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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    World Art Crime Experts Convene in Amelia

    At historic Amelia in Umbria, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) held its 8th annual international meeting June 23-25, with particular attention this year on the protection of the archeological and art heritage in the war-torn Middle East.

     

    The historic town of Amelia is as beautiful as the works ARCA seeks to protect worldwide. Believed to have been founded around 1200 BCE, Amelia is today home to over 11,000. Its streets are lined with gracious 15th and 16th century palazzi, many now b&b's. Flowers burst from window sills, and swallows flit over picturesque streets. Those streets are so narrow that driving through them is a challenge, and so most visitors park outside the imposing ramparts that encircle the city; fortuately a free bus circulates every 20 minutes.

     

    The subjects dealt with at the ARCA conference are comparatively grim, but important. According to Swiss research, one of every six paintings, sculptures and objects of antiquity sold today are forgeries. Nevertheless, the resources invested to combat art fraud remain fairly limited. A famous painting looted by a thief sneaking into a museum window at night may be hidden away for over a decade before it surfaces in one of the many countries, unlike Italy, which devote scant funding to cultural preservation.

     

    Often that stolen famous work cannot even be sold, and this makes the thieves clever people but poor businessmen, in the words of Forbes magazine. Although new scientific tests can show whether or not a pigment is one the artist actually used, or existed in his time, or whether the canvas is hand- or machine-woven, many galleries do not bother with checking this. A case in point is the ongoing exhibition of works by Amedeo Modigliani in Genoa, some of which appear sufficiently suspect that a formal investigation into a number of possible forgeries has been opened. (Genoa curators respond that all the works have been shown in reputable museums and galleries.)

     

    This year's conference, held in Amelia's Boccarini college adjacent to the town's archaeological museum, was chaired by the CEO of ARCA Lynda Albertson. Speakers in the session on conflict zones included archaeologist Layla Salih, who heads the heritage department at Nineveh and is a member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Dr. Salih's topic was the cultural heritage of Mosul, through which ISIS rampaged in 2013 and destroyed the ancient palace there. She had first visited Nimrud as a schoolgirl, and earned a PhD in archaeology from the University of Mosul.

     

    Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director-general of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, spoke on "Preserving Culture in Times of Crisis: Combatting the Illicit Trafficking of the Rich and Unique Cultural Heritage of Syria." Also speaking of Syria was Samer Abdel Ghafour, doctoral candidate and founder of the archaeology information network ArchaeologyIN. His subject: "What One Looted Object Tells Us about Syria's Looted and Laundered Heritage." These topics, listed, may sound dry as dust but after the speakers from war-ravaged Mosul and Syria spoke, a few were in tears.

     

    Other issues under discussion were trafficking in Bosnia & Herzegovina; prosecution of antiquities crimes in the U.S.; emergency evacuations of heritage collections; art and money laundering; but also how to protect the cultural heritage of Venice from the ravages of excessive tourism and high water.

     

    The conference takes place within the orbit of ARCA's annual 10-week post-graduate course on the theoretical, legal and practical elements related to art and heritage crime. Now in its 9th year, the ARCA's intensive course has been attended by students and specialists from 14 countries. Whereas universities worldwide offer individual classes on art crime and related subjects -- forgeries, cultural property protection -- ARCA's is literally unique as the first to provide an interdisciplinary approach.

     

    The students and specialists attending the post-graduate certificate program come from universities throughout Europe and the U.S., as well as from Australia and New Zealand. They study the prevalence of art crime, such as museum heists and gallery sales of forgeries, but also art and heritage law and how these interact, or fail to do so, on the international level. They also study art crime during wartime and theories of criminology as they apply to the study of art crime.

     

    American art historian and novelist Dr. Noah Charney, who is adjunct professor of art history at American University of Rome, was the founder of ARCA. Born in Connecticut, he graduated from Colby College, Maine, studied in England at the Courtald Institute and has taught at Yale University and in the summer program at Cambridge University. His course this year at Amelia was on "Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers and Thieves."

     

    Among the other instructors is the noted Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, forensic archeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Dick Ellis, director of the Art Management Group and formerly with New Scotland Yard, teaches a course in "The High Stakes World of Art Policing, Protection and Investigation." Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, teaches provenance research. Other instructors teach heritage law, analysis of art crime, risks within the international art market.

    (To learn more, click here)

    Participants range from youngsters interested in curating collections to mid-career lawyers and state officials, including two from the US Homeland Security.

     

  • Local election posters, Genoa
    Facts & Stories

    Elections in 1,000 Towns Send Shock Waves Thru Italy

    ROME -- Partial local elections have rocked Italy. For the first time since it was founded in October 2009 the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) was trounced in an election, winning under 10% in Parma, L'Aquila and Catanzaro. Until Sunday's vote in 1,021 townships throughout Italy, from Palermo in the South to Asti in the North, the party which had led the pack in recent months had never suffered a serious setback. The populist party created by former comedian Beppe Grillo had instead steadily gained consensus, year after year, to the point that the most recent national polls had indicated it as claiming over 30% in an hypothetical national vote.

