Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Life & People

    Monica Lewinsky or Noemi Letizia? Flings and Politics in Italy

     Le Divorce—you know whose—is the only game in town, but what is it all about? Versions differ. Some sniff and say, “It is private business, and no one else’s.” Others, like a clergyman of some rank, brush it off with, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Some of the many admirers of Premier Berlusconi nod tolerantly, saying, “You know he’s exuberant, a live wire.” Berlusconi himself puts the fuss down to “envy” and those who would make political hay of his family affairs, which is to say of his extra-familiar affairs. But none of this suffices, and the ante is being raised.

    For those who have managed to dodge the question, the Premier unexpectedly showed up at a party given for Noemi Letizia, a lissome lass in Naples, on the day she passed from seventeen to eighteen. Referring to the Premier as “Papi” (Daddy), Noemi boasted that he gave her a gift of a diamond-studded gold necklace, valued at around $7,500, according to press reports; photos of the necklace can be seen on Internet sites.
    Odd, said the Premier’s now estranged wife, since he never bothered to attend his own children’s birthday parties. In an open letter published in the Italian press, and presumably checked first by her lawyer, Ms. Veronica Lario Berlusconi also used two particularly serious fighting words: “minors” in the plural and “health,” as in concern for the Premier. This letter was the opening sally for proceedings to begin le Divorce.
    A few days later a seasoned former magistrate, Giuseppe D’Avanzo, published in La Repubblica daily a list of ten questions he thinks we journalists should ask Mr. Berlusconi. Already under siege by what his brother Paolo's daily Il Giornale calls the Communist press, Mr. Berlusconi had explained that he attended the fateful birthday party as a friend of the girl’s father, a former chauffeur to the late Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi. When this role was disproven, the father was then described to the public as an habitué of the Craxi circle in Rome. This role too dissolved. So D’Avanzo’s legalistic mind excogitated the questions to be put to the Premier.
    Of these, two appear particularly important:
    --"Veronica Lario said that you 'frequent minors.' Are there other [minors] whom you meet with and are raising?" (he has raised me, the girl told an Italian journalist).
    --"Your wife said that you are not well [non sta bene] and need help. What is your health condition?"
    Were I in D’Avanzo’s shoes this reporter would have added, “especially since you have, on several public occasions, briefly lost consciousness.”
    D'Avanzo's list is being published in the newspaper daily, but it hardly matters: no one is answering the questions. However, the affair remains of particular interest because witnesses (the photographer and his assistant, who took slightly sexy photos of the 15-year-old girl, in the presence of her mother, for an album to submit for showgirl TV slot), have confirmed Noemi’s account of enjoying a special relationship with the Premier. Asked what she foresees for her future, Noemi ingenuously told the Neapolitan journalist that she would like to be, with Berlusconi’s help, either a showgirl or a Member of Parliament.
    The London Times offered another intriguing notion—that the real connection may be more subtle, dating back years, and was between the girl’s mother, a failed showgirl, and the Premier. Such a connection for now is unproven, but meanwhile Richard Owen, the Times correspondent, has been pilloried by Il Giornale, ostensibly over a possible mistranslation in his account. With the personalized attacks on the respectable Owen the rightist press is now attacking all foreign correspondents. The reason includes but goes beyond the present case, for what the Italian press frequently hesitates to publish, the more outspoken foreign press does--and then the Italian media pick up the report, which keeps them off the hook. Hence the salvos against the foreign press in toto this week.
    For the moment most ordinary Italians, by which I mean the non-newspaper readers, are still brushing all of this off as media run amok—just as they are still brushing off the gravity of the financial crisis. They see Ms. Lario Berlusconi as just one more desperate housewife.


    Aside from a certain entertainment value for audiences, however, a number of serious issues are involved. The first is to what extent it matters to the Italian voting public, which includes Catholic faithful and their clergymen, if indeed minors were involved, as Ms. Berlusconi has said publicly, and if her husband, as Premier, is dodging the truth in the same way President Clinton dodged the truth about his relations with Monica Lewinsky. Does the Italian voter care, or is Italy today so lulled by a controlled pacifier called TV that it scarcely takes notice? So it would appear, for in this Catholic country the Premier's popularity has sagged by a mere 3% as a result of what elsewhere would be considered a grave and alarming scandal.
    Secondly, as an economist interviewed by RAI TG3 pointed out, Italy, like the U.S., has awarded its top managers giant salaries even as the purchasing power of the Italian middle and working classes is far below what it was in the Seventies. The top one percent is richer than ever, but everyone else is de facto poorer because of this widened gap.
    The tolerance therefore of little Noemi’s showgirl aspirations, pinned on a recommendation from the Power of Powers, would in this view reflect a generalized sense of helplessness, exemplified by a massive turn-out in Turin this week by hopefuls seeking a slot in a reality show, the only way to get ahead. The reality show has become reality, and the Noemi “dream” (to use the words of her father) is as much a sign of the times as is the public debt, now 120% of GNP.
    The third issue is how free of political control is the Italian press. Outside observers of press freedoms have recently downgraded Italy, for the first time described as having a semi-free press. Although some journalists have shown notable independence in reporting this affair, the extent of subservience still remains to be seen, in what is a tough test. Elsewhere journalists would be digging hard to get at the bottom of this story, and some here have, but very few.


