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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Capitoline museum in Palazzo Nuovo
    Art & Culture

    World's Oldest Public Museum: Rome's Capitoline

    ROME -- Italy is celebrating the inauguration nearly three centuries ago of Italy's oldest public museum, the Capitoline, which was founded and funded with income from, of all things, a public lottery. The lottery was held in Palazzo Montecitorio, which today houses the Italian Chamber of Deputies. That earliest museum was described as "pagan" since it was not part of Church property, albeit promoted by the Church. 

    The collection of antiquities housed in it was the one that inspired Johann Joachim Winckelmann to write a book, now a classic called "The History of Ancient Art,"  published in Dresden in 1764. Immediately influential throughout Europe, in it he literally invented the study of archaeology. And because the Prussian-born Winckelmann was born on Dec. 9, 1717, the third centennary of his birth has provided an occasion to celebrate both museum and art historian with one of the most compelling exhibitions in recent Roman history. 

    The son of a shoemaker and grandson of a wealthy manager, Winckelmann had studied classics and was living and working as a librarian in sophisticated Dresden, where the sight of antiquities, brought there from Herculaneum, enraptured him. In 1755, at age 38 years, Winckelmann was finally able to visit Italy while accompanying a Prussian nobleman on his Grand Tour. In Rome, the Prussian king Augustus III suggested he stay on, with stipend, so as to send them reports of excavation novelties which the Prussian royals hoped to acquire. 

    At that time, atop the Capitoline Hill were the horseshoe-shaped trio of buildings, whose facades were designed by Michelangelo in the 1540s but completed only later. To the right is the Palazzo dei Conservatori; to the left, the Palazzo Nuovo, a building completed in 1671 to house first a textile and, later, an agriculture guild, which adorned the building with 46 ancient sculptures. On Dec. 27, 1733, a decree founded the museum in the Palazzo Nuovo with the express purpose of promoting "the magnificence and splendor of Rome." 

    The building required restoration, funded by the lotteries held in the piazza and in Piazza Montecitorio.  Then Cardinal Albani's important collection of 400 or so sculptures and epigraphs were purchased, thanks once more to the lottery funds that also paid for renovation of the building to make it suitable for display. In mid-1735 the Capitoline Museum was opened to the public, the first public art museum in the world. A centerpiece of the collection was a life-sized Venus of white marble, a copy from the original by Praxiteles, discovered on Rome's Esquiline Hill in 1667.

    Enchanted by Rome, Winckelmann was able to see and to study hundreds of ancient sculptures in private collections and in the young, public Capitoline Museum, where he lingered day after day. He became a protegé of the influential Cardinal Alessandro Albani, a prominent collector of antiquities and patron of the arts, and then Superintendent of Antiquities for the Vatican. Soon he realized that in many cases the attributions of statues were inaccurate. The studies he made became the basis of his "The History of Ancient Art," still recognized as the foundation of archaeological studies.

    The exhibition "The Treasure of Antiquity, Winckelmann and the Capitoline Museum" is scattered throughout both buildings, the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the recently renovated Palazzo Nuovo, which are connected by a long underground passage whose walls are a treasure trove of ancient epigraphy. The classical statuary in the three magnificent halls of the latter's piano nobile are arranged much as Winkelmann himself would have seen them. 

    Among the delights on view: Francesco Panini's painting of Palazzo Montecitorio, with the lottery that bankrolled the birth of the Capitoline Museum underway.The exhibition continues through Sunday, March 26. 

  • Jan 12, Carabinieri at Rome show recovered presepe figures
    Facts & Stories

    Art Crime and Carabinieri

    ROME -- In a post-Christmas season bonus, the Italian Carabinieri art squad held a press conference in Rome Jan. 12 with a showing of their latest art recovery: 250 figures from an 18th century Neapolitan presepe, or creche, with an estimated value of $2.4 million. The presepe figures were found in Christmas creches all over Italy, said General Fabrizio Parrulli, who heads the Carabinieri for Protection of the Cultural Heritage (TPC). To date the owners of 49 of the recovered figures have been identified, said Isernia prosecutor Paolo Albano, who oversaw the investigation. 

    "This case is unique in that our investigation was facilitated by an efficient data bank," said Col. Carmelo Marra of Naples. The thefts took place in 1999-2000 in the Church of Sant'Agnello on the Sorrentine coast and in two private homes in Naples. So far 20 individuals risk trial. The remaining 201 figures for the moment are being overseen by a foundation, which plans to put them on display in showcases in Naples before Easter, he added. "We are also in contact with New York Mayor de Blasio for a possible contribution for the exhibition," he said. Also under consideration: creation of a permanent exhibition on figures from the Neapolitan presepe.

    The trend nevertheless is for a demonstrable reduction in art crimes, down from 906 in 2011 to 449 in 2016, according to ANSA. Still, with its historical abundance in works of art and archaeology, Italy remains the single largest market for stolen works of art, with perhaps 20,000 art thefts a year or 55 a day. Half take place in private homes, while one out of ten is from an art gallery, according to a study made last year by the Italian Chamber of Commerce together with Interpol, the Carabinieri art squad and the non-profit Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA). The thieves' favorites begin with rare postage stamps. Second are sculptures followed by paintings and drawings, with at the bottom of the line sacred relics and jewelry.

