Articles by: Judith Harris

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    Pompeii and the Collapse of the Domus of the Gladiators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Giancarlo Caselli: Sciascia and the Palermo anti-Mafia Pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    So Who Has the Last Laugh?

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

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

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

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

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

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    Will Bunga Bunga Finally Make Berlusconi's Personal Political?

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

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

             In a shop several days later one of

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

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

             By then it was almost midnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Italian Politicians Lose Their Cool (and Slip in the Polls)

    In the past year Italy’s political language—its Politichese, a play on the word Inglese (English)—has taken on the nastiness of a slumland playground: “Liar!” “Bossy boots!” “Thief!” This week the tone went ballistic. A few weeks ago Premier Silvio Berlusconi kicked out of the Popolo della Libertà (PdL) its co-founder with him, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini. On Sunday Fini responded in a much-awaited speech at Mirabello, in which he formally divorced Berlusconi’s group in Parliament and invited his supporting members there to join him in forming a new grouping. This is being seen as the first step toward creating a new and “normal” conservative political party in opposition to Berlusconi’s. As the able commentator Gianfranco Pasquino remarked Monday, “It was a brilliant speech,” and in it Fini particularly assailed Berlusconi’s penchant for considering the government a personal feifdom.


    By way of reply, Berlusconi minions accused Fini of conducting “guerrilla warfare” and of turning the PdL, which Fini and Berlusconi had co-founded exactly eighteen months ago, into a “Vietnam”-style battleground.
    Italian politicians rarely shy away from shouting down opponents and hurling invectives, especially when on TV, but this time their attitudes too betrayed serious concern. Speaking to his own party backers last month, Berlusconi, usually the smoothest of ad libers, stumbled over words as he tensely read from an eight-page diktat. When Fini finished his j’accuse against Berlusconi-style autocratic rule and “Stalinist” tactics of personal attacks on Fini’s family, observers reported that Fini was literally trembling with emotion. Politicians from other parties were no less exercised. While giving a speech Pier Ferdinando Casini, 55, who speaks for Catholic centrist voters, agitated his arms as if he were announcing Armageddon.
    The one who lost his cool least was Umberto Bossi, 69, visibly licking his chops because—more than Berlusconi’s PdL—the Northern League which Bossi heads, and which backs Berlusconi in government, continues to gain consensus among voters. Another relatively cool customer was a spoiler on the moderate left, former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, 60, whose small Italia dei Valori party (with about 4%), takes a staunch stance against organized crime and attracts young people. That party too may make some gains should early elections be called.

    So will they be called three years ahead of schedule? Before this is decided, the most likely first step is for Berlusconi to call upon the Italian President in coming days to insist that Fini be removed as President of the Parliament, on grounds that Fini was put there by the Berlusconi coalition for which Fini no longer speaks and his presence there is no longer “compatible,” to quote from a joint Bossi-Berlusconi statement issued Tuesday. The situation, says the statement, is “very serious [and] raises serious problems for the regular functioning of the institutions.”

    Bossi is openly campaigning for elections in late November. Berlusconi too now seems to agree, truculently in public, reluctantly in private, that the legislature elected only two years ago is beyond salvaging. The Italian Constitution puts the decision to call new elections in the hands of President Giorgio Napolitano, but if and when the Berlusconi government succumbs in a vote of confidence, Napolitano will have to take action. The conventional wisdom here is that the longer Berlusconi waits, the more votes he is likely to lose to Fini. But Napolitano has the option of appointing a caretaker cabinet, perhaps headed by a Berlusconi rival in the PdL, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, 63.

    As the parties gear up for the possibility of elections in late Autumn or early Spring, eyes naturally turn to the polls, but these are tricky. According to Euromedia Research, as reported in the pro-Berlusconi Il Giornale (it is owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo), a poll of 1,000 (presumably) representative individuals suggests that a brand new Fini party would, on its own, obtain only from 1% to 3%. Were a Fini party to face voters in a coalition of center-left parties, according to this poll, it would receive no more than 2% of the vote, or quite possibly too few to make it into Parliament, for which a 2% minimum is necessary.
    At the same time, another poll—this one by IPR Marketing and reported in the opposition newspaper La Repubblica—suggests that all the parties are looking like losers. Since last summer Berlusconi has shed 10% of his popularity, which now stands at no more than 50%, or one out of two potential voters. He remains popular among white-collar employees, young people and small-towns citizens, for whom TV viewing is more important than it is in urban centers. But among middle class, educated voters his personal popularity has sunk from 43% to under 30%, with the biggest losses in the South, where voters resent Berlusconi’s concessions to Bossi’s Northern League. In particular, voters with a high education level, once 40% in favor of Berlusconi, now give him only 28%.

