Other recent articles
Is Fiumicino Airport at Risk? Inappropriate building materials may have been used.
Italians feel vulnerable to encroaching poverty.
Wettest summer in 35 years
Donor insemination to come to Italy
Sites reopened at Pompeii
Sari's e-book on sale this weekend at Amazon
Alitalia’s fate hangs in the balance.
Berlusconi cannot leave Italy (for now)
Keep an eye on (or rather, in) your bill fold.


Rome by Night
Jul 17, 2010 at 02:53 PM

Castel Sant'Angelo by night

Finally! After months of negotiations between the Superintendency of Rome's Archeological monuments and the relevant labor unions (who, as you will see, have not been particularly generous in making personnel available), this summer visitors to Rome will be able to take advantage of a special treat, nighttime visits to some of Rome's major sites such as the Coliseum, the Baths of Caracalla and Castel Sant'Angelo (originally known as Hadrian's Tomb as it was built to house the earthly remains of the Roman emperor of the same name.)

The first two will be open until midnight every Saturday night between August 21 and October 23, while starting now Castel Sant'Angelo regular hours will be extended to midnight every Friday and Saturday. The visit, to what is officially called the Museo Nazionale di Castel S. Angelo, can include a tour of the Passetto del Borgo, the once secret passage built in 1277 that linked the Castle to the Vatican.

However, that part of the visit, which costs €10 must be reserved in advance by telephoning to 06/32810 weekdays until and Saturday mornings until 1p.m.. History tells us that Pope Clement VII used it in 1527 to escape from the German mercenaries who participated in the 1527 Sack of Rome on orders from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, whereas rumor has it that Pope Alexander VI used it to allow his mistresses to arrive in secret in his apartments. The passage is mentioned in Dan Brown's awful book, Angels and Demons, although he had it lead to the Pope's private library. The passage was walled up at the end of the 16th century by Pope Pius VI.

The Superintendency also announced that starting August 21st, two new monuments will be open to visitors. One is Livia's House on the Palatine Hill. The second is the Temple of the Divine Romolo at the Roman Forum. This circular structure, which was originally an entrance to a forum and then, for centuries served as the entrance vestibule to the church of Sts. Cosma and Damian, still has its original work bronze door.

July 17th: A Caravaggio All-Nighter
Jul 14, 2010 at 05:25 PM

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Rome's Borghese Gallery and three famous Rome churches will stay open all night on July 17-18 to let Caravaggio fans admire several of his masterpieces on the 400th anniversary of the artist's death near Porto Ercole on the Tuscan Coast.

The Borghese gallery has five Caravaggios on permanent exhibition, to which four major paintings from other Roman galleries will have been added for the occasion: Judith Beheading Holofernes; Narcissus; and two of the Baroque painter's eight John the Baptist canvasses.

In addition, three major Roman churches will be keeping their doors open all night so that visitors can view their precious Caravaggio paintings: San Luigi dei Francesi where the Martyrdom of St Matthew, St Matthew and the Angel and the Calling of St Matthew are located; Sant'Agostino with the Madonna di Loreto painting; and Santa Maria del Popolo with the Crucifixion of St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul.


Summer: Vacation days and "Saldi" (Sales)
Jul 04, 2010 at 08:53 AM


As Italian families head for the seashore and the mountains for this year's summer vacations (the so-called "exodus" begins on the first weekend of July), stores throughout most of the country were allowed to put clothing and other goods on sale. Unlike in the U.S., sales in Europe - winter and summer - are generally government regulated, usually by regions or local municipalities.

There are still no statistics indicating whether or not the current economic crisis is likely to curtail the vacation plans of Italian families; most Italians take their vacations in the summer and summer vacations have become something of an obsession. On the other hand, available data does show that clothing sales were off by as much as 20% in the first half of 2010 and shopkeepers may be hoping to recoup some of their losses by lowering prices.

Last week, the first sales were authorized in Naples and Potenza in the South, followed on Saturday, July 3rd, by Rome, Milan and Turin. Sales in Tuscany begin on July 7th, in Liguria on July 10th and in the Veneto on July 17ty. This year they are scheduled to last for all of July and August and in some cases into the first or second week of September.

According to the business organization, Confcommercio, Italians will spend something like 4.2 billion euros to take advantage of the lower prices. The organization said that on average families will spend €282 on bargains (in Milan the figure will be closer to €425), the equivalent of 12% of the year's sales of clothing, bags and shoes.

Confcommercio also reminded Italians of the rules of the sales: the original price must be shown next to the discounted one and the percentage of the discount. Credit cards cannot be refused but the policies regarding returns and exchanges policies are, instead, up to the store owner.