    What national vote? The answer is that, since Sunday, there isn't none. Until the final results were announced June 12, the M5S, together with former Premier Matteo Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), had been shouting for national general elections to be held in early autumn, six months ahead of schedule. But since the PD -- and, more strictly speaking, Renzi himself -- also took a notable shellacking, the call for an early vote seems suddenly to have been dropped from the political agenda.

    Altogether 11 million Italians were entitled to vote in these partial elections. On June 25 a run-off between the two leading candidates will take place in almost all of the 25 largest cities. But already it is apparent that the big winners are the parties of the center-right, which successfully nibbled away at Grillo's M5S. Grillo is fighting back: "Don't fool yourselves," he vowed yesterday. "We are not giving ground." However, serious dissension within the party is reported.

    The Palermo election was closely watched in part because, on the basis of its Arab-Norman heritage, the city is UNESCO's culture capital for 2018 and will also host Manifesta, a contemporary art biennale that same year. The apparent outright big winner was Leoluca Orlando, 69, who had already served four terms as Palermo mayor. Backed by Renzi's PD, Orlando had presented himself to voters without that party's symbol, intimating independence from Rome. Losing to Orlando, with just over 16%of the vote, was Grillo's candidate Ugo Forello, 40, lawyer and activist in the anti-racket organization Addiopizzo (Byebyekickbacks).

    Another closely watched vote took place in Genoa, home to Grillo's M5S, but also an historically leftist city. Mayor Marco Doria, elected in 2012 with 60% of the vote, chose not to run a second time. With a turnout of under 49%, the two leading candidates, who will face a run-off June 25, are trightist Marco Bucci and left-leaning Giovanni Crivello. Bucci, with almost 39% of the vote, was backed by a pack of seven rightist parties (including Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the Northern League). Crivello won only 34% despite the backing of the PD and three other left-leaning parties. The M5S vote was of barely 18%, half of the votes accorded to the top two.

    Since the L'Aquila earthquake that shattered the city in 2009, some 4,500 new dwellings have been built at a cost estimated at 1 billion Euros, but the center of the old town remains largely abandoned. Administration in recent years has been under Renzi's PD, and on Sunday voters, with a turnout of almost 68%, gave Americo Di Benedetto, backed by the PD and eight other moderate mini-parties, over 47% of the vote. In the run-off he will face Pierluigi Biondi, who copped 36% of the vote with the backing of seven conservative parties including Berlusconi's reborn Forza Italia and a group representing Matteo Salvini of the Northern League, "Noi con Salvini." The Grillo candidate won less than 4%.

    At Lampedusa, Mayor Giusi Nicolini of the Partito Democratico gained worldwide applause for her careful tending of the island's flood of migrants since her election in 2012. Renzi had her join him at the White House for dinner with President Barack Obama. Just last week Nicolini received the UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize for the search for peace, whose previous recipients included Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. In Sunday's local election she was soundly defeated, however. Winning just 908 votes, or under 24% of those cast, she placed third out of four candidates -- too few for her to remain in the local administration.

    Although one might have guessed that the Northern League would win hands down at Lampedusa, it copped only 6% of the vote. Instead victory went to Salvatore ("Totò") Martello, who had been mayor 15 years ago. With the backing of a center-left coalition, he won 40.3% of the vote. Today Nicolini announced that she will run again for mayor, "though not with the backing of the PD."

     

  • Op-Eds

    Early Elections Loom - But So Do Gloomy Warnings

    Amid a chorus of warnings, national general elections are almost certain to take place this autumn, six months before the slated end of the legislature. Behind the demand for a general reckoning are three powerful forces: former Premier Matteo Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi's reborn Forza Italia, with a further push from Matteo Salvini's Northern League.

     

    Each has its reasons for lobbying for early elections. Renzi's party commanded almost 41% of the vote in the European elections of 2014, but has lost ground ever since. When Renzi foolishly called a nationwide referendum on a proposed a constitutional reform he had expected to win last year, with 65% of Italians participating, he was trounced, 59% to 41%. That defeat precipitated his resignation in December 2016 and replacement by today's Premier Paolo Gentiloni.

     

    Further weakening Renzi's PD was the recent defection of his party's left wing under Pier Luigi Bersani. Polls conducted in late April gave Bersani's new mini-party, Movimento dei Democratici e Progressisti (MdP), perhaps 4% of future voters, and the PD reduced to under 27% -- hence Renzi's plea for a quick national vote that might curb further PD losses.

     

    Renzi's loss was the gain of what is now being called "Grillism." Beppe Grillo's M5S has steadily forged ahead of the PD, currently reaching some 27%, according to an EMG poll measuring "intentions to vote." Alligned with Renzi and Grillo is Berlusconi's renovated Forza Italia, which EMG estimates at copping around 13% of the vote.

     

    The battle for early elections is not yet won, nevertheless. New elections bring the risk of a possibly chaotic future for the government, plus leave a host of unfinished bills in Parliament. "Renzi is putting personal power before the interests of the country," thundered Mario Monti, senator and former premier, on May 31.

