Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Madonna Della Quaglia - Pisanello - c. 1420

    In Santa's Backpack, Clues to The Year Ahead for Italy

    Take a peek into Santa's personal Italian backpack, and you will find not only a few year-ender gifts, but also a calender of events slated for the year ahead. Of these, nothing will outrank the decision on whether to vote or not to vote.

    Beginning with the goodies wrapped in red, green and white tissue paper, the first is that on Dec. 23 the new dining hall, financed by the TV network La7 and the RCS Media Group, at the quake-devastated town of Amatrice will be inaugurated with music and gift offerings. Work on the hall will not be entirely completed until January, but the survivors of the two earthquakes that struck Central Italy in early autumn are all guests there together on Christmas Day.

    On the cultural front, Mayor Flavio Tosi announced on Dec. 21 that the 17 precious works of art stolen from Verona's Castelvecchio Museum are on their way home. Thieves immobilized two museum employees on Nov. 15, 2015, then made off with the works by, among others, Rubens, Pisanello, Mantegna and Jacopo Bellini. In less than a year the paintings were tracked to the Ukraine, thanks to the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage police, prosecutor Gennaro Ottaviano and Renato Cortese, who heads the state police unit SCO, and will  be returned.

    The good news on a national scale is that Italy's gross domestic product rose by 1% during the past quarter, bringing the year's upsurge to 0.8%, or the same as that in Norway and Denmark. Consumer prices rose by 0.1%, suggesting that at year-end deflation is coming under control, an improvement over the -0.1% earlier this year. In terms of unemployment, at 11.6%, or 3.4 million without work, Italy bests both Greece at 23.4% and Spain, 19.2%. This discreet across-the-board level of unemployment is the result of older people remaining in their jobs, however. Youth unemployment remains painfully high, and stands at almost 80% among those between ages 30 - 34 who hold college degrees.


    Looking ahead to 2017, the crucial issue is the calling of national general elections eight or so months ahead of those scheduled for early 2018. On Dec. 18 the newly resigned premier Matteo Renzi gave an impassioned speech to the national assembly of the Partito Democratico (PD), which he continues to head, in which he  insisted that new elections take place as quickly as possible, or within six months. Opinions on this are divided: agreeing with ì Renzi on their urgency is the aggressive Movimento Cinque Stelle M5S of Beppe Grillo, who figures that, having triumphed Dec. 10, he will again, and rightwinger Matteo Salvini. Disagreeing, we are told, is Italian President Sergio Mattarella, considered the sponsor of the Mattarellum.


    Renzi's argument is that otherwise a union-backed referendum will take place on the oft-praised Jobs Act, passed under his government to combat unemployment. A new referendum could mean another defeat for his three years of government, in the wake of the Dec. 10 failed referendum on constitutional reform which he had promoted and lost, 60% to 40%. In what he called "an analysis of defeat," Renzi accepted the blame for that flop. He appears anxious to avoid any worsening of the situation that could lead to a weaker PD and strengthen his adversaries, beginning with the M5S, which is taking the credit for that 60% referendum vote.


    The problem remains that different election laws govern Senate and Chamber of Deputies. Unless these two laws are harmonized -- which could take considerable time because of the quarreling parties -- it is almost inconceivable that early elections can take place. Renzi therefore proposes that the best thing would be to take a step back from his own proposed election reform bill, known as the Latinized "Italicum," and passed in the Chamber of Deputies, and turn back to the election law that governed elections between 1993 and 2005, to use as "the basis for a proposed new law."


    Historians say that the law, known as the "Mattarellum" because proposed by Sergio Mattarella (today President of Italy), marked the end of 50 years of postwar Italian history during which elections, based upon on pure proportionalism, tended to create fragmented parties that hindered governing. However, the Mattarella law, too, was criticized and even described as "bipolar" for its providing a mixed system of uninominal and proportional: 475 seats of the 630 in the Chamber were directly elected, and went to the candidate obtaining the most votes, while 155 were elected upon a regional proportional basis. To foster governability, after a second ballot a premium of 90 seats would go to the single winning party or coalition. But there too the result was instability -- hence other attempts at legislation.

    Renzi's own proposal was the "Italicum", which would eliminate an elective Senate in favor of one drastically reduced from 315 to 100 members chosen from mayors and regional delegates. In the Dec. 10 referendum constitutional amendments referring to it were overturned. While adopted by the Chamber, it has not passed in the Senate, and some of its provisions have been challenged by the constitutional court, whose ruling comes at the end of January.

    Queried about all this while visiting Naples Dec. 19, Chamber President Laura Boldrini, looking extremely worried, said of the Mattarellum, "Yes, this is one of the possibilities. We have to see if we can find an elections law that is a good synthesis between representation and governability."

