Friday, 14 August 2015

News from Italy, Christmas Holidays in Italy, December 2010

Students’ demonstrations
How sad to take the baubles and bells off the Christmas tree, store them in boxes, wrap the wreath, vacuum the tinsel bits and pack the nativity away till next year.  It is a shame to have to collect all the Christmas cards and jam them in the recycling box.  Some are so pretty.  The house seems empty and dull and it is over two months to spring.  But I must say I had a good Christmas time full of family, friends and good food.  Here is what I did.

As soon as I arrived in Rome for Christmas, I fell ill.  During the journey, I caught a bad cold which soon developed in bronchitis.  I spent my first three days stuck in the house, following the latest depressing news on the Italian TV channels.
There had just been a demonstration against the Minister for Education's bill to reform the universities.  Videos and photos of students fighting the police and one another were everywhere.  There was the sensational case of one student who smashed another in the face with a helmet, breaking his nose. The continual advice for parents on all radio and TV channels was, “Keep your children at home during demonstrations”.
Reading newspaper articles I found the problem was rather complex and  somewhat similar to the events in other European countries due to the global economic crisis.  Heavy cuts to education, jobs and welfare in Italy have  provoked a sense of widespread uncertainty, especially for the future of young people.  University fees have not risen, not yet.  The maximum fee you can pay in an Italian state University is € 2,000 per year, but most people declare low incomes and pay less.  The cuts are mainly in research and funding for schools, which will have enough money to pay only teachers and employees.  Universities would be funded according to their results and by evaluation of  their activities.  It seems fair at first glance but it is felt by Italian students to be curtailing the autonomy of state Universities and to promoting private ones.

Demonstrating students were accused of violence and illegal behaviour by the Right-Wing, while the Left and the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano suggested finding a new way to communicate with young people and trying understand the reasons for their protest.
The newspaper Corriere della Sera (Tuesday 21st December, page 11) printed a letter by an Italian student who lives in England.  She wrote, “Io, come moltissimi miei coetanei, sento una rabbia così viscerale e furiosa contro questa classe politica – di destra, di centro e di sinistra – corrotta e stantia, che negli ultimi vent’anni si è solo preoccupata di perpetuare il proprio potere e i propri interessi, appropriandosi indebitamente della nostra democrazia.” (I and most of my peers feel a deep-rooted, intense anger against this political class – Right, Centre or Left – which is corrupt and stale, which in the last twenty years cared only about perpetuating its power and self-interest, taking possession of our democracy).  Her statement is so clear that it doesn’t need any comment.
At the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ some students were on hunger strike, a strict diet of tea and water, very hard in this time of the year.  Other  students were preparing a new demonstration for Wednesday 22nd December.   “We’ll surprise you,” they announced.  And they did.  It was a peaceful protest this time.  They were in the streets of Rome, their hands painted chalk-white and shouting the slogan, “You are shut in your palaces; we are free in the city.”
That same evening President Giorgio Napolitano welcomed a delegation of eleven students.  He listened to them, sympathized with their problems and the tension magically decreased.  In other Italian cities like Palermo, Torino, Bologna, Napoli and Firenze it wasn’t so peaceful and idyllic.  Streets and railway stations were occupied and shop windows and cars were damaged.
Certainly there is a clear feeling of social instability in Italy that has a parallel in the precarious Italian political situation.  In this climate it is hard to plan your life or hope for a better future.  One example demonstrates the situation: the streets of Naples full of heaps of rubbish nobody has bothered to clear away.
In Rome my first impression was of general urban decay in streets and buildings due, I suppose, to the lack of funding as well as the usual carelessness.  It was common to see layers of litter in the streets or freshly painted surfaces covered in graffiti.  Shop windows were less splendid than they used to be and street decorations duller.  Among friends and relatives we heard rumours of people fired, forced to reduce their working hours (and wages) or moved to distant working locations.  It seemed like there was little to celebrate.

