Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Giorgio and Clio Napolitano with Pope Franciscus

    Italy's Grand Old Man

    ROME -- In an era characterized by world figures of minor dimensions, former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano looms large. Born in Naples back in 1925, at ninety-two this life-time Senator and twice President of Italy is vital and surprisingly sturdy both intellectually and physically. Last week journalist Mario Calabresi found Napolitano surrounded by newspapers, magazines and books in his office in Palazzo Giustiniani, across the street from the Senate a stone's throw from Piazza Navona.


    "Italy," said Napolitano in the interview published by La Repubblica, "faces serious phenomena, complex and without precedent." Urging reduction of the public debt and "interventions" on public spending, Napolitano had warm praise for the work of Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank since 2011. "We cannot simply wait for economic growth reduce our public debt gradually," he said, echoing Draghi. "We must put our fiscal house in order and build further guarantees for the future."


    His generous praise for Draghi's views on fiscal probity and public debt were in  contrast to recent harsh criticism for the central banker from former Premier Matteo Renzi, the head of the Partito Democratico (PD). "This just may signal the kiss of death for Mario Draghi," commented the rightist "Libero." The daily, which dubbed the interview "catatonic," attacked Napolitano for openly criticizing the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and the (formerly) Northern League headed by Matteo Salvini. "Libero" also assailed Napolitano's criticism of "populist and reactionary" movements that sow the seeds of prejudice and "demonize reasonable political compromise."


    Senator Napolitano's primary focus was Germany, however. Mentioning the "profound crises" in East Europe, and especially Poland and Hungary, he said that Angela Merkel has never before had to face such difficulties within her own party. Nevertheless, "Without a positive solution for the German crisis, Europe has few prospects," said Napolitano. "Still, to find a substitute for her strikes me as rather hypothetical just now. I don't see who else can untie the knots that keep the Germans from forming a [governing] majority."


    The background of the man who served as president of Italy not once but twice is literally extraordinary. Napolitano holds honorary degrees from the Sorbonne, Oxford, the Hebrew University at Jerusalem and the Complutense University of Madrid as well as from numerous Italian universities.  In 2006 Napolitano was elected Italian President with 543 votes and, in 2013, re-elected, this time with 738 votes.


    When no candidate was accepted by the Chamber and Senate, to break the stalemate he was asked to serve a second term and accepted with the proviso that, at the appropriate time, he would resign. From the crusty right came criticism that he would stay on for a total of 16 years but in fact he resigned in January of 2015, paving the way for the election of today's president, Sergio Mattarella, the brother of Piersanti Mattarella, Sicilian politician murdered by Mafia Cosa Nostra in 1980.


    A 20-year-old law student in Naples during World War, Napolitano sided with the partisans against the Nazi German occupation. At the end of the war he joined the Italian Communist party (PCI), which elected him to the Chamber of Deputies in 1953. Among his several books is "Interview with the PCI" written in 1975 with the leftist British writer Eric Hobsbawm, and translated into 10 languages.


    Napolitano remained a party member, always representing his home town, Naples, until the PCI was dissolved in early 1991. Throughout his long political career Napolitano was an unusual party member, however, distinguished for being ever open to dialogue, including with those assumed to be adversaries, and I had the pleasure of meeting him at an official US event in 1975. Napolitano was a member of the Italian delegation to the NATO Assembly (1984 - 92 and 1994 - 96), which dealt with the Atlantic community relations, from Mediterranean security to questions of human rights.


    In 1978, Napolitano traveled to the US to lecture at Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and Princeton Universities and at foreign affairs institutes in Washington, DC, becoming the first Italian Communist to be invited in this way, rather than as the member of a political delegation. Returning from the U.S. he published an article in the Communist monthly "Rinascita" describing his American sojourn. "From my first day there in New York I have been focussing on the press, much better than I'd imagined," he begins. At a meeting at "Newsweek" magazine editors, "We spoke of the problems of the phenomenon of terrorism, its causes, its international dimension and relevance and virulence in Italy."


    After speaking with reporters from the "New York Times," "Washington Post" and other US media, Napolitano commented that, "I am always struck by the sense of the essential and concrete in these informal, off-the-record discussions... The questions are sharp, they go right to the point."He praised the US for not simplifying Italian terrorism, but for trying to understand "its degeneration from Marxism and the Communist movement into ideological delirium and the most barbarian crimes."

