Modern Rome

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Getting to Modern Rome

In 1798 French troops marched into Rome and Pius seventh (1800-1823) signed an agreement with the invaders. He took part in Napoleon's coronation but in this occasion the new Emperor was careful to avoid the "error" made by Charlemagne and took the crown in order to crown himself. Charlemagne's investiture by Pope Leo some 1000 years earlier had allowed the existence of an ambiguous divine right of the Pope to crown (or not). This time the ambiguity was avoided.

Relations between the French and the Papacy soon became strained and Pope Pius was imprisoned (1809-1814) whilst a new Roman republic was proclaimed. On his return to Rome in 1814 the Pope revived the Jesuit order which had stood the Papacy in good stead during the Counter Reformation three hundred years earlier.

No sooner were the earthly powers of the Papacy restored that they were put under new pressure from the Risorgimento movement of Italian unification. Some forty years later Pope Pius ninth, aided by French troops, was successfully fighting against the revolutionary fighters of Mazzini and Garibaldi. Shortly after the Pope pronounced his famous dogma of Papal Infallibility in order to defend his own power against king Victor Emanuel II who in 1861 demanded that Rome should become the capital of the new kingdom.

The outset of the Franco-Prussian war forced the retreat of the French troops in Rome and it wasn't long before the city fell. Garibaldi's troops staged a symbolic taking of Rome at Porta Pia, one of the gates of Rome, on the 20th September 1870. In 1871 Rome became capital of the new kingdom and the Pope shut himself within the Vatican walls in protest.

It is hardly surprising that during the 19th century few changes of substance were made to the city. The architect Valadier stands out for his work at the turn of the century until 1820 at the beautiful Piazza del Popolo square, the main entrance to Rome from the north, and at the Pincio gardens of Villa Borghese which overlook the square. Piazza del Popolo is the only example of neo-classical architecture in Rome.

The unification of Italy and the elevation of Rome's status to capital of the new kingdom brought some urban readjustment. New residential areas were built to accommodate the rapidly increasing population whilst at the same time new seats of power and control, such as the Palazzo di Giustizia law courts, were built in order to govern the country. Some of the major streets of Rome, including Via Nazionale and Via Veneto date back to this period.

So, with the unification of Italy and the making of Rome into capital city of the new kingdom, Pope Pius ninth became captive within the walls of the Vatican. A sort of captivity which only came to an end at the end of the 1920's when Pope Pius eleventh (1939-1958) signed the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini in 1929. By virtue of this Treaty the Vatican State's independence was recognised and the church was paid millions in compensation for the loss of its temporal possessions.

The Fascist era, which began in 1922 with the march on Rome, was deeply inspired by the former greatness of the Roman Empire. For example, the Fascist and Nazi salutes were direct copies of the ancient Roman salute. Pursual of this greatness had many facets. Mussolini started an active foreign policy, mimicking that of the other great states of Europe which in the previous century had already carved a part of the world for themselves. The invasion of Abyssinia in 1936 was rather bodged and anachronistic earning Mussolini and the Italians little more than expulsion from the League of Nations.

On the home front great efforts were placed into modernising the country and lavish sums were spent on bringing Rome to the level of other cities of prestige such as London and Paris. Making the trains run on time was and continues to be the a Holy Grail.

Without dwelling further on the consequences of the foreign policy, the implication for Rome was that large areas were redeveloped as an expression of the new (Fascist) era. A neo-imperialist classical architecture all of its own was devised and a great many buildings were built according to this style such as the Foro Italico sports complex on the north side of Rome. Perhaps the marble monolith which stands in front of the Foro Italico, tipped in gold and boldly sporting the name of its maker "MUSSOLINI DUX", is more poignant. For an even grander (perhaps even pompous?) scale we have to go to the south side of the city: In view of a Universal Exhibition to be held in Rome in 1942 a whole new area called EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma) was developed. If anything the visitor should take the opportunity to visit the modernist Square Colosseum which was completed just in time to witness the fall of Fascism.