As sick as a parrot
I coughed, sneezed and spat for three days, not a nice sight. Then of course I was stuck at home for three more days of Christmas celebrations when we always stay at my parents’ or my parents in law’s house. At the end I really looked forward to a bit of fresh air. Nevertheless I had time to read and get updated about the Berlusconi Era, which seems to last in spite of all the bad omens from the Opposition.
His control on the Italian Parliament seems stricter and more powerful than ever. Many journalists say that the Italian man in the street can see in Silvio Berlusconi his own weaknesses: slyness, ambiguity, a tendency to lie and be cocky, utter self-interest in the management of the state and an endless show of a harem of girls. A paradisiacal dream for many, much more fun than respecting rules, honesty and monogamy. Besides he is extremely wealthy, successful and owns several TV channels, newspapers and magazines.
Many Italian intellectuals wonder how it could happen. Maybe Silvio Berlusconi speaks a language more understandable and realistic than the majority of Italian politicians, feeds people with illusions instead of promises, which are anyway hard to be maintained in the paralysed yet unstable Italian social and political climate. By voting him and his coalition Italian people chose dreams instead of a disappointing reality.
At Christmas Eve to make things even more unsettled, if possible, two parcel-bombs were delivered to the embassies of Chile and Switzerland seriously injuring the two clerks who opened them. And after Christmas there was one more for the Greek embassy, luckily it did not go off. All the parcels were signed by an Anarchic Italian group (Federazione Anarchica Informale, Cellula rivoluzionaria, Lambros Fountes, a Greek anarchic killed in a demonstration by the Greek Police). As it often happens in troubled countries the fight is among ordinary people, the anarchic students of the social centres against the clerks of the embassies. The Establishment remains untouched.
In this uncertain panorama what scared me most was the news of a family feud in the south of Italy (Vibo Valentia, Calabria) where a father and his four sons were shot dead in their farm because of old grudges and a row for some pieces of land. What shocks me is the hatred and sudden violence among people that probably knew each other since they were born, lived in the same village and shared the same life. I can’t explain it unless I think of a narrow, closed world ruled by a ruthless code.
To lift up my mood I devoured the second book of Jo Brand’s autobiography: Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down. I had brought it from England giving it a special place in my suitcase and cherishing the moments I could finally read it. It was cracking and illuminating to see how she rose in the competitive world of stand-up comedians, never afraid of speaking her lines straight, never giving up. Interesting how the book is also rich of her opinions about books, films, ads, TV and radio programs and fellow comedians. The cutest part is the one about her family, because in this mayhem she managed to have a nice family, a husband and two daughters. Fantastic!
My favourite parts are when she breaks all conventions and delivers an unexpected cracking line or when she describes horrible misadventures that kept her at home or in hospital for weeks without defeating her usual unbeatable humour. It was relieving to know that also Jo Brand, like most writers, avoids to face the blank page, and instead looks for “a Pointless Task That Doesn’t Really Need Doing”. Writing a book, especially if you aim to make it interesting, is hard work.
But it wasn’t enough. As soon as I finished with Jo Brand I tackled The Fry Chronicles to keep in the same genre.
Actually it is a very different book. Though funny and entertaining, the narration has a slower pace, Stephen Fry indulges in long speeches and detailed descriptions covering only eight years in more than four hundred pages. Surprisingly I did not find his weaknesses real mistakes but just human things, quite widespread at all levels of our society.
I admired his versatile knowledge and his incredible ability to develop his many talents, apparently without effort.
All in all I had fun.

Italian Identity: 150th anniversary of the Unity of Italy
After Christmas I felt much better and I could have little tours about Rome with my husband and Valentina - the other children were busy with their friends.
We went to St. Peter’s, the Protestant cemetery, had a walk in the centre and visited some churches to see Caravaggio’s paintings.  Old Rome came back to me with its winding alleys, scratched ancient buildings and travertine churches.

