April 24, 2015

The Weight of a Word

Pope Francis with Armenian Religious leaders His Beatitude Nerses Bedro XIX Tarmouni, His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Aram I at Mass in St. Peter's Basilica April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of Vatican TV video

Pope Francis with Armenian Religious leaders His Beatitude Nerses Bedro XIX Tarmouni, His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Aram I at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of Vatican TV video

In over 20 years working as a journalist, I don’t think I’ve ever covered a story where one word counted so much. Genocide.

Prior to Pope Francis’ Mass on April 12th to mark the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, we debated the question all week. Will Pope Francis use the word genocide? I spoke to Vatican journalists, I spoke to Armenian officials and I spoke to Turkish journalists and every last one of them told me they did not think he would.

I was a bit perplexed. Pope Francis is known for being forthright and not beating about the bush.

Pope Francis celebrates and Armenian-rite Mass to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. April 12, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis celebrates and Armenian-rite Mass to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. April 12, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

My colleague Nicole Winfield, AP Rome Bureau Chief, pointed out to me that when Pope Francis was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires he was close to the Armenian community. Nicole and I confirmed this when we were invited to a gala dinner a few nights ahead of the mass with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and had a brief moment to chat with the President.

But speaking to Turkish colleagues inside Saint Peter’s just before the Mass, they convinced me that the Pope would not do it. They said it would create too many problems with Turkey and that if he did say “genocide” the reaction by the Turkish government would be fast and furious.

The Mass started. Pope Francis came straight down the center aisle of Saint Peter’s walked up to the altar and delivered a greeting that blew us all away.

He started out…

“…today we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by a general and collective indifference….in the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered “the first genocide of the 20th century” struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks. Bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

I was standing with AP cameraman Luigi Navarra and two colleagues from Turkey on a platform for TV cameras at the side of St. Peter’s Basilica. We looked at each other in shock and muttered, “he said it!!”. I rifled through my purse for my cell phone and squatted down between the tripods to call Nicole Winfield – “Do you hear that???!!!” I whispered. “I’ve just filed an alert,” she responded calmly.

So then I frantically took notes on the rest of the speech and began to tweet.

The Pope went on:

“The remaining two were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism. And more recently there have been other Mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia. It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood.”

I tweeted “#PopeFrancis does not mince words. Refers to “genocide” 2 times in mass with Armenians

The Pope continued passionately, “It seems the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today too there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by. We have not learned yet that war is madness”

As he headed towards his conclusion, Pope Francis said:

“Dear Armenian Christians, today, with hearts filled with pain but at the same time with great hope in the risen Lord, we recall the centenary of that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forebears had to endure. It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honour their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester. Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!”

I tweeted:

#PopeFrancis at Mass for 100 anniversary of #ArmenianGenocide “where there is no memory evil keeps the wound open and allows it to bleed”

WOW! Talk about calling a spade a spade. Talk about not mincing words. This Pope doesn’t mess around.

Pope Francis presides over Armenian Rite Mass to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in St. Peter's Basilica. April 12, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis presides over Armenian Rite Mass to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in St. Peter’s Basilica. April 12, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The Turkish government doesn’t mess around either. Shortly after the Mass, the Turkish government summoned the Vatican Ambassador to Turkey for a dressing down and then the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican was recalled for consultations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted “The Pope’s statement, which is far from historic and legal truth, is unacceptable.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Pope Francis not to repeat his “mistake” of calling the slaughter of the Armenians a “genocide.”

According to the English language Turkish daily the “Hurriyet Daily News”, Erdogan told a meeting of the Turkish Exporters Assembly on April 14th:
“Whenever politicians, religious functionaries assume the duties of historians, then delirium comes out, not fact. Hereby, I want to repeat our call to establish a joint commission of historians and stress we are ready to open our archives. I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him.”

(A little aside here, I covered the Pope’s visit to Turkey and his meeting with President Erdogan in November 2014 – see blog post: Pope Francis in Turkey- Post 1 and even back then the relationship between Erdogan and Pope Francis did not seem very warm and fuzzy) Nevertheless, Erdogan referring to Pope Francis’ comment as “delirium” is a clear indication of his government’s anger.

So back to the question of the Armenian “genocide”. I have never studied the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 20th century so I will just quote what my colleague Nicole wrote in the AP wire:

“Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.”

Turkey denies that is was a genocide and both the United States and Italy have not ever officially recognized the massacre as a genocide.

So what does the word “genocide” mean and what qualifies as a genocide? A little fishing around the web and I have come up with the official United Nations’ definition from 1948

“Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

This definition seems a bit vague to me. How many people have to die to call it a genocide?

Aram I  Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church speaks in St. Peter's Basilica. April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV.

Aram I Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church speaks in St. Peter’s Basilica. April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV.

So, why so much sensitivity about what seems in the case of the killing of the Armenians an obvious genocide. During the Mass I was struck by the powerful words of some of the Armenian leaders present. Aram I, Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church stood on the altar in St. Peter’s and declared forcefully in English: “According to International law, genocide is a crime against humanity and international laws spells out clearly that condemnation, recognition and reparation of genocide are closely interconnected.” Earning the applause of the hundreds of people gathered in the Basilica.”

Ah, reparations. That is a whole other issue that I will not get into.

And if that was not enough for one papal event, following the Mass, the Pope issued a message to all Armenians in which he said:

“It is the responsibility not only of the Armenian people and the universal Church to recall all that has taken place, but of the entire human family, so that the warnings from this tragedy will protect us from falling into a similar horrors, which offends against God and human dignity. Today too, in fact, these conflicts at times degenerate into unjustifiable violence, stirred up by exploiting ethnic and religious differences. All who are Heads of State and of International Organizations are called to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.”

So not only was the Pope unabashedly using the word “genocide” he also called on other heads of state to do so. Is the Pope accusing the US, Italy and other nations of ambiguity and compromise? It certainly sounds like it.

President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan at the Armenian Rite Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. April 12, 2015

President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan at the Armenian Rite Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. April 12, 2015

Following the Mass, I hopped in a taxi with Luigi and Nicole and rushed from the Vatican to Via Veneto where we had an interview with the Armenian President at the plush Baglioni Hotel. The Armenians were packed in the lobby clearly rejoicing in the moment. Up in his suite, President Sargsyan was positively glowing., “I think that Pope Francis has delivered a powerful message to the international community,” he told us, adding “We are getting messages from Armenians all over the world who are touched by this message. They consider that this 100 years long fight for recognition is still going on, but there are already significant results.”

I wanted to write a blog post on this topic earlier, but I have not had the energy and feel unable to tackle the full question. I exchanged emails with a Turkish friend who said while he personally believes the slaughter of the Armenians was genocide and needs to be recognized as such, there are many delicate issues among which the question of reparations and the intermingling of Turkish and Armenian blood. He wrote me the following:

“Another factor is that there is so much mixed Turkish and Armenian blood among present day Turks. For example, my grandmother’s family adopted an Armenian orphan during that time period in Erzurum where my mother’s family is from. She was found naked in a field and they knew she was Armenian because of the Christian tattoo on her arm. She was adopted by the family and raised as a Muslim but was found one day burying a necklace with the Armenian cross in the backyard for fear of someone finding it – years after being adopted around age 8. So she had a sense of the danger. We are not the only family that has mixed blood of this nature. I think somehow admitting the genocide interacts with not wanting to reveal the mixed blood.”

Since this blog is about being a mother, I would like to conclude on this moving story of this child. The debate has been about a word, but as usual it is the children who are always caught in the middle. My heart goes out to that young girl with her little Christian tattoo on her arm. She was adopted by a kind and generous Muslim family, yet was still frightened enough to bury her necklace with a cross in the yard.

 

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April 17, 2015

The Exodus

A young migrant stares forlornly off in the distance as he waits in line in the port of Pozzallo, Italy, shortly after disembarking from Italian Coast Guard ship after being rescued at sea.  April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

A young migrant stares forlornly off in the distance as he waits in line in the port of Pozzallo, Italy, shortly after disembarking from Italian Coast Guard ship after being rescued at sea. April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

“It’s an Exodus” sighed Sargeant Marco DiMilla who works in the press office for the Italian Coast Guard when I called him frantically Wednesday morning trying to figure out which ports the Coast Guard ships would be landing at in Sicily and disembarking migrants rescued at sea.   He reeled off some numbers and places as I rapidly took note, four hundred in the Sicilian port of Trapani, 500 arriving in the port of Augusta, another 300 in the port of Pozzallo, and hundreds disembarking at that moment in the port of Palermo.

Over 10,000 migrants have been rescued at sea by the Italian coast guard, navy and merchant ships this past week. In Sicily, migrant holding centers are overflowing with thousands of migrants and the Italian government is flying and bussing them to centers across Italy stirring a national debate as Italy’s northern regions resist cooperating.

A migrant rescued at sea disembarks from a Coast Guard ship in the Italian port of Pozzallo with one shoe and one bare foot.  April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

A migrant rescued at sea disembarks from a Coast Guard ship in the Italian port of Pozzallo with one shoe and one bare foot. April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

I’ve written a lot about the migrants on this blog, in my most recent post on this topic (see blog post: The Dinghy Debate) I explained that 170,100 migrants arrived on the Italian coasts in 2014, so far in 2015 the number is over 21,000 according to Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) who spoke to us today.

