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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Art & Culture

    Leonardo Sciascia’s Mafia

        For Sciascia, others could talk, and he admitted enjoying their talk, especially at il circolo—the club. For him the circolo was pure theater, a late afternoon daily event when he was a young man in his native Racalmuto and, later, a meeting at the end of the day in its equivalent in Palermo—either in an art gallery or in Elvira and Enzo Sellerio’s publishing office (he was their first editorial director). Sciascia participated by being there, and watching. What he liked was for other people to talk, so that he could listen, study, analyze. Apply the wisdom acquired from growing up in a Sicilian town, studying in another Sicilian town to be a teacher, and then teaching Sicilian schoolchildren.  

          When I interviewed him in the Seventies (I had known him already for some years), I would ask a question, which would be followed by what was for me an embarrassing, seemingly endless pause. He thought before speaking, just as he thought before writing. Perhaps that explains why he always went to Paris every winter, to tour the art galleries there. He was not expected to speak to the paintings, though they obviously spoke to him in a language he could understand. Paris and its arts were for Sciascia, a Mecca, and he always went there, from Palermo, by train. Why? Because that was how it was done, slowly, the noise of the swaying train cars drowning out all but one’s own thoughts (and the travelers must take the train to Palermo to know how much the cars sway and rattle on the old railway lines, quite unlike the Eurostars humming from Naples to North Europe). 
          I once asked Sciascia about his writing technique. By then I knew what to expect, and so I steeled myself for a long and painful wait. 
          In his own good time he replied after meditating. “Once I tried to rewrite something. It was awful. I vowed never to do it again. Ever since I think of what I want to write and then in the summer I go to Racalmuto for three months and I write it. I never rewrite a word.”  
          In this way he was himself a maffiusu, one of those silent men who are surrounded by arm-tugging underlings who do the talking for him. Sciascia was hardly alone: many Sicilians did not talk, and what they did not talk about was the Mafia. Indeed, when Sciascia was first writing many still proclaimed that it did not exist at all.  
          In a way his name said it all. It came from the Arabic, he told me, and it meant veil.

          In the Sicily of Sciascia’s era all seemed veiled, and nothing more so than the Mafia. But silent, thoughtful Sciascia helped to tear away its veil in his book of 1968, Il Giorno della Civetta, The Day of the Owl. The book about a Carabinieri captain who investigates a Mafia murder became a movie directed by Damiano Damiani starring Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero, with a screenplay by the late, gifted Ugo Pirro. The film version was more or less damned by one American critic as “depressive.” Indeed—but then so are all Sciascia’s books. 
          Only apparently detective stories, they plunge us into the  deep well of corruption, they illustrate how political collusion with the Mafia (and not only with the Mafia) works, they read us the rules of a subtle game with cruel rules. Even the landscape darkens. As Gerard Slowey writes in his introduction to a 1998 reprint edition of Il Giorno Della Civetta, “Sciascia’s Sicily in this book…is a land with little colour, where the greenery serves only to highlight the ominous grimness of the chiarchiaro and the people dressed in black…” (Manchester University Press).

          In his own words, “I was born in Racalmuto. As Pirandello liked to say, ‘the place of my involuntary sojourn on this Earth.’” Elsewhere he refers to Racalmuto, the town fifteen kilometers northeast of Agrigento surrounded by barren moutains, as “the dead village.”  
          His birth January 8, 1921, concided with the dawn of the Fascist era. He lived through the abortive assault on the agrarian, godfather Mafia under the Fascist Prefect Mori; through wartime and then the Mafia’s postwar rebirth as an urban force, first in contraband and then in the building trades, inevitably linked to politics, before the Mafia assumed control over the global drug market after 1978. 

          Sciascia’s subtle portraits of Sicily mark his novels and essays, but he scandalized many when he attacked, in an article that appeared in Corriere della Sera Jan. 10, 1987, what he called the professional anti-Mafia caste, “i professionisti dell’anti-Mafia.” Just what he meant by that remains a matter of debate. Perhaps he felt simply that “everyone anti-Mafia isn’t made of solid gold,” to quote writer Santo Piazzese, writing in Venerdì di Repubblica this Sept. 11. 

          Certainly, some of the key Sicilian protagonists at that time flaunted an heroic anti-Mafia stance for personal aggrandizement. Above all Sciascia was deeply suspicious of the mafiosi turncoats--i pentiti--whom he mistrusted, but whose revelations were the substructure of the famous so-called maxi-trial in Palermo in 1987. His writing the article offended many, particularly since that trial prepared by Judge Falcone produced more convictions than any previous Mafia trial, where white washing was more common. He believed that it was all too massive, too much tarring all with the same brush. To recognize a certain ambiguity, even in the difficult prosecution of alleged mafiosi, does at least provide a key into Sciascia’s way of thinking.

          The essence of Sciascia—the essence of Sicily, for that matter—is ambiguity, and, needless to say, he did not quite explain himself.

          An interdisciplinary conference was held at University College London in November entitled “Leonardo Sciascia’s Defiance: Literature, History, Politics.” Explaining the purpose of the conference, the organizers wrote, “Sciascia’s swift canonization raises important questions about the perception of literature, the discursive possibilities of political protest and the relationship between high culture and politics in present-day Italy.”

