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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    Mr. Berlusconi: Ganging up, but who cares?

    ROME - They are ganging up on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: magistrates, TV talk showmen, tell-all eye-witness prostitutes confirming sex-for-money, moderate politicoes like Pier Ferdinando Casini, the Italian Roman Catholic bishops and even, if only by discreetly advising more attention to morality in public affairs, Pope Benedict XVI himself. Obviously a beleaguered Mr. Berlusconi is outraged, and obviously his legal staff of 86 are busy are as wasps. And yet, as Mr. Berlusconi declared in a national TV panegyric to himself last week, he has no intention of resigning and even less of obeying a summons to appear before magistrates. Why not? Ah, there's the question.

    During this incredible week we have seen teenage party girls giving weepy, amusing and literally unbelievable TV interviews ("Yes, he gave me $10,000, but never touched me" and, albeit phone tracks prove otherwise, "I spent the evening there only once"). We have seen a condominium administrator issue eviction notices to a bevy of young females who frequented Berlusconi parties and were living, altogether and apparently thanks to his generosity, in a building that was the equivalent of a harem. Co-tenants of the harem complained that they were lowering the tone of their building.

    Nevertheless, whatever the thick of scandal and the thin of government action, “Some analysts are willing to bet that even a conviction would not change the forecasts. If people voted today the Cavaliere [Berlusconi] would have a good chance of winning,” Ugo Magri wrote in La Stampa Friday. Indeed, independent polls show that Mr. Berlusconi’s Partito della Liberta (PdL) claims the loyalty of 32% of those queried, a figure that reconfirms the party as Italy's largest. Mr. Berlusconi himself claims that fully 50% of the Italians continue to support him personally. His pollsters of preference moreover report that, despite the crescendo of scandal worthy of an 18th century Turkish sultan, he lost a mere 0.6%. Not least, an Ipsos poll commissioned by a respectable TV talk show Ballarò showed that, when asked which politician would be the most capable and charismatic prime minister, Berlusconi led the list at 17%. The only one who came close was newcomer governor of the Puglia region Nichi Vendola at 11%. Conservative leader Gianfranco Fini lagged behind at 7%, in a feeble showing matched by the leader of the Partito Democratico (PD) Pierluigi Bersani. The others, from Antonio Di Pietro to Emma Bonino and Umberto Bossi, logged in at under 3%.

    The fact is that Mr. Berlusconi remains the most charismatic and popular politician in Italy. Whatever the atmosphere of dancing on the deck of the Titanic, however great the dismay among family-oriented Catholics here, the pro-Berlusconi public is rock solid with those who fear increased taxes or a loss of state contributions of one kind or another (pensions, cushy bureaucratic jobs, construction work). And it still matters less to the Italian voting public than does fear of the old, unappealing and still quarreling leftist establishment.

    These rock-solid voters are described as stay-at-home TV viewers, female, up in years, scantily educated and geographically Central-Southern. They believe—truly believe—that the goings-on as leaked from judiciary documents simply cannot be true because they defy belief. Silvio (they think of him on first-name basis) is therefore a victim of cruel gossip, to be protected, not further villified, and shame on those pointing the finger at him.

    The medium fosters this message, to the point that RAI President Paolo Garimberti went on record criticizing the director of RAI Tg1, Augusto Minzolini, for dodgy reporting of the investigation into what is being called "Rubygate". "Rai cannot and should not be used for media exploitation that risks bringing about a very ugly result--people being exasperated at the conflict underway in this country," Garimberti complained, pointedly mentioning "omissions." "I have the utmost respect for the autonomy and editorial freedom for the directors of the [TV and radio] channels, but a rule that cannot be compromised is that information must be complete."  

    The missing  news seems to be that Ruby Rubacuore (Ruby Heart-stealer, a Moroccan teenager) had asked Mr. Berlusconi for E 5 million. Minzolini's response was that the network's reporting was correct, but that "Garimberti was not very alert." However, the RAI editorial committee of journalists also protested at  missing information that would leave viewers uninformed.


    Does anyone care? Less than one might think. As a Corriere della Sera editorialist has pointed out, a factor in maintaining Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity is the public’s loss of the quasi-mystical reverence it had for the magistrates during the heyday of Tangentopoli. This gives Mr. Berlusconi free rein to thumb his nose at the Milan team of magistrates who have summoned him to explain his relations with the then under-age Moroccan girl known here as Ruby. He dismisses the magistrates as publicity-seeking leftists, evil elements within a vindictive bureacracy. Who needs them? True democracy, he believes, comes unmediated, and straight from the people. It is revealed by public opinion polls, piazza demonstrations and, if need be, via a new election, the last recourse, and one that Mr. Berlusconi's opponents fear perhaps more than he does.

    Meanwhile, the walkup to a handful of local elections in May is already underway, and Mr. Berlusconi’s spin professors are cranking up a new message that will appear on gigantic billboards. The thrust—interesting in case national general elections actually take place in March, two years ahead of time—will be to identify protection of Mr. Berlusconi with protection of Italy itself, along the lines of "Forza, Silvio, only you can defend Italy." Already his political staff are looking to the U.S. Tea Party for fresh ideas about recruiting, organization and themes, in words like fighter, radical, individualist and conservative.

  • Op-Eds

    On the Disassembly Line at Fiat: A General Strike in the Works?

