Democratic meltdown

'Dialogo sull'Europa' iniziativa organizzata dalla fondazione Italianieuropei

Uneasy coexistence. Massimo D’Alema (L) left the Partito Democratico with the post-communist establishment. Matteo Renzi (R) wants to take back control over the divided party.

What’s happening to Italy’s centre-left ruling party? Why are the post-communist and Christian democratic factions bringing the party on the brink of a catastrophic schism? 

I visited Cavriago, a small Italian town where ‘Christian Democrat’ is considered to be a slur, and in one of the central piazza is Europe’s only bust of Lenin. In the very heart of a centre-left stronghold, I asked residents why the Partito Democratico is imploding – but this raised more questions than it answered.

You can read my piece in this week’s New Statesman.

 

 

The Age of Inciucio

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Welcome back to the ’90s. From left: Silvio Berlusconi, Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema

 

What Italians loath more than their PMs is the inciucio – the political scam, Italian-style.

It started with Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s Frank Underwood, in 1994 when, as leader of the centre-left party, he promised to Silvio Berlusconi that he had no intentions to touch what he had dearest to his heart: his media empire.

The inciucio, the exquisite Italian tradition of never losing a political battle, allowed unfit candidates and unstable governments to hold power with variable parliamentarian geometries throughout the ‘90s and the early 2000s.

Those who view the Constitutional referendum as a vote against Europe and a revolt against globalisation are misleading you.

The Italian referendum is a mere domestic issue. It’s the struggle for power of those political figures that PM Matteo Renzi, The Scrapper, wanted to get rid of to shape his own version of Italy for the next decade. With the ultimate inciucio, a far-from-perfect deal struck by centre-left and centre-right, Mr Renzi wanted to pave the way for a third Republic, take advantage of the centre-right in a comatose state and give a clear majority and an unambiguous mandate to whoever was to run for the premiership. Specifically: himself.

The reform was flawed, of course, and it was indeed the result of a dubious compromise between unelected leaders.

Matteo Renzi, however, underestimated his political opponents, both from within and without his party. Namely, Silvio Berlusconi and Massimo D’Alema who adopted Tomasi di Lampedusa’s most memorable quote as their political motto: “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.

The missed opportunity of a Constitutional reform is a perpetuation of this old habit, a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of a political class that is too scared to go to general election and will prosper in economic stagnation, producing the much-adored ‘scalene triangle’ government: everybody wins but nobody is in charge.

The secret lives of the Mafia hunters

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The ‘Band of Lions’ during the arrest of a Mafia boss.

The Mafia still holds a romantic aura, partly because of Hollywood movies, partly because of our fascination with the criminal underworld.

Street plaques at every corner of Palermo (with endless lists of Palermitans, journalists, lawyers, Police officers, judges brutally murdered by mobsters) are shadowed by street vendors who sell Godfather T-shirts or gun-shaped cigarette lighters.

My interview with IMD, one of the ‘invisible’ officers of the Catturandi –the elite squad that rounds up members of the mob – came out on BBC Magazine the other day. It’s meant to shed a light on the daily fight against organised crime and the extraordinary lives of these ‘cops’ who can’t tell what they do for living to their loved ones to protect them from death threats and retaliation.

The Mafia might kill less than a decade ago but its presence looms over Italian politics, business and finance and, as IMD tells me, it’s harder than ever to separate the good guys from the bad guys.

As the piece came out, Public Radio International interviewed me to better understand what the Catturandi does and how Italy is managing the battle against Mafiosi while mob leader Matteo Messina Denaro is still on the loose.

You have to read this piece – it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

At a football match, the real (freak) show is on the bleachers.

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As I was ambling through my Christmas holidays, getting up from a crowded dinner table just to sit down again for another abundant meal, I decided to go see a football match.

I’m not a sports fan, really, although I consider myself to be a champion in shade-lifting and meal-skipping. This was the second time I entered a stadium: the first time, I was puzzled because I thought they would provide some sort of commentary from the stadium speakers to allow people like me to understand what was going on on the field. But I guess football aficionados don’t need a distracting narration while shouting to support their team.

A friend of mine, a very dedicated football journalist and Guinness-gulper, invites me to a Serie D match, one of lowest leagues in Italian football, to see Piacenza-Ciserano.

Sunny day, almost a thousand supporters in the stadium, lots of families and a soft breeze that makes the bank holiday afternoon look more like an early spring evening.

As the game starts, a woman the age of my mother vehemently puts all her energies into putrid strings of invective, bombastic exhortations against God and all the known saints. Next to her, her teenage daughter who seems more interested in browsing on social media and her husband, a man with sad eyes and slumped shoulders desperately busy in digesting the last round of pork ribs.

Safe inside the press box that looks more like the back of a garage, I quickly lose interest in the match and I start following the creative imprecations of this lady that suddenly turns her anger toward the referee, an easy target for any football fan. To her defence, he misses a couple of obvious fouls, but that’s not the point. As I was used to hear allusions of the alleged unfaithfulness of the referee’s wife, causing him to be cornuto, cheated on, therefore the ultimate offence for an Italian macho, the lady rapidly shifted to queer, cunt, Southerner and, to my disbelief, Albanian.

