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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Digging
    Life & People

    Worth Their Weight in Gold: Italy's Truffle Treasure

    ROME -- During this incredibly rainy autumn we were left for a time without electricity, water and, for two days, no internet. Plus a lightning bolt blew out our hot water heater, yet to be fixed. But never mind.  For truffle hunters, this year's soppy ground is all to the good. Truffles, these tiny bits of aromatic delight, live underground, where the more moist the dirt, the better. The wet earth means abundance, and also lower prices than last year. The prized white truffle, which presently costs up to $400 per hectogram (3.2 ounces), costs about $100 less than in 2017.

     

    This reporter has hunted truffles in Gubbio. Some years ago we asked the Contessa who owned the truffle territory just how she would describe the scent. "Ah," she said with a soft sigh, "it is like Chanel Number 5."

     

    The truffle season begins in early autumn and continues into early spring, but is now at its peak, and truffle celebrations are taking place throughout North and even Central Italy.

    The most prized white truffle stars at the 88th edition of the annual International Truffle Fair at Alba in Piedmont, which began Oct. 6 and ends on Nov. 25 (see >>. ). Needless to say, recipes matter, and among the events at that Fair are "The Ultimate Truffle Dinners," prepared by outstanding chefs. One of these is Michelangelo Mammoliti, 30, who was born near Alba and learned to cook at famous French restaurants before returning home to Piedmont. Among the specialties of this Michelin starred chef: a truffled pecan buttermilk cake.

     

    If Alba wins the most attention, truffle fairs take place elsewhere. In the Marches in Central Italy, the Appenine town of Acqualagna, near Pesaro and Urbino, hosts its 53d annual National White Truffle Fair. This year its new Truffle Museum - Truffle Experience was inaugurated, with digital displays, documentaries and, needless to say, the possibility to taste delicacies prepared with truffle. Another truffle festival, the Tartòfla, takes place near Bologna at Savigno, on weekends through Nov. 18, with market stalls, lectures in the town theater, special menus in local restaurants and tastings in the main piazza. Near Perugia at Calestano is yet another local fair, this one dedicated to the black truffles characteristic of central Italy. Here, in addition to stands and special foods, on offer on Sundays are guided visits to the places where truffles are found. Visitors are accompanied by truffle-hunters and their dogs, see >>.

     

    For truffle hunters, skillfully trained dogs, and especially (but not exclusively) hounds and English pointers, are a necessity. From puppyhood they are fed tiny bits of truffle. Later, scuttling through the woodlands of willows, poplars and linden trees, the dogs are able to smell the rich scent, even when the truffle is hidden as much as a foot underground. At sight of the canine excitement, the hunter, armed with a spade, runs to dig up the buried treasure.

     

    Black truffles are abundant even near Rome. Here the season is longer than in the snowy North, and black truffles are found year round save in the very hottest weeks of summer. Expert truffle hunters Matteo Lavorini and Matteo Mazzarini accompany visitors from Rome -- North and South Americans, English, Australians -- in small groups on truffle-hunting expeditions with dogs (their website see: Matt&Matt Truffle Experience). Most of these visitors are from abroad, and so cannot take truffles home with them on cruise ships or airplanes, so, with the newly found truffles, a luncheon is prepared and served. One of these lunches featured no less than nine courses of dishes laced with truffles.

     

    The Matt&Matt truffle hunts take place in Northern Rome at Canale Monterano, famous for its church by Bernini and at Tolfa, a town founded by the Etruscans. At our own Trevignano Romano (it too originally an Etruscan city) the truffle hunters climb the densely wooded Monte Rocca Romana where, incidentally, there is also a falconry park.

     

    Should you receive a truffle for Thanksgiving or Christmas, how would you serve it? Personally I prefer a pasta -- ricotta cheese-stuffed ravioli especially -- laced with cream and scattered atop with truffles in the thinnest possible scrapings. Far easier and more accessible are the potted truffle sauces now available for spreading atop chicken fillets or, for an aperitivo, on crackers or toasted bread. Buon appetito!

  • Uffizi in Florence
    Op-Eds

    Italy, Cradle of Culture, Curtails Spending on its Heritage

    ROME -- Italy's cultural heritage outshines that of any other European nation, but this has not prevented the government from slashing its budget for heritage maintenance. As is, Italian families spend only 6.6% of their finances on culture, well below Sweden, with 11%, and Hungary and Spain. The current cuts, which total $6,263 million, eliminate  subsidies formerly provided within the national budget.  Autonomous museums will lose $26 million in subsidies; movie houses, which have ever fewer audiences, will lose $4.5 million, meaning that some will close. Publisher will lose $427,000 in subsidies. And chopping away $141,000 from book stores is also harsh because of their continuing losses and stores shutting due to the competition from on-line publishing.

     

    Another $22.7 million that had been planned as a cultural incentive for youth has also been slashed. The goal of the bonus of Euro 500 ($570), which has been offered to every 18-year-old for the past couple of years, was to encourage young people toward "cultural consumption" by subsidizing their purchases of books and tickets to concerts, exhibitions, the theater, museums and such.