In terms of roads it is worth mentioning the via dei Fori Imperiali which stretches from the Capitol, cuts through the Forum and reaches the colossal roundabout of the Colosseum. This was planned and built as the stage for Mussolini's triumphal marches, which were few and far between. The archaeologists still scream to have it shut and dug up to offer up a unified, gigantic Forum, but perhaps the modern tourist would find it difficult to understand and digest the full significance of these extra broken walls and columns.

We should also remember the Via della Conciliazione, a long avenue which stretches from the Tiber river straight to St. Peter's square, directly connecting the majestic basilica with the city. This was planned and built following the Lateran Treaty and in spite of its impressive visual effect one can't help but feel it is excessively harsh, perhaps as it echoes the destruction of the small alleys and medieval buildings of the Borgo which existed there before hand.

Mussolini's antics and unacceptable foreign policies, usually delivered from a window overlooking the Piazza Venezia by the Capitol hill lead him to enter the second world war. He then proceeded to lose it, lose power, be captured, be freed, be recaptured and finally be assassinated (shot, hung upside down and mutilated) by the jubilant partisans. Within a few years the king was deposed by referendum and the Italian Republic as we know it now was born on 18th June 1946. One of the charges laid against the king was his failure to have prevented that fateful march on Rome in September 1922.

In all of this the Pope, Pius XII (1939-1958), didn't end up looking so good either. He was heavily criticised for having failed to speak out against the atrocities being committed against the Jews by Nazi Germany and was even accused of collusion with them (Pope John Paul II asked for pardon more recently). In 1950 Pope Pius proclaimed the dogma of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. In 1951 he was criticised again (although probably not by his Catholic followers), for restating the doctrine according to which the life of an infant should not be sacrificed to save a mother in labour.

Since then, a number of happier events have placed Rome in the public eye. These include the signing of the Treaty of Rome (foundation of the European Union) in 1957, the Olympic games in 1960, the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, the World Cup in 1990 and the Holy Year of 2000. However the role of Rome within the national and international contexts is clearly a bureaucratic and administrative one, whilst economy and trade is clearly in the hands of northern cities such as Turin and Milan. Urban planning and development is also lacking and was perhaps last undertaken during the Fascist era. Certainly the Holy Year of 2000 was an important enough occasion to warrant the wholesale restoration of the city and opening of several sites which had hitherto been closed to the public.

So what should one mention about Rome that has not been covered in this brief account? Certainly the traffic and the football. The former has no remedy other than to prohibit cars on given days of the week, introducing alternate number plate days, shutting off access to the centre and so on. In terms of football, Rome has two clubs: Roma and Lazio. Roma was a creation of the Fascist era during which it was decided to amalgamate several different minor clubs. Lazio on the other hand is the slightly more gentrified club, founded over a hundred years ago.

Oh yes, the politics…. Difficult to describe really. I suppose everybody knows that Italy has had more governments since the war than hot dinners. In spite of this the ruling parties were essentially a remix of themselves in a continual, successful, effort to keep the Communist party out of power. The Bizantine nature of it all hit international fame with the election to office of a famous prostitute called Cicciolina - her proposal was an act of political defiance by the radical party and her election was a clear gauge of popular mood. Then the system blew apart. As the Berlin wall came down as a backdrop, magistrates were undoing the dreadful system of back-handers and corruption.

The system that emerged, the so-called "second republic" is on the face of it slowly turning into a two-party first-past-the-post system, but the number of minor parties making up the left and right alignments is still alarmingly large and unstable. The antics of Right wing premier Berlusconi continue to make it all rather entertaining, especially when he is set off by the rather dry professor-bureaucrat Prodi who puts himself forward as paladin of the Left and a united Italy.

Current Politics in Italy

Note: 19th October 2006 - Getting you as up to date as possible. Just before summer Prodi's Centre-Left coalition won the elections against Berlusconi's Centre-Right by an incredibly small margin (approx 25,000 votes). The policies, released at the last minute were something like:

These were announced at the last minute because the greatest of the policies is/was:

This last one is a real point of electoral strength so much so that Mr. B's been keeping himself out of the political scene rather than giving the left a good motive to pull their act together. And in fact they're squabbling.

