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Archive for the tag “Vicenza”

The New Sack of Rome

Two days ago, I was on the way back to my house in the center of Vicenza after a nice day in the country.  Suddenly, I found myself in the unfortunate position of being stopped in an unexpected traffic jam on a narrow road only one kilometer from the city center (just after passing Palladio’s ‘La Rotonda’ villa).  As I inched along on the out-of-the-way detour indicated by traffic police, I came to realize that the reason for the stoppage was simple: a calcio match (Italian for ‘soccer’) had just finished.  Tifosi (fans) of Vicenza’s team, nicknamed the ‘Biancorossi’ (white and reds) after the team color’s, were happily marching down the sidewalks loyally displaying their team scarves.  Then the traffic totally stopped.  Gradually advancing towards me from the other lane was a war zone on wheels.  First, there was a black, armored, tank-like vehicle of the Carabinieri, the Italian para-military police force, followed by…a privately-contracted, double-decker bus full to the brim with young soccer fans from somewhere or another.  They could be seen pressed against the windows of the jam-packed bus, screaming unintelligible obscenities at anyone watching, proudly waving middle fingers out the windows, and generally engaging in near-riotous behavior on board their own bus.  Each bus echoed the variations of the same theme, and each bus was separated from the previous one by another armored police car full of riot-gear-clad Carabinieri.  There were a total of ten such buses, and ten police ‘tanks’.  It is unclear who the police were protected–the small army of hooligans, or the (tax-paying) population at large.  It was very clear, though, that something was dreadfully wrong with this situation (even beyond my taking an hour to get home from what would have been a 5-minute walk, and my generally soured mood after what had been a nice autumnal Italian Saturday).  I later discovered that Vicenza had been victorious in a match against the team from Verona, which I can only assume is an ancient and bloody feud between the two neighboring cities (who can now only win annual ‘moral’ victories by proxy, by way of the prowess of their respective second-tier-league soccer teams).


I also discovered that Rome, this very same day, had witnessed a fully-realized display of violence that seemed to be rooted in a similarly anarchic ideology that I had just seen in person.  Rome was to be one of dozens of cities worldwide that would host protests both inspired by and in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement taking place in New York over the last month.  The turnout of peaceful protesters in Rome was possibly the largest in the world on this simultaneous ‘Day of Rage’ (as I have heard it referred to).  There were over 100,000 protesters from around the peninsula who descended on Rome to voice their discontent with the ineffectual and corrupt government, rapacious bankers, and Berlusconi (among other things).  This peaceful march was hijacked, and used as a shield against the police, by an organized group of a few hundred young men.  This relatively small group arrived wearing all black, with masks and motorcycle helmets, and weapons.  They uprooted cobblestones to throw at police and into windows, set cars ablaze, and caused widespread mayhem for several hours without any effective response by the police.  In the end, only 12 of the group were arrested, and something like 200 policemen were injured.

Berlusconi after a 2009 attack by a miniature model of Milan’s Duomo

First of all, let me comment about the political response.  It is no surprise that such a savvy media manipulator as Silvio Berlusconi (he actually owns most of the media, in fact) was quick not only to denounce the violence of the group (obviously), but to also openly associate them with the ‘Leftists’, his vague characterization of a faction who also happen to be Berlusconi’s political rivals.  Many of his loyal lackeys followed suit and condemned the ‘Left’ for the violence.  This is absurd on many levels.  The fact that the enormous protest was overshadowed by a dedicated group of anarchists is already a victory for the likes of Berlusconi, who needs all the distractions he can muster in order to continue to divert attention away from his desperate, power-hungry attempts to cling to office as long as humanly possible (he is currently the defendant in no less than FOUR lawsuits at the moment, while ostensibly ‘serving’ as Prime Minister).  This dastardly character may not have caused Italy’s systemic political dysfunction, but he has certainly exacerbated it and used it to his benefit whenever possible during his 10 years of rule (over the course of three terms).  At this point, it is painfully transparent to attempt to blame such wanton violence on his opponents–this is an old tactic that can be seen in such examples as the burning of the Reichstag in 1933.  It is not fair to blame Berlusconi for this event, but he should certainly be held responsible for helping to create or perpetuate the conditions whereby such events are more likely to occur.  As one blogger writes, “It’ll only get one result: to scare the vast majority of Italians and nurture in them a desire for a strongman.”  Luckily, Berlusconi will never be that strongman, but the fact remains that such relatively minor skirmishes always provide occasion for any would-be strongmen to consolidate power at the expense of civil liberties (maybe another day I will write about Bush’s “Patriot Act”, something straight out of Winston Smith’s “Ministry of Truth”).