    On the other hand, does this matter? Put another way, which is the tea party, Berlusconi with his know-nothings, or the more elitarian Fini? And at any rate predictions of elections in November may be premature, for the politicians know that, the more time passes, the more the greater the disenchantment with the political class. Voters may simply stay away from the polls in droves, and, no matter what the pollsters say now, anything can happen. This awareness is acting as a brake on both Berlusconi and Fini. For despite the battlefield war room tone, both are still cautiously raising, if not white flags, at least white hankies to each other. Fini, after all, has not yet announced that he is forming a new political party—just a Parliamentary group called “Futuro e Libertà”, already dubbed the “Futuristi”. And Berlusconi would rather not turn the vestiges of his old party, Forza Italia (the “Forzisti”) over to Bossi, lock, stock and barrel. Berlusconi fared best when mediating between the two, one representing the disgruntled populist North, the other the state-dependent South. In a peculiar way, Berlusconi was a unifying force.

     In short, Berlusconi still needs Fini, and Fini still needs Berlusconi, if Fini is not to disappear into the woodwork.

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    Can Italy Be Too Italian?

    A New York Times headline asked a bizarre question the other day: “Is Italy Too Italian?” At first the question seemed absurd. I mean, can a dog be too canine, a goldfish too fishy? In his article, Times reporter Michael Kimmelman, taking the manufacturing industry as an example, suggested that Italy is so tradition bound, insular and lacking in upward mobility that the nation risks sinking into a “gradual, grinding decline.”

    Would that we Italian lovers could disagree. On the contrary, Italy is doing its best to shoot itself in the foot, fast, beginning with a sickening neglect of its greatest single and unique strength, its deep culture, including but not only its archaeological sites, being less undermined that blown to pieces. Beginning at the top, the government acknowledges and indeed boasts that Italian archaeology and historical sites—statues, fountains, temples, palazzi, historic gardens, bridges, Baroque cupolas—sell Italy; log onto the Italian Tourism Official Website, and you can hear Premier Silvio Berlusconi in person invoking, in the tone one uses while speaking to very young and not very bright children, “Magical Italy,” its “storia, cultura ed arte.” Lovely zoom shots show ancient towns, the Trevi Fountain, turquoise bays, and so on (without a single human being, car, boat or graffito, but never mind).

    The point is that all this Magical Italy is being left to rot and ruin. Grand opera house budgets have been slashed. Library personnel who retire are not replaced, so that the number of librarians drops, and even rare books disappear from shelves. The latest depressing shock news: reporter Carlo Alberto Bucci of La Repubblica informs us that cultural maintenance funds have been cut back to the point that, as of August 1, archaeologists, architects and art historians “cannot utilize their own automobiles to travel to excavations and sites scattered throughout the territory” which they are supposedly controlling because travel reimbursements have been cancelled to cut costs and to avoid possible liability actions. In a way, this is good; as archaeologist Salvatore Settis reminds us, the average age of ministry functionaries is now 56 so perhaps it is best if the old dears give up driving.

    However, as a result, the 6,000 archaeological sites in the area of Rome alone can no longer be checked by trained Culture Ministry supervisors. The sense of this is that no one with archaeological expertise will be tending the store.

    In Rome, one way around the financial crunch—a result of the government’s slashing of the culture budget—is being promoted by Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who favors raising ticket prices for entry to museums, the Colisseum and all Roman archaeological sites, plus applying a tourism tax of perhaps E. 3 as of January 1, 2011.

