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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    Back to School Time for Italian Youngsters

    ROME - Schools are about to reopen for Italy's students, although not without problems. One of these has been the disaster earthquakes wrought to school buildings. The good news is that in quake-stricken Sarnano at Macerata, a town severely damaged by a quake in 2016, a new school, constructed with anti-seismic technology, will open on time. The Giacomo Leopardi middle school, with facilities for sports and the arts as well as classrooms, was built in just five months thanks to private funding from two foundations: Diesel founder ("the jeans genius," he is called) Renzo Rosso's Only the Brave and the Andrea Bocelli Foundation. Bocelli, whose foundation invites contributions from donors, sang the Italian national hymn at the inauguration of the school last May. Among those also on hand: the popular Renato Zero. (See >>)

     

    In the village of Grottamare in the Marches, the school cannot open because its roof is at risk and the contract for its reconstruction turned into a bureaucratic battle. Children from nine classes will study in improvised classrooms in the town hall and in its library. This brings a personal memory. When my daughter attended a middle school in downtown Rome in the 1980s, a stone's throw from Parliament, the teachers warned students to walk close to the wall because the winding staircase was insecure (!) When I suggested to the principal that I would lodge a formal complaint, she asked me to desist, for, "To repair it would mean shutting down the whole school for a year."

     

    Schools reopen on different dates, depending upon the region and presumably the climate. Bolzano's schools in the mountainous Alto Adige were first, opening Sept. 5. Schools in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont opened Sept. 10, followed by Lombardy and Umbria Sept. 12. A host of others open only Sept. 17, with the very last in Puglia Sept. 20.

     

    For the schools everywhere, a serious problem, say many school principals, is a lack of teachers, which suggests that the cause is a lack of government funding. In Pavia the local press reports that the middle schools there would require 152 more teachers, and the high schools, 116. In Parma the teachers branch of the CISL trade union reported in August that a stunning 1,103 more teachers should be hired. The vacancies, said a CISL spokesperson, are due to retirements and transfers.

     

    For the very youngest students, a problem is vaccinations. A campaign against vaccinations, which may have been at least partly manipulated, means that many parents refuse to have their youngest children vaccinated. After a nationwide debate with countless educators protesting that unvaccinated children would endanger  the others, Education Minister Marco Bussetti offered an ambiguous way out, saying on Aug. 30 that school principals can accept children whose parents present a self-certificate that they have been vaccinated. "The law says clearly that children in class who bring a self-certification signed by their parents can be accepted," he said. Should things go wrong, the principals would have no responsibility since, "That responsibility lies with the parents," he declared. A goodly number of principals throughout Italy reject this, saying they require children to be vacciated.

     

    The children of immigrants are also changing today's Italian schools. Some 826,000 students -- 9.4% of the total -- have non-Italian citizenship, or 11,000 more than in 2017. Almost two-thirds were born in Italy and are hence second generation immigrants. More are boys (52%) than girls (48%). The largest proportion have Rumanian parents (19%) following by Albanians (under 14%) and Moroccans (12%). Other countries represented in the classroom are China, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Philippines, Moldavia. Almost all complete secondary school studies. The good news is that, of these, over one-third continue with university studies, aiming particularly toward a degree in social studies.

     

    One of the most intractable problems is the ever younger age of those trying out drugs. Today the age for a first use of a drug has dropped for boys to 13 and for girls, to 15. In an attempt to deal with this the Interior Ministry is hiring anti-drug police to serve as lookouts near schools, offering them short-term contracts at a total cost of $800 million.

     

    Another working to combat school children using drugs is Mauro Ioacoppini, 56, a consultant in legal medicine at Rome's "La Sapienza" University. Ioacoppini has developed workshops -- he calls them "laboratories against drugs" -- which he takes into schools. "The school is fundamental for prevention and to explain about the dangers," he said in an interview in La Repubblica daily. Do the students pay attention? "I have the sensation quite often that they just refuse [the concept] or are indifferent or even take it as a challenge." But not everywhere, he went on to say, particularly in areas where families have already witnessed a relative or friend with a drug problem.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Instead of Building Bridges Italy at Sixes and Sevens

    ROME -- The bridge at Genoa is not the only one to come down. Just when Italy should be building bridges for the common good, the country appears to be at political sixes and sevens. Foremost among the crucial issues: immigration. The ramifications of the Diciotti misadventure exemplify the problems.

     

    The Diciotti is an Italian coast guard ship that rescued 177 migrants in the Mediterranean August 16 and then, after Malta refused to accept them, took them into port at Catania. Initially they were welcomed by Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who twittered that, "The gallant men of the Coast Guard have done their part saving the lives of human beings 17 miles from Lampedusa." But when the ship docked at Catania, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to allow the migrants to disembark until and unless their future destinations were assured. At that point Toninelli backed down, and in another tweet declared that he "agreed" with Salvini's position.

     

    But not by everyone agreed.  The migrants were not permitted to disembark, and conditions aboard ship worsened day after day, to the point that a demonstration against Minister Salvini's position was held in Catania on Aug. 21. In Agrigento a prosecutor opened an investigation into Minister Salvini for sequestration of persons, illegal arrests and abuse of office. Catania and Palermo prosecutors also opened investigations.