     

    The problems begin with writing a new law governing the rules for voting, just now in a tumultuous marathon session under debate in Parliament. In essence, two alternate versions are being considered: majority versus proportional rule. In the majority vote, or first past the post, the winner takes all; as presently written, if that winner gains over 40% of the vote, the party takes 55% of the seats in Parliament.

     

    The more likely outcome is a return to the former proportional system, in which each party wins the exact percentage in Parliament (Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) as earned in the polls. Here the weak point is that the system obliges the winners to form coalitions that are not necessarily easy to create or to manage. For Valerio Onida, former president of the Constitutional Court, however, this is not a defect: "The logic of forming a coalition, inherent in the proportional vote, reflects today's Italian political reality as well as voters' orientation."

     

    The proposed new voting law, Renzi style, would eliminate any party (or force it into wobbly coalitions) that failed to earn 5% of the vote. Those most antagonzied by this possibility include the moderately rightwing Alternativa Popolare (AN), which was created only last March 18 and is headed by Angelino Alfano, angry because until now his party has served as Renzi's prop in the present coalition government.

     

    Given the uncertainties, numerous serious commentators are begging for the big parties to slow down. The gloomiest prediction is that the proposed early elections will lead only to months wasted in trying, without success, to create a new coalition government, with months wasted until a second national general election has to be scheduled in the end. Opponents also point out that these past five years have been particularly unproductive. Not least, unfinished projects are crowded onto the Parliamentary agenda, beginning with the budget bill.

     

    At the moment, Renzi and Berlusconi are projecting a coalition together, sarcastically dubbed "Renziconi-ism." Such an alliance with Berlusconi would obviously antagonize those PD voters who had originally signed onto what they thought would be a Social Democratic party.

     

    There are alternatives to Berlusconi: Renzi could seek to work together with such relative national newcomers as the much admired former Milan mayor Stefano Parisi, who has just created his own new party, Energie per l'Italia. In theory, other small moderate groups, including even Alfano's newly minted Alternativa Popolare (AP) could make common cause with Renzi's PD.

     

    Alligned against a "Renziconi" solution are Grillo along with populist leader Salvini, an admirer of Marine Le Pen. Salvini's Lega Nord party (which has long since gone national) now commands perhaps 12.5% in a potential election. If the polls are right, together these two could have almost 40% of the vote. However, Grillo's supporters are loners, and this may prohibit these two from joining forces.

     

    New elections would mean tearing up a host of important bills, besides the crucial budget, pending before Parliament. One, dubbed the Anti-Mafia Code, would permit the seizure of property illicitly gained through corruption. Others are a reform of the statute of limitations; a law permitting a patient the right to refuse medical care at the end of his life; another granting citizenship to immigrants' children born or raised in Italy; legalization of cannabis for personal use; and, lastly, a law making torture a criminal offense (!)

  • Op-Eds

    Court Ruling Gives Italian Culture a Black Eye

    The last thing Italy needs is to give its cultural heritage a black eye, or, as Totti's countless fans might put it, an "autogol," whereby you score your own goal. But that is just what has happened. When Culture Minister Dario Franceschini opened the directorship of 32 of Italy's top museums to international, as well as Italian, art experts with managerial experience, there were huzzahs worldwide. As a direct consequence of Franceschini's reform and other measures taken under his stewardship, attendance at museums, including those with relatively few visitors in the past, has soared.

     

    On May 24, however, the Lazio administrative court tribunale, TAR, cancelled six of Franceschini's appointments on grounds that these directors are not Italian citizens. Those annulled by TAR were Martina Bagnoli, head of the Estensi Galleries of Modena; Eva Degl'Innocenti, National Archaeological Museum of Taranto; Carmelo Malacrino, National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria; Paolo Giulierini, National Archaeological Museum of Naples; and Peter Assmann, Palazzo Ducale of Mantua. The case against the non-Italian directors was brought to the tribunal by protesting Italian art experts who had themselves applied for the posts.

     

    Under Franceschini, the Culture Ministry issued a call for "maximum experts in the field of museum management, subject to rigid procedures of selection by a commission of experts of clear fame and highest scientific level." This reform was greeted with enthusiasm worldwide, and among the widely praised appointees was Eike Schmidt, the prestigious German art historian who has headed the Uffizi Galleries of Florence since 2015. Schmidt, whose appointment has not yet been cancelled, was asked if the TAR decision was distressing. "Frankly, I was far more shocked when the TAR allowed the fake 'gladiators' back into the Colosseum," he replied. "That seemed like a comedy sketch but instead was reality." But if the reforms are blocked, Schmidt acknowledged, "It will be a disaster."

     

    Franceschini's reform gave 32 museums full autonomy for scientific studies, organization, finance and accounting. On Aug. 18, 2015, he announced the names of the first 20 new directors of these museums. Seven were non-Italians even though not all his appointees are actually "foreign" citizens, but had worked abroad for many years. Bagnoli, for instance, grew up in Italy, before studying at Cambridge University in the UK and at Johns Hopkins in the US, and becoming head of the Baltimore Museum in Maryland. Degl'Innocenti was born in Pistoia and was graduated from Pisa before working at museums in Bretagna and Paris.

