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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    The People Tsunami in Italy’s Back Yard

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    Rome—One can almost pity Ignazio Benito La Russa. The stress must be horrendous: as Italy’s war minister in the government headed by Silvio Berlusconi, this former neo-Fascist activist in the defunct Italian Social Movement currently speaks for the defense forces in a country committed to fighting two wars: one to bring democracy to Afghanistan and the other, to rid Libya of Muammar Gaddafi. There is little support for either, and the government is literally split in two over whether to support or unseat the Libyan leader. On the personal level as well, La Russa is under siege for his hiring of a young soap opera starlet named Hoara Borselli, whose entire contribution to the Defense Ministry effort so far, in exchange for earning about as much as one of La Russa’s soldiers, was to organize a band concert.

    Small wonder, then, that Minister La Russa was edgy enough to lose his temper in Parliament Wednesday. Red of face, shaking with rage, he shouted and screamed so loudly at the leftist opposition that Chamber of Deputies President Gianfranco Fini asked him to speak more calmly. By way of response La Russa shook his arm at Fini in an unmistakable gesture and mouthed certain ugly words. Just as at a soccer match, a replay of the TV footage gave precise evidence of the Minister’s saying a phrase as unmistakable as the jabbing arm: Vaffa ‘n’ cxxx. (Go fxxx yourself.)

    After the fact La Russa explained lamely that, outside the doors of Parliament, he faced raucous hecklers, some tossing coins at him in gesture of scorn. Among these demonstrators, he said, was one who’d shouted at him on other occasions. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, Fini objected that this display of cursing and yelling offended the dignity of Parliament itself. An investigatory commission of Parliamentary prefects will meet to determine what if any punitive measures are in order.

    During the Sixties such shambollicky battles in Parliament were frequent, and deputies from far right and far left often ran menacingly toward each other until stalwart Parliamentary officials kept them apart bodily. The tossing of coins to insult a politician is also a tried-and-true way of showing disdain; in the Eighties Socialists Bettino Craxi and Gianni De Michelis were both assaulted in this way. But since then such displays of ill temper in Parliament have been rare, and their revival evokes a saddening general sense of chaos and of no one tending the store. Even as the shouting goes on, and the Premier and his team of 80 lawyers are engaged in a desperate hunt for legal loopholes allowing him to dodge what is called Rubygate and other trials, the problems accumulate. Not least, the government must figure out what to do with the 20,000 or so immigrants who have landed on Italian shores in recent weeks—“a tsunami of people,” as Berlusconi called them Friday.

    According to the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, the mass of hungry immigrants now on the island of Lampedusa, who continue to outnumber the local population, have just 16 chemical toilets and 1.5 liters of water per person per day. Standard for such refugee camps is 20 liters. There is little escaping of blame. As Charlotte Phillips of the Amnesty International Programme for Refugees and Migrants said bluntly, “The crisis has been created by the Italian government’s failure to respond adequately to the situation here in Lampedusa.”

    A problem for the 5,000 permanent residents of Lampedusa is that they live on summer tourism, and the grim reports and pictures sent worldwide can hardly be tourist attractions. And so, to show that his government was not absorbed in Parliamentary pyrotechnics to the point that it ignored the Lampedusa crisis, this week Premier Berlusconi logged onto an island real estate agency and—to show his solidarity—purchased, over the Internet, a villa on the island, in what was presumably intended as the equivalent of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s saying, at the Berlin Wall in 1962, “Ich bin eine Berliner.” The morning after his purchase of the villa Berlusconi personally dropped in on the island, which he promised to “liberate” within 60 hours, by shipping the migrants elsewhere in Italy to hastily-organized (read: not yet organized) tent towns called Centers for Émigré Identification (CEI).

    That was Wednesday. Alas, winds and the sea whipped up, and two ships that were to take the refugees—escapees from poverty and politics—elsewhere were obliged to stay behind, though not in Berlusconi’s newly acquired villa. And in the meantime some of those already sent to a CEI camp at Manduria near Taranto in Calabria discovered a weak point in the fence that kept them locked inside, and simply walked away—where, no one knows. Meantime, on the Northern Italian border with France, which declines to accept refugees, reporters said that Italian guards were literally turning a blind eye to escapees slipping across the border to enter France.

    The next step is to try to stop the emigration at the source. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League has therefore announced that Italy may have to “force” Tunisia to block further departures (most of the arrivals are Tunisians) as well as to accept repatriations.

  • A Veteran Italianist Looks at Libya. Interview with David Willey

    ROME –David Willey, a reporter who has covered Italy and the Vatican since 1973 for the BBC, is the quintessential British subject. Cambridge educated, he speaks such excellent English that his broadcasts are used for teaching the language. At the same time he has a special affinity for Italy, for his grandparents were emigres to London from the Veneto, and his mother took great pride in her own Italian roots, sending young Willey to Italy for vacations with the Veneto cousins.

    Between then and now he covered the Vietnam war and, for the past twenty years, frequently covered Libya, where in 1986 he came under the bombs of American-British planes, was once arrested by Gaddafi’s police and twice interviewed Muammar Gaddafi himself. Most recently he followed Gaddafi’s state visit to Italy, a celebration of an unusual treaty between the two countries. In an exclusive interview we asked Willey to give us a personal close-up view of Gaddafi himself, of the country and of what makes the Italian-Libyan treaty of 2009 so unusual.

    In a word, how would you describe Libya?

    Dramatic. It is not a normal country—its dramatic geography shows 95% desert, with only a narrow habitable coastal strip. Almost all inhabitants live in coastal cities. It is in fact two countries—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which are divided by geography and by tribe. This makes Libya more a geographical expression than a country likely to have a united future.

    What is your personal view of Gaddafi—what kind of a man is he?

