Giro d’Italia in Palermo

11 05 2008

Team Barloworld in Action

Cofidis on their way to 18th place

On Saturday life in Palermo ground to a halt for the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia, as the main cross city arterial roads were closed to allow the team time trial to take place. It was a rare sight to see the city streets free from traffic and, as an avid cyclist, it was a pleasure for me to attend a top level competition in Sicily.

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More Shakespeare Authorship Silliness

5 05 2008

Ex-director of Globe Theatre doesn’t believe in Bill

Mark Rylance signing the so-called Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.

A side effect of the ingrained cultural tradition of praising the unique greatness of Shakespeare is the question of the “real” authorship of the plays attributed to the bard. The idea is that, if the literary and intellectual qualities of the plays are so far beyond that of any dramatist before or since, someone much more sophisticated than a mere actor from the provinces must have written them. The element of snobbery in this debate has always been blatantly obvious. Hence, even before the proliferation of misinformation brought by the internet, there have always been efforts to promote the authorial claims of various court figures and aristocrats like Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Lady Mary Sidney, James I, Michelangelo Crollalanza, and – why not – Lord Peter Wimsey or Yvette Mimieux.

The authorship question is in the news at the moment because Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of the Globe Amusement Park and Ye Olde Gift Shoppe in London, has recently made apparent his own scepticism about the Shakespeare myth. In a recent feature in The New Yorker, to promote his appearance on Broadway in the classic tragicomedy Boeing-Boeing, we discover that “He thinks now that Shakespeare was likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney.” Indeed, he claims that his challenge to received ideas, along with his opposition to the Iraq war (a political stance unique in theatrical and academic circles), made his position at the ersatz theatre untenable and obliged him to resign.

What’s so special about Bill anyway?

Of course, if Shakespeare was seen as just another dramatist, we wouldn’t feel obliged to come up with elaborate explanations for his presumed greatness. In working on the representation of Italy in early modern drama, I have come across the authorship question a lot because many people seem to think that Shakespeare’s plays display a distinctive knowledge of the literature, history, and geography of the peninsula – a knowledge that only a widely travelled aristocrat or renowned period intellectual could have attained. Even among professional scholars who would feel embarrassed spouting crackpot historical conspiracy theories, we get grandiose claims about how Shakespeare must have visited Italy and spent an extensive amount of time in Venice in particular. However, it is worth remembering that we are talking the dramatist behind The Tempest, a play which depicts the landlocked city of Milan as a seaport (I have seen Italian productions of the play that silently changed the locale to Genoa to avoid inappropriate laughter in the stalls). What comes to the fore in looking at Shakespeare in the context of early modern drama as a whole, as I will do in my forthcoming book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is that everyone in the theatre was writing about Italy – and, for the most part, they were doing it by cribbing from books readily available in England.





Italian Tax Returns Online (briefly)

1 05 2008

State Privacy Official Ruins the Fun for Gossips and the Curious

Don’t put down anything

you wouldn’t want your neighbours to see

In a move that the outgoing Italian vice-finance minister Vincenzo Visco described as “an act of transparency, of democracy, similar to what happens elsewhere in the world,” the country’s tax office placed the names, addresses, birthdates, and above all incomes of everyone who filed a tax return in 2005. With obvious concerns about privacy and identity theft, underlined by the rapidity with which millions of curiosi caused the website to crash, the national Garante per la Privacy Francesco Pizzetti intervened to block the circulation of such confidential information. Indeed, despite Visco’s declarations, it soon became clear that there was no precedent for making tax records public in other Western countries like the US and Britain. Representatives of the incoming center-right government declared that it was a vendetta against the nation inspired by the loss of Visco’s party in the recent elections.

Before the plug was pulled, the financial records of many Italian public figures were recorded for posterity and are being openly cited by the international press. The domestic press has hastened to take their league tables of VIP earnings offline but the details of the biggest names are still available on numerous blogs and gossip sites. For the nation’s wealthy, as represented by blogosphere icon Beppe Grillo, the release of such information threatens to expose them to the attention of kidnappers and organized crime. Nonetheless, as tax police Colonel Umberto Rapetto put it, the criminal classes “probably know very well that Italian tax returns do not reveal the real wealth of taxpayers, given the high percentage of evasion.”

