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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Life & People

    Italy is a Summer Festival

    ROME -- More than ever before, Italy is a summer festival, from Sicily to the Val d'Aosta, from the Maremma to the Alta Irpinia. The subject has particular personal resonance because it was my attending the late composer Gian Carlo Menotti's Festival of Two Worlds at the Umbrian town of Spoleto in the Sixties which literally changed my life. I was already at least partly familiar with the new American art forms from having attended the Cleveland School of Art for two years.

    The juxtaposition of the two cultures helped make me fall madly in love with Italy and its contemporary arts -- from paintings, lectures, chamber music and sculpture to grand opera.
    The Spoleto festival was created in 1958 with the aim of bringing together top artists from the two cultures, Italy and the USA. Alexander Calder's monumental sculpture "Teodalapio," which he mounted on view in 1962 near the train station, still stands there, stunning all those who see it. This year dancer Roberto Bolle performed July 13 in the Piazza Duomo. Another highlight of this summer's 59th edition wasa documentary on the history of experimental theater in Italy, "Appunti di Regia" (Director's Notebook), directed by Felice Cappa with interviews with six different Italian directors on how they set about their work.

    Performances then and now take place in four theaters and a half dozen other venues with past performances by actor Edoardo de Filippo, dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Carla Fracci, tenor Luciano Pavarotti and composer Nino Rota. From cinema came actor Vittorio Gassman and director Ken Russell. Chamber music performances in shirt sleeves at noon daily have always been special attractions while none other than Luchino Visconti directed an opera while Menotti himself directed the outdoor concert which concluded every festival. The festival has inspired offshoots in Charleston, South Carolina, which I have attended, and in Melbourne, Australia. (For a recap of this year's Spoleto 59 see >>>

    This year's summer forthcoming festival offerings are truly outstanding. To begin with the Italian South, Taormina hosts the international Taobuk Le Belle Lettere, Sept. 10-17, with programs on literature, music, films, visual arts and theatrical performances, including in the ancient Greek theater there. On hand will be Oscar winning director Giuseppe Tornatore, singer Arisa, and authors Michael Cunningham and Claudio Magris, among others. And on August 9 the week dedicated to Shakespeare kicks off in the Greek Theater with a performance of the ballet "Romeo and Juliet" with music by Tchaikovsky.

    Also in honor of the the fourth centennial of the death of Shakespeare is
    the "Atilia Samnium Festival" which takes place from July 30 through Aug. 7 in historic Atilia near Sepino, Campobasso, where the ancient theater recalls Shakespeare's own Globe Theater. Performances will be of musical interpretations and a reworking of "King Lear" under the direction of Stefano Sabelli.  

    In Sardinia through August 1, the old town centers of Alghero and Sassari, along with Campidano and Gallura, bring together writers, journalists and human rights activists for a series of encounters on the theme of migration. Speakers have included Stefano Benni and Hanif Kureishi along with the winner of the Strega Prize, Edoardo Albinati. As a sidebar, Nuoro, also in Sardinia, through Oct. 9 hosts an exhibition of photographs of women called "Women are Beautiful," by the American photographer Garry Winogrand, considered a father of street photography.

    Moving into central Italy, Capalbio, near Grosseto, plays host from Aug. 6 - 13 to "Capalbia Libri," lively discussions on nine influential books recently published, covering such themes as the motherhood, the terribly sad story of Enzo Tortora's erroneously being sent to prison and the (very current) problems of banking. Another literary event begins Aug. 27 in the north of Italy at Courmayeur in the Aosta.  The subject under discussion is serious: how humanism can deal with the wave of terrorism afflicting the world.  Guests include Gad Lerner, Milly Carlucci, and the national anti-Mafia and anti-terrorism prsecutor Franco Roberti.

    The Festival of Literature at Mantua which takes place from Sept. 7 - 11 is particularly well known internationally. There the well known participants will include the famous Irish writer Edna O'Brien, along with Pulitzer Prize winners Roger Rosenblatte and Philip Schultiz, plus Goncourt Prize winner Lydie Salvayre. Also on hand: Alain de Botton and Julian Barnes.

    At Camogli near Genoa the festival theme from Sept. 8 - 11 is "Communications," inspired by a phrase invented by the late Umberto Eco: word wild web. Over 100 specialists will speak on the social, political, cultural and education implications of the Internet in the sciences, arts, law and more besides. Artist Tullio Pericoli's drawings are on exhibit as well.

    Of special interest to parents is the edition of the "Festival della Mente," or Mind Festival. Held in the medieval borgo at Sarzana near La Spezia from Sept. 2-4, the festival is dedicated to creativity, and in 2013 its 90 events that attracted 40,000 people included no less than 50 for children and young people. The organizers' goal is to inspire people to explore, in ways that are as amusing as possible, how ideas are generated and developed. Laboratory lessons and shows require modest payment, fyi.

