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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February 2, 2015

Vatican & Women: Priests and Plastic Surgery

Freeze Frame of #lifeofwomen video with Italian actress Nancy Brilli presented for Vatican Pontifical Council on Culture's intiative "Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference"

Freeze Frame of #lifeofwomen video with Italian actress Nancy Brilli presented for Vatican Pontifical Council on Culture’s intiative “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference”

The Vatican Pontifical Council of Culture is holding a plenary this week on “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference”. Unfortunately, in its first step on the project the Vatican tripped and fell flat on its face.

They issued a video calling for contributions from women starring an Italian TV actress, Nancy Brilli, who looked like she had just stepped out of the hairdresser with neat goldilocks curls, false eyelashes, big silicone slips and prominent bust. In a seductive voice she asks women if they have asked themselves “Who are you?” “What do you do? How do you feel about being a woman?”

The English language version of the video – when released last December—caused such an outpouring of criticism that the Pontifical Council pulled it off their website. (You can still find it on-line using the hashtag #lifeofwomen) The comments on YouTube and twitter were devastating.

Freeze Frame of #lifeofwomen video with Italian actress Nancy Brilli presented for Vatican Pontifical Council on Culture's intiative "Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference"

Freeze Frame of #lifeofwomen video with Italian actress Nancy Brilli presented for Vatican Pontifical Council on Culture’s intiative “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference”

Interestingly, Italians did not seem to be bothered by the video, and the Italian version remained on the Vatican’s website. I asked my Italian husband about this and he did not see what the big deal was, neither did many of my Italian male colleagues. After years of living in the Bunga bunga culture of Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps Italians have become inured. I asked a British colleague about it and she said the video was “porntastic”.

Aside from the initial blunder, the idea behind the Plenary is a good one. They say they want to “understand the feminine specificity in considering themes such as function, role, dignity, equality, identity, liberty, violence, economy, politics, power, autonomy etc.

Their working document discusses eating disorders and dysmorphophobia, the debasement of women in advertising, feminicide and domestic violence. The document said “plastic surgery is like a burqa made of flesh.”

In defense of actress Nancy Brilli, she was at the press conference and openly defended some kinds of plastic surgery, noting that her husband is a plastic surgeon. She said that there is no damage in a woman having plastic surgery if it makes her feel better about herself, however “If it is a case of becoming that ideal that society desires of a woman…In that sense it should be defined as a burka.”

On plastic surgery, Cardinal Ravasi pointed out “In the US the exponential growth of plastic surgery to fit into an extrinsic model is tremendous—the 18-year-old who asks for new breasts as a birthday present has become the norm.”

The Vatican working document asks: “What spaces are proposed to women in the life of the church?” and “What ways can women play a more active part in the life of the church?”

Good questions, but the paper excludes some obvious answers. The paper says: “There is no discussion here of women priests, which according to statistics is not something women what.”

Who said so? What statistics? I asked at the press conference at the Vatican today and did not get a clear answer. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi – the Vatican’s equivalent of a Minister of Culture, a brilliant man who speaks a plethora of languages (Italian, English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic to name a few) pointed out that at the the last supper Mary was the most important person in the room after Jesus. I guess the point being that you don’t have to sit at the table to have the power.

A version of The Last Supper imitating Leonardo Da Vinci by Giampietrino 1530

A version of The Last Supper imitating Leonardo Da Vinci by Giampietrino 1530

Gosh, I didn’t even know Mary had been there (help blog readers, does anyone know what Mary was doing during the last supper? And should women sit at the table or not? The board room table, the Oval Office desk, the kitchen table? Is it better to let the men sit and hover nearby but have more soft power?)

The document also says, “feminine voices of good sense are not thinking of or wanting to tear away the jobs and positions from men, turning on its head the relation of power between the sexes, nor, do they wish to wear a purple berretta…”

Some Cardinals wearing their red berrettas at the Vatican

Some Cardinals wearing their red berrettas at the Vatican

Hey, wait a minute. Who said so? I think it might be kind of neat to wear a purple berretta (that’s the bishop’s hat for formal occasions), even better a red berretta. I think it would be really cool to take part in a Conclave and vote for a Pope.

Ok, that may be pushing it a bit too far, but the point is that sometimes the Vatican – with its all male hierarchy misses the obvious.

Some perplexed bunnies after hearing the Pope's comments on their mating habits

Some perplexed bunnies after hearing the Pope’s comments on their mating habits

The Vatican does need to reach beyond Italy and listen to Catholic women around the globe. I wasn’t on the Papal trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, so I was not on the plane when the Pope said that he supports the Catholic church’s longstanding ban on the use of contraception but that there are plenty of other ways to “regulate childbirth” and that Catholics don’t have to breed “like rabbits”.

Well, it occurred to me that perhaps the Pope—and I do not mean to be disrespectful here- has not spoken to many young Catholic mothers about this rabbit business.

As a mother of three, I can say maybe the old “I have a headache, honey” worked back in the 1950s, but in 2015, after a long day at work and dealing with kids, if a young Catholic mother (who follows the church ban on birth control) finds her husband happily jumping into bed like a fluffy bunny ready to go, what is she supposed to say, “Sweetie, no bunny humping tonight, Pope Francis says we can’t do that rabbit breeding stuff!”

That said, the conference the Vatican is holding this week will have a lot of women involved – Monica Maggioni the Director of the 24 News Channel RAI News 24, Sister Mary Melone, Rector of the Pontifical University Antonianum, Micol Forti, Director of the Contempoary Art Collection at the Vatican Museums—professors, scholars, psychologists and ambassadors.

I hope they make their voices heard loud and clear. The Vatican tripped, but they’ve gotten up and and are opening the door a crack.

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

An Elaborate Election in Italy

An Parliament Usher opens an basket-urn full of ballots in the Italian election for the President of the Republic.  Rome, January 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

An Parliament Usher opens an basket-urn full of ballots in the Italian election for the President of the Republic. Rome, January 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

This week my colleagues and I have focused our attention on several elegant brown and gold wicker baskets, with green satin cloth on the inside, and Italian tri-color ribbons and delicate locks and chains on the outside. Into these baskets, 1009 Italian electors – mostly members of parliament—have been placing their ballots for the Italian President.   We spent our time trying to understand what was going into those baskets – blank ballots, bizarre names or serious candidates—and what was all the scheming and intriguing going on around those baskets.