Next, I would like to examine why such violence happened at the protests in Italy, and nowhere else.  We must obviously recognize that such things, while unexpected and condemned by the majority of Italians, are by no means unheard of in this country.  There is a long history, even since WWII, of violent political groups and chaotic protests here.  The leftist ‘Red Brigades’ orchestrated a series of terrorist acts and assassinations during 60’s, 70’s, and into the 80’s.  Right-wing and anarchist groups also continue to perform acts of violence–the ‘Black Bloc’ group responsible for Saturday’s riots is an example.  In 2002, there was a violent confrontation in Genoa at a protest of the G8 summit.  Strikes and protests in Italy are not uncommon, and they do occasionally end in some type of violence or destruction.  In my own town of Vicenza, since 2006 there has been an ongoing and well-organized protest movement called ‘No Dal Molin’, which is fighting against the expansion of an American military base into an old local airport.  Despite huge support for the movement (95% in one vote), the fight has basically been lost, as the base has been approved at all levels of national government, and construction has been underway for a couple years at Dal Molin airport.  This movement has sponsored scores of peaceful marches and occupations of local building and landmarks, but also, on at least two occasions, their own train station was occupied and ransacked by various protesters.  Soccer violence is common around Europe and around the world, and Italy is no exception.  Inter-city matches often descend to levels of chaos and animosity not usually witnessed outside of full-fledged wars.  The case of a policeman murdered by hooligans in Sicily in 2007 is but one of the most infamous examples.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers as to why violence is more prevalent in some societies, but I do have some ideas about the solutions.  However over-optimistic it may seem, a society in which people have freedom, opportunity, and at least a notional voice about how the government works will always be more stabile, prosperous, and peaceful than societies without this.  Italy, however wealthy and steeped in culture and history, is home to one of the most ineffective, inefficient, and overly-bureaucratic governments in Europe.  The economy is stagnant and young people feel like they have no opportunity here, and no ability to change the huge political problems their country faces.  This is a recipe for potential violent confrontations.  There is another way, though.

I have already praised the Occupy Wall Street movement in this post.  The good thing about this movement is that seeks to exert political influence in a peaceful, and totally democratic, way (it is really the very definition of participatory democracy).  It understands that violence does not improve anything, especially in politics, and that the best method for creating an effective system of reforms is to publicly express dissatisfaction that gains the attention of hordes of sympathetic citizens, journalists, and, ultimately, politicians.  As Thoreau said, “A man more right than his neighbors already constitutes a majority of one.”  Any group fighting injustice even against entrenched powers that want to maintain the corrupt status quo will always have the moral high ground (or maybe the ‘moral majority’).  Let more people join these movements and influence the issues, and let our societies gradually seek to move more towards a new contract of political freedom and justice.  But let it always be non-violent.  Hopefully, these movements will continue to grow and to remain peaceful, just as our friends in the Syrian resistance continue to be, even in the face of thousands of thousands of wrongful deaths and imprisonments.

