On Witches and Socks

According to a Christian legend, while the Three Wise Men were on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Infant Jesus, they bumped into a very old woman and asked her if she knew were the Son of God was, as they seemed to be quite disoriented. Unfortunately she didn’t know. Nevertheless, she offered them accommodation for a night, after all, she was the best housekeeper in the village, with the most comfortable home. The following day, the Three Magi tried to convince the old lady to join them to the visit to the baby Jesus, but despite their insistence, she refused, as did not feel like leaving the house, she was too busy with her housework after all.

Yet, very soon she repented for not having gone with them. She quickly prepared a basket of sweets and left the house in search for the Three Wise Men, but in vain. She stopped at every house she found along the way, giving candies to the children she met, in the hope that one of them was the baby Jesus. Since then, she goes around the world, giving presents to all children, so that she might be forgiven.The good ones will have toys, candies or fruit, while the bad ones get only coal, onions or garlic. That’s why it is tradition here in Italy to leave empty socks next to beds of children the night of the Epiphany, so that the old lady, that is actually called Befana, may fill them with presents. Befana’s iconography is a little scary, however, as she wears a dark and wide skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, a handkerchief or broad black hat on his head, a pair of worn slippers, all enlivened by numerous colored patches and she travels around the world flying on a broom.

ūü§Ēūü§Ēūü§Ē

Wait, wait, wait, but if Jesus was not born on Christmas day, even the date of his revelation to the Magi cannot be that certain. Why was it fixed on the 6th of January? Even in this case a Christian tradition actually overlapped a pagan one. We have go back to Roman Mithraic rites, again. If you remember, we have already stated that originally on the 25 th of December the winter solstice was celebrated along with Mithras, the Sol Invictus. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, that is the day of the Epiphany, the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature was solemnized. But why after 12 days? Because the twelve days represented the twelve months of the years, therefore, the entire natural cycle. It seems that on those days, female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops, hence the myth of the “flying” figure, the so-called Befana.

Now, I cannot but go and look for a capacious sock, and advice you to do the same, you’ll never know.ūüėú

“The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!”

 

 

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The English Way (1)

Sordi-in-I-Due-Nemici-Posters

from “The Best Enemies”, with David Niven and Alberto Sordi.

Elections are not very far and I may say that analyzing the Italian political situation, the name of the party that is very likely to win will be: “precariousness and confusion”.¬† But what are reasons¬†that have brought our¬†nation to the¬†pathological political instability that has characterized us for decades? What’s wrong with us? We are a charming country with a glorious past, the cradle of civilization along with Greece and much more could be added, for sure. However, even if we started so well, we must have¬†missed a few steps in the path towards a mature democracy.

One justification¬†might be that we¬†are a young¬†nation: only 157 years old. We shouldn’t forget that before¬†the unification,¬†we had suffered dominations of¬†any kind, whose heritage can be clearly seen in any of our regions in term of culture, food, music, language. By the way, in those centuries of oppression we had also¬†gradually developed a higher degree of scepticism and¬†distrust against any form of administration.¬†Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness,¬†“virtues”¬†that still distinguish the Italian stereotype abroad,¬†were the weapons we had developed¬†in time¬†to defend ourselves from the foreign rules.

The problem is that once free and politically united, we haven’t been able to¬†work together¬†for¬†the making of¬†a common identity, because our chronic distrust runs in our veins and has always made¬†us¬†choose for the “individual” way, rather than the “social” one.¬† That’s why¬†the process towards a responsible, efficient democracy here is slower than in other countries.¬†It’s this lack of a common political¬†and social exercise that still makes us always look for¬†that charismatic one, who might solve all¬†our problems. He has¬†never showed up and never will.¬†But as I told you before, we are young.

In other countries, on¬†the contrary,¬†the path towards democracy¬†has seemed¬†somehow more natural. The last invasion in¬†England, for example, dates back to 1066,¬† when the Normans conquered and unified the country – fortunate event that might have happened in Italy as well, thus sparing¬†us a lot of troubles, but for the Pope’s fierce opposition against the Normans’ advance from the South of Italy,¬† therefore; England, if compared to Italy, had¬†an advantage of 800 years. It means they had¬†plenty of time to make a lot of nice political experiments. From that moment on, and before any other country, England will¬†undergo¬†a gradual but¬†constant weakening of the great powers of the Middle Age, Church and monarchy and the growing of a modern one: Parliament.