    The efficiency of the Carabinieri art squad is a crucial element behind the decrease in the number of art thefts in Italy and the number of recovered objects, including the shepherds from the Neapolitan creches. Under the late Carabinieri General Roberto Conforti, who retired in 2001 and died last July, Italy launched myriad international initiatives aimed at wiping out the illicit worldwide traffic in stolen works of art. For 42 years, from headquarters at Rome's Piazza Sant'Ignazio, General Conforti, who was born at Serre near Salerno, oversaw the recovery of thousands of art works stolen from private collections, galleries and museum. He was not only a pioneer in Italy, but he and his team of 300 taught police in other countries how to conduct their investigations and to work together. On Jan. 10 his work was honored by a conference called "A Life for Art," held in the Campidoglio in Rome.

    If this is the good news, the bad is that a major holiday heist that made news worldwide is yet to be resolved. The theft Jan. 3 of exotic, diamond-studded jewelry came on the very last day of the three-month exhibition in the Palazzo Ducale of Venice called the "Treasure of the Mughals and the Maharajahs." Two (and perhaps three) thieves brazenly ripped open a glass display case and slipped as if invisibly into the huge holiday crowd. Within literally seconds they had tucked into their pockets two earrings and a diamond brooch from the Sheik Al Thani collection, on loan to Venice from the royal family of Qatar. Strolling away, two of the thieves were photographed, but not captured. 

    Some of the 270 pieces of jewelry on view, inspired by and made in the Indian subcontinent, date from five centuries ago. Fortunately, the stolen items are contemporary, and consequently of less historical (and monetary) value than other items on view. Initially reported as a $1 million heist, the value of the stolen objects is now put at perhaps $360,000. (Watch it live in this Corriere del Veneto video taken from a security cameras here >>).

    The Fake Modigliani Issue

    Art theft takes other forms than outright theft, however. Twenty-one paintings from an exhibition at Palazzo Ducale in Genoa of 70 works attributed to Amedeo Modigliani have been seized as fakes. When the exhibition opened last March the Tuscan expert Carlo Pepi immediately identified the works as counterfeit, and experts now agree. In his defense, exhibition curator Rudy Chiappini insists that the works on view were all previously shown in other prestigious venues. But technical experts point out that canvas and pigment are unlike those in authentic Modigliani works and that the frames of the paintings are all of wood from the US or East Europe, with no relation to works by Modigliani, who lived between Italy and France.

    A problem with Modigliani is that no catalogue raisonné exists of his work. Christian Parisot, who had inherited the right to guarantee authenticity, was arrested in 2013 by Roman investigators for providing false authentications. The fallout from the Genoa fiasco has terrified Modigliani collectors worldwide, to the point that in the future, "There will be a counter-technical expertise report," as one commentator here predicted. At any rate the selling of phony Modigliani continues because, say experts, his paintings are popular, his life romantic, the style of his work lends itself to imitation, and, best of all, works attributed to Modigliani sell for vast amounts of money.

  • Facts & Stories

    Rubbish and Recycling

    ROME -- The holidays are over but not the outrage in Rome over the huge piles of rubbish, worse than ever because of the Christmas season. Boxes, gift wrappings, food scraps, dirty diapers, bottles, old suitcases and more still litter the roads, including in the historical center. Tourists on Via del Corso in the heart of Rome and on Via della Lungara in Trastevere had to slalom their way past giant overflowing rubbish bins and piles of rubbish. One amateur photographer even spotted a pig having a nice sidewalk meal on Christmas Day.

    This being the country that gave us Machiavelli, the rubbish also stinks of politics. The city administration of Rome, for the past year in the hands of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), is being blamed. This is currently Italy's largest single political party, with almost 30% of the potential vote as the country plunges toward electons in March. The increase in rubbish during the holidays is normal, said Pinuccia Montanari of the M5S, who heads city council office for the environment. "The system for collecting rubbish has held up, and we intervened bringing the critical situations back to the normal," she declared last week. On Facebook her party reported that, "With respect to the holiday period last year, over 1,000 more tons of rubbish were collected and sent off for treatment."

    While acknowledging that the rubbish situation is "critical," Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi blames the previous administration, headed by mayor Ignazio Marino of the Partito Democratico (PD), the party of former premier Matteo Renzi. She also blames Nicola Zingaretti, Lazio region governor, who has a past of association with the Partito Democratico (PD).  At the same time, the PD president of Rome's 2s district, Francesca Del Bello, has invited citizens not to pay the annual rubbish tax called the Tari.

    Behind the charges and counter-charges is the fact that Roman citizens, who normally produce 4,500 tons of refuse daily, during this holiday period have been chucking away some 5,000 tons a day -- far more than the median elsewhere in Italy. "If a Roman throws out 590 kilograms of refuse a year, in the rest of the country it is 480 kilos annually per person," according to La Stampa daily. The system is "already compromised system, so that, with just a few exceptional days, the bins are full and refuse is strewn all over the streets." At that point Gian Luca Galletti of the PD, Minister for the Environment, stepped in, saying that, "The capital of Italy cannot permit an emergency on the lines of what we are seeing."

