At the conclusion of my annual trip to Italy, I wish to share with you my impressions of this marvellous country, so full of treasures and contradictions.
It took me a couple of days to adjust to a temperature difference of at least 30 degrees (between Canberra nights and daytime temperatures of Friuli where I spent most of my time).
This summer turned out to be particularly hot politically as well as meteorologically. The sentence of four years’ imprisonment against Berlusconi was confirmed by the highest Italian court and this led to much recrimination by him and his party against the judges, typically accused of being ‘communist’. Over the ensuing weeks, Berlusconi was consistently the No. 1 item in the media particularly because as a result of this sentence he should lose his position as senator but at the time of my departure his side of politics was still exploring various options to avoid this ‘decadenza’ (ie loss of political position).
To add to the political woes, the phenomenon of comedian Beppe Grillo’s party Movimento 5 Stelle (that won a quarter of all votes at the 2013 elections, the second-highest percentage of any party) continues to dismay commentators. Having spoken to a range of people who voted for this party, I learned that it was a form of protest against all politicians who are typically seen as feathering their own nest instead of working for the good of the party. Many people said to me: what Italy needs now is a strong dictator to impose the respect for rules and honesty. It’s scary to think some people miss a Mussolini-type figure because they have lost faith in democracy.
As for my region of Friuli, it made the national news for the wrong reasons. Firstly, there was a ‘rave party’ in our area called ‘magredi’ (an area characterised by highly permeable rocky/gravelly soil on which nothing much grows unless there is constant irrigation) attended by some 1000 young people arrived from all over Italy. The party lasted two days and the police, completely outnumbered, could not go in to stop it. It patiently waited for people to leave the party and then booked over 400 of them for various reasons.
Secondly, a battle between GM and GM-free agriculture is being fought using Vivaro as a base – in my village a field was planted with GM corn and this corn was almost ready to be harvested. The first Sunday of September those fearful of GM agriculture arrived in Vivaro and partly trampled the field. Opponents are sceptical about its safety, fearing medical repercussions down the track, maybe in a few generations, whereas supporters argue that GM corn is already entering Italy from other European countries where its cultivation is legal. It is hoped that the courts will reconcile the permission given by Europe to its cultivation with its illegality under Italian law.
Thirdly, some of the mountains of Friuli burnt for days as bushfires hit inaccessible areas – airplanes were called in to drop water on the fires. Bushfires here are quite rare. There was some talk of climate change.
But Friuli was also mentioned positively in relation to the nomination by President Napolitano of four life senators of whom one, 1984 Nobel prize winner Carlo Rubbia is a physicist from Friuli. Now, the concept of appointed ‘life senators’ would be inconceivable in Australia and indeed are a luxury that Italy can ill afford (they are entitled to many privileges), yet the tradition lives on.
The issue of refugees continued to be hot. Over the first 8 months of the year, 20,000 African people had arrived on rickety boats, mostly in Sicily. Many perish at sea [indeed, in October there was an immense tragedy with some 300 lives lost]. Italians are divided between compassion for these poor people and resentment due to compassion fatigue. In any case, they are placed in centres and their refugee status is evaluated before being released in the community or sent back.
Australia made the news only rarely. Two issues stood out: our tough policy on boat arrivals and the election of a conservative government. There is great interest by young people in migrating to Australia and some awareness of the difficulty of doing so. People watch with interest the numerous documentaries on Australia shown on Italian TV. At the time of the Venice Film Festival there were several articles on Kate Blanchett who has ‘successfully combined motherhood with a film career’.
Fewer Italians could afford to go on holiday this summer and those who went spent less money. Pessimism was on the increase, despite official statements that Italy had turned the corner. Factories continued to close and ordinary people continue to do it tough: general unemployment was 12% while youth unemployment a staggering 42%. Italy has lost competitiveness due to its high costs of production and red tape. Just an example: a paper recycling factory in Friuli has closed because it was cheaper for the paper collected to be shipped to China from where it returned as cardboard than to have it processed in Italy!
Venice hit the headlines when a German professor was crushed to death during a gondola ride he had taken with his wife and daughter. The gondola had collided with a vaporetto (water bus). Enquiries were proceeding but attention was drawn to the thousands of boats using the Grand Canal every day, ranging from water buses to taxis, transport and emergency boats, and gondolas.
Despite the church losing ground in terms of the number of practising Catholics, Pope Francis (Papa Francesco) is viewed very positively by Italians and his simple ways are refreshing and welcomed. He might even bring the faithful back as he is connecting with the people. I was in St Peter’s Square on Sunday 8 Sept (together with some 100,000 other people) for his Angelus prayers at noon. He gave a short speech in which he condemned wars and suggested they might even be fought for the commercial interests of arms manufacturers and dealers before giving his blessing. He captivated those present with a friendly “Buon giorno a tutti” at the start and “Buon pranzo” at the end.
Also on the positive side, I wish to acknowledge a special friend in my village – Sergio Tommasini. He had a career as an executive for Zanussi (a white-goods company from Pordenone subsequently bought by Electrolux) but who cultivated his love of literature throughout his life. And he’s blessed with an amazing memory. I was surprised when during one of my visits, in talking about Lake Como, he launched on a recitation of the opening paragraphs of I promessi sposi, Manzoni’s greatest historical novel, in which the writer describes the lake. Then while talking about Italian poets, he indicated his love of Leopardi – and proceeded to recite L’infinito. Finally, we got talking about Dante’s Divine Comedy and I asked him to recite for me the canto of Paolo and Francesca – and he immediately obliged, after thinking for a few seconds how it started. I just wonder how many verses are imprinted in his memory. Sergio is now retired and spends his time tending his vegetable garden and his fruit trees as well as baking the occasional cake but my guess is that he’s thinking literature even while digging his garden. Sergio would be admirable on stage.
Apart from the joy of listening to Sergio’s recitations, I feel pleasure in playing the tourist while visiting Italy. This year I visited the Julian Alps again (Monte Lussari and the Tarvisio area); Turin – where I saw the Stupinigi palace, climbed the Superga hill on the little cog train (cremagliera), and saw two special exhibitions at the Venaria Reale palace (one of the frocks designed by famous fashion designer Capucci, and the other of the Bucintoro, the 18th c. boat built in Venice for the royal family of Savoy); Verona, where I attended a performance of the opera La traviata at the Arena; the Biennale in Venice – contemporary art that has the power to bewilder, amaze and entertain me. Unlike the Australian entries at earlier Biennali, this year’s entry was most disappointing.
I visited again the amazing Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli in Spilimbergo where art and craft combine as can be seen in the school’s mosaic reproduction of Michelangelo’s statue La pietà.
And I took another plunge into art by visiting again the Vatican Museums and spending half an hour inside the Sistine Chapel in contemplation of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
I had a negative experience in Rome, unfortunately common for tourists all over the world. Having stopped with a friend at a restaurant to have a salad (the price was shown on the menu at the door – €12) we also ordered a bottle of water and two coffees during lunch but these came at ridiculous prices: €5 for the water and €12 for the coffees – prices totally out of kilter with the salad price. What rip-off merchants! So if you go to Rome, I suggest you avoid Romano in Via Borgognoni (not far from Piazza di Spagna).
Tourists like me continue to flock to Italy – truly il Bel Paese – for good reason. But it may be hard to beat a happy-looking English lady I met on a boat ride on Rome’s Tiber who told me she loves everything about Italy (“…the Italians, the chaos!”) and that she had been just about everywhere. “One day I flew from London just to climb to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa… and flew back home the same evening!”