Giuseppe Garibaldi: Quintessential Hero

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) is celebrated in virtually every city and village in Italy in the form of street names, piazzas, and occasional statues. He is given these same honors across dozens of European and American capitals as well. The reason is clear: Garibaldi was probably the most wholly admirable figure that Europe has produced in modern history.  Similarly to George Washington in America (who crossed “the Delaware” and did something involving a cherry tree), he is perhaps known best in Italy for two things: for leading the 1000 ‘Red-Shirts’ into Sicily, and for being the namesake of a ridiculous nursery rhyme (“Garibaldi fu ferito, fu ferito in ad una gamba, Garibaldi che comanda, che comanda il battaglion”: Garibaldi was wounded, he was wounded in the leg, Garibaldi that commanded, that commanded the Battalion). Maybe his name is so familiar here that it loses value by its very ubiquity. In my town of Vicenza, his statue proudly stands in Piazza Castello, where it mostly serves as an unappreciated meeting places for hordes of too-idle teenagers to smoke and listen to annoying music on low quality mobile devices; some of them also saw fit to decorate it with the same reprehensible graffiti that seems to find its way onto every building or solid structure in the country, however ancient or otherwise aesthetically-pleasing. I intend to describe exactly why Garibaldi should remain in all of our collective memories as the inspiring character that he was, rather than descending to the level of colorless platitude he is in danger of becoming.

Garibaldi ‘dei Graffiti’, Vicenza

Garibaldi was born in Nice, part of the French Empire at the time, but which became, in 1814 at the Congress of Vienna, the property of Sardinian king Vittorio Emmanuele I. Young Garibaldi, the son of merchants, became a merchant marine captain himself in 1832, which led him around Europe. In his travels, he met a follower of Mazzini, the founder of the liberal ‘Young Italy’ movement. Garibaldi soon became enamored of the idea of Italian unification, and he joined the revolutionary Carbonari group in 1833. This led to a death warrant against him by the extremely short-sighted Genoese regime, and Garibaldi fled to South America.

It is in the Uruguayan Civil War that he came to earn his later appellation, “the Hero of Two Worlds.” He married a Brazilian horsewoman named Anita, from whom he learned riding skills and became involved in the gaucho culture–he would wear his trademark red shirt, poncho, and sombrero the rest of his life. He joined the side of the Uruguayan Colorados, choosing to fight against the conservative forces of the nefarious Argentine strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas and his lackey, Manuel Oribe, the president of Uruguay. [Tangent: Jorge Luis Borges, ever aware of Argentina’s troubled history, mentions Rosas in several of his stories. In “A Dialog Between Dead Men”, he is mocked for being a coward in the face of defeat by his nemesis, General Quiroga; “Pedro Salvadores” tells of a man who stayed in his basement for 10 years to avoid the terrors and tortures of Rosas’ rule; and he offered his only exceptions for political assassinations by listing the examples of John Felton, Charlotte Corday, and the well-known words of Rivera Indarte (“It is a holy deed to kill Rosas”).] Garibaldi, with the “Italian Legion” and navy that he raised, dealt several defeats to the conservative forces, and defended Montevideo from a siege by Oribe. The European wave of revolution in the year 1848, however, caused Garibaldi to return to his homeland to aid in Italian uprisings.

After his services were rejected by the Piedmontese court in Sardinia, Garibaldi went to Milan to participate in the ongoing war of liberation against the Austrians. He won two minor victories there, before moving south to Rome to assist the newly established Republican government that had taken over the Papal States. The French empire of Napoleon III came to the pope’s defense. Garibaldi defeated a numerically superior French force, and defended Rome for months against the French reinforcements. Finally outnumbered, Garibaldi chose to preserve his remaining forces to continue the fight from the mountains, saying “Dovunque saremo, colà sarà Roma” (Wherever we may be, there will be Rome). The Papal Authority was reestablished in Rome, so Garibaldi decided to travel north to aid Venice in their resistance against an Austrian siege. He was left with a band of only a few hundred men, seeking to avoid capture by the Austrian, French, Spanish, and Neopolitan armies in the peninsula. At this point, Anita (carrying their fifth child) died, and the Piedmontese regime forced Garibaldi to leave Italy and re-emigrate.

