Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Inferno XVI: Dante's Tomb


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

It is heartening for the mortal to learn that not even Dante Alighieri got everything always right, and that the sixteenth canto of the Divine Comedy is something of a dud; little more than the B-side of the fifteenth. Dante meets more sodomites, and not in the fun way. They converse. They go their separate ways. Then at the end something unusual and rather mystical happens which I’ll get to at the end of this post. But seeing as I don’t want to go into the full details of the canto, I’ll tell you a little bit about Dante’s tomb, which I visited during my recent trip to Italy.

Entering the 'zone of silence'
Dante was as adventurous in death as he was in life. As you might recall, he wrote the Comedy whilst in exile, and was never allowed to return to his native and beloved Florence. He was in Rome when the sentence was issued, in 1302, and spent the rest of his life travelling from court to court in search of employment and protection. He lived in Verona, Treviso, Padua, the region known as Lunigiana, and finally Ravenna, where he completed the Paradiso some time before 1321. He died there at the age of 56, following a diplomatic mission to Venice, and was laid to rest in a Roman-era sarcophagus near the basilica of Saint Francis.

Then the Comedy became a hit, and Boccaccio started lecturing in Florence about it, and soon the city decided they would like to take him back after all. They made a first attempt in 1396, but were rebuffed, then again in 1428 and 1476. Finally, tired of asking politely, they got Pope Leo X – a native of Florence and son of Lorenzo de' Medici – to issue an order for the transfer of Dante’s body to his native city (Ravenna at this time was part of the Papal State). Michelangelo was at the ready, anxious to sculpt a monument in honour of the great poet. But when the Florentine envoys opened the sarcophagus, they found that it was empty. It transpired that the local Franciscan monks had stolen the body from inside the sarcophagus by drilling a hole on the other side of the wall against which it rested, Ocean’s Eleven-style. The envoys had no authority to order Franciscan monks around, and so Dante’s remains were placed under their protection.

And that would be fine, except the monks moved him around so many times that eventually they lost him. It happened some time after 1810, when the body was removed from the sarcophagus in its recently built new chapel for fear that Napoleon’s troops might steal it, as was their wont. The body was placed in a wooden box and hidden inside a wall but the monks didn’t keep good records and the precautionary shift was soon forgotten. So for the best part of the 19th century everyone simply assumed that the empty sarcophagus still contained Dante’s remains.


The box was found by accident in 1865, during the restoration of the chapel, and a student was quick enough to read the words “Ossa Dantis” (Dante’s bones) on the inscription before the find could be labelled as a generic bag of bones and placed in a common ossuary.

We’re not done. Dante was moved again during the Second World War, for fear that the tomb might be bombed, and placed in the adjoining cloister, under a plaque that still commemorates this fact.


Most recently, the tomb was found to have been included among the Italian targets of ISIS, which is mad at him for his depiction of Mohammed in Canto XVIII (maybe we’ll get there this year). It is now protected by a camera, installed in 2016 not just for security but also for counting visitors, including those who just pop their head past the rope to take a quick peek.


Today, Dante rests in a small, unassuming chapel, far less pompous than the cenotaph that the Florentines built in 1821, when they still harboured some residual hope that he might be returned to them. The sarcophagus still bears the epitaph dictated by Bernando da Canaccio in 1366, in a rather inapposite Latin, and that describes him as ‘Dante, exiled from his native land, born of Florence, a mother who loved him little.’ The chapel is lit at all times by a small lantern, fuelled by olive oil donated by the Florentines every year during a special ceremony on the second Sunday in September. I find this detail quite tender – his city rejected him, but they still light his room – as I do the fact that Dante’s Tomb is part of a special “zone of silence”, whereby the adjoining streets are kept quiet by the city’s authorities as a mark of respect.


We have come to the end of the sixteenth canto of the Inferno. It is less than 24 hours since Dante’s journey began. Virgil and Dante have reached a waterfall – except it’s not water, for the Phlegethon runs with blood of the damned. There is no apparent passage for travelling safely out of the seventh circle and into the eighth. Instead, Virgil asks Dante to pass him the cord he keeps around his waist and throws it over the fall. This strange incantation soon bears its fruit, as Dante begins to discern through the spray a meravigliosa figura (‘marvellous figure’) that – always loving a cliff-hanger – he stops just short of naming or describing.


Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

‘We need a revolution’: Carla Ravaioli interviews Guido Rossi


What follows is my translation of an interview that Marxist journalist and author Carla Ravaioli conducted with law scholar Guido Rossi in 2010, in the early stages of the eurozone’s crisis. Rossi was an unlikely person to call for Leninism or revolution: he had spent his career as a financial regulator and business law expert, overseeing major banking acquisitions and working for a time for ABN Amro. Most recently, he had stepped down as chairman of Telecom Italia, and would soon become ‘ethical watchdog’ of Consob, Italy’s securities and exchange commission.