    A crucial problem is that AMA, the company that manages rubbish removal in Rome, has been near bankruptcy. In addition, the high cost of conversion of garbage into useful materials via waste gasification for fuel and electricity have brought the system to a halt. It all used to be simple:  70,000 tons of Roman rubbish, unsorted, was sent by train twice weekly to Austria, where it was turned into power for homes there because Austria had a spare capacity at a waste-to-energy plant near Vienna. But in mid-December Austria turned back Roman garbage, which must now find a new incinerator. Under discussion: Tuscany, Reggio Emilia and the Abruzzo, but the costs are high. In the meantime, the rubbish remains in Rome.

    So what can be done? Citizens can and should do their part, with careful recycling and making an effort to consume less plastic. A study conducted by the governmental agency for the environment, Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale (ISPRA), shows sharp distinctions among the regions. Worst in terms of production of refuse Venice and Florence, which throw out one-third more garbage than does Turin. Next top generators of garbage are Bari and Rome.

    On the other hand, the tops for sorting paper, tin cans, plastic and organic waste. are Venice and Milan, both of which recycle over 57% of their waste,  and Florence, over 50%.  In Rome only 42% bother to recycle while trailing the pack is Palermo, barely 7%. The goal of 65% of the waste to be recycled remains distant. Sad to say, ISPRA itself has been at some risk of shutting down for lack of funds.

    For its onlune report for 2017, see www.isprambiente.gov.it/it/newsletter-1/online-il-rapporto-rifiuti-speciali-edizione-2017


  • President Sergio Mattarella, New Year's Eve

    President Mattarella and Italy - Plunging into 2018

    ROME -- Plunging into 2018, Italy has few certainties. The first is that national general elections will take place March 4, at the conclusion of the regularly scheduled five-year legislature, and under a new election law that harmonizes the vote for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. A second is that the Italian Constitution, voted 70 years ago, has withstood the test of time. The third and crucial consideration is that the country's guidance under President Sergio Mattarella is a guarantee for the nation's democratic future, at a time when post-election coalition governments are impossible to predict.

    Those elections are now only 60 days away. In what was one of the briefest year-end speeches ever delivered in Italian history, the President, speaking to the 10 million Italians who tuned their TV sets into his 10-minute New Year's Eve speech, called upon all the political parties involved in them to offer "adequate, realistic and concrete proposals." Italians vote at age 18, and Mattarella said he has confidence in those born in 1999 and voting for the first time: "I hope there will be a great participation." Still, he admitted concern over the risk of voter abstentionism, which could be high if the politicians pay scant heed to the problems of youth, for whom unemployment is "foremost among the most serious social issues."

    Mattarella had encouraging words for troubled times. "People have been talking about an Italy filled with resentment. For me that is not our nation, which in good measure is generous and shows solidarity. I have met so many people, proud to fulfill their duties and to help the needy." But in what amounted to a rap on the knuckles of the politicians leading the nation into the March elections, he concluded that the problems facing the nation will be overcome only if each does his share, beginning with those called upon to carry out their "institutional responsibilities."

    At the same time, "Democracy lives by its commitment to the present but is nourished upon both memory and a vision of the future," he said. Analyzing Mattarella's words, opinionist Stefano Folli said that, "This year one senses a general concern for the near future, you intuit that the Quirinal Palace is the new political and institutional centerpiece of the system." It always was just this in the past, but now there is the sense that the "crucial choices for navigation" will be made there -- that is, by Mattarella.

    Reactions from the political class were almost universally of praise. "These are words that do right by our democracy and in which we can all recognize ourselves and feel involved," said Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies, who just quit Matteo Renzi's Partito Democratico to join a new left splinter, Liberi e Uguali. Susanna Camusso, head of the CGIL union,  seized upon the president's words about unemployment: "A job for every family -- a dignified job that always brings rights and security."

    Nevertheless the comment by center-rightist Renato Brunetta of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia suggested underlying anxiety. For the March election he hopes, he said, for "a great show of democracy and huge participation," and that the forthcoming Parliament will be able to express a majority "capable of governing."

    The risk is of a three-way split with no single party or coalition achieving the necessary 40% for governing. Should that happen, and if no governing coalition is formed within a decent period, a second round of voting might be obliged in the autumn. A warning note is the German experience, where no new government has been formed in the three months since national general elections took place there last September.

    At present Italy too faces a three-way split, with Movimento 5 Stelle in the lead with around 30%. The rightist coalition of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini's Northern League now claims about the same. Just below that in the polls (which do not all agree) is the center-left led by Matteo Renzi, former premier, but weakened by splinter left groups.

    At the same time, not all the problems Italy faces are home grown. The lack of a pan-European approach to immigration is one. Another serious concern is that the former Communist states along with Austria are weakening the European Union through what the reputable opinionist Massimo Riva defines as "Chauvinistic nationalism that sometimes, without shame, evokes Nazi-Fascist nostalgia." In what is an "insidious threat" to today's unified Europe, those countries, in which democracy is new, are facing themselves off against the West European countries which have a longer and more solid democratic tradition.