    ROME –Both sides, Fiat management and a hard core of recalcitrant labor leaders, are claiming they won in a two-day referendum over a tough new contract. The controversial contract had been hammered out by Sergio Marchionne, the suave and savvy Italo-Canadian who has been running the historic manufacturing company for seven years. In exchange for signing the contract Marchionne promised an unspecified investment in the Turin plant of E 1 billion, and production of new models at a time when European auto sales are beginning to pick up. Besides the 5,500 Fiat workers, the new contract is expected to impact another 10,000 employed in associated industries in and around Turin. Observers here also consider the deal a bell weather for future contracts involving working conditions and salaries for as many as 50,000 factory workers in Italy. While accepted by four smaller and fairly conservative unions (including one of white collar workers), the contract has been bitterly opposed by the left-leaning metal workers union FIOM, part of the powerful CGIL national union, already threatening a general strike and calling for its renegotiation.

    At least in theory, FIOM lost, and Marchionne won hands down with 54% of the vote. The turnout, moreover, was of 94% of the circa 5,500 eligible voters (their average age: 48). Visibly relieved, Marchionne praised the vote as “courageous” and “historic,” representing “the desire to take action against being resigned to decline.”

    In the background in Turin, besides a few nasty graffiti signed by self-styled Red Brigades, was a European Communist party protest against the “slave conditions” in the contract. This is overstatement, but the new contract is such that, while white collar workers may find it tolerable, its conditions are tough for the assembly line workers.

    And in fact, the 441 white collar staffers and supervisors made the difference; if solely blue collar workers had been counted, the referendum would have squeaked through, but by a mere nine votes.

    The FIOM protest is over assembly-line conditions, beginning with an eight-hour work day that allows precisely three ten-minute breaks for bathroom calls and coffee, and another thirty minutes for lunch. There will be double and triple turns; plenty of six-day work weeks; no absences for illness near holidays; 120 hours of obligatory overtime—and, as punishment for refusing to sign the contract in the first place, no representation for FIOM delegates. Indeed, some labor experts say the new contract will actually reduce productivity because workers under this degree of stress simply cannot perform well.

    Already Marchionne has announced that within this year he will shut down Fiat’s assembly line at Termini Imerese in Sicily, which employs 1,800. Speaking with a journalist some time ago he said that each automobile turned out there cost E 1,000 ($1,300) more than any produced in the Turin plant. Moreover, because the plant was situated close to the sea, parts rusted prematurely.

    The Turin workers knew that the stakes were similarly high, for Marchionne’s alternative was to move the Fiat production plant at Mirafiori right out of Italy and into Serbia, where workers earned half as much, and where the government invested in rebuilding the war-damaged plant. This is why the various unions themselves split, quarreling angrily among themselves to the point that one old Fiat hand was shown on Italian TV weeping his heart out. The newcomer pop star politician Nichi Vendola, governor of the Puglia region, who made the pilgrimage to the Mirafiori plant earlier this week, declared, “A referendum like this is a dog’s dinner (una porcata) because it means voting between survival and being thrown onto the street.”

    When Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi made clear his support for Marchionne’s position, Susanna Camusso, the leader of Italy’s largest trade union, CGIL, to which FIOM is allied, said angrily, “The premier and Marchionne are fighting to see who can deliver the greater damage to our country.”

    Curiously, in the course of the months-long dispute over the terms of the new contract, Marchionne bolted from the Italian national manufacturers’ association Confindustria. This loss of its preeminent member was a slap in the face for its president Emma Marcigaglia, but then she went on to defend Marchionne’s position anyway. One reason for her supporting her defiant bolter: as Confindustria itself has complained, Italian industrial production has been “bad since 1997.” According to an end-of-year report by the association’s research center, the Centro studi Confindustria, the number of jobless doubled between April 2007 and October 2010, with Italy losing 540,000 jobs between the beginning of the current recession in the first quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2010. The report goes on to say that in 2011 “the number of those employed will continue to diminish in 2011 by an estimated 0.4%,” bringing unemployment to 9% by January 1. (The current Economist agrees, putting Italy’s unemployment rate at just under 9%.)

    Over the same period Italy’s GDP shrank by 6.8%, despite a more recent upward boost of 1.5% more recently. “It would take us till 2010 to return to the growth levels of the period 2000-2007,” but to achieve this would require emulating German industrial production, concludes the report, which resulted in a 3.5% hike in GDP in 2010, as compared with 1.1% for the same period for Italy, and unemployment at 7.5% as compared with Italy’s 8.6%. However, the Confindustria goes on to say, with a dig at Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s government, “the available tools are inadequate.”

  • Facts & Stories

    Heart warming vs heart breaking

    ROME – Here you have it – heart-warming fiction vs. heart-breaking reality. To begin with the heart warming, make an effort to see director Luca Miniero’s delightful Welcome to the South. The movie is the wildly successful remake of a wildly successful French flick that pits cultural cliches against the (at least cinematic) reality of life amidst The Others. In the Italian case those others are from a town in the Italian South.

    In brief, Benvenuti al Sud, the original title, is about a North Italian postal employee, Alberto, played by Claudio Bisio, who aspires to a transfer to Milan, but instead finds himself dispatched to a small town near Naples. His wife, played by Angela Finocchiaro, is so appalled at the prospect of heading to the Mezzogiorno that she stays behind with the couple’s young son, so Alberto, after donning a bullet-proof vest, sets out alone and frightened.

