic parties with a social democratic orientation tempered by a progressive Catholic component. The PD, which has governed for the past three years, claimed only 18.7% of the vote whereas, in the last national general election just five years ago, it had claimed 25.4%. Needless to say, the party is quarreling over who was at fault. 

    With almost 33% of the vote, the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) won more than any other single party. In these early days of negotiating for composition of a new government, the M5S has offered to support the PD -- but if it does, half the remaining PD members will bolt. Alternatively, if the PD says no, the wily M5S apparently plans to join ranks with the rightist Lega to write a new election law which, it is a safe bet, would further punish the PD. 

    Already PD general secretary and former premier Matteo Renzi has announced plans to resign, writing Tuesday on Facebook: "The PD lost: let's change the page -- for this reason I am leaving the leadership of the party.... In future years the PD will have to battle against the extremists of the Five Star Movement and of the Right. They have been insulting us for years and their values are the opposite of ours." Behind the scenes Renzi blames those within his party who did not allow him to call for elections earlier, when the PD (in his view) appeared stronger. 

    The larger of the two components which Renzi called "the Right" is the four-party coalition cobbled together by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Of the four, his Forza Italia won just 14% of the vote, and unexpectedly trumped by the Lega of Matteo Salvini with 17.37%. Their partner Georgia Meloni with Fratelli d'Italia won 4.35%, and the tiny Noi con l'Italia, 1.3%. The coalition's grand total of 37% sufficed to crow victory, but not enough to take over the government automatically, which would require 40%.  This meager result left Berlusconi reportedly devastated while a joyful Salvini was polite but insisted that his victory gives him the right to be premier. 

    In coming weeks, and perhaps months, the struggle between the Salvini-Berlusconi coalition and the more radical M5S must be settled, but by whom? Prior to the vote President Mattarella had made it clear that, if an endless stalemate results, passage of a new and clearer election law might be necessary to replace that, never previously tested, considered partly responsible for today's outcome. An endless stalemate could lead to new elections, presumably in the autumn. However, if there is a "nightmare crisis without an end," said La Stampa commentator Ugo Magri, forget it: President Sergio Mattarella is not about to dictate solutions for the government, which the parties muse provide with "clear indications."

    Three possible outcomes seem possible: 

    -- a government backed by a majority that does not reflect the vote, as in the German solution; 

    -- a government backed by a broad spectrum of parties;

    -- a so-called "technical government" headed by an appointed, apolitical leader.

    Nothing concrete happens before March 23, when the procedure for electing new presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate begins. 

    Pre-election coverage by the overseas press has been less than stellar. A good deal was written about the risk of a rise in Fascism, with particular attention to CasaPound which, in the event, claimed under 2%, triple its vote in 2013, but insufficient for Parliamentary representation. Another example: the liberal internet forum DailyKos wrote with extraordinary optimism that the M5S platform represents "1) clean, unpolluted, accessible public water, 2) sustainable transport so people can get to work and around the country easily, 3) sustainable development as opposed to large and unnecessary projects, 4) the right to internet access for all, and 5) care for the environment." That reporter might have gone beyond unrealistic propaganda to analyze the reality of the scandals over the mismanagement of the M5S city of Rome, its first actual test.

  • Life & People

    Loving Italy: It’s Easy as Pizza Pie

    Let’s face it. If I’ve lived in Italy half a century, there must be a reason. In fact, not one, but hundreds of reasons. First, this is the most beautiful country in the world, from the gifts of mother nature - Alpine slopes, islands, seashores, gently rolling hills - to the creations of
    mankind. Wherever the gaze falls, one sees beauty, and not only inside the famous museums.There is the country church whose windows reveal its 16th century origin. The user-friendly piazza (no, not a “shopping plaza”) where people sit together and converse about the events of the day.

    The pub on Rome’s outskirts whose construction shows that, before the automobile and the building’s recent, thoughtful conversion, it had been an inn with horse stalls, still visible and carefully preserved. On the more obvious aesthetic level, one learns to look: in a bold Baroque divertissement, the stone window frames of the building next to Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome were carved to look as if gushing forth waves of mud. Before noticing them I had, unobservant, walked past those windows a hundred times.