                            * * *
    To learn more, see J. Cannon, The Novel As Investigation: Leonardo Sciascia, Dacia Maraini, and Antonio Tabucchi, University of Toronto Press, 2006, and Jane C. Schneider and Peter J. Schneider’s Reversible Destiny, University of California Press, Berkley, 2003, and
                            * * *
    Judith Harris, who has been visiting Sicily since 1961, has written extensively about the Mafia. She covered the murder of General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa and the maxi-trial in Palermo for Time magazine and for the Wall Street Journal and was a field producer for the BBC-TV two-hour documentary “Mafia Wars.” She is at work on a novel, The Sicilian Bride.

  • Facts & Stories

    Supergrass Gaspare Spatuzza links Italy's Premier Silvio Berlusconi to the Mafia

    ROME – Unusual for orderly Turin, police blocked off all access to the street where a court met in session on Friday. The reason: Mafia supergrass Gaspare Spatuzza was to give evidence in the appeals trial of Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, co-founder of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s political movement Forza Italia in 1993. Two hundred journalists, including numerous from the foreign press, had already obtained accreditation to the Palermo court, meeting in Turin for reasons of security.


    Dell’Utri, born in Sicily, has already been convicted by a lower court and sentenced to nine years for outside support in a Mafia-type association. He also plea-bargained on charges of fiscal fraud, for which he received a sentence of two years and three months. He has admitted knowing a Mafia underling named Vittorio Mangano, who—according to a Palermo court—acted as a protector of the Berlusconi children in the family villa at Arcore during the Seventies, when North Italian industrialists were plagued by kidnappings for ransom; other industrialists sent their families to live in Switzerland for the same reason. In 1984 he became a director of the Berlusconi financial group Fininvest.


    New allegations by Mafia “pentiti” go beyond the possible personal role of Dell’Utri. The claim is that the late Mafia-implicated long-time mayor of Palermo Vito Ciancimino was actively involved in negotiations between the government in the early 1990’s and the Mafia bosses, who were seeking more lenient treatment in prison and other favors. The chief source for these allegations of secret negotiations is Ciancimino’s son, Massimo, who has given inquiring magistrates copies of documents inherited from his father which, he says, list the Toto Riina-led Mafia’s requests from the government. Massimo Cianicimino’s house was burgled shortly after this report made headlines in Italy. Supposedly Vito Ciancimino acted as go-betweens together with a Carabinieri colonel.


    The theorem behind all this—and the reason why so many journalists attended today’s trial session—is that, if Spatuzza and Ciancimino are to be believed, the Mafia had two seasons of anti-state violence intended to show its muscle prior to any bargaining. During the first period Judge Giovanni Falcone and Prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, heroes of the maxi-trial in Palermo, were murdered in 1992. The second period was during the turbulent year of 1993, when a technical (“babysitter”) government was installed by President Francesco Cossiga, and Forza Italia was created as a political action movement. That year a series of Mafia bombings took place, not in the South, but in the North of Italy (Rome, Florence, Milan). One at the Uffizi Museum killed six. These bombings have been seen as threats to the cultural heritage of Italy and to tourism, as opposed to more conventional Mafia crime.


    At midday Friday Spatuzza took the witness stand, speaking behind a screen as had Mafia witnesses at the famous maxi-trial of Palermo in 1986. In his testimony today Spatuzza affirmed that a mafioso named Giuseppe Graviano had claimed that Dell’Utri and Silvio Berlusconi were their points of reference. Supposedly a note—a pizzino, in Mafia parlance—exists saying that the meeting would be “as  usual in the cemetery” with our friend the [unnamed] senator.


    No further evidence yet supports this or other claims, and a judge has pointedly declared that Premier Berlusconi is absolutely not under judiciary investigation. Indeed, according to Spatuzza, Graviano identified his alleged political contacts simply as “the folks from Canale 5.” Although Canale 5 TV network was and is a Berlusconi property. not surprisingly, Berlusconi’s supporters scathingly call this the open season for hunting down Berlusconi, a victim—to quote Libero, a rightist newspaper—of a “media-judiciary circus.”


    Nevertheless, as a result of Spatuzza’s claims, Graviano will be heard by the court via a video-conference along with two fellow Mafia associates, his brother Filippo Graviano and Cosimo Lo Nigro, on December 11.


    On Friday the leaders of the Italian left parties, with rare exceptions, shied away from harsh reactions to the claims by Spatuzza, saying that they would await the outcome of the judiciary process. Until confirmed, Spatuzza's declarations amounted to hearsay, and even the often fractious Antonio Di Pietra, the former magistrate who heads the party called Italia dei Valori, was cautious. 
    In an interview with the Rome daily Il Messaggero Luciano Violante, former magistrate as well as former president of the Chamber of Deputies, warned that Spatuzza may still represent the Graviano Mafia clan, and that "the Mafia does what it wants only when it has a purpose." In this case, he suggests, the purpose may be to signal that the Mafia considers Silvio Berlusconi on his way out. In this case they are showing their availability to potential successors. Who? Violante does not say, but the obvious conclusion is that the Northern League is creating splinters elsewhere, including in Sicily, and that this interest in future alliances  may explain the maneuvers currently taking place behind the scenes. On the other hand Giuseppe Ayala, yet another former magistrate (as a prosecutor he worked with Judge Falcone), said, "One can hardly remain indifferent" to Spatuzza's allegations.
    Meanwhile Berlusconi's allies retort that the Mafia is attacking the Premier because he has worked to eliminate organized crime. Berlusconi's erstwhile enemy (and possible successor) Gianfranco Fini agreed: "The Mafia is attacking Berlusconi because he combats it." Berlusconi's lawyers say they intend to sue Spatuzza.