The figures on the dead at sea are a rough calculation based on survivors estimates of how many people were on their ship and how many died when it capsized. Di Giacomo of the IOM told us today that they believe there are at least 900 who died trying to make the crossing so far this year.

The figures get fuzzy but the facts are simple. Libya has descended into chaos. The traffickers in Libya have free hand to run the show, filling up rubber dinghies and rickety wooden boats until they are crammed with the poor, hungry and desperate, shoving them off to sea with not enough petrol to get very far and phones to call the Italians for help. Now that the weather is getting warmer and the sea calmer, the boats attempting the crossing have increased dramatically.

Italian police arresting an alleged Tunisian trafficker aboard the Coast Guard ship Fiorillo. April 16, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Gino Maceli

Italian police arresting an alleged Tunisian trafficker aboard the Coast Guard ship Fiorillo. April 16, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Gino Maceli

This week the police in Ragusa, near the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, were busy arresting human traffickers. So far they have arrested 16 suspected traffickers this year. They explained to us that the traffickers charge 600 euros for a spot in a rubber dinghy – mostly taken by poorer Sub-Saharan Africans from Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Eritrea and Somalia. The cost for a place on wooden boat is higher, and mostly goes to migrants who can pay more, in particular the Syrians. Those prices can run from 1500 dollars to 4000 dollars, according to the Italian police.

As the traffickers raise the prices, they become increasingly violent. Flavio Di Giacomo of the IOM described for us today the scene on the Libyan shores as survivors have described it to them. “When they arrive on the beach (on the Libyan coast), when they are ready to leave, some people are scared, they change their mind, but there is an unwritten rule that some migrants told us about, it is once you pay, you can not go back. Even if some migrants see that the weather conditions are bad, the vessels are really unsafe, unworthy, and they change their mind, they can not do that. So they are forced to get on board with sticks, and with guns.”

A young migrant with a number, 208A, looks determined and hopeful as he stands in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily after being rescued at sea.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra April 17, 2015

A young migrant with a number, 208A, looks determined and hopeful as he stands in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily after being rescued at sea. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra April 17, 2015

On Thursday we also had the unexpected arrest of 15 migrants following reports of a fight breaking out between Christians and Muslims on a migrant boat. Survivors said the Muslims threw the Christians overboard. A police statement said those arrested were accused of multiple homicide aggravated by religious hatred. This news made headlines around the globe. An investigation is underway, however, an interview by one survivor today on Italian State Television threw some doubt on the story as a Christian survivor speaking in minimal English described it as a fight between Christians and Muslims with most of them ending up in the water.

So what happens to all these migrants once they arrive. The ones who have relatives in other parts of Europe try to head north to France, Sweden, Germany as soon as possible, the poorer migrants remain.

Two young migrants playing soccer at "Umberto I" holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Two young migrants playing soccer at “Umberto I” holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I was in Sicily a few weeks ago where I visited the migrant center “Umberto I” near Siracusa. There I found 195 African men who were trapped in limbo with nowhere to go, no money to get there, no legal documents and sinking hopes as they waited, perhaps in vain, for political asylum. They had all arrived by boat, making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean in the past few weeks and were just standing around waiting to see what would happen to them.

According to a report on asylum seekers released in March by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees there was a stunning increase in the request for political asylum in Italy in 2014.  The report shows 63,700 people requested asylum in Italy making it the highest year on record and a jump of 148 percent from 2013.

While Syrians and Eritreans have been the national groups with the most people arriving on Italy’s shores, they tend not to request asylum in Italy.  The top number of asylum seekers come from Mali (9,800 requests in 2014), followed by Nigeria and Gambia.

A migrant sits near a cat and plays with his cell phone as he passes the time at the "Umberto I" holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas March 24, 2015

A migrant sits near a cat and plays with his cell phone as he passes the time at the “Umberto I” holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas March 24, 2015

The men from Mali, Nigeria and Gambia at the “Umberto I” center were wearing an odd assortment of clothing clearly provided by charity groups. Many were in bright green and red sweat suits, one man was in a professorial tweed jacket and another appeared to be wearing a girl’s coat with fake fur collar.

The center provided them with phone cards worth 2 euros and 50 cents every day so they could communicate with their families back home, or they could opt for a packet with 10 cigarettes.  Most of them appeared to have cell phones and seemed to fill the long hours glued to them playing games and listening to music.

Some of the younger men kicked around a soccer ball on a concrete court with some nets at the back of the center.

A migrant turns back to look at me curiously as I take his picture as he walks past some graffiti with the word "Somalia" outside the "Umberto I" migrant holding center near Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A migrant turns back to look at me curiously as I take his picture as he walks past some graffiti with the word “Somalia” outside the “Umberto I” migrant holding center near Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The men were free to leave the center and walk around the town as they pleased, but if they fled before they had appeared before a commission to request political asylum, they would lose their chance to get it.

Their stories were all similar; escape from their own countries – Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Ivory Coast – harrowing trips through the desert with people falling off the back of 4-wheel drive trucks and left to die, little water and food.  When they reached Libya many were persecuted, thrown in prison, and harassed by bandits.  Eventually they made it onto a rubber dinghy headed across the Mediterranean.

Koffi Kouodio Hermann of the Ivory Coast said he was escaping war and killing in his own country and now wants to try to find a way to bring his wife and children to Europe.  He said he studied natural science, history and geography at University and hopes he can find something to do in Europe.

Lamin Beyai from Gambia wore red headphones on his head and slipped them up on to his forehead as he chatted with me.  He said he is waiting to see if he can get political asylum, but he cannot go anywhere because he has no documents.  He described his recent trip across the Mediterranean, “It is not easy being in the sea where anything can happen.  Only God can save you there.”

As he told his story, Landing Sono, a 25-year-old from Senegal, threw his hands over his face saying, “if I think about it I want to cry because I have no money, not even these clothes are mine.  I was a man…in the name of God.”

The Italians are desperately calling on the rest of Europe to do its part to help with this crisis. There pleas are being met with tepid enthusiasm by the rest of Europe. I have been struck however, by the determination of the Italians to continue. My colleague Andrea Rosa interviewed a Coast Guard Lieutenant this morning who is Captain of the Fiorillo ship. The ship had just brought 301 migrants into port. Captain Giuseppe Di Maggio told Andrea, “I think all of us wish that a mediation and a solution can be achieved at a European and international level to this emergency, which is affecting our country now more than ever. As for us, we have a moral, ethical and professional duty to save people at sea, no matter what the international agreements are.”

As I went through the video and photos to decide which ones to put in this post, a few lines came to my mind — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”  Those are the words of poet Emma Lazarus whose lines appear on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Migrants packed on the deck of a Coast Guard ship as it docks in port eagerly looking towards the shore.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 17, 2015

Migrants packed on the deck of a Coast Guard ship as it docks in port eagerly looking towards the shore. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 17, 2015

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April 11, 2015

The Return of the Sexy, Brilliant, Bald Guys

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.  Note the lack of tie and untucked shirt.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. Note the lack of tie and untucked shirt.

This whole question of the sexy, brilliant, bald guys popped up the other day because my colleague Paolo Santalucia and I were trying to get out of an assignment. It was Friday afternoon in the office and Paolo called across from his desk to me and said, “Hey Trisha, I’ve got the perfect assignment for you, a romantic weekend in Venice with your kind of man.”

That got my attention and I asked for more details so he forwarded an email to me from our beautiful, talented, super-mamma colleague in Athens, Teodora Tsongas. Teodora was informing us that the new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis would be attending a conference in Venice on Sunday. We needed to send a cameraperson and a journalist to Venice to stand outside the conference all day and try to get a comment from Varoufakis on the ferocious negotiations going on with Germany over the Greek debt.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis with leather jacket, jeans and no tie.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis with leather jacket, jeans and no tie.

If any of you blog readers outside of Europe are not familiar with Yanis Varoufakis, he is the Greek Finance Minister in the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who came to power at the end of January. Varoufakis has taken Europe by storm with his confident manner and his brazen challenge to his nemesis German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. While Greece has been struggling to hold up its head amidst its humiliation in the Eurozone, this guy oozes ego. No humble pie for Greece with Varoufakis. He has become the star of anti-austerity movements in Europe, and made Greeks proud.

But as sexy, brilliant and confident as Varoufakis may be, that did not mean I wanted to ruin my weekend standing around outside a doorway in Venice hoping for a thirty-second soundbite.

So I emailed back to Paolo and Teodora something along the lines of: “I am not into brilliant, sexy, bald men, personally I prefer them hirsute. So, I guess someone else will have to do the romantic weekend in Venice, Paolo???”

Paolo shot back: “I am not into men. And besides, didn’t you marry a sexy, brilliant, bald man??? How can you say you’re not attracted to them???”

And then an email from Teodora popped up with something along the lines of: “Don’t worry Trisha, we’ve got hirsute for you. Our new Prime Minister Tsipras is headed your way, he’s certainly got a full head of hair and with his government’s “no-tie” policy you are free to enjoy his chest hair as well.”