  • Art & Culture

    Time to Discover Italy's Magical Small Towns

    ROME -- Summer is the perfect time to explore Italy's outlying small towns, many of them magical ancient "borghi" (plural for "borgo") on hilltops too far to be reached by the cruise ships and big tour operators. Keeping these towns alive is a challenge being met, not only by Italians, but by foreigners as well. For the independent traveler, they are a treasurehouse.

    One way to keep them alive is through music. Every summer Antonio Lysi organizes the music festival called Incontri in Terra di Siena, in which some of the performances, which range from classical music of the highest quality to more folcloristic performances, take place in an imposing villa and in large and small theaters in borghi within the Valdichiana area near Siena, in Tuscany, and include Pienza, Chianciano and the Città della Pieve. This year's festival takes place from July 29 through August 5. For information, see >>>

    Another town off the beaten track where music has helped attract visitors is San Leo, near Rimini, where pianist and orchestra conductor Stefano Cucci directs a music festival with performances in the cathedral and in another venerable church in early July and again in early August. At these festivals the famous Ennio Morricone has conducted the orchestra and violinist Uto Ughi has performed. For details of this year's performances, see >>>

    In the Abruzzo region, Daniele Kihlgren, 46, of the Swedish cement  industrial family, was behind the successful renovation beginning in 1999 of Santo Stefano in Sassanio. The borgo had been built by the Medici during the Renaissance on a mountaintop 1,250 M high as a stopover for their merchants en route from Florence to the Adriatic Seacoast and its markets there. Kihlgren, fascinated by Santo Stefano, just 90 miles from Rome, decided to invest in the town, where, in 2001, three-quarters of the homes had been abandoned completely, and only 70 people still lived there.

    Within just a few years, 30 craft shops, art galleries, boutiques and small restaurants had been opened. People were again living there, and in one year five new mini-hotels recorded 7,300 visitor presences, including my own family's; Lucio Dalla is said to be a frequent visitor, and Kihlgren himself came to be known as "the man who saves the borghi." His funding was also behind the invention in Santo Stefano of the so-called "albergo diffuso," or scattered hotel, in which visitors are put into elegantly refurbished abandoned dwellings (to date, some two dozen houses have been restored).

    Speaking of his project, Kihlgren once told an Italian journalist that, "This perfect integration between historic houses and the landscape, these borghi built upon high hilltops in the age of the castles, this extraordinary sense of balance and harmony: this is the true Itaian heritage, as seductive as it is systematically compromised." Such was the success at Santo Stefano that Kihlgren committed himself to preservation of five more ancient borghi, beginning with the Sassi di Matera, where the idea of the albergo diffuso was continued despite the considerable difficulties of removing moss and bushes from the old grottos. Others were Montebello sul Sangro near Chieti, Matese near Teramo, Rocchetta a Volturno near Isernia, Frattura Vecchia near Scanno in the province of L'Aquila and Rocca Calascio, again near L'Aquila.

    Italy is not the only country to have its old towns abandoned by inhabitants who move into the big cities. Throughout Europe there are 15,000 "suffering borghi," in the words of Domenico Lanciano, who created the cultural association in Agnone del Molise in the Italian South called Università delle Generazioni (University of Generations), a cultural association dedicated, since 1986, to saving the old towns from what he calls the "desertification" of rural and especially mountain zones.

    "So many have become ghost towns," says Lanciano. "We need to build a widespread, deeply felt awareness beginning in the schools in order to encourage the new generations to contribute to the 'save a borgo' program, if we want to avoid the catastrophe of their loss." Supporting Lanciano's campaign is a group of young mayors he calls "apostles and leaders" of saving  the borgo. Already, he says, numerous associations, and not only in Italy, have been created to try to stem the tide of historical towns that risk extinction.


  • Life & People

    Two Place stop Call Home: Rome and New York

    Meet a couple for all seasons and two countries. American graphic artist Claudia Palmira Acunto and Italian photographer Mauro Benedetti have been based in Rome for the past decade. The two were married in Rome in 2008 in the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, followed by a reception at the Casina Valadier in Villa Borghese.

    For a while they managed to return to the U.S. four times a year every year. But after their son Ludovico entered pre-school last September in the Prati quarter of Rome, making more than two month-long visits a year to New York became impossible.

    However well integrated into Italian life she is (and she is), Claudia still works on a New York schedule with a New Yorker’s attitude. For her, this is a plus: “Here in Rome things don’t happen at the same fast pace as in New York, but on the other hand, living here has given me the opportunity to pursue many different projects in addition to my design career,” she told me when we met in Rome for this interview.

    Exploring the urban landscape
    Photographs by husband Mauro Benedetti, who was born in Palermo and moved to Rome at age 13, have appeared in one-man and group showings in both New York and Rome. His multiple interests have taken him eastward to Israel and Palestine and, in America, to the Southwest.

    Speaking of the photo exhibition of his works held early this year at Rome’s Cafe Alfredo e Lia on Via Giovanni Bettolo, Benedetti said that, “In both the Eternal City and ‘the City’ [New York], I spend countless hours exploring the urban landscape through the lens of my camera.