  • Art & Culture

    Sicilian Opera at La Scala. Director Emma Dante's Unorthodox "Carmen"

    ROME – The opening of the grand opera season at La Scala Theater in Milan, which will take place as always on the feast day of Sant’Ambrogio (Saint Ambrose, that is) on December 10, is first and foremost about music, and is also an emotional, political and fashion event, but rarely more so than this year.

    Emma Dante, a brave new theater director from Palermo, is entirely new to opera, and yet is presenting what promises to be an extremely unorthodox version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. All Milan is buzzing with anticipation (“Will Carmen be gay? A trans?”), and when tickets went on sale November 23 for a special cut-rate performance to take place December 4 for young people, the box office window was slammed shut within 120 seconds of its opening, and on-line tickets were sold out within exactly fifteen minutes. All twelve regularly scheduled performances have also been entirely sold out for months.   

    “Her vision is of Carmen as universal,” said Stephane Lissner, the French superintendent who runs La Scala. For Lissner, Dante’s vision embraces, in the opera, “the South and women’s condition there, and superstition.” So what does that mean?

    Speaking to Natalia Aspesi for La Repubblica, Dante herself explained: “The women in my theater performances are dumbed down (scimunite) whose context of rage, pain and submission has made them into idiots (rincoglionite—okay, mine is a polite translation). But Carmen is no victim, she’s a rebel who breaks every rule and doesn’t bother with politeness. She knows her destiny is death because of her longing for freedom, and she goes knowingly toward it…..This production is the fruit of considerable forethought, and is certainly not intended as a provocation. I tried only to insert a little virus into this world so far from my own, in part to understand if one can try experimentation within grand opera.” 
    In 2005 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone—today Vatican Secretary of State—took issue with Dante’s production of La Scimmia, in which a nude youth who plays the ape of the title appears on a cross. When it was presented in Genoa, where Bertone was at that time archbishop, he tried to prevent is being performed. 
    One opera blogger called Dante an “out of left field” choice to direct Carmen at La Scala, but also a “Sicilian prodigy.” The lead singer is Anita Rachvelishvili of Georgia while the sulky, handsome Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott (who is married to the gorgeous Russian soprana Anna Netreko) will sing Escamillo. Don Jose will be sung by the popular German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann.  


    Taking with her the stage, costume and lighting designers, Dante toured Palermo seeking atmospheric signals appropriate to her Carmen. In some scenes the sets have therefore Sicilian-inspired religious symbolism signifying death, with, in the foreground, brightly colored costumes. The result is a Carmen that is very strong, vibrant, but with more than a hint of violence as Don Jose attempts to “abuse” Carmen, in the words of Rachvelishvili.   


  • Facts & Stories

    A Week in Politics, Italian Style

    ROME – the movie that has Italians and foreigners talking—and gasping and laughing away a bitter tear or two—is a political documentary called “Videocracy.” It has won prizes and, while even ads for it are banned from being broadcast on state-owned RAI TV, it is circulating in some Italian cinemas. The work of a Swedish-based Italian from Bergamo named Eric Gandini, 42, it begins with a strip tease in a stage-set Milanese cafe, to enthusiastic applause from a handful of ordinary-looking slobs. The strippers are unprofessional, unsexy housewives, doing awkward bumps and grinds as part of a game show. This would be beneath anyone’s radar screen except for one fact: these embarrassing amateur strippers starred in a show produced by the proto-TV Berlusconi network in Milan in the Seventies. They raised the curtain on the historic birth of trash TV Italian style, and also of the Silvio Berlusconi media empire.

    Fast forward to last week in Italy, whose high court just stripped the Italian Premier of his immunity from prosecution while in office, an immunity that existed thanks only to a bespoke law called the “Lodo Alfano,” now overturned by a vote of 9 to 6. In that vote two judges considered conservative broke ranks to vote against, and two considered progressives voted for maintaining the “Lodo,” thus leaving scant justifications for allegations that the immunity stripping was part of the ongoing “plot” which Signor Berlusconi believes has the world against him. This plot hatched by his “opposers”—the word “opponents” has also been stripped from the Partito della Liberta’ political lexicon—is the work of foreign media, elite parasites and local Communists.

    The eighty lawyers who prepared the Premier’s defense, led by Nicolò Ghedini, acknowledged that everyone, even a president of the council of ministers, is equal under the law in Italy, but still the application of the law can be stripped away, depending upon that individual’s status.

    My own first question was: what the heck is a “lodo”? The good folks at the Encyclopedia Treccani explained that the word comes from the Latin root LAUDUM, meaning lodare or to laud someone, i.e., to give approval. A lodo is therefore a collegial decision or judgment that, however, needs ratification from a praetor. Alfano was the name of Berlusconi’s Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, and the law came into being in 2008; a previous law along the same lines, known as the Lodo Schifani, had been declared unconstitutional in October 2009. It was therefore not much of a surprise that not even a berlusconi of lawyers could cook up an argument to maintain his immunity from prosecution.

    Berlusconi, needless to say, is outraged and has gone so far as to intimate that revelations about the private life of the chief justice who made the decision can be expected. No less seriously, he has blamed Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for essentially betraying him by having signed into law the “lodo” in the first place, a charge which Napolitano denies with his customary dignity.

    And yet prosecutions there will be, one involving British banker David Mills, already convicted in Milan for accepting Berlusconi bribes in exchange for giving false testimony concerning business funds. A second case involves allegations of false accounting in the purchase of TV rights by Mediaset and a third, underhanded means for stripping Mondadori publishing interests from Carlo De Benedetti; that latter case has already whacked Berlusconi with a gigantic fine. Against a background of sexy sleaze and party girls, it is not a pretty picture.