Oh good grief. I hope our AP bosses aren’t reading our internal emails, this could get embarrassing!!

Let me first explain Teodora’s response. For those who are not aware, the Greek government has created a fashion revolution in Europe. Prime Minister Tsipras has declared that they will not wear ties until the debt crisis is resolved. This fashion statement has probably sent more fear through European capitals than concern over Greek default. In Italy, where elegance is everything, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promptly presented Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with a tie on their first meeting. British and German officials have appeared quaky and queasy when Varoufakis shows up to meetings in leather jackets, no tie and shirts untucked. But the key to Varoufakis’ rock star success, is that he clearly thinks he is gorgeous. He exudes confidence and seems convinced that he is the hottest guy in town. No insecurity about lack of hair on his pate.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presents tie to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the Prime Minister's office in Rome.  February 3 2015

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presents tie to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the Prime Minister’s office in Rome. February 3 2015

So that explains Teodora’s email. On Paolo’s email, what can I say? Yes, I do happen to be married to a brilliant, bald guy who is similarly convinced that there is no need for hair on your head to be hot.

I met my husband, Gustavo Piga, while we were both graduate students at Columbia University in New York. Back then – age 26 – he was already well on his way to baldness and it did not seem to bother him a bit.

My husband, Gustavo Piga.

My husband, Gustavo Piga.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with bald men. After all, my Dad had a full head of hair (and still does at age 81—you can see a photo in this blog post “Keep Your Eye on the Ball”). Although, I do remember once my mother mentioning that she thought Yul Brenner was “quite something.”

Actor Yul Bynner - bald and beautiful

Actor Yul Bynner – bald and beautiful

But back to Gustavo in New York.

He had a little curl that was the last remaining holdout just above his forehead. As he spent long hours bent over his books working towards his PHD in Economics, he would distractedly roll that little curl around and around and around on his index finger. When he would jump up from studying and charge off to do something else, he would not realize that it looked like a lonely unicorn’s horn on the top of his balding head. I, who clearly had more hair hang-ups than he did, urged him to stop messing with that lone holdout or it would soon be lost forever. He ignored me and I believe that lonely lock went down the shower drain before we even got married. But he didn’t care. He knew he was a brilliant, beautiful, bald guy.

I have to say that I admire that. If you are going bald you might as well love it. You could be like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who has spent so much on hair transplants that when you get near him, his head looks like a Christmas Tree farm. Or those sad fellows who wear toupees and actually think people believe that the strange looking mini-rug on their head is real hair. Or those poor suckers who spend fortunes on creams, liquids, drugs and other hair growth treatments hoping in vain for a little extra fuzz on top.

And for all those lucky men with full heads of hair, beware of the return of the sexy, brilliant, bald men with Greece’s Varoufakis leading the charge.

By the way, we sent a freelancer to do the door-stepping in Venice. (If you want to know more about door-stepping, check out this post (Doorstepping the High and Mighty)

p.s. If you actually want to read something intelligent about Greece and their economic crisis, you can check out Gustavo’s blog www.gustavopiga.it

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April 4, 2015

Darkness, Despair and Light at the Via Crucis in Rome

With a full moon overhead, a crowd of faithful packed around the Colosseum in Rome waiting for Pope Francis and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony. April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

With a full moon overhead, a crowd of faithful packed around the Colosseum in Rome waiting for Pope Francis and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony. April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Dear Blog Readers,

Just a quick follow up to the “Tired Pope Post” yesterday. Last night I covered the Via Crucis at the Colosseum. As I mentioned yesterday, it is one of my favorite events on the Vatican calendar because of the intermingling of the violent history of the Colosseum with gladiators battling to the death, the cruelty of the Roman Emperors with their famous thumbs-up or thumbs down to decide the fate of a gladiator – the brutality and the spectacle in the Roman tradition. Then mix that with the brutality and the spectacle of the death of Christ, and it is quite discouraging.

The Colosseum is stunningly beautiful on this occasion. Huge crosses are lit up with candles, whose flames blow and flicker in the wind inside the Colosseum and on the Velian hill facing it where there are the remains of the ancient Temples of Venus and Roma. Two people carrying meter-long white blazing torch-candles accompany the individuals who take turns carrying the large cross. Among those who carried the cross last night were men and women from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, China and Latin America, and there were families, nuns and people with handicaps all taking turns.

Pope Francis praying during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at Rome's Colosseum on Good Friday. April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis praying during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum on Good Friday. April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The Pope sat up on the hill facing the Colosseum in and took part in the readings as the participants made their way through the stations.

Each station marks a moment in the route Jesus took towards his crucifixion and the readings linked several moments of Christ’s agony to current events. At the second station the reading spoke of Jesus being dressed up as a king and a crown of thorns placed on his head. The soldiers made fun of him and spit on him. The reading went on to say, “even in our day there are men and women who are imprisoned, condemned, and even slaughtered just because of their beliefs or because of their work for justice and peace.” The reading then recalled the words of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian who was assassinated by armed men on March 2, 2011. He was serving as Minister for Minority Affairs and was trying to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The “Way of the Cross” readings quoted a letter Bhatti wrote in which he said he wanted to give himself “to the service of Christians, especially the poor, the needy and the persecuted…”

At the 10th station the soldiers remove the clothes of Christ, violating his dignity. The reflection in the reading spoke of modern day violations of dignity—“human trafficking, the condition of child soldiers, work that becomes slavery, children and adolescents robbed of themselves, wounded in their intimacy, barbarously profaned.”

(I think they were referring to children and adolescents who are victims of pedophiles.) The reading went on: “You (Christ) push us to humbly ask forgiveness from those who have endured these offences and to pray so that finally the consciences may be awakened in those who have darkened the sky in the life of these persons.”

At the 11th station when Christ’s hands and feet are nailed to the cross, the reflections said, “And in our consciences urgent questions arise. When will the death penalty, still practiced in numerous countries, be abolished?  When will every form of torture and the suppression of innocent people be cancelled?”

Pope Francis takes part in the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis takes part in the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

After the 14th station the Pope said his brief words. What struck most of us listening were his comments apparently referring to the Christians recently massacred in the Middle East and his J’accuse of our silent complicity. He said, “we see even today, before our very eyes, and often with our silence and complicity, our persecuted brothers and sisters, decapitated, crucified for their faith…”

Pope Francis has been vocal in denouncing recent tragedies calling this week’s massacre students at a Kenyan University “senseless brutality”, and the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS militants in Libya in February a “barbaric assassination”.

Pope Francis deep in prayer during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis deep in prayer during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

So from the brutality of the ancient Romans in the Colosseum, to the cruelty and humiliation of Christ in Jerusalem, and to modern day massacres and decapitations, the Way of the Cross was a grim reminder of the horrors humans can inflict on each other.

Note: Tomorrow is Easter and certainly that is a more uplifting event at the Vatican. When I cover it, I love to get the Vatican press office’s list of the different flowers on display around the altar in St. Peter’s Square and learn where they have come from. The TV crews are positioned up on the top of Bernini’s Colonnade and get a fabulous bird’s eye view of the Easter Mass below. But I will not be covering it this year. Instead, I have 11 people for lunch. One friend is a vegetarian and I am using her as an excuse to avoid cooking lamb.  After all the references in the Via Crucis last night about taking the lamb to slaughter, I am definitely not up for it.  So, I am making Eggplant Parmesan, which I have never done before. My cameraman colleagues and Mamma friends – all excellent cooks, unlike me– have been giving me conflicting advice on whether it is better to fry or grill the eggplants. My Marcella Hazan cookbook is telling me to fry. Any suggestions foodie friends?

Workers light candles on cross inside the Colosseum as they prepare for the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) with Pope Francis. April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Workers light candles on cross inside the Colosseum as they prepare for the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) with Pope Francis. April 3, 2015. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

And once again, a big thank you to AP photographers Gregorio Borgia and Alessandra Tarantino for handing over their beautiful “throw-away” photos to Mozzarella Mamma after they filed for AP.

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April 3, 2015

Is Pope Francis Tired?

Pope Francis holding the Gospel during the Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis holding the Gospel during the Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Dear Blog Readers –

Pope Francis is neck deep in Easter Week celebrations and I have the distinct feeling he is tired. He said it himself Thursday morning in the Chrism Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Chrism Mass is the annual Mass held on the morning of Holy Thursday during which the Pope blesses the silver vats of oil that will be used in the sacraments in the parishes of Rome throughout the year.   Although it gets little attention, I always love this ceremony – the large silver vats being wheeled into the Basilica, and the Pope leaning over to blow his blessing. The Mass is celebrated in the Basilica with the bishops, priests and nuns from Rome.

Pope Francis blowing inside a vat containing oil to be used in the sacraments in parishes in Rome throughout the year during Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Holy Thursday.  Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis blowing inside a vat containing oil to be used in the sacraments in parishes in Rome throughout the year during Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

But what struck me this time was the Pope’s Homily. It was entirely dedicated to the tiredness of priests, the weariness caused by the efforts made in their work. The whole time Pope Francis was speaking, I had impression he was talking about himself. Just a few weeks ago, on the 2nd anniversary of his Papacy (March 13th), the Pope said in an interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki that he did not think his papacy would last long, he also said that what he would really like to do is go out and get a pizza without being recognized.