“Now I know why Enzo still drives that 15 year old Fiat Duna”

Despite all the remaining details about vips, gossips with more local concerns have been left frustrated by all the problems accessing the site before it went down forever. It is all very well finding out about tv stars, footballers, and fashion designers, but what people really want to know (as many conversations I overheard at a bar this afternoon made clear) is what their neighbours, colleagues, and relatives earned (or at least declared) in 2005. Thanks to the outlaws of peer to peer file sharing, the people who brought you mp3 music files and pre-release Hollywood blockbusters, the Italian press is reporting that downloaded copies of local and regional tax records have already started to circulate online.

Just don’t look at mine.





Messina: The Forgotten Home of Shakespeare

21 04 2008

Tourist trap

What does Verona have that Messina doesn’t?

A fake balcony and lots of tourists

What does Stratford Upon Avon have that Messina doesn’t?

A fake house and lots of tourists

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his film version of Much Ado About Nothing in a romanticized version of Tuscany, rather than the Messina chosen by Shakespeare, he deprived the Sicilian city of yet another chance for it to cash in on its association with the bard. Verona has long shown that Shakespeare can be a powerful stimulus for tourism – especially when it is associated with starcrossed lovers and the literary pretensions of would be visitors. The northern Italian city is the profitable home of the Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house), complete with a photo opportunity balcony added in the 1930s. For although it is hard to match the romantic appeal of Romeo and Juliet in the Shakespeare canon, surely the much perkier Messinese story of Beatrice and Benedick must come close – and, to be certain, it is much more popular than The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

There are some balconies and houses in Messina just waiting for historical significance

Indeed, there is a theory that Shakespeare was actually from Messina. The story goes that young Sicilian nobleman Michelangelo Crollalanza (Italian for shake spear) emigrated from Messina, found his way into the emerging Elizabethan theatre, and secured an English outlet for his writing by marrying a brilliant translator by the name of Anne Hathaway. Apart from the Messina connection, it is appealing to think that Mrs Shakespeare may actually be responsible for the language of the plays.

A bit of initiative from the Messina city council and a random old looking building nominated as Shakespeare’s ancestral home could change the Bard tourism biz for ever. Why go to dingy Stratford Upon Avon and eat putrid bangers on mash, when you can bask in the Sicilian sun, enjoy great pizza and pasta, and see an equally authentic Shakespearean residence? The enterprising Veronesi and Stratfordians would have done it years ago.





A Very Quiet Election

15 04 2008

Italians Vote for a Change,

but without much expectation of getting it

Decidi tu 2008 / You decide 2008

I was looking forward to enjoying my opportunity to vote in an Italian election for the first time. With memories of the hectic campaigning of the past, when every surface of the city would be covered in posters, mailboxes would be stuffed with flyers and you could not walk down the street without being assailed by passionate pleas for support from the candidates and their surrogates, I expected to spend a lot of time engaged in heated political debates before making an informed decision that would determine the fate of the entire nation. Yet the only electoral discussion I had this time around, when I could really make a difference, was about the inadvisability of bringing a videophone into the voting booth.

The anti-videophone measures were in place, complete with hefty fines for the unwary, to ensure that people engaging in voti di scambio (vote buying) did not take advantage of the latest technology to provide a live feed of their unscrupulous electoral choices. No such illicit activities were detected during my visit to the polling station on Monday. Apart from the electoral officials enjoying a picnic lunch alongside the ballot boxes, complete with an excellent selection of local wine, cheese, and particularly enticing pastries, I was the only member of the public there.

Despite the obvious importance of this election, coming at a time when Italy is undergoing a severe economic crisis accompanied by rampant inflation, what struck me is how little effort any of the parties made to gather votes. No candidate or political activist tried to speak with me – let alone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Over the course of the campaign I collected a grand total of 3 leaflets for specific candidates – 2 tucked under the windshield wipers of my Fiat and 1 from the counter of a bar. I saw few posters and didn’t notice any ads on tv. Indeed, it would have been easy to forget there was a national election going on at all.