  • Dario Franceschini (blue tie), heads of state museums
    Facts & Stories

    Italy in 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

    ROME -- It's easy to decide to make a list of the best and worst of Italy in 2017. The criteria is that the choice of good, bad and ugly (borrowing from the Sergio Leone film of 1966) should depend upon what is likely to bring lasting consequences.

    THE GOOD: Topping my personal list of the best of 2017 is the hard work toward preserving Italy's magnificent and unique cultural heritage, unique in the world, but also almost too vast to manage. This year has brought genuine improvements, thanks to private foundations and private citizens, but also -- surprise! -- to the much maligned government, whose Minister for Culture and Tourism is Dario Franceschini, Ferrara-born lawyer.

    When he was assigned the combined role culture-tourism, purists decried the duopoly. Beginning in 2014, Franceschini instituted a reform aimed at reinforcing and promoting the Italian heritage. But it has borne fruit, and outsiders have recognized his achievements: he was just awarded with the prestigious Legion d'Honeur by the French government.

    The results this closing year show a record number of museum visitors, up by 7 million (18.5%) in three years, and of ticket purchases, up 13.5% over the same period, with profits going to improvements including at Pompeii, where formerly shuttered buildings have been restored and this year reopened. Among his efforts was to promote off-the-beaten-track museums. It worked, and attendance to those lesser known museums outside of Rome, Florence and Venice has soared, including in the regions of Liguria, with museum visitors up by 23%; in Friuli Venezia, 19,2%; and Campania, 14%.

    THE BAD: And now, the worst of the year: the failure to address the deeply rooted problem of corruption, which has a link to the country's inefficient, sloppy bureaucracy. As a specialist in the area said to me, "If you are a businessman and you need a contract signed, and it can't get through the bureaucracy, you pay." To whom? As recent arrests of individuals from parties right and left have shown, to the bureaucrats themselves as well as to the kingpins of organized crime.

    THE UGLY: One of the worst events of the year was the government's fault: its failure to pass so far the Ius Soli bill that would have granted citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy or who had arrived at a very young age and grown up speaking Italian, attending Italian schools and knowing only Italy. Not only did Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) desert Parliament on the day when the vote for Ius Soli was to take place, but so did Matteo Renzi's own governing party, the Partito Democratico. The Ius Soli failure will be definitive unless voted by Dec. 29, when Parliament shuts down.

    THE GOOD: It is no surprise that pizza is now celebrated by UNESCO as a world heritage treasure. Italians consistently maintain the high level of their cuisine, beginning with raising crops with scientific care and cooking that respects their glorious tradition. What are called "0 kilometer" foodstuffs, grown and sold locally, are still readily available, from artichokes to wines and cheeses made from the milk of the sheep and goats you can see on the hillsides. It is also why the international media, who trek into Italy to interview centennarians, attribute the longevity to healthy diets, as well as to a family-centered world. A loss Dec. 26: innovative chef Gualtiero Marchesi died at age 87.

    THE BAD: An upsurge of youth violence is underway with gangs of youngsters 15 years old or so viciously attacking bus drivers and immigrants. Graffiti on Roman buses has also been blamed on a baby gang of kids from 10 to 13 years of age. Save for the crime underworld, this has traditionally been a nation where casual teenage violence was not the norm. Perhaps in 2018 the roots of this new phenomenon will be analyzed.

    THE UGLY: Although Rome's gorgeous Mayor Virginia Raggi of the M5S made a stunning appearance in an off-the-shoulder evening gown at the opening night of the opera, Rome itself has grown ugly with rubbish pile-up's, potholes and public transport that is visibly failing. A pitiful sign of the times: the companies that paid to advertise on public buses and trains rare placing fewer ads this year because (1) too many buses are broken down and don't run at all, and (2) when they do, they attract the worst sort of graffiti. Who wants your ad defaced? This income loss  means that the money to repair the buses and trains is not arriving.

    THE GOOD: Milan, which the Italians call "entrepreneurial humus," is the focal point for business, high fashion and high culture. The cradle of the Italian business culture has no fewer than eight important universities which enjoy international standing. "This city lives upon its business sense, which arose in an organized fashion so many years ago," said Prof. Maurizio Dallocchio of the Bocconi University, speaking at the conference Panorama d'Italia, held in Milan.

    THE BAD AND THE GOOD: The ruling Partito Democratico has splintered into at least four grouplets, leaving a drastically weakened center-left.  Luckily, ever since being named premier on Dec. 12, 2016, Paolo Gentiloni has shown himself to be as much the gentleman as his name evokes. Together with that other gentlemanly politician, Italy's twelfth President Sergio Mattarella, Gentiloni has held the political country together.


  • The Pantheon in Rome
    Facts & Stories

    Pricing the Pantheon: To Pay or not to Pay

    ROME -- Not everyone thinks that to pay 2 euros -- that is, $2.35 -- for entry into the Pantheon after May 2, 2018, is a brilliant idea. The payment, one euro less than in the original project launched last autumn, is the result of an agreement between church and state, signed Dec. 11 by Mons. Angelo De Donatis, vicar of the Diocese of Rome, and Dario Franceschini, Italian Culture Minister.