So here are a few quotes of what he said at the Chrism Mass.

“The tiredness of priests! Do you know how often I think about this weariness which all of you experience? I think about it, often, especially when I am tired myself.”

So, he is tired. He went on to say:

“It can also happen that, whenever we feel weighed down by pastoral work, we can be tempted to rest… We must not fall into this temptation.”

So, the Pope is tired, but he is not going to take a rest. We already knew that. In addition to the Easter activities, this Pope keeps a frenetic schedule, wearing down all those around him. In the next months he is planning to go to Sarajevo (June 6th),  take a trip to South America visiting Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Colombia in July, and visit the US in September, going to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, followed by a visit to Washington to speak to a Joint Session of Congress and a visit to the UN in New York. He has also said he wants to visit Africa this year.

And if that were not enough he’s got to gear up for the second round of the Synod of Bishops on the family in October where the bishops will have to hammer out some definitive conclusions to all the questions left hanging after fierce discussions in the first round – communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and how the Church treats homosexual relationships, and co-habitation to name a few.

And once he’s wrapped up the Synod, it will be time to dive into the Jubilee Year preparations. Pope Francis announced a Jubilee Year starting December 8th dedicated to forgiveness and mercy.

An angel and cherubs struggle under the weight of the cross on a relief on the wall in St. Peter's Basilica. Photo taken for Mozzarella Mamma by Gregorio Borgia during the Chrism Mass April 2, 2015

An angel and cherubs struggle under the weight of the cross on a relief on the wall in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo taken for Mozzarella Mamma by Gregorio Borgia during the Chrism Mass April 2, 2015

During a Holy Year, the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica and doors in three other churches in Rome are left open. People passing through the doors will receive salvation. The first Holy Year was declared in 1300 by Pope Boniface and the last one was under Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Next Saturday, April 11, there will be a special ceremony in front of the Holy Door with the reading of various passages of the Papal Bull of Indiction announcing the Jubilee of Mercy.

And now back to his tiredness speech. Here is another quote:

“There is what we can call “The weariness of people, the weariness of the crowd.” For the Lord, and for us, this can be exhausting…yet is a good weariness, a fruitful and joyful exhaustion.”

Could it be that the Pope who throws himself passionately every Wednesday into his weekly audience, frequently stopping his popemobile as it tours St. Peter’s Square to kiss every baby presented to him and to caress and hug every handicapped person he sees, is getting weary of all the crowd and people who want a piece of him?

Pope Francis kisses baby during weekly audience in St. Peter's Square, April 1, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara.

Pope Francis kisses baby during weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square, April 1, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara.

He also spoke of tiredness of dealing with the bad guys. He said:

“There is also the kind of weariness which we can call “the weariness of enemies”. The devil and his minions never sleep and, since their ears cannot bear to hear the word of God, they work tirelessly to silence that word and distort it. Confronting them is more wearying.”

Could the Pope be thinking about those trying to block his reforms of the Curia?  Or is he thinking about recent terror attacks in Kenya, and Tunisia?  I would not know.

An orc from "Lord of the Rings"

An orc from “Lord of the Rings”

(A little aside here – I am taking these quotes from the official Vatican translation into English. For big events, the Vatican provides official translations for journalists in a variety of languages. In this case – French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. I love the choice of the translator to use the word “minions” in English to describe the devil’s assistants. It brought to my mind the wretched orcs from “Lord of the Rings” but then I mentioned it to my kids and they said they thought of the new film “Minions” with the little guys dressed in yellow and blue with goggles on. )

A Minion from the film "Minions"

A Minion from the film “Minions”

The Pope concluded that one should feel “impelled to go out even to the ends of the earth to every periphery.” In this way we can bring the good news to the most abandoned, knowing that “he is with us always even to the end of the world” Let us learn how to be weary, but weary in the best of ways.”

I felt – and this is just my personal opinion—that the Pope is telling us what he is thinking about his own mission. He is tired. He is weary, but he feels “impelled to go out to the end of the earth, to every periphery.”

And that was just the morning Mass. In the afternoon, he traveled across Rome to the Rebibbia Prison where he said Mass for the prisoners and washed the feet of 12 inmates and one child. There were five male prisoners and five women, one with a little boy in her lap. The Pope also washed and kissed the boy’s foot. The boy stared at the Pope with big brown eyes and such an serious expression as though he understood the importance of the gesture.

Pope washing the feet of a little boy in the lap of his mother, a prison inmate in Rome, as part of the Holy Thursday foot-washing Mass at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. April 2, 2015.  Freeze frame of video released by Vatican TV.

Pope washing the feet of a little boy in the lap of his mother, a prison inmate in Rome, as part of the Holy Thursday foot-washing Mass at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. April 2, 2015. Freeze frame of video released by Vatican TV.

 

 

 

Addressing the prisoners, the Pope said: “Even I need to be cleansed by the Lord…so that the Lord also washes my filth… so that I become more slave-like in the service of people as Jesus did.”

This evening Pope Francis took part in the Celebration of the Passion of Christ Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.  He walked down the center aisle of St. Peter’s wearing a burgundy colored robe.  He then lay flat on his stomach on a a rug at the center of the basilica and prayed for several minutes.  Again, I thought he seemed tired.

Pope Francis lies on the floor in prayer during the Celebration of the Passion of Christ in St. Peter's Basilica. April 3, 2014.  Freeze frame of Vatican TV video.

Pope Francis lies on the floor in prayer during the Celebration of the Passion of Christ in St. Peter’s Basilica. April 3, 2014. Freeze frame of Vatican TV video.

Tonight is one of my favorite events in the Vatican Calendar, the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, at the Colosseum. I love to cover this event because of the beauty of the spot, the history of the Colosseum — the brutality of the deaths of all those gladiators and animals mixed together with the history of the Catholic church and the brutality of the end of life of Jesus.

I will update on that tomorrow.

Note:  A big thank you to AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia who passed on to me some of his extra photos after he finished filing for AP.

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March 17, 2015

Italy’s Couchsurfing Policeman

Accused rapist and former policeman Dino Maglio with female guests. Photo provided by Investigative Reporting Project Italy.   www.irpi.eu

Accused rapist and former policeman Dino Maglio with female guests. Photo provided by Investigative Reporting Project Italy. www.irpi.eu

Dear Blog Readers,

I am in the city of Padua in northern Italy where today I was covering the trial of the couchsurfing policeman, Dino Maglio.  In the first day of the fast-track trial, the prosecutor asked for Maglio to be sent to prison for 7 years and 4 months for drugging and raping a 16-year-old Australian girl.  We had to keep the story brief for AP, so here is a little behind-the-scenes version on a story of the dangerous effects of some forms of social media.

In March 2014, an Australian mother came to stay with Maglio with her two daughters, the older was 16.  They had contacted Maglio through his profile on the “Couchsurfing website (www.couchsurfing.com)

Today the girl’s lawyer, Boris Dubini, told reporters outside the courtroom that Maglio had first given the 16-year-old girl alcohol and tranquilizers until she was a “rag doll”. He added, “she was reduced by the drug to a piece of meat to take sexual advantage of.”

Dubini explained that the next morning the Australian mother discovered her daughter naked in bed with Maglio acting lethargic as though she had been drugged. She took her girls and fled to the police in Venice.

But the Australian girl was apparently not the only one.  Many young women looking for a cheap vacation in Italy had a similar brutal surprise when they used the couchsurfing.com website to find a place to stay in the northern Italian city of Padua.

The thirty-five-year-old Dino Maglio had a popular profile page on the website and attracted young female guests from all over the globe including Australia, Canada, Portugal, the US, Hong Kong and the Czech Republic. He used the nickname “Leonardo” on his profile and with his guests.

Freeze frame of Dino Maglio's Couchsurfing profile page.  Photo provided by: Investigative Reporting Project Italy.   www.irpi.eu

Freeze frame of Dino Maglio’s Couchsurfing profile page. Photo provided by: Investigative Reporting Project Italy. www.irpi.eu

The website is designed to help people traveling on the cheap find places to stay for free and has millions of users. The website sounds convincing: “We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.”

“Cultural exchange and mutual respect” was not exactly what Maglio had in mind.

Freeze Frame of Couch-surfing website.

Freeze Frame of Couch-surfing website.

While in Padua, I had a chance to discuss this case at length with Alessia Cerantola, an investigative reporter with the website IRPI, Investigative Reporting Project Italy.  Cerantola is part of a team of investigative reporters who have been collecting testimony from women who stayed with Maglio.  She provided me with extensive information and several of the photos used in this post.

Maglio began in 2013, perhaps even earlier, having girls stay at his apartment. According to testimony gathered by IRPI from the young women, he took them around, plied them with compliments, took them out dancing and to dinner and late at night, back in his apartment, offered them his homemade wine or some tea. What the guests did not know is that the late night drinks were laced with narcotics intended to knock them into a stupor. While the young women were drugged out, Maglio allegedly raped them.