    He is a man of little formal education who nonetheless prides himself in having written a book of political philosophy, the Green Book, which purports to set out a blueprint for life and for a government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ but which bears little resemblance to any known political system in the world. I’ve read it—he personally gave me a copy. At one point ambiguous phrases from it were hung up in banners at Tripoli Airport, such as, ‘All power is latent.’ Few travelers could figure just what that meant.

    Can he resist today’s attempts to unseat him?

    His whereabouts are always kept secret, and he is said to sleep in a different bed every night, in a country that is vast. He comes from a Bedouin tribe, and Bedouins are nomads so this nomadic existence is completely in character with the history of his family and of his tribe. Muammar Gaddafi has been in power for forty-two years. He has shown himself to be eccentric and unpredictable, but the mere fact that he has survived numerous assassination attempts shows what a survivor he is. He came to power at the age of only twenty-nine. Although his face appears ravaged despite plastic surgery, he is still under seventy years of age and retains both the will and the resources to continue to defy those wishing to unseat him. His financial resources help: he is sitting on a pot of gold and dollars, in cash, which he is prepared to disperse to keep himself and his family in power.

    What impression does he give during an interview?

    He has a good working knowledge of English because he was trained in the UK by the British army, but is reluctant to speak English in public, preferring to speak Arabic. He is canny but also very prolix—like Castro, he tends to speak for hours, and even during interviews his answers are long and sometimes rambling. He has immense charisma and is clearly in control of the military machine which the coalition forces are now doing their best to destroy. The contrast between his military forces and the ragtag followers of the rebel army is acute, however, and no one should conclude that the rebels can have an easy victory. I also attended the 40th anniversary celebration for his revolution in 2009, when he erected a giant tent on the Tripoli waterfront and hired a troupe of 800 actors, musicians and dancers to put on a three-hour sound and light extravaganza, which culminated in a gallop by a thousand Berber warriors on horseback. What was notable about this spectacle was the limited size of the audience: there were Gaddafi himself and a dozen heads of African states, senior military officers and a small group of foreign journalists. The people of Tripoli were unexpectedly shut out of the park in which this megaspectacle took place from midnight to three am. Earlier that day the Italian Air Force acrobatic team had performed a courtesy fly-past with their trademark red, white and green vapor trails, the color of the Italian flag. Gaddafi found this hard to swallow and ordered the vapor trails to be photo-shopped to show only the color green, the official color of the Jamahariyah, the revolutionary republic of Libya.

    Tell us about the Libyan-Italian friendship treaty of 2009.

    The treaty put an end to decades of dispute between Libya and Italy over compensation for the misdeeds of Italian colonial rule from 1911 through the end of WWII. Italy agreed to pay Libya a sum of $20 billion over a period of 20 years, of which the major part would be spent on construction of a coastal highway stretching from the borders of Tunis to Egypt. This was essentially an upgrading of the century-old military road built by the Italian colonial regime. In fact, the cost of this huge engineering enterprise is to be borne by the Italian oil company ENI, which, under the treaty, in exchange obtained favorable treatment for oil exploration during the decades to come. The cost will be deducted from a levy on their profits. In short, the Italian taxpayer will not fund this blood money compensation—it comes out of Libyan oil money. It is a form of kickback, and the Libyans themselves will pay for it.

    Another part of this complex relationship as codified in the treaty concerns Italian support of Libyan naval patrols in the Mediterranean aimed at preventing sub-Saharan African emigration, including of people working in Libya, or making hazardous journeys across the immense desert.

    How do you feel about what is going on these days in Lampedusa, with fishermen blocking the harbor, a serious sanitation problem and residents infuriated? 

    Initially the residents treated the new arrivals with generosity, bringing them towels, food, water. But Lampedusa is an island, where such resources are limited by geography, and this week there were 6,000 immigrants for just 5,000 inhabitants. I hope that the Italian government's action plan announced Monday is successful, but this dire situation could and should have been foreseen. Nothing can justify the lack of advance planning. 

  • Op-Eds

    Free Speech in Italy: Journalist Enrico Mentana Speaks Freely

    ROME –When Jean-François Julliard, general secretary of Reporters Sans Frontières, announced last October that Italy had sunk to the 49th slot down the list of countries holding high the banner of press freedom, many Italians were less than shocked. After all, in an obviously unresolved conflict of interests, the businessman who also happens to head the government, Silvio Berlusconi, still owns three national TV networks and wields some (though not total) control over the three state-owned networks. Frequent and long addresses to the nation via TV are therefore a norm.

    Two key incidents showed what this control also means to the 70% of Italians who rely on TV for their news. First, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi stunned televiewers last November when he cavalierly phoned in, live, to a RAI TV broadcast called Ballarò, headed by the dignified and fairly non-controversial Giovanni Floris, to protest the talk-show on the risks from toxic waste in the Vesuvius park area town of Terzigno. When Floris attempted to step in with a comment, Berlusconi snapped, “You have to stop interrupting me,” adding, “I know more about TV than you do.” Sergio Zavoli, the authoritative journalist who presides over the RAI oversight commission, said later that the phone call from Berlusconi was “an inappropriate use of an outside intervention on live RAI TV.”

    Nevertheless, in January the director of RAI Channel One, Mauro Masi, emulated the Premier by breaking into a broadcast with a similar phone-in protest to Annozero, Michele Santoro’s controversial talk show.. The subject was the so-called “Rubygate,” about the relations between Berlusconi and a teenaged Moroccan girl, which Masi declared, on the air, was an improper use of state TV. Members of Berlusconi’s own Partito della Libertà later protested that the broadcast had been “the usual [attempt] to put Premier Berlusconi on trial” and called for Santoro to be investigated by a RAI oversight commission.