    One could feel pity for the struggling Italian culture administration, save for the fact that the current Minister, Sandro Bondi, seems singularly indifferent to what is going on in his bailiwick, given that he is also responsible for the beleaguered Berlusconi party organization.
    Curiously, in certain areas money seems to be no object. At Pompeii, brand new and expensive-looking metal gates have been put into place to keep people out of the closed-off buildings and houses. These gates, and there are hundreds, are archaeology in their own way as examples of 1970s bad taste.  

    Finally, a worrying new ISTAT figure shows a 5% drop in productivity over 2007-09 in Italy. By comparison, France and Germany have boosted productivity (worker output in units) by 5-10% during the same period. An old Italian hand wrote me yesterday: "Italy used to be funny, but now it's a bad joke." I can't go that far, but it is painful to watch a nation, in dire need of the structural transformation that will bring it into the post-industrial world and the knowledge economy, sabotage its prime selling points--not only the vast cultural heritage, but also the universities, arts academies, schools, and landscapes as well. Oliviero Toscani, with Prof. Settis as advisor, is assembling a gallery of Italian horrors, which documents in photographs the destruction of the landscape.  (For details of how to contribute your own photos, go to:

    So maybe Kimmelman’s question could be rewritten as: “Is Italy believing too much in magic, at the expense of common sense?”  Beloved Italy, it is time to stop shooting yourself in the foot, not to mention shooting off the mouth about “magic.” Time to come back down to earth, and to reality. Time to protect your unique, marvelous heritage, rather than leave it to rack and ruin, plunderers and pollution.

  • Facts & Stories

    Divorce, Italian political style

    Can media magnate Silvio Berlusconi survive his second acrimonious divorce in a year? Last summer his wife Veronica filed for divorce after publishing a flamboyant letter in which she charged the Premier with fooling around with young girls and of suffering from an unnamed illness. This week an irate Berlusconi seized the initiative, ousting his recalcitrant partner Gianfranco Fini from the political party, the "Partito della Libertà" (Party of Librty, or PdL), which the two co-founded only two years ago. With that split, what Berlusconi has also been calling the “Partito dell’Amore” (Party of Love) has just foundered, becoming instead the party of rancor.

    The chaotic breakup of the party which triumphed at elections only 27 months ago has the Italian political class reeling, with no one certain of what is to come. Not least, Berlusconi has called on Fini to resign as president of the Chamber of Deputies (Speaker of the House) on grounds that in that office Fini represents the PdL party. Replying that his post, the third highest office in Italy, is institutional and not political, Fini refuses flatly to quit.

    Party meetings are going on long into the night as the leaders debate the other big issues: whether it is in Berlusconi’s interest to demand early elections next spring (or perhaps as early as November); whether a babysitter government of technicians would be a wise move; what clout Fini will have with voters now that he is on his own; what position President Giorgio Napolitano will take; how many deputies Berlusconi can poach from other groups; or if life in Palazzo Chigi (the Italian White House) can be made to slog along as usual until the extent of the damage to both Berlusconi and Fini can be measured.

    Nevertheless there are a few fixed points. This definitive breach with Fini after a year of alienation shows that Silvio Berlusconi is unable to impose upon the country his project to remain in power for at least an entire five-year legislature, if not more. Romano Prodi’s left-leaning legislature lasted two years before being swept aside by Berlusconi’s zealous new party, which however is similarly crashing after only two years.

    It is striking that, despite Berlusconi’s charisma with his peers and with the voters, this is his third time at bat with governing partners and the third time he has struck out. The first time he quarreled with his partner from the separatist Northern League, Umberto Bossi; the second time he was in government the fracture was with the Catholic politician Pier Ferdinando Casini; and now, with Fini, formerly of the rightist Alleanza Nazionale.

    Whether or not new elections are called in coming months, the likelihood that Berlusconi will become president of Italy, succeeding Napolitano, seems sorely reduced. Other observers here say he has no chance whatsoever.