    But just look, and everywhere historic levels are visible. Tire of the Baroque, like those windows, and go visit ancient Roman ruins: mosaics, temples or statues, like those in the elegant museum at Ostia Antica. Weary of antiquity? Okay, trot back into the Bronze Age, push forward into the Renaissance or drift back into the Middle Ages—say, in the medieval quarter of Viterbo in North Lazio. 

    Speaking of Viterbo, it illustrates how townships are taking it upon themselves to be creative. Horrendous photos of rubbish piled up in
    the big cities are everywhere. Viterbo, pop. 67,000, has launched a campaign to avoid this. With help from citizens taking photos with
    cell phones, the city has just issued 375 tickets to individuals caught dumping rubbish onto the streets instead of into the bins provided.
    These smaller ancient towns, like Asolo, where Wyatt Rockefeller, descendant of the U.S. banking family, just married the Italian-American Julie Fabrizio, remain Italy’s great treasure and resource. All over Italy the borghi are a delight to explore—for instance, in the Abruzzo, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, which has an innovative albergo diffuso, or scattered hotel rooms inside the old
    houses.

    Needless to say, Italian foods triumph. In our own little village of Trevignano Romano a brilliant young chef just served us a compote of pureed potato and fennel, laced with raisins, of all things, baked under a topping of grated cheese and breadcrumbs. I was so taken
    with this invention that I made it myself for lunch (admittedly less perfectly than his). The wines speak for themselves, as do those popular sommelier courses on offer. 

    Not least, for those who love family, this is still a country where grandparents remain close to their grandchildren, and where the grown children appreciate and even enjoy their elderly parents and aunts and uncles.

    Among the most important elements of Italian life—and this is deeply serious—is its socialized health system. I sometimes suspect the Italians do not appreciate all they have, beginning with this.When I had the misfortune to have a serious infection, I was hospitalized three times and successfully operated by a brilliant, youthful surgeon. Thanks to the national health service, the cost was minimal.
    Thank you, Italy—thanks for so much, and I hope I can repay you, if only with words of gratitude.

    --

    Meet Judith

    Judith Harris writes primarily about conservation of the Italian cultural heritage. Her most recent book is a biography, Evelina, A Victorian Heroine in Venice. She is also the author of Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery and The Monster in the Closet. As a freelance American journalist based in Rome, she has been a regular contributor to ARTnews, Current Archaeology, Time, Wall Street Journal and the online magazine i-italy. org. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she is a graduate of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and is a former diplomat. 

  • Facts & Stories

    Italian Elections Intimidate but Attract Outsiders

    ROME -- The Italian elections March 4 are already drawing notable outside attention, and foreign press crews are beginning to arrive. One old-timer, in fact, who had spent years in Rome covering the Communist Threat, asked me to brief him. I tried, but the sheer number of politicians and parties soon had him begging a respite. "Isn't there a simpler way to explain this?" he said, putting on his hat to go back out into the snow, preferable to dealing with an important election that pits 30 or so parties against one another. 

    "Well, no, there isn't," I said feebly. Still, here goes, based upon my conviction that in this particular national general election the people matter more than the parties. Gone are the (perhaps) good old days of the Christian Democrats (DC) and of the Italian Communist party (PCI). The DC preached its Catholic orientation, at least sometimes, while the PCI preached its adherence to world communism, at least sometimes. Now wasn't that simple to explain? Frankly, not at all. 

    And so back to today. With ideologies now in the waste basket of history, the individual personality of the political leader surges to the fore. Let us meet the most influential, one by one, in alphabetical order.

    Silvio Berlusconi -- This former premier, 81, is hobbled not only by age but by court judgments that disallow him to be elected to Parliament or to be, himself, premier. His renovated Forza Italia (FI) party is unlikely to cop over 17% of the vote -- not nearly enough to put FI in the winner's chair. But his innate negotiating skills have enabled him to cobble together and to dominate what just may be a winning center-right alliance. 

    Emma Bonino -- Former European Commissioner, Italian foreign minister in 2013 for a year, and a former vice-president of the Senate, Bonino, 69, has a long history as a parliamentarian plus significantly more international experience than most of the other leading politicians. She is exceptionally popular and respected; although she suffers from cancer, now in remission, and her party, +Europa, is expected to make a very modest showing, perhaps 3%, she is mentioned as a potential candidate for the Italian presidency. 