     

    At that point 29 minors were released from the ship, but the others remained locked aboard even though Italy's Garante nazionale delle persone private della libertà, an association to protect persons deprived of their right to freedom,  protested that this was a case of serious humanitarian need. Similarly, the Catholic organization Caritas issued an appeal for "solutions that respect human rights and constitutional privileges." Oliviero Forti, Caritas chief for migration policies, called for an urgent solution showing "plain common sense and humanity, the sole way to guarantee social cohesion."

     

    When representatives of 12 EU countries, summoned to find a way to handle the migration question in the future, reached no conclusion, Salvini's co-Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio called for a hard line against the EU: "If redistributing the migrants [fails],  the Movimento 5 Stelle and I will not be disposed to give E 20 billion to the EU every year." The EU responded that Italy gives just E 3 billion annually.

     

    Nor did Salvini back down. "No one will land in Italy unless Europe wakes up, does its part and begins to welcome them, as we have done in all these years," he said on TV. As for his being put under investigation in Agrigento, "I am anything but worried, go ahead if somebody wants to arrest me.... My objective is the Australian 'no way,' and all those on the Diociotti are illegal immigrants."

     

    The United Nations refugees agency UNHCR appealed to Italy to let the migrants disembark. And former Premier Paolo Gentiloni said that, instead of blocking the ship, "the Interior Minister should explain on the basis of what law he is holding migrants aboard the Diociotti for 10 days now. And if there is no such law, as is evident, he ought to put a rapid end to this abuse of power."

     

    Eventually 17 were authorized to leave the ship for health reasons; a few suffering from TB, women from rape. Only 13 disembarked when four women refused to leave without their family members. In the end, all the migrants could disembark, thanks to an agreement involving the Church in Italy, Albania and Ireland. Di Maio was pleased: "The government remained compact, we played like a proper team." Salvini crowed that he was "proud of fighting to defend our borders and protect the security of Italians and the future of our children."

     

    But that is not the end -- on the contrary. Foreshadowing the future, Salvini met Monday with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, the tough guy whose economic policies, said Salvini, could be a model for Italy. In turn Orban lauded Salvini as "the sole politician who blocks the migrants in the sea... Salvini defends the borders in Europe. He would win elections in Hungary, he is very popular for having blocked the migrants." (See >>  )

     

    For the future, Salvini seems to want to opt out of the EU in favor of a union with Hungary and other formerly Communist East European countries. To this end he seems particularly eager to have early elections take place in Italy as soon as possible. The risk is the "impetuous" growth of Salvini's Lega, in the words of one commentator here. His goal: premiership without Di Maio, whom he is overshadowing, and without the premier Giuseppe Conte. Exactly for this reason Di Maio and Conte, less than anxious to see their Movimento 5 Stelle vote dribbled away, see little choice but to cave in to Salvini. "He will use the promises, incompatible with the commitments to Europe, to demand that Giuseppe Conte and his government ignore the pacts and parameters" of Europe, said another middle-of-the-road commentator. "It is blackmail."

     
  • Facts & Stories

    Still Deep in Shock, Genoa Soldiers On

    ROME -- Still deep in shock from the tragic collapse of the Morandi Bridge, causing the deaths of at least 43 people, Genoa nevertheless is soldiering on. "The city has the intelligence to improve itself and to learn how to prevent such disasters in the future," said architect Renzo Piano in an interview August 14, shortly after the collapse. Piano, a native of Genoa,  is world renowned for designing the Whitney Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Shard skyscraper in London.

     

    A peculiarity of this hard-working industrial city, which boasts the busiest port on the Tyrrhenian Sea, is its geological structure. "Genoa is vertical, rocky, steep, and with deep tempestuous waters," Piano pointed out. In fact, tucked between sea and a steep ridge of mountains, the inhabited area of the central city, founded in the 5th Century BCE,  is fairly narrow, which means that the population density there is acute. And that is why the killer bridge, which crossed directly over apartment blocks to connect the two far ends of Genoa, loomed so important when it was built in the Sixties.

     

    So now what? No one has ever accused the Genovesi of being less than industrious, and the locals, from Mayor Marco Bucci to ordinary citizens, must look ahead to build a viable future for themselves and for their children. Because the collapse of the bridge cut the city in two, subways are being kept open until 1 am, and 42 extra train links have been provided, along with free bus service from Bolzaneto and Rivarolo to Brin.

     

    "A new road artery reserved to the big trucks will open soon," Mayor Bucci says. "I see a strong will to react, from the people in the factories who have fought to offer us machinery and cranes. The other night the electricity company Ansaldo sent a giant turbine to help out under the bridge. There is the will to react: we have had to face an enormous drama, but we shall give it our best effort. We lost four traffic lanes but will build five."

     

    A few months ago Enrico Musso, professor at the Department of the Economy of Transportation at Genoa University and a former senator, presented a transportation project that called for new streetcars, more train station stops, advanced connections from airport to town and more links via water. At the time many put down his proposal as a daydream. Now it is being incorporated into a broader proposal on sustainable transport for Genoa, being presented to Mayor Bucci on August 23. Already, plans for a new steel bridge are already being drawn up.