  • Italy’s Most Powerful Woman

    ROME – Female DJ’s in Roman disco dance spots in the wee hours Sunday. A women’s military unit standing guard all day at the Quirinal Palace. Free lessons in self-defense for women in Villa Ada park. The annual celebration La Giornata delle Donne March 8, which began in the Seventies with gifts of mimosa sprigs and dancing in Campo de’ Fiori beneath the severe gaze of Giordano Bruno, is still marked by folklore and symbolism.

    Down at Ermete’s café I asked the women gossiping around a table how they would describe women’s condition in Italy today. The answer came quickly, in a chorus: “Tragic.”   

    But of course this is not true, and if one judges a society by its heroic figures, the picture that emerges show a degree of an equality, including of frustration, unheard of in the Seventies. As a reporter I personally attended the first ever meeting in Rome of the Movimento per la Liberazione delle Donne (MLD). At the end of the meeting the male politician who was chaperoning the meeting, held at the headquarters of the Radical party on Via di Torre Argentina, insisted on seeing my notebook so that I would not publish anything untoward in the New York Times. For me, his insistence (I refused) said it all. Nothing similar could happen these days.

    So what does happen? Although several attractively youthful and well dressed women hold cabinet slots today, they and their achievements are dwarfed by Emma Marcegaglia, 44-year-old daughter of a steel tycoon and for the past year head of the powerful and prestigious Confindustria, Italy’s National Association of Manufacturers. Marcegaglia recently called upon the government of Silvio Berlusconi to draft a credit plan to help out the small- and medium-sized industries which are, as is universally recognized, the backbone of Italian commerce. She explained her request on grounds of a serious worldwide recession which is affecting Italy. She argued for more investments in infrastructure as well as eased credit on grounds that  statistics show a reduced GDP, jobs being lost, and consumer spending dropping in Italy as elsewhere.

    “Enough of the crows out there,” snarled the Minister for Economic Development Claudio Scajola. “The research centers”—and he specified the OCSE and FMI—“like to spread pessimism.” Crows, as everyone here knows, are birds of doom and gloom.

    She wasn’t forgetting the slight. “I don’t think I’m a crow,” she retorted. “I’m one of the few who still thinks that at the end of 2009 we’ll see a bit of improvement in our country.” It’s the government that must do more, she added.

    The government’s official line has been media directed—to go on singing in the rain (“making reassurances rather than an action plan,” as one disgruntled reader put it in a letter to a newspaper). Nevertheless, this past week government spokesmen were obliged to admit that she was right—and used the same gloomy, doomy figures she had. Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti admitted that 2009 is looking to be “a terrible year,” with a GDP down 2.6% over last year, and public debt soaring to 110% of GDP, as the EU Commission had already predicted. “It’s the mother of all crises,” Massimo Giannini wrote Friday in La Repubblica. The title of his article: “The Crow’s Tale.”

    My own prediction: government ministers come and go. Marcegaglia is here to stay, Italy’s most powerful woman.


  • Facts & Stories

    Warrior Archaeologists on the March

    ROME – At a crowded press conference in Rome Friday over one hundred angry archaeologists met to protest a government campaign denigrating popular sites like the Roman Fora, the Palatine Hill, Ostia Antica and Pompeii as dirty, dangerous and degraded. In addition, some opponents of the government plan are threatening symbolic sit-in’s that in theory could interrupt tourist visits to the most popular archaeological sites.

    For months the media message about an archaeological emergency has been hammered away by the foreign as well as the local press (the New York Times, for one, picked up the story). Given the declared emergency, more recently Culture Minister Sandro Bondi announced that the government will appoint a special commissioner cum inspector and, with him, a new oversight committee, bypassing the present bureaucratic structure.  

