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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Italy Readies First Ever International Art Rescue Team

    ROME -- The world's first ever international task force of 31 civilian art rescue experts known as the United Nations "Blue Helmets for Culture", or Caschi Blu della Cultura, were graduated April 29 in Rome after completing a unique month-long training course. 

    The architects, restorers, art historians, and archeologists in the task force, who are working with another 30 highly specialized Carabinieri police, are the pioneers in Italy's first international training center, being created to protect the world cultural heritage. Their first task will be in Palmyria in Syria, where they will begin to address the wanton devastation by ISIS of ancient temples, towers, and a Roman triumphal arch. 

    "These experts - all volunteers - will be working under terribly tough conditions," said Brigadier General Mariano Mossa, commander of the Carabinieri charged with protecting Italy's cultural heritage. "They must not become targets for vendetta." For this reason neither their names or photographs are released. "Anyone who tends to the cultural heritage, representing the public administration, does not do it for money. It's the work itself that is enriching," said one of the volunteers. "In our sector, passion and the spirit of service on behalf of the community are what matters -- the sense of knowing that we are contributing to help recreate the cultural identity of a people stricken by calamity."

    The conclusion of their training course was hailed in a ceremony in Rome with the participation of Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, the national head of the paramilitary Carabinieri General Tullio Del Sette, Premier Matteo Renzi, and Education Minister Stefania Giannini. The project was born out of a meeting at the Expo world fair in Milan last August, at which 80 culture ministers signed a "Declaration for the defense of the artistic, historical and archaeological heritage threatened with destruction." Then, speaking at the UN last September, Renzi made a formal proposal to UNESCO's executive council for the creation of the task force to be called Unite4Heritage.

    As a result, the project was formally  underwritten and signed last Feb. 16. "Men and women with long experience and professionalism are now ready to take on roles in the international arena under the guidance of the UN for protection of the world cultural heritage." Renzi declared at the ceremony, which was held inside Rome's ancient Baths of Diocletian. its goal is to address cultural heritage crises caused by natural disasters as well as by war, to provide technical supervision and training to local national staff of countries in conflict, and to assist in the òtransfer of movable heritage to safer zones. (See: Lynda Albertson of ARCA's )

    Future funding and a designation of permanent headquarters for training are to be provided by the Italian government, with technical assistance from UNESCO. This week's successful conclusion of preparations for the first group to begin functioning in the field "confirms to just what extent our country is a great cultural power," said Renzi.

    Italy's Carabinieri art squad, based in Rome, has a long experience  in heritage protection. It has already dispatched its experts to Afghanistan and Nepal, among other foreign nations, as well as to quake-stricken areas closer to home, including in the Abruzzo mountain region. In cooperation with American police, they have also organized the repatriation of stolen Italian art treasures which had arrived in the U.S. illegally.

    Candidates for the new task force were trained at Turin in the Campus of the United Nations there, in Leghorn (Livorno), Pisa and Rome under Carabinieri specialists and experts, including for book and archival restoration, drawn from such famed art restoration institutes as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in  Florence.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Matteo Renzi at the UN. "The International Community is Finally Working Together"

    NEW YORK -- At United Nations headquarters in New York City, Premier Matteo Renzi was one of 175 world leaders who signed, in a single day, an historic agreement on protection of the climate. The accord known as COP21 was adopted at a conference in Paris last December, and calls for limiting the rise in global temperature to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, while striving for still lower, or 1.5 degrees. Among the signatories on Earth Day, Friday, were 60 heads of state. "Today is a great day because the international community is finally working together," said the Premier. "In politics the thinking is more usually only in the short term." 

    The two-day UN session was formally called the "High Level Thematic Debate on SustainableDevelopment Goals" (SDGS), which concluded with the signing Friday. With Renzi in New York was the Italian delegation headed by  Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti. For Renzi himself, "We are very proud as Italians for the results, but I think the political message is what is most important, which is that politics can offer help to the next generation. And so, in the coming month, we shall continue to work together for implementation of the accord." In a tweet Minister Galletti wrote, "What emotion -- the world at New York City is signing the COP21 agreement. Italy and Europe are there, protagonists."

    Following the signing UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon congratulated Renzi, who later met with the presidents of Mauritius, Guyana, Niger,  Angola, the Marshall Islands, and others from South America. (To see the signing, go to >>

    Renzi later spoke by telephone with Democratic candidate for president Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, and met personally with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at his foundation headquarters in New York.  

    "We can talk about renewable energy, about the transport system, about  efficiency in homes all over the world," Renzi told the UN assembly. "But I think that the real challenge today, in the presence of so many heads of states and of governments, of civil society leaders, of delegations of local authorities -- if you close your eyes just for one second and imagine it -- it is this: you can see our children and grandchildren to whom finally, for the first time after many years, we offer a vision, a gesture of responsibility, for our children and grandchildren. Finally we send forth a message of hope."