Berlusconi says in Italy's democracy governing is “a living hell”
Jun 10, 2010 at 11:39 PM

ImageOkay. So he wasn't quite that explicit. But he did say (and I head him with my own little ears) that governing under Italy's postwar Constitution - its "institutional architecture" was how he put it - was an "inferno", ( a "hell") making it clear that the Italian prime minister, whom many suspect of subliminal dictatorial tendencies, does not understand the concept of checks and balances which is, after all, the essence of a democratic system.

On Thursday, addressing Confartigianato a business association, Berlusconi described lawmaking in Italy as intolerable, with draft bills going from Senate to House and back, with stops in this or that committee, until final approval (just like happens in any other democracy). He won applause when he said all this took too much time (although he neglected to mention that this is probably also because of poor parliamentary leadership and the fact that Italian MPs, who make more money than most of their European counterparts, only work two and a half days a week) and, added that, even worse, there was always the risk that after all this frustrating to-ing and fro-ing, something even more outrageous might happen: the Constitutional Court (manned by the magistrates he blames for all of Italy's troubles) might strike down the "laws it doesn't like". In other words, he also does not understand the idea of constitutionality and the importance it has for a democratic nation.

The premier, who stopped short of saying he'd prefer one-man rule, claimed that the 1946 Constitution's apportionment of power between the various institutions reflected the negative influence of the postwar period when Communists and Christian Democrats here carried on their own little Cold War and didn't trust one another. Things are different today, he insisted, and so the Constitution should be changed.

Of course, he totally failed to mention another salient fact. That the men and women of the Constituent Assembly that wrote and passed the Constitution after Italy was finally liberated by Allied forces and anti-fascist partisans, were also trying to make sure that down the line Italy would not have another 20 years of Fascism. The "ventennio", as it is called here, ended only when dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed after taking the country into war on the side of Nazi Germany.

Berlusconi's comments were roundly attacked by opposition leaders and pundits.

It's official: Silvio and Veronica call it quits
May 12, 2010 at 02:37 PM

Image Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his estranged wife, Veronica Lario, have reached an agreement on the terms of their legal settlement, and what terms they are!!!!! The former Signora Berlusconi (well, actually, for now they are still married; divorce still takes five years in the home of the Vatican) gets to live forever in the luxurious Villa Belvedere in the Maccherio suburb of Milan that she has inhabited - together with Eleonora, Luigi and Barbara, the thee children she had with Berlusconi,ever since informally separating from him several years ago. In addition, she will get a monthly stipend of €300,000 to enable her and her family to live in the style to which she is accustomed. Sounds like a lot, right? But Berlusconi, the second richest man in Italy, has so much money that probably it is only fair that Veronica gets so hefty a chunk.

Veronica and Silvio met in 1980 when, struck by her beauty and talent, he called on her at her dressing room in Rome's Teatro Manzoni where she was starring in a production of the 1921 play, The Magnificent Cuckold (how fitting!). Who knows if it was love at first sight but Berlusconi left his first wife, the mother of his first two children, Marina and Pier Silvio, and in 1984 Barbara was born. In 1985, Berlusconi's divorce from Carla Dall'Oglio became final and the rest is (was) history.

Veronica and Berlusconi had been living separately for a few years when his wife became enraged by several events and announced her anger publically. Once was when Berlusconi said on television that if he could he would marry Mara Carfagna, a young attractive former TV starlet who is now a cabinet minister, and second when it became known that last March that he had attended the birthday party of an 18-year old Neapolitan girl. On May 3, Veronica announced she was filing for divorce, asking for a monthly stipend of three million euros. That she did not get but she certainly cannot complain.

By the way, it may interest my Catholic readers that a few weeks ago many eyebrows (but apparently not the papal ones) were raised when Berlusconi, in church for some occasion, lined up at a church service to take communion and received it. As I understand it Roman Catholics who are separated or divorced they should not be given that sacrament but the officiating prelate mayhave been too embarrassed to refuse.

Controversy mars onset of Unity celebrations
May 07, 2010 at 04:25 PM
Giuseppe Garibaldi

Exactly 150 years ago (plus two days), Giuseppe Garibaldi - the Italian general and patriot - set sail from in Northern Italy with 1162 armed volunteers on his way to Sicily where he planned to take advantage of local uprisings in Messina and Palermo to take Sicily from the Neapolitans and consign it to Savoy monarch, Victor Emanuel, of Piedmont as a first step in the conquest of the Italian South first and, eventually, Rome. It was here, during the battle of Calatafimi, that he was said to have pronounced to his lieutenant, Nino Bixio, the famous words, "Here either we make Italy, or we die".