    Given the extent of the proclaimed archaeological emergency, Bondi’s choice has fallen on the national director of Italy’s Civil Protection department, Guido Bertolaso, to guarantee the visitors’ pleasant and safe visits to the sites. Bertolaso is a former medical doctor whose normal responsibilities include dealing with earthquakes, forest fires and the still unresolved Naples rubbish emergency. Because Civil Protection falls under the bureaucratic bailiwick of the Council of Ministers, Bertolaso answers directly to Premier Silvio Berlusconi. If and when the proposals are formalized, Bertolaso would be flanked in Rome by a local Roman politician, Marco Corsini, who is city commissioner for urban affairs.


    The reorganization would effectively whisk the country’s primary archaeological sites from control by their present directorates. Among the protesters were museum directors, professors, politicians, directors of cultural associations (Italia Nostra was one), the former editor-in-chief of Il Messagggero daily and a number of archaeocrats willing to risk their jobs to denounce what they called a manipulated “fictitious creation of an emergency.”

    This is far more than a picturesque battle between soft-headed intellectuals and pointy-penciled politicoes. Parliamentarian Walter Tocci complained that when a hearing was to be held on the question, the government did not bother to show up. “There is no justification for appointing a special commissioner,” Tocci said. “There is no situation that would call for civil protection authorities to intervene. What’s going on is that they simply want to privatize the archaeological parks.”

    Indeed, looming in the background is privatization of archaeological sites and their exploitation, which some observers see as the way forward and others, as heretical and in outright conflict with the Italian constitution; indeed plans are underway to take the issue to Italy’s high court, the Corte Costituzionale. In the worst possible case the reorgnization is the thin end of the wedge and could lead, in park areas, to construction projects, hotels, swimming pools, night clubs, and Disney-style theme parks. “The plan is in fact part of the spoils system,” one irate archaeologist claimed.

    On the other hand, the 72-year-old archaeologist Andrea Carandini, whom Bondi has already named to head the future oversight committee with Bertolaso and Corsini, is an ardent supporter of the emergency measures. Carandini says that climate change has made the Palatine Hill “fragile” and hence in need of swift emergency action which only the proposed joint city-state can guarantee. “Ancient Rome is a sinking ship,” Carandini told an Italian journalist, adding that the evidence is in the decline in tourist visits to the Roman Forum.

    The protesters at the assembly were not buying Carandini’s nor Bondi’s arguments. For one thing, if tourism is down in the Roman Forum, it has risen drastically at Ostia Antica despite a general decline in tourism in Rome as in all Italy due in part to complex reasons, beginnning with the worldwide economic crisis. In addition, as one of the speakers Friday said, “The proposal risks de facto privatization.” Others spoke of the “pseudo-reforms” of recent years and the government’s hacking away of the Culture Ministry’s budget—and then denouncing the bureaucrats for not doing enough to maintain the sites.

    Behind the scenes the scuttlebutt is that Minister Bondi will shortly leave the Culture Ministry to return to his old job of promoting the political party created by Berlusconi, Forza Italia.  A possible successor: rightist Senator Gaetano Quagliarello, recently in the news for his protest that Eluana Englaro, the woman in a coma for seventeen years, was “killed” by the doctors who let her die earlier this month.


    To learn more on both sides of this story, see the Carandini interview and an article on the protest by Edoardo Sassi, Corriere della Sera, Feb. 21, 2009.

    At readers can sign a petition in English being circulated against the nomination of a “special inspector” for the Archaeological Sueprintendencies of Rome and Ostia.




  • Op-Eds

    The Language of Hatred

    ROME – It was almost dawn last Sunday when the three youths saw the dark-skinned homeless man sleeping on a bench by the train station at Nettuno, seaside resort town in an area south of Rome noted for decades for its Fascist gangs. The man, whose name is Navtej Singh Sidu, 35, is a Sikh from India who had been in Italy for five years. Until that weekend he had done odd jobs on and off, but then he was fired. For a time he received hospitality in a shelter, but when he lost his bed there for reasons to be ascertained, he hopped a train from the Termini Station in Rome to Nettuno to sleep rough.