    Among those opposing paying a ticket to enter the ancient monument is Luca Bergamo, Rome's former culture commissar and today Deputy Mayor in the city administration led by the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). "At the price of going to jail I'm ready to chain myself to the Pantheon the very moment they start selling tickets," he announced Oct. 4. Bergamo is also on record saying that he believes that all museums and archaeological sites in Rome should allow visitors to enter free of charge.

    In the case of the Pantheon, with 7.4 million visitors in 2016, some of the resistance to paying entry is because this magnificent and beautifully preserved former Roman temple, completed under Hadrian around 125 AD, was Christianized into a church named St. Mary of the Martyrs in 608 AD. On the other hand, consider the cost of entry, 25 pounds sterling, or $33.41, into London's Westminster Abbey, similarly an historic church.

    Fact is, year in year out, maintenance of the Italian cultural heritage does not come for free. Visitors like the 2 million at the Uffizi last year pay entrance, but can damage the microclimate of a site that is hundreds of years old through people pressure, introduction of dust and raising the temperature by their presence. Paintings and sculptures must be kept clean and restored from time to time (and past unfortunate restorations repaired). Exterior costs are for maintaining roofing and keeping buildings free of vehicle pollution. Electronic security must be paid and guards, their salaries and pensions -- the Vatican alone, for instance, has 700 guards.

    Income from the heritage should suffice to pay all this. The so-called "valorization" of the heritage from cultural tourism reportedly amounts to 5.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and no one ignores  Italy has unique advantages in promotion of cultural tourism. Among all international tourist destinations, with over 51 million foreign visitors annually, Italy ranks fifth after France, the USA, Spain and China, but before Turkey, German and Great Britain.

    "Italy is without doubt among the countries vaunting the most obvious advantages, due to its culture: an extraordinay blend of landscape, archaeological sites, museums, folklore and popular traditions," in the words of Massimo Misiti of the Centro Studi Gianfranco Imperatori, writing in "L'Arte di produrre Arte, Competitività e innovazione nella Cultura e nel Turismo," the research volume published in 2017 by Marsilio for the non-profit Associazione Civita.

    Although foreign visitors actually spent less per capita than in the past, their numbers increased, and so the amount spent rose significantly between 2012 and 2016, from $37.6  billion to $42.3 billion, according to the Bank of Italy. Of these visitors, last year over three-quarters came for "personal reasons" like vacations (50%), work (25%), shopping (12%), and to see relatives and friends (almost 10%). Miniscule percentages came to study (under 1%) and for religious reasons (0.14), according to a 2016 study by the Italian state tourist agency ENIT.

    Again quoting the Civita researchers, despite its advantages, culture as an industry in Italy compared with metalmechanics or food production lags behind that in Germany and Great Britain, albeit ahead of France and Spain. Its weaknesses lie in the performing arts, publishing, communications and architecture. Still, private foundations and individuals are playing an ever more important role, according to Emmanuele Emanuele, The vice president of Civita, he cited Sottosopra!, a teaching project that introduces archaeology to children between four and ten years of age. The use of advanced technology "permits these youngsters to live an experience in a world that only some of them had even imagined," said Emanuele. In addition, electronic innovations will bring further advances in the cultural industry, he says. "The participation of the private social [networks] is ever more important in improving the quality of life for all and everyone."


  • Facts & Stories

    Looking Ahead, Nervously, to Political 2018

    ROME -- As the year winds down, Italy looks ahead nervously to political 2018. National general elections must take place by May 20, their final deadline, but may loom just 90 days from now, when Parliament shuts down. The reasons for the concern -- to some, anguish -- are countless. The Partito Democratico (PD) that has dominated the government for the past four years is weakened and shriveled. Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) has overcome temporary setbacks and has even improved its position, becoming Italy's largest single party. After a certain hiatus former Premier Silvio Berlusconi has returned to political activism. At the same time an unknown number of millennials will vote for the first time. Not least, when elections do take place, they will be under a new and untested election law.

    The most serious concern is that a three-way split appears almost inevitable. The three forces -- center-left, center-right, and Grillo's M5S -- seem locked into such a close tie that to build a functional governing coalition looks extremely difficult. Divisions within his party have weakened Renzi's PD, which now has three leftist splinters, one headed by former magistrate Pietro Grasso, Senate president, who quit the PD last month. Chamber of Deputies President Laura Boldrini is expected to join Grasso shortly. Renzi was given another black eye when Giuliano Pisapia, former Milan mayor, started his own splinter party but then quit, saying it was all too stressful. At the same time the present government's coalition partner Angelino Alfano announced he is resigning from Parliament.

    The center-right is similarly divided between Berlusconi's Forza Italia (FI) and Matteo Salvini's Lega (formerly the Lega Nord). Supposedly Berlusconi, 81, who by dint of legal problems is ineligible to run for office, is interviewing prestigious outsiders -- doctors, professors, lawyers -- for his party to present. Salvini is riding high on his anti-immigrant rhetoric that emulates Marine Le Pen's in France (although some here predict Salvini is starting to lose ground on this).

    Berlusconi and Salvini flirt with each other more off than on, and whether or not they could eventually form a coalition is an unknown. With his support on the rise, Berlusconi, if a vote were held today, would claim over 15%, while the Lega with 13% or so is tending to lose consensus.