     

    First, however, the entire broken bridge must be torn down and its huge cement components removed as soon as possible. To do so, the homes of those beneath the bridge will have to be torn down, which means that housing and appropriate funding for their inhabitants must be arranged quickly.

     

    The Genovesi called the Morandi Bridge their Brooklyn Bridge. The flaws behind the collapse are still being studied by technicians, but at the moment three stand out. First, the steel rods seem to have withered inside their handsome cement casing. Secondly, the techniques utilized to measure the soundness of those rods were outmoded, sometimes simply by tapping a hammer. Third (and this is debated), no one in the Sixties imagine the amount of future stress that would result from the heavily loaded, gigantic trucks passing through Genoa from its port to the rest of Italy.

     

    The concerns over the collapse have rung alarm bells elsewhere, for, "This could have happened to any of us," said Christophe Berti, editor-in-chief of Le Soir. "The collapse is surely the symbol of an aging Europe, which is losing its image of development and modernity it had back in the Sixties. The tragedy could have struck Belgium, France and any other nation in Europe." Or in the U.S.; as one example, at Fairview Park in the industrial area of Cuyahoga Country a bulky, multi-span bridge has had to be closed and risks demolition. Nearby in Cleveland is the Central Furnaces Bridge, whose western approach has had to be removed, leaving it a bridge to nowhere. And the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Bridge, built in 1956, has been abandoned.

     

    Life in Genoa goes on. Work on an important new road is now done on three shifts, around the clock; due for completion next April, it is expected to be functional by November. Genoa's famous International boat show, the Salone Nautico, with more than 1,000 boats on view, goes forward as planned from September 20 through 25. At Palazzo Ducale, the center of culture in a deeply cultured city, an exhibition devoted to the great Genovese violinist Nicolò Paganini, born in 1782 begins in October. "This will be an extraordinary occasion for people to know the city, to appreciate an event that involves top contemporary artists, beginning with Ivano Foassati, its curator," says Palazzo Ducale president, the Genoa-born actor Luca Bizzarri.

  • Wall fresco, Priapus
    Art & Culture

    Consolidation Work at Pompeii Reveals New Fresco of Priapus

    ROME -- Working to consolidate a fragile long wall at Pompeii, archaeologists have just discovered a hitherto unknown fresco painting of Priapus, weighing on a scale his huge phallus against a pile of coins. At his feet was a bowl of fruit. "Just one more tale of sex and money," a modern viewer might say with a yawn. But for the ancient Romans living at Pompeii before its destruction in 79 AD, Priapus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes, represented the origin of life itself.

     

    This is the second painted Priapus found at Pompeii. The other, similarly weighing his phallus, was in the well known House of the Vetti, excavated in the late 1890s. In that roomy house were found both a fresco with a similar Priapus weighing his phallus on a scales, in a doorway entrance, plus a statue of him, probably used in a garden as a fountain. As journalist Antonio Ferrara points out, the door remained open throughout the day so that passersby could not help but take note of the image and hence of the owner's wealth and power.

     

    Unlike Herculaneum, which lies deep beneath hardened rock, Pompeii is buried no more than ten feet below the surface under a fairly shallow layer of solidified volcanic detritus  (pebbles, dust). Pompeii was therefore relatively easy to excavate, and in fact two-thirds of this rich commercial city are excavated. However, for decades the complex and expensive work of protecting and preserving that already excavated two-thirds of the town has had priority, and no new excavations have been permitted. The problem is that the unexcavated one-third looms as a wall hovering over the excavated houses, temples and roads.

     

    The Priapus fresco, at the entry way of a  posh villa near the splendidly restored House of Marcus Lucretius Frontone, came as a truly unexpected gift. In the same wealthy household, in addition, a number of other handsome paintings have been found; on a nearby wall is the painted face of a woman -- a matron, the archaeologists call her. Elegant frescoed decorations also cover a wall in a bedroom near a garden area.

     

    The area abutting the unexcavated part of Pompeii is being shored up during consolidation work underway in Regio V, Insula 6, on the crowded Via del Vesuvio, the long road that crossed Pompeii from North to South. Involved in the current consolidation work are,  along with Via del Vesuvio, the Via dei Balconi (the Street of the Balconies) and the Via delle Nozze d'Argento (the Street of the Silver Wedding). The famous House of the Silver Wedding there is one of the most elaborate of all the villas at Pompeii, but has been closed to the public for decades. Happily its restoration is slated to begin this coming autumn,.

     

    Massimo Osanna, director general of Pompeii, explains that, "Pompeii is at a turning point in archaeological research, not only for these exceptional finds that literally thrill us, but also because a new scientific and interdisciplinary approach to their study has been adopted." Working together are geologists, architects, vulcanologists, engineers, restorers and specialists in paleobotanics, archeozoologists, physical anthropologists and restorers.  Another example of the results of the new approach, thanks to the current work on consolidation and restoration work, was the discovery last April inside the well known Central Baths of the skeleton of a child of seven or eight. The skeleton was found just a few inches (10 cm) below the surface, and is now under study in the Pompeiian research laboratory.