    Berlusconi has two defenses. The first is that the Parliament, still solidly in his favor, is likely to push forward the date for praescription, meaning that if enough time is wasted before all this comes to trial, most will fizzle out. The second is to accuse anyone who criticizes the Premier of being anti-Italian—anti-Italian wine, anti-Italian tomatoes, anti-Italian showgirls, anti-Italian whatever. To combat this, he has ordered a new anti-foreign press squad to bombard us with good news about Italy, which is to say about himself.

    And this is a particularly interesting issue to me as a foreign journalist, but also as a writer, and so I spent some time yesterday searching details of rhetorical devices from ancient Rome to the present. My best answer is that this argument (love me, love my country, hate me, hate the tomatoes grown in Sicily) is a sophistic fallacy. I invite those better prepared to give us a more precise rhetorical term.

    So how are Italians in the street reacting to this? I have in the past week touched base in Naples and Florence as well as Rome, and the most obvious effect is that the clash is embittering and divisive, and this may be the most serious and enduring fall-out. “It’s a continuation of a kind of civil war,” a journalist from Florence told me gravely. From an old-line feminist leader in Rome: “I’m so depressed about it all—everyone I know has no desire to do anything.” From a young journalist in Naples: “I’ve just been hired by the right and hate them but I need the money.” From an MD in Cortona: “We need Silvio—the others are merda.” From a Tuscan family court judge: “All men need sex with women. What’s the fuss about?” From a Roman housewife: “Who else is there—just look at the messy left.” From Berlusconi’s daughter Marina, 43, from his first marriage: “The aim is to overturn the verdict of the electorate.” Her father, she said, is the victim of a “manhunt.”

    The word victim is significant, for it is hard to see that the most powerful and wealthy man in Italy is anyone’s victim save, these days when he is making one gaffe after another, his own. Among the latest, besides issuing sinister threats against a judge, was to dump on Rosy Bindi, a progressive Catholic, whom he insulted by calling her “less intelligent than beautiful.” Bindi being less than beautiful, and knowing it, she reacted sharply that she was not one of the women available to him. This launched an avalanche of signatures on an on-line petition in her support. As for this reporter, echoing JFK in Berlin, “Ich bin Rosy Bindi.”

  • Art & Culture

    L’Aquila: Riccardo Muti and Music for Hope and Brotherhood

    L’Aquila – This was Italy at its best. Wild applause, tears of joy and pain, and a stirring rendition of the Italian national anthem concluded an open-air concert Sunday evening of intentionally patriotic and purely Italian music by Bellini and Verdi. The deeply moving concert was held against a backdrop of mountain peaks at sunset Sunday evening in the heart of the zone devastated by the earthquake April 6.


    Riccardo Muti, between engagements in Salzburg and Chicago, directed an all-Abruzzese scratch orchestra and chorus of three hundred, including students from the famed conservatory here, itself severely damaged.

    The performance took place on a temporary stage mounted within the Finance Guards’ barracks compound in which the leaders of the G8, including President Obama, recently met. The large open space where the stage was mounted had been specifically utilized for the funerals of the 300 earthquake victims. Ending the concert, Muti said that while conducting the music he felt that he and all the musicians were also communing in an ideal sense with the spirits of those who had died.

    In a meeting beforehand with a delegation of the foreign press, Muti had stressed his own Neapolitan and Pugliese roots, and spoke movingly of the way in which can music help to bring people together and foster reconstruction of a community that has suffered so deeply.

    For an observer, it was an incredible experience, with a strong political edge. The Italian national anthem by Mameli is being rejected by the Northern League, and Muti—who opened the concert with the anthem—then performed it a second time as an encore. At that point he replaced his formal black jacket with one borrowed from a firefighter and descended into the audience of nine thousand to salute Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who was greeted with an extraordinary roar of applause.

    Also on hand, representing the government, was one of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s top
    advisors, Gianni Letta.
    In the days before this extraordinary event Civilian Protection personnel had called upon quake victims, tent by tent, passing out invitations to all those interested. Nine thousand attended. Because the concert was for them, the first thirty or so rows were for those still living in tents; the VIP’s were placed well behind. Many in the audience were dressed in finery, but a great many of the 100,000 affected by the quake came wearing jeans and gym jackets, or whatever was available in their temporary housing.

    The concert concluded a summer arts festival called Campi Sonori that is part of the local citizens’ commitment toward cultural as well as the more customary forms of reconstruction.
    Guido Bertolaso, the engineer who heads the reconstruction efforts for the government, told journalists that priorities for reconstruction is going to young families, and particularly schools and housing. Although 60% of the area’s schools were damaged or destroyed, new schools are being built by construction companies working around the clock, and schools will start on time, he announced with legitimate pride.

    Journalists also toured some of the new housing, almost ready. “We made one key decision,” said Bertolaso. “No containers. I just returned from one quake zone, Foligno, where after years people are still living in containers. We are building regular homes as well as using prefab wooden structures—our enemy is the snow, but we shall be ready.”

    He pointed out that the fairly recent previous earthquakes, such as in the Irpinia in late 1980 and in the Belice Valley in the Sixties, took place in areas with a relatively low number of inhabitants and small, scattered towns. “The only comparison with this one is the 1905 Messina earthquake,” he said.

