header i-Italy

Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    China is Finally Near

    ROME – Back in 1967 Marco Bellocchio made a film called “China Is Near” (La Cina e’ Vicina) starring Glauco Mauri. At that time Bellocchio’s concept of China was solely political, and in paint besides—a Maoist slogan smeared on a wall near the headquarters of the Italian Socialist party. At the time China was not otherwise near. Rome had just acquired its first Chinese restaurant, on Via Capo le Case, and an Italian friend liked to recall that, as a youth living on Via Babuino, his father would take him for a Sunday walk near Palazzo Chigi, the Italian White House, so that the boy could gawk at the “Chinaman” who sold ties there, the sole Chinese in town.

    Forty-five years later it is China that is staring at Italy, with the Italians rather miffed. “The China Story” is a 40-episode, $18 million Chinese soap opera being filmed largely in Lucca, co-directed by Kong Sheng and Li Ziue, from a script by a noted writer, Gao Mantang. Center of the story is a fairly prosperous family which emigrates from Wenzhou to Tuscany. After reverses in the family’s fortunes, the Chinese businessman’s daughter, young Amy, is obliged to work in a tavern (osteria), but eventually winds up owning a successful clothing shop in the textile city of Prato. Problem is that along the way Amy clashes with a Prato textile manufacturer so seriously that, according to Italian journalist Riccardo Bianchi, writing in the Dec. 9 Venerdi della Repubblica, Prato makes a “brutta figura” (a bad image). The Prato town council did not appreciate this, reportedly, because they had given considerable hospitality to the Chinese movie actors and crew. On the other hand, “the mayor is helpful to the protagonist,” and the city appears welcoming to the immigrants from China.

    And now, the reality show. Last week in Torpignattara, a near-suburb of Rome, a Chinese shop owner named Zhou Zeng, his wife Lia and baby daughter, Joy, six months old, were leaving their store when two men whose faces were hidden by motorscooter helmets held a gun at them and demanded the take. The wife, who speaks little Italian, instinctively gripped her handbag tighter; the husband shouted. One of the two masked gunman responded by shooting to kill. Both baby and husband were killed.

    At this brutality the entire neighborhood reacted, placing two hundred candles and offerings of flowers on the spot where the father and child were murdered. The outpouring of sincere grief and shock among Italians as well as in the Chinese community—particularly because of the murder of a baby—is only slightly tempered by the admission of the wife, Lia Zhou, that she was carrying in her bag E.10,000. Why? As she admitted to police, it is because she acted as an improvised agency who sent cash back to China for her fellow emigres, because they trusted her.

    That the crime could be related to this illicit money moving is not excluded, nor is it proven that the two gunmen are Italian. And, whether tasteless or unfair, on the morning following the murders a radio news bulletin (GR2) reminded listeners that the Chinese community in Rome has introduced a considerable degree of crime, from prostitution, usury and protection racketeering to money laundering. It is clear that most of the crime is directed against the vast majority of honest Chinese citizens living and working in Italy. Nevertheless, that there is considerable inter-community crime has been true from the earliest wave of Chinese immigration here, as I was told by an Italian detective, expert in the Mafia before being reassigned to follow Chinese crime in Italy. Since that time the Italian police have actively recruited Chinese speakers.

    While this matters to the Chinese community and to the Italian police, the point is another: that with some 150,000 (112,000 legal), with an annual increase of almost 5%, Italy is dealing with yet another community which is not being readily or gracefully integrated. In fact, the Chinese community in Rome of between 30,000 and 40,000 people reacted with fury. These are not the exploited hundreds of Chinese held in near-slave conditions making jeans and handbags in Tuscan lagers; these are the well-to-do. On the two streets near the Esquilino Hill, solidly occupied by Chinese shops and restaurants, outraged Chinese immigrants complained to anyone who would listen that they are insulted daily by the Italians, are constantly threatened with holdups to the point that they have hired vigilantes for protection, and that they have come to dislike Italy.

    “Their capacity to adapt has brought the Chinese to settle slowly into ever more big Italian cities, and there are now Chinese communites of various dimensions in all Italy. There is no lack of episodes of intollerance which the numerous difficulties that inevitably touch upon every immigrant (language, bureaucracy, etc.), but at this point the Chinese are an integral part of the Italian economy,” according to a report by Associna, an association of Chinese in Italy (http://www.associna.com/it/associna). Indeed there is: while there is a definite drop in imports from China, down 17.6% over the past year, exports from Italy to China are stable at 0.4%, a fairly strong figure as compared with Italian exports to India, down by over 25%.

    Trying to improve integration of Chinese in Italy, the Interior Ministry together with with the International Organization for Migration (an agency of the European Fund for Integration) is conducting experiments in cities with a high density of businesses owned by Chinese, like Milan and Prato, or which carry out commercial or financial activities, as in Rome. For their video in Italian, made with considerable input from Chinese in Italy, see:

    Immigration is hardly a one-way street, and it is hardly surprising that educated young Italians are now migrating to China. “Once I was there I loved the life. I’m staying,” said one. In a report made two years ago by Emma Lupano in Il Sole 24 Ore, “When they discover China, Italian students rarely leave it behind—most end up not wanting to go home again.” For those attempting master’s or doctoral degree programs the challenge is the language, but because of the increase in a two-way exchange, opportunities are open for those who can master the language, including as interpreters and translators.

    For those interested, there is a touching documentary— and highly praised by the Oxford University Italian studies center—directed by Sergio Basso, produced in 2010 by La Sarraz Pictures, on the Chinese living in Milan. It’s called “Made in Chinatown” in English and, in Italian, “Giallo a Milano”.
     

  • Op-Eds

    Protecting Pompeii and the Italian Heritage in 2012

    This is not the first time. In 2004, the charity tax fund was diverted to help fund the war in Iraq, under a slogan, perhaps, of “make war not restorations.” This year’s call is more comprehensible, but nevertheless a choice that should not have been imposed in Italy, a country which quite properly takes pride in, and makes money from, its myriad splendid cultural heritage sites and museums, and has an obligation to protect its heritage, down to and including its medieval archives.