     

    The new work on Pompeii comes via the Grande Progetto Pompei, or Great Pompeii Project, passed in 2012, with support from the European Regional Development Fund as well as from the Italian government. The Project, which requires careful oversight of contracts, involves a half dozen Italian ministries together with Italian and other universities and research centers. Among its aims: reduction of hydro-geological risk by securing unexcavated embankments, as along the Via del Vesuvioo; consolidation and restoration of masonry and decorated surfaces throughout the site; protection of buildings from weather exposure; and expansion of video-surveillance.

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    Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened, a Story of Rediscovery (I.B. Tauris, London, 2007, 2015)

     

     

  • Credit: ESA
    Facts & Stories

    Meet the Italian Scientists who Discovered Lake Below Mars

    ROME -- The news that scientists had discovered what appears to be a vast lake deep beneath the South Pole on the planet Mars made worldwide headlines July 25, after it was first published in the U.S. magazine "Science". What the media described as an "epochal" achievement filled TV, press agency, dailies and news magazine reports that rocketed from New York and Washington to Australia. Italy came in for a healthy share of those headlines because the team of 22 making the discovery are Italians. In addition, a new camera created by Italians also made a first, sending 3D photos of sunsets on Mars.

     

    The lake is believed to lie beneath 1.5 km. layer of ice, but its temperature is possibly at or above freezing level (0 C.). The water appears to be composed of magnesium, calcium and sodium perchlorate, which together act like an anti-freeze that maintains its liquidity.

     

    The evidence of a hidden lake on Mars came via an Italian radar instrument called MARSIS, the first radar system sent to Mars to map its underground areas of water and ice. MARSIS, short for Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding, operates by sending low-frequency radio waves deep underneath the surface of the planet. Reaching rocks and boundaries, the waves bounce back, providing over time an underground geological map.

     

    As "National Geographic" explains in its detailed account, until 2012 the data gathered was of scant use, until the accumulated observations of "the team" began suggesting a "bigger picture."  (See  >>)

     

    The  Italian team brings together scientists and researchers from Roma Tre University, together with fellow scientists from the Italian Space Agency (ASI); the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF); the National Research Council (CNR); and La Sapienza University of Rome. Their research is conducted in the Roma Tre University laboratory in the Ostiense area of Rome.

     

    Team director is Elena Pettinello, who teaches Terrestial Physics at Roma Tre University. As she explains, when a series of bright reflections glowed on the MARSIS instrument, "We knew there was something there, and we were curious to know what was under that area. And we were stubborn enough to do the analysis."

     

    Prof. Pettinelli's specialty is the electromagnetic characterization of the soil simulations of Mars. In her background are two years of research at the Centre for Groundwater Research at Waterloo University, Canada (1992-3), and as the Italian scientist participant in the WISDOM instrument aboard the ESA EXOMARS.

     

    Scientific research is not a high priority here, and not everyone on Pettinello's team has had an easy time of it. Federico Di Paolo, 36, a geophysicist, made a living on a series of research grants but has just left the project for a permanent job at the Vulcanological Institute in the Canary Islands. "Being only semi-employed does not exactly help research," he told the Italian press. Sebastiano Lauro, 38, had six annually renewed research fellowships until he finally was awarded a three-year research contract at Roma Tre University working with Prof. Pettinelli.

     

    Elisabetta Mattei related that from June 2017 through March 2018 the team had no income until, at last, a proper contract arrived that month. Another team member, Barbara Cosciotti, 38, told a reporter from La Repubblica daily, "When I ask for a mortgage, they laugh in my face!" She said that the instrument requires distilled water to function but that the bureaucracy "is so complicated that to get it in the end we just go ourselves to the store to buy it."

     

    Until his death in August of 2015 at 77, project coordinator had been Giovanni Picardi of La Sapienza University of Rome. Prof. Picardi is affectionately remembered as the MARSIS "Principal Investigator," the brilliant scientist  behind its development. He provided fundamental contributions to all the radar systems operating around other bodies of the Solar System. "What he has done and what he has given to radar science will remain for present and future students and scientists, and the seeds of his activity will remain in the Italian and international community," said an obituary published by the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences.

     

    Spectacular 3D images of the Mars surface, taken by a special camera called CaSSIS, created by a team headed by Nicolas Thomas of the University of Bern, Switzerland, have also been recently retrieved. CaSSIS is an international project by the Italian Space Agency working with Italian industry, and in particular Leonardo SpA, which furnished the highly sophisticated optronic heart of the camera.

     
  • Facts & Stories

    Sergio Marchionne: An Indelible Legacy

    ROME - His operation had been described as routine, and the Italian media reported that his condition had "precipitated almost without warning" and perhaps caused by an " unspecified aggressively infectious disease, only recently diagnosed."   

    Instead Marchionne had known for a year that he suffered from cancer, and the operation was to remove a malignant tumor. He had kept this diagnosis rigorously secret even though, seen on TV a few days before his death, Marchionne appeared weak and to be gasping for air, as if suffering from a grave heart condition. The fact that he was a heavy smoker surely aggravated his condition.