    Global warming is the enemy, and, prior to the signing, actor Leonardo DiCaprio reminded the delegates that "The world is watching us." By 2020  the 31-page agreement must be ratified, accepted or approved by at least 55 countries which represent 55% of global emissions of greenhouse gases, but pressures are to speed up the process. The stated aims are also to increase funding for a reduction of greenhouse gases and for developing tools that will help curb climate change. 

    In an interview Tuesday with the Italian daily Il Sole-24 Ore Renzi said that, "Today [in Italy] we have 39% of renewable energy. But we shall raise this to 50% within a short time. Enough of talking about the environment -- we must move forward on the road to sustainable development." We are working with Moscow, but we must diversify, he added, especially with African states. "For us, working in Africa will mean giving a future to the local people. We have been aware of this for some time, while Germany and the others are only now catching on that internationalization can also help achieve migratory equilibrium." That is, a wiser energy policy can help reduce the problem of mass migration by promoting jobs in Africa for Africans.  

  • Art & Culture

    U.S. Paleoartist Presents Ötzi Mummy. Replica at Bolzano Museum

    ROME -- Ötzi the Iceman, who is also known as the Homo tyrolensis, is one of the most famous and oldest mummies ever found. Discovered by two German tourists in the Oztel Alps in the Italian Tyrol near the border with Austria in 1991, the mummy was found encased in ice, wearing a coat of goat hide and waterproof boots. Its importance lies in the fact that his tattooed body lay untouched from the moment of his death almost 5,000 years ago, thus permitting not only reconstruction of his way of life, through his clothing and tools, but also analysis of his bones, blood and DNA. 

    Now a life-size replica of Ötzi, created by the American paleoartist Gary Staab, was presented Wednesday at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology at Bolzano (in German, Bozen), where the remains of Ötzi are on view in a specially constructed vacuum display cabinet. Describing the process of creating the replica, museum director Angelika Fleckinger explained that the mummy will be part of a new traveling exhibition about the discovery of the man now called "Ötzi"which will tour the U.S.A. and Canada beginning in October of 2017 in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science at Raleigh. 

    The "extraordinary collaboration" behind creation of the mummy replica by Staab and his team, which required "many months" to complete, came about thanks to cooperation between the Bolzano museum and New York's Cold Spring Harbor DNA Learning Center, said Fleckinger. The first sculpture-like image of Ötzi had been made utilizing CT-scanned images and 3-D printing, which permitted creation of a resin replica. "After the blank had hardened, the mummy was sculpted and hand-painted by Staab," Fleckinger added. Two other images were subsequently created.

    In early 2012 it was discovered that Ötzi's body still had intact blood cells, the oldest ever found. Although shrunken or mere remnants, the cells have the same dimensions as living red blood cells and resemble a modern-day sample. The images are used in teaching at the Cold Spring Harbor Center (DNALC). Directed by Dave Miklos, DNALC IS the world's biggest scientific learning center for genetics, whose 36,000 students study DNA in six research laboratories. 

    Because blood cells tend to degrade rapidly, early scans had been inconclusive, but newer DNA  studies by Walther Parson of the Medical University of Innsbruck, in Austria, have revealed that, although his maternal genetic line originating in the Alps is now extinct, Ötzi has at least 19 living genetic relatives. DNA analysis also shows that, although he had spent his childhood in a village north of Bolzano called Feldthurns, he was related to inhabitants of the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, rather than in the Alpine regions where his body was discovered.

    The model was made utilizing up-to-date forensic mapping technology, based upon 3-D images of his skull, plus infrared and tomographic images. The new studies indicate that Ötzi was perhaps 45 years old, approximately 5'3" tall,  and brown eyed, with type "O" blood; earlier he had been believed to be between 30 and 45 years of age, and had blue eyes. The new 3-D technological reconstruction of his face also indicates that he wore a beard, and had a furrowed brow that made him look decidedly tired.  Death was caused by a flint arrowhead that pierced his shoulder, as was discovered only a decade ago.

    The whole process of reconstructing the mummy, and the scientific basis behind it, was filmed by the American production company NOVA for a 48-minute documentary "Iceman Reborn," broadcast on the PBS channel for US viewers.

    To learn more, see >>>

  • Op-Eds

    Fortune magazine names Riace Mayor Mimmo Lucano among top 50 world leaders

     The celebrated ancient statue duo known as the Bronzes of Riace were upstaged this week, when Fortune Magazine named Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano, mayor of Riace in Calabria, one of the 50 most influential men in the world. Sharing the list with Lucano were Jeff Bezos, who runs Amazon; Tim Cook, who runs Apple; Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, and Pope Francis.