    Laura Boldrini -- President of the Chamber of Deputies for the past five years, Boldrini, 57, is a law graduate from La Sapienza University in Rome and formerly served as spokesperson for the UN high commission for refugees (UNHCR). She recently split with the Matteo Renzi and his dominant Partito Democratico (PD) to join a leftist faction. She has one daughter, and is attractive enough to have drawn a number of serious threats to her life.

    Luigi Di Maio -- Di Maio , 32, is vice president of the Chamber of Deputies, its youngest in history. In the past he belonged to the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement but has been a member of the M5S since 2007.From comedian Beppe Grillo he took over last year as head of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), at present the single political party expected to have more votes than any other. Born in Avellino, clean-shaven, he makes a point of always appearing smartly suited with white shirt and black tie. 

    Simone Di Stefano -  Only 39, Rome-born Di Stefano has made the formerly peripheral far-right CasaPound into a force to be reckoned with. He is a skilled propagandist who aims at achieving the 3% necessary for his party, named after fascistoid (and brilliant) poet Ezra Pound, to be represented in Parliament for the first time in history. He was once arrested for snatching the EU flag from a Roman balcony and replacing it with the Italian flag. 

    Franco Frattini:  Twice foreign minister under Berlusconi governments, Frattini, 60, is a former magistrate now mentioned as Berlusconi's possible candidate for premier if a center-right coalition achieves 40% of the vote, allowing it to take charge. Frattini also served as European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security from 2004 through 2008. In his early political years he was a member of the now defunct Italian Socialist Party (PSI).

    Paolo Gentiloni - At 64, Roman-born Gentiloni came as a surprise to many Italian voters when he replaced Matteo Renzi as the Partito Democratico (PD) premier. His soft-spoken authority has made him the single most popular politicians in Italy today, but the party, now headed by Renzi himself, is leaking votes. Born and raised in Rome with a staunchly Catholic background, he became a professional journalist formerly associated with the moderately Catholic party La Margherita.

    Pietro Grasso - Senate president since 2013, Grasso is a former Palermo magistrate who bolted from, and hence weakened, the PD which had elected him, so as to launch a tiny leftist party, Libero e Uguali (Free and Equal), which polls give at under 8%.  Grasso was born in Sicily in 1945, and in 2005 was named chief prosecutor for the national anti-Mafia commission. He is the author or co-author of a half dozen books on the Mafia. 

    Sergio Mattarella - The extremely popular 12th president of Italy was elected in 2015.. Born and educated in Palermo, Sergio Mattarella, 76, became an associate professor of parliamentary law in 1983 and then served as member of Parliament and twice as cabinet minister before his election as high court judge in 2011. He is the brother of Sicilian Mafia victim Piersanti Mattarella, and the son of a Christian Democratic politician who served as a cabinet minister five times

    Giorgia Meloni -- The third partner in the center-right alliance of Berlusconi and Salvini is also the one with the smallest input, but has on occasion blithely attacked both. Whose leadership? "I'm here," she responded. Her party, Fratelli d'Italia, calls itself the party of patriots and is currently predicted to win up to 7% of the vote. She lacks a university degree and is a new mother. Central program points: the defence of the traditional family, national sovreignty. and safeguarding the national interest in foreign policy.

    Matteo Renzi - Elected premier for the center-left PD in 2014, Renzi, born in 1975, was expected to bring fresh ideas and stirring reforms to Italy, as he had to his native Florence where he had served as mayor. In April 2017 the party won almost 2 million votes, and 69% of the PD confirmed him as national general secretary. However, the premiership has now gone to Gentiloni while Renzi remains as leader of the PD, whose prospects continue to fade, down from 40% of a few years ago to today's predicted under 24%.

