Was Shakespeare Italian and born in Italy?

Today…….we celebrate the Bard’s birthday💁



William Shakespeare is the emblem of English literature for sure, but, you know, every time I read his works he seems so familiar to me, so Italian. This is not only because 15 out 37 of his works are set in Italy, he knows the nature of the Italians so well, that some of his immortal lines mirror perfectly some unchangeable traits of our society. An example? In his famous soliloquy “to be or not to be” , he actually seems to be pondering about committing suicide speculating on life and death, but he truly complains about some aspects of society that have the stamp of the Italian character. First of all ” the law’s delay” (it may take more than ten years to see the conclusion of a trial here and in the end you have spent so much money to pay the lawyers to end up…

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The Sheep and Lion Dilemma


pec3It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”, a vigorous Donald Trump retweeted a few weeks ago, raising quite a few eyebrows. In fact the maxim has always been associated to Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, so when Trump was asked if he was aware that the motto belonged to Mussolini and if he really wanted to be related to a fascist, he replied: “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes” and added “Sure. It’s OK to know it’s Benito Mussolini. Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK. It’s a very good quote. It’s a very interesting quote. And I saw it and I know who said it. But what difference does it make, whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”  True. I have to confess that I use it myself many times, without thinking that somebody might regard me a fascist ( being very far from those political ideals), because it was used by Mussolini. Plus, the Dux was not original.

pec6Mussolini had found himself to rule a very young nation, which had suffered long dominations , whose positive heritage can be clearly seen in each of our regions in the variety of culture, food, music, language. But in those centuries of oppression, Italians had also gradually developed a high degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness are “virtues” which are still associated to the Italian way of being, but they were also the weapons which had been developed in time to defend themselves from foreign rules. The problem is that once free and politically united, the making of a common identity was, actually, a slow process, because a chronic distrust in rulers runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” rather than the “common” way. That’s why we still tend to look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems, thus ending in the catastrophe everybody is familiars with. Our recent history makes no difference.

pec4Mussolini knew that he had to fuel his people with words that had to inflame hearts, thus trying to cement his fragmented country. Strength, courage, sacrifice, a country of lions rather sheep, this was what he wanted. Even if only for one day. This motto was one of Benito Mussolini’s most popular slogan. Starting from 1926,  it became a significant part of the fascist propaganda and ended on school books, coins,  graffiti etc., but as I have said before, the Dux was not original.The truth is that the phrase was written during the First World War, on the wall of a house in Fagarè (now Fagarè della Battaglia, the municipality of San Biagio di Callalta, province of Treviso). According to the newspaper  “Il Secolo D’Italia(but the primary source was “Il Corriere della Sera” of 19 February 1958, p. 6)  the author was Ignazio Pisciotta, mutilated in 1911, an officer in World War I.  On the ‘Corriere della Sera’ of 31 July 1918, in his war correspondence, Arnaldo Fraccaroli writes : “We find on the houses around here – on the ruins of the houses – the words of the soldiers traced by rapid brushstrokes  in the early days of the resistance(..)”All heroes! We will win the Piave, or  we will all die! “It is better to live one hour as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep!” Oaths were held. With these writings, the humble battered homes have a sacred majesty of a temple “.

pec7Mussolini himself, as a matter of fact, never said to be the author of these words, which he used (at least) on three occasions, but always recalling them as the words on the wall of the house collapsed in Fagarè. One of these was a visit at Umberto I barracks in Rome on 26 June 1926,  Mussolini said: It was good that in recent days it was remembered a phrase that should not be forgotten: the one written by an anonymous official or little infantryman, it doesn’t matter, on one of the houses on the eve of the battle of the Piave: “Better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “. Seeing the physical and moral strength of your troops, flower of the renewed nation, I am perfectly convinced that if it will be necessary tomorrow, all the grenadiers, all foot soldiers, all soldiers of Italy, all the people in Italy prefer to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “.

Now, there is no doubt that the expression rightfully belongs to the fascist rhetoric dictionary, but to attribute the invention of the words to Mussolini only denotes the usual sloppiness that distinguishes certain journalists when reporting historical facts. And after all, would you really want to live all your life as sheep? C’mon!