The first young woman to report anomalous behavior was from Portugal—she wrote a comment on the website review section. She told Cerantola’s team at IRPI that Maglio then contacted her by Facebook and threatened her that he would use his power as a policeman to create problems for her at border controls throughout Europe.  He has made similar threats to a Asian girl. Undeterred, the Portuguese woman worked with IRPI to contact other young women who had left reviews and found that many had had similar experiences.

Alessia Cerantola told us that the IRPI team has now gathered similar stories of drugging and alleged rape from other countries including the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, and Canada with reports from over 10 women. She says now that more articles are being published about the case, even more women have contacted them.

Despite the complaints and investigation, Maglio managed to wiggle free and try again with new phone numbers, email addresses and profiles on the couch-surfing site.

 

Couchsurfing policeman Dino Maglio with female guest. Photo provided by:   Investigative Reporting Project Italy.   www.irpi.eu

Couchsurfing policeman Dino Maglio with female guest. Photo provided by:
Investigative Reporting Project Italy. www.irpi.eu

Cerantola explained that many of the young women were afraid to go to the Italian police because Maglio was a policeman. However, when they reported the incidents in their own countries, nothing was done. Medical checks weeks after the incidents did not confirm they had been raped, and in several countries, including Portugal and the Czech Republic according to Cerantola, police did not act. *** Only Scotland Yard, after receiving a report from a British woman, filed a report to the Italian police.   Meanwhile Maglio, according to IRPI’s testimony, repeated his routine over and over again.

It was not until the Australian woman went to the police in March 2014 that Maglio got caught.

Police searched Maglio’s apartment and found pedophile pornography and an illegal gun. Maglio was arrested but then later released on bail. He was put under house arrest and ordered not to use the couch-surfing website again.

At the end of the month, lawyers say, the prosecutor sent police on a simple check of Maglio’s apartment to make sure he was obeying the house arrest. When police entered, they found Maglio with two other young women couch-surfers, one from Argentina and one from Armenia. Both young women were acting drugged out and said they felt nauseous. Maglio had managed to create a new couch-surfing profile under another false name and had already found new prey.

Maglio is now being held in the military prison Santa Maria Capua Vetere in southern Italy.

A list of safety basics on the Couchsurfing website.

A list of safety basics on the Couchsurfing website.

The couch-surfing website does provide a list of suggestions for safety, and has a “safety team” which reviews suspicious profiles and a place for couch-surfers to privately report negative experiences. Nevertheless, lawyers say, Dino Maglio did manage to quickly open a second profile after he was released on bail and within a few weeks have two new female couch-surfers.  Clearly the couchsurfing safety net has a few holes in it.

Today Couchsurfing.com sent a representative to the trial and when today’s hearing was over the website released a statement from their CEO, Jennifer Bullock, to the press. It said:

“Couchsurfing applauds the courage of the women who have chosen to speak out in the interest of seeing justice served. Our hearts are with them today. We have cooperated – and will continue to cooperate – with local law enforcement officials in their investigation of these allegations, and offer these brave women our heartfelt support.

FINAL NOTE:

Alessia Cerantola of Investigative Reporting Project Italy told me that more young women continue to report similar incidents to them.  If any blog readers have something similar to report, they should contact the www.irpi.eu or Alessia and the other IRPI investigative reporters directly at

alessia.cerantola@gmail.com

cecilia.anesi@irpi.eu

giulio.rubino@gmail.com

https://irpi.eu/irpileaks/

***UPDATE from Alessia Cerantola

Below is extra information that Alessia Cerantola provided me after I published this post. The names she uses have been changed to protect the young women.

“On September 29th, 2013, Marcia, the Portuguese girl, reported “Leonardo Maglio” to the Portuguese police in a small town near Porto.  Then the three Czech girls went to the police but they were told it was too late and they could do nothing from where they were.  They tried through the Czech Embassy in Rome but with only a vague reply.  Then Oliwia from Poland went to the local prosecutor in her town without any success.  It was later discovered two other Polish girls, Emma and Amalia, had reported Dino Maglio’s behavior in August 2013 in Austria.  According to Cerantola, these girls told them the following, “It was awful, scary and embarrassing.  The police did not take us seriously.  I was trying to hold back tears.  We were asked why we didn’t report this in Italy.  We said we were scared since he was a police officer.  Austrian police said they could do nothing as none of the individuals involved were Austrian citizens.”

 

 

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Dinghy Debate

Italian Coast Guard rescuing migrants coming on a rubber dinghy from Libya on February 17, 2015.  Freeze frame of video provided by Italian Coast Guard

Italian Coast Guard rescuing migrants coming on a rubber dinghy from Libya on February 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video provided by Italian Coast Guard

Dear Blog Readers –

With fears of terrorists hopping on boats and crossing the Mediterranean, suddenly Italy – which has been pulling migrants out of the sea by the thousands over the past year – is witnessing a strong backlash against migrants.

This weekend the leader of the right-wing anti-Euro, anti-Migrant Northern League led a massive rally in Rome denouncing the government of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and demanding that Italy’s immigration policy be changed.

Panoramic photo of Piazza del Popolo during Northern League Rally.  Police estimated a total of 30,000 people were are the rally.  Photo by Gigi Navarra. February 28, 2015

Panoramic photo of Piazza del Popolo during Northern League Rally. Police estimated a total of 30,000 people were are the rally. Photo by Gigi Navarra. February 28, 2015

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini called the government’s immigration policy a “disaster” and said they want to limit immigration “with every possible instrument.”

Mario Borghezio, a representative of the Northern League to the European Parliament, had harsher words to say, “…our proposal is to do a deep “cleaning” all around the country, and also in Europe of all the illegal migrants.” He went on to insist that his party as “no problem with asylum seekers who have the right to the asylum, but with the majority of immigrants, who are coming here to search for a job…should not be allowed to stay in or country. They should go home”

Deep Cleaning. That sounds a lot like ethnic cleansing.

Neo-Fascists from the group Casa Pound join the Northern League rally in Rome holding a banner that says "Enough Euro", "Enough Immigration" , "Let's take back Italy."  Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 28, 2015

Neo-Fascists from the group Casa Pound join the Northern League rally in Rome holding a banner that says “Enough Euro”, “Enough Immigration” , “Let’s take back Italy.” Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 28, 2015

Among the protesters were hundreds of members of the neo-fascist group Casa Pound. They marched to Piazza del Popolo through Rome’s Villa Borghese park wearing black shirts and waving Italian and anti-migrant flags under heavy police escort.  My 14-year-old daughter was in the park with me as the Neo-Fascist procession passed and got angry “brutti fascisti — vattene via”  (Ugly fascists, go away)  she kept repeating under her breath until I urged her to go home and let me do my job.

Police estimated there were some 10,000 people in the Piazza and wandering among them I felt as though they were less extremist than some of their leaders. Their basic concern seemed to be the economy – jobs, taxes etc. Yuri Quaranta from Priverno, Italy voiced what many Italians say about the migrants arriving in Italy, “This is an invasion without precedent. Among the 150,000 migrants who arrived last year for sure there is at least one terrorist, one terrorist, among 150,000. I hope I am wrong”.

Although the Italian government of Prime Minister Renzi has repeated its position that it does not believe that terrorists are coming over on dinghies and other migrant ships, the concern continues to grow.

It did not help this month when some ISIS extremists began tweeting using the hashtag #We_are_coming_O_Rome   If any of you blog readers want a laugh, go look at the reaction of the Romans on twitter with that hash tag. Romans have tweeted back warning the ISIS fighters that they will get their tanks stuck on the nightmare ring-road (the Raccordo Annulare) in traffic, they have offered to sell the fighters the Colosseum saying they will take credit cards, have warned them of the terrible pickpocket problem in the city, warned the terrorists not to wear white sneakers or they will stand out like tourists (the bella figura requires more elegant footwear), someone even invited them to attend one of Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties, another invited the fighters to enjoy an “aperitivo” in the Eternal City.   (I must admit, I think this is Romans at their best, instead of ringing their hands and drumming up the fear of terrorists, they are taking the twitter threat in stride).

Tweets aside, there is a threat that Italians are taking very seriously. Libya has descended into chaos, the horrific beheading of 21 Coptic Christians this month was a clear reminder of how close the madmen are and how brutal they can be.

As an indication of the government’s concern, Italy has moved a naval ship, reportedly with Special Force on board, off the Coast of Libya.

And the migrant boats continue to depart from Libya on a daily basis.

Italian Navy photo of migrants in rubber dinghy in LIbyan waters January 15, 2015

Italian Navy photo of migrants in rubber dinghy in LIbyan waters January 15, 2015

So, who are the migrants arriving in Italy? A quick look at figures provided by Italy’s Ministry of Interior show that a total of 170,100 migrants arrived by boats on the Italian coast in 2014. Of those migrants 13,096 were children. The national groups with the most arrivals were Syrians (42,323) and the second national group was Eritrean (25,155).