Since summer, and the winning of the World Cup, the new Mr. P government seems to have spent much of its time creating new ministerial seats to satisfy all the members of the rather large coalition. The answer to this is that their spend is but a drop of the huge debt mountain left by Mr. B.

I think of England and how many excellent ministers (who actually went out and took governing decisions) have lost their job for looking at the wrong woman or man. The Italians make their own seats to measure, glue themselves on and no-one bats an eyelid.

This game of musical chairs was followed by a tax laden 2006-2007 budget. They try very hard to sway popular attention away from it by, for example, ordering Mr. B's TV stations off the air, visiting China or sending troops out to Afghanistan and Lebanon when they previously marched against Italian troops going to Iraq.

In spite of their redoubled efforts, the 06/07 budget is heavily debated by all, more so than any that have come before. To the Unions' and Communist party's great glee, it completely glisses over any concept of actually reducing government spend and bureaucracy (responsible for some 45% of a HUGE public debt) and makes up by laying out a healthy dishing of taxes with a side-dish of Holy Inquisition on entrepreneurs - the source of all tax evasion. No mention of fighting crime, mafia etc.

Given that small business and entrepreneurs are the foundation of the Italian economy you can imagine the result. Sector studies have been undertaken showing how jewelers and dentists on average declare less than a primary school teacher or policeman. The flip side is that the sector studies include all people within the sector (incl. the ones who are going bust) but has little room to see whether the teachers, policemen and bureaucrats (who work half days in the ministry) happen to have any second, undeclared jobs.... As always the truth's likely to lie somewhere in the middle.

But class wars are looming. So much for the electoral promise of "uniting the country".

As a good bit of underhand make-up, the government side of spend cuts in the budget is apparently to be achieved through huge cuts to local authorities who will henceforth be allowed to tax their citizens as they see fit. So give with one hand and take with the other (and the local authorities will have to tax given their coffers will suddenly be empty - by the way Naples is currently buried in rubbish as they can't pay for the refuse collection).

A rather unsavory suggestion is to introduce special taxes on tourists - good idea guys, that way you don't hit your taxpayers but their main source of income instead. They're debating. Post Scriptum: they realised they were shooting themselves in the foot and nothing more has been said of such a tax.

The government explains this is necessary to cover the hole left by Mr.B's wild policies, whilst B points out the unexpected increase in tax income during 06 as a result of his policies. Each side claims responsibility for the unexpected government income of course, the left claims it's because tax payers were scared of the incoming government. A harvest which comes in before the seed are sown so to speak.

To make the situation more palatable Mr. P has dressed the taxes up in a Robin Hood style of take from the nasty grabbing rich entrepreneurs to give to the poor enslaved employees. Great furore when some left wing party posters were stuck all over the city with "May the Rich cry too": evidence of class war or what. I'd rather see "Let's all get Rich" wouldn't you?


Accountants' programs out on internet which include the budget as it currently stands seem to suggest greater taxes for all, not just the rich. Now there's debate as to whether earning the equivalent of 50kGBP in a family with two children is actually "rich". You can imagine the political atmosphere.

Post Scriptum (oct 2007): Evidence has shown that actually everyone except a very few exceptions ended up paying more and those who didn't pay more didn't even keep pace with inflation.

So every-one's squabbling, schooling isn't getting the extra resources, emergency hospital treatments look like they'll require private payment, the tax cuts to companies seem to be outweighed by the forceful shift of pension funds into government coffers. Even the unions are beginning to winge a little when at first they were declaring themselves "highly satisfied" with a smug smile.

Oh yes, the pension reforms and cuts to government spending have been put off to a later date because of their "delicate nature". The coalition's spending so much time trying to keep everyone within it + the Unions happy that it can't actually face taking some painful but necessary decisions required to make things work better in future.