     On the other hand, the Minister of Culture, political scientist Lorenzo Ornaghi, who was, untilentering the Monti government last month, rector of Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, may have reasoned that enough money is being poured into Pompeii to compensate for a cut-back even if other cultural areas will be penalized. It is true that Pompeii has been crying out for help. In November of 2010 the Domus of the Gladiators collapsed, followed by a 24-foot section of ancient city wall. A few days before Christmas 2011 a pilaster holding up the pergola at the lovely House of Loreio Tiburtino fell down. “This confirms the fragility of Pompeii,” said the General Secretary of the Ministry, the architect Antonia Pasqua Recchia.

    The sense of urgency is palpable, and among others regional governor Stefano Caldoro recently met with an American movie producer interested in developing multimedial theaters. For Pompeii Caldoro also favors more hotels, restaurants, tour routes and cruise ships. Fortunately, other help is on the way. The European Commission has now confirmed that it will provide $61 million of immediate EU emergency funding for thirty-nine projects at Pompeii plus another $49 million by the autumn of 2012. UNESCO funds of $136 million are also en route to Pompeii, under the terms of a three-year plan aimed toward an upgrade of restoration efforts.

    For a sponsor, Pompeii with its 5 million annual visitors would presumably be a high-class cultural boom box, and so Epadesa, a consortium of 2,500 primarily French businessmen, in coordination with local Neapolitan businesses and industry, is offering from $7 and $14 million annually to sponsor restorations “adoptions” of endangered Pompeian buildings. Similarly, restoration of the Roman Colosseum was awarded to a single sponsor, shoe manufacturer Diego Della Valle, and the pyramid of Caius Sestius will be restored by a Japanese businessman. Just how this sponsor-partnership will work out at Pompeii remains to be seen. In the meantime there are local protests that details are fuzzy and that not all the areas at risk in the Vesuvian sites are receiving the same degree of attention, with Stabiae at the bottom of the priority list.

    None of these problems is new. Back in 1996 the World Monuments Fund reported that the “major risks result… from excessive public access, atmospheric exposure, erosion, etc.” The following year Andrew L. Slayman, associate editor of the U.S. magazine Archaeology, wrote that the problems begin with the vast size of the exposed site, 110 excavated acres (of 163 within the walls). In addition, Slayman wrote, “Routine wear and tear caused by tourists is the source of much damage. Manpower and funding are also sources of frustration.” Slayman was particularly critical of Baldassare Conticello, Superintendent of Pompeii from 1984 to 1994, because, under pressure from papyrologists from universities all over the world, Conticello had permitted the open-air excavation of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. The villa, which had yielded the only known library from antiquity, had lain sealed deep underground for over two centuries. Although the Getty Foundation picked up the bill, the criticism continued, and a moratorium on new excavations was imposed until Pompeii could be maintained properly.

    Yet Conticello, with experience working in Libya and elsewhere, knew the problems as well or better than anyone. Some twenty years ago he took me for a tour of Pompeii. Pointing to a city wall, he said, “Look how fragile that is—it’s been exposed to the elements ever since it was brought back to the light of day 250 years ago. Weeds grow on it. Unless they’re removed, they can eventually bring down the whole wall, but we need a weed-killing substance that won’t destroy what is underneath.”

    Since Conticello was replaced in 1994 there have been no new digs, and yet the lack of maintenance today has made headlines all over the world. Three superintendents and a special emergency commissioner later, the problems are the same or worse today, suggesting the existence of some basic underlying problem which has not been addressed by anyone. For one thing, today’s administration of Pompeii is further hampered by the present Superintendent’s being required to oversee a territory that includes Naples as well as Pompeii. In fact, UNESCO will send advisors, but my feeling is that a world-wide conference of scholars should also be convened, and that the Italian government should begin to listen to not three or four experts, as is now the case, but to many, and only then take action.

    Prof. Conticello died Dec. 29. Today he is remembered as a pioneer in applying modern archaeological methods, the link between the old way of managing a site and today’s more modern, if still deeply compromised manner of dealing with Pompeii. At his funeral in Rome the archaeologist Antonio Varone said that Conticello will be remembered for his particularly broad interdisciplinary background, which is why he listened to the papyrologists. Conticello initiated the first program to educate the custodians about the site they guarded. And for the first time on his watch computer models of Pompeii were put to use, by such outstanding scholars as the American Prof. John Dobbins. [See the video]

  • Op-Eds

    A New Census Takes Stock of Italy


    ROME – It’s been a year of misery for many, with only the dimmest of lights at the end of the tunnel. The Organization for European Cooperation and Development (OECD) is forecasting that Italy, together with Greece, Portugal and Hungary, is plunging into a recession. Statistics broadcast gloom: the GDP growth rate in the third quarter of 2011 was of only 0.1%, and the OECD predicts that the rate will remain flat in 2012, rising to 0.5% in 2013.


    The dire economic forecasts, together with the political collision course that sent the Silvio Berlusconi government into hibernation (if not extinction), have been so tumultuous that much of the rest has been overwhelmed. Yet behind the raucous political debates and the economic angst lie the larger social forces and trends that underlie the turmoil, and condition the political and economic future.  To test these, this October Italy launched a new national census on the family, the 15th such census in history, and by November, over 16 million families - 60% of the total – had already replied. Full results will be released in the Spring of 2012.


    The earliest such census took place in 1861, when Italy was first unified, and showed a nation composed of 26 million inhabitants, with more men than women (49%). Children under five made up a large (13%) of the population, and by contrast only 1% of the people survived to 75 years of age or more. The median number of family members was around 4.7, and there were 87 inhabitants per square kilometer.


    In the last census taken in 2001, the Italian population stood at 57 million. In 2010, however, it had risen to 60,045,000, or 24.6 million families. Italy is thus the fourth largest country in the EU, or 12% of the entire EU population of 500 million. There are now more women (51%) than men (48%), and children under five are only 4.6% of the whole. Those over age 75 are 8.4% of the population, and the median family has 2.4% members. Population density stands at 199 inhabitants per square kilometer.  


    Today ISTAT, the official statistics-gathering agency, says that the median density per square kilometer has risen in a year to 200 inhabitants. This makes Italy one of the most densely inhabited countries in the European Union (EU), whose median density is almost half of Italy’s with only 114 inhabits per square kilometer. Furthermore, the Italian territory is over 53% mountainous, so that most Italians today (84%) live crowded in the plains. The mountain towns continue to be abandoned, with only 266 left. A slow-down in new home construction means that, as the population grows, individuals are jammed into more limited spaces. To extrapolate from this, Italy is therefore ever more urban, a land of cities and towns—of vibrant piazzas and of people talking, but also of problems of rubbish removal and city management, including policing.


    In addition, today’s Italian society appears as older, solitary, and secular. Again citing new ISTAT findings, the median life of the Italians is over 84 years for women and almost 79 for men, giving Italians greater longevity in Europe than most. The new mothers are older than ever before, averaging 31.2 years for a first birth, while only 1.41 children are born per family. The continuing decline in the number of births was generalized in the territory save for four regions: Molise in the South, Lazio and the Abruzzo in Central Italy and the autonomous province of Bolzano in the North. More couples marry in the South than in the Northern regions, in which almost half the weddings are celebrated in the town hall instead of in church.


    The population is, strictly speaking, somewhat less Italian. Nothing more recent that January 2011 is available, but at that time it was estimated that, of the 60 million population, over 4.5 million were immigrants, or 7.5% of the total. The largest single foreign presence was of Romanians (1 million), followed by Albanians (491,000) and Moroccans (457,000) and 201,000 Chinese. Immigrant fertility contributed to the total birth rate in a larger number (19%) than their presence in society. As one headline put it, “ISTAT: Births declining, immigrants rising.” In fact, in 2010 there were 12,200 births fewer than the previous year. Where do they live: predominantly in the North. Emilia-Romagna has a foreign population of 11.3%;  Lombardy, 10.7 and the Veneto, 10.2%.


    The political implications of such a transformation in Italian life are serious. One of the saddest events of 2011 came in Turin in December, when a 16-year-old girl told her ultra-conservative parents that she had lost her virginity because she was attacked by a Roma (Gypsy) man. Irate locals, armed with brickbats and a rage for vendetta, broke into a Roma camp and burned it down. When firefighters moved in to try to put out the fire, a mob of fifty fought them off. The next day the girl admitted that she had been frightened to tell her parents the truth—that she had had sex with her Italian boyfriend.


  • Facts & Stories

    Letters from Italy After Berlusconi: Politics Behind the Scenes


    ROME – The irrepressible Daniela Santanchè, 40, whose idea of foreign diplomacy was to denounce the prophet Muhammad as a polygamist and pedophile, ranks high in the Berlusconi fan club firmament. In an interview with Fabrizio d’Esposito in the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano this week, she trumpeted that people can now stop “spitting” on the former Premier’s Liberty Party (PdL) because the Monti crowd are in trouble. Had the racist murder of two black immigrants from Senegal) happened in the previous government, she said, “you’d have blamed Berlusconi, blamed the League, blamed Santachè. Where’s the scapegoat enemy now?” 

     
    Santanchè is a member of Parliament who served as Berlusconi’s Undersecretary to the Minister of Platform Accomplishment (don’t expect me to explain what that is). Like Bossi, she gives the finger to those she dislikes. But the suspicion is that she just may be aiming high: “I firmly believe that only a woman can take Berlusconi’s place. Even in the Quirinal Palace a woman would have made the difference.” As for the new premier, “The markets and the spread don’t give a f*** for Monti’s maneuver.” 
     
    So what is Berlusconi doing these days with his new leisure time? “He’s very visible, I don’t need a torch to find him. He comes to party meetings, is determined and serene, and working hard so as not to waste eighteen years of political activity. It won’t be long before the Italians are begging for him and yelling, ‘Give us back the stinker’ [spoken literally in dialectal Roman, Aridatece er puzzone]. With us, the TV talk shows were lovely and lively, but now they’ve lost their audience.” 
     
    It is true that Berlusconi is keeping busy. He had an inconclusive day in a Milan court. He is actively tending to his soccer team. He appeared in Parliament to vote confidence in the Monti government, as promised. He pronounced Monti “a desperate man” and “the lesser [of which?] evil.” Elsewhere he said flatly, “I don’t have to beg anybody’s pardon for having underestimated the crisis. We’d seen it clearly.” This, of course, contradicts his earlier notorious statement that there is no crisis in Italy, where the restaurants are full and the airlines have long waiting lists. 
     
    And—don’t laugh—Berlusconi also turned up the other day for the presentation of a book called “This Love” (Questo Amore), written by his TV talk show promo buddy Bruno Vespa. Vespa’s love book publisher Mondadori (which conveniently belongs to Berlusconi) promises that in it the author “investigates a multi-faceted universal sentiment: adolescent love, the love of the thirty-somethings, of the fifty year olders and the people in their sixties [read: the Viagra years] and even more—ordinary people, actresses of today and yesterday….mother love, gay love, love of God….he offers a fresh portrait of the Italian soul.” (See Vespa himself at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moqVG9uo8Pw)
     
    Phew. At the launch in Rome, Vespa tried to coax his old friend into speaking about love, which is, after all, the theme of the book and one of the names under consideration for Berlusconi’s future new political party, as Il partito dell’amore (the love party). “It’s not the time to speak of that,” Berlusconi snapped, his chin jutting with mixed anger and determination. The love boat sank further when “the stinker” declared that Italy is “ungovernable—or better, impossible to govern…. These days I’ve been reading Mussolini’s diary and the letters from [his lover Claretta] Petacci. I see myself in those letters. The man who governs Italy has no power. At most he can ask a courtesy, but he can’t give orders. [Mussolini] was right when he said that it’s not difficult to govern the Italians, but it is useless.” Claretta Petacci died with Mussolini and her body was hanged with his upside down in a Milan square. 
     
    Two recent diaries involving Mussolini have appeared in recent years. One was the diary, considered by most historians to be a fraud,  published in 2007 by Berlusconi’s beleaguered political ally Marcello dell’Utri, a member of Parliament risking prison for alleged Mafia ties (see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mussolini_diaries). That probably forged book amounted to a rehabilitation of Mussolini and claimed that he had considered the racial laws of 1938 an aberration. The second—the one to which Berlusconi referred, is composed of Claretta’s letters, published as Mussolini segreto (Secret Mussolini) in 2009—shows  a decidedly racist Duce. 
     
    Vespa failed to ask the obvious question: why are you reading this book just now? What is this about? Instead Vespa asked, coyly, “How many Claretta’s have you had?” This amazing question may have been intended to perk up the audience and the obviously grouchy Berlusconi by harking back to the good old bygone bunga bunga days. “Hundreds,” the Premier responded cheekily. If there was a point, it was that Claretta’s love—the subject of the Vespa book is love in all its forms, after all—for the Duce was sincere, as is the love accorded Berlusconi himself by the faithful political females like Daniela Santanchè. 
     
    Friday evening’s vote of confidence, which confirmed the emergency fiscal and money-saving measures of the government of Premier Mario Monti, Monti snapped back, saying, “I am not a desperate man.” Showing just how little love was lost between Berlusconi and Monti, he went on to announce that he is incorporating in the money-saving package an important clause: that instead of reallocating digital frequencies to the main existing TV operators for free, there would be an auction—an enormous money earner for the government, and an enormous kick in the teeth for Berlusconi’s Mediaset, which owns three largest of the independent networks. 
     
     

  • Op-Eds

    Blood, TV and Tears


    ROME – On Tuesday, Dec. 6, Monti did a gig on RAI TV Channel 1 as a guest of none other than telehost Bruno Vespa, whose program Porta a Porta has been until now the sycophantic soapbox platform for the gone but not forgotten former Premier Silvio Berlusconi. “Greece shows what could have happened to Italy,” Monti told viewers, with the risk of salaries left unpaid. “We have spent the accumulated wealth of the past without creating new wealth. We were three months from disaster. Despite it all it’s better this way.”
     
    The very fact that Monti would accept to appear with Vespa raised plenty of hackles on the left, but in the event Vespa assumed the unusual, for him, image of the non-interfering host who hovered solicitously over the seated Monti. Perhaps disappointingly to the usual old dears who favor RAI Uno, Monti was thoroughly professorial, reasonable and dull as a doorknob. “It’s an economics lesson, and Monti is putting me to sleep,” muttered the customarily stalwart British journalist who watched the performance with me, just before nodding off. “Pickle meets Vaseline,” commented an acerbic pundit, which I take it to mean Sourpuss (Vespa) meets Smoothie (Monti).
     
    The day had begun with a bumper crop of sour pickles. Within the first few minutes of hearing the radio news that morning I was told (1) that the marking “bio” on 10% of Italian food products is fraudulent; (2) that prosecutors are asking for the arrest on Mafia charges of a former Berlusconi government undersecretary who also has responsibility for the Berlusconi party organization in the Campania region; and (3) that the Auditel ratings showing TV audience shares have been fiddled to favor the sextet of RAI and Berlusconi channels at the expense of others.
     
    In his tele-marketing lecture Professor Monti reminded viewers that he and his team had put together a package in just seventeen days although thirty-five days was the average for previous governments. He reiterated the key points he had already made in speaking to the separate houses of Parliament and to the Foreign Press Association: restoration of a tax on first homes, to be calculated upon a notably higher tax base; a price hike at the gas pump; the gradual increase of the pensionable age; and a reduction of the provincial bureaucracy, the equivalent of counties. To date the most controversial measure regards pension checks of or above E 1000 ($1,348), which will not henceforth be adjusted for inflation. Estimating inflation at 3%, in three years the pension will lose one-tenth of its value. Never mind said Monti, “When I realized what we had to do—when I understood that we’d be cutting pensions in the low range, I felt we had to ask people to make sacrifices. I am sure the Italians will understand.”
     
    Really? One thing they understand is that, in order to ensure the votes of Berlusconi’s deputies on the right in a forthcoming vote of confidence proclaimed by Berlusconi himself, the Monti program makes no mention of a wealth tax nor of an income tax hike. The exorbitant number and salaries (as compared with those in other European countries and the US) paid to the 1,000 MPs and senators remain untouched. In a forthcoming redistribution, Italian TV frequencies will be handed out free of charge rather than for pay; vaunting three networks, Berlusconi’s TV empire will benefit particularly. Not least, the Catholic Church in Italy similarly benefited from the Monti cabinet’s decision not to halt the tax-free status accorded to income-producing church properties. This is compromise with a capital “C,” and one reason is fear of the markets’ possible negative reaction if Monti’s cabinet took on Big Money. The justification is that, if the market panic continues, everyone, including the lower middle class pensioners, will suffer.
     
    Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, Italy’s big three national unions reacted negatively and called for short strikes to take place next week. This is a modest enough reaction, but it tends to make the union leaders look like spoilers, unwilling to contribute their blood, toil, tears and sweat for the national interest. But the fact remains that today’s unions represent primarily Italy’s aging and pensioned labor force, in which those with no hope of earning future income see themselves as being required to bite the bullet while the really rich enjoy a free ride.
     
    And perhaps this awareness of the difficulties the elderly pensioners will face explains why, during Monti’s presentation of his program at a press conference, his Labor Minister Elsa Fornero was outlining the program when she literally gulped back tears when she had to speak the word “sacrifice.” Monti stepped in to finish her thought as Fornero pulled herself together. Feminists were angry: why must women in politics go weepy? All were asking why Fornero, who is like Monti himself a distinguished academic, had burst into tears on live TV: was it her deep pain for the working-class? Was she simply out of her depth when facing the press? Was she reacting to provisions rammed down her throat during the unfamiliar give-and-take of the political process (“if we hit the rich too hard, we’re out of a job”)? Was she, like many listeners, upset that Monti keeps hailing his predecessor as if Berlusconi had not contributed to the present mess (“three months from disaster”)? Or was she simply exhausted from dickering and bickering endlessly into the night with the sober but oh-so-verbose Monti and company? 
     
    For the voters, all this is disorienting. On the independent TV Channel La Sette’s Monday night weekly review of political opinion, the total of those who plan to abstain from voting, turn in blank ballots or simply have no idea for whom they would vote has reached 50%, or half the electorate. Fulvio, our local fisherman, said this morning that Montanelli had wisely once said, “Hold your nose and vote.” But today, said Fulvio, “I’d need a gas mask.”


  • Facts & Stories

    Welcome to the Quirinal Palace

    ROME  – Do you have air miles or money to burn on airplane fuel? If so, take advantage and fly to Italy to pay a call on the 16th century Quirinal Palace, home to the kings and presidents of Italy for the past century and a half. As a culmination of this year’s celebrations of 150 years of Italian unification, the monumental doors to a series of magnificent halls, which overlook the main square on one side and the interior court of honor on the other, are being opened to visitors for an unusual exhibition, free of charge to all comers, to last just three months. His purpose in encouraging the exhibit, as the palace’s present occupant, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, told visitors to the inauguration Nov. 30, is to welcome an ever vaster public from every walk of life, including scholars and school children, into what is “the home of all Italians.”

    The exhibition mounted inside in the newly restored Napoleonic Wing of the building offersan occasion to view the palazzo itself but, more unusually, an opportunity to reflect upon and to study the past century and a half of Italian history, thanks to a rare collection of documents, photographs and period newspapers and magazines plus and some vintage newsreels assembled by curators Paola Carucci and Louis Godart. Its documents illustrate the various events which have taken place within the palace, from the installation of the House of Savoy (Sabaudi) monarchs through the Napoleonic period; the successive Fascist era up to and including the dramatic moments of liberations of Rome by the Germans; the abdication of King Victor Emanuel III after the monarchy was abolished in 1946; and the proclamation of the Republic of Italy in 1948 with adoption of the constitution. According to the architect who physically mounted the exhibit, noted stage designer Luca Ronconi, the documents mounted on glass panels “are an invitation to rediscover memories and a knowledge of events, many of which took place within these halls.” One example: during World War One the palace became a hospital for wounded soldiers.

    The palace atop the Quirinal Hill (one of the seven ancient hills of ancient Rome) was built in 1583 as the summer residence of the popes, eager to escape the malaria-ridden low-lying area near the Tiber River, which includes St. Peter’s Basilica and its environs. In fact, during conclaves cardinals were taken ill with what was called mal’aria (bad air); the illness was recognized but not the cause. When victorious Italian patriots captured Rome, the Vatican State was reduced to the square mile it owns today, and the Quirinal Palace was part of the booty.

    Like the carriage which the king rode to the World War I front, there is much to interest even those who cannot read the documentation.

    A visit begins with the space itself: a sequence of vast connecting halls adorned with frescoed ceilings, precious tapestries, elaborate fireplaces and rare examples of antique furniture. Some early papal treasures are visible (only a few; the pontiffs took most of their belongings with them to the Vatican). Some of the paintings and objects from the early royal collections also date from the period (1800-1815) when Italy came under Napoleonic rule.

    The real luxury is that all—most importantly—are seen in situ rather than transferred to a museum. Three essential periods are illustrated. The first begins with the breach of Porta Pia by Italian patriots in 1870 and installation of the first king of united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II (1861-1878. From this period comes one of the most interesting paintings, which shows Garibaldi, leaning on two canes, on a visit to the palace in the company of that first king. Another particular focus is the work of Queen Margherita, the wife of Umberto I, in organizing a library inside the palazzo.

    The second period documents Italy under Fascism and includes some rarely seen paintings from the royal collection, such one by Giacomo Balla and a stunning Futuristic scene of Italian airplanes over Vienna by Alfred Gauro Ambrosi (1933). The third period dates from 1946 to the present, and includes such touching mementos as a letter written by the Red Brigades victim, the politician Aldo Moro, addressed to the president of Italy Giovanni Leone (1971-1978) asking his intervention with his kidnappers.

    In the larger sense, rarely more than today has the Italian presidency, and the building which it symbolizes, performed the role of unifying force, capable of monitoring and managing what has become a fractious and stubbornly immobile n body politic. The role which the exceptionally popular President Napolitano has played in the current wave of political and financial crises has been fundamental in binding wounds and in binding together in the national interest often hostile political forces. For this reason alone the exhibition would be particularly important today.

    “The Quirinal Palace from the Unification of Italy to Our Own Day,” Quirinal Palace, Free entry, through March 17, 2012. Tuesday through Saturday 10 am-1 pm and 3:30-6:30 pm; Sundays, from 8:30 am to 12 noon. Closed Mondays, and on Dec. 8, 18, 20-21, 24-26 and 31, and on Jan. 1 and 6.

  • Op-Eds

    Is There Light at the End of the Tunnels

    ROME – The first tunnel of darkness into which Italy is staring is Premier Mario Monti’s forthcoming program of “blood and tears.” Even some pro-Monti Italians say they are impatient that more than a week has passed since the new government was sworn in, yet no one has revealed either the names of the cabinet undersecretaries (that list is due Tuesday) or precisely which economic sacrifices are in store for the country (promised for early December). This impatience could be understandable, after so many delays in the past years of bungabunga government.

    Monti was particularly criticized for promoting a measure—seen as time-wasting during this emergency period—to extend citizenship to the children born in Italy to immigrants. But as Monti himself has explained, he will not introduce any belt-tightening measures in his supplementary budget package that might have to be altered subsequently. His plan is that each measure is to be thought through carefully first. But just what does this mean, and who is to think it through?

    This brings us to Tunnel Number Two, a physical tunnel linking the Italian Senate building underground to the Renaissance-era Palazzo Giustiniani next door, used for office space for senators. According to the usually informed sources, a secret meeting—which all involved save, significantly, Monti have denied took place—was held inside Rome’s Palazzo Giustiniani, where the neo-Senator Monti is now entitled to keep an office. The trio traveling the underground railroad to meet with the new Premier-cum-Senator were the Sicilian Angelino Alfano, 41, who is national secretary of Silvio Berlusconi’s Freedom Party (PdL); the cigar-chomping 60-year-old Bolognese Pier Luigi Bersani, who is the secretary of Berlusconi’s despised Democratic Party (PD) on the left; and Pier Ferdinando Casini, 56, head of the “Terzo Polo” (Third Pole), a cluster of moderate political parties which, during the past year of a leadership vacuum, suddenly show clout and claws.