    I am fortunate to call both of these extraordinary places my home, and the background settings for my passion of photography.”

    “From their main streets, with their symbols, to the most remote and least known corners, these two worlds offer my camera countless sequences of stories as well as special moments; on any street, people, emotion, and unexpected moments of beauty are always just around the corner.” From Italy to new york and back and forth Palmira was born in Bronxville, New York, and studied at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

    Her family background is half Italian—her grandfather, Stephen B. Acunto, 99, was a noted boxer and college boxing coach. Her great- grandparents on her father’s side emigrated from Abruzzo, Lipari and Sant’Abbondio on Lago Maggiore.

    From childhood Claudia, with her parents, Steve and Carole Haarmann Acunto of Park Hill, Yonkers, NY, was a regular visitor to Italy—to Pescasseroli in the Abruzzo, as well as to Milan and to Rome.

    “I came to like Rome so much that I decided to take a sabbatical leave from my job as art director at an advertising agency in New York to live in Rome a year. And then I liked it
    so much that I stayed on. The city is simply full of surprises, there is so much to discover!”
    Claudia is best known as a designer for websites, including for the luxury chain of Bulgari Hotels, and for magazines and books. She is also a practicing artist, creating collages and,
    most recently, a series of round paintings in mixed media of varying sizes she calls “halos.” (For a sampler, see: www.claudia palmira.com).

    So many projects Together the talented team also organize photography workshops. “We show people how to photograph the city of Rome: where to stand and, most importantly, where and how to look.” (To see Mauro Benedetti and some of his current workshop participants as they explore Rome, see: maurobenphoto. com. The video on the site is in Italian, but his workshops and photo tours of Rome are also held in English.)

    Future projects include expanding their workshops to embrace a more spiritual element via creation of a special website that pairs teachers and students in a broad range of workshop topics. The idea behind this is that, as Italy transforms and adapts to the digital world, many people are becoming hungry to learn new techniques and new subjects; this project will match students with the more knowledgeable,” said Claudia. 

    The site, slated to be functional in the autumn, will be called www. romeworkshop.com. Another forward-looking project, Claudia explains, is to be called “Awakening the Authentic Self.” “We hope to attract people who are seekers -- that is, interested in self-development, who will have a vision of their lives. I myself have always sought to learn new things.” These workshops will be held in the picturesque coastal Tuscan region known as the Maremma, near the small hilltop town of Magliano, which is overlooked by an amazingly tall medieval tower.

    Claudia has also been active as vice president of the Italian Academy Foundation, Inc., founded in 1947 and chaired by her father, Steve, founder and president of the CINN Group, which has interests in publishing, insurance, real estate and entertainment.

    The goal of the Academy Foundation is to bring Italian culture to the U.S. and especially to the world of New York. Claudia curates a quarterly magazine for the Foundation called the Italian Journal (now visible on line as Italianjournal.it), which covers everything from food to ne art to Caravaggio. Steve Acunto is also chairman of La Scuola d’Italia New York. He is, in addition, a trustee of John Cabot University in Rome and Honorary Vice Consul of Italy in Westchester.

    Italian citizens of the world
    So the Eternal City and “the City” come together in the life of Mauro and Claudia, in their love, as well as in their continuous search for beauty in both cities. They embody the new Italian citizens of the world. As does little Ludovico, who, by the way, is featured on the cover of this issue of i-ItalyNY! He’s a lively Roman kid with a New York attitude... not to mention an Abruzzese grandfather and an American grandmother awaiting him in Yonkers. 

    * Rome-based American expat Judith Harris has worked for major American, English and Italian newspapers, TV and radio stations for forty years. She has written a weekly column for i-Italy.org since its inception. 

  • Op-Eds

    Pope Francis Meets Grieving Parents of Youth Pushed into Tiber River


    ROME -- Before his traditional Wednesday audience Pope Francis received the grieving parents of Beau Solomon, the 19-year-old American college student who was apparently pushed into the Tiber River at 1:00 am on Friday, July 1, and drowned the very night after arriving in Rome for a summer school course. The pontiff offered the parents "the deepest sense of participation and compassion, and prayers to the Lord for such a tragic loss," according to the pope's spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

    Solomon, a popular student and captain of his high school football team in Spring Green, Wisconsin, had survived a rare form of cancer when he was a child. He had arrived in Rome June 30 to attend a course at John Cabot University in Trastevere before entering his second year at the University of Madison at Wisconsin in the autumn. Out with friends on his first night abroad, he seems to have been tipsy when he left a pub and was suddently attacked by one or two pickpockets, who made off with his wallet and cell phone.

    At that point Solomon raced after one of the pickpockets near the Garibaldi Bridge by Trastevere and, after a quarrel, was apparently pushed into the river. Reconstructions of what is being investigated as a probable murder depends in part upon the account of two witnesses, who have told investigators they saw him being pushed into the river. The alleged pickpocket has been arrested and identified as Massimo Galioto, 40, a homeless man living under the Garibaldi Bridge.