    Initially all appears as Alberto and his family had expected. Chickens patrol the narrow streets, and the benighted and picturesque local yokels do not seem much better. But then Alberto begins to see that the bag of garbage chucked out of a window is going straight into a recycling bin. Gradually he also comes to see a dignified culture, and indeed falls in love with the spectacular seaside town and its people. Then his wife shows up—Well, go and see the movie. Only the most deep-dyed cynics will fail to find it and the town depicted beguiling.
    The problem with this charming, well-made, and well-intentioned movie is that, after it was made, reality stomped into the cutting room, most cruelly. Pollica, pop. 2,477, is a charming little town near Salerno a hop, skip and a jump from the village where Benveuti al Sud was filmed. On September 5, 2010, its courageous and singularly competent mayor, Angelo Vassallo, 52, was murdered by a still nameless gunman who fired nine shots directly through the window of the car Vassallo was driving on a lonely country road after midnight.
    Married, the father of two, Vassallo was much admired for his passions: family, going fishing and working for the protection of the environment and for the advancement of the South. He was a member of the progressive Partito Democratico (PD), but hardly an acritical member—on the contrary, he implicitly criticized its delays in taking aggressive action in the Mezzogiorno by his publicly praising the Northern League for, if nothing else, its activist approach. He himself was an activist; he imposed stiff fines (from $800 to $1,300) on citizens for tossing cigarette butts on public soil, he fought against poor construction work on the local port by a Neapolitan builder, he revoked public works contracts on companies who failed to pay taxes. Among his accomplishments was to ensure that almost 70% of rubbish generated—and this in the Neapolitan hinterland—was recycled.
    Although other hypotheses are considered, some law enforcement officials suspect that the murder is a warning linked to major investments in tourism, according to reporter Roberto Galullo, writing in the Milan financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore.
    “The territory is the avantgarde for future investments that the beauty of the place makes inevitably appealing, especially because the traditional Campania areas no longer offer good investments,” says Galullo, the author of Economia Criminale – Storia di c apitali sporchi e societa’ inquinate (Criminal Economy – a History of Dirty Capital and Polluted Companies). He explains that the area is a center for usury and related money laundering as well as for other illegal trafficking that involves the Camorra as well as ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian) crime organizations. Salerno Mayor Vincenzo De Luca has acknowledged his concern over possible criminal money laundering in huge new shopping malls in unlikely locations. “It is useless to deny it: we are only 30 miles from towns like Casal di Principe and others impregnated with criminal violence… I too have seen an increase in usury in recent times and informed the Finance Guards (financial police) of this.”
    Vassallo was not alone in facing risks. Giovanni Di Martino, the courageous mayor of Niscemi, near Caltanisseta, has also been threatened; last September his car was put to the torch. Prior to Di Martino’s election as mayor of Niscemi, formally declared infiltrated by the Mafia, had had an outside, non-elected administrator for three years. Last October—that is, after Vassallo’s murder—Di Martino created a permanent anti-Mafia watchdog office in his administration of this Sicilian town and formally declared war against the Mafia.
    In recognition of the link between organized crime and the destruction of the environment, an association of environmentalists named him the man of the year 2010. On Jan. 26 Vassallo will be honored by the associations Mediapolitika and DaSud at the conference “Contromafie – Legalità e libera informazione in terre di mafia” (Against the Mafia – Legality and Freedom on Information in Mafia Territories), being organized at the Department of Letters and Philosophy at the Tor Vergata University of Rome. “With Vassallo the dream of a clean Italy died,” Carmen Vogani wrote in an anti-Mafia blog site.

  • Op-Eds

    Words I wish I hadn’t heard

    Rome – The political year isn’t over, but I can’t wait for it to end. Not so long ago Italian political discourse, conservative as well as progressive and beyond, still found inspiration in the lessons of World War II and the postwar longing for a democratic way of life. Alas, these days that discourse has come to resemble the smelly barnyard muck that students dumped in front of the house of Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini in Bergamo recently.

    So here’s my personal compilation of nastiness and trash talk—the words I wish I hadn’t heard over the past few months. Please vote for the best.

    Emilio Fede (director of TG 4; name translates to “Fido”): “The Premier is single. Since he lost his mother his life has become much sadder. If he wants to have a bit of fun one evening a week, I see no harm in it.” To journalist Lorenzo Galeazzi, Nov. 4

    Silvio Berlusconi: “I’m a star. At international summits everybody wants to be photographed with me. It’s because I’m a tycoon as well as prime minister.” Dec. 6

    Mara Carfagna: “She [Alessandra Mussolini] is a vaiassa [Neapolitan dialect for sluttish kitchen wench].” Quoted from Il Mattino, Naples

    Alessandra Mussolini: “She [Mara Carfagna] needs a punch in the face.”

    Silvio Berlusconi: “That TG3 journalist [RAI 3d channel TV newsreader] would have done better to present himself as a reporter for TeleKabul…Actually TG3 is even worse.” Nov. 24

    Hon. Marco Reguzzoni, 39, Northern League whip in the Chamber of Deputies: “I don’t think girl children should be brought up to think they are inferior—I myself have two girls.” Well, duh. On the other hand, here’s finally something that links his anti-immigrant political party with the Muslim world. Rai Radio, Nov. 24

    Daniela Santanchè (Pdl): “Wanna know what I think of Fini? That he should resign right away for his own good. On the human level he’s a shit.” Aug. 13

    Giorgio Stracquadanio (Pdl): “Let’s be clear. Fini should be chucked out of the Chamber presidency, period. If necessary there’s always the Boffo treament.” Boffo was the editor of the Catholic magazine who was hounded out of his job on the basis of a now admittedly false dossier of allegations that he is gay. July 31.