    L’Aquila is one of Italy’s top 20 “cities of art,” with an important cultural history, fine historic buildings, a university and music conservatory. “We decided to maintain the area’s social viability of the community,” he said. The basis for reconstruction planning is to maintain its unique culture by creating the possibility for young people to remain in the area—hence the emphasis on cultural reconstruction. Even the conservatory will reopen in late November in temporary quarters.

    Physical reconstruction of the city center will proceed at a slower pace. Visitors to town’s famed historic center see spiderweb cracks across the facades of buildings, tie bars and their equivalent of tie wrappings that keep the buildings from collapsing. The entire old city center is still under guard, off limits to all but a few. But at the civic theater a brand new elegant auditorium was just inaugurated.

  • Op-Eds

    Pre-Rinsing the News

    ROME  - Premier Silvio Berlusconi has brought a one million euro law suit against the newpaper La Repubblica for defamation.For three months now the Italian daily has relentlessly published a daily list of ten questions for which the newspaper demands answers concerning the Premier's private affairs. These alleged affairs went onto the public record when the Premier's estranged wife, Veronica Lario, wrote an open letter accusing her husband of having inappropriate relations with minors and of suffering from undefined physical problems. Last Friday Mr. Berlusconi's personal lawyer, Niccolo' Ghedini, a member of Parliament for the Partito della Liberta', announced he will bring defamation suits against selected foreign publications if he can "verify if there is the possibility to bring civil actions against those who went beyond the normal right to report events."

    The foreign newspapers will likely include the Spanish El Pais, the French Nouvel Observateur, and the British dailies the Times, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and  Daily Telegraph, all of which have not been reluctant to reveal piquant details. 
    By way of reply to the law suit against La Repubblica, the French leftist daily Liberation has begun publishing the same list in sympathy with the besieged Italian newspaper. "This is an intolerable attack on press freedom, and a disturbing signal for all of Europe," Laurent Joffrin, editor in chief of Liberation, explained.

    The legal action and threats coincide with worsening of relations between the Italian Catholic Church and Mr. Berlusconi. Following a series of knuckle-wrapping editorial rebukes in the Catholic daily Avvenire, which is the official publication of the Italian bishops, the chief editor of Il Giornale newspaper (which belongs to Berlusconi's brother) Vittorio Feltri responded with signal brutality. The result: Berlusconi's much-vaunted dinner appointment in L'Aquila to meet with the Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican Tarcisio Bertone was cancelled by the Vatican.

    Il Giornale then retorted Saturday that its "enemies" have been "unleashed." An editorial called the editor of Avvenire Dino Boffo the "chief moralist commited to launching anathemas against Silvio Berlusconi for his private affairs."
    Meanwhile, last week the New York Times joined the fray in an op-ed comment by a professor of social psychology in Milan, Chiara Volpato, "Italian Women Rise Up," in which she discusses the role of the Italian press in maintaining popular support for the Premier. 


    Understanding how that role works under Mr. Berlusconi, who owns outright three national networks and appoints the directors of the other three, of a total of seven, may be the most important lesson to be drawn from this tawdry affair. 

    His air-tight control over TV means that the scandals were mentioned in passing or not at all on six of seven networks. The brainwashing mentioned by Professor Volpato was unnecessary, for the news was pre-rinsed for the precise audience which keeps him in power, an audience composed especially of the elderly living in the depressed South. The medium not only is the message, but determines who receives the message.

    Nationwide, at most one-third of Italians over the age of 18 read newspapers (32% of those over 65). By contrast, 38% of those under 24 are TV viewers, but the figure rises to 57% of those over age 65, according to Eurispes, the research organization.
    More importantly, when asked what is their most important source for the news, over 43% responded that it is TV and under 27%, the daily newspaper. Calculating further that Mr. Berlusconi also owns newspapers and magazines which published only the scantest information about the scandals, with invective and anger but no details, the figure of those who knew anything at all about them cannot be more than 10%.

    Interestingly, Italians who defend Mr. Berlusconi say that his critics should pay less attention to "gossip" and more to the good things he has done for Italy, such as resolving the economic crisis--a claim he has made repeatedly on TV. He has not resolved the economic crisis, of course--no one has--but since he says he has, the claim becomes its own truth despite grim statistics to the contrary. One small example: 29% fewer jobs offered to the university graduates of 2009 over 2008.

    Manipulation of the news creates its own truth, and this is a danger for democracy.

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy Seen from the Beach

    ROME – For journalists this is traditionally the silly season, when anything goes, as long as it’s entertainment. Alas, this beach season has brought a host of serious problems. But don’t give up (or else skip to the last paragraf now): I’m saving the entertainment factor for last.

    The first and most worrisome are the floating seventy-three bodies of would-be migrants to Italy from Eritrea on the African coast. Their boat was in deep trouble, adrift with a motor out of order, when it was spotted by the English-speaking crew of a ship somewhere between Malta and the Italian coast five days ago. According to one of five survivors who made it to the Italian isle of Lampedusa, which is only a short hop from Libya, that crew offered a couple of bottles of water, and then disappeared. The crew did not notify authorities that a boatload of human beings was in grave danger, perhaps—the conjecture is here—because of a new (and doubtless well meant) law that would give any helpful crew a degree of responsibility for aiding and abetting illegal migrants. Reportedly ten ships saw them.

    When a body was spotted afloat off Malta, the Maltese authorities did not inform the Italians because that procedure, one, was unnecessary, and, two, if necessary, would have taken “four or five days.”

    The crude facts are that Italy is caught in a terrible bind. If they welcome migrants, more will come. If they do not welcome them, a few less will come, and more will die. There is no easy way out: be cruel or be besieged.