The elaborate process appeared to many of us in the foreign press to be more like a Conclave, a Papal Election, than the election of a modern-day president.   The difference being that a Conclave is held in secrecy behind closed doors and the election of an Italian President is done in the parliament with members of parliament crowding around the voting booths – chatting, tweeting, gossiping, taking selfies, then zipping out to the renowned Parliamentary coffee bar (the best cappuccino in Rome supposedly) and what is known as the Transatlantic corridor to strategize some more. In between all this scheming and strategizing, they frequently give interviews to TV broadcasters and reveal all sorts of plans to vote for this person or that person or to leave their ballots blank.

This leaves the journalists doing some convoluted reasoning trying to figure out what is going on and often using poker metaphors to explain it. Italian Premier Matteo Renzi was “playing his cards close to his chest” until the last minute when, shortly before the first round of  voting was to begin, he revealed his “ace” choice of Sergio Mattarella (more on Mattarella shortly), opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi was against Mattarella, but was Renzi just “bluffing” and had they actually agreed on another candidate?

In Italy the Prime Minister has most of the political power, but the President of the Republic is an influential figurehead who has the power to dissolve parliament and call for elections. He is a guarantor of the constitution and presides over the nation’s military.

Members of Parliament standing around waiting during the Italian Presidential Election. Freeze Frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Paolo Lucariello, Rome, January 29, 2015

Members of Parliament standing around waiting during the Italian Presidential Election. Freeze Frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Paolo Lucariello, Rome, January 29, 2015

As the voting went on in the parliament, electors were called by name and they stepped up to walk through a temporary voting booth made up of curved leather chambers with red velvet curtains. The Members of Parliament would pass through the booth then slip their ballot into the basket.

An unidentified senator casts his vote at the lower chamber during a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

An unidentified senator casts his vote at the lower chamber during a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

At the end of each round of voting a long line of officials looked at the ballots, the   president of the parliament read each name out loud and the votes were registered. Under the voting rules this process is carried out for three rounds and no one can win unless there is a two-thirds majority, in the fourth round it slips to an absolute majority.

Ballots are counted at the end of a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Ballots are counted at the end of a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

I was asked during this process by Italian TVs and radios how much the US cares about the election and why we were covering. I explained that the majority of Americans have no idea who the Italian president is and what he does. That said, the US government has a big interest in the election. It is well known that the Obama administration believed that the former President of the Republic 89-year-old Giorgio Napolitano, who resigned in January, was key to maintaining the stability of Italy over the last nine years as the country struggled with economic decline and political turmoil.   Over the years, US Presidents have frequently met with and consulted Italian Presidents – a quick glance at US government archives shows that President Dwight Eisenhower met with President Gronchi in Rome in 1959, Presidenet Kennedy met with President Segni in 1963 and so on up to President Obama’s visits with President Napolitano.

And finally, here is my buried lead:

Saturday, during the fourth round of voting the electors chose 73-year-old Constitutional Judge Sergio Mattarella to be the next President of the Italian Republic. Mattarella undoubtedly is a qualified, and capable choice.

Newly elected Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Rome, Saturday, January 31, 2015. Photo provided by Quirinale

Newly elected Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Rome, Saturday, January 31, 2015. Photo provided by Quirinale

He is Sicilian, from the island’s main city of Palermo. As Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pointed out when announcing Mattarella as his choice, Mattarella’s older brother Piersanti was assassinated by the Mafia in 1980 when he was president of the region of Sicily. A grim picture this week in one daily newspaper showed Sergio Mattarella pulling his brother out of his car after he had been shot.

A young Sergio Mattarella  trying to get his injured brother PIersanti out of his Fiat 132 with the help of his sister-in-law just after being shot by the Mafia. January 6, 1980.  Photo taken from La Repubblica Newspaper

A young Sergio Mattarella trying to get his injured brother PIersanti out of his Fiat 132 with the help of his sister-in-law just after being shot by the Mafia. January 6, 1980. Photo taken from La Repubblica Newspaper

Since then Sergio Mattarella has been one of Italy’s most hard-working yet discreet Italian politicians. He was elected to parliament in 1983, became Minister of Instruction in 1989, Vice-Premier in 1998, Minister of Defense in 1999 and nominated in 2011 to become a Judge on Italy’s Constitutional Court. Throughout this time he flew well below the public radar. Unlike most Italian politicians (and many politicians everywhere) he doesn’t seem to be attracted to TV cameras, he is laconic, not loquacious. He does not have a twitter account and clearly prefers not to “appear”.   When his name first emerged my colleagues and I rushed to find some file footage of him and what we came up with was a single shot of him with Queen Elizabeth II, back in 1999 when he was Minister of Defense, walking down the steps of “Il Vittoriano” the large white monument in the center of Rome with Italy’s “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”.

Then Defense Minister Sergio Mattarella with Queen Elizabeth II in Rome, 1999.  Freeze Frame of APTN video.

Then Defense Minister Sergio Mattarella with Queen Elizabeth II in Rome, 1999. Freeze Frame of APTN video.

Following his election yesterday, President Mattarella emerged to accept. He was impeccably dressed in a grey suit with a blue tie, a full head of white hair and pieicing blue eyes, and with his austere manner he said simply: “My thoughts go, above all, to the difficulties and hopes of our fellow citizens, and that’s enough.”

Panorama photo of the Quirinale Presidential Palace in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Panorama photo of the Quirinale Presidential Palace in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

On Tuesday, President Mattarella will move to the Quirinale Palace formerly home to Popes and Kings and now the residence of the Italian President.

The Quirinale Palace, is a vast dwelling with 1200 rooms packed with precious tapestries, paintings, antique furniture, clocks, rugs, collections of porcelain and sculptures. The Palace surrounds an extensive interior garden with palm trees, fountains, flowers, and pruned hedges forming labyrinths. There are hundreds of people on the presidential staff, the most symbolic being the honor guard known as the Corrazziere who must be very tall, wear elegant uniforms with helmets with long horse tails hanging off the back and ride horses in ceremonies inside the Quirinale courtyard.