One day it rained the whole day: streets and pavements were a large, deep puddle.  We were so soaked we had to change from top to toe when we went back home.
We also visited a big bookshop in the centre and I bought a book that intrigued me: L’identità italiana (Italian identity) by Ernesto Galli della Loggia.  He is an historian and a journalist who writes for Corriere della Sera.  I had heard about the book on a TV program and wondered if I could learn more by reading it.
It took me only two days to finish.  It was extremely interesting and very useful in helping to understand the Italian mentality and its historical background.  Here is a short account of what it says.
The book starts by looking at the geographical position of the Italian peninsula, which made Italy the meeting point of different migrations of people and of various cultural experiences coming from all over Europe and the rest of the world.  They mixed, blended and clashed in Italy, influencing each other, adding a great variety of cultural and ethnic aspects.  Its differing populations were united under the Roman Empire; when it fell in 476 AD Italy was invaded and divided in different states for about fourteen centuries.  According to the author these geographical, anthropological and historical circumstances shaped the Italian mentality making it adaptable, open and global.  It is remarkable that in spite of all these differences Italy managed to become one nation.  The reason is that there are two main characteristics common to all the country: poverty, due to the shortage of agricultural products, and beauty, due to the mild climate, variety of landscape and art.

We can’t forget that both the Roman Empire and Catholicism represented strong sources of identity as well.  Ancient Rome left a tremendous cultural heritage visible in not only the monuments but also law, literature and technical improvements which formed the backbone of the country especially at high levels of power.  On the other hand Catholicism had been for a long time the only unifying aspect of the peninsula, “the only really ‘Italian’ component”.  It is understandable how much Catholic sensibility and morality influenced Italian mentality at all levels.  For about seven hundred years (from the fifth to the twelfth century) the Church was the only ‘Italian’ public institution in the peninsula, which was ruled by foreign powers.  But at the same time the Church State often prevented the development of the Italian nation by taking active part in the political fights among the different states and asking the help of a foreign power when it needed it.
From this precarious, fragmented social and political situation Italian people became aware of a general instability, of the remoteness of institutions and of the fact that you can only trust people near you, like your family.
Besides, Italy is the country of Counter-Reformation and Inquisition, which demanded a strict moral behaviour but also total obedience to the Church, suffocating any discussion or different opinion.  Consequently it encouraged a tendency to duplicity and pretence that often ended in an empty, formal religious attendance.
The Unity of Italy happened in 1861 and was completed with the capture of Rome on 20th September 1870.  It was soon clear that Italian people were not used to common rules and to one state.  Individualism, different cultural norms and a variety of historical backgrounds divided the country.  The ruling body, the House of Savoy, was far away from the centre of the country and its strict rule did not help to unite it.  Besides Italy did not have a democratic background but an oligarchic one, from the times of the Roman Empire to the Communes or free cities of the Middle Age and then the Signories of the Renaissance. People who had ruled Italy had always belonged to a few families, a faction or a group that retained power by threatening, bribing and putting their people in the key places.  Even Roman Catholicism is a hierarchic and oligarchic religion, not a democratic one.
For all these reasons it is difficult to find in Italy a single capital that can be its political, economical and cultural centre.  Milan is the economical centre but it is detached from politics.  Florence was the cultural centre in the past and Rome the religious one.  So the nation has not one centre but multiple local centres in the different parts or regions of Italy.
According to the author another characteristic of the Italian identity is a tendency to individualism but also a preference of safer, closed groups, like families, factions or social classes.  This shaped a paralysed society where modern man couldn’t find his space and gain his place.  Any kind of power or property was consequentially in a few hands and politics was not considered a service to people but another way to rule and to take possession of public properties and share it with the people of your family, faction or party.
It is clear that there is a lack of a strong State with common interests and rules commonly respected.  For Ernesto Galli della Loggia this is due to the lack of a central absolutistic power in the past.  The consequence of such a factious mentality is that individual merits and ambitions are shattered in such a society.
This lack of a proper modern culture is also the result of the Church, in disallowing freedom of thought and originality of expression, and the family, closed to the horizons of individual development.