    Alessandra Mussolini (Pdl) on Italo Bocchino: “If I were in Berlusconi’s place, I’d have him decapitated. He deserves the Ann Bolyn treatment.” Aug. 12

    Silvio Berlusconi: “In consideration of the blows we are dealing out to the Mafia, no one today can exclude with any certainty that some of the things that are happening aren’t fruit of a vendetta of the malavita.” Nov. 4

    Giulio Tremonti, Treasury Secretary: "At a time of belt-tightening, you can't eat Culture." Oct. 12

    Sandro Bondi, Culture Minister: Anyone calling for a vote of confidence vote over the collapse of the Pompeii gladiator domus is not bringing shame on me, but on himself for doing so… There are no responsibilities of my own or of others in what happened. Otherwise I would resign.” Nov. 11

    Giuseppe Spadaccini, testifying to an inquiring magistrate in re an alleged political kickback by way of thanks for supporting his bid worth E 50 million to supply civil protection airplane fleet: “I [i.e., his company, Sorem Srl] had obtained the bid for the Civil Protection for Candair. But Guido Bertolaso wanted me out—he wanted to revoke the contract. I am convinced he did so because his brother [Antonio, colonel in the air force] at that time was its director general.” Lest one overly sympathize, Spadaccini was among a group of 13 businessmen arrested Oct. 21 for alleged tax dodging in the amount of E 90 million.

    Silvio Berlusconi: “It is far better to look at pretty girls than to be a gay.” NOV. 2 THE WINNER!

    Sandro Bondi: “I desire to be respected even by a newspaper that does this kind of work [Ed: Il Fatto Quotidiano]. This happened because of a very painful situation. It was completely personal, private and a bitter event.” In re the Culture Ministry he heads handing over a E 25,000 consultancy fee to the future ex-husband of Bondi’s partner Maela Repetti, and also a sinecure of “little more than E 1,000 net” to the son of the future ex. A journalist’s comment: “Yeah maybe, but the money was public.”

    Andrea Carandini, archaeologist and chairman of the Culture Ministry’s advisory board: “Next year we will get E 53 million for all the Italian archaeological sites, more or less what a top manager gets for his golden handshake.” Nov 12. (in Il Giornale) So why not resign in protest? Salvatore Settis did—and was replaced by Carandini.

    Luisa Bossa, former mayor of Herculaneum (10 years): “If he comes incognito to Pompeii, [Culture Minister Sandro] Bondi will see septic tanks for the bathrooms made for building sites where they excavate only a few meters from the ancient walls. He will see Corinthian columns and arches in Roman recticulate that are used as clothes hangers for jackets, maybe with some nails stuck into the ancient walls. …A picture of desolation, yet Bondi criticizes those who speak of it.” Oct. 5

    Silvio Berlusconi (joking at himself): “Ruby is a problem. Where can I fix her up with a job?” Cited in Corriere della Sera, Nov. 15

    Sandro Bondi, Minister of Culture:

    A Silvio

    Vita assaporata

    Vita preceduta

    Vita inseguita

    Vita amata

    Vita vitale

    Vita ritrovata

    Vita splendente

    Vita disvelata

    Vita nova

    --Vanity Fair
    , republished Apr. 27


    Life savoured/Life preceded/Life chased/Life loved/Life vital, Life found once more, Life splendid/Life unveiled/New life

    Umberto Bossi (Lega Nord): “Casini is shit [stronzo]. He’s one of those guys that, having no merits of their own, insult other people. Casini is what is left over from the Christian Democrats—of those bad guys [furfanti e farabutti] who betrayed the North.” Aug. 23

    The year was rung out with a real winner. From the shadowy mirrors-upon-mirrors world of espionage, counter-espionage and sheer hocum straight from Austin Powers came the phony-sounding revelation of a phony  "plot" that supposedly would have a phony gun fire but miss a phony shot at the real Gianfranco Fini, who would then automatically blame the Premier, Silvio Berlusconi, who would be therefore either weakened, or, alternatively--because innocent of blame--somehow have taken benefit from the fraudulent near-miss. The mind reels, but anyway, here are the revelations made Dec. 27 by the editor of the daily Libero, Maurizio Belpietro: 
    "Weird stories regarding [Chamber of Deputies President] Fini are circulating. I don't know if they have any basis, or if they are just made-up stories--traps to lead us astray. If I decided to reveal them it's because some individuals, of whom I ascertained their identiy and profession, came to me and assured me of the truth of what they said...It wold be up to others to ascertain the facts... True? False? I don't know. The people who whispered the plan to me did not appear nuts...in exchange for the information they asked nothing. Headline seekers? Blackmailers? Something else? Boh! [translation: boh!] Why did I decide to write of this affair? Because if it's true one shold be worried, but if it is false it's to ask just why these storie pop up just now."

  • Op-Eds

    The Flames of Protest Envelop Rome

    My impression, standing in the midst of the maelstrom, was that most did not care; they had different concerns. There were two sets of warriors on the march: the high school and university students whom I'd seen earlier gathering in front of the Liceo Virgilio on Via Giulia and the others--the ones in ski masks already throwing loud firecrackers, petardi, at onlookers including me. These are the men and a few women being called the Black Bloc, as at the violence-stained G8 summit a decade ago in Genoa, where a demonstrator was killed. Later in Rome we saw broken store windows, trashed ATMs, tear gas clouds, street signs torn down and used as weapons, destroyed police vehicles, burnt parked cars, savage beatings and ambulances carrying away the more than 50 injured policemen.