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama walk past the Corrazziere honor guard at the Quirinale Palace in Rome during a visit to President Giorgio Napolitano. Rome, July 8, 2009. Photo provided by Quirinale

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama walk past the Corrazziere honor guard at the Quirinale Palace in Rome during a visit to President Giorgio Napolitano. Rome, July 8, 2009. Photo provided by Quirinale

In addition to the Palace, the President of the Italian Republic can use the former hunting grounds of the Kings, a huge park and nature reserve called Castelporziano, which is roughly 60 square kilometers including about 3 kilometers of beachfront near Rome.  And if all that is not enough, the Presidential property also includes the Villa Rosebery an elegant residence near Naples with its own beachfront.

It is hard for an American not to make a quick comparison to the residence of our President. The White House has 132 rooms.

(A little aside here. Some Italians bristle at the luxury of the Presidential accommodations and the enormous expense – widely quoted in the Italian press to cost the Italian taxpayer far more than Buckingham Palace. Other Italians have told me that they think it is important to maintain the elegance of the Quirinale for “Rappresentanza”. Directly translated that would be “representation” but it is a concept that goes hand in hand with the “bella figura”.   Romans often have a room in their home for “rappresentanza” which would be an elegant living room for receiving people. Usually it is far from the kitchen, which is often a tiny room at the other end of the apartment. Although food is given huge emphasis in Italian society, kitchens are often small and hidden away and only now are Italians showing interest in an American style open area with a kitchen and living room together. )

Aldo Cazzullo, a prominent Italian journalist, author and political analyst tweeted shortly after the election of Mattarella, “If Mattarella is so sober, and if the Quirinale costs more than Buckingham Palace, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, said with respect, that it could become an Italian Louvre, with a President who works in his wing or in another building.”

 

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January 19, 2015

Super Hooper and “The Italians”

The cover of "The Italians" by John Hooper

The cover of “The Italians” by John Hooper

A few weeks ago, someone at Viking Books asked me if I would be willing to review John Hooper’s book The Italians on my blog.

John Hooper is one of the most talented and experienced journalists living and working in Rome.  He writes for “The Guardian” and “The Economist”; he has worked in Madrid and Berlin, and has covered conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Biafra and Algeria.  His book “The Spaniards” published in 1986 won the Allen Lane award for a best first work of non-fiction in 1987.

So I immediately said “yes,” eager to read what Hooper had to say about Italy and Italians.

John Hooper on assignment in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

John Hooper on assignment in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Hooper was posted to Rome in the early 90s, around the time I arrived in Italy.  For many years we shared the same coffee bar, the “Bar Doria”  at Via Della Gatta 1.  When I would go down for my morning cappuccino or a quick panino and I would see him there, usually sitting and reading something as he ate (an un-Italian habit he explains in the book), I would tiptoe past and say respectfully “Oh Hello, John” not wanting to disturb a great journalist at work.

John Hooper with Pope Benedict XVI

John Hooper with Pope Benedict XVI. Note Hooper’s perfect white shirt cuffs emerging from his jacket sleeve.

I see him as “Super Hooper” a Fast Train who gets the story, gets it right and arrives first – I guess that would be high-speed Freccia Rossa since we are in Italy, and by comparison I feel as though I am the frenetic, juggling journalist mamma—The Little Engine That Could—who would eventually huff and puff her way over the mountain of news to arrive at the destination.  “I think I can. I think I can.”

The high-speed Italian Train, the "Freccia Rossa" or "Red Arrow"

The high-speed Italian Train, the “Freccia Rossa” or “Red Arrow”

On occasion Super Hooper and I have ended up on the same story, in the courtroom in Perugia covering the Amanda Knox trial, for example. I remember the first time he re-tweeted me, I felt honored and thanked him.

When I received a copy of the book, I feared it might be the usual Anglo romp through the Tuscan countryside, reinforcing the British-American love affair with all things Tuscan.  It also occurred to me that it could be a quick, journalistic sketch of Italy emphasizing the easy clichés.  Instead, as soon as I began to read The Italians I realized it was something much better.  John Hooper has done his homework researching Italy’s history, geography, languages, art and traditions in detail.  His analysis of politics, social and cultural history of the last 20 years is full of lively anecdotes but Hooper has also found studies and statistics to back up his points.  For anyone wanting a sweeping, honest view of modern Italy, “The Italians” is a must-read.

I asked Hooper if we could meet to discuss this book and he quickly accepted.  He managed to squeeze me between interviews for important papers like The Financial Times and The New York Times.

John Hooper is a tall man, with an aquiline nose, a goatee-style beard and mustache.  He has an air about him that reminds me of an elegant, Spanish nobleman.  His writing style, however, is very English, cogent and pithy with an occasional lovely turn of phrase.

I love the way he describes the Italian penchant for positive hyperbole as the “Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust” or his comment on the nebulous state of so many questions in Italy, “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

Hooper told me he thought long and hard about what sort of book he wanted to write about Italy because “it is a crowded field.”  He finally concluded, “there is no one book that you could read before you arrive here to work or study that would give you clues to understanding Italy and Italians,” so he set out to write it.

Many of the Italian habits, traits and characteristics that Hooper describes in The Italians I have written about on this blog, but interestingly we come at them from different perspectives. Hooper is married to a British journalist; I am married to an Italian university professor and have raised three children in Italy, which sometimes leaves me neck-deep just trying to survive Italian life, whereas John maintains a detached, critical eye allowing him to discern nuances in Italian life and style.

I had fun comparing my experiences to his as I read the book.   For example, Hooper points out something that I have noticed but never written about, the Italian use of verbal rather than physical violence.

“…there is plenty of violent behavior in Italian life—mafia killings, football hooliganism and a high level of domestic violence against women. But physical aggression is often replaced by verbal abuse, and verbal insults seldom lead to physical aggression.  Knowing this, Italians will often say to one another things that, in other societies, would cause punches to be thrown or knives to be drawn.”