  • Christmas at the Sant'Ignazio Church in Rome
    Facts & Stories

    The Christmas Story Told in the Presepe

    In this special season of the year, little is more cherished in Italy than the Christmas crib in all its various forms, from miniature versions in glass domes to the "living presepe," where volunteers in costume appear every evening in a reproduction of a grotto, together with live sheep and other animals.

    By tradition, the first presepe or crib was created by St. Francis of Assisi at tiny Greccio, in the mountains near Rieti, 42 miles north of Rome. St. Francis had arrived there in 1209, to live as a hermit on remote Mount Lacerone. During a visit to Rome in 1223, he asked Pope Honorius III if he might make a representation of the Nativity in one of the mountain grottoes near Greccio. Permission was granted -- so goes the legend -- and, returning to Greccio, Francis prepared the grotto scene on Christmas Eve replete with an ox and an ass. Mary and Joseph, we are told, were not in that first crib scene because Francis did not want the birth of Christ to become a spectacle.

    But while the religious content remains, the creche scenes are also spectacular, and nowhere more so than in Naples, where an entire street, Via San Gregorio Armeno, is dedicated, all year long, to the presepe. The narrow street, which resembles an open-air theater, is lined with shops selling costumed figures, grottoes, elaborate reproductions of l8th century presepi, and little buildings for family Nativity scenes that may take up an entire room. In general, the rule is the more figures the better, and it is always interesting to see which statuettes of contemporary individuals are on offer. This year's crop includes Donald Trump, Fidel Castro, and Hilary Clinton, along with favorite popes, Italian soccer stars, a pizza chef, and a few Italians headed for or already in jail.

    Through Jan. 20, Romans can see 100 antique crèche figures from Naples on view at the Quirinal Palace in an exhibition, "The Presepe: Religious Faith and Popular Tradition." The collection, assembled back in 1911 by pioneer ethnographer Lamberto Loria, reflects the Neapolitan concept of the presepe tradition as offering a slice of life. "Many aristocrats of the l8th and 19th centuries in Naples liked to be portrayed in the apparel of the presepe figures," said art historian and curator Leandro Ventura. Besides the manger scene, those presepe illustrated daily life, with miniatures of a market, a wine shop, and houses, often with Mount Vesuvius in the background, he explained.

    In Rome on Dec. 9, the Vatican unveiled its huge annual crèche scene. This year a cluster of buildings, and even a boat, were built, backed up against the obelisk in the center of St. Peter's Square (which of course is round, encircled by Bernini's colonnade). Earlier in the day Pope Francis had met with the crèche donors, the bishops and the government of Malta, and with the donors of the giant Christmas tree beside it. The crib, created by Maltese artist Manwel Grech, from the isle of Gozo, has 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese clothing. Beside the grotto scene is a replica of a Maltese fishing boat called the "Luzzu." In his remarks the Pope said the boat had symbolic value because it spoke of the "sad, tragic reality of migrants making their way toward Italy on boats."

    The 75-foot-tall spruce tree beside the Vatican crèche was donated by the Lagorai Forests Association in the Trentino Region, with the support of the Lene Thun Foundation, which organizes workshops in hospitals throughout Italy. The tree decorations were made by children undergoing therapy for cancer and other illnesses, and before the tree-lighting ceremony the pope also received a delegation of those children, who had designed and made the ornaments for the tree. In the Trentino forest where the tree was cut down, local high school students will plant 40 new spruce and larch trees, to replace trees which had to be culled because attacked by a parasite.

    No Christmas season in Rome is imaginable without the holiday market at Piazza Navona. There the crèche is absent, but what is touching is that stalls have been opened where the products from the farms in this autumn's quake-ravaged areas of Umbria, Lazio and the Marches are on sale. There, where their own homes were destroyed, the farmers still managed to continue to tend to their animals, milking the cows daily and working the fields. 

    In small towns throughout all of Italy local citizens have been busy preparing Nativity scenes, sometimes a dozen of them, on street corners and by bus stops. In our own little town of Trevignano Romano, on Lake Bracciano 30 miles north of Rome, the men of the village are, as every year, building a huge presepe at lakeshore by. Live animals will be in pens, but the life-size figures in traditional costumes are of plaster.

    For those able to travel to Greccio, this as every year, the living crib in a grotto will be recreated at the Franciscan Sanctuary on Christmas Eve at 10:30 pm, and thereafter at 5:45 pm on Dec. 26 - 27, Jan. 1 -3 and Jan 6. The organizers remind visitors that this is an authentic re-evocation of that first living presepe.

  • Italian PM Matteo Renzi resigns following referendum defeat

    Renzi Loses His Bet. But Now What?

    Within hours of losing the constitutional referendum Sunday night, Matteo Renzi submitted his resignation as Premier, one of the few in Italian postwar history whose government lasted more than 1,000 days. Many had predicted that the referendum opponents would win, but by only a slim margin. No one had foreseen the stunning 70% turnout, or that, of these, only 40% would vote as Renzi had advised.