  • Mural portraying Galileo Galilei
    Art & Culture

    Galileo Galilei in Padova: "The Best Years of My Life

    PADOVA -- This is the city where, for no less than 18 years, one of Italy's most brilliant citizens, Galileo Galilei, taught university students mathematics and mechanics. Padua (hereafter Padova) was already famous throughout Europe for its deep culture and venerable university, which was what attracted Galileo there. For him, "Mathematics is the alphabet in which God wrote the Universe." Still, Galileo was incredibly multi-faceted, interested in philosophy as well as science and math. Not only was he beginning to study the Milky Way, but, to round out his professorial stipend, in Padova Galileo also wrote a treatise on military fortifications and, for money, horoscopes for private individuals.

    Today, Padova celebrates Galileo in an imaginative exhibition just opened at the Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, "Rivoluzione Galileo: L'Arte Incontra la Scienza" (The Galileo Revolution: Art Encounters Science). Born in Pisa in 1564, Galileo began his studies there but went on briefly to Florence and, in 1592, to Padova. There, we are told, he took benefit from the  climate of relative religious tolerance permitted by the Venetian Republic, of which Padova was a part. These were, Galileo said later, "the best years of my entire life." Besides teaching, Galileo gave private lessons to illustrious locals including two future cardinals and at least two princes.

    In the exhibition are some 200 pieces, which illustrate the fundamental passage from the age of astrology to astronomy -- that is, the skies before and after Galileo's discoveries of the mountains of the moon. "The exhibition is a voyage in art history about Galileo, scientist and man of letters, mathematician and artist, lover of the stars and of Ariosto" (Ariosto, the author of the drama in verse "L'Orlando Furioso"), writes Raffaele De Santis in a review of the exhibition.

    On view is a 24-foot-long telescope made in the 1660s by pioneer optician and astronomer Giuseppe Campani, who was born near Spoleto before setting up his pioneering laboratory in Rome. Besides watercolors by Galileo himself, there are poetic (if not scientifically realistic) visions of the sky painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Brueghel the Younger and Rubens.

    On April 12, 1633, Galileo was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition, the Holy Office (Santi Uffizi). In an article for the journal Church History last year, Prof. Henry Kelly of UCLA wrote that, at that trial, Galileo said that after 1616 he had never considered heliocentrism to be possible. “Galileo was clearly stretching the truth... Admitting otherwise would have increased the penance he was given, but would not have endangered his life, since he agreed to renounce the heresy."

    From the inquisitors came no threat of torture, says Prof. Kelly. Still, Galileo abjured but was found guilty of heresy on June 22, 1633. Ever since then writers have invented words for him, such as this version by Italian writer Primo Levi (1919 - 1987), the author of "Se questo è un uomo": "I have had to bow down and say that I did not see what I saw." Galileo was first held in the home of the Archbishop of Siena and then under house arrest at Arcetri on the Florentine Hills, where he died on January 8, 1642.

    Exhibition visitors can also call in at those places in Padova associated with Galileo. After his arrival in Padua in 1592 Galileo lived for nine years in the House of Gianvincenzo Pinelli, Galileo's close friend. Pinelli was a humanist philosopher. (Humanistic studies are still taught including at the University of John Cabot in Rome.)

    From 1601 through 1610 Galileo lived in a house across from a school, the G. Pascoli, on a street now named for Galileo. While observing the sky from his window and from the garden, he discovered the the moons of Jupiter. Another suggested visit is to Palazzo del Bo, which housed the University of Padova after 1493. The palazzo, with newly restored frescoes, still houses some university offices and the world's oldest anatomical theater for medical students.

    Galileo's two children, Livia and Gianvincenzo, were baptized in the little Church of Santa Caterina on Via Cesare Battisti, in which the baptismal certificate of one is on view. The church, which dates from the 14th century, was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1976 and recently restored. During the middle ages a college was attached to the church, and on Nov. 25 each year a university procession was held to inaugurate the academic year.

    A fifth stop on the Galileo itinerary at Padua is the Vecchia Canonica, where the priest Don Paolo Gualdo, rector of the Padua cathedral (Duomo), met regularly with Galileo. And then there is the library of the Padova Seminary, the Biblioteca, in whose collection is a precious first edition of "Dialogue on Maximum Systems" of 1632, with handwritten notes by Galileo in the margins. Visitors are also encouraged to call at the Museum of Medicine (MUSME), where talks are offered on Galileo's influence on the science of medicine; his own first university years were in medical studies.