The Enemy of Railways

I was surprised when I read about the meeting between Apple CEO Tim Cook and Pope Francis at the Vatican a few weeks ago. Even if we don’t know much about the real nature of the encounter, one thing is for sure: the Vatican must be undergoing a profound transformation, particularly for what concerns communication. Actually, everything started on 12 December, 2012 at 11.30 a.m. precisely, when @Pontifex, Pope Ratzinger in person, tweeted: “ Dear friends, I’m pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”  And it was generous indeed, as a million of followers, who had eagerly waited for this tweet for days, retweeted it in few secs. The following Wednesday, twitter was used again to respond to some of the thousands questions that had been addressed the Pope through #askpontifex. Pretty amazing for a Pontiff, who had often been regarded as reactionary, especially if compared to his predecessor, John Paul II.

popeHowever, he had paved the way towards modernity and Pope Francis, who has certainly a natural talent for communication, followed and improved his example. He uses Google Hangouts to chat with children from around the world, and Twitter to share snippets of his preachings and comment on global news events and controversies . But Pope Francis is far from being tech-savvy. When one child asked if he liked to take pictures and put them on his computer, the Pope replied, “Can I be honest? I am really not so good at it…I don’t know how to work with a computer. It’s a bit of a shame.” Never mind, somebody helps him for sure. Going back to the meeting, I was really impressed by some words the Pope used to comment the event: “Technology cannot determine whether communication is authentic or not , but the heart of man and his ability to make good use of the means at his disposal(……)it has led to a widening of horizons for many people. This is a gift of God, and also a great responsibility”. Hence, the Internet is a gift of God, as the Pontiff had already stated during one of his Google Hangout sessions last year  .

popeAt this point, I think we are not too blasphemous, if we say that railways were ,somehow, the nineteenth century equivalent of the Internet. The world became smaller and faster thanks to the making of those iron nets, as not only goods but also information was more easily accessible to a larger number of people. Did the Vatican “welcome” the new technological discoveries of the time with the same reformed enthusiasm of modern Popes? Were railways “gifts of God” as well? You may judge yourself from Pope Gregory XVI’s words, who “gently” defined railways as “weapons of the devil“. Gregory XVI (1831-1846) understood well the danger of those new means of communication as they not only accelerated the circulation of news, but also revolutionary ideas, that’s why he never consented them to be built in the Papal States. In the encyclical “Mirari Vos”, Gregory XVI firmly opposed to all the innovations of the time which he regarded as ” the triumph of a cynical wickedness, shameless science and unlimited laxity“. In the same encyclical he also condemned the freedom of conscience, press and thought and railways were, for sure, the means that could have spread those “viruses” in the Papal States, thus undermining the stability of his fortress.Therefore, we may say,  that almost after a couple of centuries  the Vatican seems to have finally learnt to cope with “the devil” pretty well.😉



The Romantic Warning

rom1The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their countries. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but  early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge.

Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, whose imperative is “time is money” and whose members are only small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an amelioration of the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not.

That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore, they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson.

But the process couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly and faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still waiting.

The White Man’s Burden

wm1When Theodore Roosevelt read  Rudyard Kipling ‘s poem: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”, was so very favourably impressed that he copied the poem and sent it to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge with the following comment : “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view“. The publication of the poem in McClure’s Magazine in February 1899  coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. In his poem Kipling invited the U.S: to take up the “burden” of the empire, as Britain and other European nations had done. Kipling thought that the white man had the duty to help the less fortunate peoples of the empire and the goodness of their civilizing mission would have crushed any resented opposition even if, choosing the word “burden” to define this glorious accomplishment, Kipling somehow underlined that it was not such a simple task. More than one hundred years after the publication of this poem, just reading through the pages of any newspaper, we know there must have been something underrated in that optimistic vision.

wm2The fact is that the “civilising mission” consisted not only in expanding a more modern economic and social system – certainly more for the sake of the civilizers rather than the  civilized – but imposing those values and habits typical of western cultures without caring much of the sensibility of the “captives” that Kipling defined in the poem “half devil and half child”. In these last two expressions there is all the blindness and hypocrisy of an age. The natives were seen as devils, that is “sullen”, dark , evil; therefore, they needed to be redeemed. At this point we should remember the role of the Church in promoting the idea of the expansion of the empire as fundamental for the spreading of the Christian faith. Since the discovery of America, economic and religious issues had always gone hand in hand, in fact. However, that childish trait should have made easier the “salvation” of those poor souls, because of their “natural” naivety and gullibility. Needless to say that such representation earned Kipling bitter accusations of racism.

wm3Certainly in those words there was nothing new, but a prejudice which had been commonly shared for ages; therefore, the civilizing mission of the white man was deliberately indifferent of those values expressed by the cultures of the subdued peoples of the empire, which were considered inferior. Even Robinson Crusoe, after all, was a prototype of this vision. He feeds Friday, teaches him British good manner and even if they are alone on a desert island the master and servant relationship is preserved: Robinson wants to be called “Master” and names his companion “Friday”, rather than giving him a proper name; therefore, he does not seem to consider him a person, he just wants him to remember the day Robinson/ the Master saved him and then he proceeds with his own private civilizing mission. Had he been interested, he would have made the effort to ask his name, but maybe it sounded too democratic for the time.