    The Bronzes were discovered off the Ionian coast in 1976 and are star attractions in the archaeological museum in Reggio-Calabria. Mayor Lucano has been acquiring star status ever since he first welcomed Kurdish migrants into the largely abandoned town of Riace in 1998.

    Today's Riace, which lies on a hill about 4 miles inland from the Ionian coast,
     now has 1,500 citizens, of whom 400 are migrants, and over the past 18 years has hosted 6,000 asylum seekers.

    As Lucano himself explains, he is not a member of any political party, but, "As a university student activist I had been interested in the plight of the Palestinians, but also of the Kurds. And they were the first to come here." Twenty years ago most of Riace's native citizens had already migrated  elsewhere in hopes of finding work.

    To house the new arrivals Lucano made use of abandoned homes, creating a hospitality center for the newcomers. But the migrants do not stay on in the the welcome center, he adds, saying simply, "We give them houses."

    Soon others arrived, often after devastating adventures by rickety boat. They now represent 20 different countries. As one of the sub-Sahara Africans who stayed on at Riace said, fifteen on the boat carrying him to the Calabrian shore were drowned. Lucano put the surviving newcomers to work, repairing roads and houses, baking bread, reopening cafes, and setting up craft shops for ceramics and weaving. The elementary school which had been abandoned by the locals who had gone abroad was reopened.

    In the words of the Fortune listing, "When a boatload of Kurdish refugees reached its shores in 1998, Lucano, then a schoolteacher, saw an opportunity. He offered them Riace’s abandoned apartments along with job training... Though his pro-refugee stance has pitted him against the mafia and the state, Lucano’s model is being studied and adopted as Europe’s refugee crisis crests."

    Lucano says he has no idea of how he came to be included on the Fortune list of the world's most influential people, but that, "I hope that this gratifying event will be postive for Riace itself and for all Calabria, and help create the possibility for recognition of the needs of the world's forgotten, whom we stubbornly insist on representing."

    Until now, his town has been poor and considered marginal, he went on to say. "We hear the national press talk about emergencies -- of the Rom (gypsies), of trash, of migrants. For us these three elements are not worrying: Our idea is resurgence, and I think of the emancipation of the migrants.

    In my heart I am happy because I have the sensation that what we are doing broadcasts the message of the humanity of a place even though it is economically and socially precarious, and conditioned by organized crime."
       
    The mayor's work has not gone unnoticed. A U.S. graduate student came to Riace to study his work. In 2010 the famous cinematographer Wim Wender filmed a 32-minute docudrama based on the Riace vicissitudes called "Il Volo" starring Ben Gazzara (see it at >>>).

    In an Italian TV interview Lucano himself spoke of his work as "the utopia of normality." And, as the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano pointed out this Wednesday, "He is alone, save for Laura Boldrini [Chamber of Deputies president]. In a land where unspoken words speak loudly, the silence of our political leaders renders all the more merit to the work of Mimmo Lucano."

    As elsewhere in Europe, Italy has a thriving anti-migrant political party, headed by Matteo Salvini, 43, close associate of Marine Le Pen in France. He heads the Lega Nord, whose thrust he has extended throughout Italy. February polls showing "intention to vote" accord him just over 14% of the vote, but with a tendency to rise.

    For interviews in Italian with Lucano, see: Il Fatto Quotidiano and two interviews on Youtube,
    >>>

  • Italy celebrates Women's Day

    In our own little town of Trevignano Romano, one hour north of Rome, I was startled when, out walking, I passed on the sidewalk a man I barely knew, who suddenly bent to kiss me on both cheeks. "Happy March 8!" he exclaimed. I'd forgotten that it was March 8, when Italy celebrates International Women's Day, not only with friendly kisses, but with sprigs of mimosa everywhere. You can see the scented yellow clusters everywhere -- on lapels, in shop windows and in car windscreens. 

    And there are other suggested tributes: "Offer her a love song," advised one on-line pundit,
    "Make your mamma, girlfriend, wife, daughters and lady friends smile." Also going his own way was Tommaso Fiazza. He is the Northern League mayor of  tiny Fontevivo (5,500 souls) near Parma, and passed out pepper spray vials that set the town coffers back some $700. "Obviously mimosa are the symbols of the day, and they are beautiful," he explained.

    "But too many women are mistreated or raped, or have their body or dignity violated. We want them to be able to defend themselves." His town, Fiazza added, is a "happy island," where such things don't happen, but who knows what can happen "when they go to Parma or elsewhere." On his Facebook page he wrote that the distribution of anti-aggression spray is to be accompanied by "more street lights, more video surveillance cameras and more municipal police on the beat." Elected at age 20, Fiazza, the youngest mayor in Italy, is now all of 21 but is sometimes still called the "baby mayor," and remembered for having taken out his first Northern League party card when he was just 14. Ironically, he won by defeating two women candidates. 