    Curators are Carlo Federio Villa and Stefan Weppelmann. Sponsors of the exhibition, through March 18, 2018, are the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo in collaboration with the University of Padova. For further information, see

    As an afterthought, in late 1991, Pope John Paul II oversaw the Church's rectifying the persecution that forced Galileo to recant. See:




  • Facts & Stories

    Government, Unions Battle Over Boosting Age for Pensions

    As if Premier Paolo Gentiloni hasn't enough problems, this autumn his  more-or-less center-left government is at loggerheads with the trade unions over raising the pensionable age for workers to 67 years by 2019. Justification for the rise is the increased longevity of Italians, which means that, at an ever higher cost to the government, retirees, beginning with teachers and civil servants, are to receive pensions for many more years than in the past.

    The unions are demanding that the government back-pedal on the pensionable age, but this would automatically cost the state significantly more. Forty years ago the average Italian died at age 65, but today's lives on the average for 82,8 years, a figure that rose by 0,4% in just the past two years. Women outlive the men (85 years vis à vis 80.6 years). A pragmatic sign of the healthier times: the sheer number of the deceased declined by 32,000 since 2015.

    Besides increased longevity, the government position reflects other real problems. If the government is seen as backsliding due to union demands for relatively earlier retirement, international markets may show negative reactions.

    In the government's plan, the 15,000 to 20,000 workers with heaviest duties, such as firemen and construction workers, would be allowed earlier retirement if they have worked on that level of stress for at least seven out of the previous 10 years before retirement.

    The final results must be included in the annual budget bill, which the government is seeking to pass as soon as possible. For this reason representatives of the big three unions, Susanna Camusso, Annamaria Furlan and Carmelo Barbagallo, were meeting at Palazzo Chigi with Gentiloni himself and with Economics Minister Pier Carlo Padoan and Labor Minister Giuliano Poletti.

    So far the unions, beginning with the leftist CGIL, reject the government proposal on grounds that the number of workers with jobs requiring heavy physical labor has been seriously underestimated.. In the meantime the government has backtracked if only slightly, suggesting that the pensionable age be set at 66 years and 11 months, or just one month less than in the current proposal.

    One of the controversial questions is how to evaluate which jobs are particularly physically and mentally stressful. Is teaching primary school one of these? So far no one know. Last week hearings on the issue took place in the Senate, where Giorgio Alleva, president of the Italian statistics-gathering agency ISTAT,  testified that, "This is a theme we have to face but that still requires research." Even as a task force "scientific commission" is seeking to analyze just which jobs are involved, Alleva points out that "it is not enough just to establish [work] categories -- the individual work career over time for heavy labor is to be considered."

    Even as these traditional problems weigh on the agenda (and the pocketbook), the Italian workplace itself is changing. The newest wrinkle is to encourage white collar workers to work from home, perhaps a day or two a week (or more), via computer, mobile phone and office meetings on skype.  "It is a change in the culture, associated with many other benefits," writes Patrizia Capua in the economics weekly of La Repubblica. Managers praise this for giving their organizations greater flexibility.

    Modern communications, including blogging, give CEO's far greater possibilities of being in touch with their entire group than in the past, according to Claudio Feser, a partner with McKinsey & Co. Even governmental organizations are taking this on board with experimental work-at-home programs underway in the Piedmont Region and in City Hall in Turin. "Smart working," as the Italians also call it, programs are already adopted by financial companies and some travel agencies in Rome.

  • New President of Sicily Region, Nello Musumeci. Courtesy of
    Facts & Stories

    Elections in Sicily: Walkup to National General Elections

    ROME -- For a change the pollsters were on target. In a regional election Sunday in Sicily, a fledgling center-right coalition trounced the slightly center-left party of former Premier Matteo Renzi in deep trouble. The showing of the center-right coalition, which brought together three unlikely bedfellows, beginning with Silvio Berlusconi, is being seen as proof that middle-of-the road politics no longer work in Italy.

    The confrontation in Sicily for the national leadership overshadowed the island vote itself. Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD) won a mere 13.2% of the vote by comparison with its 33.6% in elections in the same Sicily just three years ago. In this election the PD headed a four-party center-left coalition who together won a mere 18.5%. This poor showing is seen as a serious forecast of things to come in March, when national general elections are slated under a brand new election law. The timing of that vote seems fairly secure unless, of course, the Partito Democratico-led government, headed by Premier Paolo Gentiloni since last December, is brought down beforehand, as seems unlikely, at least at present.

    Less than half those entitled to vote went to the polls, or 2.1 million out of 4.6 million, but the candidate backed by the center-right coalition for governor of Sicily, Nello Musumeci, walked away with a healthy 39%. Just four years ago, when Renzi's Partito Democratico won 40% of the national vote, it was considered an astonishing victory.

    Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi (81 years old) was jubilant for successfully storming his back onto the political scene after a long hiatus caused by his judicial problems. These brought his being disallowed to hold public office, along with a period of enforced social service in a home for the aged at Cesano Boscone in 2014. But with the Sicilian vote he is back again as mover and shaker, and in a big way.

    Berlusconi's two partners in the coalition, created less than one month ago, were Matteo Salvini, head of the Northern League and Giorgia Meloni, head of a tiny party (perhaps 5% in national polls) called Fratelli d'Italia. Needless to say, each of the trio of coalition partners, beginning with Berlusconi and his revived Forza Italia (perhaps to be renamed Rivoluzione Italia), claimed the victory as its success. Once entirely pro-Padania, Salvini, anti-EU and anti-immigrant, kited the League into a national political force, whose strength in Sicily is all the more surprising in light of its localized past. "Our votes were decisive for Musumecci," Salvini proclaimed proudly on Monday.

    Meloni, 40, a former journalist and a new mother, said exactly the same. "Musumeci is my triumph," she said Tuesday. "With the candidate Silvio wanted [Prof. Gaetano Armao] we would have lost. I am very happy: when Fratelli d'Italia was born we had almost no resources, but today we are a determining force."

    The normally aggressive Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) trailed closely behind the center-right, winning 35%, or only 4% below the Berlusconi coalition. In fact, running on its own without partners, the M5S established itself as the most robust single party on the island. That said, the showing of the party now headed by Luigi Di Maio (but still identified with founding father, Beppe Grillo) showed weaknesses: the turnout of the young voters expected to vote M5S was poor, and the party has had a bad press recently due to the past year of scandals in its running two of Italy's largest and most important cities, Rome and Turin.

    The Sicilian vote confirms the troubles facing Matteo Renzi and his party as well. After unexpectedly losing a crucial referendum on constitutional reform last December, he was obliged to resign as premier but took over as president of the PD. But the party was weakened seriously when Pier Luigi Bersani and Massimo D'Alema, the party's leftists, split, creating their own mini-party, the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP). Until this vote Renzi was the foremost PD candidate for premier, but challenges to his leadership are now legion.

    After the Sicilian vote, the left itself is desperately seeking a way out. Although Renzi just declared, "They are not going to shove me aside," possible alternatives from the left for premier are under discussion. One is the respected Pietro Grasso, Italian Senate president since 2013, who would theoretically head a brand new (that is, to be created) left-leaning party or possibly join forces with Pier Luigi Bersani. Grasso resigned formally from the PD last week. Another potential candidate is Giuliano Pisapia, the no less respected independent former mayor of Milan, but who is already in conflict with the splinter leftist crowd under Bersani and D'Alema.

    In the largest sense, then, Berlusconi is once again a force to be reckoned with -- but the only force just now able to reckon with him is the M5S.

  • Italy produces and exports more pasta than any other Country
    Facts & Stories

    Onward and Upward: Italy's Economy on the Mend

    ROME - It's about time. For the fifth month in a row the sluggish Italian economy  shows signs of improvement, reflected in an improved consumer confidence rating this October, up from September's 115.6 to 116.1. Confidence among Italian industrialists and businesses is also on the rise, up in one month by a percentage point, from 108.1 to 109.1. Moreover, after an entire decade, this new level of confidence has finally reachieved that of a decade ago, or just before the battering from the depressive shocks of 2008.

    For the Bank of Italy, thanks to improved domestic demand as well as exports, growth is expected to show an increase of 0.5% during the third quarter, an improvement over the 0.3% of the second quarter. An exception, say analysts from the national statistics-gathering agency ISTAT, is the building industry, where employment lags.

    "Economic growth is rising, unemployment is falling, plus the quantity of deteriorated creditors that weigh on the banks is visibly dropping," synthesizes Ferdinando Giugliano, economics columnist who writes for the Financial Times of London and La Repubblica. However, he points out, this fails to address some of the big issues at the base of the economy, from public debt to the balance sheets of the banks. "A good many of our leaders would prefer to postpone the solution to those questions until some other time," Giugliano observes.

    As in the USA, middle- and lower-class families are hurting, with incomes stalled at the same level in 2014 as in 1995, again according to the Bank of Italy. This punishes young people, whose income has dropped by 10% since 1995, even as older Italians have seen their income rise by 20%. Youth unemployment continues to be a major concern; as of last July unemployment for those between 18 and 34 years of age stood at a staggering 35%, or slightly higher than the previous month. At the same time employment across the board showed improvement, with the total of the unemployed dropping  from 13% to this month's 11.2%.