    Facing off against these two grouplets, center-right and center-left, is the M5S, whose candidate for premier is Luigi Di Maio, all of 31 years old and the youngest vice president in history of the Chamber of Deputies. Latest polls give the party founded by former comedian Grillo between 27% and 29%, well ahead of the once more powerful PD, which now has 25% or less.

    The PD had been the largest single party ever since the last national general elections held in 2013. But just one year ago its Premier Matteo Renzi called a referendum that proved to be a flop. Renzi resigned as premier but stayed on as head of the PD. Asked by President Sergio Mattarella to replace him was the mild-mannered Paolo Gentiloni, Renzi's foreign minister. In sharp contrast to Renzi's self-confident ease, which some consider brazen, Gentiloni initially appeared insipid, and Time magazine for one headlined Dec. 14, 2016, "Don't expect it [his government] to last." Since then it has lasted, and voters now tend to regard Gentiloni with admiration, including for his more subtle approach. In popularity polls he tops the list of possible center-left candidates for premier.

    The new election law is nicknamed the "Rosatellum" for Ettore Rosato, the MP who first proposed it. It was passed this year after Italy's Constitutional Court (supreme court) raised objections about the previous proportional representation law, by which voters cast a ballot for the political party but not for individual candidates. That selection was made by all-powerful party leaders.

    The "Rosatellum" appears slightly flawed, however. First, it was forced through Parliament only thanks to a vote of confidence. Its critics add that almost two-thirds (61%) of the members of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate will still be selected proportionately by party leaders, and only 37% nominally, in the "person-by-person" system. (In both houses the remaining 2% vote is from overseas constituencies.)

    In addition, the latest demographic redistribution of Italy's 619 constituencies takes away six from the South and hands over six to the North, to the presumed advantage of Berlusconi and Salvini. The greatest number to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies will, in fact, be from the North, with Lombardy the single largest, with 85. Next is the Veneto with 50, and then Emilia-Romagna, 45. By comparison the Center-South will have less clout: Tuscany will have only 38 MPs, Lazio 58, Campania 60, and Sicily 52.

    Another unknown is the huge, untested "millennial vote" which affects the Chamber of Deputies (not the Senate, where the minimum age is 25). While fears are that these over 18-year-olds will simply not turn out to vote at all, six out of ten said that they will. Of these, almost 43% said they plan to vote for the left. In a poll of these first-time voters published in L'Espresso Dec. 10, the PD with 28% bested the M5S with under 20% while Berlusconi's Forza Italia claimed only 13.5%. The remaining parties -- and there were eight others -- showed that splinter groups are the rule -- and that building a governing coalition will be a challenge.


  • Facts & Stories

    Keeping from a Fall. The Colosseum

    ROME -- Back in the 8th century the English monk known as the Venerable Bede wrote these oft-quoted words:

    "While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand,

    When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;

    And when Rome falls -- the World."

    Most fortunately, the Colosseum is not falling despite violent earthquakes that damaged it in the years 442 and 508. In a particularly violent quake in 851, a huge side portion collapsed, as is clearly visible today. The stone vestiges of the disasters were carted away for the construction of other Roman buildings now considered monuments: Palazzo Venezia, Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Farnese and part of the Palazzi Capitolini (today's museum). Some Colosseum stones went to build, on the Tiber River, the Ripetta port and the Flaminia Bridge.

    By the end of this year the Colosseum will have hosted some 7 million visitors. A few were stupid, like those caught carving their initials into the stones. A few were demented, like the one calling himself "Batman," who said, before being carted away, that he wanted to overfly the Colosseum. A few were evil, like the pickpocket who demanded $50 to give back the mobile phone he'd stolen from a tourist. A few were and are homeless, who sleep on sheets of cardboard hard by the building. And many are hucksters hustling souvenirs. Although the fake centurions in costume have been finally disallowed, a new plan for parking tour buses is yet to come.

    Her participation in a book presentation in Rome Monday was archaeologist Alfonsina Russo's first public appearance since being named Colosseum director on Dec. 1, having bested 75 applicants, among them 15 foreign candidates. "Piazza del Colosseo has turned into a suq [Arab market],"she complained. "On this problem I intend to work toward legality. I want to show visitors to Italy that this is a civil nation." Still, this is the function of police and city authorities: "I am not the one who has to intervene," she stressed. "The city of Rome must take measures to clean up the area around the Colosseum and restore its legality."

    Russo, born in 1959, is specialized in classical archaeology and has been an official with the Ministry of Culture since 2009. She has worked on sites in Greece and, in Italy, in Molise and Lazio. While superintendent for archaeology for Southern Etruria, she launched a project called Experience Etruria, which drew town administrations in Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria to work together in promoting their cultural heritage sites.

    In recent months the Colosseum has been the object of an ambitious reform that has increased the area for visitors, previously limited to the first three levels to its fourth and fifth, where a terrace 120 feet high offers for the first time a unique panoramic vision of Rome.

    Russo will participate in tending to a broader Archaeological Park created last January that extends to the Roman Forum, the Palatine and the Domus Aurea. "We don't intend to detach the archaeological area from Rome, but will promote it," said Culture Minister Dario Franceschini. Within the year it too will have a new director, he added.