     

    Up to now at least 550,000 young people had taken advantage of the program, which was "an investment in our youth," said Senator Andrea Marcucci of the Partito Democratico, president of the cultural commission of the Senate. For Dorina Bianchi, Undersecretary of the Culture Ministry, "A country like Italy really has to invest in its youth. It is in our interest: culture and tourism are an economic lever."

     

    Minister for Culture and Tourism is Alberto Bonisoli, 56. Running as a Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) candidate in the March elections, he won under 14%, but was nevertheless appointed to the present cabinet of the "Yellow-Green government," as it is called for the colors of the M5S and the Lega respectively. At Milan's prestigious business school the Bocconi, Bonisoli taught "innovation management," a course intended to show how to combine a product with the business process and organizational innovation, so as to enhance creativity in development.  He serves as president of Coordinamento istituzioni AFAM non Statali, an association of non-governmental institutions which include private schools of art, fashion and design. And he is also the former director of the Nuova Accademia delle Belle Arti in Milan.

     

    Bonisoli considers tourism "the Cinderella of the past governments" and, according to the Italian press, is hoping to entice more high quality tourism. "Culture and tourism in the future will be the chief providers of jobs, and for this reason one must foster the formation and valorization of a high preparation in, say, music," he is quoted as saying. He is also on the record as planning to invest at least 1% of the GDP, "if not more," in the cultural heritage, and to foster the "protection and digitalization of the heritage and in the culture scattered on our territory, and in particularly the peripheries" -- that is, the outskirts.

     

    His experience, however, appears limited as regards heritage management, which becomes ever more difficult with the budget cuts that would be tough in any country, but are literally stunning in Italy, with its vast and complex history, from its Neolithic settlements to ancient Roman artifacts and roads and cities through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, its 19th century historical sites, works of art and libraries, and, not least, its 20th century cinema heritage.

     

    Decisions on the radical cuts are not yet definitive, however, and Paolo Ambrosini, who is president of the principal association of book dealers, says he plans to protest to the cultural commissions of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. "I'm not speaking of just the culture subsidies," he said in an interview. "I am particularly concerned with the cuts in budgets for schools, research institutes and universities."

     

    Indeed, Italy is among the European countries which now spends less than ever for education. According to the pan-European statistics agency Eurostat, the percentage of GDP Italy devoted to education was 3.9% in 2016, the most recent data available for comparative results. Of the 20 European Union countries in the classification, the median spent was 4.7% of GDP. Within the EU, Denmark and Sweden invest the most in its youth while Italy, standing third from the EU lowest and below Spain, was among those investing the least.

     

  • Op-Eds

    Voices Raised in Political Boxing Match

    ROME -- Major elections take place only next May in the 27 member states of the European Union, including Italy. Nevertheless political voices are being raised in Italy these days, beginning in Rome Saturday, where thousands turned out for a protest demonstration against Mayor Virginia Raggi. "Roma dice basta" (Rome has had enough), chanted the crowd jamming into the Capitoline square under the office of the mayor, who was elected by the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S or Five Star Movement). A banner written in Latin asked, "Raggi, when are you going to stop abusing of our patience?" Another warned, "Raggi, a pothole is going to swallow you!"

     

    Of these there are plenty, and It is hard to underestimate the Romans' outrage. Potholes in streets have literally killed youngsters riding on motor scooters. Rubbish bins continue to overflow into the streets, attracting rats and even wild boar. A huge number of unmaintained buses have caught fire. A carelessly maintained moving staircase at busy Piazza della Repubblica, just one stop from the train station, collapsed, seriously injuring more than 20 Russian soccer fans, three of whom remain in serious condition in hospital. Further igniting Roman protests was the vicious rape-murder of a deeply troubled girl of 16 on drugs, whose body was found in an abandoned building on Rome's outskirts used by drug pushers.

     

    On the government level, Mario Draghi spoke Thursday in Frankfurt about Italy's proposed financial plan, obligatory for EU approval, but no sooner presented than opposed by the EU because, among other things, it hikes up the already substantial public debt. Called to speak on this was Draghi,  the esteemed Italian economist (his PhD is from MIT), who has served as president of the European Central Bank (ECB) since 2011. "It is not the mandate of the European Central Bank to play the role of mediator [between Italy and the EU]. I am confident -- not very confident, but confident -- that plain common sense will lead toward convergence upon some sort of agreement" between them. Draghi also called upon the Italian politicians to calm down.

     

    The EU commission granted the M5S and its governing partner, the Lega, headed by Matteo Salvini, three weeks to make changes in that budget plan, dubbed by the press "the deficit of discord," but both M5S and Lega refuse, saying it remains as is. "The maneuver [budget plan] is already just right," declared Salvini. "Our  financial maneuver is not to be touched." However, Italy's unhealthy economic situation, including the maneuver with its proposed increase in the national debt, already 132% of GDP, appears dicey enough that the spread between Italian and German interest rates bounced up, and ratings agencies Moody's and Standard and Poor bounced Italy downwards, below France, Germany and even Spain.