    Full autopsy details are not yet available, including whether or not Solomon was intoxicated, as appears likely, but the first report from the coroner's office of the University of Rome, available today, shows that he had water in his lungs and so was alive when he entered the river. On his forehead was a severe injury, according to the autopsy, the result of his head striking against rocks in the river.

    The Italian media have dubbed that section of the Tiber "the riverbank of the damned" because so many homeless sleep there. However, the fact that the youth's credit card was very quickly used in Milan with charges of well over $1,000 implies that the Ponte Garibaldi homeless are in contact with efficient crime networks. Moreover, Solomon is the third American youth to have died under similar circumstances in Rome in the past three years; one near the same bridge, the other near train tracks close to the Central Station.

    The apparent murder has shocked and saddened all of Italy, as well as his family and friends at home in Wisconsin. Obviously in the light of bloody massacres worldwide, this is only one incident, but it has elements worth considering. One is that many American college students arriving in Italy can, for the first time, purchase alcoholic drinks without having to demonstrate that they are at least 21 years of age. When they do have free access to as much alcohol as they want, they overdo the fun.

    This is encouraged, in the area around Rome's Campo di Fiori and in Trastevere, by the bar owners who advertise, in the cafe windows, a shot of vodka for under $2.25 and six beers for under $11. Police there are under-staffed, almost needless to say, and fights between drunken individuals in the early hours of the morning are unfortunately frequent.

    What is to be done? It is up to Italy but also to American families and universities to make the newly globalizing students aware of the different drinking cultures and of the care they must take. This becomes all the more important because U.S. colleges are now sending some 340,000 students abroad, a 5% hike over last year. The University of Wisconsin, as well as John Cabot University, warns students to be responsible in their consumption of alcohol "because alcohol use in certain situations or contexts is very different than at home," to quote Wisconsin.

    This is, however, to beggar the case. The fact is that the college culture of "Getting Wasted," the title of a book by sociologist Thomas Van Der Ven, is as American as, well, apple pie. That culture dates from the Prohibition era, but, as Van Der Ven points out, it began with the most up-market U.S. universities, where it was a status symbol to buy buddies rounds of drink, implying that you don't have to study hard or to behave responsibly because you are wealthy and entitled. So even as the U.S. and Italy both mourn the death of a likeable young man, and grieve with his parents, sharing the prayers of the pontiff, U.S. universities ought to tackle the question of why getting wasted continues to be a particular privilege of, especially, fraternities.

    This is not only about the Italian homeless.It's a dangerous mix. And one of the saddest off-shoots is, as I know from having lived in Trastevere and near Campo de' Fiori, that Italian students are tending to emulate the Americans. Getting wasted is going global.

  • Op-Eds

    Brexit Fallout on Italy: Watch Your Step!

    ROME -- After days of being rocked by post-Brexit shock waves, the Italian stock market turned mildly optimistic at mid-week, rebounding up a percentage point more or less across the board. But the fact remains that the British referendum vote to quit the European Union, 52% to 48%, has fallout effects that could become devastating for Italy.

    In an address to the Chamber of Deputies June 27, Italian Premier Matteo admitted that the vote "weighs like a giant stone on the history of the European Union. There can be no looking back, no pretending nothing has happened."  This is an historic event, he said, and anyone who minimizes or exploits it is making a political error. Later he added that he is particularly concerned at the risk that EU citizens attending UK universities might be forced out of England, and, similarly,  UK students out of Europe.

    The following day, in anticipation of a meeting of the Council of Europe in Brussels, Europe's Big Three -- Renzi, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- looked and sounded stressed as they met informally in Berlin. Renzi has been accused of seeking special consideration within the EU over Italy's gigantic public debt, but at a press conference there Merkel declared stiffly that, "Some flexibility has been granted [by the EU] to certain countries in order to promote growth. Regarding Italy, above all, let me say that we've adopted various solutions, but we simply cannot rediscuss things every two years."

    To this Renzi responded that, "We are not trying to change the political rules of the EU, which we respect, but we do want to protect the savings of our citizens. And let's not pretend that nothing has changed. Nor forget that Europe is made up not only of laws, but also of schools and museums, of culture, of innovation." (For a video of Renzi speaking in Brussels, see >>)

    Mario Draghi, the authoritative president of the European Central Bank, was singularly synthetic, giving his opinion on Brixit in a single word:  "Tristezza" (Sadness). At a coincidental meeting of central bank governors held at Sintra in Portugal,  Ignazio Visco, the governor of the Bank of Italy, and his fellow top European bankers carefully avoided using the word "Brexit" in their public pronouncements, but it was implicitly at the top of everyone's agenda. In a corridor talk with an Italian journalist Visco himself acknowedged that,  "Brexit is a big shock. We have to be careful that it is not transformed into a crisis of the system."