    As this shows, Italian women have come a long way, but it was not an easy road. Although back in 1925 women were allowed to vote in local elections, the right for universal women's suffrage came only in 1945, in the wake of World War II. The infamous honor crime (delitto d'onore), which sentenced a man who murdered his wife on grounds of infidelity just two years in prison, was abolished only in 1981. In 1996, the year after Fiazza was born, Parliament voted that rape was not only a crime against morality, but was also a crime against the victim and hence not abstract but personal. 

    I personally recall reporting for the New York Times on one of the very first meetings of the Movimento per la Liberazione della Donna in Rome. These were the mid-Sixties, and one of the men attending, who was bilingual, insisted upon looking over my notes to make sure I had gotten everything right. He is today a presitigious left-leaning politician and historian, but I confess to having been disagreeably impressed at the notion of male censorship of my coverage of a women's meeting.

    In those years most women working in offices and factories were expected to wear a sort of apron-uniform unless they were of a top level. But no one has ever said that Italian women were unaware of fashion, and within a few months these were shed in favor of skimpy short skirts they called the "mini-gonne."

    And today? One out of two Italian women has her own salary. According to the ANSA press agency, women who work are now over half the total of all women in Italy, the highest percentage achieved since 1993. Although this does not yet meet the European Union goal, it is a genuine achievement at a time of lingering economicrecession.  

    Especially the young people of both sexes still have trouble finding jobs, however, and the vast majority of working women are definitely older, between the ages of 55 and 64. There are in today's Italy 1.5 million working women who are over 54 years old, almost a half million more than in 2011. Nevertheless by and large men still find it easier to find a job: in Central Italy during 2015, of those employed 74% were men as opposed to 54%, women. Men also earn more for the same job, and one woman out of three leaves her work after having a child (Istat statistics, in a hearing in the Labor Commission of the Chamber of Deputies).

    Regional differences persist, especially in the South. Even in the wealthy Northeast of factories, women make up only 23% of the work force in the Friuli Venezia-Giulia Region and, in the Veneto, just under 20% (2015 partial figures). In both cases the number of working women shows a very slight increase over 2014. On the other hand, with generally high unemployment among the under-forties, the figures are not unimpressive. 

    Celebrations continue beyond the March 8 remembrance day. On Saturday the unions will hold a a meeting on violence against women, and on that same day in Parma migrant women will meet with Italian women's groups for readings of poetry.

  • Op-Eds

    Italy celebrates Women's Day

    In our own little town of Trevignano Romano, one hour north of Rome, I was startled when, out walking, I passed on the sidewalk a man I barely knew, who suddenly bent to kiss me on both cheeks. "Happy March 8!" he exclaimed. I'd forgotten that it was March 8, when Italy celebrates International Women's Day, not only with friendly kisses, but with sprigs of mimosa everywhere. You can see the scented yellow clusters everywhere -- on lapels, in shop windows and in car windscreens. 

    And there are other suggested tributes: "Offer her a love song," advised one on-line pundit,
    "Make your mamma, girlfriend, wife, daughters and lady friends smile." Also going his own way was Tommaso Fiazza. He is the Northern League mayor of  tiny Fontevivo (5,500 souls) near Parma, and passed out pepper spray vials that set the town coffers back some $700. "Obviously mimosa are the symbols of the day, and they are beautiful," he explained.

    "But too many women are mistreated or raped, or have their body or dignity violated. We want them to be able to defend themselves." His town, Fiazza added, is a "happy island," where such things don't happen, but who knows what can happen "when they go to Parma or elsewhere." On his Facebook page he wrote that the distribution of anti-aggression spray is to be accompanied by "more street lights, more video surveillance cameras and more municipal police on the beat." Elected at age 20, Fiazza, the youngest mayor in Italy, is now all of 21 but is sometimes still called the "baby mayor," and remembered for having taken out his first Northern League party card when he was just 14. Ironically, he won by defeating two women candidates. 

    As this shows, Italian women have come a long way, but it was not an easy road. Although back in 1925 women were allowed to vote in local elections, the right for universal women's suffrage came only in 1945, in the wake of World War II. The infamous honor crime (delitto d'onore), which sentenced a man who murdered his wife on grounds of infidelity just two years in prison, was abolished only in 1981. In 1996, the year after Fiazza was born, Parliament voted that rape was not only a crime against morality, but was also a crime against the victim and hence not abstract but personal. 