Hooper is so right.  An example is one of the cameraman in the AP Television office, Paolo.  Paolo is an amiable guy and a talented cameraman, but he becomes verbally aggressive behind the wheel of his car.  Once out on a story, a car cut him off.  At the next traffic light Paolo pulled up beside the offending driver, rolled down his window and said, “se lo fai ancora ti strappo er core e me lo magno.” – translated from Roman dialect that would be, “if you do that again I am going to rip out your heart and eat it.”  Yikes! If someone said that in the US, probably the person in the other car would pull out a gun and shoot them.  But it is typical of what Hooper is referring to—verbal aggression is chosen over physical violence.

(My Italian-American son also learned at a young age the fine art of the verbal insult, especially when defending his Mamma.  See blog post: “Nico’s Traffic Rules”)

Hooper explores at length the Italian attitudes towards cheating which are, to say the least, very flexible.  He describes how leading industrialist, former Chairman of Ferrari, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, bragged to University students how he was the “world champion at copiatura” (copying).

Last year when my 13-year-old daughter took her 3-day “esame di terza media” a national exam taken at the end of junior high in Italy, I picked her up and in the car she bragged that it had been an easy day for her because there was the English language essay.  “And when I was finished I wrote Giovanni’s for him because he was freaking out and couldn’t write anything,” she added.

“What?”  I nearly shouted, “You wrote Giovanni’s English essay for him?  Oh my God, how could you do that, they will kick you out, and they will fail you.”  I blurted out. To make a long story short, for about five minutes I thought somehow I should punish her, report her, and do something to teach her that she had done something wrong.  Then I slipped back into Italian mode and I started feeling rather puffed up with pride.

Hooper also chronicles the enormous interest, obsession really, that Italians have in how people look.

“….Italians not only want their politicians to dress immaculately; they and their media are endlessly scrutinizing what they call – using the English word—their look, the way they dress, in a search for clues to their true personalities.  I remember a comparison that covered an entire page of one of the national dailies between il look favored by Silvio Berlusconi and that projected by his then rival for prime ministership, Romano Prodi. It began with their ties (Berlusconi stuck rigidly to a white bird’s-eye pattern on dark blue, while Prodi favored regimental-style diagonal stripes in various colors), and progressed by stages to their choice of underpants. Prodi apparently wore roomy boxer shorts, while Berlusconi favored clingy briefs. The source of this information about their underwear was not disclosed.”

The way one looks is part of the whole “bella figura”, “brutta figura” culture in Italy – the need to appear beautiful and never lose face.    In his book, Hooper explains the obsession with dressing and some of the “rules,” including the necessity for men to wear long sleeve shirts with cuffs under their suit jackets even in the steaming summer heat in Rome.

I asked him if after so many years in Italy, he also obeys the dress code,   “I am careful about the way I dress,” Hooper answered showing me his shirt cuffs and then pointing under the table to his pant legs explaining for a man in Italy to show skin between their socks and their pants cuff when they sit down is “somewhere between blasphemy and adultery.”

But, as Hooper pointed out, “bella figura” is much more than about the way one dresses, it is about not losing face.  I’ve also written about that in my blog post: “Espresso, Corruption, Murder….and the Bella Figura.

Hooper dedicates an entire chapter to women in Italy, something I have written about extensively in this blog (See blog posts “The Italian Super-Mamma” and “Not the Dolce Vita.”).  He notes, “whatever else may have changed, the cult of the mamma in Italy has shown itself to be extraordinarily durable.”  The problem that I am finding is that many young Italian women I know actually do not want to become Mammas because it is too hard to work and deal with children in Italy.

Perhaps the most insightful and discouraging chapter in the book is on the family where Hooper explores the Italian habit of children remaining at home well into their 30s.  The children are referred to in Italian as bamboccioni –great, big children.

According to Hooper,

“The equanimity (or enthusiasm) with which Italian parents contemplate the prospect of their children remaining at home raises the intriguing question of whether it is not another reason for Italy’s increasing tendency to gerontocracy.  By keeping children at home—and, in many cases, out of the labor market—parents are consciously or unconsciously reducing the natural pressure that would otherwise be exerted on their generation to move aside in favor of younger men and women.  The bamboccioni are young, but not hungry.  Since they do not have to find the rent for a flat or pay for their own meals, they also have fewer incentives for taking a job that is not commensurate with their qualifications – or aspirations.”

Hooper describes a concept “amoral familism” used by a sociologist in the 1950s to describe farmers in the Basilicata region of southern Italy.  The idea was that “loyalty to their immediate family transcended any considerations of right and wrong…”  Hooper explains that some thinkers have now applied that concept to all of Italy noting that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “has been the paladin of a new brand of amoral familism.  From the outset, his speeches—rich in allusions to the family—carried an implicit message: that his listeners had a right to advance their family’s interests while paying only limited heed to the needs of society.”

Hooper goes on to note, “As the Italian family declines, there is a risk that amoral familism will dissolve into simple egocentricity….”

Hooper frequently takes advantages of a wide variety of words in Italian to describe Italian habits. Here is an example the various ways that Italians get away with breaking laws,

“the most comprehensive is the amnistia, which extinguishes both the crime and the sentence.”  “Since 1990, there has been a preference for the indulto (pardon), which squashes the sentence but not the crime.”  Finally, “one of the reasons Italians are so willing to try their luck at flouting the planning regulations (and dodging taxes) has been the existence of yet another from of legal forgiveness. This is the condono.  Every so often the government of the day will approve a measure that allows Italians to pay a relatively small fine in return for having their debts to the state wiped our or getting official sanction for an illegal conversion or building.”

But despite all their difficulties, John Hooper says, “One of the Italians’ most engaging characteristics is their optimism, backed by determination to put their best foot forward in even the most daunting circumstances.  It is an important, and delightful, part of what Italy is about.”

After the interview, we left the coffee bar, and walked across Rome’s Piazza del Popolo together.  As we chatted, we passed Emiliano Fiacchi a street artist who imitates Michael Jackson who was setting up for his performance in the piazza.  (See my Blog Post on Fiacchi:  “Dancing through the Economic Crisis in Rome.”)  To me Fiacchi demonstrates exactly what Hooper is talking about it –“determination to put their best foot forward in even the most daunting circumstances.”