    For Russo, "It is clear that it's one thing to be the superintendent who has to tend to the protection, valorization and to the other problems of the Colosseum." Within the new situation, by contrast: "To be the director who will concentrate only on the critical central area strengthens my position," she said. "I want the Colosseum to be open to the Romans, to families, to young people." She listed her other goals "on the model of the recent reforms at Pompeii": more decorum in general, keeping visitors from jumping the line, and opening other Colosseum areas that have been closed for decades.

    Restoration of the facade of the Colosseum came thanks to the $29.6 million given by Diego Della Valle of the Tod's Group (shoes, clothing), who once told me that he had to pressure three different cabinet ministers into accepting his sponsorship. "We showed that private businessmen can sustain a great restoration project without having the least return...There is a part of the business world that desires to participate in the country's revival, whose cultural offering is an extraordinary national strength." In fact, only a very small sign mentions his contribution.

    Still, the polemics persisted. Just a year ago, the restored exterior -- important to avoid the possible collapse of a wall -- was formally dedicated in the presence of then Premier Matteo Renzi. But the Italian finance courts nevertheless tried to limit Tod's right to use of the Colosseum image and complained about a one-month delay in the restoration work. Still, since then the Della Valle-funded restoration was extended to the underground areas of the Colosseum and to a services area that by next year will shift today's from within the  building to its exterior.


  • Giorgio and Clio Napolitano with Pope Franciscus

    Italy's Grand Old Man

    ROME -- In an era characterized by world figures of minor dimensions, former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano looms large. Born in Naples back in 1925, at ninety-two this life-time Senator and twice President of Italy is vital and surprisingly sturdy both intellectually and physically. Last week journalist Mario Calabresi found Napolitano surrounded by newspapers, magazines and books in his office in Palazzo Giustiniani, across the street from the Senate a stone's throw from Piazza Navona.


    "Italy," said Napolitano in the interview published by La Repubblica, "faces serious phenomena, complex and without precedent." Urging reduction of the public debt and "interventions" on public spending, Napolitano had warm praise for the work of Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank since 2011. "We cannot simply wait for economic growth reduce our public debt gradually," he said, echoing Draghi. "We must put our fiscal house in order and build further guarantees for the future."


    His generous praise for Draghi's views on fiscal probity and public debt were in  contrast to recent harsh criticism for the central banker from former Premier Matteo Renzi, the head of the Partito Democratico (PD). "This just may signal the kiss of death for Mario Draghi," commented the rightist "Libero." The daily, which dubbed the interview "catatonic," attacked Napolitano for openly criticizing the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and the (formerly) Northern League headed by Matteo Salvini. "Libero" also assailed Napolitano's criticism of "populist and reactionary" movements that sow the seeds of prejudice and "demonize reasonable political compromise."


    Senator Napolitano's primary focus was Germany, however. Mentioning the "profound crises" in East Europe, and especially Poland and Hungary, he said that Angela Merkel has never before had to face such difficulties within her own party. Nevertheless, "Without a positive solution for the German crisis, Europe has few prospects," said Napolitano. "Still, to find a substitute for her strikes me as rather hypothetical just now. I don't see who else can untie the knots that keep the Germans from forming a [governing] majority."


    The background of the man who served as president of Italy not once but twice is literally extraordinary. Napolitano holds honorary degrees from the Sorbonne, Oxford, the Hebrew University at Jerusalem and the Complutense University of Madrid as well as from numerous Italian universities.  In 2006 Napolitano was elected Italian President with 543 votes and, in 2013, re-elected, this time with 738 votes.


    When no candidate was accepted by the Chamber and Senate, to break the stalemate he was asked to serve a second term and accepted with the proviso that, at the appropriate time, he would resign. From the crusty right came criticism that he would stay on for a total of 16 years but in fact he resigned in January of 2015, paving the way for the election of today's president, Sergio Mattarella, the brother of Piersanti Mattarella, Sicilian politician murdered by Mafia Cosa Nostra in 1980.


    A 20-year-old law student in Naples during World War, Napolitano sided with the partisans against the Nazi German occupation. At the end of the war he joined the Italian Communist party (PCI), which elected him to the Chamber of Deputies in 1953. Among his several books is "Interview with the PCI" written in 1975 with the leftist British writer Eric Hobsbawm, and translated into 10 languages.


    Napolitano remained a party member, always representing his home town, Naples, until the PCI was dissolved in early 1991. Throughout his long political career Napolitano was an unusual party member, however, distinguished for being ever open to dialogue, including with those assumed to be adversaries, and I had the pleasure of meeting him at an official US event in 1975. Napolitano was a member of the Italian delegation to the NATO Assembly (1984 - 92 and 1994 - 96), which dealt with the Atlantic community relations, from Mediterranean security to questions of human rights.


    In 1978, Napolitano traveled to the US to lecture at Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and Princeton Universities and at foreign affairs institutes in Washington, DC, becoming the first Italian Communist to be invited in this way, rather than as the member of a political delegation. Returning from the U.S. he published an article in the Communist monthly "Rinascita" describing his American sojourn. "From my first day there in New York I have been focussing on the press, much better than I'd imagined," he begins. At a meeting at "Newsweek" magazine editors, "We spoke of the problems of the phenomenon of terrorism, its causes, its international dimension and relevance and virulence in Italy."