     

    On learning of last week's TAR decision, Minister Franceschini gasped, literally, "There are no words", before adding, "What a figuraccia for Italy" (translates to "this cuts a really bad figure for Italy). Along with an irate Franceschini, the former -- and probably future -- Premier Matteo Renzi was furious at the TAR. But the game is far from over, for, speaking for the government, Mauro Guerra, member of Parliament for Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), has requested the State Council, to which the TAR responds, to suspend the sentence. An audience on the question is slated for June 15.

     

    TAR itself has come under severe criticism for other of its actions. Besides readmitting the fake gladiators into the Colosseum area, where they have been accused of hectoring tourists, the TAR rejected a Venetian plea to disallow gigantic cruise ships from entering into lagoon waters. It also blocked funding for the restructuring Bari's historic Piccinni Theater and for maintaining the city's public fountains. In May 2016 TAR suspended restoration work on Andrea Palladio's Ponte Vecchio, also known as the Ponte degli Alpini, built at Bassano del Grappa over the Brenta River in in 1569.

     

    For its part, a key TAR defense is that the selection of candidates took part behind closed doors, and, for candidates from as far away as Australia, via Skype, rather than in public, where outsiders could evaluate the fairness of the process. The authoritative art historian Tomaso Montanari, who heads a group calling itself "Emergenza Cultura," says that the reform under Franceschini "was done in a rush and was technically poor."

     

    In addition, as other observers are pointing out, the TAR is non-political but must ensure that the laws are correctly observed. "The procedures for selection were poor in several points," the TAR pointed out. Besides the selection behind closed doors, no system of giving points to candidates appeared.

     

    An amendment to Franceschini's museum reform was being presented May 31 in Parliament as part of the very complex financial maneuver. Whether or not this will save the day is not clear. Meantime a nervous Ministry must select 14 candidates to manage nothing less than the Colosseum -- and among those under consideration are a number of non-Italians.

  • Op-Eds

    Statistics illustrate How Italy Loves and Lives

    What is romance worth? Multimedial retailer QVC Italia, which sells products on line by broadcasting on multiple platforms including Sky, had statisticians from an outfit called Human Highway try to figure this out. The results were meant to calculate what love brings in terms of spending on clothes, food, beauty products and even household necessities. Three levels of loving were calculated. The least, E100 ($112), was spent upon his or her saying, "I love you" -- enough, perhaps, for a fancy dinner. A bit more, E127 ($143) was splashed out when he or she declared, "You are all mine." More, if not a gigantic amount, E450 ($505), was spent when the couple exclaimed, "Let's get married!"

     

    In respect to the fashionable journalistic term, full disclosure, this reporter is obliged to confess that, however less than brilliant a student of economics, I spent a good deal of university time studying economic theory, still a terrific way to begin analysis of most problems. And so, if the above research gives us a picture of the value of love in real, rather than imaginary poetic terms, other current statistics also contribute to a snapshot of Italian life at a time of radical social change.

     

    Translating love into marriage, it may come as a surprise that these are on the rise. In 2015 194,377 marriages were celebrated, 4,600 more than the previous year, according to a recent report by Istat, the reputable public statistics-gathering service. This serious turn-about seems to reflect two things. The first is the slight upsurge in the economy (and especially exports); during the bleak years between 2008, when the recession began, and 2014, some 10,000 fewer marriages were celebrated every single year. As an aside, of all these marriages, just over 12% were between an Italian citizen and a spouse with a foreign passport.

     

    A possible secondary cause is passage of a new law speeding up the bureaucratic business of divorce. In fact, in the current turnabout, church marriages waned and those celebrated in town halls rose 8% more in 2015 than in 2014. Statistics also show that the average length of a marriage before divorce now stands at 17 years. At the same time, the number of divorces rose to a striking degree, up 57% over 2014; again, that radical upsurge is considered primarily due to the new speedy divorce law. Even so, at the time of divorce the average age of the husband is 48, the wife, 45.

     

    In terms of culture, Italians can take pride in the fact that 30% visit museums while one out of four (24%) tour archaeological sites. Half of those over age 6 have been to the cinema recently. At almost 49% of the total, women read more books than men, 48.6%, over the past 12 months. Nine out of ten, male and female, watch TV habitually, and 52% of the men and 42% of the women read a newspaper or news magazine at least once a week.

     

    The perhaps most dismal picture concerns Italian youth. In 2016 Italy fared worst in the entire European Union for the number of its young people,  2.2 million between the ages of 15 and 29, who neither attend school nor hold down jobs. Not surprisingly, therefore, two out of every three Italians of up to the age of 34, or 8.6 million (68%), still live at home with their parents. "In Italy, the children of the leadership class go to university and become in turn part of the managerial class. Working-class youth have trouble entering the job market, which still offers above all non-qualified jobs while those jobs on the intermediate level simply disappear," according to Rosaria Amato, writing in La Repubblica daily.

     

    As a result, the November 2016 Istat figures also demonstrate that the entire class system in Italy is changing, and rapidly. The old, familiar working classes in Italy are now divided into subgroups. Those jobs which require no qualifications are increasing while the intermediate levels are disappearing, with obvious, serious political repercussions for the future.