    Almost all the commentators here agree that Renzi had made a grievous error for himself and his centrist and (occasionally) left-leaning government, with potentially destablizing consequences for Italy, with its feeble economy and troubled banks. A few pundits immediately dubbed the vote the "Renzit," as in Brexit, and the British daily Telegraph quoted "German business leaders" saying that the referendum defeat "threatens the very survival of the Euro."


    However, the referendum was not about leaving Europe or the Euro; it was essentially a power struggle, one of the many in past decades. That struggle continues in the aftermath with talk of future national general elections. Both the M5S and Renzi himself are agitating for these to take place immediately, each attempting to take advantage of that respective 60% and 40% which they consider their own.


    As many reasons to explain what happened are bruited about as there were voters. To start with the "no"'s, the most generous take the view that voters chose to honor the constitution promulgated at the bitter end of World War II, and which is proving remarkably solid. Others voting against the referendum objected to its central goal, abolition of the elective Senate, which would have limited powers vis à vis the Chamber of Deputies.


    Others accused the referendum of concentrating too much power in the hands of the central government, of neglecting young people and neglecting the South. The cruelest comments came from the apparent victors, the Movimento Cinque Stelle headed by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. The leaders of the M5S, or Five Star Movement, claim that the 60% of the vote was, loud and clear, against Renzi and his government's three years in office.


    The "yes" voters are saying somewhat lamely that their 40% matches the size of the vote won three years ago by the Partito Democratico (PD), which Renzi still heads, at least for the time being. Others complain that the referendum, with its long and tedious list of tacked-on components, was simply incomprehensible. In fact, the daily Corriere della Sera felt the need to publish an entire book, written by lawyers and magistrates, to explain it -- which is not to say that anyone actually read that book.


    The angriest of those who had hoped for a "yes" vote complain that Renzi made two gigantic and costly mistakes. First he insisted upon holding a referendum, whose victory he thought would be a piece of cake. Then he identified its presumed success with validation of himself. He mistakenly personalized the vote, even though at one point, realizing that he was heading toward an abyss, tried to back away from this identification.


    A sober analysis of the vote comes from data assembled Dec. 5 by the Interior Ministry, the election observatory of the University of Urbino and polsters Demos and PI. A sharp North - South difference appears, with Renzi claiming 44% in the North but only 38% in the South. The self-employed provided the largest single bloc of "no"'s (76%), and pensioners the smallest (45%). Housewives (68%) and blue collar workers (66%) voted overwhelmingly "no," as did 61% of those between the ages of 18 and 29. Although this presumably reflects youthful anger at unemployment, particularly in the South, that has been a challenge neglected by governments for over twenty years.


    With victory, the M5S is demanding its turn at governing, but this is not a given. Ignoring Renzi's prompt resignation and weepy farewell, President Mattarella decreed that Renzi is to remain in office until a pending budget plan is passed. After that, Renzi appears unlikely to succeed himself, but the PD is not necessarily out of the game, and indeed possible candidates for a caretaker or, in the customary phrase here, "technical" government, come from his own party and cabinet. Among those mentioned are the respected Pier Carlo Padoan, Minister of Finance and the Economy, and Dario Franceschini, Culture Minister.


    There is also sharp disagreement, including within the PD, over the wisdom of holding national general elections immediately, as both Renzi and Grillo urge. In addition, the quarrel among the parties over the method of voting endures. The so-called "Italicum" reform voting law was passed in Parliament but does not apply to the Senate. Calling new elections is the responsibility of the President, and the suspicion is that President Sergio Mattarella is resisting pressures for elections. The President of the Republic cannot dismiss Parliament and call for political elections before that law is amended or a new law is approved. 


  • Movimento Cinque Stelle leader Beppe Grillo during the demonstration in Rome last week

    From Roman Pothole to Poisonous Politics

    When Beppe Grillo, leader of the controversial populist party Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S for short), stumbled into a Roman pothole and took a tumble, the chortles of his opponents echoed all over Italy. Grillo fell while walking near the ancient church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, home of the famous stone image called the Bocca della Verità -- appropriately, the Mouth of Truth. He was at the head of a M5S demonstration rallied to reject the major constitutional reform proposed in a government-backed referendum Dec. 4.


    Facebook commentators were implacable. "[Grillo's fall] was a Partito Democratico plot," was one sarcastic insult (the PD is the party of M5S rival Premier Matteo Renzi). "Grillo can't even stand up straight," snarled another. And on and on: "It's [Rome Mayor Virginia] Raggi's revenge." "The mayor should have lain down in the street so he could walk over her." "That tumble was nothing. Just wait till he puts his hand into the Mouth of Truth." "Now we can say that he has touched bottom." "Splendid, terrible karma."