    The two men in their twenties (one married and a father) plus a hanger-on of sixteen had been drinking and reportedly have admitted also taking drugs. The presence of the clochard on the bench was irritating, and they were bored. They started insulting him; he answered back. They warned him that things would not end with just words. Off they went, returning with a bottle of gasoline, which they poured on the rags covering his legs and ankles. Then they set fire to him and watched the flames. It was something to do when the pubs and discos were shut down.
    Boasting, one sent an SMS from his cell phone: “Gli amo fatto la festa.” We’ve given him a lesson.
    The flames were noticed, and Singh was rushed to the intensive care unit at Sant’Eugenio hospital in Rome, where, with 40% of his body covered with burns, he has a 40% chance to survive. But he is alive, and when Carabinieri paramilitary police arrived with photos of suspects, he remembered the three from the dispute before they turned him into a human torch. The older two, ages 24 and 29, are in prison awaiting trial; the 16-year-old tough, whose name is Samuel, is in the Italian equivalent of a borstal because he is under-age.
    What further distressed most people, including an outraged Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, was that the three gave as alibis that they had meant to put out the flames before the man was so badly hurt, and anyway they were drunk and had been using drugs—just a frat-boy sort of prank gone wrong, in short, and hence an accident more or less, “to see how long it would take for him to burn,” to quote a sub-head in La Repubblica Tuesday.
    This is the second recent instance of a gang setting fire to a homeless person, and TV commentators and men and women on the street, in the cafes and in my gym are soul-seeking explanations. Some are blaming Italian society: they attribute this latest instance to the sort of violence which the single individuals would shun, but which becomes acceptable to a group, to a lack of job prospects; a decline in the authority of the Italian family, school, and church; and a rise in hard drinking among Italian youngsters combined with low-priced drugs. Many speak of “la cultura dello sballo,” a term explained to me in succinct English by the men reading the newspapers at Ermete’s coffee bar in my piazza: “Stoned: sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
    A home-spun explanation was offered by the mother of the 16-year-old, Samuel. Interviewed by RAI TV Channel 2, she admitted that he was born when she was only seventeen, that he is always rebellious, and that to try to keep him in check his Tunisian stepfather beats him regularly.
    To what extent is this incident a sign of worsening times? The newly released annual report of the prestigious social research institute Eurispes shows that the number of homicides in Italy actually continues to decline, with Italy ranking below Turkey, France, Great Britain and Germany. After a high of 1,901 murders in 1991, last year Italy marked “an historical low” of just 512, again according to Eurispes.
    For juvenile offenses, the record shows 39,000 in 2006 (the most recent figures available), well below the 46,000 in 1996. And although anti-immigrant feeling is high, about 71% of the juvenile offenses were committed by Italians, not foreigners. More occurred in the North, 44%, than in the Center,18%; the South, 23%, or the Islands, 15%.
    If, despite incidents like Sunday’s, Italy is not necessarily an increasingly violent nation, a nasty undercurrent of racism and intolerance exists nevertheless. It shows in the torching of Roma camps, in a Milan shopkeeper’s allegedly mortal bludgeoning of a Burkina Faso immigrant, in a teenage gang’s beating of a Chinese immigrant w

    ho was waiting for a bus in Rome, and other plainly racial incidents. The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg has warned Italy  of the risk of fueling xenophobia and racism in the country.
    To quote ANSA agency, “The government has rebutted such criticism and said in January that it would formally complain about Hammarberg’s comments, which ‘gravely offended the feelings of Italians’ and 'took an unacceptable tone against a European country whose history and traditions of democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights cannot be called into question.”
    However, for Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, the underlying cause of Sunday morning’s crime is racism. Calling for teachers and others in authority to combat racism, he said, “We are facing horrifying episodes that at this point must not be considered isolated incidents but alarming symptoms of a spreading trend.”
    Echoing Napolitano’s words, Chamber of Deputies President Gianfranco Fini issued a statement pointing out the contributions to the economy made by immigrants, and, “We cannot permit in any way tolerance of even veiled forms of discrimination.”
    And yet the harsh new tone persists, even in the language, as when a Roman matron insisted to me that rapists should be publicly “lynched” rather than protected from an angry mob by the police. In politics “bonism” (do-good or bleeding-heart), as in an excess of tolerance, has become a dirty word. When a Radical party MP visited the prison Monday after reports came that the older two had been beaten up, she was attacked for her alleged excess of “bonism.” She had to defend herself by explaining that, however horrendous the crimes of the two men, the law is to be respected, including inside prisons.

  • Facts & Stories

    Happy Birthday, Divo

    Rome - On January 14 Giulio Andreotti celebrates his ninetieth birthday, which is another way of saying he begins his tenth decade of grandeur, Italian style. This grandson of a hatter, born in 1919 in the town of Segni, near Rome, is the closest Italy has to a Mazarin; and indeed, both Louis XIV’s chief minister Jules Mazarin, aka Giulio Raimondo Mazarino of Pescina in the Abruzzo, attended the same Collegio Romano Latin high school in Rome.