     

    And so to health and old age, Italy's elderly live longer than most in West Europe, to 83.2 years by comparison with the European average, 81 years; in the U.S. the average life span in 2014 was only 79 years of age, a tribute, perhaps, to the attention paid to nutrition as well as to the existence of a still functioning public health system.  On the other hand, current statistics indicate that the families suffering from real poverty have risen from 11.5% of the total in 2015 to 11.9% last year, while the number of families at risk of falling into poverty are seen as almost 29% of the population today.

  • Op-Eds

    Despite Some Positive Signs, Italy Wrestles with Weighty Agenda

    Despite its creativity and some positive signs for the economy, Italy's agenda is weighed down by a series of particularly complex problems: a seemingly unstoppable influx of migrants, a public debt that continues to rise, a laggard economy, and corruption scandals that reach into almost unthinkable political and judiciary levels. On the bright side exports are up, the number of those employed has consistently increased since 2013, and industry confidence is also on the rise.

    Taking the problems one by one, the current upsurge in migrants is partly the result of events beyond Italy's control. In recent years Italy was generously lax in allowing migrants more or less easy entry because the arrivals tended to then move on to Northern European countries where they had relatives, such as Scandinavia or Germany. More recently, however, and which explains (if only in part) the sudden increase in migrants arriving on Italian shores and remaining here, is that Germany has cracked down on its arrivals and its expulsions while Spain and Morocco have signed a bilateral agreement limiting those arriving on the Spanish shores.

    Most importantly, the war in Syria makes Italy and especially Greece easier to reach. As of April, around 25,000 migrants, between 30 and 40% more than during the same period last year, had reached Italy, about half of them by sea. April 15, when 2,000 landed within 24 hours, was a particularly bad day. In 2006 Spain received 31,600 migrants from Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco while in 2015 that figure hand dwindled to 874.

    One result is that Italy has joined forces with Germany in seeking an EU mission to stop human smuggling. Together, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti and his German equivalent, Thomas de Maiziere, are promoting an effort to block West African migrants at the Libyan border with Niger. Libya is described as the springboard for those seeking to arrive in Europe, and the question becomes ever more urgent with improvements in weather conditions. Because Libya is crucial, a few Italian  commentators have expressed a certain cynical nostalgia for the Ghedaffi era.

    The migration statistics are painful, but what is worse is evidence–reported widely in Italian media this week–that investigators have found connections between the Calabrian-based 'Ndrangheta and the theft of government contributions for running an asylum center. During a dawn raid May 15 a total of 70 people, including Roman Catholic priest Don Edoardo Scrodio, 70, of Crotone, were arrested on charges that over the past decade a Catholic charity at Isola Capo Rizzuto, which housed some 1,200 migrants, was exploited by mobsters, who ripped off the public funding supposed to pay for migrants' food and laundry. Besides the arrests, police seized some $90 million of property. In 2012 the BBC dubbed the 'Ndrangheta "the biggest cocaine smugglers in the world."

    A more ambiguous scandal has also been haunting Italy: that some charity ships in the Mediterranean near the coast with Libya were actually in collusion with traffickers on land. This accusation was made by a Sicilian prosecutor who acknowledges that the charges have no solid legal basis, but the accusations have seriously damaged the reputation of certain of the rescue operators. And in the meantime the dead at sea have risen by 15% over the past year.

    The latest figures on public debt, as calculated by the Bank of Italy, show that it has risen to an historic level, 2,260.3 billion Euros ($2,504.7 billion), whereas only three months ago it had seemed to be shrinking. Just four weeks ago Fitch, citing "weak economic growth," downgraded Italy's credit rating from "BBB+" to "BBB," which the Financial Times explains is just two notches above speculative-grade. One problem: "banking sector weakness." (See: >>>) And indeed the media here are on a major bank scandal orgy.

    The economy continues to show slower growth than in the rest of Europe. Again citing Bank of Italy statistics of May 10, family consumption is down, and investments are lagging after six years of growth. Unemployment stands under 12%.

    In this litany of problems, the most perplexing to deal with may be immigration–and this, ironically, in a nation which in the last century and a half was itself of migrants who enriched the nations to which the emigrated.

  • Art & Culture

    Viva Arte Viva! The 57th Venice Biennale

    The 57th Venice Biennale, the world's oldest international exhibition of contemporary visual art, opens Saturday May 13 under the theme Viva arte viva, or "Long Live Living Art." Founded in 1895, this prestigious art show-of-shows is expected to attract over 100,000 visitors before it closes Nov. 26. On offer this year are the works of 120 artists from 51 nations. Many are quite young, and 103 of them have never before participated in a Biennale.

    In addition, 86 countries, which include the newcomer nations Antigua and Barbuda, tiny Kiribati and Nigeria, have pavilions showing the work of their own artists. These national pavilions include, representing Italy, three artists Andreotta Calò, Cuoghi and Husny-Bey in what is described by the authoritative critic Achille Bonito Oliva as a "convivial aesthetic dialogue" and "an exclamation of joy and the affirmation of art as the biological breath of all mankind." Curator of the Italian pavilion is Cecilia Alemani, who says her intention is less to give a systematic vision of today's Italian art world, but "more about offering a different kind of experimental platform for artists–a space for taking risks and trying new approaches."