    Matteo Salvini -- Milanese-born Salvini, 48, has removed the word "Northern" from the party called Northern League, but is still unlikely to claim more than 14% (down 1% from a month ago). Making the party national rather than regional, he has alienated the Northern League's founder Umberto Bossi. But as Berlusconi's ally in the center-right alliance, Salvini,  enjoys disproportionate strength. Officially his party today is called "Us with Salvini." He has been a member of Parliament since 2008. At one point he attacked Milanese Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi as being soft on Roma. CasaPound now offers to support him. 

  • Facts & Stories

    As Italy Plunges Toward Elections, Others have their say

    ROME -- As the Scottish Robert Burns said, back in the late 18th Century, "O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!" As Italy plunges toward national general elections March 4, the "giftie" are offering plenty of occasions for Italians to see themselves and those elections as others see them, with no holds barred. Herewith a sampling of the international press.

    Among the most authoritative commentators is the London Economist Feb. 17, whose two pages devoted to Italian elections were headlined "Star Man," a reference to Luigi Di Maio, who is "trying to turn the Five Star Movement (M5S) into a contender for power." Its pithiest comment: the official party line is that if, as latest polls show, the M5S emerges as Italy's biggest political force, but lacks the outright majority it needs to govern, it will still have to present its program and proposed cabinet to the other parties. "If they like what they see, they can offer their support. But that is disengenuous. It dodges the question of whether the M5S will get its hands dirty, make concessions and trade ministerial portfolios." Should the M5S refuse that sort of offer, it risks becoming "irrelevant."

    The Washington Post on Feb. 20 raised the question, "Can a party founded by a comedian run a major European country? Italy may soon find out." The comedian in question was, of course, Beppe Grillo, 69. "After nearly a decade of raging against the powerful, this Netizen band of rebels says it is ready to reign." [Netizen-- citzens on the net.] The party founded by Grillo (who has now backed away from it) "has long cherished its image as the ultimate renegade." But the mood of the country has shifted and so has the party. As a result, says the paper, these outsiders could soon be marching in. "The M5S is seeking to prove it can be a responsible party of government, not just one of protest." From the Moscow-owned Sputnik International, whose websites and radio broadcasts are managed by the Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya, comes an interview with James Newell, political science professor at the University of Salford in the UK. Asked about the election prospects of the Lega, the right-leaning, anti-immigrant party headed by Matteo Salvini, Prof. Newell replied that Salvini's "polling figures are currently high, and he's part of a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi, [but] they're in disagreement as to who should become prime minister after the election. The electoral system is also a new one that was introduced last year, it's a combined proportional majority system and it's very uncertain what its effects will be." No editorial comment accompanied this extensive interview.

    In its detailed analysis, Reuters News Agency Feb. 20 opines that, although much of the past weeks of campaigning has focussed upon the issue of immigration, polls show that voters are most concerned about the economy, still not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis even as output across the 19-nation Eurozone as a whole has grown by 5% over the same decade. During that time the number of Italians at risk of poverty has risen by more than 3 million while youth unemployment in the south stands at 46.6%, 13 points above the level of 2008.

    "This anaemic performance has pushed millions of Italians into poverty, stoking social discontent and fueling the rise of populist or anti-establishment parties, such as the far-right anti-immigrant League and the maverick 5-Star Movement [which] looks set to emerge as the largest party next month, and says it will introduce a universal wage for the poor if it wins power. Other parties are also promising to unleash billions of euros of fresh spending to revive the economy -- money analysts say the country does not have," says Reuters.

    From the U.S. comes a lengthy article Feb. 9 by Rome-based reporter Elisabetta Povoledo on candidate Emma Bonino, former EU commissioner. According to the New York Times headline, Bonino "won Italians' hearts -- but can she win their votes?" The general "aura of popularity around Ms. Bonino has not always translated into votes," says the Times. In past elections the parties with which she was identified (yesterday the late Marco Pannella's Radicals, today she heads Più Europa or More Europe) has fallen short of the minimum 3 percent required for a seat in Parliament. That, writes the New York Times, has prompted her current slogan, “Love Me Less, Vote Me More.” Recent polls indicate that 34% of Italians are hostile to the EU. Besides promoting the EU, Bonino has vowed to change Italian immigration laws. 

