Meloni the moderate? (Not exactly)
Plus, travel journalism from Trieste and revelations about Leonardo Da Vinci's mother
Over the past few weeks, months, perhaps even longer, I’ve noticed an unnerving trend in political commentary in and about Italy. Talking heads of all stripes - left, right and centre - have been gradually softening their stance on Georgia Meloni. There is, without doubt, a tacit acceptance of the current far-right administration; many seem actively relieved at the government's programme so far, which, so the story goes, has been level-headed and more moderate than expected. Whatever the underpinning motivations here - resignation, capitulation? - I think this is wrongheaded, and this week I was reminded why. On Monday the Italian government issued an order insisting that the municipality of Milan - a centre left city and Italy’s biggest metropolis - stop issuing birth certificates to the children of same-sex couples. The details, which you can read here, are shrouded in euphemism and dressed up in legalese jargon. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear: this administration, which has described surrogacy as 'slavery' in official communications, actively wants to strip LGBTQ people of their rights. It is, as expected, aggressively, and violently, enforcing a homophobic agenda. While a select group of critics - including Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala - have been protesting the decision, the public, in general, seems to have shrugged this off as part of the new orthodoxy. In what universe, therefore, can we really call Meloni’s administration, and her public supporters, moderate? I’m afraid, in this respect, Italy, together with Poland Hungary, is better seen as a leading player in a new anti-democratic alliance which explicitly aims to erode the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
e-flux journal has just published the first chapter of a new book by Gigi Roggero on the history and legacy of Italian operaismo [workerism] which might interest a select group of readers here. This book brings together six seminars held between January and February 2019 at Mediateca Gateway, a radical library in Bologna (which FYI has now changed its name to .input.) In the highly eloquent intro, Roggero draws a direct line between the workers’ struggles of the 70s and the later movements for global justice in the 90s right the way up to the present day ‘multitudes’ as imagined by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. The author takes a sober but radical approach; he avoids criticising the decentralised, anti-authoritarian dimension of the autonomist movements, seeing them as refreshing and ethically necessary, but he also recognises the limitations of these modes of organisation particularly vis-a-vis leadership. While I’d be a little less generous myself (terms like “militant formation” sound like parody in 21st Century Europe) the provocations, and critical vocabulary, do have a use. One example? The book admirably seeks to explain why and how the operaist concept of class composition already anticipates what we’d now call intersectionality; and moreover it does so beyond the liberal constraints of that term. This text won’t be for everyone. You can expect some far more garbled prose than that last sentence. But if you’re interested in the philosophical (and materialist) horizons of the Italian left, this looks like a vital contribution to academic scholarship. Read it here.
I couldn’t not draw attention here to an interesting, glossy travel piece by Lee Marshall which The Financial Times published this week. ‘Trieste – the comeback kid of Europe’ is a well researched article with interesting quotes from locals, some little-known historical anecdotes and - most of all - some gorgeous pictures of one of my favourite Italian cities. The main hook is a new arts, fashion and design museum/institute called ITS, which, according to the author, perfectly encapsulates the new, creative dynamism of the local economy. At the same time, or so he insists, Trieste continues to allure thanks to its timeless nostalgic feel; something manifest in the somber church of Sant’Antonio Taumaturgo church or the many elegant dining institutions such as the Caffè Degli Specchi. Yes, I know, this is a very FT take, filled with cliches like “nowhere to somewhere” the “hotel scene” and “how to spend it” but that’s par for the course. Most importantly the piece is also rich in local knowledge and practical tips. The Cemût wine bar, for example, is for sure one of the best on the peninsula; and affordable too! If you’ve ever visited Trieste this journalistic postcard will being back happy memories. If you haven’t then the article is guaranteed to galvanise your wanderlust. So here’s the link.
Arts and culture: Caterina’s smile
It hasn’t been the best year, so far, for Italian books in translation. After the Ferrante-Goldstein fuelled sales surge of the past decade, things are beginning to slow down a little and new, high profile releases are few and far between. That’s perhaps why I was so pleased to read this week about Pushkin Press’s reissue of Lalla Romano’s 1957 novel A Silence Shared (trans. Brian Robert Moore). This book, which is set in Piemonte at the end of WWII, is a place-based novel about landscape, small town communities and most of all amorous liaisons during the time of Nazi occupation and partisan liberation. If this all sounds reminiscent of the great Torinese master Cesare Pavese’s plots, well.. that’s no coincidence. Romano was greatly, and openly influenced by Pavese’s work and she even quotes him in her mysterious epigraph: “The only true silence / is a silence shared.” The writer Thea Hawlin has written a fascinating and detailed review for the LA Times if you're interested. Read that here, or buy the book straight from the publisher at the link below.
Big(ish) news for (art) history nerds. This Tuesday the Neapolitan writer Carlo Vecce revealed some new research into the origins and life of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mother, Caterina. For a long time, scholars have generally assumed that Caterina was simply a Tuscan peasant; the child of a poor family somewhere in central Italy. Vecce, however, has found novel evidence, in the form of letters in the Florence city archives, which seem to prove (“with 99% certainty”) that “Leonardo’s mother was a Circassian slave… taken from her home in the Caucasus Mountains, sold and resold several times in Constantinople, then Venice, before arriving in Florence” (AFP). What does this mean in and of itself? In a sense, not that much. But is –at the very least – a rejoinder to those who have sought to politicise Da Vinci as a pure “Italian genius”; and it also offers some important, materialist, light on the geographies of the ‘people trade’ in early Renaissance Italy. The scholarly community has largely accepted and applauded Vecce’s findings, but it’s worth pointing out that the author is - primarily - a novelist. In fact, he’s already written-up a speculative fictional tale based on his historical findings as part of his latest book Il Sorriso di Caterina [Caterina’s smile] which was published yesterday, in Italian, by Giunti. However good or bad the prose, this one’s sure to be a bestseller.
Gnocchi with sumac onions and brown butter pine nuts
“The Middle East meets Italy in these deliciously sharp and filling gnocchi,” or so writes Yotam Ottolenghi, the master of frilly and often over-fiddly Mediterranean-vegetable-forward fare. I have mixed views on Ottolenghi, as I’ve mentioned before. Yes, the dishes usually look lovely, but the effort to taste ratio is rarely worth the effort in my honest opinion. With so many Italian traditional recipes to cook I can’t - frankly - see the point in too much deviation most of the time. These gnocchi though, and this bizzare fusion proposal, caught my eye this week. I prepped them using ‘store bought’ chicche di patate which dramatically cut down the cooking time. I found the result… odd but moreish? This is a zesty, zesty dish. The combination of lemon and sumac bring a tangy taste to the foreground, yet, at the same time, the garlic, parsley, butter and pepper provide a heavy, almost French-style, foundation which is surprisingly rich. I’m not 100% sure I’ll be making these again. But I definitely enjoyed this experiment as a change from the usual fridge raid pasta. At 30-minutes cooking time, this is a low stakes way to mix-up your weeknight dinner. Here’s the recipe.
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.
If you enjoyed this newsletter I hope you’ll consider becoming a supporter for EUR 5.00 per month (the price of a weekly catch-up over an espresso). Alternatively, if you’d like to send a one-off something, you can do so via PayPal using this link. No worries if you can’t chip-in or don’t feel like doing so, but please do consider forwarding this to a friend or two. It’s a big help!