“Of course, Shakespeare was Sicilian…”

13 12 2009

The Adventures of a Shakespearean in the Mediterranean

I hear it all the time: “Ah, you study Shakespeare and Italy? Well, then you know Shakespeare was Sicilian.” Others are more cautious: “my daughter’s teacher said Shakespeare was Sicilian, what do you think?” By now, the Sicilian authorship theory has been the subject of a documentary on RAI Due and, given the notorious power of television over the Italian mind, the frequency with which I encounter it should not be surprising. Its proponents claim 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. What makes it awkward for me is the palpable desire for this story to be true.

There’s no question that Shakespeare was aware of Sicily: Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale take place on the island. This does not mean, however, that the world’s most famous dramatist was a native of Messina, the setting for the romantic games of Beatrice and Benedick, anymore than the locale of Hamlet alludes to his Danish origins. What comes to the fore in Shakespeare’s Italianate plays, as I discuss in my new book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is the reproduction and elaboration of textual material from previous books. Just like most of his contemporaries, who enjoyed the novelle of Boccaccio and worried about the power politics of Machiavelli, Shakespeare was a voracious consumer of Italian books and English books about Italy. In many ways, the importance of Italy in every aspect of early modern English culture reflects the provincialism of that island, watching the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance from afar.

As seen on RAI Due:

 

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Obsolete Products, Up to date Prices

8 05 2009

 

Be careful with those sharp curves
Be careful with those sharp curves

In Italy, shopkeepers still hope to sell you a Betamax at a profit

One of the most surreal sights I’ve seen in Italy was a girl feeding a boy lasagna with a fork from the back of the Vespa he was driving. Yet weird Vespa experiences are not all that unusual here: I’ve seen a three wheeled Vespa pickup (the in-famous Ape) flip over at an intersection under the weight of a load of boxes piled more than three times its height. Yesterday I followed a red Vespa through crowded cobblestone streets, amazed at the driver’s ability to control his scooter while carrying a large gate for a picket fence. Alas, the suicidal maneuvers of helmetless teenagers upon speeding two wheelers have long lost their novelty value.

Another surreal but common sight in Italy is the obsolete product at an absurd price in the front window of a Mom and Pop shop. The absurdity comes not just from the fact that the shopkeepers continue to proudly display a slide projector to passersby, as in the case of a photo shop I marvel at every morning, but that they persist in attaching a widely optimistic price tag to something which by now has little, if any, value. Indeed, unable to shift traditional cameras in the wake of the digital revolution, photo shops are a prime example of this extortionate optimism. The hope seems to be that some gullible antiquarian will pop in and make up for their years of patience.

I had a keen insight into to the logic of the Italian shopkeeper upon visiting a negozio di casalinghi(housewares store) which was filled with decades old products. My wife, an enthusiast of Italian designer housewares like Alessi and Guzzini, was stunned to see products she remembered from her childhood. “It looks like a museum of the 1980s”, she whispered as she picked up a faded box containing an old Guzzini breadbox, “my mother threw this away years ago”. The products were so old that none of them were made in China. The toy section was even more historic. As a Canadian I was amazed to see a ye olde knockoff tabletop hockey game in the Italian provinces. If it had been a Coleco model, rather than an unknown brand, I might have even paid the €30 price. For girls, the selection was even better, they had a complete set of louche Barbie furniture from the late 70s and an aged Barbie Ferrari for only around €30. The box of the car was battered and it was clear the price had been “adjusted” several times. If it had cost €30 (60,000 lire) in 1980, the price would have amounted to about a fifth of the average monthly wage. The owner’s prompt refusal of our request for a discount as we left confirmed our hypothesis. “These are classic products”, she said, “we do not know their real value anymore”.

Solo €950!
Solo €950!

The concept of opportunity cost does not seem to guide Italian shopkeepers, who prefer to adjust the prices of aging merchandise for inflation rather than reduce their losses by moving it out. My all time favourite example is the electronics store that filled its display window with a collection of first generation video recorders priced to stay there for another 25 years. It looked like a joke: a stack of historic VCRs like the Sony Betamax for prices close to €1,000! Sure they may have cost that in the 1970s, as early adopters paid a premium to get the latest technology, but it seems unrealistic to maintain such prices in the new millennium. The VCR history remained in the window for about a year – I like to think a collector found his treasure trove and, in the process, allowed the shop to bring in new products like the Commodore 64 personal computer. 





Signs of Economic Crisis

23 11 2008
0% Interest

0% Interest

The stores were open here this Sunday for the start of the Christmas shopping season. I went out for a walk and saw a couple of signs of the economic crisis:

1.  The first Euro store I’ve ever seen here. Of course, it was all the same stuff (ie junk) you’d get at the dollar store back home.