    After speaking with reporters from the "New York Times," "Washington Post" and other US media, Napolitano commented that, "I am always struck by the sense of the essential and concrete in these informal, off-the-record discussions... The questions are sharp, they go right to the point."He praised the US for not simplifying Italian terrorism, but for trying to understand "its degeneration from Marxism and the Communist movement into ideological delirium and the most barbarian crimes."

  • Mural portraying Galileo Galilei
    Art & Culture

    Galileo Galilei in Padova: "The Best Years of My Life

    PADOVA -- This is the city where, for no less than 18 years, one of Italy's most brilliant citizens, Galileo Galilei, taught university students mathematics and mechanics. Padua (hereafter Padova) was already famous throughout Europe for its deep culture and venerable university, which was what attracted Galileo there. For him, "Mathematics is the alphabet in which God wrote the Universe." Still, Galileo was incredibly multi-faceted, interested in philosophy as well as science and math. Not only was he beginning to study the Milky Way, but, to round out his professorial stipend, in Padova Galileo also wrote a treatise on military fortifications and, for money, horoscopes for private individuals.

    Today, Padova celebrates Galileo in an imaginative exhibition just opened at the Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, "Rivoluzione Galileo: L'Arte Incontra la Scienza" (The Galileo Revolution: Art Encounters Science). Born in Pisa in 1564, Galileo began his studies there but went on briefly to Florence and, in 1592, to Padova. There, we are told, he took benefit from the  climate of relative religious tolerance permitted by the Venetian Republic, of which Padova was a part. These were, Galileo said later, "the best years of my entire life." Besides teaching, Galileo gave private lessons to illustrious locals including two future cardinals and at least two princes.

    In the exhibition are some 200 pieces, which illustrate the fundamental passage from the age of astrology to astronomy -- that is, the skies before and after Galileo's discoveries of the mountains of the moon. "The exhibition is a voyage in art history about Galileo, scientist and man of letters, mathematician and artist, lover of the stars and of Ariosto" (Ariosto, the author of the drama in verse "L'Orlando Furioso"), writes Raffaele De Santis in a review of the exhibition.

    On view is a 24-foot-long telescope made in the 1660s by pioneer optician and astronomer Giuseppe Campani, who was born near Spoleto before setting up his pioneering laboratory in Rome. Besides watercolors by Galileo himself, there are poetic (if not scientifically realistic) visions of the sky painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Brueghel the Younger and Rubens.

    On April 12, 1633, Galileo was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition, the Holy Office (Santi Uffizi). In an article for the journal Church History last year, Prof. Henry Kelly of UCLA wrote that, at that trial, Galileo said that after 1616 he had never considered heliocentrism to be possible. “Galileo was clearly stretching the truth... Admitting otherwise would have increased the penance he was given, but would not have endangered his life, since he agreed to renounce the heresy."

    From the inquisitors came no threat of torture, says Prof. Kelly. Still, Galileo abjured but was found guilty of heresy on June 22, 1633. Ever since then writers have invented words for him, such as this version by Italian writer Primo Levi (1919 - 1987), the author of "Se questo è un uomo": "I have had to bow down and say that I did not see what I saw." Galileo was first held in the home of the Archbishop of Siena and then under house arrest at Arcetri on the Florentine Hills, where he died on January 8, 1642.

    Exhibition visitors can also call in at those places in Padova associated with Galileo. After his arrival in Padua in 1592 Galileo lived for nine years in the House of Gianvincenzo Pinelli, Galileo's close friend. Pinelli was a humanist philosopher. (Humanistic studies are still taught including at the University of John Cabot in Rome.)

    From 1601 through 1610 Galileo lived in a house across from a school, the G. Pascoli, on a street now named for Galileo. While observing the sky from his window and from the garden, he discovered the the moons of Jupiter. Another suggested visit is to Palazzo del Bo, which housed the University of Padova after 1493. The palazzo, with newly restored frescoes, still houses some university offices and the world's oldest anatomical theater for medical students.

    Galileo's two children, Livia and Gianvincenzo, were baptized in the little Church of Santa Caterina on Via Cesare Battisti, in which the baptismal certificate of one is on view. The church, which dates from the 14th century, was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1976 and recently restored. During the middle ages a college was attached to the church, and on Nov. 25 each year a university procession was held to inaugurate the academic year.

    A fifth stop on the Galileo itinerary at Padua is the Vecchia Canonica, where the priest Don Paolo Gualdo, rector of the Padua cathedral (Duomo), met regularly with Galileo. And then there is the library of the Padova Seminary, the Biblioteca, in whose collection is a precious first edition of "Dialogue on Maximum Systems" of 1632, with handwritten notes by Galileo in the margins. Visitors are also encouraged to call at the Museum of Medicine (MUSME), where talks are offered on Galileo's influence on the science of medicine; his own first university years were in medical studies.

    Curators are Carlo Federio Villa and Stefan Weppelmann. Sponsors of the exhibition, through March 18, 2018, are the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo in collaboration with the University of Padova. For further information, see www.mostrarivoluzionegalileo.it

    As an afterthought, in late 1991, Pope John Paul II oversaw the Church's rectifying the persecution that forced Galileo to recant. See: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html