All entries for January 2012
January 26, 2012
My fast train from Milan to Rome yesterday morning was stopped after only few minutes by... an earthquake. Nothing serious, just a few minutes checks and eventually a 30 minutes delay - elsewhere there was more panic but no damage.
These days, moving around Italy, as I am doing intensively, is not simple, and transport problems are the prominent news: ships sink, taxis are on strike against liberalisation, bus drivers are on strike against cuts, lorries block the motorways in protest against fuel prices, car traffic is restricted in city centres, fast train line works is blocked by environmentalists... and now even the earthquake gives its contribution. A monument to immobility, from all direction. All is political in Italy, and both sinking ship and earthquake are immediately referred to Berlusconi, because captain Schettino's partying approach to navigation was identical to Silvio's approach to ruling, and Silvio's government has famously defined the L'Aquila earthquake as a mediatic event.
More seriously political are protests on traffic. Among taxis and lorries there is a strong echo of Chile's protests of 1972, hich paved the road to Pinochet. I believe, as already written, that taxi liberalisation has to be very careful to avoid the wild situation of the USA, Ireland and some of Eastern Europe. But on fuel prices, I am with the government. I remember that even Blair struggled against a similar protest in 2000, but it didn't last for long. In Italy, goods' transport is by 90% on road, and on this account Europe is much worse than the USA.
A forefront of political struggle on mobility is Milan, where last week a congestion charge zone, modelled on London's, was introduced by the new leftwing mayor. Critics, and the Right, say that it has not improved the quality of air, but that was not its real aim. Traffic in Milan's city centre is now down by 40%, and moving around has become much faster and pleasant, whether on bus, foot or bike. And one important form of pollution has clearly declined: noise pollution. If the problem is that 'it is not enough', it is then auspicable that the congestion charge zone is soon extended to a broader area (as originally planned). The congestion charge zone received an enourmous support in a referendum last June, and those who protest are a minority embodying the moaning tradition of the Milanese. The idea of making people pay for using the car is not actually leftwing, it is rather liberal (liberals have always been in favour of toll roads, and on prices on everything), or even common sense: you soil, you pay.
January 16, 2012
La Scala summarises Milan’s modern history for good and bad. Built under Austrian empress Maria Theresa, home of music under Enlightenment and then romanticism, symbol of the Risorgimento when Verdi lived down the road and the Nabucco inspired patriotism, destroyed by Allied bombing and then immediately rebuilt (se sta mai cuj man in man) and re-inaugurated by Toscanini with a Tosca in strong antifascist tone. From 1968, its season opening on the 7th of December (Milan’s holyday, Sant’Ambrogio), the poshest of all events in Italy, is on and off the opportunity for political protest, including occasional egg-throwing at aristocrats, nouveaux riches and fur-dressed ladies. At the peak of Berlusconism it was privatised (1997) and completely renovated (2002-05). Love or hate opera, this is THE place to love it or hate it.
This year’s season was opened by the most important opera of all, Don Giovanni, and it was attended by fresh new prime minister Monti, who had just replaced a prime minister that had not come to the previous openings but believed to be himself the best embodiment of Don Giovanni. Given Monti’s symbolic (not yet regulatory, unfortunately) heavy hand on tax fraud, maybe for next year’s première tax police will make on-spot checks on the public – as they did for last new year eve in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the most exclusive Italian resort. It was also the first opening for a long time under a leftwing mayor, who made sure that no tickets were given for free to authorities and arranged big screens for live broadcasting around the city.
What a symbolic occasion for a turning point, it would seem: after a taste of Haendel, here comes Mozart to celebrate, with the most popular of all operas, the descent into hell of the Great Seductor and maybe the rise of new morality. However, Mozart stands in the way: too complex for instrumental readings, and especially so in the minimalistic and modern staging of Robert Carsen. In the most remarkable of a few coups-de-théâtre, at the end Don Giovanni, after falling into hell, reappears, and nonchalantly lights a cigarette smiling at the other characters descending themselves into the abyss... contrary to any moralizing, Don Giovanni wasn’t so evil and the others were not so innocent. Already the initial mirror behind the scene, portraying the theatre behind the theatre, had exhorted to look at ourselves and find the Don Giovanni in each and every one of us...
