What’s up in Italy this summer

Flash floods, flashy politicians, ‘Il Pape’ in shirtsleeves and the future of football: these are just some of the issues on citizens’ minds this summer, as change – or the appearance of it – sweeps through a nation unaccustomed to such a deluge

Around here, the times they are a changin' . . . or are they? From Pope Francis through to current Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, there is certainly a lot of talk of radical change at the moment. Time will tell just how "radical" those changes will be (and in the case of Renzi, we have serious doubts) but, for now, there is one arguably much more important change in Italy that no one can deny.

Until last Saturday night, the small rural village of Refrontolo in the province of Treviso in the northeast of Italy was best known for two things – its excellent Prosecco and its much visited, handsome, 400-year-old mill, "Il Molinetto della Croda". Last weekend, however, Refrontolo made headlines when four people were drowned in a flash flood which saw a torrent of mud and water sweep away a tent where a Saturday night village festa was being held.

Summer storms, heavy downpours and consequent serious damage or even loss of life are nothing new. However, such events usually occur infrequently and towards the end of the summer. This year has been different because, frankly, there has been no "beginning" to the Italian summer. It has rained so consistently and heavily that many of those unfortunate people who run summer beach "stabilimenti" (deck chairs and umbrellas for hire) have thus far experienced an 80 per cent drop-off in trade.

Surveying the havoc wreaked by the "bomba d'acqua" at Refrontolo, puzzled Veneto regional president Luca Zaia pointed out that 2km down the road, it had not rained at all. Certainly, building speculation allied to an often total lack of forest husbandry contributes greatly to tragedies like this. However, you do begin to suspect that we are looking either at the onset of a new Ice Age or at something suspiciously similar to climate change.

On the political front 
While we can swear that some sort of climatic change is ongoing in Italy, we are less convinced that any meaningful change is happening on the political front. When he addressed the opening of the European Parliament in Strasbourg early last month, Matteo Renzi understandably generated a very positive reaction from those many non-Italian commentators and politicians who were watching him in action for the first time.


The appearance of an energetic, highly articulate, seemingly motivated 39-year-old in the role of Italian prime minister came as something of a culture shock. For years, the European Union has learnt to deal with sophisticated, elegant and usually aging Italian leaders, of the "men with black suits and no faces" variety. If it was not one of them, then it was media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Either way, there was never any question of meaningful change.

So Renzi is different, is he? On the face of things, he appeared to effect a change of earth-shaking proportions when he took office last February. Half his cabinet are women while the average age is 47. In a country where no woman has ever served as either prime minister or president and where current president Giorgio Napolitano is 89 and centre-right opposition leader Berlusconi is 77, this is radical stuff.

Furthermore, women ministers such as Maria Elena Boschi (33), Marianna Madia (34), Federica Mogherini (41) and Roberta Pinotti (53) hold the important portfolios of Constitutional Reform, Public Administration, Foreign Affairs and Defence respectively.

On top of that Renzi’s Obama-style, social network-friendly rise to power was based on a “Yes We Can” commitment to constitutional change and electoral reform, both badly needed. The key catchphrase marking his rise and rise from little-known Mayor of Florence to government house was his call to dump a whole older generation of politicians (especially those in his own centre-left Democratic Party) on the “scrapheap”.

All of this seems breathtakingly innovative. Yet, and there's the rub, all is not quite what it seems. For a start, Renzi came to power not via the ballot box but via a palace coup of the most deceitful nature. One moment he was tweeting that party colleague, prime minister Enrico Letta, had nothing to fear from him; within days he had pulled the PM's seat from under him.

More worryingly, within days of taking control of the PD party, Renzi formed a secret pact regarding his constitutional and electoral reform plans with Berlusconi. So, here we had a local politician, unelected at national level (Renzi is still not a deputy of the lower house), making a secret deal of potentially monumental proportions with a politician who just weeks previously had been expelled from the Senate due to a conviction for tax fraud.