    For its world broadcasts in both radio and TV, the Rome Bureau of the BBC produced a lengthy broadcast Feb.18 entirely dedicated to former Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Acknowledging that due to a conviction for tax fraud Berlusconi cannot be premier or even a member of Parliament, the broadcast content was largely ignored by outsiders save for a moment after, when Berlusconi told reporter Sofia Bettiza,"If you shake a guy's hand that strongly, nobody will ever marry you." His (perhaps flirtatious) comment was picked up by the Italian press. Watch the video here >>

  • Not real candidates: VOTE FOR ME guerrilla posters
    Facts & Stories

    Last Polls and Guerrilla Posters - Two Weeks Before Elections

    ROME -- This is the last week before polling is prohibited, and in these final days the campaigning for general elections March 4 is tense. Throughout Italy, parties from left, right and center face accusations of illicit activities, starting with corruption. The field is also fragmented, with no fewer than 28 national parties facing off against each other. 

    Pollsters place the center-right alliance solidly in the lead, with three parties: Matteo Salvini's Lega, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and their tiny ally, Fratelli d'Italia, headed by Giorgia Meloni, her party's candidate for premier. For the reputable pollster EMG reporting Feb. 12, Forza Italia is expected to win over 16.1% of the vote and is gaining consensus. Salvini's Lega, while slightly dropping, polls at least 13.9% and Meloni, 4.6%, for a total of 37.4%. Although an Ixè poll, also released Feb. 12, gave the trio a slightly lower result, 36%, the center-right alliance remains well ahead of arch-rival Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S)

    In their marriage of convenience, however, these presumable future allies do not get along particularly well. Salvini, for instance, is peeved that to date Berlusconi declines to name their alliance's choice for a future premier. By law Berlusconi himself cannot be elected to parliament nor serve as premier, but he is definitely running the center-right show even though in recent polls the general public gives him barely 21% of preferences.  

    Ironically, the M5S, now headed by Luigi Di Maio, with founding grandpa Beppe Grillo ostentatiously in the wings writing his separation blog, remains the largest of any single party, with its predicted 27.3% of the vote. Nevertheless, faced off against the rival Berlusconi-Salvini-Meloni alliance, it falls 10 points behind. 

    Former premier Matteo Renzi heads the Partito Democratico (PD), which fields the two-year-old government of Premier Paolo Gentiloni. But at 28% Renzi is decidedly lower in personal popularity than Gentiloni. With an approval rating of 38%,the calm and collected Gentiloni is today's single most popular politician in Italy (OpinoItalia poll just published by ANSA press agency). Next comes Emma Bonino, 71, with 34%. Bonino is something of a surprise candidate, whose tiny party, +Europa, is expected to command no more than 5% of the vote. Still, and despite lung cancer she claims is in remission, Bonino is being mentioned even for a possible future presidency of Italy. 

    Although the front-running center-right alliance seems close to victory, it still may fall short of the 40% that would allow it to take charge of the government. Can another possible alliance be cobbled together? It is not impossible. This week's polls show that together Renzi's PD, with a weak showing of  23.7% despite its command over the government,  and De Maio's M5S (27.3%) could theoretically forge a winning alliance. However doubtful this may seem now, no one can tell until the horse trading over a future government actually begins.

    Polling has been criticized since Donald Trump's election as president, when pollsters understated his support in battleground states. A reason, according to the New York Times, was that turnout proved higher than expected, and the undecided made their decisions "in the final hours." This could happen in Italy:  

    the fact remains that 33.8% of those who can vote say they will abstain while another 14.2% say they are still undecided. With a total of 48%, this makes the undecided and abstainers the largest single party in Italy (Emg poll released Feb. 12).  

    One novelty is the aggressive campaigning by the Casa Pound candidates. Although polls give them only from 2% to 3%, the Casa Pound is from the far (not to say extreme) right. Under national secretary Simone Di Stefano, this controversial party hopes to be represented in parliament for the first time. Di Stefano has already said he might back Salvini in a future government.

    With the arguments over immigration continuing as the dominant issue, a startling novelty in the campaign is what is being called a "blitz" of posters showing the faces of immigrants. "VOTE FOR ME," say the posters being put up by night in seven big cities -- but that requested vote is not for the black Africans, Asians, Muslim women in the photos -- but to ask voters not to be narrow minded.

     

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