He arrived in the United States in 1850, where he worked odd jobs in New York for a year. Unsatisfied, he moved down into Central America and Peru, and eventually took control of a merchant ship that he would use to carry goods to China, the Phillipines, Australia, back to Peru, around Cape Horn to New York, and to England. In 1854 he returned to Italy and bought half of the island of Caprera, north of Sardinia. He spent the next 5 years as a farmer there, improving the agricultural yield of the island. The year 1859 saw the opening of the next Italian War of Independence, and Garibaldi was immediately appointed as a General by the Piedmontese. He won victories over the Austrians in Lombardy with his newly formed ‘Hunters of the Alps’ unit. By this time, he had effectively abandoned his own liberal Republican ideals, inspired by Mazzini, in favor of supporting the monarchy of Piedmont for the greater good of defeating the Pope and unifying Italy. In 1860, Garibaldi took 1000 northern volunteers by ship to Sicily, where revolts had broken out against the Neapolitan regime. He won victories in Palermo and Messina within two months, and declared himself the dictator of Sicily in the name of Vittorio Emanuele II, the would-be king of Unified Italy. He crossed to the mainland with British naval support, and marched north to Naples, where he occupied the empty capital. The troops of Naples were outside the city, and in the ensuing battle, Garibaldi defeated them with help from the Piedmontese army arriving from the north. At this point, Garibaldi met with Vittorio Emanuele II at Teolo, and decided to give all of his southern conquests to the northern king. He went into retirement at Caprera, refusing all awards and honors.

Retirement did not last long, however, as Garibaldi assembled volunteers from around Europe to help complete the unification of Italy, especially Venice (from the Austrians) and Rome (where the Pope was protected by the French). In the American Civil War, Garibaldi deeply wanted to help the Union cause, and offered President Lincoln his services. He would only go on the condition that he be made the Commander in Chief, and that the explicit goal of the war was for the abolition of slavery. When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Garibaldi was already committed to the liberation of Rome, but sent Lincoln a letter praising him for freeing the slaves.

The fight against Rome saw Garibaldi traveling back to Sicily, trying to maneuver into position to defeat the Pope. The new Italian Kingdom did not approve of his independent actions, however, and sent its own army to intercept him. At Aspromonte, Garibaldi ordered his troops not to fire against fellow Italians, and he was taken prisoner and forced back to his island. He was already a living legend by now, and he had the sympathy of Europeans everywhere.  In 1864, he traveled to London and was greeted enthusiastically, and he began to plan for campaigns of liberation in countries across Europe. His next military action began in 1866, when he took up arms against the Austrians to bring Venice to its rightful place within the new Italian state. He reconstituted his Hunters of the Alps unit and marched with his largest army ever of 40,000 troops into the Trentino, where he won an initial victory. Other Italian forces on the sea and the plains made no progress, however, and Garibaldi was ordered to stop his successful advance to seize Trento. He replied with one word: “Obbedisco” (I obey). Due to Austrian losses against the Prussians in the north, Venice was ceded to Italy in any case. Only one goal remained– the city-state of Rome.

Garibaldi again moved against the wishes of the hesitant monarchy to attack the Papal States in Rome. His small force was defeated, he was wounded in the leg, and again taken prisoner and sent back to his island. In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war provided the opportunity to render his services once more in the name of liberal republicanism. After Napolean III’s regime collapsed and a French republic was established, Garibaldi hastily volunteered to help the same troops he had so recently fought against. His ‘Army of the Vosges’ in France was never defeated by the Prussians. In later life, he was elected to the Italian parliament, made huge land reclamation efforts in the swampy areas around Rome (a project which was completed by Mussolini), strongly advocated women’s rights, abolition of papal property, and democratic reforms. He died in 1882 at the age of 74 and was buried at his island of Caprera.

Garibaldi, who was also the author of three novels and two autobiographies, remained devoted his entire life to the progressive ideals of freedom for all, liberation from oppression, self-autonomy, and equal and democratic rights. He was a man of remarkable action and unswerving conviction. We would be well-served to remember such a life, and what he fought for.

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italian Unification, 1861-2011

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