Sikh officers of the British 15th Punjab Infantry regiment, shortly after the Indian Mutiny, 1858But is it really possible to cohabit just fixing the rules of a master/servant relationship based on an alleged superiority, without caring about the nature of that servant? There is a great risk, in fact. It could happen that  the Fridays in the world one day might rebel, just because of the carelessness of a Robinson for whom a little detail may be meaningless, while it is, actually, so meaningful for them, just like a trivial cartridge, for instance. We are talking about the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The British had issued the Sepoys, the native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, with new gunpowder cartridges. To load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridge first, but this simple action was considered an insult to both Hindus and Muslims, as they believed that the cartridges they were supplied with were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims and tallow (cow fat) which angered the Hindus, as cows were equal to goddess to them. The Sepoys’ British officers regarded these claims unimportant, and suggested to grease a batch of the new cartridges with beeswax or mutton fat.  For the Sepoys this was evidence that the original cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Hence, a meaningless cartridge became the cause of a meaningful uprising that in all Indian History books is regarded as India’s first War of Independence.




The Den of Christmas Spirit

cri2cri3If you watch the bright Christmas lights with eyes of wonder, while walking in the familiar streets of your city like a little child, if you get lost for hours in a mall searching for gifts to put under the tree picturing the joyful reaction of those who will receive them, if you are thrilled only at the idea of gathering around a dinner table with your family and friends or simply if you find yourself sitting at the window hoping for the snow to come ( I might actually wait for years or decades here in Rome), well, this is the spirit of Christmas that comes to visit you at this time of the year. But rather, if you are annoyed by the people who crowd in frenzy streets and shops and if you are anguished and appalled by the imminent visit of your friends and relations and if a sense of nausea arouses, just thinking at the presents you’ll have to buy or the faces you’ll have to see, or if you just don’t stand at that window, because in case it really snowed, Rome would be paralyzed and we would pay the consequences for weeks and weeks, what does that mean? That you are an insensitive, cruel, selfish human being? Not exactly. It means that you suffer from the bah humbug” syndrome. I’m not joking, this is science or better: Science with capital letter.

 cri1A group of Danish medical scientists in their own spirit of holiday fun, published a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) asserting that the spirit of Christmas does not actually come to visit us every year, but rather, it resides in us and precisely in our brain.That is why this tradition with its blissful and magical atmosphere has lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years. A team of researchers of Rigshospitalet hospital, in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, set out to locate exactly where the old spirit of Christmas hides in the brain using modern MRI machinery to study the changes of oxygenation and blood flow that occur in response to neuronal activity. So, they divided participants into two groups, one of people who had strong Christmas traditions and the other with people who did not celebrate it. The latter group included Pakistani, Indian, Iraqi and Turkish people who expatriated or were born in Denmark. People who did not celebrate it, but still felt a strong connection to the holiday were excluded, as were people who did celebrate but had a negative association with it. In short, 20 people were examined while they were watching  84 images with Christmas themes alternated to scenes of everyday life. For example, they were shown a street decorated with lights and then an ordinary street. 

cri5Among the participants who were placed in first group,  the researchers  have identified five regions of the brain which lit up like Christmas trees when holiday images were shown. These regions are commonly associated with spirituality and they control the sense of touch and body language interpretation . This led the researchers to determine there is a “Christmas spirit network” in the human brain. It’s in these brain areas that the spirit of Christmas resides. Therefore, those who do not like Christmas and believe that it is all nonsense, are actually affected by what scientists call bah humbug” syndrome.  A syndrome that affects millions of people, especially adults and that could be cured.  The researchers, in fact, suggested that locating the Christmas spirit in the brain can help reverse that sad syndrome. Maybe someday there will be a complex machine that can generate the Christmas spirit in people, and why only at Christmas time? Couldn’t we enjoy it every single day of the year?
In the meantime, I wish you to fully enjoy your Christmas spirit and have a great time.
Merry Christmas.