    Behind these immediate reactions is fear. Beppe Grillo, leader of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), is on record admitting that he is a fan and possible future ally of Nigel Farage, head of the pro-Brexit UKIP party. Pollsters here now give M5S only a few points behind the Partito Democratico (PD), which Renzi still heads, to considerable criticism. In latest polls the M5S, with around 30% of the vote,nis only 1% or 2% points behind the PD. For this reason is to Renzi's advantage that the anti-everything vote reflected by the M5S is split with Matteo Salvini's Northern League, with its 13% of the vote.  

    All this will come to a head in October, when Italy is slated to hold its own referendum. That vote calls for a constitutional reform which would radically downsize and emasculate the Senate, and for a revision of election laws called the "Italicum." By gambling his own government's future on its identification with the referendum, Renzi risks a Brexit ending, just as David Cameron had identified his government with the anti-Brexit campaign, and was forced to resign. Reinforced by the Brexit lesson, appeals are pouring in for Renzi to rethink his October referendum because a potential boomerang.

    That referendum risks failure, in addition, because it is opposed by many who consider it simply undemocratic. In an open letter to Renzi, signed by such authoritative Italian intellectuals as Sandra Bonsanti, Paul Ginsborg, Tomaso Montanari, and Gustavo Zagrebelsky, the authors appealed to Renzi to show "a sense of responsibility" by not reducing the Constitution "to a personal question." A vote on an election law and a constitutional reform should not be put into the hands of a "momentary volatile majority." The Italicum, they wrote, "is a loaded pistol." 

  • Op-Eds

    Run-off Elections for Mayor: Surprises May be in Store

    ROME -- Where there had been no decisive victory, run-off elections take place  Sunday, June 19, two weeks after administrative elections were held in 1,342 townships and involved over 12 million voters. Six of these run-off's are crucial, for they will decide the administrations in some of Italy's most important cities. To judge by the previous such ballots, a few surprises can be expected. The consequence, in the eyes of Renato Brunetta, a Berlusconi camp leader: "This is the liberation front from Renzi. If the PD loses this run-off, it tells the government to quit." Premier Matteo Renzi is having none of this, however, and retorted that he is not resigning over these elections, no matter how they end up.
    Still, the vote in Rome is crucial. There lawyer Virginia Raggi, 37, representing the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) is to face off against Roberto Giachetti of Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD). On June 5 Raggi, a city councilperson since 2013, copped 35.3% and Giachetti, a scant 17.2%, for a difference of no less than 100,000 votes between the two candidates. Analysts here say that the votes for Raggi, who is married with one child, were a protest coming primarily from relatively disadvantaged outlying districts while the wealthier downtowners tended to vote Giachetti. 
    The campaign is being watched closely to see if Rome will have a radical mayor representing the party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. That said, in a campaign speech Raggi gave herself a leftist endorsement by praising the late Italian Communist party leader Enrico Berlinguer, "a prophet of ethics and politics." By way of response, Giachetti quickly paid a visit to Enrico Berlinguer's grave.
    The competition is crucially important because the city administration under the past two mayors, right-winger Gianni Alemanno and the semi-independent Ignazio Marino, has been accused not only of negligence, but of having ignored Mafia-style infiltration among corrupt city councillors as well as senior bureaucrats. Indeed, some of these are under formal judiciary inquiry. The intensity of the scandals forced Marino, who is not under investigation, to resign two years ahead of schedule while former mayor Gianni Alemanno goes on trial July 5 on charges of corruption and accepting illicit campaign funds. From one enthusiastic donor he allegedly accepted 75,000 Euros to pay for election dinners and, for his political party, Nuova Italia,  40,000 Euros.m
    However, it is worth recalling that back in 2008 in Rome, a former center-left mayor, Francesco Rutelli, copped more than 750,000 votes (45.8%) versus Alemanno's more modest 675,000 (40.7%). In the run-off, however, Alemanno defeated Rutelli, 53.6% to 46.3%.  
    Milan's  run-off will have a far-reaching impact. Candidates are Giuseppe Sala of the center-left and Stefano Parisi, who startled election observers by unifying around his candidacy a Heinz variety of center-rightists. Should he win, Parisi will challenge the old-line Berlusconi crowd as well as the Northern League's anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini for leadership of Italian conservatives. Sala, however, is a formidable rival, for he is credited with the success of Expo 2015 SpA, of which he was CEO. 
    Unlike elsewhere in the Big Six cities, hot button issues in Milan tend to involve social welfare programs and the quality of health services. Crime, migrants and public order rank further down the list, polls show, with corruption far less a key factor here than in the other mayoral contest cities.
    In Turin, the present mayor Piero Fassino of the PD will face off against "la Grillina", or Beppe Grillo's winsome candidate, Chiara Appendino, marketing expert who, at 32, is half Fassino's age. On June 5 Fassino won 42% and Appendino, 31% (incorrectly reported by me last week, with apologies). A risk for Fassino is that the electors from the minor leftist parties who might be expected to vote for him will simply stay home, some of them less out of laziness than resentment of PD's centrist leadership under Premier Renzi. Meantime Salvini says that his Northern League will back Appendino, intimating a swap for jobs in the city administration.
    During a heated TV debate Appendino cited the Catholic charity Caritas as deploring that after 23 years of leftist administrations, the city has 100,000 living in poverty. Needless to say, Fassino denied the allegation. Other big ticket items are high unemployment and the costly train line, or TAV, being built to link Turin and Lyon in France, which the Grillo crowd calls "useless." Simply trying to block the often violent anti-TAV demonstrations has cost the city administration over 400 million Euros. In a Sky post-debate poll Fassio was backed by only 34%, Appendino, by 66%.
    But here too surprises have resulted from a run-off. Back in 1997 a Berlusconi candidate, Raffaele Costa, won 43% of the preliminary vote in Turin versus the 35.4% of his opponent, Valentino Castellani. But in the run-off Castellani triumphed, 59.4% vs. 49.6%.
    In Naples, where crime and unemployment top the voter aggro list, the reigning mayor Luigi De Magistris faces off against right-winger businessman Gianni Lettieri with respectively 43% against just 24%. De Magistris, whose party is called Civiche-Sinistra, is a leftist but there is mutual dislike with the PD establishment in Rome. Two other parties who did fairly well on June 5 can turn the tide: the M5S, with its almost 10%, and the PD with 21%. 
    Looking back, the same two rivals met in Naples in 2001. That election season Lettieri won 38.5%, and De Magistris, 27.5%. But in the end De Magistris triumphed, with a stunning 65.3% to Lettieri's miserly 34.7%. 
    Other fairly big cities with run-off's are Bologna, where a League candidate backed by the center-right seems to be forging ahead. Similarly, in Trieste, a center-right candidate leads the pack, 41% versus 30% for a leftist coalition. By contrast, in Varese, which has been governed by the Northern League since 1992, a PD challenger appears to be gaining consensus. 