2. A toy store with a giant sign on the front display window: 0% interest. It’s a difficult Christmas when you have to buy your Barbie on the installment plan.





Italian Manufacturers Move Relentlessly Upmarket

14 07 2008

The business model for Italian manufacturers has changed completely in recent years. The introduction of the Euro, the first time in history that a country has simultaneously devalued its currency and priced itself out of export markets, coincided with the emergence of China as the new workshop of the world. Ten years ago, when I moved to Italy, my brother and I used to marvel at the stylishness and sheer brio of the clothes and housewares on offer at a department store chain like UPIM. Now even iconic Italian products like Moka coffee pots and pasta makers come from overseas for the most part.

Italian manufacturers abandon mass market products

While many companies have taken the “if you can’t beat them, join them approach,” as elsewhere, a popular business strategy of Italian manufacturers is to move relentlessly upmarket. For example, Bialetti has completely redesigned its range of coffee pots to separate them from the cheap copies of their traditional products. It’s unclear, however, whether the mass-market Italian shopper is willing to pay 10 times the price of the copy for a mechanically and aesthetically superior product. Recent market data seems to suggest they are not. Indeed, many stores where I lived have stopped selling them because they are too expensive.

The famous television producer Brionvega, notwithstanding a recent bankruptcy and frequent ownership changes, has persisted in moving upmarket. Why buy a regular tv when you can get a €2150 individually numbered oggetto d’arte? With its optimistic production levels of 199 sets per product, the current management is making the high-end strategy of the previous manifestation of the company look down-market.

Save Xenon and Mirage!

Addio cari amici

Addio cari amici

In the latest example of this strategy, the famous bicycle component producer Campagnolo recently announced that it is abandonning the so-called “entry-level” market for road bike groups to concentrate on the high-end and professional markets. The step comes after the company previously abandoned the markets for city bike and mountain bike components, giving competitor Shimano a de facto monopoly in almost every sector of the business. The groups Xenon and Mirage – popular for giving a touch of Italian flair on cheaper racing bikes -are on the way out.

Instead of Xenon and Mirage, Campagnolo will introduce the Spinal Tap inspired ultra-expensive 11 speed Super Record system:

These go to eleven, it’s one faster innit?

The hope seems to be that cycling posers will pay big money for one more gear, permitting the company to make up for much lower volumes by concentrating on higher margin products. Vediamo.

 





Maniac Bus Driver

22 05 2008

On the last bus home no one can hear you scream

Night Bus - the film

“Why don’t buses have seatbelts?” the former American comedian Arsenio Hall asked rhetorically. His answer was simple: “if you’re riding a bus, your life isn’t worth anything”.

I hate taking the bus – it’s crowded, bumpy, and here the locals have a visceral hatred for any form of ventilation. The minute the feeble air conditioning goes on, people start running up to the driver to demand that it be turned off. Now that summer is coming it’s like riding in an old running shoe.

The standard demoralizing experience gets worse when I end up taking the last bus home. You have to be at one of the main stops because, in a frantic rush to finish their shift, the drivers have a predilection for ignoring those pesky passengers wherever possible along the less brightly lit points of the route. You have to pick your seat carefully: too close to the front and you’re listening to the bus driver’s selection of 70’s Italian pop favourites for the next 2 hours – too far to the back and you feel the wheels bouncing up and down as the driver tries to reach warp speed.

Tonight, after an endless day at work, I had the bus trip from hell. Things started off predictably: the bus lurched forwards, accelerated out of the piazza, and began to sway back and forth as we took the curves at excess speed. Bags flew out of the racks above, purses rolled down the aisle, tired commuters ended up sprawled in contorted shapes – everything seemed normal. But our driver was in a real hurry this time.

After the first stop in a small town halfway along the route we were almost an hour ahead of schedule and the driver decided to press his luck. The bus plowed through the medieval streets of the town, sparks flying as it grazed parked cars on its way back to the highway.

Then we heard a bump. And how that bump made us jump! After passing along on the sidewalk – in the driver’s pursuit of the racing line for a particularly sharp curve – the rear end of the bus smashed into a balcony of a house. We all ran to the back window and saw a big chunk of bus roof lying in the centre of the road, surrounded by fragments of masonry and iron railing.

After checking the situation the driver set off, slightly chastened, at a more moderate speed and began to follow the route back to the highway. Then things got stranger.

When we were almost at the on ramp, he swung the bus around and began to retrace his route at high speed. Nobody said anything – people just looked at each other and moved their hands in signs of despair – until we came to the fateful curve for the second time. At this point, one of the passengers demanded an early release.

The rest of our ride home went smoothly but I have had it with public transport. Let Al Gore and Sting give up their private jets and take my seat on the bus, I’m driving the car to work tomorrow.





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.