    Despite his age Andreotti is still “il Divo” in reality, even more than in last year’s movie starring Toni Servillo. During the past year hardly an important political event has taken place where Andreotti has not been present, curving forward over the speakers’ table, head tucked between his shoulders, until his apparent somnolence is contradicted by lightning-quick glances and whiplash remarks.

    Famous for his wit, Andreotti is even better known for his reticence. This makes it all the more important that, most notably, Andreotti unbuttoned himself for Massimo Franco, author and noted political correspondent for the Corriere della Sera.  In writing Andreotti, La vita di un uomo politico, la storia di un’epoca (Mondadori, 2008, 371 pp.) Franco enjoyed an extraordinary degree of access to Andreotti, who justified this with customary irony, saying, “I don’t much like biographies of people who are still living. But I understand that some people take interest in my life. On reflection, in a certain sense I’m a survivor of myself.” Franco will be speaking in New York Friday, Jan. 23, 6 pm, at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, New York University, to present the English translation of his acclaimed earlier book,  Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States--Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict, translated by Roland Flamini (Doubleday, 2009).

    In another breach in Andreotti’s famous wall of privacy, last week it was announced that after two months of work the transfer of his immense private archives, all 1,800 linear feet of them, is complete. What satirist Beppe Grillo has dubbed “the Black Box” are now being catalogued in a well protected area of the Luigi Sturzo Institute, where consultation of all but his most personal documents will eventually be possible. Among other things, Andreotti’s files cover the periods of Fascism, the rebirth of Christian Democratic Italy, the changes in the Church under Pope John XXIII, the drama of Aldo Moro’s kidnap and murder and the “years of lead.” They also include 80 filing boxes on relations with the U.S.A. and two hundred on the Vatican, according to Italian press reports.

    Massimo Franco admits being impressed by the portrait of Andreotti painted by the Futurist maestro Giorgio De Chirico in the late 1950’s, for it reveals yet another closely guarded secret, Andreotti’s neck. “The portrait shows him looking younger by half a century, wearing a white shirt with the top buttons open and a casual jacket, from which a long, candid and surprising Andreotti neck emerges,” writes Franco. “The man painted by De Chirico almost seems a fake—he doesn’t correspond with the myth.” In fact, as Andreotti confided, during the five sittings for the portrait, the politician would tend to doze off; hence, perhaps, the sole picture of the Divo when he is truly off stage.

    The heroic leader of early Italian Christian Democracy Alcide De Gasperi once called Andreotti “an old youth.” A notorious insomniac, Andreotti slept reportedly only a few hours every night, which meant that he could and did read an immense amount. He was also omnipresent; this reporter recalls seeing him again and again in the early Sixties at political events one would have considered unimportant save for his presence.

    This omnipresence meant that it was generally assumed that he was somehow involved, no matter what happened, no matter where. Once while Andreotti was on an official mission in sub-Sahara Africa, where phone lines had been cut for days after a mining disaster, a consular official finally managed to speak with him and tell him of the latest, whopping political scandalback home in Rome. 

    “You watch,” Andreotti told his companion, “they’ll be saying that I’m managing the scandal from here.” And in fact “they,” meaning the Italian politicians and their press sympathizers, said just that.

    Does he have regrets? In a pre-birthday interview with the Vatican official daily Osservatore Romano Andreotti says he regrets not having studied foreign languages. He also spoke of De Gasperi, for whom, “Borders were not walls, on the contrary.” For Andreotti, De Gasperi “did much to foster a certain international awareness…his political experience was first in Innsbruck and then in Vienna—in a school of pluralism, with the habit of knowing another culture and its language.”

  • Op-Eds

    Bright Moments of a Difficult Year

    Some of us think this is a year best forgotten. But let us consider the bright moments. In Viterbo one evening, as we were headed to a concert, we saw a group of well-dressed young people seated at a table. They were collecting fingerprints because Roma (Gypsy) children were being fingerprinted by order of the Italian state. As we pressed our fingers onto the pages, and signed our names and addressed and gave our ID card numbers, we took great pride in the young people, who took their time and intelligence and energy to react in a peaceful, serious way.

    Another bright light was the show of courage of the Prefect of Rome Carlo Mosca, who refused to fingerprint Roma children, but instead sent Red Cross teams into the Roma “camps” to see which ones were inoculated against smallpox and mumps and polio (half were not). Oh, yes—I forgot to say that for his pains he has been removed from his post. Insubordination does not pay.