    In the U.S. pavilion is the noted Mark Bradford of Los Angeles, whose work is described as embodying content via abstraction. To this end he utilizes mundane materials such as pickings from LA streets, from Home Depot and from hair salons. A special concern: marginalized people. His work–says his website–reflects "his longtime commitment to the inherently social nature of the material world we all inhabit... Bradford renews the traditions of abstract and materialist painting, demonstrating that freedom from socially presecribed representation is profoundly meaningful in the hands of a black artist. See >>>

    For Paolo Baratta, Biennale president since 2008, "The Biennale is a great institution. It operates in multiple areas, partly for historical reasons, beginning with a theater festival back in 1895, to which were added what were then the 'new visual arts.'" To the Venetian calendar the world's first cinema festival was added in 1932. Later architecture was given its own pavilion within the Biennale, beginning with the exhibition Strada Novissima by architect Paolo Portoghesi. Today the Biennale still includes architecture and cinema as well as visual art, but also a Dance Festival that opens June 23; Theater Festival, July 25; and Biennale Music Festival, Oct. 29. "Multidisciplinarity remains the strong point of the Biennale," says Baratta. "And, beyond the greater of lesser influx of people and glamour, all the activities we produce here are of equal importance for us."

    Exhibition centerpiece is the vast Central Pavilion of the Gardens, whose curator is Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She is not a newcomer; in the past she curated both the French and Belgian pavilions. In selecting the artists to participate this year, Macel focused on the concept of otium, which she interprets not as not laziness, but "that moment of not working–of being available, of laborious inertia, of the work of the spirit, of tranquility, of the kind of inaction that gives birth to a work of art."

    At a time of great world tension, she explains, "Today's art is a testimonial to the most previous part of humanity–[the need for] a perfect place for reflection and freedom, and an alternative to individualism and indifference." Photographs reflecting this otium theme, chosen by curator Macel, are by Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic, who died almost one year ago. From his 1978 series called Artist at Work, several show the artist sound asleep on a cot.

    While curator Macel has searched far and wide for brilliant newcomers to the world art scene, the works of a few world art stars are also on view. From the United Kingdom comes sculptor Phyllida Barlow, 73, whose huge stone shards jutting out from a wall at the six-room British Pavilion, and her outsized weird grey boulders and columns are actually frightening. She has called her exhibition Folly.

    Among the most famous is Olafur Eliasson, 50, born in Copenhagen to parents from Iceland, and with studios in both Copenhagen and Berlin. For the Biennale, Eliasson is putting 40 refugees now living in Italy to work in an "artistic workshop," as he calls it, making lamps of Eliasson's design. In the end the lamps will be sold to help finance his project, which he has named Green Light.  "It's a 'green light' in the sense of a traffic signal saying 'Go,' come forward, you are welcome," he said in an interview in Denmark with Italian journalist Antonella Barina. The goal is to "contribute to the insertion of a group of refugees into society."

    Not all the exhibitions are official. As a veteran of previous Biennali, this reporter can confirm what a thrill it is to be there and to see some of the side shows–to see the very first Vatican pavilion (none this year, however), the exhibition by Yoko Ono (which ended with morning coffee with her), and, best of all, the incredible and deeply moving installations by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, which were half-size models of his imprisonment in China.

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    What's New at the Old Colosseum

    From plastic daggers to 3D adventures, the old Colosseum is up to new tricks, which include an exhibition illustrating its lively post-combat history. Eighteen months ago a police commissioner went to war with Rome's gladiators -- the ones armed with plastic daggers who hang about the Colosseum and the Roman fora so as to be photographed together with tourists willing to pay for the privilege. Rome's Mayor Virginia Raggi backed up this ousting of the faux gladiators in their gilded helmets topped with what looks like a red floor brush.

    Defiant, ten gladiators, forming the association they named  "Centurions Street Artists," took the case to a district court, where they pleaded that, without that income from tourists, they could not feed their families. Guess what: the centurions (the name means an officer in the ancient Roman army who commanded 100 soldiers) won the battle, and last weekend 15 or so were back at work at the Colosseum and near the Arch of Constantine. "They've recognized that we are artists," one boasted to journalists. 

    Truth to tell, this recognition may be only temporary, for the decision in favor of the "gladiators" was based upon a technicality, and the ban may be reimposed by the end of summer. Complaints have come to police that some have turned nasty when tightwad tourists, after being photographed with one of the self-proclaimed street artists, have paid less than the more or less standard price of Euro 5. To this the gladiators respond that they are not the offenders, and to prove it wish to have an official registry so that rough and rude outsiders cannot break into their ranks.

    Colosseum combat remains in the news on other fronts. Mayor Virginia Raggi recently complained that the national government was ripping off Colosseum ticket income and thus harming Rome, which suffers from overstretched finances. The reasoning behind her complaint was that, because the Colosseum has just formally been declared a national archaeological park, its contribution to Rome's income has been slashed.