Yes, they can blame things on B but it's undeniable even to their own electorate that Italy's accounts have always been very poor. The difference is that now, as part of the EU, they can't even resort to devaluation of their currency to boost business - remember 1000's of valueless Lira to the 1 pound and dollar?

They've got their (multiplied) seats at least and my uneducated guess is that the poor will remain poor, public debt will keep on growing, the rich will stop spending and the economy .... ie No change in Italy. But that's just one p.o.v of course.

Tuesday 9th October 2007

Well, economic growth is slowing and surprise surprise Italy is the Western worlds economic tail light. The favourable economic climate world wide brought in unexpected income to the government (sounds like their forecasting could do with some sorting out) and guess where the "tesoretto" (small treasure) was spent? It was spent on MORE government spending. YES IT WAS! Are we surprised? It's the same old tune. But let's go by degrees:

One year later the squabbling goes on. Whether or not you vote(d) Left rather than Right you can't help but be sadenned. Many voted Left as an act of rebellion against Mr. B's monopoly of almost everything. And what did they get? An untidy monopoly of almost everything but tinged of Red of course. There's not a single position, not even "the speaker of the house" who is anything short of socialist, communist or ex communist cread. A few ex Christian Democrats joined in to make up numbers against Mr. B and partake of the binge.

First act was creating plenty more seats for themselves (several more ministries, committees and sub committees just so all the coalition parties could have a cut of the cake), followed by a law to allow everyone (or almost) out of prison - whilst Mr.B was accused of doing his best to keep his mates out of cell this law went the whole hog with a general armistice, so much so that ex Communist terrorists of the 70s red brigades are getting caught fresh out of prison and robbing banks (or attempting to). Not to say the right wing criminals are any better of course. Then there's proven cases of the politicians abusing their pensions, pays, salaries and outrageous benefits. Stats show they get paid anything up to twice as much as their Euro counterparts for the evidently sloppy performance the citizens witness every day. Last but not least.... oh why bother.

"Oh why bother" is just about what everyone's saying as government support plummets into the 30%'s and falling. Voting against Mr.B simply voted in his shadow Mr.P with a wave of taxes, extra government spending (which is already huge) etc etc etc so much so that a famous satirist and comedian had unprecedented attendance to his "F Off" day (actually called "Vaffa day" but you get the jist). "Anti-politics" whatever that means is all the rage. Some worry as they draw parallels with the lead up to dictatorial revolutions (bit far fetched but anyhow it's grabbing political attention at least).

Latest pity is that welfare coffers are bleeding and will have to be kept in health by the young generations - the ones with no jobs and at any rate precarious jobs. Guess what? Given the government (being Left) hasn't the courage to reform pensions and welfare and go against the Unions (far Left to extreme) they've delegated decision making to guess who? The Unions - the ones made up of 5M full time employees (workers) who have jobs so secure no one can get them out with a crow bar and who expect to get pensions at the end of their 30 years full time employment. Can't blame them but who'll pay them? The jobless, precarious, no children young families of course; the ones who WEREN'T invited to vote in the referendum.

Since when do governments create national legislation according to what trade unions vote within their own confines?

But Mr.P and his broad reaching coalition (of which a piece is actually called "The Red Thing" - La Cosa Rossa!) get to save their seats and their benefits. Latest one I heard was that Italy has the highest number of state paid chauffeur driven cars (called "blue cars" for obvious reasons) in the civilised world. Something like over 200,000 or more vs. the 90,000 or so of the runner up: the entire United States. Gives an idea.

The government blames all it's troubles and those of the country on humongous tax evasion (some would argue that actually the figure isn't big enough to make a drop in the ocean of debt but anyhow). Who's right? Will all caring Italians stop voting? Will there be a revolution? Will the politicians have the courage to self amputate a leg, cutting the number of seats, pensions, salaries they recklessly devour? Or will we all just go for a merry glass of wine and a pizza? The Italians would call it going for Pizza e Fichi - Pizza and Figs: pleasant and cheap escapism.

The sun keeps shining though and in spite of itself the economy's growing (cough cough).

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