     

    Di Maio, Salvini's governing partner in the "Yellow - Greens" (the coalition in political shorthand), also defends that budget plan. "We are going forward with it -- history is not written with 'if's'." The EU criticism brought scathing remarks from Di Maio's M5S colleague Rocco Casalino: "The M5S is ready for a huge vendetta.... Next year will be devoted to getting rid of a swarm of functionaries in the Ministry of Economics and Finance.... with knives. The real problem is that there are people in the Economics Ministry who have been there for decades. They are the old system, the have everything in their hands." Casalino's point is that these functionaries allegedly resist cutting costs, which inhibits the M5S from keeping its election promises for costly subsidies and pension revisions. And so, warned Casalino, "We will spend 2019 with knives, cutting out these pieces of shit." Needless to say, his words triggered a firestorm of protests. (For the full text see >>)

     

    Economics Minister Giovanni Tria, who is in open disagreement with the two deputy premiers, not to mention with Casalino, is trying to straddle a middle ground between EU and his government. "We cannot maintain the level of the spread at 320 for a very long time because it raises problems for our banking system, the weakest part," Tria acknowledged Oct. 27. And despite the two deputy premiers' hard line, some wiggle room just may be possible, according to press reports here.

     

    U.S. economist Dr. Allen Sinai, who heads Decision Economics in New York, believes that the EU is being too hard on Italy and too short sighted. For Sinai, Germany is being too rigid in forcing Italy into strict observance of the national debt ceiling. "Like other countries, Italy should be allowed the necessary flexibility to be able to adopt expansionist policies that lead to economic growth," he said in an interview in La Repubblica Oct. 28. The "fixed parameters are too rigid" , he said, and do not reflect economic reality.

  • Art & Culture

    Rome Museum Honors Rino Barillari, Fellini's "King of the Paparazzi"

    ROME -- It was Federico Fellini in the days of Rome's "Dolce Vita" who dubbed photographer Rino Barillari "King of the Paparazzi" -- and incidentally popularized the term. This month Rome's prestigious Maxxi museum honors King Barillari's 60-year career with an exhibition of his photos. Their taking brought him 76 smashed cameras and sent him to hospital emergency rooms no less than 163 times, with 11 broken ribs and one knife stab.

    Saverio ("Rino") Barillari was born Feb. 8, 1945, at Limbadi, near Vibo Valentia in Calabria. From there he left home, penniless, at age 14 to seek his fortune in Rome. Sleeping in the streets, he eventually earned enough to be able to buy, "on a whim" (his words),  a used Comet Bencini camera and begin work as a "paparazzo." He says he then "joined the wandering photographers" around the Trevi Fountain area and, to make ends meet, took photos of tourists there.

    The word "paparazzo" is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a "freelance photographer who aggressively pursues celebrities for the purpose of taking candid photographs." The word was actually invented by Fellini, who, in his 1959 movie, "La Dolce Vita", gave the name "Paparazzo" to the photographer character who accompanied the character of the scandal-mongering journalist Marcello Rubini. (For  a lively synthesis from the finale of that movie, see on youtube)

    On view on view in Rome's Maxxi museum are 100 pictures from Barillari's personal archive pf 400,000 photographs. The Dolce Vita actors and actresses of the Fifties are represented, along with examples of his famous scoops, such as the finding of a trove of photos of kidnap victim Paul Getty III; the personal effects of Pier Paolo Pasolini after his murder; a prison revolt in the Rebibbia prison in Rome; and Red Brigades terror attacks including of the dead bodyguard of Aldo Moro right after that kidnapping.

    From the outset the clients for Barillari's celebrity Via Veneto photos were the Associated Press, UPI, and the Italian press agency ANSA. But after the revolutionary year of 1968 he also photographed deeply serious Mafia and terrorist attacks in Rome, published in powerful local newspapers like Il Messaggero and Il Tempo. From those tough old days he continued shooting photographs, and this reporter ran into him frequently. Later in life he and his works were celebrated, to the point that the Xi'an International University of China named him professor of photography, and he was also named a "Commendatore" of the Order of the Italian Republic.

    In a recent interview with Candida Morvillo in the daily Corriere della Sera, Barillari was asked what it was like to be a Dolce Vita photographer. "It was thrilling -- one night I wept hearing Frank Sinatra singing in the street, but afterward there was a fistfight -- that's important, it was an instant of provocation; if the individual didn't want the photo, you got the best shot when you made him get mad." In this way Barillari enraged Peter O'Toole, whose punch in the face cost Barillari two stitches. "He was married, but I'd caught him with someone else, Barbara Steele. Later we made peace -- these folks knew that they needed us. Today they dodge us: they just go on TV and cuss, and think they're Oscar material," he told Morvillo.