If your intention was to effect meaningful change, surely you would start anywhere other than with the convicted, much investigated and much discredited Berlusconi. In 20 years of political life, Berlusconi has shown a remarkable ability to win elections and to look after his own business interests while in office – but he has almost never governed well, in terms of contributing to the common good and economic well being.

Renzi has only been in office for five months, so you could argue that judgments on what he may achieve are premature. The reality is, though, that someone who has only learned how to handle small dinghies has been made captain of a ship as big as the Costa Concordia. Will he sail onto the rocks? Your correspondent, too, recalls being bitterly criticised in the letters page of this paper 20 years ago when he dared criticise Italians for having voted into office another "man of providence" in the shape of Berlusconi. Wait and see . . .

Down Vatican way
On the other side of the Tiber, too, down Vatican way, there is a lot of talk these days about change. Here also, the jury is still out when it comes to the question of meaningful doctrinal change. Yet what is certain is that the arrival of Pope Francis on the Seat of Peter has had an immediate impact on Roman life.

For example, visitors to Rome are well advised to steer clear of the Vatican on a public audience Wednesday, so big are the average crowds (80,000) which flock to listen to and pray with the pope. Roman taxi drivers will tell you that public audience Wednesdays are a major hassle since they risk getting stuck in heavy traffic in the area adjacent to St Peter’s Square.

This is not the place to discuss the direction of the Francis pontificate, but the entire world can see that some changes have already taken place. For example, life in the Vatican residence, the Domus Santa Marta, has obviously never been quite the same since he opted to live there rather than in the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace.

Coming across the pope in his shirtsleeves at the coffee machine in the foyer came as a shock to some. For Francis, who has never made any secret of his desire to live in a community rather than isolated in the papal apartment, this is about being “normal”.

Similarly, it was normal for him to turn up unannounced at a synod of bishops committee meeting recently, bringing with him his lunch box so as not to waste time stopping for lunch. Just last week, he turned up for his lunch, again unannounced, at the Vatican lay workers canteen. To the astonishment of those present, he arrived, queued to get his food and then sat down with a group of the workers to eat his lunch. One suspects that the fact that Vatican employees – secretaries, computer technicians, drivers, etc – are as worried as anyone else about the implications (on hours and pay) of the Brave New World of Francesco might well have had something to do with his little visit.

Pope Francis is a busy man, something which impinges on everyone lay or clerical who works around him. So busy is he that, this summer like last, he will not be leaving the Vatican to take a little holiday.

Last year, he opted instead to attend the World Youth Day of Prayer celebrations in Brazil. Next Wednesday he travels to South Korea for the sixth Asian Youth Day and also to beatify 124 Korean Catholic martyrs killed in 19th-century Confucian-dominated Korea.

Little wonder that earlier this summer, Turin daily La Stampa calculated that Francis in the first 15 months of his pontificate had personally met 12,000 people, had read 50 letters per day and had spent at least 150 hours greeting people from his Popemobile, usually in St Peter's Square. As we said, he is a busy man.

Austerity rules 
While the long-term impact of both Pope Francis and prime minister Renzi remains hard to assess, one thing that continues to dominate Italian life is the atmosphere of recession and austerity.

A recent, perhaps less traumatic, expression of this came two weeks ago when the Rome Opera Company was forced to stage La Bohème with the accompaniment of only a pianist because of a strike by the orchestra.

This was clearly a pity because the performance in question takes place in the wonderful surrounds of the ancient Roman ruins of Caracalla, just down the road from the Circus Maximus.

Anyone who saw last year's Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza will know what we are talking about, since the Caracalla ruins feature in a Fellini-esque moment in the film, dominated by a giraffe.

A mistake over eggs
One change that seems certain to come this autumn concerns changes to Italy's penal code in relation to the delicate issue of in-vitro fertilisation. The change in question has been prompted by a "nightmare" mistake at the Sandro Pertini hospital in Rome last December.