    Responding in Parliament, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini declared, "This is false! It does not withdraw resources from Rome or the protection of the Roman heritage. Eighty percent of the income from the Colosseum remains in the city, and 20% goes to a solidarity fund for other museums, as has always been the rule." Behind the reform, which reduces Colosseum management from three institutions to one, is an attempt for greater efficiency, he explained. Indeed, its come has increased as the number of visitors to Italian public museums and archaeological sites has surged in two years from 38 million to 45 million.

    The Colosseum was built, beginning in 69 AD, on orders from the Emperor Vespasian. He lived long enough to dedicate it, but before work was finished he was dead. His son Titus made a second inauguration in 80 AD with feasting and shows that went on for 100 days, during which some 5,000 animals were sacrificed. The Colosseum could hold up to 50,000 spectators, among them slaves who watched, standing up in the top gallery. Its outside wall soars 55 yards high, and its staggering size for its time still amazes engineers.

    In March an innovative new exhibition, which explores the life of the monument after the last gladiatorial fight was held there in 523 AD, opened in the Colosseum and continues through January 7, 2018. During the Middle Ages the Colosseum had a lively existance, housing shops, churches and the residences of aristocratic families. The Via Crucis ritual, which began to be performed at Easter time in the 1500s, continues to this day. In the 1700s the Grand Tour poets, writers and artists discovered it, and under their influence the Colosseum became a place of romantic pilgrimage, especially by moonlight (and of malarial mosquitoes). By the end of the 18th century archaeologists had begun excavations and also restorations. The exhibition continues into the 20th century through the Mussolini era, with installations, paintings, photographs, etchings, and physical reproductions. 

    Aside from gladiatorial combat, new under the Colosseum sun is a high-tech startup called Tikidoo, which is offering a real tour of the Colosseum, improved by virtual reality, aimed especially at parents arriving with children. The offer, which depends upon the contribution of 100 licensed tour guides, is actually a lesson in Roman antiquity, and involves both sophisticated teaching aids plus actual visits to the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, in groups of up to 12.

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    Taking Pride in Italy's Outdoor Murales

    Last Friday, April 21, Rome celebrated its traditional birthday, its 2,770th from the day in 753 BCE when legend has it that Romulus founded the city. Among the celebrations was on the Tiber River embankment an outdoor concert dedicated to William Kentridge, the artist who had created, for the previous year's birthday fete, a 1,804-feet long frieze illustrating some 90 crucial moments in the history of Rome, see >>>. The performance, which took place below Kentridge's paintings at the edge of the river between the Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini, was directed by Roberto Gabbiani with solists from the Rome Opera and an 85-member chorus, accompanied by two pianists and five percussionists.

     

    Kentridge's mural "Triumphs and Laments" has been called the artist's most ambitious project yet, and Rome's largest. Its procession of Romans over time shows gods, heroes and men -- some good, some bad. Sponsor for the work, which required a dozen years of planning, was Tevereterno Onlus, a non-profit association that promotes improvements to the Tiber River area. Financing came also through crowdfunding.

     

    Born in 1955 in South Africa, Kentridge is noted for his prints, drawings -- often in charcoal -- and animated films. In gallery sales worldwide Kentridge's works command huge sums, including in the U.S., where Calvin Tomkins profiled him for New Yorker magazine in 2010. He is fond of Italy: in 2012, prior to his Tiber River frieze, he created a large sculpture in steel, "Il cavaliere di Toledo" (The Toledo Cavalier), located at the corner of Via Toledo and Via Diaz in Naples, adjacent to the city's subway station, famous for its lobby, a mini-archaeological museum.

    The technique Kentridge used for his Tiber River procession is "reverse graffiti," also called "erasing." To create the figures he utilized stencils that covered the accumulated filth on the walls, after which , the entire surrounding wall area was power-washed clean. Within a few years, therefore, the stenciled figures that are made of filth will themselves dissolve within new layers of pollution deposits.

     

    Before this can happen, however, graffiti vandals moved in almost immediately, putting their spray paint to work right on top of Kentridge's. Every day we who live in Italy are confronted by such graffiti vandalism, as in commuter trains whose windows are sometimes so overpainted with rubbish that the rider cannot see out. But on the other hand, serious outdoor wall murals also exist, and increasingly are attracting notice throughout Italy.

     

    In Rome, ten professional "street artists" have left large, colorful mural paintings -- dubbed "murales d'autore" -- along the otherwise bleak walls of the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA), the ring road that encircles the city. Their work near the elevated highways, entrances to and inside the walls of tunnels is sponsored by the road works authority ANAS with the blessing of the Culture Ministry. Among these street artists is Lucamaleonte of Rome, whose "Eden Effect" evokes the natural world of birds, flowers, animals. Another is by Spanish artist Julieta XLF, on a wall by the Via Aurelia, where she has painted a wolf and a siren, signifying the meeting and possible clash between East and West with a nod to Italian Etruscan art.

