Letter from Rome

Picture Rome in the 1970s. It was a tormented time for the Eternal City – a time when demonstrating «autonomists» played cat and mouse with police. The center of the majestic city was paralyzed. Men ran along the city’s main artery, the Via del Corso, waving gaudy banners and yelling political slogans. At the time, it was nearly impossible to cross this mile-long strip, known simply as il Corso. The street starts at the Piazza del Popolo, with its twin churches, and ends at one of Rome’s central points, Piazza Venezia, dominated by the preposterous and kitsch monstrosity locals call the Wedding Cake or the Typewriter (actually the tomb of King Vittorio Emanuele II. Three decades ago – a time when I spent seven wonderful years in this city – violent scenes were commonplace in Rome. It was the most troubled decade of modern Italian life. Amid the political troubles, I lived in a rooftop apartment overlooking the center. Here, self-exiled Greek filmmaker Nikos Koundouros shot scenes (allegedly depicting Britain) for his film «Vortex.» Oh, the memories! One life isn’t enough to enjoy this city. I was in Rome again last Saturday, and the center was, once again, paralyzed. The weather was splendid. Il Corso was closed to traffic, and thousands of people strolled along its paths. But this time, there were no police cars speeding frantically through the street, their sirens wailing and lights flashing. The atmosphere was festive and peaceful. Nothing recalled the atmosphere of the grim 1970s. A glowing Rome was again greeting its tourists on this signature street, steeped in ancient history and modern shopping centers. The old sites include the first Roman emperor’s mausoleum, Italy’s parliament building, several of its oldest and most beloved fountains, and a host of churches, palaces and other monuments, including Marcus Aurelius’ Columns. And the new buildings include dozens of shops, restaurants and cafes. On the first night in town, Stefano brought us to the excellent Due Ladroni restaurant in Piazza Nicosia. Its outstanding beef tagliato was surpassed the following night by the same piato in the Roscioli salumeria-vineria in Via dei Giubonari, just off one of Rome’s most appealing squares, Piazza Campo di Fiori. This is a square I once knew well yet could hardly recognize now. For the past 20 years, the Eternal City has been sprucing up its monuments. The visitors who come to Rome often find monuments hidden by scaffolding and protective panels, which often double as advertising space. The Trinita dei Monti in Piazza di Spagna is dominated by an unsightly poster praising the alleged superiority of Rolex over its competitors. When I mentioned this regretful situation to a local art critic, he replied apologetically, «Well, despite the abundance of wonders, Rome is a living city, not only a museum for the dead.» Meanwhile, Efrosini insisted we go to the opera. However, even though we are in the peak of the theatrical season, Opera di Roma did not have any shows last weekend. An explanation came from an Italian critic: «Well, it is not really an official strike – not yet.» Apparently, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government has proposed a 35 percent cut to state funding for the arts – from 464 million to 300 million euros – in the 2006 budget. As in Greece, Italy’s annual deficit is above levels permitted by the EU. The crisis must be solved. Last month, cinemas and theaters across Italy staged a one-day strike protesting these deficit-reduction plans. The film industry association Anica called the funding crisis «an attack on citizens’ fundamental right to culture.» Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione threatened to resign over the matter, while opera singers and others in Italy’s theatrical world came up with the idea of hunger strikes. Soprano Manola Colangeli from the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma has just endured a 10-day fast and has lost 12 pounds. The country may have seen some of its worst postwar days in the 1970s, but today’s political situation isn’t really promising. At least not for the billionaire-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi, who has promised to work for «all Italians, even those who voted against me.» Berlusconi has seen his popularity plunge in recent months as a result of the country’s sluggish economy and Italians’ continued opposition to the Iraq war. Although not involved in the invasion, Italy sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein – the largest foreign contingent after the US and Britain. Furthermore, recent opinion polls suggest that the conservative coalition is headed for defeat on April 9, the date Berlusconi has chosen for the country’s elections. Romano Prodi, the former EU Commission president, is expected to take on the billionaire media tycoon at a general election in the spring. Feeling the imminent danger, Berlusconi recently made a desperate attempt to change the electoral rule less than seven months before the country chooses its next government. Italy is an easy target for political ridicule. It has had more than 60 different governments since World War II. Yet the undeniable fact is that the society functions extremely well despite all the possible problems – in the 1970s and today. It is a place where people smile and say «Buon giorno» to people walking by. During my visit, I realized again the great sense of joie de vivre Romans have. But budgetary reforms still looms – and may be necessary. The proposed cuts of 11.5 billion euros may be one – albeit bitter – solution. A decision on this issue will be made by the end of the year. Until then, there is time for Romans to savor the phrase «Sopraviviamo pure dopo questo,» which means «We shall survive this as well.» Italy is still a place where the values of culture, humanity, beauty and community are still valid – and this is evidence that there is more to life than economics.

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