    I personally recall reporting for the New York Times on one of the very first meetings of the Movimento per la Liberazione della Donna in Rome. These were the mid-Sixties, and one of the men attending, who was bilingual, insisted upon looking over my notes to make sure I had gotten everything right. He is today a presitigious left-leaning politician and historian, but I confess to having been disagreeably impressed at the notion of male censorship of my coverage of a women's meeting.

    In those years most women working in offices and factories were expected to wear a sort of apron-uniform unless they were of a top level. But no one has ever said that Italian women were unaware of fashion, and within a few months these were shed in favor of skimpy short skirts they called the "mini-gonne."

    And today? One out of two Italian women has her own salary. According to the ANSA press agency, women who work are now over half the total of all women in Italy, the highest percentage achieved since 1993. Although this does not yet meet the European Union goal, it is a genuine achievement at a time of lingering economicrecession.  

    Especially the young people of both sexes still have trouble finding jobs, however, and the vast majority of working women are definitely older, between the ages of 55 and 64. There are in today's Italy 1.5 million working women who are over 54 years old, almost a half million more than in 2011. Nevertheless by and large men still find it easier to find a job: in Central Italy during 2015, of those employed 74% were men as opposed to 54%, women. Men also earn more for the same job, and one woman out of three leaves her work after having a child (Istat statistics, in a hearing in the Labor Commission of the Chamber of Deputies).

    Regional differences persist, especially in the South. Even in the wealthy Northeast of factories, women make up only 23% of the work force in the Friuli Venezia-Giulia Region and, in the Veneto, just under 20% (2015 partial figures). In both cases the number of working women shows a very slight increase over 2014. On the other hand, with generally high unemployment among the under-forties, the figures are not unimpressive. 

    Celebrations continue beyond the March 8 remembrance day. On Saturday the unions will hold a a meeting on violence against women, and on that same day in Parma migrant women will meet with Italian women's groups for readings of poetry.

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy's Farewell Salute to Umberto Eco

    They waited in line for over an hour, sometimes even fighting over precedence  -  students and housewives, politicians and pensioners, all anxious to pay a last salute to Umberto Eco, who died Feb. 19 at age 84.

    At the funeral ceremony Tuesday in front of the Castelello Sforzesco in Milan, his wooden casket was blanket ed in wildflowers. Professor Eco lived in a bookshelf-lined, roomy apartment in a palazzo nearby with his wife of fifty years, Renata. His last words, she has related were, "I am shutting into myself like a hedgehog" (Mi sto chiudendo come un riccio).

    Memories of Eco - echoes of Eco, one might say - continue to come pouring out. Speaking for the entire Eco family at the ceremony was 15-year-old grandson Emanuele, who thanked Nonno Umberto for, among other things, "the stories you told me, the books we read,  the crossword puzzles we did together, the music we listened to, the trips we took.  I'm so proud to have had you for a grandfather." For comic actor Roberto Benigni, a longtime close friend of Eco (and who elegantly  declined to speak at the funeral Tuesday), "There was nothing special about him. But when he he arrived everything became special: he brought a light, a wind, that was good for the whole world." 
     

    Furio Colombo, another particularly close friend,  told Italian TV viewers that he had spoken with Eco just five days before he died, and that Eco was "lucidly aware" that death was approaching. Asked if Eco liked to write, Colombo replied that Eco preferred the words "to work." A special memory? "Riding on my motor scooter with Juliette Greco and Eco." 

    Another special moment came in China, where young people were flocking to hear Eco speak but, once inside the auditorium, there were only old people because the Chinese authorities seemed to fear that Eco would contage their youth with rebellion. Why? Consider the implications of the words of another friend, Moni Ovadia

    The Bulgarian actor living in Italy told a joke in Yiddish that no one seemed to understand (so write the Milan reporters there), but ended his salute to Eco with an ironic, "The God who puts up with the believers and who loves us atheists blesses you." 

    Eco was remembered as so high spirited that his friends at the funeral said they were intermittently weeping at his loss and laughing their heads off at his memory.

    He was endlessly ironic himself, saying back in 2011 that he absolutely "hated" his first and best-selling novel because whenever one of his five successive books appeared, sales of  The Name of the Rose bounced up. "The others were better but the strange phenomenon was that every time you have a new book out sales of the old one go up. The ones after were better, but people reason that, 'Well, I haven't read the first so I should start with that.' And of course the old one costs only half...." (See: >>)

    Journalist Francesco Merlo recounts that in Eco's country house in the Marches he and his wife kept a puppet theater which they had begun for the grandchildren, but which gradually acquired a life of its own, with performances for friends that became political satire. Among the puppets: Pope John Paul II. At home in  Milan, near the famous Trivulzio Library, his two children, Stefano and Carlotta, grew up sharing space with their father's 30,000 or so books, carefully placed into a labyrinth of bookcases but also in piles here and there on the floor.