    Last month Isabella Clough Marinara, Ph.D., addressed a conference on racism, in which she described the situation of the Roma today in Rome. From her paper:

    “Under the last centre-left government and now under the right, the drive to shut down unauthorized camps and deport undocumented foreign Roma has resulted in large numbers now keeping constantly on the move in the hope of evading the police.

    “For many, deportation would mean the return to countries, such as Romania and Slovakia, where anti-Roma discrimination and violence are common. Thousands of other foreign Roma have been in Italy for decades or were born here but have suffered systematic obstacles to obtaining Italian citizenship. Most of those who escaped ethnic cleansing during the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo crisis have not been recognized as refugees.

    “They confirm that Hannah Arendt’s analysis remains true today: those who lose citizenship rights very quickly lose their supposedly inalienable human rights. Foreign Roma in Italy have again taken on the role they had in the Renaissance, exiles who are de facto unprotected by the authorities of any state. However, the Roma question cannot be reduced only to one of citizenship status, as many politicians claim. There is certainly a racializing element in the special policies which target them. In fact, Italian Roma and Sinti are also subject to fingerprinting and police controls which are not applied to other Italians. This amounts to ethnic profiling.”


    And so, lest we forget the significance of the season, let me introduce the Christmas beggar child Mary. A cocky six year old, tricked out in a cheap Santa suit, Maria  (her real name) is a Roma from Romania. She told me that she has no plans to attend school. Still, all alone, playing skillfully to the shoppers in the bustling outdoor market at the Campo de’ Fiori, she collected coins and then came into the Magnolia Café and clambered up onto a stool to give herself a treat with a bit of her earnings. She has no home, she is being exploited, but she has a bright smile and eyes like the stars of Bethlehem.

    Merry Christmas to the editors and readers of i-italy, and a very happy new year.


  • Facts & Stories

    The Church, the State, and Italy's Budget

    Desperate to save money, in a Senate debate over the 2009 budget last Friday the Italian government revealed plans to slash its E 537 million ($692 million) annual subsidy to the country’s 13,000 private schools, of which roughly half are Catholic with over half a million students—especially in elementary schools—and 41,000 teachers. The planned cut was to be of E 134 million ($172.6 million) distributed over the coming three years..

    During the past three years about one-third of the subsidy had already been eliminated.

    The Church reaction was uncommonly swift. That same morning Monsignor Bruno Stenco, who heads the Italian bishops conference (CEI) schools sector, said that already state subsidies pay for less than half their teachers, and warned that, should these new cuts go through, “the federations of Catholic schools will mobilize countrywide.” The possibility that the clergy would circulate petitions was also aired.

    Pope Benedict XVI moved with similar rapidity; speaking Friday the pontiff pointedly urged “the adoption of measures in aid of parents in their inalienable right to educate their children according to their own ethical and religious convictions.”

    No less swiftly, budget hatchet man Giulio Tremonti, 61, who is Minister of the Economy and Finance, backed down, announcing that an amendment to the schools budget would restore some E. 120 million ($155 million). Supposedly, the amendment had been written before the loud Catholic protest, but this did little to silence Government critics.

    “When the Vatican whistles, Tremonti comes running,” sneered Paolo Ferrero, 48, a former cabinet minister under Romano Prodi and head of Rifondazione Comunista.

    Watching on the sidelines were irate public school and university students and teachers, fresh from huge piazza demonstrations all over Italy, themselves battling (and losing) similarly radical cuts in the budgets for public schools, from elementary up to and including university research institutes.    

    In an interview with the daily La Repubblica, Rome University Physics Professor Carlo Bernardini complained that, while Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini will chat with students on Youtube, she has been deaf to their requests for a real discussion even as she “opens a dialogue with the bishops.”

    The students themselves seem to be floundering, frustrated at their failure to score their own points, and with few organizational skills. (On this, Italian readers see Sabina Guzzanti’s blog report from Senigallia) At a Rome dinner party last week an Italian professor was shouting at a graduate student over what is to be done.

    It is plain that the government headed by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, already looking ahead to his campaign to become Italian President to succeed Giorgio Napolitano, has no interest in clashing with the Vatican, no matter how bleak the Italian economy and the Government’s budget loom.

    In addition, 300,000 Italian children attend Catholic elementary schools, the Church’s strongest educational card in Italy. Public school facilities, whose income is being hacked away by Tremonti, could simply not handle the arrival of hundreds of thousands of young children whose parents could not afford to pay higher school fees for religious school. 

