April 12, 2011

My Own Angels of Beauty

Say what you will about American students in Florence, but these wonderful kids from Washington Community College Consortium for Study Abroad made their Italian Life and Culture teacher all kinds of proud today. When their director at AIFS, Sophie Monkman, asked them to participate in the Angeli del Bello initiative, they didn't hesitate.

This morning they got up early to head down to Piazza Santa Croce and sweep it free of cigarette butts and broken glass. When I asked one of my students why she was taking part in the project, she answered simply: "This is our home, too, and we want to keep it clean." 

Bravi, ragazzi! And THANK YOU!

 Learn how to become an Angel of Beauty at www.angelidelbello.it.

March 30, 2011

Lampedusa's Newest Resident

The tiny island of Lampedusa--Italy's southernmost point--has officially replaced Ruby Rubacuori in the Italian headlines of late. Because it is technically closer to Tunisian shores than to Italian ones, over the years the island has become the primary port of entry for North African immigrants seeking to enter Italy illegally. With the recent unrest and uprisings in Tunisia and Libya, immigrants have been flooding into Lampedusa while local residents rally against the mass arrivals. 

Italy's position in unenviable--there are nearly 5,000 miles of coastline to protect and secure, and few resources with which to do it (or perhaps little organization with which to manage the resources--just saying). The rest of Europe is fed up with the boot since a significant number of the immigrants who make their way to France, Germany, Spain and the UK have come in through Italy's poorly secured "porous" borders. Italy continues to ask for funds; the EU continues to ignore the request; other EU countries come down hard on Italy; Italy gets offended and Berlusconi is propelled into action.

Today, in fact, Italy's illustrious premier took a bunga bunga break to personally visit Lampedusa, where in typical Berlusca fashion he announced that the immigrants would be transferred off the island in "48-60 hours, max". (I personally enjoyed the 60 hours figure; it's so much more original than the standard 72.)

However, the most entertaining moment of the speech came when he joyfully confided in the crowd of locals gathered at his feet that he had just purchased a house on the island so that he could take a more direct interest in the goings-on down yonder. "I went on the Internet and bought a house in Cala Francese," Berlusca said, "It's called The Two Palms. I, too, will be a Lampedusan."

Immigration crisis averted. Grazie, Silvio!

Cala Francese, Lampedusa

March 24, 2011

Happy New Year! or Capodanno Fiorentino Explained

Annunciation by Beato Angelico
New Year's in March? That's right. Up until 1582, Europe rang in the New Year on March 25, the Feast Day of the Annunciation. According to Christian tradition, the Annunciation commemorates the moment that the Archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary to announce the birth of Jesus on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas. 

In Florence, the feast coincided nicely with the arrival of spring, to which a local proverb was dedicated: ‘Per l'Annunciazione la rondine è arrivata; e se un'né arrivata, l'è per strada o è ammalata!' (‘The swallow arrives for the Annunciation; and if he hasn't yet arrived, he's either on the way or he's sick!').  When, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII changed the date of the New Year to January 1, the majority of European countries and Italian city-states adopted the calendar that we still use today. The Florentines, however, were so attached to ‘their' New Year that they waited until January 1, 1750 to adopt the Gregorian calendar.

Why was the Annunciation such a special holiday in Florence? For starters, the Madonna is the protector of the city (not to be confused with Saint John the Baptist who is the city's patron saint), so her feast days were held in special regard. Additionally, the Annunciation was an exciting civil, religious and springtime festival that brought huge crowds from the city and the surrounding countryside into Florence. Everyone from nobles to lawmakers, shopkeepers, priests and farmers would gather in Piazza Santissima Annunziata to pay homage to the miraculous image of the Madonna housed in basilica dedicated to the Most Holy Annunciation (Santissima Annuziata). Built in 1250 by friars from the order of the Servi di Maria, the structure was continuously enlarged and beautified throughout the centuries.

Piazza Santissima Annunziata
Santissima Annunziata quickly became a privileged place of worship after painter Bartolomeo da Firenze frescoed an image of the Annunciation considered to have miraculous properties. The fresco, highly venerated by pilgrims from all over Tuscany and Italy, held a special importance for newlyweds. Legend has it that Bartolomeo was frustrated with his inability to paint the Virgin's face in a manner worthy of the Mother of God. Discouraged, he fell into a deep sleep only to awaken some time later to an image so beautiful and perfect that he attributed the work to angels who must have completed it while he was asleep. Once word got out, the church immediately began receiving ex-votos and other offerings from locals and pilgrims alike. In the mid-fourteenth century, Piero Cosimo de' Medici, who was strongly devoted to the sacred image of the Annunciation, entrusted the architect Michelozzo with restructuring the majority of the church, while leaving the precious holy icon completely intact.