    Actress Claudia Schiffer's bodyguard once tossed a bucket of water on him, because, as Barillari explaied, he had been trying to see if (as someone had written) her thighs showed cellulite. In yet another notorious incident, actress Sonia Romanoff shoved an ice cream cone into his face: "That morning she'd married an old geezer, and that evening I caught her holding hands with someone else."

    What about today's photography? "The smart phone is the agony of a paparazzo. But selfies ruin the individual because they do not tell the truth," he replied.

    Curator is Martino Crespi, based on idea of Massimo Spano and Giancarlo Scarchilli,  with an interactive sound installation by Federico Giangrandi for the Editorial Broup Bixio NEAR. Exhibition organizer is the Istituto Luce Cinecittà, with Camilla Cormanni, and with the contribution of the Ministry of Culture, and sponsors Master Card, Champagne Pommery and SIAE.

  • No TAP Commitee
    Op-Eds

    When Money Talks, Even for Governments, Who Listens?

    ROME -- Money talks, even for governments, but is anyone listening? The clash between Italy's prudent Minister for the economy and finance Giovanni Tria and the top political players overshadows all other arguments within the government.  The cast of characters: Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega, is both deputy premier and Interior Minister. Luigi Di Maio, head of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), is his co-deputy premier and Economic Development Minister. Formally above and negotiating between these is Giuseppe Conte, window-dressing premier whose role is to keep the peace between Salvini, the ever more powerful head of the far-right Lega, and Di Maio, who heads the rebellious, anti-establishment M5S, noteworthy these days for its downward slip in the polls.

     

    Worth noting too is that the usually cautious Reuters news agency summarized this clash in just three points: government "handouts" to the (presumably) poor; dropping the pension age; and raising money by increasing the national debt. Taking these points one by one, in his campaigning Di Maio promised handouts, and the upsurge in Salvini's popularity (now over 32% in the polls) has reinforced Di Maio's need to remain in the game. Secondly, a drop in the pensionable age would theoretically make room for young people to take the vacant jobs and save the government money -- just how much is uncertain. Thirdly, achieving some of the government's goals, such as the handouts, will require huge outlays of money. This implies borrowing, which would boost the gap between Italy's GDP and its deficit; at 132%, it is already the second highest in Europe after Greece.

     

    In a warning speech delivered at the annual meeting of the World Bank Group held last week in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, the highly respected Mario Draghi urged Italian politicians, in an obvious reference to the loudly anti-EU Salvini, to "calm down with the tone" in discussing the pro's and con's of the euro. Draghi is president of the European Central Bank and a former governor of the Central Bank of Italy. "Budgetary expansion in a country of high indebtedness becomes much more complicated if the euro is put into question," said Draghi, "[bringing] real damage as companies and households are then forced to pay higher interest rates on loans." By way of response Alberto Bagnai, a Lega senator who heads the Senate Finance Committee, tweeted that it is Draghi who should "calm down and stop mentioning the euro."

     

    The government's response to the criticism that it risks sinking ever more deeply into debt is to propose a bill dropping the highest monthly pension payment from the present E4,500 ($5,200) to E3,500 (c. $4,000). The highest earners of those accepting the lowered pensionable age would lose up to 20% of what was originally promised; those with lower annual earnings would lose from 10% to 3%, depending upon income.

     

    Speaking at a piazza rally in Rivarola Canavese near Turin, Di Maio said on Oct. 13 that by dropping the so-called "gilded pensions," the state would recover "over one billion euros." Tito Boeri, who directs the state pensions agency INPS, challenges the one billion euro figure, however, saying that it would involve 30,000 people and bring in no more than E150 million, or $173.4 million. Nevertheless the Conte-Di Maio-Salvini government is expecting the measure to become law within coming days and take effect immediately.

     

    Another tough issue facing the government is work on the gas pipeline known as the "TAP" (Gasdotto Trans-Adriatico) that goes from Azerbaijan to Italy, ending at Melendugno on the Adriatic Sea in Puglia. Although last April a government prosecutor ordered work on the TAP to be halted because damaging to the environment, beginning with an orchard of 448 olive trees damaged by planned construction of a tunnel through which the pipeline would pass.

     

    Di Maio's M5S had originally called for halting work on the pipeline, but now his governing partner the Lega is demanding work resume on it immediately. "The TAP is fundamental, but will not bring down the government," said Giancarlo Giorgetti, Undersecretary to the Premier and Lega spokesman, speaking at Arcore in August.

     

    "But it is completely useless public work," protested Minister for the South Barbara Lezzi of the M5S. In promoting resumption of work on it, the government is "traitorous."

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    When Tourism Becomes more Burden than Bounty

    ROME - Until now, tourism -- cultural as well as seaside and culinary -- has been hailed as Italy's magic beam, transporting the country beyond the losses from runaway factories and ever more present robots which replace workers. Nevertheless a small but serious reaction against the vast influx of tourists is becoming ever more evident, with protests over pollution and overcrowding. In Rome alone every day over 800 gigantic buses bring tourists in and out of town, in what is called in the popular press "a constant invasion," without a seasonal break.