Also linked to belonging to a group, family, faction or party is the characteristic of trasformismo, that is the “policy of forming opportunistic alliances in order to retain power and weaken the opposition” (from the dictionary Il Ragazzini 2011, Zanichelli, Bologna), a common practice since Guelfi and Ghibellini and a sure way to keep the power at any cost.
The negative side of individualism is that people expect to bend and adapt common rules to their self-interest, which makes Italian people unruly citizens. According to the author even in the Italian Communist party family relations and social class had great influence.
When Italy became a nation in the middle of nineteenth century, from seventy to eighty per cent of the population was illiterate, the highest percentage in Europe after Russia (ninety per cent).
This model of an Italian identity is based also on comparisons with other European countries, especially France and the UK.  Of course this highlights the lacks and absences in Italian society and its inadequacy, already clear for Dante:
Ah, slavish Italy! thou inn of grief!
Vessel without a pilot in loud storm!
Lady no longer of fair provinces,
But brothel - house impure!
(Divine Comedy, Purgatory, canto VI, from: )
Machiavelli ends The Prince with the image of Italy “without head, without order, beaten, naked, ragged, trampled on” and therefore “ready to follow a flag, provided that there is someone that takes it” and waiting for “its saviour”.
I can deduce that the State in Italy is not supported by a solid structure of classes, intellectuals or its people in general.  There is not a common way to work and behave for the sake of the Italian State.
The author also reminds us that during the Risorgimento the dream was of a ‘new Italy’, a modern Italy that unfortunately never became a reality because it was impossible to break self-interests, factions and family links which were preventing equal rights and reward for their merits to the majority of its people.
The consequences of this are subtle rebellions and covert retaliations, like tax evasion and mass illegality.  In this climate good honest people are doomed to surrender.
In conclusion the Italian State remains weak, its administration disorganized and its image without morality or values.  In this view the only authentic institutional references since the unity of Italy, a hundred and fifty years ago, remain the Roman Catholic Church and the Carabinieri.
The final wish of Ernesto Galli della Loggia is that in the future Italy would be capable of accepting its identity and developing it in a more modern and fair vision of the individual and of its society, respecting the laws and the common interests of the nation.
I really hope it will happen, for the sake of all Italian people.  It would be a wonderful gift for the 150th anniversary of the Unity of Italy.

MAXXI, Contemporary Art; why not?
We couldn’t miss visiting a museum.  And what better place to visit, in an ancient town like Rome, than the new national museum of XXI century art, MAXXI?
It is located in the northern part of Rome, not far from Flaminio Stadium, an area of military constructions and housing blocks.  The museum was built on the site of a military barracks.  It has a total surface area of 29,000sq.m, with construction cost of one hundred and fifty millions of Euros.  It took about ten years to complete but it was worth waiting for.

The Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who project-managed the build, did an astounding job, which won the Stirling prize in 2010.  The edifice extends into its surroundings without jarring.  It is not too high, or too small, or too ‘modern’.   Its intersecting galleries emerge like slides stepping their way into each area.
Entering it, the first impression is of a free space where you can stroll, experience, chat, comment, laugh, read the captions, find a place to rest and get involved in works of art.  Walking inside the building is quite impressive.   You can discover astonishing views from glass walls, promenade decks that criss-cross with galleries or flow into huge halls where art items find a wide, comfortable space.
At the entrance desk we took a grey folder where we could store all the leaflets and the information we found around the museum.  Every work has a thoroughly informative comment in Italian and English and some have leaflets to take away and keep in the folder.
MAXXI also has a section for architecture and organizes workshops for children, with free guided visits for parents, and art talks at the weekends. According to Zaha Hadid, the aim of MAXXI is to feed the cultural vitality of the city and be a place where you can exchange ideas, “an urban cultural centre” rather than a traditional museum.  Certainly its shape gives the idea of innovation, exchange and intermingling.
As in every museum of contemporary art, or XXI century art, what you find inside can be quite puzzling, sometimes interesting, even impressive and at other times bewildering, even ridiculous or outrageous.  It is no longer a problem of liking a work of art or not but a matter of being engaged with it in some way.  It can strike you by its colour or shape, the title or the comment you read on the caption.  It makes you think, dream, explore, find something different.  This is the kind of experience I am looking forward to in a contemporary art museum.  I try to forget all my previous knowledge about art, all the great artists of the past, and be open to this new experience, here and now.  It is usually very rewarding because there are always works that provoke me, make me think and start a process.
I especially liked the room with sculptures of leather, wood and marble by Giuseppe Pennone, where the walls were covered with leather representing the bark of a tree.  The same patterns were on the marble floor.  It made me think of roots and bark again.  In the middle of the room a timber beam with resin represented sap. I felt it caught the majesty and vitality of a tree, making it resemble a live fortress.
The other work I especially liked was Pasolini Chapel by Adrian Paci: a hut with black and white drawings inside, from the film Gospel according St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini.  It expressed both the poverty of Jesus Christ and the spare quality of Pasolini’s art.
There was also a huge tapestry by a South African artist with two black figures dancing on the foreground (or this is how I interpreted it) which made me think of archetypal ancestors.
A lot of works were sculptural, places you could enter and explore, with videos to watch and sounds to hear.  The clear aim of all of them was to provoke and engage the spectator in some way.
In an Italian newspaper I read that some strange incidents happened in contemporary art museums.  In Naples (Capodimonte Museum) workers left timber beams on the floor and people thought it was a sculpture by Jannis Konnellis.  In Manhattan (Leo Castelli gallery) artists covered their paintings with black cloths in protest, and visitors commented on the pieces as if they were Minimalist Art.  In Padua a work called Legg-io by Isabella Facco (shelves with photos, books and other items) was taken by dustmen and loaded on the dustcart.
So, what is Art? We need to accept that today “anything could be art” or “nothing could any longer be excluded”, as Arthur Danto says in Beyond the Brillo Box.  This is total artistic freedom, where ordinary people can find ordinary items in a museum, manipulated and used in a different, clever way by smart artists: that is a person belonging to the ‘Art World’.  They decide what is and what is not art, according to exact reasoning and rules, including those of the art market.  In a way it reminds me of Middle Ages guilds.
As spectators we need only to trust them and enjoy, if possible.

Here are some interesting articles where you can find more information about MAXXI:
and also explanatory videos:

Montecassino Abbey
On the last day of the year (which was also our last day in Italy, as we were to fly back to England on 1st January) we had a trip to Montecassino Abbey with some friends.
I had never been there before.  But I had read a lot about it, especially with reference to WW II, when a famous battle between SS and Allied forces, lasting for four months, took place on the mountain slopes.
I was deeply impressed by the majesty of the large pale Abbey set on top of the mountain, visible from far away, impossible to miss.  When we reached the mountain and started to drive up the sharp U-bends I realized how steep the slopes where, almost vertical in some parts.  I could imagine how hard it had been for the Allied soldiers to climb them under the SS fire.