    Continuing our tour on the beach, there is an immigration fall-out kerfuffle up in North Italy, where a forty-something Muslim woman showed up in a public swimming pool wearing what’s called a burkini—a full-body cover that actually looks like a deep sea diving outfit. The mothers in the pool complained that the outfit “frightened” their children, and so the pool manager asked the woman to show the label on her burkini so as to ascertain that it met EU import rules. She declined; he argued that the health of his other swimmers was at risk. No comment needed: hypocrisy abounds—but will not resolve the immigration problem, any more than the recent agreement between Libyan leader Gaddafi and Premier Silvio Berlusconi has.

    Of course there is political fallout, most interestingly between the President of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini and Northern League spokesmen. For Fini, Italy should offer a degree of understanding of the immigrants’ cultures, and not expect them to adopt Italy’s immediately; for the League’s Roberto Calderoli, “Fini should say something more properly conservative” ("Fini dica qualcosa di destra”).

    This problem appears all the more intractable when the big quarrel in domestic Italy is over the national anthem by Mameli. The Northern League says it won’t sing the anthem because the productive North earned money for decades, and the money was siphoned off to the Mezzogiorno and then wasted. Here too there is hypocrisy; when I arrived in Italy the despised migrants were the Southern Italians who worked in the Northern factories, but rooms-for-rent signs in Turin still said “No Southerners.”

    My question here is—and I invite comments—if Italy cannot deal with its own internal issues, how can it come together smoothly enough to deal with the arriving hordes from elsewhere? The harsh fact is that people will continue to die in order to escape from Africa, and Italy is their gateway, but some will always arrive: take a look on any beach in Italy today, and African hawkers are selling everything from sweatsocks to buckets of sliced coconut. (A small caveat: a recent study of hawkers here showed that most are in fact Italians.)

    And now, the most famous beach scene of all: Capri, where someone dumped toxic waste into the Blue Grotto.

    As for the amusement, here it is. Noemi (of “Papi” fame) is on the Costa Smeralda enjoying a yacht holiday which has taken her only a few steps from the villa where she spent a rockabilly holiday with the Premier and a bevy of showgirls. The paparazzi just can’t get enough of her, and she is basking in the limelight. She so has made it big that, when a passerby asked how old she was, her sassy retort was: “Hey, don’t you read the newspapers?”

    I told you you would be rewarded by reading to the end. I’ve kept my word.

  • Art & Culture

    Hot Pot Stirs up Sizzling Debate

    ROME – Culture sneaks onto the agenda when least one might expect it. In a leaked tape recording of a private conversation, Premier Silvio Berlusconi revealed to a female acquaintance, the professional escort Patrizia D’Addario, that “thirty Phoenician tombs from 300 BC” had been discovered on his property near Olbia in Sardinia.

    The political opposition to the center-right government has raised a question in Parliament because under Italian law all such findings are automatically state property, and any discovery of archaeological sites must be formally declared to the authorities. Was this?

    Questioned on this by Corriere della Sera today, archaeologist Andrea Carandini, who heads the scholarly board of counsellors for the Cultural Heritage Ministry, hypothesized, “I am sure that he [the Premier] will have declared them to the local superintendency.”

    However, a statement by the National Association of Archeologists suggested otherwise: “If confirmed, this represents an important finding for the study of Phoenician expansion throughout the island, completely unknown to the scientific community”

     The scholarly issue is important because until now the Olbia area had been considered founded by overseas Greeks. Since no large necropolis exists without a nearby township, the new findings of Phoenician origin would change history, literally. 

    Elsewhere the Euphronios kalyx krater—that’s the one former Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving dubbed the “hot pot”—continues to stir up a sizzling debate in Italy.

    This exquisite krater showing the death of the warrior Sarpedon is the Sistine Chapel of Greek pots, an unexcelled masterpiece. It was made by the potter Euxitheos and painted and signed by Euphronios, leader of the group of artists who transformed black-figure vase painting to the far more sophisticated red-figure during the golden age of Athens in the early Sixth Century BC.

    The vase, as was suspected even in 1972, was stolen from a tomb at the ancient Etruscan site of Cerveteri, on the seacoast due north of Rome. It was illegally marketed to the Met by Robert Hecht, today an octegenarian, who is still on trial in Rome along with the Getty Museum’s former curator Marion True. Although Hecht claimed the pot had come from Beirut, in all likelihood he received it from the local Giacomo Medici, whose conviction for trafficking in looted objects was upheld July 15 by a Rome appeals court. (The court dropped his sentence from to eight years in prison, and he is free pending appeal to the Cassations Court, Italy’s highest.)

     In his book Making the Mummies Dance (Simon & Schuster, 1993) Hoving admitted to feeling a “near-sexual pleasure” when the million dollar purchase on behalf of the Met was concluded in 1972, “just underneath the crack in the door of the pending UNESCO treaty which would drastically limit the trade in antiquities.”

    Today the hot pot is back in Italy, returned with apologies from the Met, with fanfare, and placed briefly on exhibition in the Quirinal Palace before being put on permanent view in the Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia in Villa Borghese in Rome. This venue was chosen because the Villa Giulia museum houses all the greatest treasures of Etruria in Italy, and particularly from tiny Cerveteri.