    In yet another instance of tele-shut-up tactics, on Jan. 24 Berlusconi called a broadcast by Gad Lerner—again live during the show called L’Infedele—with negative observations on the on-going discussion like “disgusting…false…distorted…repugnant..far from the truth.” Worst of all, he called the broadcast “a whorehouse.”

    Not surprisingly, then, concerns over press freedom in Italy have grown. The ninth edition of the World Classification of Press Freedom issued by Reporters Sans Frontières showed Italy plunging a striking five notches below its rank of just two years before, to finish in a tie with Burkina Faso. Italy, moreover, placed below Bosnia, South Africa, Latvia and—get this—Romania. Only 13 of the 27 European Union members were listed high in the survey of respect for the freedom of the press, but all remaining EU members, including Italy, occupied the lower rungs.

    Nevertheless, the important point is that, despite the pressures for Santoro’s program to be blocked, at this writing that show goes on. And despite the legitimate concerns, the authoritative TV anchor Enrico Mentana, for one, claims that, “Those saying there is no freedom of speech here are wrong. We have courageous broadcasters. And on the newsstands you can find every type of journal, with every point of view. We have absolute freedom of speech.”

    Mentana is chief anchorman of La Sette, the lone alternative to the Berlusconi TV chain or the state channels. Curiously, he has worked for both before helping to found La Sette. In a session with a small number of journalists at the Foreign Press Association in Rome, Mentana reviewed his own relations with the two. In 1992, coincident with the Tangentopoli kickbacks scandal that resulted in the birth of the Second Republic, Mentana left his RAI slot for Berlusconi’s Mediaset, owners of his TV networks. “At the time I was told, ‘This is free TV, you can do anything you want—go ahead and show that you are freer and more able than RAI.’”

    But times changed. Berlusconi entered politics, and in 2004 Mentana was forced to resign after 13 years. “I was sacked, I believe because I was a challenge to the system, first to RAI and then to Mediaset.” The immediate cause was his broadcast on the death of Eluana, a woman in a coma for 14 years, whose father decided to have artificial life support systems removed. Mentana sued Mediaset, and in May 2009, “I won—and also became famous.” The new 8 pm news broadcast was born, and today La Sette commands an audience of 2.5 million and continues to grow. “We decided to have only serious news, without the slush of infotainment. And above all to try to tell the truth—for instance, on RAI, if there are rude photos of the Premier, they will not be shown.”

    Those interested can also see, disturbingly on the web from something called “Stormfront,” the headline: “Another Jew at La7: Enrico Mentana,” “son of a Jewish mother, therefore of the pure Jewish race.”

    Stay tuned.

  • Op-Eds

    Gaddafi, the Once and Future Friend

    At the beginning Italy dragged its feet over reactions to Gaddafi’s brutal attacks on anti-regime demonstrators. The initial reaction of Premier Silvio Berlusconi was to say that he did not want to “bother” the Libyan leader with protests. Then, pressed by the U.S. and the European Union, Foreign Minister Francesco Frattini agreed to follow the lead of the EU, the United Nations and even the Arab League in calling for an immediate cessation of the murderous attacks. In an interview with the daily Corriere della Sera on March 12, Italy, Frattini acknowledged that Italy needed to clear up “doubts and uncertainties” as to its position.

    On that same day Gaddafi’s son Saif also gave an interview to La Repubblica, in which he spelled out the issues. Herewith textual quotes:

    “We have been very unappy: you are Libya’s foremost world partner, the number one for natural gas, for petroleum and for trade, yet we have seen Italy remain silent in the face of those terrorists who killed our policemen in cold blood who tore the hearts from cadavers, who burnt them, who stamped on their hearts with their boots. Haven’t you see the videos of these scenes? I ask you Italians: show me the traces of the air bombardment! This is the time for true friends, and now Italy must change its position, understand that what you’ve heard over the past two weeks is false. Here is the message for Italy: the Libyan people are united, soon we shall win the battle against these terrorists, Insh’allah, and then we will take stock. It will be very easy to substitute Italy with China or Russia; China is asking us, they want to be our foremost [trading] partner. Beware.

    “We are irritated by the Italian position. Berlusconi is our friend. We are close, we are friends. We could have expected this from France, Great Britain, Sweden, but not Italy. The Chinese back us, the Brazilians, Russians, South Africa, but whatever happened to the Italians? We have a common future. If we lose the battle here, you are next. If we win, you will be safe…. Libya is a front line for Italy. What happens today here will decide what will happen tomorrow with you. So—beware.” 

    It will not be easy for Italy to ignore these all too open threats. Saif is telling the turth about a “common future.”  In fact, discussion of creating a no-flight zone over Libya stalled Tuesday at the G-8 meeting in New York, where the U.S. was cautious and Italy among those opposing. According to the New York Times, Frattini was in opposition, explaining that Russia had argued that a no-flight zone would be ineffective and even counterproductive.

    For the moment, Italy is therefore bowing to EU pressure, but keeping its distance from the leader at least treated as a friend in past years is difficult. Foreign policy leaders are deeply uneasy about what they are to do if and when Gaddafi successfully shuts down the opposition. For Italy, it is a tough call: most hearts are with the anti-regime demonstrators, but the pocketbooks—the suits—are with Gaddafi, as are concerns over energy requirements, all the more aggravated by the new EU fears over nuclear power. The closer Gaddafi’s heavily armed military and police goons close in on the rebels, the harder that choice becomes for Italy.