The figures on 2015 are less clear, but what we have so far is EU figures that show in January a total 5,600 migrants were saved making the crossing. Figures provided by the non-profit organization Save the Children show that between January 1st and February 20th 7,491 people made the crossing to Italy from Libya.

Friday evening I covered a counter-demonstration by Romans who are pro-migrant and did not want the Northern League to be given the beautiful, enormous Piazza del Popolo for their rally on Saturday.

Pro-migrant protesters use rubber dinghies to show their solidarity with migrants crossing the Mediterranean as they face off with riot police in Rome. February 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pro-migrant protesters use rubber dinghies to show their solidarity with migrants crossing the Mediterranean as they face off with riot police in Rome. February 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

This group, using rubber dinghies blocked the traffic on the Muro Torto – the main road running along the old Roman City wall. Three hundred protesters with rubber dinghies faced off against dozens of police in full riot gear. Eventually the police charged the protesters, whacking them with batons and lighting the dinghies on fire.

Police burn dinghies after charging pro-migrant protesters.  February 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Police burn dinghies after charging pro-migrant protesters. February 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The protesters fled and the demonstration was dispersed. Several people were injured.

Police with injured protester at pro-migrant rally in Rome. February 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Police with injured protester at pro-migrant rally in Rome. February 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Needless to say the migrant question is just heating up in Italy.

In the meantime there was an interesting press release from Save the Children this week on some of the children who have arrived sadly caught in the middle in this dinghy debate.

According to Save the Children, as of February 22, there were 91 children at the holding center for migrants on Lampedusa, 3 from Somalia were accompanied and the remaining 88 unaccompanied.  The breakdown is 45 from Eritrea, 16 from Somalia, 6 from Mali, 6 from Senegal, 5 from Gambia, 4 from Palestine, 3 from Benin and 1 from Nigeria.

The stories of what happens on these dinghies (and other migrant ships) are well known.  The violence of the traffickers, the fear of drowning, people weak and dying, women giving birth, migrants so tightly packed in they cannot move — but from a perspective of a child it is even more frightening.

Save the Children tells of a 16-year-old boy watching traffickers push migrants into the sea because they are weak and ill, others speak of their fear or drowning because they do not know how to swim.  Others have been hand-cuffed in detention cells in Libya until their families send the money for the crossing.

More on the children in another post, and more on the dinghy debate as it continues in Italy.

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February 25, 2015

Cobblestones, Car Chases and a Bond Woman

Actors Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig pose for photographers on a terrace at Rome's City Hall with Roman Forum and Coliseum in background.  Photo by AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma. February 18, 2015

Actors Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig pose for photographers on a terrace at Rome’s City Hall with Roman Forum and Coliseum in background. Photo by AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma. February 18, 2015

Rome has been in a Bond tizzy this past week as the cast and crew of the latest Bond movie “Spectre” have descended on the Eternal city.

We’ve had a silver Aston Martin with license plate DB10 AGB bouncing over the cobblestones and racing up the steep embankment wall of the Tiber River chased by an orange Jaguar. We’ve had Bond in black driving gloves and cameramen in boats with helmets on, and a new, sexy Bond Woman.

Director Sam Mendes has brought “Spectre” to Rome for 20 days of filming. Prior to the arrival there was plenty of moaning and groaning about the expected road blocks, bus route changes and general inconvenience. But now that they are here, I’ve seen a lot of enthusiastic Romans.

A source in Rome’s City Hall told me that the production company has already paid 500,000 euros for permits, overtime for traffic cops, and extra garbage collection, and the amount is expected to rise to 800,000 or maybe even to one million. The official told me the first day alone the production company paid 120,000 euros to the city. The city is also expecting the film to generate roughly 16 million euros during its stay in Rome. There are hundreds of extras, hundreds of security guards, production crews, catering services, drivers, and hotels gaining from the film.

In addition to those working on the film, the Paparazzi are having a field day and Romans are spending hours standing around on bridges and back streets of the center trying to get a photo of the film sets.

The day before the filming was set to begin James Bond (actor Daniel Craig) and this film’s Bond Girl (actress Monica Bellucci) showed up for a photo-opportunity on a terrace outside city hall with the breath-taking view out over the Roman Forum and down to the Coliseum.

Monica Bellucci posing for photographers  on a terrace at Rome's City Hall.  Photo by AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma. February 18, 2015

Monica Bellucci posing for photographers on a terrace at Rome’s City Hall. Photo by AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma. February 18, 2015

Monica Belluci was looking gorgeous in a red tube dress—which brings me to an important point. Monica Bellucci, at age 50, is the oldest “Bond Girl” in history. She looks great beside Daniel Craig who is 4 years younger. Actually, guess what? She is not a Bond Girl, she is a Bond Woman – mature, sexy, and self-confident. Bellucci plays a widow named Lucia Sciarra. Certainly a far cry from some of the earlier Bond Girls – Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder, and Plenty O’Toole.

A politically incorrect one liner by an earlier James Bond (Sean Connery)

A politically incorrect one liner by an earlier James Bond (Sean Connery)

Daniel Craig and Monica Bellucci were together during the first day of filming in the EUR neighborhood of Rome, built under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The two were exchanging a few words at a funeral. Apparently the production company did not get permission to use the Verano Cemetery in Rome for the film so they created their own cemetery between the columns of the Museum of Roman Civilization.

Actors  Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig (on left) taking part in a funeral scene on the set of the latest James Bond film "Spectre" on location in Rome. February 19, 2015. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia

Actors Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig (on left) taking part in a funeral scene on the set of the latest James Bond film “Spectre” on location in Rome. February 19, 2015. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia

Romans have had a ball watching the film crew struggle to do car chase scenes on the city’s cobblestones. The low-riding silver Aston Martin has been getting caught up in the omnipresent holes in the roads.   And in a scene the other night in the narrow cobblestone streets of the Borgo –near the Vatican—actor Daniel Craig reportedly bashed his head on the roof of the Aston Martin when they hit a bump in the road and had to be treated by an ambulance crew on site.

Cars rigged up for filming a car chase scene on Corso Vittorio Emanuale II in the center of Rome.  February 24, 2015

Cars rigged up for filming a car chase scene on Corso Vittorio Emanuale II in the center of Rome. February 24, 2015

Craig, despite the bumps, has been the picture of James Bond gentlemanliness. He has appeared constantly in black suit and tie, mostly with black driving gloves. I have been intrigued by the souped-up cars used for the car chase scenes. They have some big black construction on top with men sitting inside, some of the cars are encased in intricate metal frames. I can’t figure out who is driving and who is filming.

An impeccable Daniel Craig in black driving gloves working on a car chase scene and struggling with the cobblestones on Via San Gregorio in Rome.   February 20, 2015

An impeccable Daniel Craig in black driving gloves working on a car chase scene and struggling with the cobblestones on Via San Gregorio in Rome. February 20, 2015

Tom Rankin – a fellow American living in Rome with a blog SustainableRome who works hard to make Rome more environmentally friendly , was a little disappointed with the car chase along the bike paths on the embankment of the Tiber River. He told the AP, “It is unfortunate they chose the bike path as a place to race cars. Wouldn’t it have been great if Bond hopped on a bicycle in order to escape…I don’t know—I think using the Aston Martin is kind of old school.”

James Bond's Aston Martin drives up the embankment wall along the Tiber River in Rome with a jaguar racing along behind and cameraperson in helmets in boat.  February 20, 2015 (freeze frame of video from anonymous paparazzo camerawoman)

James Bond’s Aston Martin drives up the embankment wall along the Tiber River in Rome with a jaguar racing along behind and cameraperson in helmets in boat. February 20, 2015 (freeze frame of video from anonymous paparazzo camerawoman)

He is right. Old School. But one thing at a time – we’ve got a Bond Woman in “Spectre” maybe we will have a Bond Bike Chase in the next Bond movie.

There is more excitement still to come. James Bond (or a stunt man) is expected to parachute out of a helicopter and onto the old Ponte Sisto (a pedestrian bridge crossing the Tiber) between the old city center and the Trastevere neighborhood. His Aston Martin is supposed to crash into a Fiat 500, and he is expected to escape into the Villa Torlonia—a Museum in a park that once was Mussolini’s Villa—and run through the Villa’s underground tunnels.

A souped-up SUV with strange contraption on the top used on the "Spectre" set in Rome. February 20, 2015

A souped-up SUV with strange contraption on the top used on the “Spectre” set in Rome. February 20, 2015

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Outrageous, Divine Marquise

Portrait of Luisa Casati by Giovanni Boldini - on display at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 6, 2015

Portrait of Luisa Casati by Giovanni Boldini – on display at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 6, 2015

Once upon a time there was a bizarre lady living in Venice who wore her pet boa constrictor around her neck, walked her cheetahs on a leash in St. Mark’s Square with her Nubian servant Garbi following behind holding a peacock feather parasol over her head.

She was the Marquise Luisa Casati, a flamboyant, extravagant woman who used her vast wealth to make herself into a living work of art.