     

    An example that enraged the city fathers was the killing, by one of these outsized buses on Saturday, Oct. 6, of the deputy prefect of Rome, the distinguished Giorgio De Franceschi, 54. The accident took place on Via Cavour only a short distance from the Colosseum. With his wife, who survived, De Franceschi was crossing legally in a downpour on a strip of white stripes, which theoretically oblige a driver to stop. Weeping in desperation, the driver said that he had pressed his foot on the brake, but the bus simply did not stop. Just last July a woman of 22 carrying a load of boxes was run down and killed by another tour bus on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a busy thoroughfare near Piazza Navona.

     

    By way of official reaction, Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) announced a plan to take effect Jan. 1, which divides Rome into three sectors. Zone 1, which covers the downtown historical center located within existing ZTL barriers, is to be off limits to the big tour buses (called, by the way, torpedoni, or big torpedoes) save for those carrying children on school outings. To make this more serious the tariffs for Zones 2 and 3 are being hoisted up by 1,700%. The tour buses' annual permits are to be replaced by  tickets that can cost up to $300 for each entry; the price is to vary depending upon how much the the vehicle pollutes (!) Needless to say, the higher fees will be paid in the end by the tourists. This plan, which was to take effect last summer, was postponed by six months after pressure from the tourist industry. The lame excuse for this delay, according to an official city spokesman, is that: "Tour industry programs are sold the previous year."

     

    Rome attracts some 40 million tourists annually, and gives work to 150,000, generating over 10% of the city's income. To survive, the big buses tend to drive in lanes where they are not permitted, and as a result in a year some 4,500 drivers were given tickets; another 13,000 tickets were handed out for other misdemeanors.

     

    The financial advantages of mass tourism are obvious. In 2016 alone, according to the Ministry for Culture and Tourism, entry fees for museums, archaeological sites and monuments brought in E174,988 , an increase of E20 million over the previous year. All told, Italian tourism contributes 11% of the GDP and employs 12% of the work force. But the problems remain, such as how to bring tourists near the Vatican. During the Jubilee Year of 2000 a system of mini-buses took over from the "torpedoes", which were left parked in the outskirts. A revival of this is suggested, but fails to consider the gigantic increase in Roman tourism in the past 19 years.

     

    Perhaps even more than Rome, Venice is particularly stressed. "For cities like Venice and other delicate sites like the Cinque Terre, I think we have to make tourism year round rather than just seasonal," said Evelina Christillin, president of the national tourism agency ENIT, speaking last summer to Sputnik News. "We have to explain to the tourists -- and here digital networks can be useful -- that tourism must be sustainable." This is simple in museums, where entries can be limited.  The Italian infrastructure must be improved, including train lines, she added.

     

    So who are the tourists? The number of Chinese tourists has soared in importance, and US tourism is also rising. Still, 70% are European, and especially Russian these days. According to www.fourtourismblog.it,  hit-and-run tourism is soaring. Back in 2015 each tourist spent 4.1 days here while this had dropped to just 3.6 days in 2015. For the future, according to that blog, the tourists will be the millennials -- that is, the under 30s, who will be seeking "the new, the diverse, the authentic experience." And greater attention should be paid to the disabled; on this, see ENEA0s Progetto STARe >>

  • Op-Eds

    Sergio Mattarella, 77, "Prudently Presidential"

    ROME -- Just like in Italy, in Germany, France, the US, the UK and elsewhere, voters are at loggerheads, and the loyalty to those old political parties that helped to weld people together show disarray, when not simply wiped off the chalkboard. As a result, ever since last Sunday, when huge and enthusiastic crowds turned out for Partito Democratico (PD) rallies in Milan and Rome, center-leftists have been crowing. They point out, in addition, that the crowds were often of young people with no memory of the political Italy of four decades back, characterized by old-line political parties.

     

    Still, the fact is that political allegiances have shifted from the party to the personal, and this makes of particular interest a brand new poll conducted by the reputable Demos & Pi and Demetra. All told, between Sept. 11-13 over 8,400 people age 18 and older were asked which politicians. they preferred. The result: the single most popular political leader in the entire country, with a stunning 65% of admirers, is Sergio Mattarella, 77, president of Italy since 2015. Few of his predecessors have achieved this degree of popularity, which analysts here are attributing to his "prudently presidential" style. The popularity of even the respected Giorgio Napolitano, Mattarella's predecessor, had sunk to 39% after his first three years in office, according to an Ixè poll reported on Rai 3.

     

    Trailing behind by only four points, is, perhaps surprisingly, Premier Giuseppe Conte. Despite being caught in a squeeze while mediating between the sometimes quarreling (and ever rival) deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini of the Lega and Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), Premier Conte is today Italy's second most popular politician. Salvini himself is favored by 60% of those interviewed and Di Maio, who once called for Mattarella to be impeached, by 57%. While these poll results are not predictors of a theoretical national vote, they are important because personalism has replaced old-fashioned party loyalty.