The Great “Settimana Cultura” Conspiracy

26 03 2008

The high cost of living in Italy getting you down?

Catch those pre-election discounts while you can!

For many years my family and I have looked forward to the Settimana della cultura (Week of Culture) promoted by the Italian national ministry of culture in May. The end of Spring is the best time of the year to travel around the peninsula and, given the high cost of admission to public museums and monuments, it is an opportunity to sightsee in a large group without breaking the bank. Instead of paying €6 to 8 each to see one site, we can cover all of the beni culturali (“cultural assets” in official translator English) in the area in one fell swoop. Consistent with the much lamented exponential increases in the cost of living here, the main topic of discussion in both the national media and anxious personal conversations, many culturally minded families have started to plan their vacations around the initiative. You can imagine the surprise then when we discovered last night that, in a break with tradition, the eagerly awaited week had already started!

It’s here!

setcul

The new improved March “Settimana della cultura” was first made public on the 28th of February.  It is an inspiring tribute to the integrity of what was already, after all, a lame duck government that the culture ministry was able to amass the energy to organize and promote an unexpected week of culture at a time when most of the country’s leadership might be distracted by the current national election campaign. Indeed, apart from the change in date, it is striking that the centerpiece of the 2008 pre-electoral settimana is not the usual stuffy mix of art and history but the opportunity to go to the cinema everywhere in Italy for €1, instead of the more usual €7 (as shown on the bottom left of the official poster above). It’s a shame only that none of the 3 cinemas in our town are showing anything other than the usual commercial Hollywood fare.

Hurry, it’s only an euro!

2623454933.jpg

This great temporary money saving initiative joins another state gift to working families: the month of cheap bread. From the 15th of March until the 15th of April (ie two days after the date of the national election) your friendly local bakery will be encouraged to offer special discounts on the price of bread, a commodity that has undergone sharp price increases over the past two years. If you have a large freezer, the cheap bread can feed your financially challenged family all year round as you recall the rose coloured memories of your supersaver night at the cinema!

We’ve got the bread – fill up the freezer! All we need now is the circus…

bread

Now if we could just get some “cultural” discounts on the price of gas, currently hovering around €1.42 a litre, I could afford to visit all of the museums and monuments I’ve been eager to see!





Buongiorno Italia?

25 03 2008

Before coming to Italy for the first time, I spent many an hour reading and listening to the BBC language course Buongiorno Italia. The course book was supplemented with a series of authentic sounding cassette tapes (this was the early 90s), complete with sound effects, documenting typical situations like ordering a coffee at a bar that an average tourist might experience during their visit to the peninsula.

Given that I speak the language with great fluency by now I should be grateful to the course for setting me on the right track but I still remember the shock I had when none of the real life Italians acted anything like their counterparts in the course. After ten years of living in il bel paese I am still waiting anxiously for the counter staff at a bar to present my coffee with a welcoming “Ecco lo zucchero” (Here is the sugar).

Not quite reality:

bitalia1.jpg

The most embarrassing incident that came out of my reliance on the course was the time, keen to use my repertory of set phrases, I attempted to buy some stamps from a tabaccaio, the convenience stores which sell everything from cigarettes, lottery tickets, and government tax stickers to Kinder eggs. The Buongiorno Italia course included a long friendly conversation set in a tabaccaio where the obliging proprietor was so eager to chat with his prized English visitor that he did everything but give away a case of free smokes. You can indeed buy stamps at a tabaccaio but I soon discovered that, instead of being prompt to welcome postcard wielding foreigners, the local tabacconists found pronunciation challenged sightseers intensely irritating. My stumbling attempt to ask for a stamp was greeted with something I managed to recognize as “This idiot thinks he’s at a post office”.

Not a post office:

tabac

The sad thing is that even now I occasionally find myself reminded of my foreigness when I enter a small shop for the first time. A few days ago, distracted by a cellphone conversation with friends in England, I managed to send the proprietors of an unfamiliar bakery into a fluster as I gestured for a loaf of bread while continuing to discuss some urgent business abroad. After a pregnant pause, followed by some intense whispering involving the extensive repetition of the word “straniero” (foreigner), their elementary school aged son came out – English textbook in hand- and said “B-ree-d??”