    So what was the point of the meeting, and what did this quartet talk about—was a list of the forthcoming harsh measures expected of the Monti budget put before them for approval, along with the names of the new undersecretaries? Or were they discussing a draft plan to discourage or at least limit the predictable Greek-style anti-austerity piazza riots-in-waiting, expected when jobs are lost? Did they just have a cup of tea together, or do these formal adversaries have a joint secret plan for governing together? There’s where the rest of us would like to see some light shed—particularly because Alfano’s boss, Berlusconi, subsequently attacked the Bersani crowd as being former Communists (as many were) who are still, said Berlusconi, Communists beneath their veneer of democracy.

    “We’re asking for some clarification [about the alleged meeting], first of all from Monti,” said Antonio Di Pietro, 61, the former anti-corruption prosecutor who heads the Italia dei Valori party (basically untranslatable: something like “the Italy of Good Values”, or IDV). Such a secret meeting is suspect because of fears in some quarters of what’s known here as an “Inciuccio”, or everybody tugging at the sow’s teats—Communists, Catholics, Liberals, Whatevers. On the one hand everyone is expected to pitch in, given the emergency; on the other, the Monti government has not been elected but selected, and many are concerned that this is de facto to push democratic procedures under the carpet. The argument continues: those supporting the emergency government explain that Parliament has authorized the government takeover by technocrats. Those protesting it remind us that, if a government walks like a politician and talks like a politician, it just may be political.

    Tunnel number three is the Euro itself. The construction of peaceful and commercial European unity was a process that took some of the best minds of Europe, including Italy, sixty years to bring about, but that suddenly is at risk. Like some bookmaker in London, the Credit Suisse Bank has given odds of 10% that the Euro will collapse. Who is to blame for that? After Monti was warmly welcomed and indeed hailed in Brussels last week as one of their own by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, Merkel nixed Monti’s proposal to create Eurobonds because these would require Germany to pay higher interest rates. Her argument is that hard-working Germans would have to pay the others’ debts.

    On the other hand, if this were a way to keep Italy from plunging deeper into recession, it could make economic sense; and an Italian economist friend was screaming over the telephone that by their refusal, the Germans are “about to ruin Italy for the third time.” Eurobonds, many argue, would reduce the present devastating spread.

    The fourth tunnel is the pension system, which awarded lifetime pensions in some cases to 36-year-olds who had begun work in the over-stuffed state bureaucracy at age 18. In an article published in a scholarly magazine shortly before she was made Minister of Welfare, economist Elsa Fornero explained that a serious reform of the pension system is a mathematical necessity. In the past, she explained, pension contributions simply did not supply sufficient income to pay for what actually is being disbursed in the form of pensions. Ever since 1992 pension contribution regulations have varied, awarding a certain layer of privileged workers with more money than is justified by their contributions so that others receive too little. “If the rules change continuously, it becomes difficult to make a reasoned plan,” she argues. “If a system is too generous toward the present generation, it accumulates an implicit debt that will fall upon the younger generations and the future.”

  • Op-Eds

    Super-Sober Mario Takes Charge

    ROME – They’ve dubbed him Super Mario here, after the popular video game devised by Nintendo back in 1985. The insinuation is that with a flap of his cape he can do anything, Superman style, from rescuing princesses to salvaging countries on the Brink of Bankruptcy. At the same time Premier-Designate Mario Monti (simply “Premier” when both Chamber of Deputies and Senate give him a majority vote of approval) is also constantly described in the media as Sober Mario—a man of sober habits, who wears a sober suit and sober tie, who speaks soberly, who attends Church as if he means it, who has a sober wife. who addresses problems soberly, without a wink and a wisecrack. This is a man who likes classical music and who, in the late afternoon after presenting his cabinet Tuesday, trotted over to Palazzo Venezia to view the new exhibition on the art of the early Counter-Reformation.

    But moods change. Anointed by President Giorgio Napolitano to an orgy of approval and sighs of relief, he was Super Mario. Like him, his government appears amazingly strong, with support from universities, banks, big corporations and, most significantly, from the Roman Catholic Church.

    For almost two decades, or since the heyday of Giulio Andreotti, the Church had been by and large eliminated from politics. Monti’s appointments include the eminent Catholic banker Corrado Passera. Strongest of the ministers, Passera will wear two hats, Development and Infrastructure. Andrea Riccardi, who will head the International Cooperation Ministry, is the founder of the prestigious Community of Sant’Egidio in 1968. This is the Catholic organization which has been running a parallel Italian and Church foreign policy, especially in developing countries. Renato Balduzzi is former president of an Catholic university graduates’ association while Culture Ministry goes to Lorenzo Ornaghi, president (rettore) of the Catholic University

     
    Veteran Vaticanist Marco Polito calls this notable group of Catholic personalities especially significant, for they introduce a radically different political culture, in contrast with the center-right government of Berlusconi, characterized by “truculence,” “aggressive ideology” and a “heedless lack of attention to the reality of the nation.”
     

    At the same time, as the names of his cabinet members were sinking in, Sober Mario was also raising a few hackles. Initially the big issue over his cabinet had been whether or not ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s more presentable sidekick, Gianni Letta, would be named to the new cabinet so as to enhance its political clout. Monti himself had lobbied for this, but was forced to back down by Pier Luigi Bersani. The Partito Democratico (PD) objected to both Letta and another politically-colored politician, Giuliano Amato, on grounds that, like a Trojan horse, they would sneak the unhealthy old into the new. In practice, this not insignificant PD victory leaves that party solidly behind a government yet to be ratified by an election.