    It seems only yesterday—well, actually, nine months ago—that 500 women turned up in Rome to hear Muammar Gaddafi give a specific address on a sweltering day in June. The Libyan leader’s stated purpose when asking the Italians to provide an all-female audience was “to save women,” and those enthusiasts who attended did not seem at all to mind either his paternalistic posture, his bad hair day or his all-female corps of bodygaurds. Indeed, in this, his third visit to the country, Gaddafi was given star treatment and plenty of lusty applause from the well groomed businesswomen and female politicians. He had arrived for the state visit with thirty horses (just why is unclear) and a gigantic tent, which was raised in that portion of the Doria Pamphilj park in Rome which that family had genously donated to the Italian state in the Seventies; inside that tent at midnight one night Premier Silvio Berlusconi paid a friendly visit to the Libyan leader.

    Reports from a hotel owner on Capri that one of Gaddafi’s other sons had drunkenly trashed a room were politely ignored.

    Statistics explain why. Almost one-third of Libyan oil (32%) comes to Italy and another 12% of its gas is purchased by Italy. The quality of that oil, not coincidentally, is considered extremely high, moreover, which explains why the world’s airline fleets—including those in the U.S.—prefer Libyan crude. Altogether, Italy resolves 80% of its energy requirements through Italy. In return, Libya buys more of its weapons from Italy than from any other nation. According to a January 2011 report by the European Union, Italy provides a third of weapons sold to Libya from EU countries, in the amount of $153 million in 2009, the latest statistics available. 

    Libya owns a hearty stake in UniCredit, the former Banco di Roma, and in a soccer team. Countless other private and public companies hold fat contracts for construction projects. The quid pro quo: a formal agreement that Libya would do its utmost to block emigrants from heading toward Italy via Libya. And in 2010 Italy gave Libya $5 billion as compensation for its 32 years of colonial rule that ended in 1943.

  • Art & Culture

    In Search of the Real Caravaggio

    ROME – Archivists toiling away in dusty libraries are the Cinderellas of art history, and yet the men and women whose building blocks of documentation recreate the greatest glories of culture. So it is with Caravaggio. Marking the fourth centennial of his death, he is the subject of an elegant exhibition of original archival material supplemented by paintings—two Caravaggio masterpieces and others by his peers. Caravaggio in Rome, Una Vita dal Vero (Caravaggio in Rome, A Life Seen from Truth) is on view through May 15 inside the original La Sapienza University of Rome building with its chapel by Borromini, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. This was Caravaggio territory: here he lived, worked, drank in taverns, and walked the streets with his friends in the middle of the night. Here too he quarreled—just why and how often is being revealed only now, in the work of a team of seven young art historians, paleographers, archivists and historians from the Tor Vergata University in Rome.

    Michelagnolo Merisi (his real name) da Caravaggio was born in 1573 and died in 1610, aged 37. He was an extraordinarily visionary artist who marked the point in time when the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque. For his experiments in creating chiaroscuro effects he is considered the first modern painter. He was also among the earliest to depict ordinary people in extraordinary situations, as in his inspired chapel wall paintings of around 1600 known as the Calling of St. Mathew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

    Any Caravaggio exhibition is a blockbuster, and art historians acknowledge that he ranks in popularity today with Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Besides his visionary works of art, his turbulent life style captures imaginations, and book shelves are well stocked with biographies. However, knowledge of his life has been based largely upon diplomats’ reports sent to such foreign states as Mantua and Lombardy. An important early account of his life was written by Giovanni Pietro Bellori, but Bellori was born three years after Caravaggio died. Caravaggio himself left no diary, no last will and testament, either because he was illiterate or simply died too young.

    Inside the old university building, the team was confronted with more than 60 kilometers of material inherited from the Vatican by the Italian state after unification in 1870. These official records, assembled into thick, ribbon-tied volumes called faldoni, were believed to include complaints to Vatican gendarmes (the birri, they were called) about Caravaggio and summaries of testimony given by witnesses at Inquisition tribunals. But the documents were in too poor condition to be deciphered properly until every page of his Roman years was restored. And there was urgency. The high acid content of the iron gall ink was eating up the documents; without restoration, all would be lost. To finance the slow restoration of ten volumes, each with from 600 to 2,500 parchment pages, art historian Eugenio Lo Sardo, director of the state archives, appealed to sponsors. From all walks of life they responded, among them the Italian Tobacconists Federation, the Axa Insurance Co. at Frosinone, Autoservizi, a bus company, and one individual, Prof. Giovanni Pezzola.

    The results have shown that Caravaggio was not born in the Lombard town of that name, but in Milan, and that he came to live in Rome not at age 19, as had been written, but when he was 25, making him something less than the child prodigy heretofore depicted. The new information also sheds light on his friendship with a kindly Sicilian artist, his wife and four children. The police blotters and court records also document just how aggressive he was. In one instance, around 2 am on May 4, 1598, Caravaggio was stopped by a policeman, Lieut. Bartolomeno, near Piazza Navona carrying a sword. Asked he he had the requisite permit, Caravaggio retorted that he had verbal permission from his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Indifferent to the name-dropping, the lieutenant hauled Caravaggio off to the Tor di Nona prison.

    Two years later one Girolamo Spampani of Montepulciano was purchasing candles in a Via della Scrofa shop at 3 am on Nov. 19, when he was attacked. Spampani told police that Caravaggio beat him with a stick and tore his cape with a sword. The artist ran away, but was recognized.  Again, on the night of October 1, 1601, Caravaggio was in the company of friends on a road near Piazza Campo Marzio when he ran into Tommaso Salini, whom he insulted and then assaulted. “With the sword  he was carrying he hit me from behind and wounded my arm, which I had raised in my defense,” Salini testified. Caravaggi allegedly insulted Salini as well, saying, “becco fottuto,” or “[shut your] fucking beak”. (Although this incident was partly described in l994, the new documentation is the first complete account.)