    Fini promises to respect the voters’ wishes, but Berlusconi’s kicking Fini out of the government could make the passage of future legislation difficult unless Fini agrees with whatever law us proposed. At present the new Fini group, to be known as “Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia” (Future and Freedom for Italy), has 33 members of Parliament out of 630. Although a small group, this is troubling for Berlusconi, whose PdL has 238 deputies and Bossi’s Lega, 59. The government’s parliamentary majority is thus reduced to 297, whereas the 316 necessary for a majority vote. In the Senate, with 322 senators, a majority of 161 is required; the center-right (Berlusconi plus Bossi) has 163, and the Fini group, 10.

    For the country, this signals a failure of that two-party system which many of us had hoped would replace the unstable coalitions that have characterized Italy for decades.

    So what happened? It seems to be the cumulative effect of scandal upon scandal. Last summer’s sex scandal involving various call girls evolved gradually into revelations of political connections with Mafia bosses, even as the government took credit for arresting Mafia foot soldiers. When phone taps showing corruption were leaked, the government tried to push through a press gag law and began promoting changes to the Italian Constitution, which Fini opposed. But one after another government figures—members of cabinet among them—were forced to resign as shocking evidence of the manipulation of state contracts to government cronies emerged, including in quake-stricken L’Aquila. At that point, even the customarily tolerant Italian man in the street (less the women, quicker to take umbrage) began reacting against an unacceptable level of the “culture of corruption,” as it is suddenly being called here. And this may be the most important element in le divorce: that Italians of all parties and religious views and walks of life are reacting with shock and disdain at such shenanigans, which are certainly not limited to the Berlusconi crowd.

    It’s not only about the economy, stupid.


  • Facts & Stories

    Falcone and Borsellino Die Again

    "Italy, how could you have let Judge Giovanni Falcone die?” In a state of shock I wrote this in May eighteen years ago for the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. The article was published just in time for Falcone's partner in anti-Mafia investigations, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, to be similarly murdered by a Mafia bomb.

    On Saturday both men were murdered once more, in effigy. To honor the anniversary of the murder of Borsellino on July 18, a local sculptor, Tommaso Domina, had created statues of both in plaster-of-paris, preparatory to their being cast in bronze as a permanent memorial to the two emblematic victims of the Sicilian Mafia. On Friday the statues were mounted on Palermo’s elegant main street, Viale della Libertà. At midday Saturday, before witnesses—none of whom so far has come forward—a small group of vandals smashed the statues. Elsewhere in Palermo vandals also stripped down posters announcing a candle-light march for Monday in memory of the two judges.

    In April the tree on the sidewalk at the entry of the apartment building in which Falcone lived in Palermo was also vandalized, presumably by a mentally disturbed individual. The tree has become a shrine to anti-Mafia sentiment, and schoolchildren and others write letters they pin to the tree.

    This Sunday, as 100,000 in Venice watched the historic regata, a scant one hundred marched in Palermo in an anti-Mafia procession, led by Borsellino’s brother.

    Today, still lacking an answer to my question of eighteen years ago, I would put the question differently: why kill the judges again? Why are their statues—their memories, that is—dangerous, and precisely to whom?

    A series of events shortly before and after Borsellino’s murder may eventually provide an answer. In the background was the famous maxi-trial of Mafia bosses in Palermo. The indictments written by Falcone, Borsellino and others in the so-called anti-Mafia “pool” of magistrates had resulted in 360 convictions, making that trial the most successful assault against the Mafia in Italian history, where acquittals were the rule.

    Paolo Borsellino was Falcone’s fellow member in the pool. Scraps of evidence garnered this past year from a variety of sources—and not only from “repentant” mafiosi—suggest that, following Falcone’s murder, Borsellino learned that a secret service intermediary—that is, an emissary of the Italian state—was involved in negotiations with a top boss, Bernardo Provenzano. (This was not the first time a secret service connection was hypothesized; piloted leaks in June 1989 reported a secret service presence when a bomb was placed at a beach at Addaura that June 21, in a presumably intentionally failed attempt on Falcone’s life. Falcone chose to ignore this warning by the “Mafia”.)

    In the alleged negotiations of 1992 and 1993, the Mafia sought more lenient treatment for its hundreds of men of (dis)honor in prison. In pursuit of this end the Mafia set off death-dealing bombs the following year in Rome, Milan and Florence.
    The purported goal of the state (or of a part of the state—not all), before and after Falcone’s murder, is still unclear. One theory is that the negotiators sought an agreement to live and let live, in exchange for a reduction of violence.