At the time of the interview, Rossi was 79, while Ravaioli was 87. I note their ages to place them within a generation that thought through several, often dramatic iterations of the word revolution.

The interview was originally published on Il Manifesto, 31 October 2010. This translation was first published at Overland.


Recovery, economic revival, boosting the GDP, promoting growth… These are the tools that economists, company directors, industrialists, politicians insist upon to come out of the crisis. What are your thoughts?

My opinion is very definite. I believe there really is a fundamental error in the final goal of all politics, which is economic progress. As you said, it’s all that economists think about: boosting production and productivity, at all costs. So that which used to be the engine of capitalism, economic progress, has become the engine of every system, and market capitalism has been joined by state capitalism. See, for instance, China: where all the usual things are happening, to the detriment of the weakest. In the meantime, those that Norberto Bobbio used to call ‘second- and third-generation rights’, with this acceleration of economic progress at all costs, are brutally trampled upon. As Robert Reich said in Supercapitalism, the defence of citizens’ rights has been replaced by the defence of consumers’ rights. Now the goal is to create more and more benefits for consumers to the detriment of the traditional rights to employment, work safety, superannuation. Consider how economic development as the foundation of human activity is cited even in Ratzinger’s latest encyclical, in which he claims that globalisation is the key to an economic progress that spreads amongst all nations. Which isn’t true. Nor is it true – as people say – that ideologies have disappeared. It’s just that a new one has arisen, and it has killed all the others.

This wild pursuit of growth continues whilst the ecological crisis (which is due in turn to a productivism that is unsustainable both in terms of quantity and of quality) is reaching levels that may not be reversed, as the entire scientific community is saying. How is it possible for prominent personalities – powerful managers, great industrialists, world-renowned economists – to overlook all this?

The problem is precisely that the priority hasn’t ceased to be growth and economic development, to which everything else is sacrificed. But, you see, what is sacrificed are not only the issues to which you alluded, but also problems like world hunger. Which since 2007 has got steadily worse: now there’s talk of one billion undernourished people worldwide; and no-one deals with it. Truthfully, the ideology of economic development erases each and every problem that concerns quality of life and human rights, as well as creating senseless wars… The result is a society whose only goal is the duty to grow economically: what’s more, on the basis of parameters that are completely absurd, such as GDP, which has nothing to do with quality of life.

But, even if we conceded that these people are completely disinterested in the social, what do they think that cars, computers, mobile phones, skyscrapers and weapons are made of… Can’t they see that they are ‘made’ of nature, and that if nature dies, the same thing will happen to their production?

No, they can’t see it. And I’ll tell you why. Because it’s a problem that concerns the future, whereas the present is all about growth and immediate profit…

Yet this too is imperilled by the most recent events. The consequences of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico are just as much economic as ecological.

Without a doubt. I agree on this point too. When a catastrophe comes, they notice. But then what do they do? They insist on the same patterns that caused the catastrophe: they have nothing else on their minds. Apocalyptic literature describes all this. Some books of this genre have perturbed me. For instance, Achever Clausewitz (‘Finishing Clausewitz’) by René Girard, who says this: ‘the warming of the planet and the rise in violence are absolutely linked.’ The confusion between the natural and the artificial is perhaps the strongest message of these apocalyptic texts. Martin Rees, the great Cambridge astronomer, author of Our Final Century, doubts that the human race will survive the current century, precisely because it is destroying the planet. And Posner says similar things in his book Catastrophe: with a world population that, according to estimates, will amount to over 9 billion people in 2050, the risk of famines will be appalling. Earth cannot give more than what it has.

These things are well known. There are also economists that criticise capitalism to some degree, for instance with respect to the great social inequalities, the gap between the salary of executives and the salary of workers… But nobody thinks to question the system, with a view of changing it…

Because ideology forbids it. It’s a matter of faith. These are Talebans, you cannot change their minds…

But the problem with this way of conceiving capitalism as an immutable fact of nature is that it seems to be shared also by the Left.

Of course, because it opted for reformisms, and that’s the ideology that prevailed. It is an ideology that spreading even within the religions: this is why I mentioned the latest encyclical by the Pope.

Because they also think that growth will bring well-being to everyone. But this has proven not to be the case. If 1 per cent of the population owns 50 per cent of what is produced…

Yes. But you forgot something. Namely, that 51 per cent, or by now even more, of the global wealth is held by the corporations, and the economy is no longer governed by states: states no longer count for anything. So, who’s in charge? Big business. It controls the majority of the planet’s wealth: it must survive and be in command. So, then… Look at what happens to the outsourcing of industries that, in order to survive, do all sorts of things, trample entire economies and all rights, without a care in the world… The retreat of politics is due precisely to this: that economics has achieved total dominance.