    Traditionally the jobless were, first and foremost, women. Back in 1977 just one out of three Italian women held down a job, but for this trimester the figure has risen to  a record high of almost one out of two (49%), again according to ISTAT studies. Whereas in the past the jobs held by women tended to be on the lower echelon of the work scale, at present one out of five (19%) hold down jobs defined as within the "intellectual professions" including teaching in high schools.

    In terms of numbers, this means that some 200,000 more women have joined the work force since 2013. An unresolved problem is that women with young children still find it difficult to work: 81% of single women between the ages of 25 and 49 hold down jobs but only 56% of women with children work outside the home, a figure that rises to 70% if the mother holds a top university degree. A downside is that territorial differences continue: in the North almost 60% of women work whereas in the South the figure stagnates at 32%. (For comparative statistics Italy and Europe, see:

    In sheer economic terms, it comes as a pleasant surprise that the Lazio Region around Rome has now outclassed the Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Piedmont in terms of gross domestic product (regional GDP, that is). The leader, with twice the GDP income of Lazio and twice the number of employed (but also twice the number of inhabitants), remains Lombardy, the region around Milan.

    Politics play a role. Lazio Regional president Nicola Zingaretti is particularly proud of the showing of the region, in the past sometimes known as Italy's economic Cinderella. "We're the proof that when the institutions stop fighting each other and work together, the citizens benefit," he says. He credits some of his success to coordination between the national government and the region. "Working together has helped Lazio to increase its exports by 30% during the past five years, the biggest increase in all of Italy," Zingaretti says with pride.

  • Capri. Certosa
    Art & Culture

    Citizens at Work to Save the Italian Heritage

    ROME - Last Sunday volunteers in Rome turned out to clean up the mess of what had once been a sacred river, the Almone. Rome's third most important after the Tiber and the Aniene, this small river flows from the Alban Hills toward Rome, passing the Basilica of St. John Lateran and the Colosseum, to disgorge into the Tiber itself. So clean was the Almone in antiquity that, as Ovid relates, this was where the priests of Cybele came on the "Lavatio Matris" every March 27 so as "to wash the goddess and the sacred objects of her cult." For the Romans, Cybele was the Magna Mater or Great Mother, and considered an ancestral goddess whose cult spread throughout the Mediterranean.


    In recent years, however, the Amone, despite its passing through the great park of the ancient Appian Way, became a rubbish dump. For the past few years citizens have collected signatures for petitions of protest; this year they took action. Among the causes of the pollution of the Almone, which lies at the heart of the Caffarella Park on the Appian Way, is that nearby businesses were dumping industrial as well as household waste, with the result that they were literally polluting the Appian parkland, according to prosecutor Maria Bice Barborini this summer. Investigators found the river polluted with mercury, zinc, copper and beryl as well as human excrement from latrines.


    Bearing in mind that little is more important in Italy than the conservation of its vast and multi-layered cultural heritage, the contributions made by ordinary citizens is all the more important. That heritage is so rich on so many levels that it is extremely difficult to maintain, as was shown last week when a 6-inch stone chunk that dropped from a cornice in the ancient Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence fell unexpectedly, striking a Spanish visitor on the head and killing him. Could that have been avoided? It is hard to say: the basilica was inspected just the previous week, but to inspect a column decoration 60 feet overhead, while necessary for safety, is not part of ordinary administration.


    The truth is that the government, even if with the best intentions, cannot handle the totality of the Italian heritage. And this is where ordinary citizens and volunteers, like those who turned out Oct. 22 to clean the river flowing through the Appian parkland, can do their part, and are doing it. For instance, the non-profit association  LoveItaly, founded by Gloria Ardi and financed through crowd-funding, has just launched a campaign called "Adotta una Colonna" (Adopt a Column) to support tending the cloister of the medieval Certosa di San Giacomo at Capri. (See >> )


    Testifying to the contributions made by other private citizens in Italy is the excellent work of the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI). This non-profit was born in 1975 from an idea of Elena Croce, the daughter of the great philosopher born in the Abruzzo, Benedetto Croce (1866 - 1952). Her  inspiration was the British National Trust, which dates from 1895. For FAI's founders, who included Giulia Maria Crespi, the goal of the association was for the "conservation, protection and valorization of the Italian heritage of art, nature and landscape." Among its first donors was Emanuela Castelbarco, niece of Arturo Toscanini, with a contribution in 1977 for restoration of the Castle at Avio near Trento.