    Grillo suavely turned the incident into a gag. "What -- is there somebody infiltrating us here?" he asked, joking. Truth is, the Roman potholes are no joking matter, and symbolize the rest: indecent public transportation, strikes, pollution, filthy in the streets, neglected outlying ghetto neighborhoods, the closing of traditional downtown shops in favor of trinket trash, down-market tourism clogging the streets. Instead of repairs, orange nets are drawn over danger areas, and left there, so Romans speak of "orange drapes" as a metaphorical cover-up. Rome's problems are even being compared with those afflicting Venice and Florence.


    In its annual report analyzing the quality of life in Italy, the newspaper Italia Oggi, in tandem with La Sapienza University of Rome, reported a serious decline in Rome's status by comparison with other Italian cities. Out of a maximum of 110, during the first five months of Raggi's management, Rome slumped down from 69th to 88th place. Its social welfare rating, which had been 42, fell to 58. Not least, in health care it sank from eighth best in the country to tenth.


    Who is to blame? Behind the sneer and smear headlines about Grillo's tumble is the fact that Virginia Raggi has been in office as mayor since June, without having brought the improvements, including fixing the myriad potholes, which Romans are demanding. For those, Raggi's defense was that negotiating road-mending contracts takes a lot of time. Raggi, however, was elected on Grillo's own M5S ticket and as such automatically became his party's second most prominent and visible figure figure after Grillo himself. Her term in office was meant to showcase Grillo's party and what it would mean for the future of Italy when and if the M5S came to power in the national arena.


    It is only fair to say that Raggi's predecessors as mayor left her a poisoned chalice. "Rome has been sliding downhill for too many years," wrote Corriere della Sera last week. "For too long the city has been left in the hands of incapable administrators who tended to everything but the general interest." Not even the Vatican City is immune; its administrators are under attack for their decision to rent space it owns within a few minutes walk from St. Peter's Basilica for a McDonald's restaurant, a gesture that risks putting the traditional small trattorias there out of business.


    On the plus side a fleet of new buses is due to arrive in Rome, with its 4.3 million inhabitants. Nevertheless, resentment of Raggi is on the rise, including within the M5S. She herself risks legal problems regarding her possible link to Roman waste mismanagement, already under scrutiny by prosecutors. Already the generous wages Raggi had agreed to pay to some of her closest collaborators has come under criticism. An example is Raggi's $110,000 annual contract accorded to her deputy chief of staff, Raffaele Marra, close aide to previous mayor Gianni Alemanno. An architect she appointed turned out to be under examination for the past year for alleged corruption. Another example cited in the Italian press is the $95,000 annual salary she awarded to her chief of staff, reduced after a hostile press campaign to $74,000.

  • State police chief inspector, Maria Rosa Volpe

    President Mattarella Honors 40 Outstanding Italians

    President Sergio Mattarella presented awards Nov. 12 to 40 outstanding Italian citizens for their contributions to their country. Recipients of the awards, granted for "testifying to the values of our Republic," in Mattarella's words, come from all walks of life: teaching, medicine, music, police, sports. The youngest is Francesco Morelli, just 18, who was on vacation at Pescara del Tronto, in the heart of the severe earthquake that struck Central Italy August 24. Plunging into the debris, working with his bare hands, Morelli rescued no fewer than eight people.

    The following are only a few of the other inspiring Italian citizens whose lifework was recognized by President Mattarella. The eldest recipient is Emma Alatri, born in Rome 90 years ago. Alatri had earned a teaching degree in 1944 from a special school newly created for victims of political or racial persecution. Beginning in 1945, she taught at the "Vittorio Polacco" Jewish elementary school in Rome, serving as its headmistress from 1971 to 1979. In her teaching, said the reward, she "transmitted through her testimony the values of liberty and of democracy, and the futility of hate."

    Milanese musician Marco Sciammarella, 46, created an orchestra, two-thirds of whose musicians are handicapped. His award speaks of his "having offered, through music, the opportunity for the disabled to express themselves and to participate together with other disabled." The orchestra performs in Italy as well as abroad. As a result of his initiative, several of the young musicians with disabilities are now giving lessons in music and voice in the pediatric units of various hospitals, and have also held music seminars in two prisons. Speaking in a Rai interview, Sciammarella said, "We want to bring harmony where there is fragility and weakness. Music is not an accessory -- it creates relationships, and making music together changes a life." (To see the interview go to >>>)

    Two award-winners come from the police. Vincenzo Tancredi, 53, superintendent of state police in Turin, was honored for "his daily commitment to defend the most vulnerable citizens, and in particular the elderly." The Turin police department has a special department called "Fasce Debole", whose job is to protect the weakest. Tancredi is also the author of a book called I Non Abbocco (I don't bite).


    Since 1996 State police chief inspector Maria Rosa Volpe, 56, has headed the Agrigento office dealing with minors. Today she is in charge of those who have just arrived onto the island of Lampedusa, where she is known as "Mamma Maria." Her award speaks of her "sensitivity and professionalism during major emergencies, when she greets and helps unaccompanied minors arriving in our country."