I had never heard of Luisa Casati until a few months ago when a heavy package arrived for me  in my office containing a large catalogue for an exhibit in Venice called “La Divina Marchesa,” which has brought together some of the many works of art representing the Marquise Luisa Casati. As I flipped through the catalogue I became steadily more intrigued by this narcissistic woman who moved in the wealthiest circles in Europe and passed from the Belle Époque through the Roaring Twenties throwing lavish costume parties and dabbling in the occult.

This woman lived through two world wars without seeming to have taken much notice.

 

Portrait of Luisa Casati by Augustus Edwin John on exhibit at Palazzo  Fortuny in Venice. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 6, 2015

Portrait of Luisa Casati by Augustus Edwin John on exhibit at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 6, 2015

Luisa Casati was a distinctive and attractive woman – tall and slender, with big dark eyes. But she was not beautiful in a classical sense. Early on the Marquise decided she wanted to stand out.   She began dyeing her hair carrot red, using dark kohl all around her eyes to create a rather raccoon effect, and she regularly used poisonous Belladonna eye drops to make her pupils seem seductively enormous. She then covered her face with powder so she had a ghostly pallor.

She didn’t bother hanging around with her husband very long, and sent her only child off to boarding school while she gallivanted around the world throwing fabulous parties and having herself painted by the world’s most famous artists.

 

The Marchesa Casati by Joseph Rous Paget Federicks

The Marchesa Casati by Joseph Rous Paget Federicks

For some time the Marquise Casati rented the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni in Venice and used it for her extravaganzas. The gardens were filled with her private zoo—her cheetahs, snakes, parrots, peacocks and monkeys. These animals would frequently accompany her about in her private gondola. Naked servants painted gold and holding lanterns would wait to greet the guests arriving by canal at her Palazzo for a party.

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was later bought by American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and turned into a museum.

Famed portrait artist Giovanni Boldrini was the first to paint la Casati at his studio in Paris. She took up residence at the Hotel Ritz while doing the sittings for the portrait.

While at the Ritz, Casati got to know Catherine Barjansky, a famous sculptress who was asked to make a wax figure sculpture of the Marquise.  Barjansky wrote of Casati in her book, “Portraits and Backgrounds” “She had an artistic temperament, but being unable to express herself in any branch of art, she made an art of herself.  Because she possessed no inner life nor any power of concentration, she sought wild ideas in her external life.”

Barjansky  happened to be staying at the Ritz in Paris along with Casati when World War I broke out on August 4, 1914.  Barjansky had this to say about Casati who descended to the lobby in a tizzy when no one responded to her call for breakfast, “I found the Marquise Casati screaming hysterically…Her red hair was wild.  In her Bakst-Poiret dress she suddenly looked like an evil and helpless fury, as useless and lost in this new life as the little lady in wax.  War had touched the roots of life. Art was no longer necessary.”

(Barjansky – Portraits in Backgrounds — quoted in Casati Biography cited below)

The Marquise moved in circles with the rich and famous of her generation.  Here is a description by dancer Isabella Duncan of a visit to the Villa of Luisa Casati in Rome from her autobiography “My Life” (as cited in Casati’s biography see below)

“I went to the palace and walked into the antechamber.  It was all done out in Grecian style and I sat there awaiting the arrival of the Marquesa, when I suddenly heard the most violent tirade of the most vulgar language you would possibly imagine directed at me.  I looked around and saw a green parrot.  I noticed he was not chained.  I got up and leaped into the next salon.  I was sitting there awaiting the Marquesa when I suddenly heard a noise–brrrrr–and I saw a white bulldog.  He wasn’t chained, so I leaped into the next salon, which was carpeted with white bear rugs and had bear skins even on the walls.  I sat down there and waited for the Marquesa.  Suddenly I heard a hissing sound. I looked up and saw a cobra in a cage sitting up on end and hissing at me.  I leaped into the next salon, all lined with tiger skins.  There was a gorilla, showing his teeth.  I rushed into the next room, the dining room and there I found the secretary of the Marquesa.  Finally the Marquesa descended for dinner.  She was dressed in transparent gold pyjamas.  I said:

“You love animals,I see.”

“Oh yes, I adore them–especially Monkeys,” she replied looking at her secretary.

Strange to say, after this exciting aperitif, the dinner passed off with the utmost formality.” –Isadora Duncan, My Life

Over the decades Luisa Casati’s behavior became steadily more outlandish and her parties more extravagant. She would dress up as the Countess of Castiglione or as an American Indian Chief, Cagliostro, Cesare Borgia, or the Queen of Sheba.

Louisa Casati with one of her pet snakes at a Beaumont Ball, Paris, photographer unknown, ca.1920's

Louisa Casati with one of her pet snakes at a Beaumont Ball, Paris, photographer unknown, ca.1920’s

Other artists who painted, sculpted or photographed the Marquise Casati include Augustus Edwin John, Romaine Brooks, Joseph Rous Paget-Fredericks, Federico Beltran Masses, Sarah Lipska, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Leon Bakst, Mariano Fortuny Y Madrazo, Jacob Epstein, Ignacio Zuloaga, Kees Van Dongen, Giacomo Balla, Alberto Martini, Man Ray, Adolph De Meyer, and Cecil Beaton.

In her lifetime she would be considered the Muse of various artistic movements including the Symbolists, the Fauves, the Futurists and the Surrealists.

Although Luisa Casati biggest love affair was with herself – she did have romantic involvements with various men. Perhaps her most intense and longstanding relationship was with Italian writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.   D’Annunzio called her Core’, the Goddess of Hell—a name she clearly relished.

"Felina". A drawing of Luisa Casati as a butterfly/cat by Alberto Martini 1915

“Felina”. A drawing of Luisa Casati as a butterfly/cat by Alberto Martini 1915.

Casati inherited a massive fortune from her father who was in the cotton business and over the course of her lifetime managed to burn through it all and find herself in massive debt. She died in poverty in London in 1957. Her style however has left a mark on the fashion industry.   In 1998 John Galliano said that the Marquise Casati was the inspiration for the wildly successful Dior Haute Couture spring/summer collection. Since then designers Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford credited Casati styles for inspiring their collections.

As I walked through the exhibit at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice I tried to understand this peculiar woman. It is hard for me to approve of a person with such vast wealth blowing it all on extravagant parties and funding artists to paint pictures of her and nothing else. It is also hard for me to approve of a mother sending her child off to a strict French boarding school in a Catholic Convent while she was traipsing around the world enjoying herself. I wondered if I would be so judgmental if the person involved was a man rather than a woman.

But despite my qualms about La Casati, there is no doubt that she continues to captivate and inspire, leaving her mark on the world of art and fashion.

(In addition to all the documents provided by the Exhibit, I got a lot more information reading the excellent, exhaustingly-researched biography of Luisa Casati “Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati” by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino)

 

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February14, 2015

Sumptuous Balls and Flying Angels

Revelers in Costumes in St. Mark's Square for the Venice Carnival. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Revelers in Costumes in St. Mark’s Square for the Venice Carnival. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers,

Last week I went for four days to Venice to cover the official launch of the Carnival season. For Venetians the Carnival season opens on January 7th after the Feast of the Epiphany. But the official launch of Carnival festivities begins with the Flight of the Angel when a beautiful, young woman is launched from the top of the Bell Tower in St. Mark’s Square on a cable and floats down to a stage in St. Mark’s Square below. This year the Flight of the Angel was on February 7th and my cameraman APTN’s Gigi Navarra and I stood in the square and filmed her plunge.

The Flying Angel descends from the Bell Tower into St.Mark's Square. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

The Flying Angel descends from the Bell Tower into St.Mark’s Square. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Nineteen-year-old Marianna Serena from the nearby town of Mestre made the descent on a long cable from the nearly 100 meter high tower across the length of the square and down to a stage below as thousands of revelers from around the world stared up at her in awe.

The Flying Angel, Marianna Serena, descends on a cable into St. Mark's Square. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Flying Angel, Marianna Serena, descends on a cable into St. Mark’s Square. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

She was wearing a plumed outfit with red, yellow, and orange feathers and silvery leggings symbolizing earth, air, wind and fire.  On her head was a blue and white wig.

After she was released from the hook holding her to the cable, Marianna greeted the Doge who was overseeing the ceremony from the stage in St. Mark’s Square. The Doge were the rulers of the Venetian Republic.

(When I sent the photo of the Flying Angel to my daughter Caterina on What’s App she answered saying: “Is that you, Mom?”)  I am pretty passionate about my job — but not enough to put on an outfit  like that and plummet off the Bell Tower.

The Venetian Carnival is a public party lasting for weeks that leads into the Roman Catholic period of Lent.   Its official beginning is two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras – February 17th this year). Interestingly, the Italian version of the word “Carnevale” means “Carne” (meat) “Vale” (counts). In other words, during Carnevale Meat and all other fattening foods are allowed. As soon as Ash Wednesday rolls around meat and sweets should be removed from the diet until Easter.

In the Catholic Church Lent is a period of reflection, repentance, and fasting—so Carnival developed as a last gasp, wild party before the gloomy Lenten period.