    No one knows why this genius manager kept his illness so rigidly secret: was it to protect the FCA from attacks on its stock market quotes? To keep the company's 236,000 employees in good spirits? Or did he choose to believe that he could beat cancer, as he had so many other enemies? Whatever the cause, the loss is enormous.

    Marchionne was born at Chieti in the Abruzzo,  120 miles from Rome, where his father was a Carabiniere policeman. At age 13 in 1965, his family emigrated to Toronto, Ontario, where a serious advantage was that to his native Italian he gained fluency in English and French. At the University of Toronto the multi-talented Marchionne studied philosophy  before acquiring a master's degree in business administration from the University of Windsor as well as a law degree in 1983 at the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, Canada. He then went to work as an accountant.

    He took over the failing 119-year-old Fiat Group in Turin in 2004. In his 14 years of leadership he relaunched Fiat  and merged it with the bankrupt Chrysler in the United States. To bring this off in Italy Marchionne successfully challenged Italy's rough-and-tumble trade unions, telling the workers in Turin 14 years ago that either they accepted a wage cut or he would walk out and they would all be out in the street. The Italian TV news broadcasts these days are full of interviews with the older workers who accepted this, as well as the odd interview with trade unionists who still consider themselves hoodwinked. At the same time he was also battling Volkswagen to maintain control over Alfa Romeo, and successfully promoting Ferrari. The most successful models for which he was responsible included the Alfa 159, the Nuova Cinquecento, and the best-selling Grande Punto, according to the Turin daily "La Stampa."

    Another signal success was his launch of the Jeep Renegade, produced along with the Fiat 500X  in Melfi in the Basilicata region in Southern Italy. The ultra-modern Melfi plant represented a $1.2 billion investment and, together with a neighboring FCA-owned support company, employs almost 11,000. At 16 his father had given him a Fiat 124 Coupe, and in one of his last public appearances on July 21 at Ivrea he consigned a Jeep Wrangler to  the Carabinieri Corps, speaking proudly of his Carabiniere father and obviously deeply moved.

    As one of the older metal mechanic workers said, "With him the approach to our work changed. The determination to achieve our objectives was increased. Maybe one could have tried to put less stress on us workers, but that was Marchionne, working hard for the FCA 24 hours out of 24. And thanks to him you can see the results." For another worker at a FCA plant at Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples, "It has not been easy, there were so many conflicts! But he made courageous choices shifting production of the Panda from Poland back to Italy. He kept us alive, investing a million dollars for the plant, now at the top in Italy." Nevertheless 4,600 laid-off employees are on relief until September 2019, after which they have no certainties.

    Marchionne was chairman of the Italian branch of the Council for the United States and Italy, his private think tank whose founders included Gianni Agnelli and David Rockefeller. The aim of this organization, which alternates meetings annually at Venice or New York/Washington, is to foster ties between the two nations especially in business and finance. It draws together the two countries' business world elite, and its Young Leaders program has already produced 800 alumni in all fields, from CEOs to academics, ambassadors, media stars and civil society leaders.

    Veteran foreign correspondent Dennis Redmont, former director of Associated Press in Rome, heads the Council's office for Communication, Media and Development and as such has worked closely with Marchionne. At its last Council workshop meeting in Venice, Redmont records, Marchionne acknowledged that the discussion between the US and Italy had turned at times "difficult," but that, "Part of civil society wants to bridge our societies, embracing technology and going forward in both economic and social development. Our group strongly believes in that."

    The Council under Marchionne's leadership became a "radar for hard and soft landings of the economy and an incubator for the leadership in all fields," says Redmont. "Behind his black sweater, his checkered shirts and his perpetual Muratti cigarette lived a man who was always 'ahead of the curve' in political, social and economic playing fields and profoundly attuned to the times.... In his factories he forged ahead with radical transformations and some new secret production tweaks that will only be unveiled in a few years."

    For the company Marchionne leaves, problems lie ahead. The ultra-compact Fiats produced for the US market have not been the desired success. China out-manufactures and outsells every other car maker, and is a tough challenge. The financial press points out that FCA has no easy financing sidebar company, as others do. Other challenges are non-stop globalization and automation, bringing about the "end of the 20th century, of the factory culture, of the primary position of finance behind the workplace," in the words of Michele Serra, columnist with La Repubblica.

    Not least, Fiat Chrysler chairman John Elkann, 42, named the particularly successful head of Jeep and Ram, the Briton Mike Manley, "the man of the Jeep miracle,"  to replace Marchionne. The appointment triggered the immediate resignation of the highest-ranking Italian in the corporation, Alfredo Altavilla, long Marchionne's right hand man for FCA's European operations. As one Fiat employee at Pomigliano said, "Knowing that we have been turned over to a non-Italian administrator is worrying." Already 80% of FCA profits come from the US, where Altavilla had no experience. Stock markets have shared in these concerns.

     
  • Chairman & CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Sergio Marchionne
    Facts & Stories

    John Elkann: Sergio Marchionne "Will not Return"

    ROME -- The Italian component of Fiat-Chrysler cars was already in crisis when Sergio Marchionne, 66, was in a university hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, on June 28, supposedly for an operation on his shoulder. But then Marchionne took a "sudden and sharp" turn for the worse, and is now unconscious on life-support; some here whisper the real cause is cancer, but no official statement has yet come. He last appeared in public on June 26 in Italy, two days before hospitalization. 

    Although TV news footage from that day shows Marchionne weak and with apparent trouble breathing, some Italian press accounts say that the situation "precipitated almost without warning" while others spoke of an "unspecified aggressively infectious disease" only recently diagnosed. Whatever the cause, no  improvement will come, for his condition is "irreversible," according to the hospital; and on July 21 Fiat Chrysler chairman, John Elkann, 42, wrote a wistful semi-obituary letter to the company's 236,000 employees, reminding them that it was Marchionne's "intellect, perseverance and leadership that saved Fiat." 

    Marchionne, born in Italy but raised in Canada, took over the then failing 119-year-old Fiat company in 2004. In his 14 years of leadership he relaunched Fiat in Turin, despite union opposition, and merged  it with the failing Chrysler in the United States. He literally saved both while successfully promoting Ferrari and a successful line of Jeeps, the Renegade, produced in Melfi in the Basilicata region in Southern Italy, together with the Fiat 500X, after a $1.2 billion investment. The ultra-modern Melfi plant and a supportive neighboring FCA-owned support company employ almost 11,000.

    Marchionne was born at Chieti in the Abruzzo, where his father was a Carabiniere policeman. In 1965, when he was 13, his family emigrated to Toronto, Ontario, where one of the advantages was that he added fluency in English and French to his native Italian. At the University of Toronto the multi-talented Marchionne studied philosophy, law and business, before acquiring a law degree and going to work as an accountant. 

    Among Marchionne's many later roles he served as chairman of the Italian branch of the Council for the United States and Italy, whose founders included Giovanni Agnelli and David Rockefeller. For this organization, whose aim is to foster ties between the two nations especially in business and finance, he spoke some years ago at a congenial dinner in Venice which I had the privilege to attend.

    In 2014 the two companies he literally saved in Italy and the US, Fiat and Chrysler, formally merged, becoming the world's seventh largest auto manufacturer, now called the FCA. To bring this off in Italy Marchionne successfully challenged Italy's rough-and-tumble trade unions, telling the workers in Turin 14 years ago that either they accepted a wage cut or he would walk out and they would all be out in the street. The Italian TV news broadcasts these days are full of interviews with the older workers who accepted this, as well as the odd interview with trade unionists who still consider themselves hoodwinked. As one of the older metal mechanic workers said, "With him the approach to our work changed. The determination to achieve our objectives was increased. Maybe one could have tried to put less stress on us workers, but that was Marchionne, working hard for the FCA 24 hours out of 24. And thanks to him you can see the results."

    From another worker at a FCA plant at Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples, "It has not been easy, there were so many conflicts! But he made courageous choices shifting production of the Panda from Poland back to Italy. He kept us alive, investing a million dollars for the plant, now at the top in Italy." Nevertheless 4,600 laid-off employees are on relief until September 2019, after which they have no certainties.

    Other problems are already visible. The ultra-compact Fiats produced for the US market have not been the desired success. China out-manufactures and outsells every other car maker, and is a tough challenge. The financial press points out that FCA has no easy financing sidebar company, as others do. Other challenges are non-stop globalization and automation, bringing about the "end of the 20th century, of the factory culture, of the primary position of finance behind the workplace," in the words of Michele Serra, columnist with La Repubblica.

    Not least, to replace Marchionne,  Elkann named the particularly successful head of Jeep and Ram, the British Mike Manley, dubbed "the man of the Jeep miracle." The appointment triggered the immediate resignation of the highest-ranking Italian in the corporation,  Alfredo Altavilla, who had been Marchionne's right hand man for FCA's European operations. Indeed, his resignation, whose hurried timing with Marchionne on death's door, seems to have left his fellow FCA executives irritated. 

    Most worrying, the new appointment suggests the further decline in Italy of Fiat itself; already 80% of FCA profits come from the US, where Altavilla had no experience. As one Fiat employee at Pomigliano said, "Knowing that we have been turned over to a non-Italian administrator is worrying." Stock markets echoed these concerns. On Monday, just one day after Elkann's letter, the FCA was down by 1.5% and Ferrari, by 4.8%.

  • Ivrea, Ponte Vecchio
    Facts & Stories

    UNESCO Names Industrial Ivrea as World Heritage Site

    ROME -- On July 1 UNESCO named Ivrea in North Italy a World Heritage Site, and the "ideal industrial city of the 20th Century." The city identified with Olivetti, the renowned manufacturer of office machinery founded in 1896, is Italy's 54th to be accorded World Heritage status by UNESCO, and in absolute the nation's industrial city. The tribute to Ivrea and to Olivetti, whose buildings covered 70% of the urban area, was in the planning for a decade. The company manufactured world-class early typewriters and printers and, more recently, computers, tablets and smartphones. In its heritage is the Olivetti Foundation.

    A distinct example

    In announcing the honor, UNESCO said that, "Ivrea represents a distinct example of social and architectural experimentation for the industrial processes, and an innovative experience in worldwide industrial production that takes into particular consideration the well being of the local communities. The industrial city of Ivrea represents a significative example of 20th Century theories of urban development and architecture, and a response to the social and industrial transformation including the transition from mechanical to digital industries."

    Olivetti's industrial revolution

    Camillo Olivetti was succeeded as general manager in 1933 by his far-sighted second son Adriano, who in the next three decades kited the family business into a "global phenomenon," in the words of the Rockefeller Foundation. What has been called Adriano Olivetti's "humanist" approach was spelled out in the Community Program Manifesto of 1963, inspired by the early industrial utopianism of the French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier (1772 - 1837) and Henri de Saint-Simon, contemporaries of Robert Owen in England. Theirs was the early industrial revolution, and they preached that all good men had a duty to promote the general welfare of every individual in society. Adriano was also influenced by the Italian anti-Fascist intellectuals Piero Gobetti and Carlo Rosselli, who was murdered in 1937 by right-wing assassins. Implicitly in selecting the Olivetti industrial city, UNESCO is honoring that humanistic approach to industry.

    In the view of Adriano Olivetti the assembly line was only a part of life, and it was the bosses' role to take into serious consideration his workers' entire life -- to find "harmony between private and public life, between work and the home." This concern for workers' housing and construction of handsome factories also meant construction of user-friendly neighborhoods plus comfortable, aesthetically pleasing centers for social services and their leisure time activities. Architecture -- the use of space -- played a fundamental role. Among the architects responsible for the buildings Olivetti intended to be inspiring were Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa. The result is that, for the first time in Italy, an industrial city is placed on the same level of "historical, cultural and aesthetic interest", and hence warrants the same degree of protection, as a cathedral, historic palazzo or monument, as Paolo Furia of the University of Torino points out in his study of industry at Ivrea

    A jewel in the Alpine foothills

    Ivrea is a town in the Alpine foothills near Turin in Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, and believed to have been occupied at different times by Celts in the 5th century BCE; by Romans in 100 BCE; and by the Lungobardi (Lombards) after the 6th Century AD. In the 13th century it was ruled by the Emperor Frederick II. Among its pre-industrial monuments is its 14th Century castle and its Old Bridge (Ponte Vecchio), first constructed of wood in the year 100 AD and rebuilt on stone in the 18th Century. 

  • "Bufala"
    Op-Eds

    When "Bufala" Whoppers Roam Through the News

    ROME -- In Italian the word "bufala" means not mamma buffalo, as in "mozzarella di bufala" (mozzarella made from water buffalo milk), but "hoax," a whopper or, in up-to-date jargon, fake news. And no less than anywhere else, whoppers are roaming through the news ranges of Italy via semi-anonymous or masqueraded Facebook entries and blogs, from which they travel onward, all too often, as supposedly legitimate news items. 

    My personal disinformation favorite is a photo that circulated nine years ago showing a man identified as Ako Sharmootah. (Actually, the supposed name translates into "your sister is a bitch.") Ako has a definitely Arabic look, and is therefore a Muslim. In a caption he is denounced because, "He wants to impose upon Italy the use of Arab numerals. Agree if this makes you indignant!!" Eventually the man in the photograph was identified as a political extremist in prison in the UK. Still, the idea caught on, and in an updated version circulated now, a young man in Arab headgear named Tarim Bu Aziz is described as seeking  "greater integration [of foreigners] by having Arab numerals introduced into Italian schools." 

    But guess what: as most of us recall from school, our decimal number system, which originated in India some 1,300 years ago, was introduced into Europe in the 12th century. Otherwise we would not have algebra and would still be writing MMXIIX for 2018. So what was the point of someone making such a claim? First, the author of this "bufala" assumes that his audience of the non-elite do not know the meaning of the words "Arab numerals", and that this insertion, while fostering anti-Muslim sentiment, will generate fear and a desire to protect the children. Before this was removed as a "bufala," it received 9,000 shares.

    In another phony whopper with a photo, Italians were told that "230 Italians were kicked out of their neighborhood to make room for migrants." As it happened, the 230 were Italians who were obliged to leave their homes because an earthquake had left the houses unsafe. 

    Fortunately Italy has a dedicated "bufala" hunter who calls himself maicolengel butac. Michelangelo Coltelli (his real name) is a 45-year-old from Bologna whose family businesses are, on one side, running the 184-year-old jewelry shop Gioielleria Coltelli and, on the other, medicine. In an exclusive interview Coltelli explained that, in 2013, after the birth of his first child, he was overwhelmed with so-called facts which, from the doctors in the family, he knew to be untrue. This spurred in him a passion to understand what fake news is all about, and a desire to denounce disinformation. And so he did, in a blog that has gained nationwide interest, www.butac.it, "Butac" being short for "Bufale un tanto al chilo", which translates to "Whoppers by the kilo." He describes himself as "touchy,skeptical, a rationalist, the devil's advocate."

    Among the whoppers he pointed out is a photo, reproduced in La Repubblica daily, of a sailor supposedly aboard the ship the Aquarius, which took migrants to a Spanish port after Italy refused them entry. This "sailor" was "fired because he told the truth," said a caption. Once again, the disinformation theme was essentially anti-migrants. Another whopper Coltelli uncovered shows a photo purporting to be a doll that had been made to resemble a real victim of a child drowned in Libya. The photo, doll included, was intended to look fake, with a set and actors. The point was to show that the many drownings of children off the Libyan coast are untrue. That is, this was fake news purporting to denounce fake news.