    However, grumbling from American art lovers has followed. “I used to be able to walk ten minutes and see it,” moaned one disappointed New Yorker. Writing for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman observed, “Italians don’t seem to care” about the treasure in their presence—that is, they care less than the New Yorkers do. The implication is that restitution was a mistake; that the krater was basically better off in New York, and that the Euphronios is just one more pot, hot or cool, in  Italy, blessed with so much stuff that it does not know where to look first, or bother to look. Besides, as another serious academic observed, in Italy it is hard to find out where things are in the museums.

    Reacting to the criticism in the New York Times, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi proposed that the hot pot be taken on a “road show” (his words) throughout Italy. 
    Bondi’s opponents (one of them, anyway) seem to agree. Speaking at a conference on cultural property held in Rome in mid-July, Bondi’s predecessor as minister and political rival from the center-left, Francesco Rutelli, who also happens to be a former mayor of Rome, blamed the present government for failing to have given sufficient publicity and air space to the objects repatriated so far from not only the Met, but from the Boston Fine Arts Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Getty in Malibu.

     In this context, the Culture Ministry has formalized creation of an office that will promote “valorizzazione” (public fruition) of the cultural heritage—that is, make the object more visible, more profitable to the Ministry and museums, currently underfunded because of current government reductions in the ministry budget.

    In other words, both present and former culture ministers are in basic agreement with the critics in the U.S.—that publicity (that “road show”) is the way forward, and that the beni culturali can be profitable businesses. Not surprisingly, one Italian citizen, Paola Lucia, has proposed renting out the Euphronios vase.

    At this point the distinguished archaeologist Prof. Salvatore Settis, director of the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa, Carandini’s predecessor as head of the Culture Ministry’s oversight board, weighed in. Writing in the daily La Repubblica July 23, Settis pointed out that the restitution of the hot pot and similar looted artifacts is based upon “the intrinsic nature of the public worth of the objects, and on their pertinence within an indivisible context linked to the place where they were found.” Renting cultural property to a foreign institution, Settis went on to say, would alter the very principle upon which the restitution was made, since the the return of an object would be requested in order to commercialize it—and in future no museum would dream of returning objects looted from Italy. 

    The Euphronios krater goes on view from September 22 through January 30, 2010, in Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome together with fifty-nine other objects recovered through the work of the Carabinieri Fine Arts squad, the Comando Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, celebrating its fortieth year of activity. Besides the "hot pot," on exhibit are  the ancient Roman group of the Capitoline Triad of gods (the only known examplar), Raphael's "Portrait of a Gentleman" and paintings by Bellini, Van Gogh, Renoir and Cezanne.

  • Art & Culture

    Whatever Happened to Culture?

    ROME. First it was the beaches, eclipsed by cement and the cleaner coasts of Spain and Dalmatia. Now some of Italy’s top museums and archaeological sites are showing a decline in popularity, reversing the trend for steady growth for the first time in two decades. Meeting in Rome last week the nationwide FederCulture, an association of public and private organizations which manage cultural and leisure-time activities, presented a bleak statistical report for 2008. The drop was particularly accentuated in the Naples area: a 12.3% decline in ticket sales at Pompeii, and a nearly 25% drop at the Reggia museum at Caserta. Few expect 2009 to be better—on the contrary, as the economic slump hurts tourism, it may be worse.

    The particularly grim figures for Naples are reminders that last summer’s burning piles of rubbish were punishing for the Neapolitan economy. In addition, the positive showing of Rome’s three principal archaeological sites (the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum), where attendance was up by 7.6%, may simply mean that visitors remained in Rome an extra day in order to avoid Naples.
    And yet even the Uffizi in rubbish-free Florence, with 1.5 million visitors, lost 3.8% of its visitors last year; by comparison, the Louvre, with some 8.5 million, rose by 2.4% despite the recession.

    Obviously the Louvre is far more spacious that the Uffizi, and its collections cover a broader range than any single museum in Italy or even the Vatican. Moreover, the Louvre draws upon a much larger local pool: some 12 million people live and in and around Paris, as compared with the 700,000 of Florence and its outlying small towns. However, money talks, and it is worth recalling that the French cultural budget is double that of Italy, at E 2,900 million as compared with Italy’s E 1,568 million.

    Another sign of the troubled cultural times: Italian families are spending almost 7% less per capita on the theater and on movie attendance. For this reason an ad hoc group of directors and actors presented a petition to the world leaders attending the G8 meeting in L’Aquila last week to ask for the subsidies they had previously received from the Culture Ministry to be restored.
    Italy’s budget for cultural spending this year amounts to just  0.18% of the national budget—a drop of one quarter over 2008. The government has announced that that budget will shrink substantially further over the next two years, in cuts that also affect libraries with their ancient archives and the hiring of personnel to replace the cultural heritage managers, whose median age today of 55 puts them on the shores of Golden Pond.

    Yet even when the much maligned foreign press raises its voice, the culture establishment here still reacts. When the New York Times stated (erroneously) that the famous “hot pot” purchased for the Met by Thomas Hoving in 1971, and returned to Italy this year, is now sitting unnoticed in an obscure Roman museum, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi did not deny this; in fact the vase is in the Etruscan Museum at Valle Giulia which, like almost all other Italian museums, has fewer visitors. Instead he accepted this as fact and announced his hope that the pot will go soon on what he called a “road show” to other Italian towns. The precious and fragile vase about to hit the road was decorated by the foremost painter of Attic vases, Euphronios, at the height of the Athenian civilization and is unique.