    Yet the situation is not altogether clear, for commentators here say that the details of the restoration of the budget cuts have been left vague, and that whether it will go to private or to public schools is not yet clear.

    What is clear is that, when the reaction against Berlusconi Government measures arrives with sufficient authority, the Government reacts. In the same way, when Culture Minister Sandro Bondi appointed businessman Mario Resca to head a new development office that would oversee all Italian public museums, historic buildings, libraries and archaeological sites, some 6,000 worldwide museum directors and prestigious art historians signed an on-line petitition. Spearheading the protest was University of Pisa archaeologist Salvatore Settis, who is chairman of an advisory council for the Culture Ministry. Resca’s appointment, mocked as “cultural mcNuggets” because he had headed McDonalds Italia for twelve years, is certain to go through at this point, but his purview appears significantly reduced, and he will have little authority over museums and their programs of loans, a sensitive issue.




  • Panoramic Rome, before and after Google

     It is thrilling news that University of Virginia’s art historian Bernard Frischer’s long-standing project to create a virtual ancient Rome is now reality, thanks to Google Earth. “It’s another step toward creating a virtual time machine,” Frischer said, “a continuation of five centuries of research by scholars, architects and artists since the Renaissance.”


    Frischer had been working for years on the project with Past Perfect Productions, when he was approached by Google administrators. Viewers not only see the topography of ancient Rome, but can tour the inside of some of the buildings as well. It is a first and a genuine accomplishment. 
    But what about before Google? In the 18th and 19th centuries creating panoramic views of Rome—some of them a 360 degree circuit on pasted sheets up to 30 feet long—was a vogue. Buildings were constructed specifically so that viewers could see the amazingly detailed circular views by Italian and foreign artists like Pierre Prévost and Ludovico Caracciolo, and fabulous cityscapes like those of John Newbolt, Thomas Shew, Carl Ferdinand Sprosse and Ippiolito Caffi.
    A few of these specially built viewing houses exist in North Europe, but all have been lost in Italy. Some of the pictures survive, however, and in a sophisticated and unusual exhibition, Rome’s history museum in Palazzo Braschi has put on view, through April 19, thirty-five of these extremely rare works in steelpoint, engravure, acquatint and oils.

    Italian history buffs will be interested in the two views from the Janiculum showing the French siege of Rome in 1849, which brought about the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic.

  • Op-Eds

    US Elections: “But Why Not an Obama Here in Italy?”

    ROME – Italians cringed this evening as news reports arrived from Moscow, where Premier Silvio Berlusconi said in a press conference today that the U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is “handsome, youthful and also suntanned.” When reporters gasped, he reportedly said, “But it’s totally nice [una carineria assoluta], a big compliment.” 


    Already Berlusconi had volunteered, presumably half in jest, that as an older man, he was ready and willing to give helpful hints to Obama.


    The compliments are more comprehensible in consideration of the fire storm unleashed by Senator Maurizio Gasparri of Berlusconi’s own Partito della Liberta‘ after Gasparri told a reporter on Rai’s GR 3 radio at 8:45 yesterday morning, “many questions weigh upon” Obama’s position on the efforts to combat international terrorism, “the real testing ground for Obama.” The implication was that Obama was somehow soft on terrorism, and a swift reaction came from Anna Finocchiaro, leader in the Senate of the Partito Democratico (PD) group. “People do grasp that these are words that risk undermining relations between Italy and its foremost ally, and that the government, with such affirmations, puts itself into a very serious situation.”


    Invited to back down, Gasparri said that he was simply referring press reports. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League contradicted Gasparri flatly, saying that both Senators McCain and Obama had, in their campaigns, guaranteed “total continuity in the struggle against international terrorism.”


    Center-right majority figures have also accused the left of exploiting the Obama victory for their own political purposes.


    Speaking for that left was PD leader Walter Veltroni, who called the Obama victory “a choice of hope over fear.” He added that, “The Bush values will be replaced in the world by new values of solidarity, multilateralism, equal opportunities, the environment—all things that we haven’t heard about in years,” and which will leave their mark on European politics. To an excited crowd celebrating at dawn in Piazza del Pantheon, he said that an era of American history is ended—the Bush presidency, "eight difficult years. I think of this in exactly the opposite way from the President of the Council of Ministers, who has said that the Bush administration has been the best in recent years.”