    Among its 36 other protected sites are churches, parks, mills, palaces, monasteries and even a saline and a shop or two. President since 2013 is archaeologist Andrea Carandini, who most recently gave a book-length interview with Paolo Conti published by Laterza, with the evocative (and true) title "Il nuovo dell'Italia è nel passato" (Italy's New Is from the Past).


    Membership in FAI can cost a student as little as E10 a year and, for an ordinary member, E29. (See: And of course sustaining members are welcome. FAI membership brings special visiting privileges. In Milan in November members are offered two private tours of the exhibition "Dentro Caravaggio" (Within Caravaggio), in which no less than 18 masterpieces from Italian and foreign museums are on view at the Palazzo Reale.


    Other FAI visits are often to sites that are not open to the general public and, on the contrary, introduce the unusual; FAI visitors in Milan this month will see an outstanding art decò villa, normally private. Villa Necchi Campiglio was built in 1935, not for the traditional Italian nobility, but for the family of one of Italy's then new industrial aristocrats. On the property in the heart of Milan architect Piero Portaluppi placed one of the city's first private swimming pools. Its art collection includes works by Tiepolo and Canaletto but also by modernists like Giorgio De Chirico and Mario Sironi

  • Gigantic stage curtain, Picasso, for "Parade" ballet
    Art & Culture

    Picasso in Rome: Between Cubism and Neo-classicism 1915 - 1925

    He was just another tourist in Rome, and  he did what the others did. He found a place to stay near Piazza di Spagna on Via Margutta. He toured the Sistine Chapel and became enamoured of the paintings by Michelangelo and Raphael. He hung out with friends in the Hotel della Minerva by the Pantheon and took photos from its lofty terrace. He noticed the pretty girls of Rome and admired even their shoes. He toured Pompeii and Naples and was deeply impressed by Vesuvius. And then he met a beautiful young woman -- a fellow foreigner -- fell rapturously in love, and married her.

    This was Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973), 36 years old and in Rome for just ten weeks in the winter of 1917; from there he would go on to Florence and Milan. Born in Spain and more recently living in Paris, the Rome period was his first great introduction to the art of the Renaissance and the Baroque. It had a decisive influence upon upon his work, as is evident in the stunning exhibition, "Picasso between Cubism and Neo-Classicism: 1915 - 1925." The exhibit, through January 21 at the Scuderie of the Quirinale in Rome, celebrates that visit just 100 years ago. On view are 100 of his paintings, drawings, costumes and documents that reflect the artist's Grand Tour of Rome and its enduring impact upon his creativity

    Picasso came to Rome on Feb. 17, 1917, to work with Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, in preparing the sets, stage curtain and costumes for "Parade," an avantgarde ballet that was to have its debut in Paris but was being put together in Rome. It was wartime, and many of Picasso's friends (though not the artist himself) were soldiers. "He was sad and had little work," said chief exhibition curator Olivier Berggruen, of the Musée Picasso in Paris.

    The new project brightened the artist's life. It was further brightened when,  meeting with the dance troupe at the Hotel Minerva, he also met the Russian ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. Olga became his muse and his wife, the mother of his little boy Paulo. Three photos he took of Olga seated on the rooftop of the Hotel Minerva are on view in the exhibition along with stunning paintings of her. Other friends in Rome were composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Leonide Massine.  

    In a letter to Gertrude Stein he wrote, "I am working all day on the sets and on making the costumes... I've also done many sketches and caricatures of Diaghilev, of [Russian artist Leon] Bakst, of Massine and of some ballerinas, [as if] amid the ruins of Pompeii." This was Picasso's cubist period, but nevertheless the influence of Michelangelo and Raphael are distinctly visible within the paintings in the exhibition.

    Besides inspired by classical sculpture, "Picasso relished the lively atmosphere of the streets of Rome and Naples," said Berggruen. In Naples, where the Ballets Russes was performing, he was impressed by the figure of Pulcinella, whom he chanced to see in a puppet theater performance on the street. Pulcinella evolved gradually into a mainstay of Picasso's later work, the harlequin, which demonstrated Picasso's theory that the popular arts are worthy. In 1920 the team of Picasso, Stravinski and Massine would produce the ballet "Pulcinella," with music inspired by that of the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. And in one painting he depicted the young son Paulo as a harlequin.