     

    So who is President Mattarella? Born in Palermo in 1941, he was graduated summa con laude from La Sapienza university of Rome with a law degree. He taught parliamentary law at the University of Palermo until 1983, when he was elected on the Christian Democratic party ticket to the Chamber of Deputies, where he served until 2008. Throughout those years he was an activist in the Catholic social movement, which advocated reform. He also published widely on constitutional law, particularly as applied to the Sicilian Region.

     

    His official biography fails to mention the single most crucial event in his life: the assassination of his older brother, the Christian Democratic  Piersanti Mattarella. On Jan. 6, 1980, while in his car en route to mass with his wife and children, Piersanti was murdered. Initially the assassination was attributed to neo-Fascist terrorists, but has long since been recognized as revenge for his battle against the links forged between Sicilian politicians and Cosa Nostra. The Jesuit educated Mattarella had set out to bring a halt to the racket over profitable public works contracts. His aim was to pass a law requiring serious building standards similar to those in the North.

     

    " [Piersanti's] policy of the radical moralization of public life, based on the idea that Sicily needed to present itself with its  'papers in order', had upset the system of public procurement. His stunning moves were never before seen in the Island," according to Piero Grasso, former Anti-Mafia prosecutor who served as president of the Senate from 2013 through March 2018.

     

    Within three years of that murder constitutional law expert Sergio Mattarella was serving in the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, where he maintained a calm and composed facade. In a complimentary article in the Guardian last May, he was portrayed as a man with a strong character, smart, gentle and moderate, "but also stubborn." (See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/28/sergio-mattarella-italian-president-political-crisis)

     

    He is credited with helping to block the right-wing economist Paolo Savona's becoming Finance Minister, promoted by both Salvini and the M5S; Savona despises the European Union and promotes Italy's leaving the EU common currency. Mattarella also -- as usual, quietly and calmly -- criticized Salvini's policies against migrants,. These are the policies that left the ship Diciotti, with over 144 rescued migrants aboard, stalled in a Sicilian port for 10 days as Interior Minister Salvini refused to allow them to land. This being a violation of human rights, in what amounted to a reproach to Salvini, three weeks ago Mattarella said pointedly in Parliament that, "No citizen is above the law." Palermo prosecutors accuse Salvini of "illegally confining" the migrants.

     
  • Life & People

    Bumper Grape Harvest Brings Outstanding Wine

    ROME -- No need to be a connoisseur to know that Italy's grape harvests are often exceptional, but this year's is particularly outstanding. For 2018 the wine harvest throughout the country, which generally begins in September and continues through mid-October, has risen by 21% over last year's, thanks to the unusual combination of abundant summer rains and sunshine . The enologists are gloating not only about the boost in quantity, but, more importantly, about the exceptional quality of the grapes, based upon their analysis of the first 15% produced.

     

    According to the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, in its best year since 1999 Italy has returned to its former role as leader in European wine production, with 55 million hectoliters. Predictions are that the whites will best the reds "because the abundant humidity has eliminated the skins before fermentation and the reds' skins were often damaged.  Even production in France and Spain is below Italy's, whose industry earns  the country E 3.5 billion ($4.1 billion).

     

    Perhaps not coincidentally, accompanying these assurances of a bounty vintage year comes an amazing upsurge in wine tourism. According to the Italian vintners' association Assoenologi, since 2011 wine tourism throughout the country has grown by 25% and continues to grow, now approaching 14 million, above the European median. Some 12,000 wineries are specially prepared for visits by the public while almost twice that are open for direct sales to customers. At Montalcino the upward surge of tourist visits -- Russians, Chinese, Germans and Americans -- was by a stunning 125% and, in and around Chianti, by 35% over the past five years.

     

    Such visits may begin in the fields where grapes are grown, then proceed to the area of experimental micro-vinification, and on to the barricaia (in French, barrique) where the wine barrels are stored, often for many years, while the wines ripen. At the end of the tour comes the tasting, accompanied on some tours by a banquet. An example: a car service organizes a Chianti Wine Tour that begins in Florence and then moves on to Greve in Chianti, where visitors tour a 200-year-old butcher's shop  that sells, among other things, salami, wild boar ham and that favorite (of mine) local cheese pecorino. This is only the beginning, needless to say; the tour ends in San Gimignano. (For details of this tour -- and of course there are others -- see: >>).

     

    If this is an example of a comfy tour by mini-bus, some visitors like to make a slow tour of wineries, one a day, by bicycle. Dozens of special cycling routes through the wine country have evolved and are popular, including in Tuscan Chianti country, where olive oil tastings as well as light luncheons of local specialties often accompany the wine sippings. Whereas a cycling tour may take days, quicker tours, with a talk about the philosophy of making wine, are also readily found on the internet.

     

    Wine production in the Lazio Region in Central Italy is definitely on a smaller scale, but today 22,000 hectares here are devoted to grapes, and the quality in recent years has notably improved. Lazio wines now account for 3% of the whole, well below the quota in Tuscany, but nevertheless bringing earnings of $130 million.