    On April 24, 1604, Pietro da Fosaccia, a young waiter in the Osteria del Moro tavern complained to police that after serving Caravaggio eight artichokes, he was assaulted. When the artist asked which were cooked in butter and which in oil, Fosaccia suggested that Caravaggio should sniff the artichokes to find out for himself. An infuriated Caravaggio grabbed an earthenware platter and flung in into Fosaccia’s face, injuring the boy’s left cheek. Witness Pietro Antonio de Madiis verified the account.

    Six months later, on October 19, 1604, Caravaggio dined at the Torretta tavern with a book dealer named Ottaviano Gabrielli and errand boy Pietro Paolo Martinelli. Later, near Via del Babuino, they began insulting policemen making night rounds and throwing stones at them. Questioned, Caravaggio claimed that he’d been walking and chatting and had heard the stones being thrown, but had no idea who had thrown them. He was arrested..

    On May 28, 1605, Caravaggio was seen on Via del Corso near the Church of Saints Ambrogio and Carlo carrying a sword and a dagger without a permit. Captain Pino arrested him, but this time, when Caravaggio claimed verbal authorization, he was released. The weapons were returned to him, but the scribe who had taken the complaint made drawings of them.

    Just two months later a notary for the Vatican Vicariate, Mariano Pasqualoni from Accumoli, told police that on July 29  he was walking, unarmed, near the Spanish Embassy in Piazza Navona when he received a severe blow on the back of his head from "either a sword or pistol,” according to an eyewitness. The aggressor was surely Caravaggio, Pasqualoni told police, because the two were involved in a quarrel over one Lena, described as "Caravaggio's woman."

    The new information alsos sheds light on the quarrel in which Caravaggio killed a man. Like a Los Angeles gang battle, the fight between two groups of four was not spontaneous, but planned. In a pitched battle May 26, 1606, at or near a pallacorda court (an early version of tennis) near Via della Scrofa, two rival gangs of four met and fought. The fight was over neither a bad call during a tennis match or a dispute over a woman, but more likely over a 10,000 scudi gambling debt owed by Caravaggio. During the fight Caravaggio ran his sword through and killed Ranuccio Tomassoni of Terni. Captain Petronio Troppa of the papal troops, a professional soldier whom Caravaggio presumably hired for the fight, suffered a severe sword injury and was arrested and imprisoned; the new details are from his testimony. Arrest warrants were issued for Caravaggio and the others.

    Now wanted for murder, at risk of being beheaded, Caravaggio fled Italy,  returning only four years later in hopes of a papal pardon. He did not die on a beach north of Rome, but in hospital—yet another hitherto previously unknown detail.

  • Italian Church in a Political Quandary

    It was a formal diplomatic event, all tea and sympathy and polite shaking of hands, but the bitter after-taste lingers. On February 18 Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and select members of the government met in the Italian Embassy to the Holy See with a delegation from the Vatican to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Concordat. The treaty of 1929, formally called the Lateran Pacts because signed in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, put a belated but definitive end to the so-called “Roman Question” that had been left dangling ever since 1870, when Rome fell and the Vatican lost its temporal powers to the newly united Italy. For Italy the Duce signed the peace treaty on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III; for the Holy See, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri signed on behalf of Pope Pius XI.

    Marking the anniversary celebration was a not particularly veiled sense of embarrassment in the Vatican delegation, headed by an extremely formal Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, over the presence of Premier Silvio Berlusconi as head of the government.

    Fact is, the Vatican is in a quandary. Italian bishops may not necessarily read every detail of the bungabunga phone taps filling the newspapers, but they know full well that Premier Berlusconi faces a judiciary trial on April 6 over his interference with Milanese police when a young woman—a very young and unscrupulous woman who has allegedly benefited from expensive gifts of jewelry and cash traceable to the Premier—was arrested on charges of theft.

    But at the same time most of the bishops do not trust the leftist politicians who might be an alternative to Berlusconi, like the openly gay Nichi Vendola or the old-style cigar-chomping Pietro Bersani. Even more importantly, they also know very well the advantages Berlusconi offers to the Italian Church. His government has backed “Family Day,” where abortion has been denounced. He has given assurances that his government will block efforts to give individuals the right to die (known here as the “biological testament”). He has hinted that more funds could be forthcoming for the nation’s economically troubled Catholic schools, whose enrollments have dropped by 20%, by an official estimate, due to the recession and families’ inability to pay tuition.

    As a result, as Religion News Service Rome correspondent Francis X. Rocca wrote, “the most eloquent statement by church leaders so far may have been silence,” and at the Feb. 18 ceremony commemorating the treaties, “Bertone and Berlusconi were both present but reportedly did not speak."

    Officially the Vatican has been trying to maintain an even keel, equidistant, but it is not easy. Mons. Giuseppe Anfossi has called for Berlusconi to “take a step backward, resign and clarify the situation in the proper places.” Local Catholic reaction to the sex scandals has increased dramatically, and in recent issues Famiglia Cristiana, the foremost Catholic magazine in Italy with one of the country’s largest circulations, has taken the bull by the horns. One of its January backgrounders was headlined, “Le notti di Arcore,” The Nights at Arcore (Arcore is the popular name for the villa in Milan where Berlusconi lives). From its lead item:

    “The head of state [President Napolitano] says that he is ‘troubled.’ The daily newspaper of the Italian bishops speaks of an ‘overwhelming’ affair. If what the magistrates have stated in their request to the Chamber of Deputies to authorize a search of the office of Berlusconi’s colleague [his paymaster], the picture would be squalid and desolating. The investigation that began with the ‘Ruby case’ that involves the President of the Council of Ministers is shattering the political offices and the entire country, and has been heard world wide.”