During the Feast of the Annunciation, hundreds of pilgrims would spill out of the basilica and onto the portico of the adjacent Spedale degli Innocenti and Confraternita dei Servi di Maria, which flanked the church and together created three sides of one Florence's most beautiful piazzas. March 25 was a citywide holiday and locals would gather along the city streets to watch the clergy and magistrates walk in solemn procession to the basilica, where they would make offerings to the Virgin Mary in return for her protection and for favors granted.

The city recognized the need to provide food, drinks and other necessities to the vast number of pilgrims who flooded the area on the holy day. In addition to stands boasting traditional straw baskets filled with usual fair goods, candles, flowers and votives were also sold. The atmosphere was so spring-like and festive-and one can't help but think good for local business as well-it's no wonder Florentines opted to continue celebrating New Year's Day on March 25 until the late eighteenth century.

Sbandieratori in Piazza della Signoria
A mere 250 years later, in 2000, the Capodanno Fiorentino was reinserted into the calendar of traditional Florentine events. The city now celebrates the Florentine New Year on the Sunday following March 25 with a historic procession from the Palagio di Parte Guelfa to the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata. The day continues with a mass, live music, exhibits and a lively market in the piazza.

(Originally published by Alexandra Lawrence in The Florentine, issue no. 98/2009 / March 26, 2009)

March 21, 2011

Islam and Integration in the City

New York University La Pietra Policy Dialogues
invites you to the international conference
moschea final
Islam and Integration in the City
Tuesday, March 22, 9:30am-4:00pm
Villa La Pietra—New York University Florence
 (Via Bolognese, 120)


Recent controversies surrounding building mosques in several European and American cities have raised larger questions about the integration of Muslim immigrants in the post-9/11 world: how have Muslim immigrants adapted to their new lives, what role has Islam played in the development of contemporary multicultural societies and how have the mosque controversies crystallized tensions ?  The Islam and Integration in the City conference will convene a panel of a diverse group of scholars, religious representatives and activists to discuss the case of Florence and to place it in its larger global context.


9:30-10:00am Welcome
Ellyn Toscano, Executive Director, New York University Florence

Claudius Wagemann, Professor New York University Florence and Lecturer, Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane

10:00-11:30 Immigration and Religion: The Florence Mosque Controversy
Monsignor Timothy Verdon, President of the Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Faith Dialogue of the Archdiocese of Florence
Imam Izzedin Elzir, Imam of Florence, President of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy

11:30-11:45 Coffee Break

11:45-1:00pm Islam and Integration in the City
Lorenzo Bosi, Marie Curie Fellow, European University Institute, specialist Muslim integration in Italy
Laura Grazzini, Responsible for Immigration, ARCI Firenze

1:00-2:30 Lunch

2:30-4:00pm The Global Dimension
Rainer Bauböck, Professor of Social and Political Theory, European University Institute
Franco Cardini, Professor of Medieval History, Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane
Claudius Wagemann, Professor New York University Florence and Lecturer, Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane

For more information or to R.S.V.P. lapietra.policy.dialogues@nyu.edu or 055 5007.202

NYU La Pietra Policy Dialogues aims to make a creative contribution to contemporary public policy debate by bringing together a wide array of actors not commonly called upon to reflect on policy questions or to sit at the same table together, including academics, politicians, business leaders, and other public intellectuals, with the ultimate goal of building a rich and diverse network across the Atlantic.

NYU La Pietra Policy Dialogues - Villa Sassetti, Via Bolognese 120, 50139 Florence, Italy

March 17, 2011

150 Years of Italia

I wouldn't say that Florence was exactly overflowing with red, white and green today but a few folk did make a bit of an effort for the 150th anniversary of Italy's Unification.

Via dei Servi

Lone flag on via degli Alfani

Support for Japan

Finally, a little creativity!!

Love this

Outside the university area on via degli Alfani: not a cheery sentiment

March 16, 2011

You just never know.

Though it is my job--or one of them, anyway--I am always wary when it comes to talking about “Italy” in terms of culture and customs. Finding common ground in a country that prides itself more on disunity than unity is no easy feat.