    Despite this havoc, the non-violent student majority are of greater interest than the predictably violent Black Bloc anarchists, who are more a police and psychiatric problem than social phenomenon. The ordinary students and university researchers, like those I saw a few hours later, seated on a curb (again at Largo Argentina) and enjoying a picnic while sharing a bottle of wine, are the sons and daughters of middle-class Rome. They are attractive, bright and well dressed--but they look ahead and see a diminished future. They are protesting the same sort of schooling budget cuts as are their British peers, but, far worse than in Britain, they see scant future prospects unless the emigrate. Clientele job appointments, connections, and for the young women, a chance to be on TV in a bathing suit: not everyone has these entitlements. This realization is devastating, and to admit that the peaceable majority of demonstrators have good reason to take to the streets is not to justify the violence of the provocateurs and of the invisible, unknown paymasters behind at least a few of them..
    Analysts here see a second element in these marchers--a rejection of the political party system that has managed Italy since the end of World War Two. For these young people, the political parties of every stripe are simply irrelevant. Like the sense of diminished prospects in education and the job market, this perception of no one speaking for them has serious implications for the future.
    And so once again Silvio Berlusconi has shown a canny instinct to survive, and the predictions--in truth, more in the foreign than the Italian press--that Black Tuesday would mark the end of what is being called "Berlusconism" were proven wrong. And although Italy was rife with rumors that some votes in Parliament were traded for well-paying posts in government, the fact remains that Berlusconi walked out of both houses of Parliament the winner.
    What next? First, the defiant President of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini, for years Berlusconi's partner in a political party and then in government, has suffered a crushing defeat. The level of insults levied at Berlusconi by Fini in recent days ("Berlusconi wants to stay in power solely to avoid the courts") means there can be no reconciliation between the two. In addition, Futuro e Liberta', the fledgling political party Fini launched only months ago, split in two, shuttling votes back to Berlusconi. Indeed, Berlusconi would not have had his three-vote lead had not two women from Fini's party, both of whom had signed the motion for a no-confidence vote a week ago, turned tail and voted for Berlusconi.
    The question now arises of who among defectors like this will fill in the empty cabinet slots. Berlusconi cannily says he is thinking only of single individuals (the two from Italia dei Valori, perhaps, who broke with Di Pietro to vote for Berlusconi?) to fill the posts vacated by the Fini loyalists. Moderation is the new watchword; in recent days Berlusconi, looking ahead, has toned down the rhetoric and said that, in the predicted government reshuffle, he will welcome moderates.
    Negotiations for cabinet slots to replace the Fini faithful begin with the Catholic moderate Pierferdinando Casini, but he is playing hard to get. Berlusconi needs Casini in order to stave off those Springtime early elections that risk further bolstering the Northern League, and Casini knows it. In fact, last night Casini truculently threw down a gauntlet at Berlusconi, by telling the premier, "Go on--govern."  The meaning: go on and govern if you can. But of course Berlusconi cannot simply go ahead. The next few days of frantic negotiations will be a grotesque poker game, whose highest stakes are held by three tough rivals--Berlusconi, with his shadow premier Gianni Letta in the wings; Umberto Bossi of the Northern League; and Casini.
    Meantime, serious reforms--beginning with the electoral law made to measure by Berlusconi that gave him a fat premium of deputies in Parliament--are unlikely, for every vote on a new law risks a new defeat for the government; a three-vote lead is not enough. The country remains on hold or, as the noted economist Mario Deaglio predicted Monday, slated to become a museum stopover for tourists and little more.
    A final question is whether Berlusconi will remain in the saddle long enough to replace Giorgio Napolitano in 2013 as president of Italy, as Berlusconi is known to hope. A few months ago that would have seemed most unlikely. Today it is anyone's guess.

  • Op-Eds

    Pompeii and the Collapse of the Domus of the Gladiators

    ROME—For the moment let’s set aside the collapse of the Domus of the Gladiators at Pompeii as a metaphor for the past two decades of political Italy, and concentrate on the crumbling of the building itself.

    The rear wall of the Domus backs up against an earthen embankment; its front door entry is on one of Pompeii’s most traveled streets, Via dell’Abbondanza (like all street names at Pompeii, this is modern). Shortly before dawn November 6 first its back wall collapsed, and then the modern cement roof brought down the entire Domus, according to the reconstruction of horrified custodians. The rubble spilled into the Via dell’Abbondanza before being piously covered with a tarp. 

    Other houses being of greater interest, this has been of no great attraction to the cruise ship tourists who flood into Pompeii. Even the archaeologists at Pompeii are somewhat vague as to its precise use. It is often described as a sort of gladiator’s clubhouse and hangout, but its official name is the Schola Armaturarum Juventis Pompeiani, suggesting it is more likely a training center for local youth—a sort of gym. Others believe the name suggests its use as a weapons depot even though, unless it was heavily guarded, this would seem unlikely; the Establishment did not relish the concept of armed professional fighters in their midst, and gladiators and their weapons were kept nicely separate when not in the arena. 

    The point of examining its purpose is important in trying to evaluate what was lost. As one archaeologist at Pompeii said, “Every stone is vital.” In addition, the building contained wall paintings that might contribute to further understanding of its purpose. When first discovered it also contained burnt matts that were presumably used by the youths during workouts. On half-columns on either side of the door there were also two stone bas reliefs of trophies honoring the Emperor Augustus with sculpted helmets, shields, spears, a tunic with winged griffins, a cart. To the best of my knowledge at this time there is not yet news of whether these of the fresco paintings which show gladiatorial details and are now buried in the rubble have been found and can be reassembled.

    Who is to blame? “Not me,” said Culture Minister Sandro Bondi. “If I were, I would resign.” He did not, but must face a vote of confidence on Nov. 29, brought by the left, for once agreeing upon an action. Bondi’s supporters call this call for a confidence vote (in effect, a vote of no confidence) an act of political squadrismo, or Fascist-style ganging up. Bondi’s justification was that this has been a terribly rainy autumn. He blames this and the heavy cement roofing added atop the building in the 1950’s combined with the rainfall that weakened the embankment behind the Domus—in other words, a small landslide aggravated by short-sighted restorations of a half century ago. On the other hand, there are also reports that a restoration of the building was begun some months ago.