    Giuseppe Antoci, 48, of Santo Stefano di Camastra, was honored for his commitment to combat the Sicilian Mafia. Antoci is director of the vast Nebrodi Park area in Eastern Sicily, within the territory encompassing Enna, Messina and Catania. Along with his battles against old-fashioned clandestine butchering and illegal pasturing, he has fought fraudulent claims for EU funding. After enduring countless threats, he barely escaped a Mafia-style attempt on his life last May 17.


    Milena Bethaz, 44, from Aosta, was a former champion of the sport of mountain running. In the summer of 2000 she realized her dream of becoming a guard at the national park Gran Paradiso, but only a few months later was struck by a bolt of lightning which killed the young woman with her. After a long period in a coma, an operation on her brain and no less than 15 years of rehabilitation, she has finally been able to return to her old job, and on July 2015 climbed 4,061 meters to the peak of Mount Gran Paradiso.


    Dr. Fabio Ferro is a Roman andrologist surgeon, now 82. Former professor of newborn medicine at the   , he has served at the Hospital Bambin Gesu for 35 years, but also traveled worldwide to help heal children whose lives are at risk and particularly those with genital malformations. In Tanzania he operated 100 HIV-positive children. He also operated in Mali, Argentina and Gaza.


    Roman citizen Sofia Corradi, now 82 and a retired professor of continuing education at the University Roma Tre, conceived of and inspired the famous Erasmus project, which has seen one million Italian youths to study abroad. Returning to Italy after studying at Columbia University in New York, she said, she was infuriated when no one in Italy would recognize her master's degree. "I promised myself that this would never happen to anyone again," she said in an interview. Until she lobbied for it beginning in 1969, study abroad was simply not recognized by Italy.

  • Pax Romana DAR members with sculptor Peter Rockwell (4th from left) at restored tomb

    Rome's Romantic non-Catholic Cemetery celebrates Third Centennial

    The green and quiet Cimitero Acattolico, or non-Catholic Cemetery, which lies next to the 2,000-year-old Caius Cestius Pyramid, is celebrating it third centennial. The anniversary has been marked with a special exhibition, held in the Goethe Institute in Rome (in the house where Goethe lived), of 43 historical paintings and drawings relating to the cemetery, which was founded in 1716,


    Within the rich Italian cultural heritage this cemetery is unique, but it is also intimately associated with the numerous foreigners who have lived in Rome from the time of the Grand Tour. It occupies a magical corner of Rome's Testaccio quarter, adjacent to the Aurelian Wall. Today's tourists come especially to visit the tombs of the English Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.


    The other non-Catholic foreigners of all countries include many Americans from the Victorian era as well as some Italians, such as the father of Italian communism, Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937). The sole son of the German poet Goethe is buried here as is the celebrated Russian artist Karl Brullov (1799 - 1852), whose monumental painting of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD inspired author Edward Bulwer-Lytton to write The Last Days of Pompeii, which in turn inspired movie versions beginning in the early 1900s.


    Today's cemetery director is Amanda Thursfield, who first arrived in 1979 in Bologna, to study, and later launched the British Council there. " I returned to the United Kingdom for my undergraduate degree, then headed back to Italy in 1979, and the University of Bologna," she says. After 1985, she handled cultural diplomacy and information for the British Council in Rome for a decade.


    "One day, working in Rome, I saw an ad calling for applicants for the post of cemetery director. Never imagining that I would be chosen, I applied anyway and, to my surprise, won. I'd always loved the cemetery," she said in an interview, "from the time I was a student of art history." Taking over cemetery direction, she found the cemetery in critical condition. Because of a lack of funds, the cemetery had been listed in 2006 as one of the 100 heritage sites most at risk in the entire world.


    To save the cemetery, the UN's International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), based in Rome since 1959, provided crucial technical advice on preservation and cemetery management. ICCROM's then director-general Nicholas Stanley-Price, noted expert on conservation worldwide of archaeological sites, worked with the cemetery authorities from that point on.


    Today, after that difficult period the situation is drastically improved, says Thursfield. As cemetery director since 2008, she works with a small staff and numerous volunteers. "Our volunteers come from many different nations, and are young people as well as retirees. I am gratified to know that so many people love it here. Many visitors come just because they want a moment of peace, quiet and beauty -- a place to sit under a tree, unhurried, to contemplate."


    This was not the cemetery's first crisis. When Italian unification was complete in 1870, and Rome became the capital, newcomers were pouring into Rome, and the Testaccio quarter had been singled out to become Rome's industrial sector. The cemetery itself was at risk. "Fortunately, thanks to interventions by foreign diplomats, the cemetery was saved, and a main road that would have crossed right through the oldest section was moved elsewhere," Stanley-Price said in an interview with the magazine Archeostorie. (See: >>>).