Garibaldi did not die and many of his one thousand red shirts survived but despite a series of new battles and wars during the 1860s, it was not until September 20, 1870 when Piedmontese crack infantry troops breached Rome's Porta Pia gate to defeat Vatican and French forces that Italy was truly unified.

But for today's Italians, a unified Italy was born on May 5, 1860 and the celebrations that are to last through next year were set off on Wednesday with a moving speech by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on the premises of a well-known Genoa high-tech company, Ansaldo.

This being Italy, however, there had to be complications and these came when, earlier in the week, Roberto Calderone, a cabinet minister hailing from the ranks of the Northern League, which at times has espoused patriotic alliance to a northern area they have dubbed, Padania, rather than to Italy said that unification meant nothing to the Lega and should not be celebrated. This led to several days of intense debates in the press and to a sharp retort by Napolitano. But despite the fact that much regionalism still exists here, it was interesting to note that most of the Italians queried - north, center and south - agreed that there was indeed something important to commemorate.

Sleeping giant (for now)
May 01, 2010 at 06:21 PM

Seen from the ruins of Pompeii

It looks peaceful enough, for now. But although there hasn't been a peep out of the Mount Vesuvius volcano since March, 1944 (24 dead), the silence may not last. It is unlikely that if it does erupt again - and volcanologists in Italy say that given the usual cycles of volcanic activity, Vesuvio is dragging its feet - dealing with the event is going to be a real headache.

No one, of course, is expecting the kind of tragedy that the Naples area saw back in 79AD when Herculaneum and Pmpei were wiped out by a gigantic eruption with the consequent deaths of from 10,000 to 25,000 people. The problem is that the area surrounding Vesuvius is (unlike that surrounding the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull) today so densely populated that the chief of Italy's Civil Protection Department, Guido Bertolaso (who despite a recent major scandal has been able to hold onto his job), says an eruption would represent a major problem requiring the evacuation of as many as one million people.

At the moment, the so called "red zone" around the dormant volcano includes 18 towns and cities with a population of between 650,000 and 700,000. But the effects of an an eventual eruption, which would be preceded by a series of earthquakes, would probably reach to parts of Naples itself. "we'd probably have no more than three to four days, possibly a week, to evacuate the area", Bertolaso said recently.


For Berlusconi, another divorce?
Apr 23, 2010 at 08:41 PM

When love has gone.....

Despite its success in Italy's recent regional and local elections, Silvio Berlusconi's party, the PDL, appears to be on the verge of a serious schism which could affect the Italian prime minister's plan to put through a series of major institutional reforms and possibly the country's stability in the near future. At the end of a meeting on Thursday of the ruling party's national directorate, it became clear that the already shaky relationship between Berlusconi and his former number two, Gianfranco Fini, currently the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and formerly the leader of the right wing Alleanza Nazionale party, had totally disintegrated.

The PDL (Partito della Liberta') was formed in March, 2008, when Berlusconi's Forza Italia party merged with Alleanza Nazionale. At the time, many thought Fini was likely to take over from Berlusconi at some point in the future. But since that time, the PDL's alliance with the populist Northern League and its controversial leader, Umberto Bossi, has become increasingly important, effectively leaving Fini on the sidelines. It was his renewed protests against the increased influence of the Lega - which did extremely well in last month's vote, for the first time winning the governorship of two of the 13 Italian regions where elections were held - that set off the latest crisis.

Alleanza Nazionale was formed in 1994 as a merger between two post-fascist Italian political parties, but under Fini's leadership the party increasingly divested itself of its Fascist heritage becoming a right of center party operating within, and fully respectful of, the confines of a democratic political system. In the last elections in which it ran as a separate party, in 2006, AN won over 12% of the vote. Fini has renounced fascism, travelled to - and been welcomed in - Israel and paradoxically has become one of the center-right's most liberal politicians. His open-mindedness and generosity on immigration, drugs, abortion and patients rights - for example he favors the living wills which currently don't exist here - had already put him at odds with Berlusconi and Bossi. He also as opposed some of the laws the Berlusconi pushed through to protect himself against prosecution while in office as well as some of the prime minister's proposed institutional changes. The result? Many Italians on the left have found it disconcerting to find themselves rooting for a former Fascist as a possible antidote for Berlusconi. But it was hard not to share that feeling.

Now, however, Fini appears to have misjudged the situation and made some sort of tactical error. For if he is expelled, or forced out, of the PDL, which might mean giving up his prestigious role at the lower house of parliament, it is not clear just how many of his former party colleagues - in 2006 the party had 71 deputies out of the 600 in the Chamber of Deputies - or supporters - will follow him.