  • Op-Eds

    Grillo Crows, Renzi Troubled by Big City Election Results

    ROME -- Elections for city mayors are never pure reflections of national trends, but are at the very least a warning shot across the bow, in this case, the bow of Premier Matteo Renzi's ship of state. The stakes were high in local administrative elections held Sunday in many dozens of small towns and in seven large cities: Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna, Naples, Trieste and Cagliari. In the background lay the divisive referendum slated for October, when Italians must choose between accepting or rejecting the proposed constitutional reform on which Renzi has staked his premiership. 
    If any party surged ahead, it was Beppe Grillo's seven-year-old Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). In six of the seven big cities, no single candidate won 50% or more of the vote, making a run-off between the two leading candidates mandatory. In Rome, where Italy's most important single election was held, Virginia Raggi clabbered the opposition by claiming 35.6% of the vote. Raggi was the anti-establishment candidate for mayor on the ticket of the M5S. By contrast, her runner-up, Roberto Giachetti, whose center-left ticket represented Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD), won a mere 25% of the vote. A tough-talking center-right candidate, Giorgia Meloni, walked off with 20.6% of the vote in Rome.
    In two weeks Raggi faces a run-off against Giachetti, but her success is already a triumph for Grillo, whose M5S picked up 10% more than it had earned (25%) in 2013 in national general elections for the Chamber of Deputies and, in city administrative elections that same year, under 13%. The M5S has thus tripled its consensus in Rome, where the outgoing city administration has been plagued by a stormcloud of scandals dubbed "Mafia Capital," which have cast long shadows over the reputation of the PD as well as the more conservative traditional parties.
    But the fact is that Italy no longer has such a thing as traditional political parties. In Turin the formerly popular, old school center-left sitting mayor Piero Fassino overturned pre-election predictions of victory by claiming only 29.77%. Topping him with 30.1% was Grillo candidate Chiara Appendino. The fact that the M5S could win the support of almost one voter out of three in Turin, with its once staunch leftist tradition, was a stunning achievement for Grillo. Here too there will be a run-off, Appendino against Fassino, with the parties of the losing candidates throwing their support to one or the other. 
    Among the seven big cities where elections were held, Cagliari was the only one in which a candidate for mayor obtained over half the votes, eliminating the need for a run-off contest. Massio Zedda, representing the center-left, won a clear 50.9% of the vote versus the relatively modest 32.1% won by the center-right represented by Piergiorgio Massidda. Even in Naples, where Luigi De Magistris achieved almost 43% of the vote, the run-off will pit his "Civica di Sinistra" (Left Civic party, long since an antagonist of Renzi's PD), against runner-up Gianni Lettieri, whose comparatively  modest showing was of 24%.
    The picture in Bologna was interesting. The city with a long, and now long-lost, tradition of Communist and Socialist parties fielded center-left candidate Virginio Merola, who won almost 40% against right-winger Lucia Borgonzoni, who won only 22.3%. However, Grillo candidate Massimo Bugani won 16.6%.

    In the gathering storm, some critics in Renzi's party are urging that he discontinue heading both government and the PD, as he does now. So far Renzi is not resigning party leadership, but has limited himself to urging his splintered PD to work harder. Nevertheless, speaking at a press conference Monday evening in Rome, he said rather lamely that, "It is not a debacle." Perhaps not just yet, he might have added.  