    Stanley-Price, today a member of the cemetery's oversight committee, is the author of The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome: Its history, its people and its survival for 300 years, published in English, Italian and German. "But there is still a lot to do," he adds. Cemetery management remains the task of foreign diplomats, with some 15 ambassadors on its board of directors; current board president is Peter McGovern, Canadian ambassador to Italy. Groups of up to 20 visitors can have guided tours of the cemetery at Via Caio Cestio, 6, are available by contacting ornella.forte@cemeteryrome at least 10 days in advance. A donation of E3 per person is requested. (For details, see:


    Among the volunteers are members of Pax Romana, the Italian branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who arranged for the restoration of a 19th Century American woman's tomb. Rome-based culptor Peter Rockwell contributed his work to the restoration of the stone grave marker. On May 27, 2016, the chapter marked the graves and restored the tombstone of DAR members Virginia Taylor Smoot (1865 - 1949) and her daughter Katherine Smoot Tuccimei (1886 - 1978). And on October 14, 2016, the graves of two other members, Annie Sampson Woodruff (1855 - 1933) and her daughter Elizabeth Sampson Woodruff (1885 - 1971) were similarly restored and marked in a ceremony in the cemetery chapel.

  • Church of San Benedetto, Norcia

    After Quake Devastation, Vows to Reconstruct

    ROME -- The devastation of Central Italy's second round of earthquakes is being matched by vows to reconstruct. Even though seismologists fear that more may be on the way, Premier Matteo Renzi has promised to rebuild. Fabio Guttuso, who is in charge of the crisis unit for the Italian Culture Ministry, is also on record saying that, "We will rebuild everything."


    No one is underestimating the damage or the difficulties. As of today some 35,000 people, young and old, have been left homeless and in shock. The death-dealing quake of Aug. 24 damaged some 3,000 monuments, churches and building. Today another 2,000, it is estimated, have either been destroyed or are so gravely damage that they will require serious reconstruction.


    For buildings that have crumbled, this means marking each stone so that it can be put correctly back in place, transporting the stones to a safe area, storing and then restoring them before even beginning to rebuild. None of this is exactly inexpensive, but it is nevertheless planned, with help, it is hoped, from the European Union as well as from private donors. Nevertheless, said Guttuso, "We can be sure that we will rebuild everything. We have no lack of ability, of technical skills and, above all, of will power."


    One of the worse hit towns was Castelluccio, which appears from Italian helicopters to have been entirely destroyed as if in a war. Just how many single buildings and monuments were ravished by the quake at 7:40 am local time on Oct. 30, which touched 6.6 on the Richter scale, is still impossible to know at present because no one can even walk near enough to examine them. 


    Besides the towns like Castelluccio, the quake, moving outward in a circle from Norcia in Umbria,  damaged outlying areas and shook even Rome, 60 miles from the epicenter in Norcia. Seismologists consider the Eternal City especially vulnerable because Rome rests mostly not upon rock, but upon a softer alluvial terrain. Subways, a few roads, the Ponte Mazzini bridge and numerous Roman schools were closed Monday as technicians inspected them for possible damage. In one Roman quarter an elevator -- fortunately with no one inside -- tumbled to the bottom floor.


    The dome of the famous Baroque church of Sant Ivo alla Sapienza, built in the 1640s by Francesco Borromini, suffered lesions Monday, as did the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mure (St. Paul's Outside the Walls), briefly closed because the quake shocks expanded radically a pre-existing crack in the facade. Fortunately inspections of the newly restored Colisseum and the Roman Forums show no damage.  


    What makes restoration all the more urgent is the fact that the damaged towns in Umbria and the Marches are fundamental to the culture of the entire West, historians andanthropologists here are reminding us. Around the year 1000 these towns and mountain sacred refuges in Umbria and the Marches were the places which fostered medieval Christianity. And even as Europe is torn  apart by the likes of Brexit, many others desire to reconnect.


    It is worth noting that quake response time has been significantly better than in the past. In the long and tragic earthquake  history of the 20th century, the response time to similar disasters was slow. This time the present government has responded to the escalating series of disasters as rapidly and as efficaciously as can be expected under terrible circumstances. In the previous devastating earthquake near Naples in 1980 it took weeks before even the final death toll was announced. Then Mafia-type infiltration of reconstruction works meant wasted resources even as thousands of people remained stranded in "temporary" accomodation, which turned out to be long-term housing which for some lasted for the rest of their lives.

    "My personal hope," said Domenico Lanciano in an e-interview with i-italy today, "is that Italy, but also and above all Europe, will take advantage of this natural  calamity to give these ancient small towns full and widespread security -- including anti-seismic and hydro-geological. I hope that this can help to show the importance of these 'borghi', and to fight against their depopulation. The hold the true, original soul of the old world continent." 

    Lanciano, who is from Badolato, heads an association to protect and promote the ancient borghi, especially those in Southern Italy, from extinction.