    When Eco was already very ill, his friend Merlo also recalled, the semiologist walked with a cane for support but also because "it was a sign of command." Eco showed no sign of remorse, no regrets: "To get old is beautiful," Eco once told him. In another interview, this devoted to the phrase "to die laughing," about laughter and God, Eco had also said this: "Laughter does not save man from death. But it helps."

  • Op-Eds

    Civil Unions: Debate is Fierce but the Voting Goes Forward

    Just in case anyone missed the message, several participants in the San Remo Song Festival, which is underway this week, sported rainbow-hewed ribbons meant to show their support for the pending bill that would legalize civil unions. Popular singer Noemi twined the ribbon stream around the mike while another singer, Arisa, wore them on her wrist. It has not gone unnoticed that openly gay Elton John is the visiting superstar of the Festival.

    As this suggests, what had in the past been a strictly sentimental song competition, beloved of Italians young and old, has taken on political colors as never before. Indeed, some Neapolitan contestants are eschewing sentimental love songs "O Sole Mio" style for a more socially committed rap. (For more photos, >>>)

    Despite some 5,000 amendments proposed by Senator Roberto Calderoli of the Northern League, on Feb. 10 the Italian Senate began the voting process on the government's highly controversial bill that would recognize civil unions for gay couples. As backroom negotiations among governing partners and the opposition continue, the formal debate begins only next Tuesday, Feb. 16. The predictably fierce battle is due to end with a final vote just seven days later, when the upper house is obliged to deal with other pending business. 

    Calderoli had initially tried to stall debate through having his software churn out some 75 million amendments, which he had placed on a CD and handed over to the Senate last September. It required eighty Senate officials working for six days, 19 hours a day, to insert these manually into the text of the proposed law. But when it was discovered that it would require 161 years (yes! 161) to have them all read aloud in the Senate, as the law requires, Senate President Piero Grasso had them thrown out -- hence the 5,000.

    Nevertheless the goverment headed by Premier Matteo Renzi has now chalked up a minor victory. After remaining locked into silence for weeks, Senate President Grasso, who had the constitutional obligation to decide upon allowing a secret ballot, pronounced against it this past Tuesday. If allowed, secrecy in the ballot box would have permitted many, including some Catholic senators  within Renzi's own splintered Partito Democratico, to ignore party directives and vote against civil unions. Secondly, it appears likely that the bill will pass, even if the most controversial elements of the law, surrogate maternity and stepchild adoptions, are not. Most importantly, although this is the toughest debate so far under Renzi, the vote, whether it passes or not, will not put his government itself at risk.

    Grasso is a former judge who rose to fame (and around-the-clock bodyguards to this day) as one of the presiding justices at the famous maxi-trial of the Mafia in Palermo in 1987. After announcing that there will be no secrecy, Grasso said that he is "neither Pontius Pilate nor Don Abbondio" -- that is, neither one to wash his hands of the question nor fundamentally a coward like the priest Don Abbondio, a character in I Promessi Sposi. "I was a judge," he reminded his critics, "and I stick strictly to the Constitution. My personal beliefs play no role in my decisions."

    As now written, the pending bill, known as the Cirinnà law for its author, Senator Monica Cirinnà, would recognize stepchild adoption -- that is, adoption of the child of one partner in a same-sex union by the second partner. The European court of human rights ruled in 2015 that Italy errs in failing to offer legal protection to such children.  

    The second clause generating even more controversy is surrogate maternity, today illegal in Italy and opposed by many here who support civil unions. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, for one, albeit a member of the Renzi cabinet, has said that the so-called "wombs for rent" should be punishable with prison sentences as "an illicit trade" which he considers the equivalent of a sex crime. Alfano has said, however, that he supports civil unions.

    In the U.S. surrogacy is permitted in several states and under some conditions, but in Michigan, for one, it is a felony. The issue remains controversial in several countries within the European Union. This is a serious issue here, and even Premier Renzi is on record as opposing that clause. Stepchild adoptions are similarly opposed by many who otherwise support civil union legalization. That said, the Cirinnà bill may nevertheless pass without these two highly controversial clauses.

  • Op-Eds

    Political winds of Change

    Change comes slowly in Italian politics -- consider the postwar decades of Christian Democratic stasis while it faced off the old Communist party. But change does come, and a few hints are in the wind these days. No national general election is due, but elections slated between mid-April and mid-June for city administrations in such large cities as Rome, Milan, Bologna, Turin, Naples and Trieste amount to the political equivalent of the American primaries.
     