Two couples, Couple A and Couple B, appear to have been caught up in a case of mistaken “egg” identity. It may have something to do with the fact that the two aspiring mothers, who underwent fertility treatment at the hospital on the same days last winter, also have similar surnames.

That remains to be confirmed but what we know is that after the treatment, mother A became pregnant whilst mother B did not. The problems arose three months into the pregnancy when tests revealed that the twins being carried by mother A were not compatible with her DNA. The alarm was raised and following consultation of the hospital records, it became evident that the DNA of the twins matched that of Couple B.

So, the situation now is that mother A is about to give birth to twins, conceived from the eggs and sperm of Couple B. So whose twins are they? Italian law appears to argue that they belong to the woman who is carrying them, but this is by no means clear given the lack of legislation on surrogate pregnancies. However, mother A recently told Italian daily La Repubblica:

“The two twins are a boy and a girl and at this point they are our twins, we feel they are ours. We are just a few weeks away from the birth and nobody can take them from us . . . We have natural (unwritten) law on our side . . .”

For the time being, the two couples have been unable to find any form of agreement on this complex issue. Couple B have already said they will seek a legal injunction in order to be informed as to where and when “their” twins will be born. Furthermore, they say that as soon as they are born, they will register them with their surnames, adding worryingly: “And we want them back as soon as they are born . . .”

A long, painful legal battle may be on the cards. In the meantime, allowing for the odd government crisis, parliament may attempt to address this issue during the forthcoming autumn session.

The future of football
Another issue, albeit potentially less serious, that could feature later this summer if not in the autumn, concerns the nation's favourite game, football. When Italy flopped miserably at their second consecutive World Cup tournament in Brazil this summer, that failure prompted the resignation not only of the team coach, Cesare Prandelli, but also of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Giancarlo Abete.

This means that, as we write, the Federation is caught up in the throes of an election campaign to elect the new chief of Italian football. The problem is that the man finally designated the task by the vast majority of the football movement, Carlo Tavecchio (71), has rather sullied his bib.

In an election address to club directors and owners two weeks ago, Tavecchio tackled the problem of non-EU players in Italian football, in the process calling for closer checks on their qualifications to play professional football in Italy. His outline of his concerns, however, was hardly felicitous:

“England checks out players when they arrive in the country, to see if they are professional enough to play. With us, however, “Opti Poba” (invented name), who yesterday was eating bananas, today is first choice at Lazio . . .”

In many countries, those remarks would probably have meant the end of the road for Tavecchio’s presidential ambitions. Not in Italy. For the time being, he continues to be the leading candidate in a two-person race with perhaps 60 per cent of the football movement still behind him.

Even if his remarks initially prompted only silence from the ranks of the club directors, within hours they had instigated a violent, web-driven polemic that stretches far beyond the boundaries of football. Fans, politicians and commentators have all stigmatised Tavecchio as a racist, calling on him to withdraw his candidacy:

"Not a mistake. Just racism. Just ignorance. Just vulgarity. He cannot be president of anything. Clear off, Tavecchio," tweeted Nicola Fratoianni, a senior figure in hardline left-wing party SEL.

Quite clearly, the times are not necessarily a changing for everyone. This one could run and run.

Eataly: in the best taste 
Let me finish, though, on a happier note, highlighting a place that encapsulates a changing Italy. This is Eataly, a 17,000sq m monument to what, arguably, Italians do best – food.

Situated in a disused airport terminal in Rome’s Ostiense train station, this remarkable place offers a bewildering variety of excellent restaurants and an “Italian biodiversity” of wine and food products from both small artisan producers and bigger industrial concerns.

Much of what is on offer is of terrific quality and reasonably priced. Ostiense is not quite in central Rome, but it is well worth making the trip to see a place that most definitely embodies a changing Italy.