We reached Piazza Flaminio and I ran to catch the tram home to deal with kids, dog, homework, piano practice and dinner, and Super Hooper headed for his interview with The New York Times.

“I think I can, I think I can.”

Cover of the children's book "The Little Engine that Could"

Cover of the children’s book “The Little Engine that Could”

 

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January 4, 2015

Family Road Trip with 3 Teens – Recipe for Disaster

Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

This week my family of five – 2 parents plus 3 adolescents ages 19, 16, and 14, began a road trip to France.  My husband came up with this rather risky proposition – he decided that we should use the first week of January to drive to the Loire Valley from Rome and visit some castles and eat some French food.

When he announced this at dinner – none of us was enthusiastic – I suggested why not go to Marrakech instead and go camping in the desert.  The kids cheered, and my husband quashed that proposal in 2 seconds flat.  He had already decided and already booked.  Turns out his mother had a done a similar road trip with her family back in the 1950s so we were going to relive their experience.

We all know that husbands and wives cannot get along when one is driving and the other is navigating.  I am sure that some of the worst marital bickering takes place in the front seats of cars around the globe.  Now, in our case it was a ménage-a-trois.  Yes indeed, there was another woman there, the lady inside the car’s navigator.

(Little aside here – why do all car navigators have women’s voices?? Do the people who make these things think that a man might end up punching the navigator for giving the wrong directions if it were a man’s voice???  Do they think people will remain calm and listen more carefully if it is a women’s voice? Someone must have studied this question.)

Heading into France, my husband had the navigator on and had given me a map to study and provide additional guidance.  Somewhere around Grenoble – the other woman and I had a difference of opinion.  Looking at the map I suggested what appeared to be a much shorter route. My husband decided to risk it and listen to me and exited the highway we were on.  There were a few moments of silence from the other woman and Gustavo said anxiously, “Why isn’t she talking to me anymore?  She’s angry. What is she going to do now??”

And then she spoke loudly and clearly, “ATTENZIONE, PROBLEMMI DI TRAFFICO”, that would be  “ATTENTION, TRAFFIC PROBLEMS” in English.    Gustavo declared, “that’s her way of saying she is offended. Now she’s mad.”

Yes, readers, my husband actually was worried that he had offended the  “navigatrice” (feminine for Navigator in Italian).  Then little Mademoiselle Navigatrice took her revenge.  She re-calculated the distance and added an extra 20 minutes to the trip.  Then my husband went berserk on me.  “We’ve got 10 hours in the car and you make a mistake that adds an extra 20 minutes!!!”

I shot back: “she’s taking us far off our route, the map shows this way is going to be much shorter.  Just look at it!!”

Then something occurred to me – the map looked a little old, “Where did you get this map anyway?”  I asked.

“My mother gave it to me.” He answered, still slapping the steering wheel and shaking his head over my screw up.

“Don’t tell me it is the map that her family used back in the 1950s, for goodness sake,” I sputtered, “You have got to be kidding.”

And then I realized I had gone where I should not go.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that you never criticize the mother of an Italian man, and you don’t dare criticize a map provided by the mother of an Italian man,  even if it is from the 1950s and your are trying to get somewhere in 2015.

So I had to put up with his fury for the next hour after which I decided to raise a delicate issue.

“I could really use a rest-stop,” I said once we were past Grenoble and leaving ourselves totally in the hands of Mademoiselle Navigatrice.

“Yeah, me too!!” Chiara declared from the back seat.

“NO!!” said Gustavo, “you’ve already put us 20 minutes off schedule we are not going to lose precious minutes with you having to pee all the time!!!!!”

Of course by the time I did manage to get him to pull over in a rest area, I was desperate.  I charged into the restroom, only to find a Turkish toilet.  Aarrggh.

The next stop – always adding on minutes to Mademoiselle Navigatrice’s arrival time calculations—was to get gas.  We went in to pay and I saw a brand new map of France for 3 euros.  I suggested to Gustavo that it might be a worthy investment.  He said, “No, the map we have is perfectly good.”

Lesson Number One:  Do not mess with an Italian Man’s Mamma’s Map!!

While my husband and I were bickering in the front seats, it wasn’t all sunshine and happiness in the back seat.  My middle daughter Caterina decided to imitate some Disney show called “Good Luck Charlie” and make frequent videos on her phone to send back to friends in Rome.

Occasionally she would pipe up in the back seat saying something that roughly went like this “So, hi everyone, now we are in France and see, that’s my parents, they are getting lost and fighting, and that’s my brother sleeping with his mouth open, and these are my new sneakers with flowers on them, and that’s it for now, baci baci baci”  After giving the three final kisses, she would usually stick her tongue out in some teenage form of communication that I have not yet grasped.

These video performances would occasionally be interrupted by her brother punching her and yelling: “spegni quell benedetto cellular prima che lo spacco cretina!”  (Translated: turn that blessed cell phone off before I break it in two, idiot.”)

In the middle of all this action, my younger daughter, Chiara, has developed a case of backseat narcolepsy – every time we enter in the car, she falls into a deep sleep.  But at every castle she was wide awake managing to appear Rapunzel-like, flaunting her long, golden locks in the middle of every photo.

After hours of fun in the car, we finally arrived at Bourges, where my husband had already chosen a restaurant.  Gustavo has an idea, that I believe he got from his two grandfathers, that when visiting a place one must book the best restaurants at lunch and at dinner.  I have frequently found myself on trips making a futile effort to convince him to skip the expensive 3-course lunch or the expensive 3-course dinner.  On this particular occasion I got lucky, we had to skip our 3-course lunch because, due to navigational difficulties, we didn’t arrive until 3pm and all the restaurants in town were closed.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral in Bourges, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 2, 2014.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral in Bourges, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 2, 2014.

Our first tourist attraction to visit was the cathedral in Bourges with its extraordinary stained glass windows.  My son trailed along behind me as I wandered about the cathedral taking photos of the windows for an eventual blog post.  “Mom, you are getting so annoying with that phone, can you just stop taking pictures?” he mumbled in my ear.