    With music by Eric Satie, "Parade" was first performed at the Theatre Chatelet in Paris the following May, to praise and jeers in equal parts. Its gigantic stage curtain painted by Picasso, which measures 52.5 by 33.8 feet, is contemporaneously on view in Rome's Palazzo Barberini. It is Picasso's largest painting, and is decidedly romantic; as one art historian here put it, "That curtain is the opposite of 'Guernica.'"

    Associate curator of the exhibition, a coproduction by Ales SpA and MondoMostre Skira, and Anunciata von Liechtenstein. Paintings are on loan from 38 museums including the Musée Picasso, the Tate in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Berggruen Museum in Berlin, the Fundacio Museu Picasso of Barcellona, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of New York. 

  • Facts & Stories

    Olive Harvest Time, and the News is Good!

    ROME -- The olive harvest has come to Italy early this year. Even so, despite the overheated summer and scant rain from June through early September, the good news is that quality and production are both excellent. Typically production surges every two years, and this looks to being the good year. The experts here remind us that the year 2016 was the worst in a quarter century, especially in Central Italy, but that this year's production is expected to surge by 18.8%, for a total of 288,600 tons. Puglia seems to be leading the pack.


    This is terrific, but still lagging far behind Spain, whose production is enormous. The quantity of Spanish oil is expected to have a minimal increase (1.8%) but even so the country is expected to produce a whopping 1.3 million tons.  


    Also ahead of Italy is Greece, whose expected production is of 294,100 tons, or up 13.1% over last year. Tunis is also faring well, with its  production soaring up by a record 201%, for 202,900 tons; on the other hand that upsurge reflects the last year's disastroub produciton of barely 80,000 tons.


    We personally care deeply about this, and not only because we use far more olive oil than butter, and never anything but cold-pressed extra-virgin oil -- a luxury but important. This is relatively easy for us because we have 30 cherished olive trees, which we havest for our own oil.


    Fifteen of those trees were already on our little acre of land 25 miles north of Rome when we bought it a quarter century ago. Among the first things we did was to plant another 15 trees, which are now regularly producing.


    Our British acquaintance in Tuscany does things on somewhat a grander scale (understatement). He has 1,000 olive trees, and every autumn, at just the right picking time, he convokes his relatives from afar. Every year they converge for a week of picking olives and enjoying a wonderful annual autumn festive holiday.


    To return to our modest production, every two years the trees must be pruned, preferably in late January or February. Pruning is an art, and our friend Anselmo, who supervises our pruning as well as the picking, took a special course in pruning, offered by our little town's serious agriculture experts. Picking the olives today is easier than in the past, when people climbed up on ladders and picked them one by one. Today, after nets are spread below each tree, a hand-held machine plucks the olives, which fall into the nets and are then gathered up and put into baskets or, these days, plastic crates.

  • Campari ad - swinging soda

    "Ciao Italia!" Paris Remembers Immigrants from Italy

    ROME -- First came 420,000 immigrants into France in just four years and then, in the next two decades, a horde of another 800,000. This was not all that long ago: their home country was the Italy of the First World War and then of the two decades of Mussolini Fascism. Writing in L'Espresso magazine, architect Cesare de Seta, who teaches at Naples University, reminds us of the fascinating exhibition "Ciao Italia! A century of Immigration and Italian culture 1860 - 1960," held in Paris's Museum of Immigration in the Palais de la Porte Dorée.

    Curator Dominque Paini opened the exhibition, which just closed after three months, with an installation by Moataz Nasr of eight white Piaggio Vespas set into a circle, entitled "Vacanze Romane", as in the 1953 movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, "Roman Holiday". (Nasr's challenging short film "The Mountain," shot in Egypt, was featured this summer in the Egyptian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale.)

    The Italian migrants arriving in France, beginning in the second half of the 19th century, were "so numerous that their immigration remains, even today, the most important in France," said a review in the Paris edition of Time Out. "The cultures of the French and of our Italian neighbors, or rather, our Latin cousins, are sometimes near but different. They are not always comparable, but complementary."

    Not all went smoothly. In 1851, when some 63,000 arrived in France in a single year, resentment brought a number of violent incidents including in Marseilles. At the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes in Southern France eight Italians who had come to seek work in the ancient salt mines were murdered. But at the same time  numerous Italians living in France were celebrated, among them musicians and artists like Giovanni Boldini, Amedeo Modigliani, and Futurist Gino Severini.