Take political views, for example. Living in Florence, a solid bastion of the (extreme) left, it is nearly impossible to understand how Silvio Berlusconi could ever be victorious given the vitriolic treatment he gets at every turn around here. Of course all it takes is a quick glance at a geographical breakdown of election returns to see that old Berlusca is as adored in the North as he is despised in the Center.

Take soccer. Most people cite the World Cup as the only time the population of the boot actually get together and cheer for a common goal. Not so in Florence where the majority of folk loathe the Azzurri (Italian national team) given that it is primarily populated by players from Fiorentina’s “rivals”—Juventus, Milan and the like.

Take food. In Tuscany, you could write a lengthy cookbook on the various uses of the chickpea: cecina, pasta e ceci, torta di ceci, zuppa di ceci, and on and on and on. Yet once when I took a visiting Italian friend and her boyfriend to lunch at a local trattoria, the latter ordered the Baccalà alla Livornese because it came with ceci—which he had never seen before. He is from the mountains of Friuli in Northeastern Italy. 

Take tomorrow’s festivities. Thursday, March 17, 2011 has been declared National Unity Day in honor of the 150th anniversary of Italian Unification. I am fairly certain that before this year only a minute percentage of the population could have spoken with any amount of clarity about the significance of that date. (It was the day that King Vittorio Emanuele established the Kingdom of Italy.) 

The entire holiday was kind of sprung on the country—they only just declared it an official festa a few weeks ago—and after a fair amount of bickering between political adversaries, some of whom rue the day Italy was united in the first place.

So here, too, I find it hard to gauge the mood. Have “Italians” gotten into the spirit of "March 17"? There are some signs that they have: Tonight’s national evening news featured a corny montage of regular Joes singing parts of the national anthem—indeed most of the singers were wielding pizzas or waving other local foodstuffs from behind their deli counters (not doing much in terms of combating the whole pizza/pasta image if you ask me). There are scores of patriotic events planned for tonight and tomorrow, and everyone has been encouraged to fly the tricolore from their balcony or business.

In fact, a few days ago when I went on Florence daily La Nazione’s homepage I found a jaunty plea from the editorial office to vote in the “Most Beautiful Flag in Florence” competition. I was mildly surprised at this uncharacteristic show of patriotism, but then I got to the comments section where the very first comment (since removed, ahem) said: “Don’t you people at La Nazione have anything better to do than ask people to vote on stupid flags??”

I'm not sure what the mood will be like tomorrow. Will the Florentines surprise us and unfurl their flags in the night? Will the festivities be a flop near and far? Will the Milanesi turn and fold their Southern brethren into a long overdue embrace? Will the rest of the country understand when the napoletani speak?

Really, you just never know. 

March 6, 2011

Love for the Ladies

As local florists prepare their overpriced mimosa bouquets for the upcoming Festa della donna (International Women’s Day), a study has just emerged that ranks Florence high on the “Women Friendly Index”, a measurement of19 factors including economic stability, employment rates, safety, culture, and access to social services.

The index, released by the Monza e Brianza Chamber of Commerce, gave the city four out of five stars—placing it third in the country. First and second place went to two other central Italian cities, Pescara and Teramo. According to the study, women in these cities “have more fun” and live and work better.

These days, any discussion of women in Italy is timely given the recent protests over Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s, er, behavior of late. While I might differ from many of my contemporaries in not blaming Berlusca wholesale for every one of Italy’s maladies (and there are many), I would agree that he has brought the country to a new low in terms of international prestige and general adherence to social mores.

In a particularly cringe-worthy moment yesterday, Berlusconi dedicated a portion of a speech on public education to women, who he lauded as “better than us [men] in every way: better in school, at university and on the job.” He went on to say that women work “as well as and usually better than men because [they] know how to organize, manage, create and bring talent and determination to everything they do.”

While yesterday's words are no doubt better than other moments he's had while talking about women's abilities (e.g. encouraging U.S. businessmen to invest in Italy because it has "the most beautiful secretaries in the world"), it is actually this kind of vapid rhetoric and shameless pandering that leaves me infinitely colder than any details (real or imagined) about his private life.

I don’t know if Berlusconi’s mandate will last, but I do know that this year’s Festa della donna will likely be more than an excuse for flowers and a trip to the local male strip club (ew), especially in “women friendly” Florence. 

Women in Berlusconi's cabinet (even that sounds smutty now!)