We passed a sign quoting Pope John Paul II, “Do not be Afraid,” and all of a sudden my son Niccolo’ was quoting the bible.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

“Wow,” I said, “Nico, pretty impressive, I’ve never heard you quote the Bible before, not bad.”

“Yeah, that would be Ezekial 25:17,” he added.

“When have you ever learned passages from the Bible by memory,” I said clicking another photo of a very blue stainglass window.

Stained glass window in Bourges Cathedral in France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 2, 2014

Stained glass window in Bourges Cathedral in France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 2, 2014

“Pulp Fiction, Mom, the hit man played by Samuel Jackson says it before he shoots people.”

It was then that I began to wonder if I was every going to survive the trip to the Loire Valley.  We had not even seen a castle yet, and I wanted to escape.

At this point I will fast-forward.  With the help of Mademoiselle Navigatrice we eventually made it to our lovely hotel the Beaulieu near Tours.  It is a marvelous place—a small French Castle with large, elegant, beautifully decorated rooms.  It only has one little problem for people traveling with three teenagers, the Wifi doesn’t work properly.

“How can I watch my NBA games at 4am?” Nico asked.  “I need to get on Facebook?” Cate insisted, “What about Instragram and What’s App” Chiara asked querulously.

Day 2 – Gustavo had the whole schedule worked out – up at 7am, breakfast at 7:30, out the door by 8am – three castles with three hours for each – Chenonceau, Chambord and Cheverny.  He just had one little problem – four of us were dragging our feet.  We wanted to lounge around at breakfast enjoying our Café’ au Lait, Chocolat Chaud, Croissant, and Pain au Chocolat.

We finally reached the spectacular castle of Chenonceau and I was told that journalists get a free audio guide.  Gustavo was asked to do a radio interview about the Greek economy so returned to the car.  None of my teenagers wanted the audio guide so I ordered them to explore the castle on their own while I made my way around with the headphones.

Niccolo', Chiara and Caterina on the stairs at Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015

Niccolo’, Chiara and Caterina on the stairs at Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015

The audio guide was excellent, providing detailed descriptions of the individuals who lives were influential in the creation and existence of the castle: Katherine Briconnet, Catherine De Medici, Diana Di Poitiers and Louise Dupin.  I especially enjoyed the Frenchman speaking with such a delectable accent in English in his deep, rather sexy voice.

A portrait of the beautiful Louise Dupin who transformed Chateau Chenonceau into a Salon for intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu and saved the castle from destruction during the French Revolution because of her excellent relationship with the local townspeople. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015.

A portrait of the beautiful Louise Dupin who transformed Chateau Chenonceau into a Salon for intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu and saved the castle from destruction during the French Revolution because of her excellent relationship with the local townspeople. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015.

There were 20 rooms with explanations on the audio guide and I made my way slowly through them finally forgetting about family bickering and irritating teenagers.  It must have been about 12:30 when my phone rang and it was my husband, “Where are you he shouted?  We have to go!!!  We have two more castles to see!!”

I told him that I intended to finish the last three rooms on the tour and they could all just wait.  Little did I know that two of my teenagers were having a big snack in the café, that Nico had nearly dropped his sister Chiara into the moat, and Caterina was buying up the entire gift shop for her teachers and friends in Rome.

“No!” My husband shouted, “There’s no time. We are going to leave you here!!”

“Great, go ahead,” I said and hung up.

I turned on my audio guide again and that deep, French voice spoke soothingly in my ear.  I momentarily contemplated the idea of climbing into Diana Di Poitiers four poster bed, closing the red velvet curtains and snuggling down with Monsieur Audio-Guide whispering sweet- historical nothings in my ear.

Diana di Poitiers bed at the Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, France.  Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

Diana di Poitiers bed at the Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

After all if my husband was enamored of Miss Navigatrice, what could be wrong if I dedicated some time to Monsieur audio-guide.

I eventually made it back to the car to discover to my dismay that my family had not left me behind.  We were decidedly off-schedule so had to proceed to our restaurant for our 3-course meal. The French food is a refreshing change from daily Italian diet of pasta, pizza, pasta, pizza and some more pasta.  Everything here is covered with rich, creamy, buttery sauces and is delicious.  (My son forbid me from taking a food photos).

Interior of "Les Annees 30" restaurant in Chinon, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 4, 2015

Interior of “Les Annees 30″ restaurant in Chinon, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 4, 2015

And then off to see the Chambord Castle.

As we pulled into the parking lot at Chambord, Nico offered his opinion on the extraordinary castles of the Loire,  “seen one castle, you’ve seem them all – potato, potahtoe, tomato, tomahtoe—let’s call the whole thing off.”

I turned around to look at him in the back seat, “What the heck are you saying Nico,”

“Louis Armstrong, Mom, Louis Armstrong,” he answered.

And I got out of the car and went in search of an audio-guide hoping for some sonorous satisfaction.

Gustavo, Chiara and Nico heading towards Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

Gustavo, Chiara and Nico heading towards Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

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December 27, 2014

A Woman Locked up at the Vatican

Freeze frame of video of Femen protester Jana Zdhanova struggling with Vatican gendarme over baby Jesus. December 25, 2014.

Freeze frame of video of Femen protester Jana Zdhanova struggling with Vatican gendarme over baby Jesus. December 25, 2014.

(SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE WITH INTERVIEW WITH FEMEN PROTESTER JANA ZDHANOVA)

After my last post “The Roman Holiday Hamster”, I vowed I would take a break from writing about the Vatican and concentrate on Christmas.  It took a lot of effort, but I resisted the temptation to write about Pope Francis’ Christmas speech to the Roman Curia—a verbal flagellation listing the 15 “sicknesses” of the Vatican curia.  It was powerful and interesting, but I am not going to go into it here.  I also resisted the temptation to write about the Pope’s letter to Christians in the Middle East on December 23.  I did not write about the Pope’s Christmas Mass on the night of the 24th,  or the Urbi and Orbi Christmas Day message to the world.  It would have ruined my Christmas.