    Elsewhere, the discussion down at Remo’s bar in our piazza came with an edge. Usually at Remo’s no one talks of anything but il football, but the crowd yesterday and today buzzed with excited, even thrilled election talk. Only Remo himself, a notorious conservative, was terse, keeping to himself and saying, “I’m not saying anything.” The most eloquent shouted: “Welcome back, American dream!” “Why can’t we have an Obama here in Italy?” asked another of the denizens. “It could only happen in America, think of it!” said our local PD group. “This is exciting! The U.S. has a young person in charge, and we’ve got these old fogies we can’t get rid of.”


    Results were clear by 4 am in Italy, and Obama’s election seemed certain by 6 am. Democrats Abroad had registered some 5,000 voters in Italy, and through dawn of that morning hundreds of its members had remained jammed into Rome’s Stazione Termini, at a lively spot called Roadhouse Grill run by a Pakistan-Brit everyone calls “Mo,” short for Mohammed. Five big TV screens and a pancake breakfast with sausages and orange juice gave food for thought and survival. One Obama backer showed up with his dog, so that every time the crowd burst into applause (“We’re taking Ohio! Yeaahhh!”), the dog barked.


    Two photographs in the dailies deserve mention. The best was the election day cover in L’Unità, showing a lonely President George W. Bush walking down an empty corridor. The headline: “One thing is clear: Bush is out.”


    Worst: a nastily manipulated drawing of Obama’s face covering the front page of the daily Libero, with an accompanying sly editorial under the headline, “Strano ma nero,” strange but black. This was intended as a play on words for Strano ma vero (strange but true).


    We’re not laughing.


  • Facts & Stories

    The Crisis of Italian Universities: A Student Speaks Out

    ROME – It rained on the high school students’ anti-government parades this week, but it did not dampen their spirits, even though Monday’s demonstrations in Rome ended with serious clashes between right- and left-wing corteges, with three high schoolers injured.

    The law that chops off funding for schools was approved on Tuesday by the Chamber of Deputies and passed in the Senate today (October 29th). As one of its consequences, those elementary schools with fewer than 500 students, and all of day-care centers with fewer than 50 children, will be closed. Many of the elementary schools are in mountain towns with long traditions of proud local culture.

    The demonstrations against this unpopular government action, justified to avoid cuts elsewhere in the budget, continued all over Rome today. Some schools, such as the prestigious Collegio Romano, whose graduates include three popes, are now occupied by students. Police were out in full battle gear with shields, and to reach my own home I had to have special permission to cross the no man’s land in front of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, a five-minute walk from the heavily protected Senate, where the debate now begins before a vote that will make the bill become law.

    Besides high schools, disastrous financial shortages are facing universities. On this, I received the following eloquent note from Roberto Casula, a student at the University of Cagliari. These are entirely his opinions, and here they are, lightly edited for clarity:


    It took only nine minutes for the Italian Chamber of Deputies to approve the terrible Law Number 133 Tuesday. Under its terms funds for Italian public universities have been cut by 1.5 billion Euros over the next three years, and the public universities are allowed to change their status from public to private. If a university decides not to change status, it will face the funding cuts. Therefore the easiest, but maybe the only, way for a public university to receive the same amount of money as it had in previous years will be to increase student-paid tuition.

    As usual, we the students will be the victims of an attempt to reform the university system in Italy. Every year brings an increase in the tuition fees and a cut in funding in Italian universities. Those students who chose public instruction probably will have to pay the same amount of tuition as those in private universities.

    The President of the University of Cagliari told us that in recent years the only way to avoid a deficit in our university's budget has been to increase tuition. Fees in private universities are high, and the Italian state already gives money to these universities, trying to put private and public schools and universities in an equivalent situation. The new reform brings the concrete risk that the public university in Italy will be killed.

    This is not only a budget problem. It's a problem of democracy and pluralism. The State, in subsidizing the private system, which survives only thanks to the State's help, threatens both the existence of the public university and also the study possibilities for the many students who simply cannot pay higher fees.

    Italian students in the Erasmus project this year will not find the same university when they to Italy in the next months.

    The law also states that the turn-over in the Italian university has to be stopped. In the next years only one new professor will be hired when five retire. In Cagliari alone, sixty-eight professors will retire and only twelve will be hired.

    Meantime, [French Premier] Sarkozy has announced an increase in the university funding. Both Spain and France have spent, in past years, almost 2000 Euro more than in the for each university student, and Germany over 1000 Euro. Italy, by contrast, cut the investments for every student by almost 500 Euro.