    What has characterized Italy for the past three years has been its three-way split among the
    center-left headed by Premier Matteo Renzi; a center-right under Silvio Berlusconi; and an angry upstart party, neither rightist nor leftist, headed by the noisy, exasperating and clever comic actor, Beppe Grillo.

    When national general elections were held in February 2013, Renzi's Partito Democratico (PD, led  at the time by Pierluigi Bersani) walked away with almost 26% of the vote. Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) tied with the PD at almost 26%. Berlusconi's Partito della Liberta' (PdL, or Freedom party, since renamed as Forza Italia) won almost 22%. 

    To complicate matters, no less than 43 other parties fielded candidates. A few had interesting names like I Love Italy and The Pirates, but of these, 37 failed to claim a single deputy in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies. 

    Given the three-way split among the big three, Renzi, Grillo and Berlusconi, to build a coalition is necessary for every reform proposed, including the present vote on civil unions, but to do so is ever more difficult. Renzi's PD now has around 33%, at least in terms of "intentions to vote." Grillo's usually hostile M5S still claims up to 28%. But Berlusconi's renamed Forza Italia, which formerly backed PD reforms, has plunged to between 9% and 11%, depending upon the pollster. 

    Moreover, during the month of January consensus for the Renzi government shrank from around 31% to 29% (RAI statistics). Even though Renzi tries to show himself as dynamic (he plans to open Milan fashion week later this month), the trend is downhill, and the party he heads is currently split between its more open-minded MPs and its Catholics, angered by the party's on-and-off support for gay adoptions and surrogate motherhood. A tough final vote on this is due within days.

    Beppe Grillo has been on the defensive for months. In his his four-day performance as a stage comic at the Ciak Theater in Milan this week, almost 2,000 turned out, at around $50 and more a head, for his new show, "Grillo vs Grillo." With some overstatement, he declared that he had "always hated leaders, and I ask myself how it was that I could become the leader of the largest party in Italy. For the past five years I've lived with a binary dualism in myself, the personality of the comedian and of the politician. Now I have to purge myself of this dichotomy, and analyze reality." 

    So is he quitting politics? It is hard to say. For months Grillo's M5S has been troubled by defections, by his attempts to limit the possibility for his MPs to speak to the press, and even by the occasional political scandal. Referring openly to these defections, he shouted: "Only three of us left? That's ok. It's still a great movment, it's a great big Noah's Ark, the Ark of the Hugely Disadapted." 

    The party's PR guru Gianroberto Casaleggio dismissed the notion that Grillo is leaving politics, saying, "It's only a show." Grillo himself appeared to agree, saying, "It's a joke." (To see a snippet of Grillo's breathless performance, go to: http://www.tgcom24.mediaset.it/politica/beppe-grillo-show-a-milano-io-odio-i-leader-ora-devo-purgarmi-_2158376-201602a.)

    Silvio Berlusconi is in deep political trouble, if not yet dead and gone. In an interview this week with the rightist "Il Foglio" daily, he boasted that, if the far left in Italy is largely out of business, it is thanks to his entry into politics in 1994. Initially Berlusconi had supported the Renzi government because, he said, "Our idea was to work together toward modernizing Italy through mutually desired reforms. Unfortunately only my party believed in this." Turning to foreign affairs, Berlusconi declared, elder statesman fashion: "Enough of prudence -- a UN coalition is needed to fight our mortal enemy, ISIS. But I do not see sufficient awareness of the gravity of the situation on the part of many Western leaders." 

    Some pundits here doubt that Forza Italia will even field its own candidates in the elections this Spring. Berlusconi's (somewhat fading) faithful Renato Brunetta denies this, saying that in Milan and Rome their party will present a list. "We will win 20% of the vote," declares Forza Italia Senator Francesco Giro. "In our new video Berlusconi speaks of his political creed, in an amazing testimonial that shows how extraordinarily long-sighted he is, as only true leaders are." 

    Nevertheless, in the wake of the defections of former Forza Italia aficionados Sandro Bondi and Dennis Verdini, who has formed his own rival political party, others are contemplating quitting Forza Italia. "It's everybody against everybody," as one headline put it this week. 

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    Elena Ferrante. Italy’s Best-selling and Most Secretive Author

    Her popularity is as extraordinary as is her secrecy. Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante’s novels in translation have won lavish praise throughout the English-speaking world, from The New York Times to Entertainment Weekly, The Independent, Slate, and on, and on. 

     

    Admired Abroad

    For the Boston Globe, “Everyone should read anything that has her name on it.” For the Daily

    Beast, she is one of the world’s most talented writers. 

    For The Guardian, “Nothing like this has ever been published before.” And for the London Economist, she writes with “crystal prose.” Others throw around words like “utterly brilliant” and “talented,” while tours of the places in her native Naples described in her books are now the latest chic in Neapolitan tourism.
     