I didn’t go to the première, of course, but I managed to get in to the last show on Saturday. Opera tickets at La Scala are very expensive and big shows sell within minutes, but if you don’t mind standing in queue for a few hours in the freezing cold, on the day of the performance 140 gallery tickets are sold for just 12 Euros or less. This is especially for the cash-poor music fanatics, those known for whistling and throwing tomatoes at the slightest misinterpretation: this is the most difficult opera audience in the world. The two high galleries have a separate side entrance and you cannot mix up with the upper crust of the other levels of the theatre, least of all peak in into the foyer and disturb those who paid twenty times more: the reason they paid is not the music, it is exactly not mixing with you.
In my student days, the cheap day entrance tickets were more numerous but standing. Now, it is all-seated, and with E we were in the closest seats to the scene, at the very top (sixth) level: we had to dangerously lean out, but we could see almost all quite well. For the January shows unfortunately the best attraction for us (the direction of Barenboin, and Bryn Terfel as Leporetto) were missing, but replaced very well (by Steffens and D’Arcangelo). And if opera’s usual attraction is the over-the-top staging, this minimalistic one allowed welcome space for singers’ acting skills, and provided food-for-thought for further heated discussions on competing interpretations on the icy Piazza del Duomo.
If there were only two isolated whistles for Don Giovanni on Saturday, there were 80,000 people whistling a disappointing Alexandre Pato on Sunday at the second Scala of Milan: that ‘of calcio’, itself long all-seated, for Milan-Inter. Unlike the triumph of last Spring, this was the most frustrating of Milan derbies: lot of Milan sterile possession only to be punished by an Inter break. Pato had been nearly sold to PSG on Thursday, but then held back by Berlusconi, whose daugher and AC Milan executive has been romantically conquered by the 22-year old player...... messy seductions go on.
January 07, 2012
Even though Italy is the slowest changing country in Europe I know of (for good and bad reasons), something deeper is now changing and some images are emblematic. This week, after more than six decades, the FIOM-CGIL union has been expelled from the Turin Mirafiori FIAT factory, the largest factory in Italy and, when it was built in 1936, the largest factory in the world (up to 60,000 workers, now ten times less).
FIOM-CGIL is the largest trade union in the factory and has a heroic tradition as a pillar of the Italian labour movement – and of its communist component. Turin is where Gramsci’s workers' councils started after World War I, where antifascist strikes started in 1943, where the Hot Autumn of 1968 was at its hottest and in 1980 a month-long strike was one of the most significant ‘heroic defeats’ of the unionism worldwide. FIOM-CGIL is expelled because it refused to sign the last collective agreement, marking FIAT exit from the Italian industrial relations system (until then based on sector agreements and on eleted worker representatives), on which I wrote this blog last year.
Having spent months around Mirafiori interviewing FIOM activists for my PhD in the 1990s, the pictures of militants emptying their offices and removing decades of materials and historical pictures is heartbreaking – but even for who has not been there, the image of Gramsci’s portraits being removed has a strong ‘Goodbye Lenin’ reminiscence:
An international campaign has started to restore FIOM union rights in Mirafiori. I had written my reactions to the FIAT developments last year, and I feel FIOM, whose unhelpful nostalgia I had already highlighted in my PhD and my "Trade Union Activists, East and West" book twelve years ago, has some fault in scaling up the issue excessively. Their appeal says that FIOM refuse to sign the agreement because “it violated workers’ rights (including the right to strike)”: this is not technically true, as the agreement only introduced a peace clause, which although a novelty in Italian industrial relations, it is not as such as right violation and is commonplace in many countries. Nevertheless, the appeal is worth signing to remind of union rights at a time of upheaval in Italian industrial relations: