« May 2008 | Main | July 2008 »

June 23, 2008

Berlusconi from below

Berlusconi may have secured the popular vote in Italy but he remains a controversial figure in Italian political life. For the left he is seen as a figure who disrespects the law and whose political life is characterized by conflicts of interest. The latest attempts to shield him from judicial investigation have disturbed moderate voices such as that if the newspaper La Stampa. This suggests not only Berlusconi reverting to type but also the Italian political system itself. Further his desire to take communion as a divorced person has according to the Times online ‘raised eyebrows’ amongst church conservatives. It seems that he cannot avoid controversy. What do ordinary Italians think of Berlusconi? I had recently a chance to reflect on this in various conversations, largely informal. The views presented here have not been systematically collected.

The first conversation I had recently about Berlusconi was both informal and largely accidental. I was speaking to a young man that I know about the progress of the late spring and early summer (a topic that has some economic significance for tourism and production in a rural area) when he suddenly switched the topic to that of Berlusconi. He announced that he was ashamed that Italy should be represented in Europe and elsewhere by such a character, whom he dubbed ‘ladro’ (Italian for ‘thief’ and a reference to corruption charges currently facing Berlusconi). He accepted that he had been elected with considerable political support but wondered who had voted for him. He expressed his surprise that when he talks to people about Berlusconi, nobody claims to have voted for him or his party but accepts that many must have done so, even amongst his friends, otherwise he could not have been elected. The implication of hypocritical behavior amongst those to whom he had spoken was strong. Could it be that many who voted for him have do so out of exasperation about the economy and the general state of the country and feel slightly uneasy about the consequences of their decisions? The exclusion of the communists from representation must be a shock for many people and the left has felt the political need to regroup and renew itself.

One small-scale but active entrepreneur whose business depends on the competitiveness of the Italian tourist industry who was also very willing to identify himself as a person of the left had a more analytical and less emotional approach. People were simply fed-up with the inability of the government that replaced Berlusconi’s to get anything done. The economic crisis was affecting many people and Berlusconi would certainly help the small-business person, such as himself, essential to the growth of the Italian economy. In contextualizing this view, it is important to know that Berlusconi campaigned on the basis of being the ‘entrepreneur of Italy’ and the leader of the ‘culture of accomplishment’. Berlusconi had simply been seen as someone who might just manage to get the economy moving and change implemented. The businessman identified as a microcosm of Italy’s problems the bankrupt nature of Alitalia. The deficits were the result of the inefficiencies created by nepotism and administrative confusion. It was obvious to him that a market solution was essential, in this respect, but that many were still tied to the idea of a ‘national carrier’. What people wanted was change and a movement forward.

One family, members of the professional and property owning-classes, had never failed in its support for Berlusconi and was delighted by his victory in the elections. It was simply a matter of conviction for it that Berlusconi would settle Italy’s economic and political problems and that there was simply nobody else who could take on this task and achieve success. For such people, the judicial investigation of Berlusconi is the product of ‘left-leaning’ magistrates. This is of course a group to which Berlusconi’s supporters in the parliament can appeal in the attempt to remove ‘fictional cases’ from the legal system and accelerate the prosecution of serious criminal trials. However even professional people who may not share this particular view hold that given the state of the economy and the administrative crises in Italy as exemplified by the problems of Naples, expressed the view that Berlusconi seemed to be the only sensible choice in the context. For such people it would seem contradictory to elect him to high office and continue a prosecution through the courts.

Can Berlusconi do the job and create the change that seems to be required? It would seem that Berlusconi ran an excellent campaign. There is no doubt that he is both outspoken and willing to meet challenges head on. He has not given up on supporting his friend Tony Blair with respect to Blair’s European ambitions or in increasing Italy’s support for President Bush’s stand on Iran. However his record on the economy as a whole in the past is not good. His alliance with the business community and its political representatives is strong even if sometimes tested. Small-business is better represented in the politics of business as it is in the Italian economy as a whole and this strengthens Berlusconi’s support. These economy issues would seem to be represented in the views presented here. To implement the changes wanted by the people who elected him, including tax reform, Berlusconi himself needs to be both challenging and cooperative. Watch this space!

June 22, 2008

Tuscany in the early summer

There is a lot going on in the world economy, including concerns about the price of oil and its knock-on effects on transportation costs, food costs and world trade. I thought that in the context of much (misplaced) gloom, it might be an idea to produce a more personal and more light-hearted web log just for a change. Here then are some reflections on hosting some friends on a visit to Tuscany. This is not about world events, but it is about the advice, provided by Voltaire in Candide to ‘cultivate one’s garden’. What better place is there to reflect on the quality of life than in rural Tuscany?

When I am in Tuscany I live in an active little hill-town called Castagneto Carducci. This town is about 600 meters above the plain and is within sight of the sea. This year I invited a small number of friends to share the Tuscan experience with me. This was a bold decision as Castagneto is normally my hideaway. The decision was even bolder as I allowed my various worlds to collide. The friends, all single people, did not know each other prior to the visit and came from different back grounds, countries, genders and with different views on life, politics, religion and sex. Two of my guests had been to the big set pieces of the Italian Renaissance such as Florence and Pisa but had never directly experienced rural Tuscany. Two had never been to Italy. I wondered how it would all turn out.

The Tuscan countryside was looking unbelievable beautiful. The whole of Italy has been experiencing lots of rain mixed with periods of sustained sunshine. This has created perfect growing conditions, especially in Tuscany. The meadows were full of wild flowers, with wild poppies creating patches of scarlet that relieved the intense green of the vines and the sliver-grey of the olives. North of Castagneto, on the road to Pisa, there were fields of pure gold (wheat) and even close to white. The intensity changes with the time of day or the state of the weather and even over the short span of the visit as the early summer progressed. The landscape below Castagneto contains the ordered rationality of the drained Maremma (planted with vines, olives and orchards) mixed with the more organic development of land-use and field shapes in the hills where there is an inter play between fields and wild woodland. Any fears that I had that expectations would not be fulfilled were quickly banished by the reactions to the rural landscape. One friend, a talented and innovative water colorist from St. Paul, Minnesota, exploded with delight at the contrast in color and texture between the rationality of the plain and the more abstract landscape of the hills. All took eagerly to the hill-town experience and responded with delight to small towns such as Suvereto (a walled and much-restored town that hardly makes the standard guide-books) and to slightly larger towns such as Volterra or Massa Marittima. Volterra is an ancient town, set high above the Val de Cecina. It commands truly breath-taking views of rounded, clay hills and productive fields. I visit this town time and gain with delight and anticipation. It was renewing to see what has become for me a familiar townscape being considered by people who were new to it. Massa Marittima does not do well in some guide books. The guide-books are wrong as one of my guests felt time and gain. The old town and the even older town below are delightful urban spaces in which detailed observation yields significant results. It commands fine views of the Gulf of Follonica, hence the fortress that dominates the road inland to Siena. I look forward to seeing how my artist friend, as a result of his various visits, will transform his experience of rural Tuscany and its arts into contemporary watercolors.

Hill-towns are fascinating places where it is possible to stumble across small architectural gems, wonderful vistas or tortured medieval streets. Suvereto has a number of such little gems and many interesting, dark medieval lanes. It has in addition good places to eat typical Tuscan food, such a wild boar (roasted or stewed). Rural Tuscany is also a perfect place, as my guests discovered, for good-quality food and animated and extended evening conversations over dinner and local wine. Castagneto is luckier than most as it can easily entice visitors who are having a holiday by the sea to take the road inland and up the hill. Its reputation with Italians and visitors alike is that of a ‘bel posto’ and is known for its liveliness and innovative, and indeed hard-headed, approach to high-quality tourism. Others are less fortunate. All need additional sources of income if they are to remain economically vibrant and capable of sustaining newer and younger families that will carry the culture and life-style into future generations. We do the hill-towns a disservice if we simply over-romanticize them or the people who live in them. At the same time, they have as much to offer in terms of the regeneration of the human spirit, as all of my friends discovered, as the big set pieces of the Renaissance. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel to Italy, put rural Tuscany and its hill-towns high on your list. This will help local producers. Also, it may just change your understanding, as it has mine and I hope that of my friends, of what really constitutes the good life!