    This was the magazine which, as long ago as last October, appealed to Berlusconi to observe more self-control. In mid-February an editorial writer Giorgio Vecchiato commented that the real news was not so much that Berlusconi would have to face trial April 6 on charges of abuse of office and for his relationship with an underage prostitute, but that the three-man court required to pass sentence would be composed entirely of women. “It makes one think of nemesis,” Vecchiato opined. “You, Berlusconi, made use of women, and in a bad way, and now it is women who will pass judgment on you…. We await justice, without prejudices on being conditioned.|

    Reactions in the parishes has also invested those Catholics who still defend the Premier, like Roberto Formigoni of Milan, who said, “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone.” One outraged Famiglia Cristiana reader wrote in accusing Formigoni of misusing the Bible and of a “dangerous kind of moralizing…. As a Catholic I find myself faced with a scandal. How can all this be put down as nothing but gossip?” And in case anyone missed the point, a Catholic survey team shows that three out of four (73.4%) of those interviewed would like to see Berlusconi resign—now. And this is their opinion even if, they add, not all of the goings-on reported are criminal offenses.

  • Op-Eds

    At Lampedusa, “The End of the World”

    Lampedusa is an eight square miles islet off the Sicilian coast, and beloved of tourists and summertime scuba divers for its crystal clear waters. If the vacationers also visited the cemetery, they would see, off to one side, a dozen or so fresh graves unmarked save for a cross and a few dusty plastic flowers.
    Despite the cross, the dead there are presumed to be Muslims—no one can be sure—whose names, ages, religion and countries of origin are unknown. Buried here are the bodies of the boys and men who drowned while trying to make their way to what they thought was the promised land after a 60-mile crossing from North Africa at a price of about $1,350 a head. Their bodies, lacking identification, were instead found washed up on the rocky Lampedusa shoreline, or were fished out of the sea, sometimes tangled in fishing nets. In the past two weeks several dozens more are believed to have perished when the sleazy ships manned by the people-runners sank in rough seas. Tragically, one of the survivors related that sailors on a Tunisian ship seeing their rickety boat of immigrants fall apart had applauded without intervening to help. By contrast, for the past decade fishermen from Lampedusa have intervened to help.

    But today in Lampedusa the problem is the living. In the past few weeks at least 5,500 immigrants from North Africa, among them 100 children, did make it alive to the island, or one for every Italian resident. These days most have been Tunisians fleeing from that revolutionary fervor that won so much praise from Europeans, or at least had won it until the problem landed on the island doorstep of Lampedusa. Now it is a safe bet that they will be joined by thousands of Libyans fleeing their homeland turmoil. 

    Many of the new arrivals interviewed said that they did not intend to remain in Italy, but hoped to move on, with France their preferred final destination. Already, however, the French have backed away from accepting this new wave of mostly French-speaking immigrants, while Germany and Austria have firmly declined. By way of compensating for there rigidity they have made vague offers of improving the policing of Lampedusa’s watery border. Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s solution was to offer to send a contingent of Italian police to North Africa, but on this was roundly snubbed; other countries do not want foreign soldiers on their soil, particularly when these countries are themselves still engaged in deadly civil strife. Even in Tunisia the new regime does not control the entire country.

    Meantime, Lampedusa is exploding. With a local population of just 6,000, it cannot handle such a mass flood of cold, wet and hungry newcomers Even though hundreds have already been flown to Palermo, where their applications as political refugees to be processed, the local holding station, built to house 800, is presently accommodating 2,000. Hygiene, hunger and a place to sleep are daunting problems. Other venues are being sought, and other funds to feed and clothe these desperate newcomers, but, taking matters into their own hands, one group of refugees broke into the empty summer home of Italian singer Claudio Baglione, and helped themselves to canned food.

    Local residents seem to alternate between angry frustration and generosity. They make gifts of foodstuffs, shampoo and whatever they can, but know that it can never be enough. “We ship out 700 or 800 people every day,” said Lampedusa mayor Bernardino De Rubeis, “but then others arrive, and there just aren’t beds enough for everyone. If the sea turns calm and other people come it’ll be the end of the world.”

    So what is to be done from on high? Later this month European Union (EU) ministers of the interior, including Italy’s Roberto Maroni, who represents the Northern League in the Berlusconi government, will meet to discuss the problem, also on the agenda for the meeting of prime ministers March 24-25. Maroni, who has predicted 80,000 new arrivals in Italy has called upon the EU agency for immigration to take action, but already some of the Eurocrats are talking only of helping Italy police its borders better, or perhaps sending equipment and personnel to help out. “It’s incredible that in the face of a crisis like this the European institutions just look on and do nothing,” an embittered Maroni complained Wednesday.

    And Lampedusa is not alone in accepting immigrants who arrive by sea. At Crotone a holding station built for 900 is now providing accommodation for 1,400, and the situation is described as explosive.

    At present foreign immigrants make up about 7% of the Italian population. At the end of 2009, the latest statistics available, the population was of 60,340,000, with an increase of almost 500,000 (or up 13.4%) over the previous year. All the newcomers were immigrants from abroad, but they were only those with regular documents. The true figures therefore are higher. One change is visible: a slight drop in East European immigration.

  • Facts & Stories

    Fêting and Fighting Italian Unification

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    ROME – They had never asked to be part of Italy, they say, but were victims of an Italy forced upon them. As Regional Governor Luis Durnwalder of the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) proclaimed bluntly Feb. 7, “We were annexed to Rome against our will. We have no reason to celebrate the unification of Italy.”

    It is true that three out of four in the Alto Adige are native German speakers, but his words ignore, among many other things, that one out of four inhabitants is a native Italian speaker. Durnwalder goes so far as to concede that if these Italian speakers in his the area he represents really want to celebrate Italy, that is their business.