     

    I have personally always favored the wines produced in the Alto Adige, where some of the vineyards are so steep that, when the snow melts and brings down some of the earth, vintners must trek the earth back up the terraced slopes, not by truck, but by hand. Advertisers there boast that their is the best of both worlds, "a perfect balance of Alpine air and Mediterreanean sun." Favorites there are Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau, Kerner, Vellier and Riesling. What we simpletons call simply "Gewurz" is spicy and named for the town called Tramin. Among these whites are also world-known varieties like Pinot and Chardonnay. The local reds are Schiava and Lagrein, but here too the better known international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are also found.

  • Dream of Venice. Photo by Eugenio Novajra
    Art & Culture

    Writers, Photographers Fight to Keep Venice Alive and Authentic

    ROME -- Tourism to the lagoon city shows no let-up: an Airbnb report in late May showed that for every inhabitant in Venice there are 73.8 tourists, for between 23 million and 28 million tourists a year. As a result, the battle against the big ships that overwhelm Venice and its canals with tourists is being fought by politicians and groups of irate citizens. But it is also being fought in photographs and books that celebrate the city and its traditions.

     

    The photographs are particularly intimate and eloquent, for their creators -- Italian and foreign -- seek out the most evocative of the old ways and byways. Newest of these is "Dream of Venice in Black and White," an anthology of outstanding photos with an introduction by Tiziano Scarpa, Venetian-born poet and playwright whose novel "Stabat Mater" won the Strega Prize for literature in 2009. Editor is JoAnn Locktov, founder of  Bella Publications, which published "Dream of Venice" as the third in a trilogy on the lagoon city architecture and arts.

     

    Venice, writer Scarpa reminds us, lost its power and wealth when commerce and business moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. "Venice had to reinvent itself, little by little, from the seventeenth century, until it became a sort of Las Vegas or Broadway," he writes. It launched the cafe society trend, invented the business of grand opera, established gambling houses and offered "prostitution to suit all tastes, but also churches with high-quality orchestras," among whose musicians was Antonio Vivaldi. Even its famous Carnival was business, meant to attract foreigners given permission to walk around in masks: "Venice tried in every way to make its guests spend as much as possible."

     

    For literally a century, Venice made a living from its oil refineries and chemical industries, but in recent decades globalism took its toll, whittling away at  this source of revenue. Keeping the city alive today is what Scarpa calls the "foreigner industry." By this he means that not only objects like pieces of glass, but the Venetians themselves are being replaced with actual foreigners in shops, homes and financial activities. "So what can you do about it?" Scarpa asks. One way, he suggests, is to stay at home and leaf through books such as "Dream of Venice," which make the city "bloom with a light caress made up of splendid images."

     

    Writers too celebrate that authentic Venice. An example: the anthology of essays on Venice "The First Spritz is Free, Confessions of Venice Addicts," edited and published by Kathleen Ann Gonzalez, the author of "Free Gondola Ride," about the gondoliers of Venice. A sampler of tantalizing chapter titles from "First Spritz": "Venice, Mirror of the Soul," by Manuel Carrion; "Venice, A Comfy Cocoon" by Mayumi Hayashi; "You Have to Get Lost, by Luisella Romeo; and "Finding Titian's House," by Frederick Ilchman." For how to obtain a free download, go to ; print copies are available as well through Amazon and the like >> (True confession: one of its 35 chapters is my own.)

     

    Contrasting these photographic and verbal images are those showing the huge ships which drop literally thousands of tourists, all at the same time, into the narrow streets for brief stays. The fight against them continues: last month the mayor decided to promote Mestre as an alternative tourism mecca. Some 53,000 locals still live on the island, but much of what was once familiar has disappeared from their lives including food shops, replaced by huge new hotels, art galleries, stores selling Venetian-replica glass made in China. In the meantime prosecutors are investigating the results of the costly construction of the Mose, a movable steel dam that was supposed to deal with the problem of high water but has so far never functioned and seems unlikely to do so.

     

    Businessman  Luigi Brugnaro, mayor since 2015 with the backing of a center-right coalition, is the former president of Assolavoro, an association that is part of Confindustria. Last June demonstrations against what some call the "giants of the sea" were held, and in a scathing tweet Brugnaro commented that only 500 to 800 people participated, "many of whom came from outside of Venice....  You kept @comunevenezia for years under the blackmail of your manifestations. We think differently."

     

    Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Nuova Venezia Brugnaro said that, "We have been saying for a long time that these big ships must not pass through the Giudecca Canal. It's time to go ahead with the project for a new maritime port at Marghera." In fact, regional and government funds are already slated for improvements to that port and to a canal leading into it, preparing it to receive the mega-cruise ships. And just in time:  Venice tourism continues to grow  unchecked, and at Mestre foreign investors have put $81.4 million into new hotels that will accommodate 1,900 visitors.  In addition, ordinary maintenance in Venice is complex. On Sept. 13  it was announced that 4 million have been set aside for excavating 4 km of canals, to be freed of 15,000 cubic meters of mud. Already seven canals (rii) were cleaned at the cost of $1.2 million.