    But the reports are still contradictory; according to the mayor of modern Pompeii, Claudio D’Alessio, the cause was negligence, a “lack of attention. Funds arrived in the past but were not used and the restoration was not begun.” At any rate, if it was rain, the noted Neapolitan writer Cesare De Seta points out that the ancient Romans had splendid systems of dealing with drainage and sewers.

    During the past two years Pompeii fell under the management of the Civil Protection Agency headed by the now-resigned Guido Bertolaso. The archaeologists who served as directors of Pompeii were elbowed aside (today there is an archaeologist as temporary director but with a limited brief). The declared goal was to make the sites earn more money, and to this end the Civil Protection Agency—whose brief includes “great events”—prepared the ancient theater for great events by cementing over the bleachers and bringing in lighting cables. I attended one of these “great events” along with 200 or so others, and was appalled at the sight of the same cementification concept that brought down the Domus of the Gladiators.

    While I’m at it, let me put in a plea for the custodians of Pompeii. There is only one for every six houses that are open—too few. There are perhaps 250, which sounds like many until one recalls that guarding Pompeii is a 24-hour task in all weather. I also regret that loss of the local company that managed the little cafeteria cum café and restaurant adjacent to the Forum Baths. They served Pompeii and visitors—including Bill Clinton—very well indeed, but have been replaced by a food chain whose food and service is decidedly inferior. I suppose that complaining about the food seems petty in comparison with the other risks of Pompeii, but if the Culture Ministry can boast that it is dealing with the (utterly harmless) dogs of Pompeii, then I can complain about the presence of a fast food chain that has ousted a valid local business.

  • Op-Eds

    Giancarlo Caselli: Sciascia and the Palermo anti-Mafia Pool

    ROME –Giancarlo Caselli is a hero for our time, and a witness to the events of the bitter Palermo season of 1992-1993, when judge Giovanni Falcone, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino and their police escorts were brutally murdered by the Mafia. In the background of those deeply disturbing events was a puzzling intervention by the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia.
    Caselli has unique experience in Italian jurisprudence. Having survived the years of lead as a judge investigating leftist terrorism in North Italy in the Seventies, he became chief state prosecutor in Palermo in 1992. When Caselli arrived there, hundreds of mafiosi were in rigid maximum security prisons as a result of the record number of convictions brought in the famous “maxi-trial,” brought by a pool of magistrates including Falcone and Borsellino in the 1980s. More went to prison under Caselli, who put Mafia bosses like Leoluca Bagarella behind bars and was also responsible for the arrests of two mafiosi who have since made important revelations to investigators, Gaspare Spatuzza and Giovanni Brusca.

    In consideration of his experience in combating the Mafia, in 2005 Caselli was the front-runner to become Italy’s chief anti-Mafia prosecutor. But just then the center-right Parliament passed a bill placing an age limit on the post. This new law neatly eliminated the candidacy of Caselli, born in 1939. Instead he returned to his native Turin in April 2008 as chief state prosecutor there.

    Two alarming precedents also involved nominations of anti-Mafia investigators. According to Caselli, writing Nov. 12 in the leftist daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, some years after the maxi-trial Borsellino requested a transfer from the Palermo anti-Mafia pool of judges to Marsala, on the western Sicilian coast, where he hoped to take over as chief prosecutor. His rival for the post was a magistrate who had never tried a single Mafia case, but had the advantage of seniority—never mind that Marsala, like Palermo, was Mafia turf. In short, the choice was between a tried Mafia expert magistrate with experience in the pool, and a man who had served more years in the magistracy. Which was it to be?

    At this point the national daily Corriere della Sera entered the fray, publishing an article by Leonardo Sciascia, entitled “The Anti-Mafia Professionals.” In it Sciascia attacked Borsellino by name. In consideration of Sciascia’s authority in matters Sicilian, this was like Moses setting down a law. “Sciascia was a giant,” writes Caselli. “But this article was a stunning error, and the cause of permanent damage. To speak of Borsellino as an ‘anti-Mafia professional’—implicitly an ambitious man bent on elbowing his way past a worthier colleague—was absurd and completely implausible.”

    Years later, Caselli continued, “Sciascia acknowledged that he had been badly informed.” The suspicion then is that, in a tragic irony, the normally suspicious Sciascia was himself set up to write the article, which continued to be ruthlessly exploited as the attacks on the purported “anti-Mafia professionals” continued unabated. “The next to pay the price was Giovanni Falcone,” Caselli writes.

    In 1987 the senior magistrate who headed the pool, Antonino Caponnetto, resigned to return home to Florence after four years of living under protection. “Caponnetto left Palermo convinced that Falcone would be his successor.” But here too there was a rival, who let it be understood beforehand that the successor planned to disintegrate the anti-Mafia pool, says Caselli. Falcone too was presented as another headline-grabbing anti-Mafia “professional.” The seniority clause was dragged out again, meaning that the winner would “not be the most qualified in the anti-Mafia team.” In the end Falcone became a victim of mud slinging to the point that he was forced to quit Palermo.
    Caselli’s conclusion: “The investigations into Cosa Nostra were shredded into a thousand pieces. No longer were there communication and exchanges of information among investigators….One step from victory the battle was surrendered.”
    From evidence emerging only now from a number of sources, including Spatuzza and the son of the convicted Mafia member and former Palermo mayor Vito Ciancimino, at just that time the Mafia urgently sought an easing of the harsh prison regime for the convicted mafiosi. To obtain this result the Mafia reportedly waged a campaign of violence that killed Falcone, Borsellino and their police escorts. Subsequent contacts that allegedly took place between Italian secret servicemen and Mafia bosses brought the massacres to a halt—so goes the theorem under analysis today.