With¬†the English Common Law, for instance, the king¬†was not considered any longer above¬†the law; therefore if the English ruler could be tried just like anybody else,¬† it meant that he¬†had started to¬†lose those divine traits that his fellow kings all over Europe would have kept for a longer time. Furthermore; with The Magna Carta the king could no longer impose taxes without¬†that “general¬†consent” of¬†those who¬†one day will become part of¬†a fully elected Parliament.¬†The nobles took advantage¬†from this situation increasing their power, but they greed will¬†bring¬†England to the disaster¬†of the War of the Roses.

The Tudors were necessarily firmer monarchs whose recipe for a stronger country was the balancing of powers. They weakened the nobles depriving them of their private armies, avoided summoning Parliament, increased trade, developed alliances with the other countries, but above all, smashed the power of the Roman Catholic Church taking advantage of the Protestant wave from the north of Europe. At the dawning of the seventeenth century England was an Anglican country with a well-defined Parliament and a growing middle class.

The Stuarts failed to understand the now rooted distinctive features of their country, and¬†tried to make it more “European” if possible, but in this way they only succeeded in reinforcing¬†its prior structure. After the¬†Glorious Revolution, England was a¬†modern nation with a monarchy controlled by an independent Parliament and a flourishing bourgeoisie. It¬†was, therefore, ready to face the great changes the industrial revolution would have brought about before any other European country and destined to be a long-lasting power worldwide. But this is another story. As I told you before, we are young.

The Perfect Anthem

Empress Sissi

There is one thing that characterizes Italian summers more than the heat, that this year, let me tell you, has reached unimaginable, long-lasting pitches:¬† the broadcasting of Empress Sissi’s saga on tv. Every summer, in August, and since I was a child as far as I can remember, here comes the moment to sigh upon the romantic and fortunate story , only in fiction, of course, of the beautiful Elisabeth of Bavaria and emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. There is something in this period drama that enthralls you so much, that¬† even if you have seen it one hundred times at least and you know every single line of every character, as in my case, you cannot but watch it again. Hence; my husband and I found ourselves watching it again willy-nilly, as tradition requires, and I have to say that despite the incessant heat that was making us turn rapidly from a liquid into a gaseous state, we found it after all, how can I say, quite refreshing. When, almost at the end of the episode, Sissi reaches her husband to be on a river boat and the Austrian anthem is played to welcome the Duchess to her new homeland, my husband’s remark arrived, and it was not at all unexpected as I know the man too well: oh, this is a serious anthem.

My husband Mr Run ( now Mr Injured and even sometimes Mr Disappointment as the good effect of the endorphins vanished long time before the heat) is one of those who dislikes our anthem ” Fratelli d’Italia” also known as “Mameli’s hymn”¬† and belongs to that line of thought which would see positively its replacement.¬† Apart from the words, he particularly criticizes the melody, as ” Fratelli d’Italia” is a march, as I hope everybody knows, and lacks of that degree of solemnity that an anthem, in his opinion, requires. Verdi’s ” Va pensiero“, for example, the beautiful chorus from¬† the third act of Verdi’s opera Nabucco, has been suggested by many every now and then as a good candidate for the new Italian anthem. Now, I agree, the air of “Va Pensiero” is powerful, solemn, touching, but, why I should¬† feel like mine the words spoken by some Hebrew slaves, who are missing their homeland and dream to go back, I do not fully understand. What has it to do with us?¬†

Badly¬† done, Stefy! Badly done! I can hear some reproaching voices ( oh, I can’t get rid of that Mr Knightley, your fault Chris), as I ought to say at this point that this choir has often been considered a metaphor for the Italian condition during Risorgimento, that period of the nineteenth century when Italian nationalism spread. Italy was subjected to the Austrian domination in the North, exactly when Sissi was empress. Verdi’s air is even played in a defiant way in the third episode of the saga, when Sissi and her husband attend the opera house in Milan. Verdi has always been considered a symbol of Risorgimento as well and his name was used to make the anti Austrian¬† slogan ‚ÄėViva VERDI!‚Äô¬† as acronym for “Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia” (Long Live Victor Emmanuel King of Italy). This line in particular : O my country, so beautiful, and lost” might refer both to Jerusalem and Italy as well. Despite all this; I don’ t feel at ease singing about metaphors and furthermore, why the period when we were controlled by foreign powers should be remembered in our anthem, and besides sung by people who had been enslaved, hence losers, I don’t quite understand. Anthems should be the expression of the essence of a nation both in music and words, and since we achieved our independence as a country¬†eventually , “Va Pensiero” can’t do.