    __________

    Judith Harris is the author of Evelina: "A Victorian Heroine in Venice" (Fonthill Media, 2017)

  • Op-Eds

    Anti-immigrant Violence in Italy Draws UN scrutiny

    ROME -- It was midnight on a peaceful June evening on Corso Umberto in Naples, and chef Konate Bouyagui, 21 and originally from Mali, was walking home after his cooking stint in a coop restaurant he and friends had created. As he crossed the street, one of two men of about 30 fired at him through their car window, wounding him in the stomach. Taken to hospital, Bouyagui, known for his appearances on the popular TV food show Masterchef, survived the attack. The next day a press release from the City of Naples and a coop offered its solidarity: "It is obvious that from the words of hatred found on the social networks people are passing brutally to facts," said the release.

     

    This was just one of the 10 attacks on migrants and Roma in the past three months in shootings that have left one young man dead and a Roma baby perhaps paralyzed for life. As a result of this "huge increase in cases of violence and racism" directed at Africans and Roma, Italy is under investigation by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Also under investigation is Austria.

     

    This UN inquiry has troubled Italian commentators asking just when such vicious racism began, and what are its roots. One theory is that the problems inherent in migration -- a preference to ignore such a tough problem plus a deadly slow bureaucracy that delays granting permits -- have not been faced for literally decades for political reasons. Instead, Europe has mistakenly "chosen to privilege above all the idea of repatriating the migrants without guaranteeing respect for human rights," Bachelet has said.

     

    Public opinion surveys show that the "words of hatred" have become ever more politically functional, and not only in today's Italy. Migration is the single most important issue throughout Europe, and is shaping the entire political scene, as was demonstrated by Sunday's vote in Sweden, where a far right party bounced up to 18%. Here the more tolerant remind Italians that they were themselves migrants just a century ago, and that, in the larger picture, people have been migrating since paleolithic times. On the other hand some migrants, no less than some Italians (and Americans and British), have been justly accused of violence, with frightening propaganda exacerbating each incident.

     

    One who has meditated on this is Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri. "It's easy to imagine what I think about today's policies towards the migrants, since in my books I have written about their desperation," Camilleri said in a recent interview. "These are people who have escaped from wars or who are looking for work.... I think that to continue to play on fear of the other is a very dangerous game. He who sows the wind ends with a storm, and today too much wind is being sown. Italy has become a country that is moving backward, the way shrimp do."

     

    Giuseppe De Rita is Italy's foremost sociologist. In an interview he specified that, in his view, Italy is less racist than angry, a victim of "that rancor" which, since the 2008 crisis, has left  the middle class impoverished and the lower classes unable to rise. "A few seasons back this sense of rancor attacked the caste -- the politicians, that is -- but today it attacks the migrants, seen as the thieves of wealth," said De Rita.

     

    In point of fact, Italy is actually home to relatively fewer migrants than other EU countries. Polls taken in August by the reputable Istituto Carlo Cattaneo of Bologna show that Italians suffer from what is called an "error of perception," believing that one out of four of all those living in Italy is a migrant. In fact, according to Cattaneo, their real presence is of 7% , or less than one-third of that guesswork figure of 25%. People elsewhere in the EU are only slightly more realistic than the Italians, believing that 16.7% of the whole European population is made up of migrants whereas the real pan-European figure is of 7.2%.

     

    The Italian press also reports that when the Cattaneo figures are crossed with the NIM index elaborated by the Pew Research Center, Italy emerges as "the most extreme" of the EU countries in its negative assessment of migrants. Depending upon the education level, those without university degrees and those living in the South, calculate the number of immigrants in their midst diversely from those with degrees and in the North. The same hostility toward migrants and Roma extends to religious minorities including, obviously, Muslims.

     

    Other points of view exist. An article in the conservative daily Libero of Aug. 24 reported that the studies center Analisi Politica directed by Arnaldo Ferrari Nasi polled Italian thinking on immigration and on how the government is handling the problem. The result: 85% of those questioned want to see "the question of clandestines landing on Italian soil resolved with urgency and decision," and that the Italian state "should deal with this more severely." Of those queried, three-quarters described themselves as "fervent Catholics." This, said the Libero editorialist, means that the Church, while "always speaks of the acceptance [of migrants], is preaching in the desert."

     

    Translated into political action, deputy premier Matteo Salvini has successfully made the fight to stop migrants his banner, to the point that polls show his Lega party now claiming 32% of a future vote. According to sociologist Marzio Barbagli, Salvini's anti-migrant rhetoric has legitimized the already existing hostility toward migrants. And last Aug. 27 Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) warned that Italy would withhold its contribution to the European Union budget unless the EU contributed more to Italian efforts to deal with migrants landing on its shores.

     

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