    It is at least a fact that, on November 6, 1993, harsh conditions for 140 convicted mafiosi were revoked—by exactly whom is now being investigated. But in the meantime first the anti-Mafia pool and then Falcone and Borsellino were eliminated—though not the Mafia.

  • Op-Eds

    So Who Has the Last Laugh?

    ROME – Maurizio Crozza, in an appearance on the TV talk show Ballarò, acknowledged that it’s hard to top reality: “Just put yourself in the place of the Milan police chief. It’s 2 am somebody phones you to say that a dental assistant is coming to pick up the niece of the president of Egypt.” Crozza went on to speculate over Mr. Berlusconi’s having been asked to open a national conference on family values this coming Monday. “This,” opined Crozza, “ is like having Hannibal Lector open a conference on vegetarianism, or like Lele Mora inaugurating the Liturgical year, or Bersani talking to a congress of workers.” (This latter is particularly wicked.)
    Roberto Benigni offered a few helpful if uninvited hints to the beleaguered Premier:

    “Silvio, I’ve got an idea, I’m talking to you like your buddy. I know you want to be greater than Ceasar–so to do it you have to disappear like [reclusive pop singer] Mina or Greta Garbo. Just don’t be seen any more. Don’t go only to Switzerland, go further, maybe New Zealand, or a lost island. And take Apicella with you, send us a song, I’ll sing it myself…. That’ll make you into a myth, like God. Your image—why, they’ll write your name on the buses. Like the atheist bus that says GOD ISN’T THERE, we’ll say BERLUSCONI ISN’T THERE. You’ll be mythical.”

    Then there’s reporter Paolo Ojetti’s description of Berlusconi’s speech to his faithful on Nov. 3 in a Rome auditorium. “It was like a very forgettable production of Macbeth, with the audience staying on till the bitter end, but only out of politeness.”
    Not to be left behind, the perennial bad boy (and culture vulture genius) Vittorio Sgarbi gave an interview in which he boasted about his own cheerily overt libertinism. Mr. Berlusconi long ago reproached Sgarbi for it, but then, inspired by Sgarbi himself (so says Sgarbi), belatedly joined in.

    And then there’s the faithful Emilio Fede, companion of TV broadcasts and broads. Fede (it translates to “Fido”) may not have meant it as a joke, but here’s what the director of TG 4, a Berlusconi channel, said to journalist Lorenzo Galeazzi: “The Premier is single. Since he lost his mother his life has become much sadder. If he wants to have a bit of fun one evening a week I don’t see any harm in it.”

    Who has the last laugh? Perhaps Mr. Berlusconi himself, in the sense that his own (politically incorrect when not just plan vulgar) jokes have just been collected and analyzed by Simone Barillari in Il re che ride (published this week by Marsilio)—The King Who Laughs. One unusually innocuous example: “How does Umberto Bossi make love to his wife? La lega (he ties her up). Bossi, of course, is the head of the Northern League—La Lega. The author links Mr. Berlusconi’s style of jesting with a serious analysis of how he has used these to win the consensus that has marked his four rounds of government, at least until now. 

  • Op-Eds

    Will Bunga Bunga Finally Make Berlusconi's Personal Political?

     ROME – The most Twittered word in Italy today is bunga bunga. But the big question is not what “bunga bunga” means or even whether l7-year-old Ruby, a slightly disturbed but seriously sexy belly-dancer cum alleged thief, really became best buddies with Mr. B at a Valentine’s Day party last February at his sprawling residence at Arcore. No, it is whether or not it matters to anyone, and, if so, exactly what matters and how much. Emulating Swarzenegger, many Italian voters may continue to say, “This time it’s personal.” And yet the personal—those scandals that went from the teenaged Noemi to the veteran escort Patrizia and beyond—shows signs of finally becoming political.

    Let’s take it from the top. Last May 15 this Moroccan teenager spent the night with two young women she’d just met in a discotheque. In the morning, when the roommates who’d generously given her a bed woke up, she seemed to be asleep so, without disturbing Ruby, they went out for a cappuccino and corneto. When they returned, Ruby was gone, reportedly taking with her E. 3,000, a couple of snappy sweaters and a bit of jewelry.

             In a shop several days later one of

    the irate girls who’d given Ruby a bed happened to see Ruby herself. The girl immediately phoned the police and reported seeing the alleged thief. Police came; Ruby was picked  up and that afternoon was in the central police headquarters in Milan, the Questura. A judge for minors was asked to decide what was to be done with her. The choice was simple: either jail or consignment to a home for wayward girls. In either case she would have been under institutional control.

    Exactly what transpired then is anybody’s guess. In some magical way Ruby’s being picked up by the police in Milan became known at the Prime Minister’s office at Palazzo Chigi in Rome.

             By then it was almost midnight.

    At that point—as is confirmed by the police—a phone call was made to the chief of staff of the Milan Questura. The caller was Premier Silvio Berlusconi himself, suggesting that Ruby—described  in that phone conversation as the niece of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak—be released on diplomatic grounds. Instead of jail or a home for girls, the Premier advised that a female political ally of Berlusconi would pop around. Within hours Ruby was released to her. 

             But then the Egyptian foreign office denied that Ruby is any relation to their president or that she is Egyptian; saying so was a diplomaic faux pas.

    Secondly, whoever at police headquarters released an alleged thief to the care of a friend of the Premier ignored proper procedures concerning a minor. This means trouble within the Interior Ministry, headed by Roberto Maroni of the Northern League. The anti-immigrant League is known to be restless anyway.

    Aggravating Premier’s problems is that deputies continue to flee Berlusconi’s Partito della Liberta (PDL) to ally themselves with rightist Gianfranco Fini, Mr. B’s bedfellow for years, but now an arch-rival.