Italian No Fly Zone
Apr 19, 2010 at 08:26 PM

Passengers mob train ticket machines

It took the Italian media a few days to catch up with the rest of Europe and the U.S. in giving significant coverage to the volcanic ash drama; on Saturday several people to whom I mentioned the fact that at that very moment I was supposed to be on a flight to Paris but hadn't been able to leave, didn't have a clue as to what I was talking about.

Since then, however, the media here, too, have been talking about little else and everyone seems to know what's going on. The TV has been repeatedly showing pictures of the cots set up in several Italian airports for stranded travellers and the amazingly long lines at the Rome central train station made up of people, in large part foreign visitors, trying to get back home to points north and being told that for the next several days no seats were available. (Me, I went online Saturday morning when my EasyJet flight was cancelled and bought a just-in-case ticket for the Tuesday night train to Paris which I now have to use since a second plane reservation for Sunday evening also went belly-up as Paris airports remained closed.) At the moment, in fact, the Rome Fiumicino airport is one of the few in Europe along with Madrid and Athens) to be functioning - that is, for incoming flights from areas not affected by the clouds of volcanic ash.

But not everyone here really cares, or seems to appreciate just what this unprecedented event (in modern times) means for the European economy, and not just the European economy alone. Hundreds of thousands of people here, as elsewhere, have never been on a plane and have no plans to do so soon. But they probably have no idea not only how much the Italian economy depends on tourism, nor of the degree to which almost all of us have now become used to products, and produce, that is flown in from elsewhere. We are, indeed, all part of a global economy whose existence is being threatened by an eruption of a volcano with an unpronounceable name in a tiny country that many people have never heard of or if so, only vaguely.

And isn't it amazing that with all modern man is capable of, no one has come up with a way to turn off a volcano. Chiffon Margerine used to tell us "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature". Perhaps not, but if we could fool with her on this type of occasion our lives would be much easier.

Domus Aurea shut again
Apr 01, 2010 at 03:25 PM
Collapse on the Oppian Hill

Those of you who have never seen the Domus Aurea are now out of luck (again) for what is bound to be a minimum of two years. I've been inside three times and it is really well worth the visit, especially if you have the imagination to conjure up in your mind what this basically empty structure must once have looked like. Now, the collapse of a portion of the hill covering of the magnificent palace built by the Emperor Nero after a fire (that legend says may have been set by him) burned much of ancient Rome in 64 A.D. has once again put the palace out of bounds for the lovers of ancient Rome. Clearly, the restoration work announced last June when the Domus Aurea (Golden House) was closed to visitors for the third time in as many years because of water leaks were too little and too late.

Officials said the cave in did not involve the Domus itself but an area of between 60 and 70 square meters covering one of the tunnels built by the Emperor Trajan in 106 A.D. . After Nero's murder in 68 A.D., his successor, Hadrian, sacked the palace and covered it over to build a Roman Bath on the Roman hill known as Colle Oppio. After Hadrian, Trajan did further work which involved a series of tunnels. But the effect is the same.

After being shut for decades because of structural problems, the Domus was reopened to visitors in 1999, closed again in 2005 because of water damage and reopened once more in January, 2006. More water damage caused another shut down in December 2008 that was supposed to last until 2011. European and Italian funds amounting to 3.2 million euros were allocated for restoration and water-proofing to protect against spillage through the hilltop above but before this was well underway, a large portion of the covering fell in on itself.

Domus Aurea interior

Originally decorated with copious gold leaf and other luxurious furnishings, the imperial residence was so big - 300 rooms, mostly, experts say, for parties and other receptions - that it reached the Palatine and Celian hills, reportedly covering 2.5 square kilometres of terrain. Its gardens were monumental, surrounding an artificial lake which in the place where the Coliseum was subsequently constructed. Nero had also commissioned a gigantic bronze state of himself, some 37 meters tall, dressed as the god Apollo, a Colossus that later gave its name to the massive amphitheatre built between 70 and 80 A.D by the Flavian Emperors Vespasian and Titus.

One of its most famous rooms is the Octagonal Hall which is said to have a mechanism that allowed a star-studded ceiling to revolve while rose petals and perfume fell on the emperor and his guests.

The Octagonal Room

Throughout the palace there were frescoes everywhere high up on the walls, either geometrical or others depicting monsters and other strange creatures. During the Renaissance, artists like Michelangelo used to gain access to these upper portions from caves or grottoes in the Oppian Hill . They don't seem to have had any idea that there was much, much more below and, in fact, the small paintings came to be known as grotteschi.


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