    And yet Durnwalder is indeed part of Italy, with representatives in both houses of the Parliament he sneers at in Rome. His party also has representation—and for Italy—at the European Parliament. Waspish local commentators further remind their readers that in two recent votes of confidence, Durnwalder’s party’s abstention in crucial votes in Parliament made a difference to all of Italy by helping to keep the present government in office in two votes of no-confidence: first that for Premier Silvio Berlusconi Dec. 14 and again this month for Culture Minister Sandro Bondi.

    Even in his home turf Durnwalder’s words outraged some residents. “My grandfather and my great-uncle are dead and buried at Innsbruck, but they were Italian. Anyway, this is no time to radicalize public opinion—it’s time to project ourselves into the global world with new rules, new international authorities, and with the culture and knowledge that makes everything more beautiful,” was one heated protest in an on-line debate. Two young women were similarly irate. “What a slap in the face. We are from Trento and will never again vote a South Tyrolean into Parliament. From now on we vote only for Italians.”

    In another concrete protest, hotel cancellations for ski vacations came flooding in. “The news got a lot of attention in the national press,” acknowledged the local tourism gaulleiter Dado Duzzi. “There was a harsh reaction from Italian tourists. We hope the protests will stop with the e-mails. We don’t want to lose our clientele.” To fight back, local ski hotels have taken to offering special patriotic deals for tourists for the mid-winter long weekend break (a “ponte” or bridge) offered by the sesquicentennial celebration, called “Offerte Ponte dell’Unita d’Italia Trentino Alto Adige.”

    The Volkspartei came into being in May 1945, with the edelweiss the party’s symbol. From the outset there were local protests that both post-World War One and Two peace treaties had maintained an unfair division of the Tyrolian mountain area, with Italy arbitrarily granted the Southern tier. Mussolini fought to reduce the basic non-Italian culture there and eliminated its local political parties, reborn in the postwar era. Anti-Italian feeling brought a spate of terrorist stunts, which the SVP coyly describes like this:

    “In 1961 some South Tyroleans expressed their displeasure and their disappointment in Italy’s uncompromising attitude through bomb attacks on electricity pylons.” (For full details, see: http://www.svpartei.org/de/english)

    Another raining on what ought to be a great national parade—and far more seriously than Durnwalder by dint of his position—is Roberto Calderoli, who represents the Northern League in the government, where he serves the somewhat ambiguous function of “Minister for Simplification.” In his simplified view, taking a day off is an invitation to an extended weekend that could cost the country “billions of euros.”

    His explanation: “It is simply unacceptable that the March 17 holiday would mean that many public offices would be closed. In a time of crisis like this it seems paradoxical to weigh ourselves down with the costs of a holiday. An event as significant as the l50th anniversary of Italian unification can be celebrated with dignity by going to work instead of just staying home. Closing public offices risks putting jobs into the private sector, he concluded.

    But this argument does not hold water with the private sector, represented by Confindustria president Emma Marcegaglia. She says that a long weekend would be the inevitable result of declaring the day a full public holiday, and would be too costly for private industry—hence not a beneficiary. Will the government step it? So far it is undecided, and Berlusconi, who can only go so far in risking alienation of Calderoli’s and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, is yet to make any decision.

    In some ways one can sympathize with the Trento crowd. All this should have been hammered out a year ago, not four weeks before the event. Indeed, one Trentino factory owner phoned into a Rai radio talk show to say, “I’d have been happy to celebrate the day, but I’d made a lot of commitments before I even knew about the holiday. They had 150 years to plan it – why wait till the last minute?”

  • Op-Eds

    The Broken Promise: Fiscal Federalism

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    ROME—In this bleak and scandal-ridden winter’s last two votes of confidence in Parliament, the Northern League made fiscal federalism a condition for support of the government of beleaguered Premier Silvio Berlusconi. For Umberto Bossi, head of the League, federalism has been a battle cry for the past twenty years, and his voters have been promised that fiscal federalism would curb state subsidies to the Italian South, meaning that Northerners would pay lower taxes. Most recently Bossi issued an ultimatum that, unless fiscal federalism were enacted by the end of January 2011, he would make sure new elections take place two years ahead of schedule.

    Two laws establish the theoretical existence of federalism: a reform bill of Title V of the Constitution, approved in 2001, and a 2009 law that establishes the principle of that taxation income and expenditures should be correlated. So far only minor norms putting this principle into effect have been passed, however, and before this framework law can take effect, a joint commission of the Ministries of the Economy and Finance must produce enabling legislation.

    The six projected enabling laws, which are aimed at a gradual increase in local and eventually regional autonomy (that is, devolution), was sent for consideration to the 30-member joint Chamber of Deputies-Senate commission. By its terms, municipal governments, and in this first legislative round only they, would collect a single local tax and then spend the money in proportion to the amount of the taxes raised. In theory, then, the North, with its stronger economy, would be able to collect more taxes and provide more services to its citizens than the poorer, more agrarian and bureaucracy-dependent South. To Northern voters this means they would no longer be subsidizing the South, as they see it.

    Some critics of the bill believe that fiscal or municipal federalism, as conceived today, would inevitably increase the North-South divide. Others doubt that the municipalities will be able to raise as many taxes as hoped. If, as many now predict, the result is instead a drop in income for townships all over Italy, a knock-on effect could be the further destruction of the Italian landscape as city officials compensate the lack of income by selling off land parcels to building speculators.

    For Berlusconi, fiscal federalism was a promise he had to keep, not least because Bossi is the beleaguered Premier’s sole remaining ally in government. Bossi, on the other hand, had to demonstrate his party’s clout and counter any suggestion that its ministers, like Roberto Maroni, the Interior Minister, were supine bridesmaids standing at the altar to prop up a wobbly bride. Center-right hopes were therefore high last week when the joint commission convened to vote the on the government’s draft of this first concrete step.

