Mal’aria di città
Plus, lazy days on the lido and some old Italian vinyl
This Monday, Italy’s leading environmental campaigning organization Legambiente published its 2023 report on air pollution in the country. The findings - and it’s hardly surprising - are not good. Italy’s biggest cities, particularly the metropolises of the north, are still suffering year round from smog, and several cities are far exceeding health guidelines on toxic particle levels (which cause over 50,000 premature deaths per year). The most worrying figures, once again, were recorded in and along the Pianura Padana; which is to say Piemonte, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and bits of Veneto. Turin and Milan are the worst offenders by some way. In 2022 both broke PM10 limits for 90 and 84 days respectively, largely due to traffic jams, industrial fumes and inefficient heating systems. The centre and south of the country is faring somewhat better, in part due to more diffused, widely distributed populations as well as smaller scale agriculture and industry; though even here 74% of comuni violate the latest EU guidelines which will come into force in 2030. Clearly intervention is needed. Councils in the north are already pledging new, lower-speed limits to discourage car-use, subsidizing insulation and investing in more public services — and all of this despite the fact that Matteo Salvini, the current infrastructure minster, is insisting technology will magic away the problem. The battle, in other words, as in so many spheres, is political: it’s state intervention versus free market logic. And, for once, with citizens’ heath on the line, and EU sanctions on the way, green progressives have a tactical and moral lead over the conservative coalition. The question therefore remains: can the broad left make use of this issue in next weekend’s local elections? Or will the environment, once again, be brushed to the margins? Predictions on a postcard please.
It’s not often I have the space to zoom in on hyper-local rural community news stories here. This week, however, I’m compelled to do so if only to counteract some of the rather overoptimistic op-eds that have been appearing over the past weeks vis-à-vis the arrest of mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro. Because the fact is that while Cosa Nostra is stumbling, and has been for years, mafia organizations in many parts of Italy are as strong as ever. Take Calabria. Over the last 12 months residents in the small town of Fuscaldo (population 8000) have been living in a climate of low-level terror. It all began last spring when two schoolbuses had their windows smashed. ‘Bah teenage hormones!’ people thought. A month later, however, a garbage van had its tires slashed. Trees, which the municipality had planted, were ceremonially ripped from the soil. Then things started escalating. Over Christmas, arsonists set fire to a road repair vehicle, closely followed by another local school bus. The meaning is pretty clear: ether the ndrangheta is directly threatening the local government over a political dispute of some kind, or, more likely, local criminals are vying to take control of public services from the company that won a local tender last year (a small business called la Duo service SRL.) Few Italians will ever read about this story and it certainly won’t reach the foreign press. Still, I wanted to draw attention to these facts, not only because they’re sobering in their own right, but because they remind us that, however much progress is being made in the fight against Cosa Nostra, much, much more is still to be done in the struggle against organized crime as a whole.
A forewarning to readers who are less than enamoured with Italian pop music: next week things are going to get wild. From 7 to 11 February the Ariston theatre in Sanremo will host the eponymous music festival which has been running for 73 years now, and which, over 30 hours of TV broadcast, is the biggest media event of every calendar year. Often billed as ‘Italy’s answer to Eurovision’ Sanremo is much more than that. It’s a cultural ecosystem unto itself, and, to some extent, a barometer of the national mood. If you’re not interested, I advise you skip next week’s special edition newsletter altogether…. If , like me, you are obsessed you might (also) want to sign up to FantaSanremo, a new fantasy football like game that gameifies the spectacle-to-come. The rules are simple: you download the app and select 5 out of the 28 performers to be part of your ‘team.’ Then, each night, the scores are totted up in line with your selection and a series of extra bonuses [if one of your team wears sunglasses on stage that’s +5 points; a kiss to the camera is +10 points and so on]. Apparently, as of today 1.5 million people have already registered, so the leaderboard is going to get pretty crowded. You’ve got until opening night on 7 February to choose your squad. So make it count!