    From the exhibition French President Emmanuel Macron could learn a lesson or two, sentenced de Seta. "President Macron should consider taking a kindly look at  'Ciao Italia!', especially since it contradicts some of his unfortunate phrases." And not only words: last July Italian resentment of Macron burgeoned when he decided to nationalize a major shipyard owned by South Korea over which Italy's Fincantieri was bidding. Some in Italy complained that Macron's decision to nationalize the shipyard ignored EU rules on free movement of capital, with the result that a Corriere della Sera cartoon showed Macron head-butting Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni. Already a number of big French companies had gained large stakes or even control over such Italian companies as Parmalat.

    Today's immigrants arriving into Italy remain top news. On Tuesday the Washington Post ran an analysis of Italy's claim to have found a solution to the migrant problem facing Europe. As I was writing this Fox News reported that Italian neo-Fascists are getting a boost from anti-migrant sentiment. It also made international headlines that Interior Minister Marco Minniti has proposed erasing the word "emergency" when applied to immigration. Speaking in Rome Sept. 27, Minniti proposed that the government make deals with Libya and other African countries that will develop a "welcoming policy" and that Italy foster integration for those holding refugee or "subsidiary protection" status. Integration, said Minniti, requires a "mutual renegotiation."

    Those migrants accepted into the program will be expected to adhere to Italian values, know and respect the Italian constitution,  respect freedom on religion and will be encouraged to be active citizens through local volunteering. Italy will be expected to help with the socialization of minors. For details, see the interesting article >>


  • Art & Culture

    Summering it Up in the Forum: ISAR and Sustainable Archeology

    ROME -- "Come along and see what we did this summer," said old acquaintance Tom Rankin. "Our cultural heritage team has been working on a portion of the Palatine Hill." Rankin, Rome-based American architect with a master's from Harvard, teaches at the prestigious University "La Sapienza" and at two American universities with programs here. By "working on" the Palatine he meant excavating and sifting through 2,000 or so years of Roman Forum history under the auspices of the International Society for the Art, Architecture and Archaeology of Rome (ISAR), of which he is a co-founder, see >>

    ISAR calls Rome "an ideal laboratory for the sustainable cultural heritage." The organization's focus is to promote sustainability of that heritage through excavations, surveying, archiving and conservation of cultural sites and their artifacts. In addition to its work in the Roman Forum, its projects have involved analysis and assessment of vulnerability and the risk to heritage sites under the guidance of veteran Italian archaeologist Dora Cirone. Another ISAR mainstay is Alessio De Cristofaro, whose chief interests include preventive archaeology, the topography of ancient Rome, and Roman and Etruscan archaeology. Marzia Di Mento is a classical archaeologist specialized in social museology. Among other places she has worked in the Jewish catacombs of Rome and the synagogue of Ostia Antica.

    The ISAR project at the northwest end of the Horrea Agrippiana has now completed its first full season. The goal is to document the traces of ancient human settlement between the Palatine Hill and the Tiber River. This summer's dig was at the base of a steep section of the Palatine that had literally crumbled but was originally swampy. As the ISAR team has pointed out, despite its association with Romulus and Remus, the area is particularly ancient and has yet to be thoroughly investigated.  "It has been largely unknown," said Rankin.

    Already, however, during a previous excavation of the area at the bottom of the Palatine Hill traces had been found of cabins dating from the 7th century BCE, or to the time of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome on April 21 of 753 BCE, according to Livy. "That original village extended to here," said Dora Cirone, veteran archaeologist with 30 years experience of work and study in the Roman Forum. Vestiges of the subsequent 6th century BCE Etruscan village, built in the same place, have also been uncovered, despite the fact that 19th century archaeologists actually damaged some of those early structures (!)

    Another important find was an enormous 2d century BCE domus that was several stories tall, with terraces jutting from the hillside, and with fragments of a mosaic floor. It was constructed atop remnants of far older buildings. In this many-layered area the team also excavated tombs in which the bodies were covered with typically ancient roman large flat rooftiles of terra cotta. Fascinating for the archeologists specialized in brickmarks, a number of these tiles showed the brickmarks that permitted the tomb to be dated; one, a child's tomb, showed a brickmark from the 6th Century AD while others were dated to the 7th and 8th Centuries AD.

    The project is made possible by concession from the Special Superintendency for the Colosseum, the National Roman Museum and the Archaeological Area of Rome. Crowd-funding helps make the dig possible, and donations are most welcome. The area is not accessible to visitors, but a contribution of at least E 50 includes an invitation to visit the dig site. Generous patrons will enjoy VIP treatment. For how to donate, see >>

    And to see videos of the team at work, go to >>