The Abbey dominates the valley underneath, the Liri valley, and is on the site of a temple once dedicated to the god Apollo.  Around 529 AD St. Benedict started to build the Abbey, including in it part of the temple.  He was an ascetic monk born in Nursia from a noble Roman family.  Thanks to his great charisma and a holy life, he founded several monasteries in Italy and started the Benedictine order based on prayer and work (ora et labora, an effective motto). 
In the anarchic political climate of the Italian peninsula, the Abbey was destroyed twice before the year one thousand; by the Longobards in 574, and by the Saracens in 883.  The most flourishing period was the age of the Abbot Desiderius (from 1058 to 1087), who succeeded in mediating between the Normans – who ruled that part of Italy at the time – the Pope, Gregory VII, and the Emperor, Henry IV.  Montecassino became an important centre of political, cultural and spiritual life.  The monks copied ancient manuscripts, handing down classic and medieval knowledge, the Abbey was enlarged and a new basilica was built.
After Desiderius’s death (he was even Pope for a few months, Victor III) there was a long period of political and social crisis when the Holy See moved to Avignon.
In September 1349 a terrible earthquake destroyed the monastery and the Pope decided to annex the property of the Abbey to the Roman Church and elect an Abbot.
The Renaissance was a peaceful period.  The Abbey was annexed to St. Justine’s congregation and maintained its power in the land around.
When Napoleon’s troops arrived in 1799 the first thing they did was to abolish the feudal privileges Montecassino still held in the area.  When Italy was finally united in 1861 the Abbey’s properties were taken by the king of Savoy and it was proclaimed a national monument.
During WW II the Germans constructed the Gustav Line to prevent the Allies from taking Rome.  The Line passed through Montecassino, which was in an ideal position dominating the south entrance to the Liri valley.  From its peak, the Allied forces were easily seen and open to fire.
In 1943 the treasure of the monastery (codes, goods and paintings) was transported to Rome by the Germans.  An astute move, because after the failure of the first attempt to seize the Abbey in January 1944 the Allied forces decided to bomb the monastery.  They thought German troops were hiding there.  Not all the Allied Generals agreed because they were unsure that they had been fired on from the monastery.  Monks and civilian inhabitants (about a thousand refugees) were warned about the bombing with leaflets, but the Germans would not allow an evacuation.
On 15th February 1944, 1,150 tons of explosives destroyed Montecassino Abbey, killing hundreds of civilians.  Only the people who took refuge in St. Benedict’s chapel, where the old Roman tower once was, survived because that part did not collapse.  Among them were all the monks and the old Abbot, Gregorio Diamare.
The SS troops occupied the ruins after the bombing and stopped the Allies for other three months till they were finally defeated on 18th May 1944.  In June the monks came back to rebuild the monastery “as it was, where it was”, funded by the Italian government.  In October 1964 Pope Paul VI consecrated the new basilica and St. Benedict was declared patron saint of Europe.

When we visited the Abbey with the guide we could see all the cloisters, the new basilica and the St. Benedict chapel, but we couldn’t visit the library.  The word Pax in red letters at the entrance reminded us of the community of monks who lived there a peaceful, ideal life centred on love and obedience, dedicated to learning, autonomously organised thanks to the lands the Abbey owned.
The square white building, similar to a fortress, retains the ancient shape of this essentially Renaissance architecture, austere and elegant at the same time.   The overall impression is that of a citadel of culture and spirituality that managed to keep its influence amongst opposing factions, devastating wars and social and political crises.
Still today, entering the basilica, the luminous fresco by Pietro Annigoni (Apotheosis of St. Benedict, 1978) states clearly the sources which inspired, created and preserved all this thorough centuries: St. Benedict’s motto based on reading, meditating and writing about the Holy Scriptures, the Abbey’s economic and social importance in the area and the fact that it has been a place of holiness since ancient times.
To know more you can visit the website:
That evening at home, we heard the end-of-the-year speech by the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano.  The speech focussed on the problems of young Italian people and their future.  The President underlined the gap between the political world and ordinary people, who are worried about the lack of progress and of opportunities for improvement which they are experiencing at all levels.  He invited people to be hopeful, to understand the global situation and its problems and to help transform the world into a more just and peaceful place.  For this reason European countries should work together, he said, strong in their institutions, to overcome the global economic crisis.  He also talked about the problems of the national debt and of unemployment, especially among young people, inviting economical and political powers to invest in them for the future of the country and of democracy.  He made a particular appeal to the thoughts that inspired and informed the Unity of Italy during the Italian Risorgimento and the speech of the Pope about collaboration between the State and the Church.  His final desire was that all should “feel for Italy”, wishing for a better, united Italy, sharing duties and hopes.
It was a most inspiring speech.

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