    For information on how to donate, go to the Italian American Relief Organization

  • Milan. Naviglio Grande

    On the Tourist Front, Milan Outshines Rome

    The daily attacks against Rome's five-month-old administration headed by Mayor Virginia Raggi of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) have not yet subsided, and the potholes in the roads and piles of rubbish on the streets remain. This has evidently turned off many a tourist, not to mention the local residents. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that for the third year in a row Italy's business capital of Milan is attracting more tourists than does Rome itself, and this despite the Vatican's proclamation of a Jubilee Year.


    Some 25 million visitors had been expected for that, but, despite the personal popularity of Pope Francis, for the Roman tourist industry, with its 7,000 hotels, the results have been disappointing, as has the expected income. "It's been a total flop," said one hotel keeper. Even the mass number of visitors from China dropped by 30%, according to the hotel association Federalberghi.


    Among those trying to explain the drop in Roman tourism is Patrick Brown, who wrote some months back that the problem may be less jitters about possible terrorist attacks than the hefty city tax visitors here must pay. As a hotel owner in Rome told him, "About a year ago the government hiked the city tax each visitor has to pay, and as a result we have fewer bookings." >>>


    By contrast, by the end of this year some 7.7 million visitors are expected to have checked into the Lombard capital, even more than came during the Expo year of 2015.The visitor's first stop in Milan is the elegant white cathedral in the very heart of city the Duomo, whose origins date from the 4th century. Construction of the present huge church, which took some six hundred years to complete, began in the 11th century after the earlier church burned. Then there is the La Scala opera theater. The newest attraction, promoted by the Expo, was the cleanup of the area of canals called the Navigli district, today a center for charming trattorias and cafes. The hordes of cars that used to park alongside the most important of the canals, the Naviglio Grande, have been evicted, leaving this a terrific place to walk.


    Other drawing cards are its fashion industry and design. Milan remains a hub for high fashion ready-to-wear with shows on the catwalk twice a year. (For details of women's fashion week, see >>>.

    Milan is also about other styles, like the fashions for the home and office by the big names like Ermenegildo Zegna, Missoni, Fendi and Kartel, introduced at various times of the year at the Salone del Mobile, or Furniture Fair. (For photos, calender of events and text in English, see:


    Milan is further boasting that some 40,000 students from all over the world come to that city's prestigious universities. Among these are the University of Milan, which some rank as the top Italian University; the Luigi Bocconi University with its School of Economics, Management and Law, which offers degree courses in English as well as in Italian, and the private research institute Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.


    On the other hand, Milan has been a manufacturing hub for literally centuries, but, as has happened in the U.S. and the U.K., globalization is damaging the manufacturing industry throughout all of Italy. The bad news there is that its manufacturing industry orders declined by 11.8% this year over last. Although the extractive materials sector slumped severely, the decline in pharmaceuticals and textile-apparels was limited to under 5%. The same problems are visible in Lazio, the region around Rome, where its manufacturing sector accounted for 9% of the regional GDP, but after 2008 -- and not only because of that economic crisis -- the figure sagged to today's 6%.


    But there are also bright spots. In August of 2016 the nation's overall industrial production actually rose by 1.7% over the previous month, for a total annual hike of 4.1%, according to the national statistics-gathering agency, ISTAT, reporting last month. Leading the pack were plants turning out buses, trucks, and especially automobiles (up 19% over the previous year). Production of metal products rose by 13.6% and machine tools, by almost 12%.

  • Antico Forno Roscioli

    Saving a Unique Heritage: Not only Museums

    In Italy's historic cities, traditional shopkeepers and craftsmen are struggling to preserve the nation's heritage from the invasion of what they call "trash stores" selling fast food, alcohol and souvenir trinkets, from key chains to midget Pinocchios, fridge magnets and tacky T-shirts. After taking on board that 260 such commercial outlets were already functioning in historic downtown Florence last year, Mayor Dario Nardella launched Italy's first successful campaign to block those wannabe stores which fail to meet newly minted city standards.


    Mayor Nardella's objective was to halt the further reduction of Florence's traditional workshops for art restoration and craft shops making and selling fine ceramics, fabrics, embroideries, hand-made leather goods and foodstuffs. The flood, especially of mini-markets open around the clock, has been on the rise for years even though, said Nardella, some of their activities are of dubious legality because they sell alcohol to underage youths and make underpaid employees work overly long hours.


    "We simply cannot tolerate one of these opening every month," Nardella told L'Espresso magazine last year. "Instead of selling bread or fruit or vegetables, many of these sell almost exclusively alcoholic beverages that risk the health of our young people. We simply had to prohibit the transformation of our downtown neighborhoods of traditional commerce and historical shops into that kind of store."


    As a result of his year-long campaign, this June Florence became the first city in Italy to succeed in imposing such restrictions as the prohibition of selling takeout alcoholic beverages between the hours of 9 pm and 6 am. The new law also allows the city fathers to intervene for the first time when and if a proposed store would violate urban building codes. "Enough of the little stores that sell rubbish," Nardella exulted. "We are taking back our historic centers. Now mayors everywhere in Italy can finally promote their historic botteghe and at the same time prohibit the kind of commercial acitivities that are incompatible with our cultural heritage."