Now, given that I’m still baffled by how people still consider certain nationalities an insult (You, piece of Swede, pass the ball has a little comic effect on me), dropping queer or cunt at a football match – or anywhere else, for that matter – gives me a little headache. Especially when other senior reporters answered my incredulity for the gratuitous slurs with: “If a Southerner queer and an Albanian cunt had a baby, that would be the referee.”

Alright, I do not expect to find Oxford alumni at a football stadium but who would have thought that, a decade and a half into the 21st century, we were still stuck at the 1984’s two minutes of hate?

French secret services: license to chill?

What just happened in Paris highlighted a gigantic hole in the French counterintelligence system.

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the hole in the intelligence system is as big as the hole in La Defense

The city that was still recovering from the Charlie Hebdo massacre, has been beaten up and left bleeding once again last night in a carnage of such a magnitude and brutality that will for sure shape the European homeland security for the years to come.

But the real question is: how on earth heavy-armed men with Kalashnikovs in their hands, grenades in their pockets and explosives in the trunks of their cars can freely roam the streets of Paris completely unnoticed?

If this was a surgical coordinated event on seven different locations, where were the French secret services?

Yearly budgets on national defence are fairly hard to decipher and, mostly, they are covered by secrecy for national security reasons. What we can find are rough estimates on military expenditures that cover counterintelligence, civil defence, Police and military forces and military pensions but we can say for sure that the French government yearly allocates €500 million ($538.4 million) on intelligence. Last year, the executive added €48.9 million ($52.6 million) to its annual budget and, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, French President François Hollande promised he would raise military spending by €3.8 billion ($4.2 billion) over the next four years.

Now, given that France spends more on military budget that any other major European country, this hole in the counterintelligence systems appears to be an appalling paradox.

When in Rome, don’t do as the mayor does

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A view of the Eternal city: Rome is as beautiful as it is corrupted

Over the last couple of days, Rome has been monopolizing the headlines of many news outlets across the globe. All for the wrong reasons.

As the Eternal city is exceptionally beautiful, it is also incredibly hard to understand Rome, its own perception of time and the stratification of mafia networks, clientelism and corruption that centuries of bad governance have inflicted to the Eternal city.

I remember the laughter of an old woman at the cafe’, while I was visiting a friend last year, when I confessed that “since tube workers are perennially on strike, I might as well take a bus to get around town”. After drying her tears of incredulity, she then put a hand on my shoulder: “I’ve been waiting for my bus for the past 45 years son, so good luck with that”.

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Rome’s mayor Ignazio Marino

The last of a long succession of unsuccessful mayors is Ignazio Marino, 60, a surgeon from Genoa who lived and operated in the States for many years. As people close to him told me during his electoral campaign, “he doesn’t know Rome at all, he’s all but prepared. We had to employ an aid that would accompany him around to explain him the issues of different neighbourhoods, to help him locating places and mentally remember streets and avenues. I’m impressed he won the election”.

Now Marino is in trouble following an expenses row that will potentially lead to his resignations. Turns out, as a matter of fact, that the mayor has been quite loose with the municipality’s credit card, offering expensive dinners and extravagant buffets to friends and family.

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The flamboyant carriage for the don’s funeral

Then, while Rome was paralysed by pyramids of trash in the middle of the streets and public transport personnel on a strike (not to mention, of course, a Godfather-style funeral for a local don that featured a golden carriage pulled by white horses and a brass band that played, ca va sans dire, the Godfather soundtrack), he decided to leave Rome at its crumbling destiny and take the first flight to Philadelphia, the last stage of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. “He invited me” Marino said while boarding. But on his way back, the Pontiff made it clear: “Never invited the mayor of Rome, nor did the organisers of the ceremony”.

Quite a bummer when you get busted by the Pope.

In his last attempt to settle the case, Marino tried to pay back the €20,000 of restaurant bills but it was a little too late and it resembled a Marie Antoniette-esque attempt to throw croissants to the villagers to prevent the revolution.

Of course it is Italy, so there’s not going to be any revolution (we’re all cousins in the end, and our mothers wouldn’t allow us to fight one another) but the extraordinary Jubilee called by Pope Francis will start in a few months and the Eternal city must have a mayor that is more concerned about the decadent state of the city’s infrastructure beleaguered by the mafia and less about what’s new on the restaurant menu.

Thanks a million

The story of Chiara Vigo, the last sea silk weaver on earth, came out the other day on BBC Magazine.

Despite the initial scepticism – is she a phony witch? A real guru? The ultimate master of a forgotten tradition? – people from around the world read the story and liked it wholeheartedly for its simplicity and for the message it carries: the sea silk, the most precious fabric in the world, is not for sale because it would be like “commercialising the flight of an eagle”. More than a million people clicked on the story, making it the fourth most read news story of the day on bbc.co.uk

For three days straight I received hundreds of emails and dozens of tweets from complete strangers who wanted to personally thank Mrs. Vigo for sharing with us her story. Some of you also submitted original poems both in English and Italian (Google translator does wonders!), drawings and illustrations to show how inspiring Mrs. Vigo has been to all of us.