  • Facts & Stories

    A Walk on the Margins of the G8

        ROME. So now we know the names of the real protagonists of the G8 meeting, underway at L’Aquila, the beautiful, ancient city so sorely tried by the death-dealing earthquake April 6, which killed almost three hundred people. No, it’s not the world leaders discussing poverty and climate change, no no-global demonstrator, no party girl nor paparazzo.

    The A-list begins with the residents of L’Aquila’s tent towns, victims of the quakes, who lost their homes and, this week, have been more or less locked into their tents for reasons of G8 security.  And indeed the L’Aquila mayor has repeatedly complained that the townpeople have been cut out of events, literally. Others have complained that, “like highway cafeterias where you have to go through endless corridors to find an exit,” roads at L’Aquila that took three minutes to drive now take a half hour because of the imposition, for PR motives,  of lengthy detours that require all comers to drive past reconstruction projects.

    Other unseen protagonists: the firefighters, kept closer to (possible) action: one firefighter is assigned to each head of state as responsible for his evacuation in case of an emergency of any kind.  Carla Bruni, who arrived in the Abruzzo today in company with George Clooney. Clooney upstages everybody.

    Next comes President Obama’s mother-in-law. This being a country where la suocera occupies a crucial role in society, commentators here, and especially women who happen to occupy that same role, were delighted that the President would bring her along. In Rome grannie took the girls to Giolitti’s, a few steps away from Parliament, for ice cream cones. The owner invited the

    girls into the kitchen to help make more ice cream. Delighted, they did. Needless to say, photographers were not far away, and the photos showed the elder Obama daughter, Malia, pretty in loose shorts and a T-shirt printed with a huge peace symbol.

    Michelle Obama herself won kudos and endless written and radio reports for her arrival in a sleeveless yellow frock with a big green flower pin at one shoulder. Tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm the President and his wife will return to Rome for a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI.   

    Speaking of PR, you can already hear the sighs of relief coming from the organizers of the G8 because, so far so good, nothing untoward has taken place. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has had bad luck with previous G8 meetings: at the one held at Naples in 1994  he was served with notice that he was under investigation for corruption. In 2001 in Genoa riots left one demonstrator dead, and the city suffered severe damage. At this G8 venue rioters cannot get close to the damaged and suffering city, whose functioning access roads are easy to seal off. As a result, the no-globals were demonstrating mildly in Rome yesterday, where ten were arrested on more or less easy terms like “obstruction of justice,” meaning not getting out of the way of the police fast enough.

    Finally, the foreign press has been a major protagonist, seen by the Berlusconi camp as his enemy, incited by radical leftists at home to speak for them. And how they have spoken—and not only the Murdoch-owned Times of London. For weeks the foreign press world-wide has carried detailed reports of sleazy parties attended by young girls and more than one paid female “escort,” hosted by the Prime Minister until the wee hours of the morning. While he and his PR people have downplayed all this on various grounds (right to privacy especially), the issue entered the public domain because of a devastating open letter from his now estranged wife.

    There is no doubt that many foreign publications and broadcasters have treated Mr. Berlusconi harshly, even the Vatican has belatedly weighed in urging a return to morality. This week’s French magazine L’Express puts a grinning Berlusconi on its cover under the headline, “Enquête sur le bouffon de l’Europe, Berlusconi” (Investigation into the Buffoon of Europe). The British Times on Line shows a smiling Berlusconi holding a sign that says “G8”, the 8 shaped by a girl’s brassiere. In the US, CNN carried an interview with the confessed, very beautiful escort-for-hire, who has detailed her two nights with the Premier. And so on, and on, to Spain and even Asian publications.

          For this reason at yesterday’s G8 press conference following the meeting, reporters were not permitted to ask questions—any questions, not even on the issue of the day, climate change.

    The real question behind the scenes has been whether these seismic events regarding Mr. Berlusconi’s private life hamper his ability to deal with his peers at the G8. Indeed, one British newspaper picked up a report that in the G8 Italy might be dropped and replaced with Spain. Asked about this, one of his most senior colleagues and supporters in the Senate said, rightly, that this was technically impossible. (In any case, that would seem unlikely, for the G8 is being enlarged to include more countries.) However, he acknowledged, choosing his words carefully, any leader’s prestige or lack thereof influences the way his peers negotiate with him. 

    Because of Mr. Berlusconi’s control over his own three national TV networks and two of the three state networks of RAI, one question being raised on the talk radio shows here is whether or not Italy has freedom of speech. It is true that political censorship of newspapers and news magazines does not exist, but only 20% of the public gets its news from written materials. The remaining 80% take what they can get from TV, and TV is to some extent visibly manipulated. The RAI TG1 blackout of reporting of the sleaze events at Mr. Berlusconi’s homes in Rome and Sardinia has brought complaints from the oversight body of RAI; combined with the foreign press reports, it puts Mr. Berlusconi in the comfortable role of victim of foreign devils.

    A careful tracking of RAI TV shows manipulation as well as omission. At Viareggio, last week, where a train running off the tracks carried a load of gas that exploded in a devastating fire, the Prime Minister arrived and was greeted with boos and catcalls. On TV, however, there was applause which sounded artificial. In fact, a news report the following day reported that it was artificial. Secondly, the Italian Prime Minister attended a recent meeting of European foreign ministers, even though his own foreign minister was there. On that evening’s state-owned RAI TV news Channel 1 his presence was duly reported, illustrated by footage of a previous meeting, not with foreign ministers, but with heads of state (and hence more prestigious). The footage, in other words, had nothing to do with the event, and the actual foreign ministers meeting had been plainly used an excuse to show Mr. Berlusconi in a world leadership role.