Arts and culture: summer vibes for frosty days
Thomas Quintavalle, a photographer best known for his work with Vogue magazine, has got a new book out this week called Lido di Venezia. Atlante storico which, as the name suggests, is dedicated to the understated, shabby-bourgeoise beauty of Venice’s longest, flattest island. Strangely enough I know the Lido pretty well. Years ago, when I first came to Italy, I used to visit a lot as my partner at the time had family there. I admit, I never exactly warmed to the place. I always found it stifling; oppressive and the worst kind of boojie. Nevertheless, there’s no denying it is a quintessentially Italian space; and the longer I live here the more I understand (something) of the appeal. Sitting on the beach to read la settimana enigmistica, playing cards, tanning in the late afternoon, dog walks, small town gossip, family meals around the changing rooms, Maxibons for breakfast, midnight raves by murazzi. Somehow, without my realizing it, Lido has become part of my own life mythology. I’ve got my own reasons to buy the book, then, but Quintavalle’s intro might suggest that there’s a broader appeal too: “Lido is the Venetians’ own beach - a place far away from the chaos, from the usual tourist trail… it is a different kind of summer destination […] I never even spoke with the subjects I shot here, and maybe that’s part of the mystique of these images: they’re literally moments stolen from everyday life.” ArtTribune has a preview of 15 shots which you can scroll through here if you’re interested in a sneak-peak.
Fred Simon is an underground Italian music producer and DJ who’s played in bars and clubs in Milan, Paris, Lisbon, Brussels, and Geneva over the years. The other week he performed a pleasantly chilled-out set for the YouTube channel ‘My Analogue Journal’ dedicated entirely to showcasing forgotten and overlooked Italo Funk & Boogie records. Simon covers a lot of ground in this one-hour mix, starting off with Pascal’s ‘Incubo D'oggi (Instrumental version)’ and working all the way through to a 2022 remaster of Peter Micioni’s track ‘d’Driving on broadway.’ Highlights include some classic Italo Disco (Charme – ‘Stop Loving You’) but also contemporary tracks like Daniel Monaco’s ‘Tu Sei Pazza (Whodamanny Reinterpretation)’. The audio quality on this is, sadly, a bit hit and miss. At least, for me, the treble seems a bit off. Still, crank the volume, and you’ve got a decent sountrack for your weekend aperitivo-slash-sanremo warm-up party. Fellow crate-diggers and music geeks may also want to check out some of the other mixes on the channel which cover everything from Mediterranean Grooves to Gwoka Moderne to Soviet jazz. Here’s the link.
Recipe of the week: radicchio in saor
A few days ago I stopped in my tracks when an Italian friend of mine poetically referred to radicchio as “a winter flower.” What a beautiful phrase, I thought. And it is, isn’t it? Somehow it really captures the essence of the vegetable; the colour, the flavor, the sheer vibrancy it can bring to so many dishes. Preparing radicchio “in saor” (which basically means “in vinegared onions”) is an old Venetian trick. You'll find this dish all over that city - smeared on crostini with cheese, served with polenta and salame and much more. This recipe, which I admit I found on a random blog online and which I haven’t tried yet, looks very similar to a version I was taught years ago. The procedure is straightforward but it does take an hour or so, and there are a few tricks as well. First, I highly recommend slicing the radicchio as thinly as you can and soaking it in ice cold water before cooking (this gets rid of any residual bitterness). Second, I'd personally ditch the raisins all together. It’s an outdated medieval tradition that is just bizarre for most contemporary palates. Finally, and I can only speak for myself here, I think the end result is best served right on top of a home cooked pizza. A bit of gorgonzola, a bit of red onion, lashings of this stuff straight out the fridge and - yep - you've got something really special to brighten up your February.
My name is Jamie Mackay (@JacMackay) and I’m an author, editor and translator based in Florence. I’ve been writing about Italy for a decade for international media including The Guardian, The Economist, Frieze, and Art Review. I launched ‘The Week in Italy’ to share a more direct and regular overview of the debates and dilemmas, innovations and crises that sometimes pass under the radar of our overcrowded news feeds.
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