    A formal judiciary inquiry has been opened. Although Berlusconi himself is not under investigation, investigators found that in fact jewelry objects in Ruby’s possession had indeed been purchased by the Premier.

     Ruby, while contradicting herself, has implicated TV personality Emilio Fede and the powerful show biz agent who places pretty girls on stages all over Italy, Lele Mora. Ruby claimed that both men, who risk judiciary action for favoring prostitution, brought party girls, including Ruby, to Mr. Berlusconi’s home.
    When asked about Ruby by journalists at at a meeting of the Council of Europe Oct. 28, Mr. Berlusconi made no denial. Instead he grinned as if the question were foolish and responded, “I’m a person with a heart and I always try to help people in need….. I leave it to you all to deal with media rubbish,” he added. Berlusconi’s defenders also brush off the inquiry, alleging that the whole story is an attempt to blackmail the Premier. Berlusconi himself says that the scandal will be a boomerang hurting his political enemies, not him.
    On the other hand, Emma Marcegaglia, president of the Confindustria association of manufacturers, complained Saturday that the country is “paralyzed,” “abandoned to itself” and “lacking in dignity.” Some Catholic leaders are (finally) openly dismayed. Many in the opposition do not ignore that the so-called Lodo Alfano, which would give the Premier extensive protection from legal actions, is sinking like a stone. Already, a proposed media gag bill has been dropped. And Mario Draghi, who heads the Bank of Italy, says that Italy has lost nine years.

    As a result, the Northern League’s Umberto Bossi is speaking about the possibility of a babysitter government—a “technical government”—while others in his party prefer early elections in the Spring of 2010. At this point, early elections seem likely. A good deal is at stake, for Berlusconi’s chances to become president of Italy when Giorgio Napolitano’s seven years end may finally be compromised.

      Ah, yes, bunga bunga. Well—it originally seems to have meant African gang rape but is being used these days in Italy in headlines, on TV and—above all—on Twitter .to mean cheerful parties of old geezers surrounded by numerous young wannabe showgirls. If you want to know more - look on the Internet.

  • Facts & Stories

    Senate. Who’s the Winner in Wednesday Vote of Confidence? For the Moment, No One

    On the eve of the confidence vote in Parliament Wednesday a plainly tense and weary Premier Silvio Berlusconi lamented, “It’s our duty to go on governing, even if it is neither easy nor simple. How many times one might be tempted to say—let’s let others make that sacrifice.”

    But it didn’t happen, and on this, the day after he received a successful vote of confidence of 342 votes, versus the 316 minimum necessary, the Premier went out of his way to show pleasure that the Chamber of Deputies had granted his government a solid majority. Today the vote was ratified in the Senate, l74 to 129 votes. “The majority is stronger, and [Gianfranco] Fini’s people turned out to be loyal,” said Berlusconi with evident relief. “Now this government can complete the legislature.”

    Speaking on immigration today, Berlusconi pointed out that clandestine immigration “is down by 88%.” And by December he promised that work will begin on the controversial project of building a bridge across the Straits of Messina.

    So what kind of a victory was this for Berlusconi? Perhaps less than might seem. Few here therefore believe that early elections can be ruled out. Despite Berlusconi’s winning the confidence vote with an ample majority, the decisive votes came from the now despised Fini group—the Futuristi, as they are being called—and from a group of Sicilian independents headed by the island’s governor, Raffaele Lombardo, whose political career began with the Christian Democrats around Calogero Mannino. A sign of trouble: Berlusconi’s one-time ally Gianfranco Fini has formally announced creation of his own political party, in a definitive separation from the formation he and Berlusconi had two had founded only two years ago, the Partito della Libertà.

    Within the remnants of his party Berlusconi is relatively weakened for other reasons. “Berlusconi is the classic cat with nine lives, and in the past 16 years the post-Berlusconi era has been announced all too many times without its ever happening,” says Marcello Sorgi, an authoritative commentator for La Stampa of Turin and its former deputy editor-in-chief. On the other hand, Sorgi goes on to say, Berlusconi is a tyrant—“a despot who tends to cut off not only dissent, but any and all debate within his party by use of threats, censures, and expulsions.” For the Premier, therefore, “this victory was in fact a failure.”

    Until this week Umberto Bossi of the Northern League was the more aggressive of the ruling triad, and there is little reason to think that he will take a back seat now to the likes of Fini and Lombardi. A few days ago Bossi made a show-off statement declaring, “Sono porci questi romani,” these Romans are pigs, a play on words on the ancient Roman SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus). The ensuing ruckus meant that Bossi risked parliamentary censure and was rapped on the knuckles by President Giorgio Napolitano. In a vaguely conciliatory mode Bossi more or less apologized. “If I offended the Romans, I beg our pardon….It was only a joke,” he said. The censure motion was withdrawn.

    It is less of a joke that Bossi also went on record saying Wednesday, “No one had better make a mistake now, or else we go to elections. Everyone understands that, even the Fini people…Certainly it is more probable in March, but for the moment we won’t speak of March.” Asked specifically if early elections are likely, he shook his head to indicate no—but then whispered exactly the opposite.

    And meantime Bossi, with his son aka “La Trotta” (the Trout) in the wings, continues to wage war against Italy itself. Tensions within the coalition are therefore unlikely to decline; pro-Northern League authorities in a small school in Bossi turf in North Italy, at Adro, recently removed all national emblems, replaced with League symbols. When the school effectively disassociated itself from the Italian nation, a group of mothers signed a petition complaining at this act of disassociation from Italy.

    So who’s the winner in the vote of confidence? For the moment, no one.