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy's Newest Hero: Capt. Francesco Iavazzo

    ROME -- Italy's newest hero is Capt. Francesco Iavazzo, whose quick thinking saved the lives of literally hundreds of migrants when their shabby fishing boat with 600 aboard capsized off the Libyan coast. "At sea, safeguarding human life is a sacred task," said Capt. Iavazzo. Almost needless to say, he gave all credit to the sailors on his ship, the "Comandante Bettica," one of Italy's seven new logistic support vessels that prowl the Mediterranean. Equipped with a helicopter landing port, the official  role of the "Bettica" is to protect Italian fishing boats and petroleum platforms. 

    The salvage operation began early on May 25, when a passenger on the boat reported that it was in difficulty. The first task was to locate it. Then Iavazzo was informed by satellite that a fishing boat just 40 ft. long and dangerously overloaded was in his vicinity. Fortunately the sea was calm. "We had to act quickly," Iavazzo said later. First he took a loudspeaker and asked everyone on the boat to sit as quietly and immobile as possible so as to avoid its turning over. "We dropped our own rubber boats into the sea as quickly as possible -- they have hydrojet motors specifically without propellors that could harm people." He ordered his crew to toss into the sea every floatable object they could get their hands on, from life vests to ropes. (For a first-hand account of the rescue, see >>)

    Some 240 people had been brought to safety when panic overwhelmed the remaining 350-some passengers. Shifting, they overturned the rickety fishing boat, which threw all those still on board into the water. As it overturned, passengers slid down the deck on top of those already in the water. Nevertheless, in the end, thanks to the quick response of the Italian navy, 341 men, 48 women and 43 children -- some yanked out of the water by their hair -- were brought to safety, for a total of 432 people. Most appeared to be sub-Saharan Africans and Syrians, who probably boarded their boat in Libya.

    Once aboard, the migrants were given hot tea and blankets, and the children soft teddy bears they hugged. "Health screening is very important -- we have qualified personnel on board down to and including services of an obstetrician," he said. "At sea safeguarding human life is something sacred." One of the saddest moments: learning that the mother and father of a nine-month-old baby girl, Favour, had drowned before the infant was successfully rescued.

    This was hardly his first major rescue operation. In a TV interview some months ago a visibly tired Capt. Iavazzo spoke of recovering another overcrowded rubber boat just 20 miles off the Libyan coast after it had been spotted by the Royal Navy, which launched an SOS. Official figures are devastating. In July of 2013 over 400 drowned off the coast at the isle of Lampedusa, visited in October by Pope Francis. In 2014 the official tally of those known to have drowned in the Mediterranean had risen to 3,279; in 2015, 3,771. This year, with the influx soaring as the route through Greece is blocked, some 3,000 arrived in a single day last week and another 3,000 one day this week; accordingly the number of those drowning at sea will continue to surge. As one fisherman remarked sadly, "There are now more cadavers than fish in the sea."

    What is to be done? All told, in 2015 one million people reached Europe. Last April Premier Matteo Renzi appealed to his European partners, "Do not leave us alone." In the wake of this newest disaster he announced that the next meeting of the G7, on this occasion under Italian direction, will take place in Sicily either at Lampedusa or Taormina, and that migration issues will top the agenda.

    The obvious problem is that, with political populism on the rise, as in France, the mainstream politicians fear that any defense of migration puts their own political future at risk and boomerangs by fostering more resistance.


  • Op-Eds

    Civil unions law passes, Renzi triumphant

    ROME -- "This is an historic day," Premier Matteo Renzi, 41,  crowed Wednesday when the long-delayed and controversial law legalizing civil unions passed in the Chamber of Deputies with a healthy majority, 369 to 193, with just two abstentions. Passage came only with Renzi's insistence upon a vote of confidence for the government, the fifty-third such vote during his two years as premier. The second confidence vote on the bill in two years, its failure would have prompted Renzi's government to resign, but the government's majority is strong enough that the Premier in fact faced little risk despite opposition from the Italian Catholic Church and the  particularly raucous center-right parties. 