    But perhaps there was more. And this still ambiguous and sinister perhaps more, datable to the events of 1992 and 1993, may be what is behind the toppling of the statues and the attempts to stop the candle-light march in memory of the slain judges. Among other things, this June Palermo’s Section 2 of the Court of Appeals issued a verdict affirming that Sen. Marcello Dell’Utri, formerly a top aide to Premier Silvio Berlusconi, maintained close relations with the Mafia of Stefano Bontade and with two Mafia bosses, Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, at least until the period of the murders of Falcone and Borsellino in 1992.

    By this conviction, wrote Palermo journalist Salvo Palazzolo in La Repubblica of June 29,  the appeals court “seems to challenge what had been considered fixed points in the latest investigations into the negotiations between the Mafia and the politicians during 1993’s season of massacres.”

  • Life & People

    The Child Soldiers of Scampia

    The beauty of Naples was once so inspiring that, at sight of its transparent gulf waters and palm parks and handsome youth, the 18th Century German poet Goethe exclaimed, “See Naples and then die!” The phrase lent itself to twisting, and in later times came to insinuate the dark side of Naples, as in Elmer Rice’s 1929 Broadway play "See Naples and Die" starring Claudette Colbert. Today, the upside-down title referring to the sinister Neapolitan half-life continues to endure in movies, novels and scholarly works, most recently referring to the violent and drug-ridden Rione Scampia quarter, Italy’s Ciudad Juarez.


    Seen from the air, Naples is shaped rather like a butterfly. Goethe’s beautiful gulf shapes its tail; the postwar bedroom suburb of Scampia, jerry-built in the 1970s and 1980s, its head. With at least 50% unemployment (the figure is higher still among youth), Scampia is home to some 50,000. Although originally planned to provide public housing, including for earthquake victims, it had poor transportation facilities into central Naples and quickly became a center for the organized crime gangs of the Camorra. Their capital in Scampia is the vast beehive of 20-story apartment blocks set in a treeless waste. Known as Le Vele (The Sails), they would be scorned by today’s architectural aesthetes as a misunderstanding of modernity in construction; indeed a few have been demolished. In this, Naples is hardly alone; the same social and economic problems aggravated by architecturally-driven alienation arose in the densely-inhabited, crime-ridden high-rise buildings constructed in Britain in the same period.

    Buses bring drug users from many miles away to Scampia, where they stock up on cocaine, crack, marijuana, heroin and its nasty smokable sub-species called Kobret; this reporter has seen two youngsters shooting heroin directly into the vein. Overdoses are frequent. Said one student who lives in Scampia: “Our parents are frightened when we go off to school. This is no man’s land.” Addicts admit they pay for their habit by stealing cell phones, bicycles and motor bikes (a motor bike brings E 100, or $125).


    Davide Cerullo was one of fourteen sisters and brothers who were born and raised in the gangland turmoil of Scampia, where he has lived for twenty-five years. At fourteen he began hustling drugs, earning, he says, up to E. 500 (about $650) a day. In the bad times he was tossed into a prison cell. During one of his several prison stints, he found on a bunk bed a copy of the Bible. “I opened it, and in it I found, repeated again and again, my own name, Davide. It triggered something in me.”

    The experience turned his life around. “Poetry and art became my passport to a better life…. I began to take photographs first because I stopped the image in my mind, and then I reflected upon the world [through it]. Even if we make mistakes it’s not true than an individual can’t be saved. The unsalvageable is only an invention in bad faith, that makes us think that all is lost. Give people an opportunity, and real miracles can happen,” he said in a recent interview in Panorama magazine.
    This week Cerullo’s book on the child soldiers of the Camorra, Ali Bruciate, I bambini di Scampia (Burnt Wings, The Children of Scampia), written together with Don Alessandro Pronzato, priest and author, is being presented in Rome (Edizioni Paoline). An exhibition of his photographs of the children of Scampia will be on view through October 22 in Trastevere at the Casa della Memoria e della Storia di Roma, Via San Francesco di Sales, 5 (summer closing Aug. 1-31).