Panoramic photo of St. Peter's Square. Photo by Trisha Thomas. December 26, 2014

Panoramic photo of St. Peter’s Square. Photo by Trisha Thomas. December 26, 2014

However, I cannot resist the temptation to write about the topless protester who barged her way into the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on Christmas Day.

Not long after Pope Francis delivered his Christmas message from the window on the balcony at the center of St. Peter’s Basilica, Jana Zhdanova, a Ukrainian feminist activist with the group FEMEN, shoved through the crowds around the Vatican’s nativity scene and with the words written “God is Woman” written on across her bare chest, grabbed the baby Jesus out of his crib. A Vatican gendarme swooped down, grabbed Jana, covered her with his cape and struggled to get the baby Jesus out of her hands.  She continued to yell, “God is Woman.”

APTN got a pretty funny, if fuzzy, video off a tourist showing the gendarme struggling to call on his radio for help while the naked blond is squirming around in his arms.  I think that gendarme will remember this Christmas.

Tough day at work for Vatican Gendarme as he tries to cover topless protester and escort her away from Vatican nativity scene.  Hard to figure out whose hands are whose in this photo anonymously give to Mozzarella Mamma. December 25, 2014

Tough day at work for Vatican Gendarme as he tries to cover topless protester and escort her away from Vatican nativity scene. Hard to figure out whose hands are whose in this photo anonymously give to Mozzarella Mamma. December 25, 2014

The crowd raised iphones and ipads to get a show and cheered and jeered during the brief incident.  After a few minutes Zhdanova was put in a car and taken away.  A gendarme then carefully put back the Baby Jesus.

Then the Vatican did something unusual, they put Jana Zhdanova in a cell for the night accusing her of obscene acts in a public place.  The Pope’s spokesman said that she her act was intended to “intentionally offend the religious feelings” of others.

Not many people get held inside the small Vatican cells.  The last one I wrote about was Pope Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, who was arrested for copying documents in the Papal apartment and leaking them to the press.  See blog post “The Pope’s Butler Did It

Perhaps it sounds a little disrespectful on my part, but I can’t help wondering about what Christmas night was like in that cell.  Who were her guards?  The gendarmes  or Swiss Guards?  Did they loan her some clothes to cover up a bit?  What did they give her to eat – some Christmas leftovers?

After meeting with a Vatican prosecutor Saturday morning, Zdhanova was freed.  She was ordered never to set foot on Vatican property again.  (I have been trying to get in touch with Zdhanova to hear about her experience being held in a Vatican cell, but no luck so far.  I will update this post if I manage to contact her).

And just in case some of you have not been to St. Peter’s Square at Christmas time, here are a few photos from my visit yesterday with my family.

St. Peter's Square with Christmas Tree and Nativity scene. December 26, 2014. Photo by Chiara Piga

St. Peter’s Square with Christmas Tree and Nativity scene. December 26, 2014. Photo by Chiara Piga

I almost forgot — I have written before on this blog about a woman arrested by the Vatican and sentenced to death by a Pope.  It was a long, long time ago and that was Beatrice Cenci.  See blog post: Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice.

I think I would rather by Jana Zhdanova than Beatrice Cenci.

Femen activist Jana Zdhanova escorted by Vatican Gendarmes. She is now considered persona non grata at the Vatican. Credit: Femen.org

UPDATE

I got in touch with Femen protester, or as she calls herself Sextremist, Jana Zhdanova, by email and she answered a few of my questions about her experience being the first woman in recent history held as a prisoner locked up inside the Vatican.

Jana, who is Ukranian, told me that she is 26 and living as “a refugee in France”. She said the Vatican cell “wasn’t a five star hotel” but it was big and clean.  She said there were Vatican gendarmes guarding her and not Swiss Guards.  She said they were much more polite than police usually are and they tried to speak to her in English.

The gendarmes gave her back her clothes, and when she asked for some books gave her a book on the history of the Vatican in English and novels translated into Russian, “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami and “The White Castle” Orhan Pamuk.

Jana said before she met with the Vatican prosecutor she had no idea what she was going to be charged with or how long she would be held.  When she was told she would meet with the Vatican prosecutor she said she prepared a long speech in Russian, but in the end the gendarmes said they would take the copy of the speech and keep it, there was no need for the prosecutor to see it.

She told me that she was charged under article 3 of the Vatican Penal code and articles 142, 402 and 490 and the prosecutor warned her that she cannot step foot on Vatican territory again.

I asked her what she had written in her speech and she said, “I tried to explain my position on why I think that God is a woman.  God can only be a woman.”  She then gave an explanation of why she thinks this is the case concluding, “I call  on all churchmen to correct their historical error, and leave a place for woman in the host of Gods and respect her holy rights to control over her body.”

Jana said she “would be glad to repeat the same act” in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on January 7th.

Given the experience of the “Pussy Riot” group, I am guessing that a repeat protest in Moscow could lead to imprisonment and probably the Russian police are not going to be as hospitable as the Vatican Gendarmes.

 

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December 18, 2014

The Roman Holiday Hamster

HAMSTER WHEEL

Trisha Thomas aka Mozzarella Mamma frantically heading towards the Christmas holidays

Dear Blog Readers— Yes, that photo above is me—a crazed Roman Holiday Hamster running frenetically, non-stop in my wheel and never getting anywhere. This week, a young man asked me if I would contribute a blog post to his travel blog.  I asked him what specifically he would like and he suggested a post describing the holiday traditions in Italy.  It would have been lovely to write about the delicious panettone Christmas cake, the elaborate nativity scenes (villages really) that Italians set up in their homes, and the famous cenone (big holiday dinners).  But unfortunately, I haven’t had the time.  I have not even bought a single Christmas present. There is one man responsible for my delinquency from my Mamma holiday duties: Pope Francis.  Yes, he is the one.   This Pope just never stops making news.  Every time I think I might have a slow day, and maybe can slip out of work to buy a few presents, I find myself scurrying over to the Vatican for another story.