    The startling French artist Veks Van Hillik depicted the Roman wolf, symbolizing the nearby countryside endangered by rampant over-construction. Roman artist Mauro Pallotta re-interprets Roman baroque on a wall, while Camilla Falsini's skulls of oxen alligned on an altar refer to the sacrifices of Roman antiquity. Chekos is an artist from Lecce whose huge heads, under a bridge at Tor Vergata, are inspired by Nero and Agrippina. And the Florentine duo Furan and Camilo Nunez, both originally from Uruguay, on the GRA near the Via Trionfale, honor the memory of a six-year-old girl, depicted like a young saint.

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    Lampedusa Mayor Giusy Nicolini, SOS Mediterranee Win Unesco Prize

    ROME -- The UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize for peace research went April 19 to Giusy Nicolini, mayor of the isle of Lampedusa, for her work in saving the lives of countless refugees and migrants. "Since she was elected in 2012, Nicolini has distinguished herself for her sense of humanity and her constant commitment in managing the refugee crisis and in their integration after the arrival of thousands on Lampedusa and elsewhere in Italy," said the jury motivation.

     

    "To be awarded a prize with this motivation," she said in receiving the award, "gives us hope for solidarity in Europe, where a sense of humanity has not disappeared, even though this is a moment when borders are being closed and walls raised as people speak of an invasion that does not exist. In that way we ourselves are at risk of drowning together with the refugees and migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea." Mayor Nicolini dedicated the prize to Gabriele del Grande, the brilliant Italian journalist and film director who has been brutally imprisoned in Mugla, Turkey, for having interviewed Syrian migrants on the border there. Del Grande is still detained by Turkish police and at present is conducting a hunger strike.

     

    Mayor Nicolini also had words of praise for Pope Francis, who made a pastoral visit to Lampedusa in July 2013 and placed wreaths in the water to honor those who had died. "He is the only one with clear ideas," said Nicolini on Rai Radio 3. "I hope that his teachings will illuminate the minds of the governers and of those Europeans who are to be voting shortly."

     

    Mayor Nicolini shares the prestigious award with SOS Mediterranee, the European association which works to assist the needy in the Mediterranean Sea. Previous winners of the Prize, which was created in 1989, include, for their efforts in seeking peaceful solutions to crises, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat and Francois Hollande.

     

    One of those migrants who drowned en route to the northern shores of the Mediterranean was Hamedu Baji of the Gambia. The eldest child of a blind man, he was a gifted soccer player but, after graduating from high school, could find no job at home, yet had to support his family. As a result he set out across the Sahara desert for Libya. After two months he was able to find a boat to cross the sea in hopes of finding work, but en route he and two companions drowned. He was not alone: during Easter week at least 663 refugees and migrants drowned, mostly when their rickety rubber boats -- which have a limited life span in the best of times -- sank during the crossing, mainly from ports in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa.

     

    Hamedu was a victim of the fair weather of the Easter week, which brought an upsurge of frail boats into the Mediterranean, with 5,000 arrivals over the holiday period. This brings the total arrivals during the first four months this year to around 27,000 --  24% more than during the same period in 2016. Among them were at least 2,300 unaccompanied minors. According to the Ismu Foundation, which studies multi-ethnic issues, 176,470 recent migrants are now living in temporary quarters in Italy. Of these, some 121,000 have formally requested asylum, up 46% over 2015.

     

    Clandestine immigration remains illegal. On April 12 the Italian Chamber of Deputies passed a new law, 240 to 176, which creates Centri di permanenza per il rimpatrio (Reception Centers for Repatriation), The new detention centers, one for every Italian region, are to be located relatively far f from large cities and town, and intentionally near transportation services so as  to facilitate the return of undesired migrants to their homelands. (This requirement is not facilitated by the fact that many arrivals lack documentation showing their country of origin, in part because the traffickers steal their documents.) Those migrants accepted for asylum can, if willing, work without pay in "jobs of public usefulness," according to the new law.

     

    The law creating detention centers has been widely criticized, however. A spokeman for the Italian branch of Caritas, Oliviero Forti, called it "a step backward" for weakening the level of protection for those legitimately seeking asylum. In the Senate, a bill was also introduced that would create channels for the regular entry for foreigners and which would allow legal migrants the right to vote in administrative elections. Promoting that bill is Emma Bonino, Italy's former foreign secretary and today the leader of the Radical Party. In an address to the Partito Democratico (PD) meeting in Turin March 16, Bonino said that "the migrants are a resource" and what is needed to deal with the problem are "original ideas."

     

    Radical Party Secretary Riccardo Magi points out that those, like the vice president of the Chamber of deputies, Luigi Di Maio, who conflate immigration and crime, "would do better to document themselves on the facts: recent studies show that legal migrants in Italy are no more likely than Italians themselves to be involved in criminal activities."

     

    On Wednesday a campaign was launched called "Ero straniero -- L'umanità che fa bene" (I was a stranger -- Humanity that does good), promoted by Oxfam Italy and a coalition of Italian mayors and citizen and church groups. "Ours is a battle for civilization," was one comment. "If we lose the values of our history, we will move backward 500 years. Accepting migrants is to respect humanity and human rights."

     

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