    In the event, the commission stalemated in a fifteen-fifteen vote, but too much was at stake to let it go at that. Ignoring the outcome, ignoring Parliament itself, Berlusconi whisked the draft bill off to the Quirinal Palace for ratification. Instead Italian President Giorgio Napolitano returned the bill to sender, with comments  that it was “unreceivable,” poorly drafted and generic.

    What are the repercussions of rejection? This is like reading tea leaves, but it is a safe bet that Berlusconi knew full well the bill would be rejected, but preferred that blame for blocking federalism be cast on President Giorgio Napolitano, rather than on either the draft law text or its insufficient Parliamentary support. “It’s as if Napolitano has already decided at this point that early elections are the lesser evil,” one insider opined. Others counter that Berlusconi seems to be simply playing for time and has only to wait a few weeks before it is too late for elections to be called for this spring. Perhaps this is the case; Bossi’s January ultimatum seems forgotten, perhaps because lack of a victory in this particular cause would weaken the League in an election campaign just now.

    To many, the rebuff showed that the government itself, like the parliamentary commission, has come to a screeching halt even though Berlusconi is announcing a schedule of reform projects. He is also seeking new allies, and so, to beef up the numbers backing his government, Berlusconi reportedly plans to name Nello Musumeci a deputy cabinet minister. Musumeci is one of the followers of the rightist Francesco Storace, formerly of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). Storace’s party, La Destra, commands less than 2% of the electorate, but in Berlusconi’s paper-thin majority, another vote or two can help keep him in office.

    A problem is that Bossi is under pressure from his rank-and-file, with phone-in Leaguers complaining on Radio Padania that in rejecting the bill Napolitano exceeded his constitutional authority as president. A few grumbled against Berlusconi himself. One League supporter, who signed his name, wrote on a League Facebook page that, “Our own [Roberto] Maroni should have been premier instead of that pig from Arcore.”

    In recent votes of Parliament the government’s margin has been so slender that governing the country is extremely difficult. The problems are not lacking: a public debt of 1,800 billion Euros, growing unemployment, a sagging economy, a breach with the manufacturers of the Confindustria association, toxic rubbish still plaguing the South, and students angered by cutbacks in schools and universities. 

  • Op-Eds

    On Both Sides of the Atlantic, Pride in Anti-Mob Action

    ROME – Their pride was justified. In what American federal officials called “the largest mob roundup in F.B.I. history”—dawn raids involving 800 federal agents and state and local investigators—125 alleged Mafia racketeers and drug dealers were arrested Jan 19 in the U.S., many in the New York area. Although not all authorities agreed, in the background were concerns that, after two decades of relative quiet, organized crime involving the five big Mafia families of New York has regrouped. By coincidence, at about the same time as the stunning US sweep took place, Italian judiciary authorities were expressing their pride in combating the Sicilian Mafia, but with a difference: the successful prosecution of a ranking political leader on charges of links to the Mafia. 

    On Jan. 22 the Court of Cassations, Italy’s highest court, found Salvatore (“Totò”) Cuffaro, the former governor of the Sicilian Region (one of twenty such regional governors), guilty of having passed confidential information to Mafiosi about investigations and otherwise aiding and abetting Cosa Nostra. Among other things Cuffaro informed a Sicilian Mafia boss that police had bugged the man’s house. The sentence, which includes perpetual banishment from public office, upholds a previous Court of Appeals conviction to seven years in prison; in practice, Cuffaro is expected to remain behind bars for five years and five months. And there may be more, if Cuffaro is convicted in a second Mafia trial in which he is a defendant expected to take place in February in Palermo, where he has been indicted on the more serious charge of external support for the Mafia (concorso esterno in associazione mafiosa). A conviction there could bring a sentence of ten years in prison.

    It is rare in Italy for a court to succeed in documenting just how politicians and the mob work hand in glove, and so the significance of the case would be hard to overstate. Cuffaro, Sicilian regional governor from 2001 through 2008, was elected to the Italian Senate in 2008 to represent Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Partito della Libertà (PdL). Cuffaro furthermore is considered responsible for Sicily’s having delivered a favorable vote in the 2008 elections for the party created ex novo at that time by Catholic politician Pier Ferdinando Casini. President of the Chamber of Deputies from 2001 through early 2006, Casini had just broken with Berlusconi and created a new xCasini’s party, the Unione del Centro (UdC). The UdC risked failing to achieve the minimum of 8% that permitted representation in the Senate. Cuffaro’s help with the Sicilian electorate apparently made the crucial difference.

    Interviewed about the Cuffaro conviction, Casini spoke of his old friend and former ally with some fondness, though quickly specifying that the two had “gone separate ways.” One has an obligation to respect the law, he declared, “but we cannot overlook so many years of friendship, and we continue to believe that Cuffaro is not a mafioso.” Not everyone appreciated this. Luigi De Magistris, former front-line anti-mob magistrate now with the European Parliament representing Antonio Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori (IdV) party, protested that in effect Casini was negating the validity of the court sentence. Only four hours after the Rome high court issued its decision a stunned Cuffaro was in Rome’s Rebibbia prison, taking with him a book on the Madonna and the Bible, George Orwell’s 1984 and a novel by Georges Simenon.

    Here the story took an unexpected twist. Instead of disappearing with a few gold bars into the suspect arms of a welcoming nation, Cuffaro went off to prison with tears in his eyes but apparent calm, and spoke of relying upon his religious beliefs to aid him in the coming days and years. In prison he was able to speak with some of his former fellow Senators and MPs, to whom he reiterated his respect for the law and for the judges’ verdict. These are unusual words in Italy these days, and, no less than the verdict, Cuffaro’s citizen-like composure caught the Italian press by surprise. Such exemplary dignity under terrible stress made many feel sympathy for him for the first time. As contrasted with other leading politicians tangling with the law (guess who?), he suddenly looked heroic.