For this, and for all the warms words of affection, thank you.

 

EDIT: Even the Smithsonian Magazine talked about my story, Chiara Vigo and her incredible tradition. What an honour!

Italy is a miracle

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Piazza del Campo, Siena, as people gather in the square before the Palio

During my shenanigans in the old country I hopped on my car, held hostage a partner in crime – the good old Ferruccio – grabbed my old tent and we drove without destination throughout Tuscany.

We ended up in Siena for the Palio, a renowned horse race where ten jockeys ride bareback around the city’s piazza. Ten riders representing the different contrade (neighbourhoods) challenge each other on the tracks to determine which borough has more power and strength. But the Palio is not just a simple horse race as it defines the very essence of Siena, its history and culture: most people feel so attached to their neighbourhood that their babies are baptised not in churches under a cross but in stables with the flag of the city ward.

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horses race around the piazza during the Palio

I then walked among poor houses that time turned into noble palaces and I thought to myself that there are moments when Italy seems a miracle and Italians just invincible.

I stood in a silent piazza filled with 50.000 people where the only thing you could hear was your heartbeat and the galloping of the horses and I was welcomed in a neighbourhood where they treated me like family. Wine was abundant, laughter was sincere and old ladies didn’t deny a rich plate full of pasta to anyone.

Why beauty and intelligence, stratified here throughout centuries, didn’t make Italy immune to weaknesses and misfortunes?

How to catch a mafioso

So, I got on a plane thinking that I was going to enjoy some good and well-deserved vacations in Palermo, Sicily. It never really happened.

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the Vucciria neighbourhood in Palermo

As I landed and managed to reach the famous market of Ballaro’, I noticed that two or three helicopters started hovering over the city centre. Before I could realise it, I found myself in the middle of a gigantic Police operation where 11 men linked to the number one mafia fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro got arrested.

My vacation turned instantly into an assignment trip and, let me tell you, my girlfriend was not exactly happy about it.

After a few phone calls to local journalists –real heroes, I assure you, with a moral compass that allows them to report on mafia while receiving death threats on a daily basis – and police officers who fight organised crime in the streets of Sicily, I met I.M.D. an extraordinary cop that has arrested top mobsters such as Toto’ Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.

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the olive tree in via D’Amelio, Palermo, where the mafia killed judge Paolo Borsellino in 1992

He belongs to the Catturandi squad, a special Police department that only deals with organised crime – you can spot them on TV reports because they’re the only one wearing a balaclava while arresting mafia affiliates. He’s been doing this for many years, since “the death of judges Falcone and Borsellino” because he wanted “to help my city, my region to get rid of this deadly tumour called mafia”.

They have to act incognito, they wiretap Mafiosi for decades, listening to their lives, their modus operandi, their strategies. They basically live with them, follow them, talk like them and, most importantly, think like them. And then, when the right time comes, they raid their houses, they pull them over and arrest them. “My family doesn’t know what I do for living” I.M.D. tells me “they think I work at the passport office, a boring desk job”. Except for his wife: “One day she was preparing dinner and watching the eight o’clock news. A prominent mafia boss was being arrested on live television and she looked closely into the TV screen: this boss was escorted by a man with a balaclava. She squinted on the Police officer and she recognised…well, she recognised my butt, so I had to tell her because your wife can always recognise you from a million miles away”.

Keep on reading these pages and I’ll soon tell you where you can find the full interview with I.M.D.

Have a great summer!

Gold that can’t be bought or sold

There is an old woman on a remote island of the Mediterranean that still weaves an ancient thread of fine linen. It is called byssus and it is perhaps the oldest fabric in the world. Emperors and Kings wore it as a sign of wealth; rich Phoenician, Greek, Egyptian and Roman families had byssus embroidered on their tunics; Popes and rulers had their insignia adorned with this fabric.

The reason is that the byssus, a thin filament extracted from large clams (yes, clams, can you imagine that?) shines like gold when exposed to the sun.

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During the past week, I travelled with Andrea to Sant’Antioco, a small island on the south-west coast of Sardinia, to meet the last woman in the world who still extracts the linen and weaves it like her ancestors: Chiara Vigo.

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You can find plenty of references of the byssus in the Bible as well as on the Rosetta stone because the history of this fabric goes back to the very beginning of civilization.

Now, Mrs. Vigo – or zia (auntie) as locals call her – endlessly weaves the so-called sea silk, this precious and priceless thread. Priceless because it cannot be bought or sold and it can only be gifted to young pregnant women and newlywed couples.

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You’ll read more about this fascinating story on BBC Magazine in the weeks to come.

As usual, the pictures you see around here are Andrea’s who turned out to be a competitive Fil’e Feru drinker, one of the strongest grappa I’ve ever tasted.