    Who is behind this? "Paid professionals," says Coltelli, who, for his pains, has received serious threats to his life. Not surprisingly, political parties are among those suspected of paying for what is plainly professional disinformation. An example was a video at Christmas 2016, when "migrants" appear to be destroying a Christmas tree. The video was actually of the theft of a Christmas tree in the Galleria Umberto in Naples in 2013, but falsely identified as placed on a Facebook page by the "Department of Security and Immigration Northern League Bergamo." 

    Another "bufala", which circulated in Italy just last week, shows a gigantic crowd of people in front of a big opening, as of a ship's hold. The caption: "Here is a port in Libya, with everybody ready to come to Italy." In fact, the crowd was attending a Pink Floyd concert held July 15, 1989, in Venice. And over a year ago, moving farther from home, the elite of the Italian press including Corriere della Sera published a report, later revealed as false, that President Donald Trump had denounced the Statue of Liberty as "anachronistic, ugly and an invitation to immigrants."

  • photo by Alessio Jacona
    Facts & Stories

    Salvini to Saviano: "Off with his bodyguards!"

    ROME -- For most of us, Roberto Saviano, 39, is one of Italy's great heroes. The author of "Gomorrah," the book that nailed the Neapolitan organized crime gangs, and of other investigations into organized crime, was awarded the PEN/Pinter Prize and the Olof Palme Prize in 2011. A successful movie was made of his book, and, in a truly signal honor, an asteroid was named  "Saviano" by the International Astronomical Union. But this week he tangled, not with the gangland murderers who have threatened his life for 11 years, but with Italy's top cop, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

    Since the new government was installed just three weeks ago, Matteo Salvini has exercised power also as deputy prime minister. His populist Lega party has won praise from Steve Bannon, the former campaign strategist for President Donald Trump, who is quoted in "The Daily Beast" as saying that, if [Salvini] populism works in Italy, "It is going to work everywhere. It shows that it is going to break the backs of the globalists."

    Bannon was frequently in Italy during last spring's election campaign, to the point that the distinguished "New York Times" columnist Roger Cohen suggested that Bannon was "perhaps even instrumental....in the formation of an anti-European, anti-immigrant government in Italy." As for Bannon himself, he was consulted on the eve of forming a government, and advised that an alliance of  the Lega and the Movimento Cinque Stelle would be brilliant: "You are the first guys who can really break the left and right paradigm." Thus the new government was born.

    Saviano's purported misstep was to "vomit hatred on Matteo Salvini," as the rightist daily "Libero" put it. On a Facebook video Saviano had called Salvini the "Minister of Crooks," a politician elected by Calabrian criminals with "the votes of those who die for the n'ndrangheta."

    Saviano also alleged that, at an election campaign speech by Salvini, the front row was occupied by mafia bosses. "For me he is the boss of a party of thieves: almost 50 million Euros handed out as reimbursements for stolen votes" -- that is, funds seized by police from the Mafia and not yet handed over to the state but, said Saviano, to the Lega (which now says the funds are being consigned, however).

    Among the many siding in the dispute with Saviano was Salman Rushdie. Not surprisingly, the new Interior Minister displayed displeasure at this attack by suggesting that Saviano's round-the-clock police protection -- two armed cars and five Carabinieri policemen accompany him everywhere -- be eliminated, a financial saving. To this an angry Saviano responded: "I am proud to be among your enemies.... Italy has the most journalists under protection of any Western country because it has the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.

    "But Matteo Salvini, Minister of the Interior, instead of fighting against the mafias, threatens to reduce to silence those who tell of it," said Saviano. Living with bodyguards since he was 26 years old, he said, he had received threats from the Casalesi in Southern Italy and from Mexican narcos. "So do you think you can threaten me, intimidate me?" By raising the possibility of removing my police escort, Salvini is signalling my place in the long list of his enemies." (See https://www.facebook.com/RobertoSavianoFanpage/videos/10155679630941864/

    Saviano is not the only Italian journalist to live under daily threat. Nineteen other Italian journalists live under 24-hour police protection after death threats, not only from organized crime, but also from fundamentalist and anarchic groups. According to the most recent annual report by Reporters Sans Frontières, in terms of security for its journalists, Italy ranks fairly low, 46th down, among the 180 nations studied.

    Politics as well as organized crime plays a role, and rightist parties are known to publicize the names of those who disturb them, said RSF.  The situation is particularly bad in Calabria, Sicily and the Campania, but also in Rome itself. Besides threats and car burnings, their homes are broken into, and computers and documents stolen.

    Just one of these living under protection is Paolo Borrometi,  journalist who testified in a Siracusa courtroom in a trial of an alleged Mafia boss. A defense lawyer asked, "And just why did you have to write about my client?" "Because it is my work," Borrometi responded. "Because it is in the Constitution." A local boss was overheard by police threatening to have Borrometi killed. Follow his tweet at https://twitter.com/paoloborrometi?lang=en

     

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