Melissa from Canada enjoying the Carnival in St. Mark's Square. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Melissa from Canada enjoying the Carnival in St. Mark’s Square. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Carnival began in Venice in the 11th century and the Venetians extended the period to roughly two months of festivities.   Over the centuries the Venetian carnival attracted nobility from around Europe allowing them to participate in all sorts of fun – both licit and illicit. Princes and Princesses, Dukes and Duchesses could go to lavish masked balls, extravagant banquets, and the city’s brothels and gambling dens allowed for some extra entertainment.

The key to the Venice Carnival though has always been the street –where social divisions were erased. Young and old, rich and poor paraded through the streets in costume enjoying in the festivities. There were street entertainers—jugglers, musicians, acrobats and parades.

The Carnival also gave rich and poor Venetians a chance to make fun of authority or aristocrats without being recognized.

A young couple with masks in St. Mark's Square. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A young couple with masks in St. Mark’s Square. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Still today, the Carnival is a party for everyone. There are cheap Made in China masks that one can buy on the street for a few euros, or fabulous, elaborate costumes costing thousands of euros available from exclusive costume makers.

The advantage of being a journalist is that Gigi and I were able to get a taste of both the Carnevale in the Piazza and the extravagant party. On Saturday evening Gigi and I were given permission to cover the most exclusive ball of the Carnival season, Il Ballo del Doge (the Doge’s Ball).  Luckily we didn’t have to pay to get in, and I certainly could not afford an appropriate costume, so the organizers provided Gigi and me with bordeaux colored velvet kaftans that covered us from neck to toe so we would not stand out as we worked.

Alice and Alice a mother and daughter team in costume at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Alice and Alice a mother and daughter team in costume at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Doge’s Ball – or “Il Ballo Del Doge” –is the brainchild of Venetian Antonia Sautter who in 1994 decided to expand beyond her work as a costume designer and create a ball that would attract people from around the world who wanted to fulfill their dreams. She wanted the ball to promote Venetian arts, culture and traditions.

Sautter works with a staff of roughly 400 people throughout the year to create what she calls a “magical dream” for her guests.  She said she has many guests from Europe but also from Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Brazil – noting that what is nice about the Doge’s Ball is “they can share in the dream no matter where they come from.”

A performance of Casanova with his dancing doll at Il Ballo Del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

A performance of Casanova with his dancing doll at Il Ballo Del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

For this year’s carnival there are two Doge’s Balls – one on February 7th and another on February 14th – the theme this year is “Cupid in Wonderland.” The ball is an all night party that includes a variety of performances with dancers, singers, musicians and acrobats. The performers dig into Italian and Venetian traditions such as opera and the use of characters from Commedia Dell’Arte. In addition there are acrobats, giant butterflies on stilts, a dancing dwarf, and Eve La Plume a French Burlesque performer.

Burlesque performer Eve La Plume at Il Ballo Del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Burlesque performer Eve La Plume at Il Ballo Del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Getting to go to the Doge’s Ball requires money. Guests can pay up to 2500 Euros for a seat near the stage for the performances, and guests who want to come after dinner pay a reduced 800 Euro entrance fee. But the cost is not just the ticket to get in. Guests must come in sumptuous costumes and are encouraged to get them from the Sautter Atelier. Sautter obsesses over every detail of the costumes of her guests – the dress, the wig, the necklace, the fan and the gloves. Everything must be perfect for the Doge’s Ball.

Back of one of the dresses worn at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Back of one of the dresses worn at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A magnificent costume can be rented for around 600 euros for the night, and the team for “Il Ballo Del Doge” will also do custom-made costumes starting at 1,000 euros and up. As Sautter explained, some customers have extravagant requests including real diamonds on their costumes, which makes the price rise dramatically. One woman once wanted a replica of a dress worn by Marie Antoinette that ended up costing 10,000 euros per meter.

Anna Mikhail from St. Petersburg talking to AP during Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Anna Mikhail from St. Petersburg talking to AP during Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

There are other items that push up the price as well. Guests in costume can hire their own make up artists and hairdressers to fix them up before the ball and photographers are available for a 300 euro photo session.

A dancing dwarf blows a kiss to the AP Television Camera at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

A dancing dwarf blows a kiss to the AP Television Camera at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

At the Ballo Del Doge, there were a group of entertainers from Commedia Dell’Arte, a form of improvisational theater that first developed in the Italian city of Naples in the 16th century and spread throughout Europe becoming popular in France and spreading up to England and even Russia.

Harlequin from Commedia Dell'Arte performing at Il Ballo del Doge. Venice, February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Harlequin from Commedia Dell’Arte performing at Il Ballo del Doge. Venice, February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

The Commedia Dell’Arte included a series of stock characters ranging from the most famous Pulcinella (Punch) dressed in white, with a white cone hat and black mask with a large nose and belly, and hunched back –to Harlequin, the silly servant dressed in white with diamond shaped decorations, and Colombina the clever servant girl. The stock characters are involved in a series of typical scenarios usually involving a frustrated love story and a happy ending.

In case the costumed revelers at the Doge’s Ball did not recognize them, the character in the white coned hat and black mask was Pulcinella and his companion was another stock Commedia Dell’Arte character, Il Capitano, a Spanish soldier full of bravado, eager to brag about his exploits, marching about with large, exaggerated steps.

Commedia Dell'Arte characters Pulcinella and Smeraldina at Il Ballo Del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Commedia Dell’Arte characters Pulcinella and Smeraldina at Il Ballo Del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Most of the guests probably recognized the popular figure of Harlequin with his trademark diamond designs on his white outfit.

An important aspect of the Commedia dell’Arte is the mask and there are few places in the world where masks are made with the same techniques used centuries ago.

I felt lucky to find Gualtiero Dall’Osto, who is known as a “mascareri” in Italian, a Master Mask Maker who continues to make Commedia Dell’Arte masks at his workshop at the back of the “Tragicomica” mask store in Venice. As he works on preparing a Harlequin mask he explains the Harlequin figure is one of the “zanni” or the charlatans who make up the servants in Commedia Dall’Arte characters. Harlequin works for the miserly merchant Pantalone but is driven in life by his basic needs – his constant hunger and his love for the servant girl Colombina.

Master Mask Maker Gualtiero Dall'Osto demonstrating the character behind the Commedia Dell'Arte mask for one of the "Zanni" at his workshop in Venice. February 9, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Master Mask Maker Gualtiero Dall’Osto demonstrating the character behind the Commedia Dell’Arte mask for one of the “Zanni” at his workshop in Venice. February 9, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

To make his masks, Gualtiero Dall’Osto studies historical documents and paintings – such as the Giambattista Tiepolo painting hanging in the “Tragicomica” shop. Then he works with the face of the actor who will use the mask making a drawing from each side and straight on taking into consideration the anatomy of the actor’s face. The next step is to make a clay sculpture of the mask. He then covers the clay sculpture with a plaster cast creating a “negative” shape. When the “negative” plaster shape is dry, he carefully pushes sheets of papier-mache’ into the gaps to create the mask.

Once hardened, Dall’Osto takes the mask out of the plaster cast and then cuts out the eyes, the nose and around the borders before painting it the correct color. Different characters in Commedia Dall’Arte are required to use different colors. For example, Pulcinella always wears a black mask. As a final step, the mask is given a wax polish.

Two popular female characters from the Commedia Dall’Arte – Smeraldina and Colombina – greeted guests at the door to the Doge’s ball and spent the evening flitting about acting silly. Smeraldina is the “foolish maid” in the Commedia Dell’Arte and Colombina is the clever and comic servant girl.

Performers from Commedia dell'Arte dressed as Smeraldina and Colombina, greet guests arriving at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Performers from Commedia dell’Arte dressed as Smeraldina and Colombina, greet guests arriving at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Another important figure in the Commedia Dell’Arte is Pantalone – the travelling merchant and employer of Harlequin. Gualtiero explains that Pantalone has a distinctive big and “decadent” nose. He is avaricious. His name comes from the Italian “pianta” (to plant) and “leone” (lion) because he plants the lion (the winged lion is the symbol of Venice) wherever he goes.

While the performers at the Doge’s Ball appeared to be goofing around, to the contrary, they were professional performers playing clearly defined roles invented centuries ago.

Speaking of goofy, that is what I look like in my velvet kaftan trying to talk to a woman dressed up as a table.  She was telling me about her very heavy headdress.

Trisha Thomas (aka Mozzarella Mamma) trying to talk to a costumed table at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Photo by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Trisha Thomas (aka Mozzarella Mamma) trying to talk to a costumed table at Il Ballo del Doge. February 7, 2015. Photo by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

There is so much more to say about the Venice Carnival.  We did a long feature on the “Fritole Veneziane” – a fabulous fried, sugar-covered donut-like sweet with warm raisins and pine nuts inside.  For that we spent hours in the kitchens of the best pastry makers in Venice — the Rosa Salva Pasticceria. We spent hours running up and down from one end of the city to another, mostly on the Vaporetto water buses which always provided us amazing views of what must be the most beautiful city in the world.

View of the Grand Canal looking towards the Rialto  Bridge from the balcony of a room at the University of Venice, Ca' Foscari.  February 9, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

View of the Grand Canal looking towards the Rialto Bridge from the balcony of a room at the University of Venice, Ca’ Foscari. February 9, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

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