    The Monti government is expected to last through 2013 and perhaps beyond—far longer than the babysitter or “summertime” goverments of the crises of the Seventies, which were often installed for three months. For a few, this is to usurp the authority of the electorate, which explains why a few, and not only the Silvio-nostalgics, are nervous. Bloggers were calling the Monti cabinet a “financial coup d’etat” and, from an amusing Beppe Grillo, a “coup de spread.” It is true that, although the new government requires approval of the elected Parliament, the political implications are evident. Monti was rumored as the PD candidate for Premier should early elections have been called, and today’s rumor is that the run-off for the 2013 presidential election may be between Letta and Monti. Alessandro Sallusti, editor of the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale, points out that the leaders of four other parties, Bersani, Gianfranco Fini, Antonio Di Pietro and Pier Ferdinando Casini worked hard to sink Berlusconi because each hoped to profit for himself. In the end, Sallusti predicts, “the center-left may just have found the leader it was seeking, even if Bersani doesn’t know it yet.”

    For the moment the goal, as stated today in the Senate, is to pay bills and promote the economy. For a savings starter, the number of cabinet slots is whittled down from Berlusconi’s 23 to just 17. Outlining his program to the Senate Thursday, again and again Monti referred to the need to bring forward two neglected resources, its young people and women; and indeed in the cabinet dubbed “the cabinet of profs” there were three women—not in the soft slots like tourism (a female post under Berlusconi), but in the sober ones, including Minister of Justice Paola Severino.

    Another dash of cold water came with the official cabinet nominations. On grounds that a healthy number of bankers are included, the skeptics are claiming that it is less a government cabinet that a board of directors. In particular, there are attacks on Corrado Passera, the financial wizard who has just resigned as president of Intesa Sanpaolo to become Minister of Economic Development and Infrastructure (this will include transportation). In a reordering of the Italian postal service, Passera oversaw its downsizing by 22,000 employees.

    Photos by www.quirinale.it

  • Op-Eds

    From Fêtes to Fear: Scared of Mr. Monti

    ROME – And what a night it was—in the crowded piazza facing the Quirinal Palace, Romans from all walks of life cheered, the younger ones dancing and fêting with bottles of prosecco. Following Saturday’s forced-march approval in Parliament of his center-right government’s emergency budget, Silvio Berlusconi had just kept his formal promise to President Giorgio Napolitano, and submitted his resignation, paving the way for the appointment of neo-Senator Mario Monti to be Premier Designate. As the outgoing Premier’s black limo fought its way through the crowd, its driver had to ignore a shower of scornful coins and the tossing of a shoe or two. In the back seat Berlusconi, unusual for this bouncy man who loves a joke and a crowd, sat ashen-faced and still as a stone statue. These were his first moments as post-Premier after seventeen years in power, and they were bitter.

    The European markets opened Monday with the same euphoria as the kids atop the Quirinal. But then a hangover of reality set in, perhaps because, some here suggest, Italy had delayed too long in seeking to remedy an unsustainable situation. Only two hours after markets opened, interest rates on Italian five-year bonds hit 6.29%, the highest in fourteen years. By Tuesday the difference between the cost of borrowing money in Germany and Italy (the “spread”) similarly surged, reaching 6.8%. This was dangerously approaching last week’s peak of 7%, the  level at which both Portugal and Ireland had required bail-outs. The problem is that Italy, larger than these or Greece, is also larger than the European stability fund, meaning that it is too large to bail out. In short, Monti’s appointment does not yet suffice to bring calm to a chaotic situation.

    This week, as he drafts a list of proposed cabinet members to present to the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate for approval, Monti is holding meetings with delegations from the political parties, the trade unions, the national manufacturers’ association Confindustria and an association of women’s groups demanding half of cabinet offices for women. Simply hearing out the political parties takes time, for there are thirty-four parties and mini parties. One of them, Fare Italia (Making Italy), has just three members, Adolfo Urso, Andrea Ronchi and Antonio Buonfiglio.

    These parties remain divided over what is to be done. The largest in the opposition to Berlusconi is the left-leaning Partito Democratico (PD), which reportedly has fifteen factions. Similarly, Berlusconi’s Freedom Party (PdL) is deeply split. Some in the party continue to call the possibilists “traitors” and push for immediate elections even though this would entail at least four months of inaction and a power vacuum. But, fearing a potential rout at the polls, Berlusconi has come to the decision that the PdL should back Monti’s bid, so as to gain time for re-organization.

    Berlusconi, however, is demanding that Monti’s stay in office be strictly limited, and that his cabinet include solely “technicians” and no politicians. The PD leadership shares this view. However, in making Monti a life-time Senator, Napolitano clearly gave him a political mandate, and Monti himself says that, if his proposed government is voted into office by the thousand-member joint Parliament and Senate, he will remain in office into 2013, when the present five-year legislation ends.

    If so, a revision of the election law which contributed so heartily to Berlusconi’s power in Parliament would be an almost certainty. This revision would be crucially important because in 2013, after national general elections, a new Parliament and Senate must vote for a successor to President Napolitano. This will require a two-thirds vote for the first three ballots, but for a simple majority afterward. The stakes therefore are incredibly high.

    In the meantime hold-outs from the now disbanded far right Alleanza Nazionale (AN), which had merged into Berlusconi’s PdL, are forging their own plans to curb Monti’s power and influence. “We can pull the plug [on Monti] whenever we want,” boasted the outgoing Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, formerly of AN.

    Already in its banner headline Monday—everyone is doing splashy banners these days—the rightist daily Libero warned: “Watch Your Wallets.” Berlusconi’s government allies in the Northern League flatly refuse to back Monti, and in its rank and file there is bitterness. One disgruntled citizen of Brescia griped, “Monti will make us pay a tax on houses, and it’ll be paid only by us Northerners. The Southerners built illegally, and their buildings were never put into the tax registry.”

    The Berlusconi emergency budget package already included a few measures that would pinch. Local taxes will rise, and income taxes for those earning over E300,000 ($430,000)  by 3%. This can be collected only if Italians declare income, which cannot be assumed, so taxes will rise on what’s easy to collect, like owning a stock portfolio, trasferring money, visiting the health service doctor, and buying insurance or a pack of cigarettes. That all-time favorite of Italian revenue collectors, gasoline—which already costs around E1.5 a liter--is in for a 5.4% hike in just six weeks, to be followed in 2013 and 2014 by percentage hikes on the accumulated cost.