    Florence also called upon the national government to approve a measure that allows other cities to follow its example. Among the first to respond is Rome, where Giulio Anticoli called this week upon the city fathers to create a "red zone against the trash shops." Anticoli is president of the new association, Roma produttiva (Productive Rome), which already has 350 members representing individual historic craft shops.


    "Our association represents excellence in commerce and craftsmanship," said Anticoli. "We are the ones that have managed to survive despite soaring rents and the invasion of hundreds of cheap sales points within the historic downtown area of Rome. Just as in Florence, we are asking that in the historic center the UNESCO convention that establishes that the center of Rome is a heritage of mankind, and recognizes that the commerical and craft tradition is a cultural and immaterial heritage that warrants preservation."


    Illustrating the problem is the closing of the historic, ivy festooned Cafè della Pace, just off the Piazza Navona. This cafe, officially the Antico Caffè Della Pace, was opened in 1891, and was run by the same Serafini family for more than 50 years, but recently lost a long legal battle against eviction. The cafe was a longtime favorite of the late director Federico Fellini, of the poet Giuseppe Ungheretti and of the American beat poet Gregory Corso, who is buried in the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome. Other customers were Sophia Loren, Madonna and Woody Allen, who shot a film scene there.


    But the building owners, the Pontifical Teutonic Institute of Santa Maria dell'Anima, reportedly demanded the eviction, despite the Serfani family's offer to pay more rent. The space is expected to be sold for conversion into a hotel, whose new owners would restore the entire building. A petition circulated to block the eviction was signed by 50,000. Such was the outcry that the then Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was drawn into the fight to protect the cafe in February 2014. That battle was lost, even though visitors still call the cafe "a gem in a romantic part of Rome, our favorite cafe, unique, classic and wonderful."

  • Porta Maggiore

    From Fountains to Ancient Walls, Roman Monuments at Risk

    Even as Rome's political managers sink ever deeper into quarrels, its monuments are crying out for help. In his report to the city's Cultural Commission Oct. 5, the capital's heritage superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce presented a list of 10 monuments in dire need of immediate restoration, at a cost estimated at over $33 million. "We actually risk losing these sites [in Rome] unless we take speedy action," he warned. Archaeologist Presicce, formerly professor at the Universities of Urbino and Palermo, has long experience in the field, including on sites at Cyrene in Libya and Selinunte in Sicily.

    "The needs are immense," Presicce told the Cultural Commission. "Unfortunately since 2014 our office does not have [city] funds to pay for ordinary maintenance. What we are spending now is income generated from concessions and from the sale of image rights. But today the needs are immense because the problems have accumulated over time." For many years the city paid for contracts for ordinary maintenance, which ran to around $10 million annually, he explained, but in 2014 the city slashed that budget down to less than $775,000 for maintenance of monuments in downtown historic Rome and to under $600,000 for outlying districts, or by almost nine-tenths.

    Among the ten sites Presicce listed as requiring urgent intervention are two vast gardens, the Villa Sciarra and Villa Pamphili on the Janiculum Hill, where "the situation is dramatic." Another is the Gianicolensi walls, built in 1643 by Pope Urban VIII on the west side of that same Janiculum Hill. Then there is Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitoline Hill, whose cornice and the bell tower are endangered; its bell dates from the early 19th century, and atop the tower is an ancient Roman statue of the seated goddess Minerva. A chunk of cornice already tumbled down years ago.

    Yet another is the double gate Porta Maggiore, which passes through the Aurelian Wall amd dates from the Third century. Running through it originally were two ancient roads, the Via Praenestina and Labicana (today's Via Casilina) while today it suffers from pollution of vast numbers of automobiles which pass alongside it. Monuments on the Colle Oppio, or Oppian Hill, where Nero had his Golden House, and the Colle Celio, another of the famed Seven Hills of Rome, also require attention.

    The most ambitious restoration projects Presicce identified are the Aracoeli Piazza fountain on the Capitoline Hill, whose maintenence is estimated to cost $330,000 and require a year of work. Restoration of the fantastic fountain of the Cavalli Marini, or seahorses, in the Villa Borghese will cost about the same. Repairs to the Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona will run approximately $255,000.

    Not all the endangered monuments are as well known as those fountains. Also in need of attention is the large, round 2d century AD Roman cistern at 142 Via Cristoforo Colombo, discovered only in 1938 while that main road was being built. "Although some of the monuments are little known, they are witnesses to history and to the stratifications of time. They represent the summation of the cultural identity of this city, and hence of the whole nation -- indeed, I'd go so far as to say that it is an identity shared by many European countries and perhaps the whole world," Presicce said in an interview with the Press Agency Dire.