The linked hands of a couple dancing the tango outside the Vatican for Pope Francis' 78th birthday.  December 17, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The linked hands of a couple dancing the tango outside the Vatican for Pope Francis’ 78th birthday. December 17, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

I became a television journalist because I love “being there.”  and I often feel as I have covered Pope Francis that I am witnessing something important. Ever since I was little, I loved seeing things happen and then telling them to other people.  When I was younger I had a tendency to embellish a bit.   When I would launch into one of my stories at dinner, my family members would shrug their shoulders, sigh and say, “there she goes again, it is another one of Trisha’s Tall Tales”. Of course as a professional journalist, I had to tame that flare to embellish.  With time I learned that once you’ve delivered the facts, it is the delicious details that make a Tale special.  Those details can be delivered in the form of words, or in the case of video and photography with a special, detailed image.  More on that later.

Press conference on Apostolic Visitation of US Nuns at the Vatican.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. December 16, 2014

Press conference on Apostolic Visitation of US Nuns at the Vatican. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. December 16, 2014

On Tuesday, I found myself at the Vatican for the much-anticipated, and feared report on the “Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States.”  This whole Apostolic Visitation business began back in 2008 when under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican ordered an investigation into U.S. women’s religious orders. At the time the women were considered too liberal and, God Forbid, might even include some feminists. So the conference room at the Vatican was packed on Tuesday with journalists eager for a juicy story that was supposed to go like this “the nasty all-male Vatican hierarchy is taking to pieces the honest, hard-working, devoted American sisters”. However, as the press conference got underway it quickly became clear it was going another direction.  It was all sunshine and rose petals.  The Vatican report praised the nuns, noting that American sisters have “courageously been on the forefront of her evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and the marginalized.” I was frantically taking notes, but all of us in the room began glancing up and looking at each other questioningly.  What was going on?  Instead of talking about the problem of “feminists” the report was praising “the feminine genius.” Sister Clare Millea, Director of the Apostolic Visitation, who was responsible for interviewing nuns across the United States for the report broke down in tears as she said, “Your message to us today shows that you do understand our on-going struggle to faithfully serve the church in challenging times despite our shortcomings and limitations.” Sister Sharon Holland, President of the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” said that at the beginning the visitation was met with some “apprehension” and that “Some congregations said older sisters felt that there whole lives had been judged and found wanting” but in the end she said they have an “affirmative and realistic report.” Finally sister Millea pointed out “If you ask ‘where is the controversy?” Sorry, there isn’t any.” And that was that.  I am sure all you wise blog readers have read more on this elsewhere, so I will move on.

Pope Francis at his weekly  audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.  Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis at his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Wednesday was the Pope’s 78th birthday, which happened to coincide with his Wednesday weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.  There can be no doubt that Pope Francis is in a hurry.  It is as though he thinks he doesn’t have much time – in fact he is the first Pope I have seen consult his watch with regularly.  I think he is conscious of his age and has a lot of things he wants to change at the Vatican and in the world before his time is up. But he always has plenty of time for the people who come to his weekly audience.  He rides around St. Peter’s Square in his pope-mobile stopping to kiss babies, caress the handicapped, and greet the faithful. This Wednesday was no exception.  The crowd was eager to celebrate.  They presented him with a cake (he blew out the candles), they gave him cards (he asked “did you draw this?”) they presented him with birthday balloons and traditional Argentinian Mate drink (he drank it) and  a group of homeless people gave him sunflowers.

Pope Francis blows out candles on a birthday cake for his 78th birthday during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

Pope Francis blows out candles on a birthday cake for his 78th birthday during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

Following the audience thousands of people gathered around the square and danced the tango in his honor.

Dancers swirling around in St. Peter's Square doing the tango for the Pope in honor of his 78th birthday.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. December 17, 2014

Dancers swirling around in St. Peter’s Square doing the tango for the Pope in honor of his 78th birthday. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. December 17, 2014

Speaking of details, AP cameraman Gigi Navarra got fabulous shots from the ground of dozens of feet twirling around on the cobblestones.  And AP photographer Gregorio Borgia captured a happy couple tango-ing cheek to cheek.

A couple dancing the tango cheek-to-cheek at the Vatican to celebrate Pope Francis' 78th birthday. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

A couple dancing the tango cheek-to-cheek at the Vatican to celebrate Pope Francis’ 78th birthday. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

That was enough of a birthday celebration for me.  But the news from the Vatican didn’t stop. Late Wednesday came the stunning announcement that the US was normalizing relations with Cuba (cut off in January 1961) and that President Obama in a speech from the White House said “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me”…and later added, “I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” Yesterday the Vatican released a statement saying that the Vatican had hosted a meeting between American and Cuban officials in October and “provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.“ Since the Pope is in a hurry, so am I.  At 7am this morning I was frantically buzzing about the kitchen—simultaneously making fresh squeezed orange juice for the family, unloading the dishwasher, making Caffe Latte, preparing tea, and setting the table for breakfast. (Normal Mom stuff). My daughter Chiara grumpily came in the kitchen, plopped down in her chair at the table and sat there hunched over watching me zip around.  Then finally she said, “MOM!!!!!” so I stopped and looked and her and she said, “can you CHILL???!!” I think the short answer to that question  is “no”, and the correct answer might be “not until after Christmas,” or maybe “not as long as Pope Francis is around.” Once the girls were off to school, I found myself at 8am calling the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, asking for a comment and explanation.  Later at the Vatican, Lombardi explained to me that the Vatican has been working on this issue for a long time and that many Popes were concerned about Cuba-US relations. He pointed out that both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI visited Cuba.  But he also said he thought that it was Pope Francis’ personal interactions that made the difference.  Lombardi said the Pope is hoping to make strides on questions of peace and dialogue in other parts of the world.  The Pope has spoken extensively about conflicts in the Middle East but has also expressed keen interest in questions regarding Russia and China. Who knows what will be next on the Pope’s geo-political to-do list, but we do know he is not wasting any time. I guess I will wrap this blog post here because I need to be back at the Vatican early tomorrow morning for a Christmas Mass for the homeless at the Sant’Anna Church just inside the Vatican wall. Maybe this weekend I will have time to make some Christmas cookies and buy some presents. …and my little Roman Holiday Hamster wheel keeps on going around and around and around.

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