    This may mean hard times, but none suffices. Professor Monti, the skilled and extremely well connected Euro diplomat and economist from the Bocconi University, is where he is today because he is expected to tug Italy back from the brink of insolvency. In April, massive bond payments fall due, and, without even more rigorous action—the catch word is “sacrifices”—Italy could simply run out of money to make the payments, and suffer the consequences of a crisis of liquidity; as is being said here again and again, Greece is a sideshow, but Italy is too big to fail, and already even France is troubled. The risk at this point is of a European-wide recession that will weaken the already struggling U.S. economy. Every step of Monti’s program is therefore being watched by the financial enforcers of the European Union, who have sent nosy, high-level monitors straight into government offices in Rome. The far more stringent measures which the quarreling Berlusconi coalition could not and did not dare to apply reportedly include:

    --a tax on wealth, the single measure which is scaring the heck out of the well-to-do;--a reduction in the cost of government itself (i.e., pay less public money for politics and the multiple levels of bureaucracies);

    --restore the property tax—that is, the ICI tax which Berlusconi had abolished on ownership of houses classed as first homes;

    --25% upward revision of property values upon which taxes are based;--some form of a faster postponement of pensionable age.

    So does everyone get it? Not at all. An old farm worker said to me that he despised Berlusconi but now fears that Monti would “take away my pension.” A poll by the prominent sociologist Renato Mannheimer showed that a stunning 40% of the Italians queried simply had no opinion whatsoever on what is happening or who should be in charge.

  • Op-Eds

    Wait Till the Donkey Kicks


    The match between the president and the premier went on for forty minutes Tuesday, and in the end Silvio Berlusconi—checkmated by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano—signed an agreement to resign. The lower house of Parliament had met Tuesday to vote approval of the annual national budget, and his center-right government had failed to win a majority. This was not a vote of confidence, but was taken as such.


    A nosy photographer whose powerful equipment was trained on the ashen-faced Berlusconi caught him scribbling the result: “308 – 8 traditori” (8 traitors)—that is, eight short of the 316 necessary. Less than one month ago, the Premier had squeaked through with just that number (50% plus one vote) in his fifty-first confidence vote during this legislature.


    According to Italian pundits, the game was up before the vote. The Northern League’s ailing leader Umberto Bossi has been publicly shoring up his coalition ally Berlusconi, but insiders report that, when victory began to appear unlikely, Roberto Maroni, the Leghista serving as Interior Minister, informed President Napolitano that, if the vote failed, the Northern League would withdraw its cabinet members. At that point the coalition was on the brink of collapse, and Napolitano’s hand was strengthened.


    The new situation offers two alternatives, and this is the tense new battleground in Italy today. The note Berlusconi signed at the Quirinal Palace states that he will resign when the emergency measures agreed upon with the European Union are formally adopted by Parliament. This process may take a month. In fact, Berlusconi needs to delay his exit as long as possible—that is, through mid-December—in order to head directly into new elections as early as February.


    In this way he cuts out an interim government headed by a prestigious political outsider vaunting a solid international reputation, such as Mario Monti or Giuliano Amato. A government of prestigious technocrats is the solution reportedly preferred by President Napolitano. Such an interim government might be able to revise the present election law, adopted in 2005, which puts selection of candidates exclusively in the hands of the party bosses, and awards the victorious coalition a bonus of thirty or so deputies, who vote and receive plush salaries. It was keenly desired by Berlusconi himself, and is so blatantly unjust that its author, the Northern League’s Roberto Calderoli, nicknamed it the “Pig Law” (Porcellum). In short, the Pig Law just might help revive that donkey so that he can kick.


    Berlusconi is described as in shock after the vote and his formal visit to Napolitano, but he had recovered his usual feistiness. Before the evening was out he was issuing ultimatums about what sort of government should take over. The fact remains, however, that, at this point, President Napolitano is in charge. Evidently the savvy Napolitano is suspicious that possible additions may be tucked into the budget bill whose vote will precede Berlusconi’s formal resignation, for the President specified that the bill must be pared down to essentials and contain no “extraneous” matters—no crony gifts, no buddy laws.


    Indeed, this slow-motion resignation failed to reassure the markets, and the famous “spread” (the percentage points between interest charged on Italian and German bonds) reached its highest level since Italy joined the Euro, putting the cost of servicing Italys’s debt mountain at over 7.5 percent. The Italian stock market was similarly hurting today, down by -4.6%.


    The political parties must steel themselves to vote for the emergency package, which is expected to cost Italians blood, sweat and tears, and the interest in the Italian performance is at this point worldwide. The EU has sent Italy what amounts to an ultimatum questionnaire insisting upon precision and dates for those measures already jointly agreed upon. That answer is due Friday—this in a country where it may take two days to get a certificate in a public office.


    Hoping to reach that 316 mark, Berlusconi had personally phoned each and every one of the MPs considered at risk. Berlusconi’s accusing those who had nevertheless chosen not to vote with him “traitors” is interpreted here as emblematic of his tendency to personalize politics. This criticism has not stopped today’s Il Giornale from running photographs of those “traitors” over the caption “Judases” (http://www.ilgiornale.it/). One, Gabriella Carlucci, was being called “Gabriella Iscariot.”


    Behind the scenes is the ongoing struggle for the election in 2013 of a successor to Napolitano. Pier Ferdinando Casini is considered a candidate whose rivals just might include Monti himself, should the latter become interim Premier and gain a reputation as saviour of the nation. Casini’s supporters therefore are les than enthusiastic for a Monti premiership. Down at the café this morning the fishermen were grumbling: “We’re still all provincials.” Emma Marcegaglia, president of the Italian manufacturers association Confindustria, calls the moment “extremely dramatic – We can’t go on hiding the truth, that if we don’t put an end to this situation Italy will have no access to the financial markets. We have got to act fast, we must absolutely win back credibility for our country within hours.” If not, we risk Italy’s failing to be able to finance itself, “with possibly dramatic consequences.”


    Il Sole-24 Ore, the financial daily out of Milan, points out that in any new coalition the balance of power may lie with the centrist group known as the Third Pole (Terzo Polo), composed of the Center Union, Future and Libery and a handful of others, who together command between 12 and 13% in recent polls.

Pages