    The new law's recognition of gay rights in the institution of the family is a first for Italy. In addition, unmarried heterosexual couples are now assigned rights heretofore available solely to those who are married couples. The successful vote in the lower house was to be echoed later in the day with the Senate vote, whose success if at this point taken for granted. Those favoring the bill had donned rainbow-colored ribbon strips or placed them on their desks in Parliament today.
    Successful passage came about partly because the draft law was watered down by removal of the clause in the original bill that would have allowed so-called "stepchild adoption" of children of gay partners. The Italian Catholic Church authorities had vociferously opposed this clause, which they saw as permitting gay couples to have children via surrogate pregnancy, which remains illegal in Italy, and was described today in Parliament by one opponent of the law as "exploitation of poor women." Further delaying tactics were the introduction of some 300 amendments. Indeed, despite today's passage of the law, the opposition is already demanding an abrogative referendum.
    A "contract for living together," to be signed in front of a notary public, will permit the couple to elect, if they so choose, joint ownership of assets, until now the prerogative solely of married heterosexual couples. Details of a maintenance agreement between heterosexual couples can be co-signed in front of a notary, and a partner is enabled to take over a rental contract for up to five years rather than to be, as heretofore, automatically evicted upon the death of the original signatory of the contract. 
    Gay couples can choose a name they share, or add the partner's name to their own. Divorce can be requested and, further raising partnership rights to the equivalent of married couples, public housing can be requested. Other clause legalize the right for couples to share a surname; to tend a partner who is hospitalized and, in case of a long illness, to become his or her legal tutor; and to receive a partner's pension upon his or her death. 
    "We shall remember this when it comes time to vote on the referendum on reforms," warned one of the promoters of the anti-civil unions bill movement, which promoted a "Family Day" demonstration. The pending referendum in question, which is another of Renzi's long-range political objectives, would revise the present election laws.
    The opponents of the law enacted today have been angry and articulate, and not always graceful: one tweet showed the derriere of Constitutional Reforms Minister Maria Elena Boschi, notoriously good looking and prime mover behind the law, with, overwritten, "This is her face." On the other hand, tweeter Matilde Giovani wrote, "just a perfect day #lovewins#loveislove."


  • Facts & Stories

    The Day After Mother's Day: Whatever Happened to La Mamma?

    ROME -- In terms of mothering, few countries beat Italy, land where "La Mamma" traditionally ruled the roost. All the stranger, therefore, that on Mother's Day May 8, the question under debate was whatever happened to maternity in Italy, where, as statistics demonstrate, the empty cradle is becoming ever more the norm. Just 10 years ago the Italian woman gave birth to 1.9 children, whereas the latest figures show a median birth rate of just under 1.3 children. 
    The mothering rate of foreign women residing in Italy is notably higher, at just under 2%. Still, despite this foreign input, so to speak, the number of babies born in Italy just two years ago has dropped by an extraordinary number. The year 2013 had brought 514,000 new babies, but last year, only 478,000. The national decline in the birth rate actually dates back to a sharp decline in the birth rate in the mid-1980s, meaning that the number of women in what is today's typical maternity age group, from 30 to 34 years old, has itself shrunk, from 2.26 million in 2005 to under 1.8 million today. 
    The reasons are multiple. First, over time the traditional young Italian woman's desire to get settled into marriage has been supplanted, partly thanks to her advancement in education. Today's young women desires to be settled into a good job well before she contemplates marriage. The lagging economy is another component. University demographic specialists here say that just 46% of Italian women hold down jobs. This shrinks  down to 20% in the deep South. By contrast, elsewhere in Europe two-thirds of women work.
    As usual, the sagging economy is a factor, and many couples feel they simply cannot afford a family or, if they have one, no more than one child while the median age for giving birth the first time has risen to 31.5, up from 29 years old in 1995. As journalist Maria Novella De Luca wrote for the Mother's Day edition of La Repubblica, "In reality, girls want children, even two or three, but in our country the gap between the desire for maternity and the possibility of achieving it is ever greater." 
    Other reasons behind the decline in having children include the lack of state welfare provisions for maternity care. A proposal to permit a 15-day paternity leave that would allow daddies to help out with family chores when there is a new baby languishes in Parliament. Many companies are hostile to their employees who get pregnant because the bosses consider pregnancy a needless waste of money; one university study alleges that 9% of employed women were fired as a result of pregnancy. 
    Indeed, women who work tend to lose their jobs when a baby arrives, and within two years of giving birth one woman out of four is unemployed. Curious that in her analysis, Senate Vice President Valeria Fedeli, urging more attention to jobs for women, refers to "girls" (ragazze). With one child almost 59% of women manage to keep their jobs but when there are two children, the figure drops to 54% and, with three, to under 41%. Male employment remains stable at the same time despite the number of children. Women -- including this journalist -- turn to part-time work when children arrive.
     Cultural factors play a role, says Professor Barbara Mapelli of the Bicocca Univeristy. There is the notion that parents must give "everything" to a child, or not have one. "Today's women live a contradiction: on the one hand objective obstacles to maternity exist," while on the other hand women are subject to extreme emphasis on the importance of having a baby. Others recognize that most Italian husbands are less than cooperative about helping out with child care. "They may give a half hour more than in the past," synthesizes the prominent sociologist Chiara Saraceno. 
    The "Mothers' Index" prepared by the Save the Children association analyzed factors in Italy such as birth rate, the sharing of work in running the family, the presence of childcare centers and services for young children, and early schooling. The result was the the most child-friendly region in Italy is the Trentino Alto Adige, following by the Valle D'Aosta, Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, Tuscany and the rest of the North. The least child friendly: the South, with Calabria the caboose.

    And yet the Italian mother matters. No less than 8 million Italian mothers between the ages of 25 and 64 support children between 15 and 25 who are economically dependent upon them, the largest number in all Europe.