Goffredo Mameli

Somebody may rightfully remark that even “Fratelli d’Italia” mirrors the essence of Risorgimento as it aims at raising the depressed spirits of the Italians worn out by centuries of foreign control and fight, I know. However; there is something more in this hymn and this something can be found right at the very beginning of the first line ” Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’e’ desta” (Brothers of Italy, Italy has woken):¬† we all ought to fight as brothers to overcome centuries of oppression. Goffredo Mameli, the author of the anthem, wrote with the ardent passion of a young patriot ( he died only at the age of 21 for the consequences of a wound) who understood how important was to re-create the bond of brotherhood in a divided and humbled country to be victorious again. He reminded the Italians of their common glorious past, whose memory should have fueled the present, thus exciting their fresh spirits to fight.That was the only key of victory. The only way to build a future as a united country.

After 157 years since unification was reached, I have to say that the process to achieve that degree of brotherhood Mameli had in mind, is still in being. There is still a wide gap between north and south, and separatist movements are growing in number and some of them are dangerously expanding. It is as if we were not going together to the same direction and with the same speed. That’s why the message of “Fratelli d’Italia”¬† is still topical and for what concerns the issue of solemnity, well, I don’t think that a solemn air would really mirror our true nature and that from north to south I dare say. One thing, at least, we have in common.

P.S. Mr Run wishes me to inform you (in case you are interested, of course), that the thought of “Va Pensiero” as Italian anthem has never crossed his mind, particularly as it has recently become the anthem of the major separatist movement of the north. He adds that if he could, he would pick “Jerusalem” the unofficial British anthem.

 

 

Assisted suicide in Utopia

Think about a young man who for his entire life had pursued an ideal of freedom made of unconventional experiences, travels, sport and a great passion for music. A man hungry for life, a life which for him had to be a whirl of emotions rather than a sequence of strict rules of convenience and duty. That was the life he had wanted for himself and the woman he loved and the only one he had believed worth living for.Then, one day: darkness. He opened his eyes and found himself blind and quadriplegic after a car accident.

Fabiano, that was his name, tried any sort of therapy with the ¬†hope of regaining a little independence and avoiding ¬†being a complete burden to his family and partner. He desperately did anything he had in his powers. Nothing could ease his pain. Then, he understood: that was the only possible life he had to expect for himself for the rest of his days. He had been condemned to live in an “endless night“- these are his words – whose only way out was a door which had the name of death on. This is what he had understood and day by day the thought of death became sweeter and sweeter and even started to taste like that freedom he had dreamed for all his entire life. Of course, for anybody in his condition, it was impossible to reach that door alone, he needed the support of his family and friends, but that was not enough, as here in Italy euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, and anybody who had endeavoured to help him would have risked 12 years in jail. He ¬†would have needed the support of all those parliamentarians who had avoided the trouble to discuss that law which had been lying in some secret drawer for years. He wanted to die, but he couldn’t and despite the clamor on tv and newspapers, everything remained intolerably still. Till one day a helping hand from a foundation, took him to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, and set him free.

In 2017 the question about whether a man has the right to put an end to his own life, whatever the nature of his decision is, really sounds so medieval to me and the restrictions of laws absolutely pitiless. ¬†However, it was 1516, therefore 500 years ago, when Thomas More, ¬†a churchman, in his book¬†“Utopia” dealt with issue of the end of life with more mercy. In Utopia “nothing is left undone” to help the sick, but for those who become terminally ill and suffer greatly “the priests and magistrates” therefore, the law and the Church hand in hand – “repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and all about them, and have in reality outlived themselves, they should not cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die since they cannot live but in great misery; being persuaded, if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or allow other to do it, they shall be happy after death”.

Well, but is this not a sin from a religious point of view? Not in Utopia, as those who decide to put and end to their life “act reasonably” and “consistently with religion for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will”. Hence, “those who are wrought upon by these persuasions , either starve themselves or take laudanum”.¬†Of course, “nobody is compelled to end his life thus” and those who do not accept such an option are treated as kindly and tenderly as before. However; in case somebody commits suicide without the assent of ” the priests and senate,they honour not the body with a decent funeral, but throw it into a ditch”.

Well, despite the creepy ending, these are the most reasonable words I have ever read about the subject. After the emotional tide caused by the death of Fabiano, that law from that secret drawer was eventually taken and discussed in Parliament. There were only 20 MPs in that day.

 

 

 

The Sheep and Lion Dilemma

pec1

pec3It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep‚ÄĚ, 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 ‚Äúvirtues‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúindividual‚ÄĚ 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 Fagar√® (now Fagar√® 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 Fagar√®. 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. ūüėČ

 

 

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‚Äôs 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.

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