    Elena Ferrante’s quartet of books (see above) are known in English as the Neapolitan Novels, published in English by Europa Editions of New York and, in the original Italian, by what is in Italy a minor publisher, E/O. 
     

    The Stories

    The stories begin in the Fifties, in the poverty-stricken quartieri malfamati (infamous neighborhoods) of Naples, where violence and crime are the order of the day. As the boom years

    begin, the chorus of protagonists headed by Lila and Elena—narrator and name-sake of the author—are seeking to leave behind the misery of their childhood. They want marriage and money, success and happiness: can it happen? 
     

    From the time they were young children Elena and Lila are loving friends, but also tough competitors with, ever in the background, the broader social and class conflict of their time and place. In the end, the frustrated, intelligent Lila’s schooling ends with fifth grade, and she is married as a teenager and has children when herself scarcely more than a child. She never leaves the slum where she was born, but, thanks to her keen mind, forges ahead brilliantly. By contrast, Elena graduates from the prestigious Scuola Normale University at Pisa, then enjoys a comfy existence in Florence with her leftist husband and two children, only to turn her back on that life for an old love, and return home, where she eventually takes on the local organized crime bands of the Camorra. 
     

    The Ferrante Enigma

    Italian readers are almost if not quite as enthusiastic as the English speakers. 

    This month “Silvia” wrote, “One fact struck me, when I was just 50 pages from the end. In four books I could not yet figure out which of the two women is the protagonist. Perhaps this shows how clever the author is (who seems to be a woman). Sometimes it is Lina, sometimes, Elena... a very sad character, despite her existence in a modern world, her sometimes exaggerated feminism, and despite her desire to attack the backwardness of the South. It is as if, having everything, something is still missing.”
     

    Reader “Carla” called the quartet one of the best reads in recent years. “Elena Ferrante involved me in her story as hadn’t happened to me in a long time, and the last book is so touching. Bravissima, whoever you are.”  The words “whoever you are” are crucial,  as are Silvia’s “seems to be a woman.” The name Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and the author has chosen to keep his/her identity an enigma. For whatever reason, Ferrante is never photographed, never interviewed in person, but solely and occasionally by email. 

    That pen name provides a hint of her literary genesis, which seems a reflection of the name of Elsa Morante (1912 - 1985), the famous postwar author and for many years the wife of fellow novelist Alberto Moravia. The author of La Storia (published in English as History), Morante was half Jewish, and wrote that book, now a classic, as a result of having to hide from the Nazis for a year during WWII. Curiously, Ferrante’s first novel, L’Amore Molesto (Nasty Love) published in 1992, won the Procida Isola di Arturo - Elsa Morante prize

    Controversial in Italy
    Not all Italians delight in Ferrante’s work. When fellow Neapolitan Roberto Saviano nominated Ferrante for the prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega, last February, Massimiliano Parente wrote somewhat snidely in Il Giornale that first Ferrante declined, but then accepted out of “respect” for Saviano and his work, as Ferrante wrote Saviano. “Ferrante is a bestseller author of weepy meatloafs,” said Parente, “who constructed the personality of the invisible author, one more form of exhibitionism.” 
     

    The brilliant (and eccentric) author Aldo Busi, writing in Dagospia, called Saviano’s nomination of Ferrante ridiculous and Ferrante guilty of writing a “family-ish broth of Parthenopean sentimentalism” which gave him a “lightning attack of psychic diabetes.”

    Such acidity did not go unnoticed: the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano called Busi’s hostility gratuitous and other critics agreed, saying that, while Ferrante wrote of sentiment, she was not sentimentalist and that the reactions of “a certain part of the Italian literary world are so vehement as to be ridiculous.”

    For literary critic Giuseppina Dota of Foggia, for the past two decades, “the unanimous judgement has always been that Ferrante writes magnificently.”

    In the event, Ferrante came in third in the Strega Prize competition, with 59 votes; the winner was Nicola Lagioia with 145 votes for his novel La Ferocia, published by Einaudi. 

    Anonymity or Timidity?

    Still, many continue to ask if  “Elena Ferrante” is actually male or female. Why should an author dodge publicity, unless this is, in itself, a publicity ploy? One theory is that she is Anita Raja, who works for the publisher E/O and is the wife of the writer Domenico Starnone, 72, and a Neapolitan. For some, Starnone and Raja are together the Ferrante writing team, which both vehemently deny. 
     

    Speaking for herself, in an interview for the Paris Review Ferrante explained that she had chosen anonymity in the Nineties because, “I was frightened by the possibility of having to come out of my shell. My timidity prevailed, then there was the hositility of the media, which paid no attention to my books. It wasn’t the book that counted, for them, but the author’s aura.”

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