At this point shouldn’t the Left – which in spite of everything continues to laboriously exist – face this reality, reflect upon it? Perhaps remembering past mistakes; such as the fact that, for fear that technology would lead to unemployment, they gifted progress to capitalism: while the threat of a growth without work could have been used to fundamentally reconsider the relationship between production and life… But they left everything in the hands of capital.

After all it was capital that invented progress, and it won’t let go of it.

Well, actually it was invented by science…

Which is governed by the same ideology…

Also because they need the grants. But behind great technological transformation lies the idea of a scientist…

We shouldn’t forget in any case that there are intellectuals who are discussing these issues. Amartya Sen for instance says that democracy cannot be reduced to voting… that we need a democracy made of broad discussion. He says in fact that discussion would help us avoid natural catastrophes.

Natural catastrophes – as you said with great clarity – cannot be avoided as long as the gross product continues to grow. This is why I’m surprised that not even the few people who are aware of the gravity of the ecological situation find the courage to say: we must stop growing. That is to say, we must abandon capitalism.

We must abandon capitalism. But to replace it with what? Nobody has any idea. That’s the issue.

Yet today it may not be impossible to find one. Globalisation is a fact that nobody denies anymore. And of course there is an economic globalisation, as well as a cultural globalisation created by the mass media. But there is no political globalisation.

And there is no juridical globalisation, either. This is the great difference with the globalisation of the Middle Ages, that was regulated by the famous Lex mercatoria, which was a system of rules developed by merchants, and not by a single state: and through those rules, commerce worked. Now the great corporations deal amongst themselves. There is no juridical system that regulates their behaviour: with regard to world hunger, exploitation of the lower classes, child labour, safety at work – which according to [then Italian Finance Minister] Giulio Tremonti is a luxury. And, naturally, not even with regard to the planet.

Is this not also due to the fact that the Left used to be opposed to all this, and no longer is? Or rather, they are opposed only in some instances, which at any rate cannot be solved without changing the overall context. As we said earlier, globalisation is a reality governed by big business. But nobody tries to regulate it, nor to understand it. Including the Left.

There’s a reason for that. The Left kept reflecting for as long as there was Communism, which was an ideology opposed to capitalism which in some ways offered alternative solutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. Politics has disappeared, economics has taken over and is asserting itself as politics. The Left has abandoned Marxism.

So, an organised Left with some clout doesn’t exist. But there is a multitude of movements, of small and large grassroots groups, that, in spite of operating independently of one another, nonetheless denounce the worst iniquities and injustices that surround us, which can be all traced back to the logic of capital. Pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, which focus on single aspects of each problem (water, nuclear power, the war in Afghanistan, rape, youth precarity, etc.): don’t you think that taken together they might constitute the base for a large-scale revival of an effective opposition? But the Left is not even trying…

It’s not trying because it lacks a unifying ideology. Marxism was born when capitalism ceased to be mercantile and became industrial, and Karl Marx developed a wholly new ideology. In the last few years, similarly, there has been a new revolution, the financial revolution. To oppose it, we need a new ideology. The Brazilian law scholar Roberto Mangabeira Unger, in an excellent book entitled High-Energy Democracy, says that instead of guaranteeing the false contractual freedom that underpins the financial revolution, we need a world authority capable of imposing new rules and creating the base for a different sort of structure, with a global reach.

Don’t you think, then, that the Left should think of something like this, perhaps promoting a meeting between the few intellectuals who considered this issue? I’ve thought for a long time of a Bretton Woods for the twenty-first century…

But it’s no longer enough. Do you want my opinion? At the cost of being accused of Leninism? We need a revolution. The Russian Revolution is what changed the ideology of industrial capitalism. If we don’t do a proper revolution, what are going to do?

If you talk about revolution, everyone will think about cannons… according to the historical model…

Which is no longer possible, obviously…

Exactly. This is why I mentioned Bretton Woods, in the sense that we need a worldwide initiative, with the authority of dealing with these problems, which are well-known but nobody faces up to.

Yes, it needs to come from the United Nations, I’ve written about this many times…

Because the UN after all has made some serious attempts. Concerning the environment, towards the end of the last century it promoted a couple of big conferences, much more effective than the ones that came after… And many times, in its reports on human development, it took positions against consumerism, against the GDP as measure of well-being, against war as a solution to our problems… Ban Ki-moon has even expressed a wish for a reduction of GDP…

Well, yes. After the Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948, something happened, as it did after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Only something like that could change the situation: a global revolution, organised by the United Nations, capable of defining the real rights, the principles for a different life to that which is mandated by the economic powers, therefore a life oriented by politics rather than economics. They’ll accuse me of being a utopian. But I believe that utopia is preferable to the apocalypse, which is the alternative that awaits us.



Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Newsstands were the Wi-Fi of my generation


When I was 6 or 7 years old, a newsstand opened right outside my apartment building. I can’t tell you how happy this made me. The previous closest newsstand was two blocks away. Not very far. But a newsstand right outside my door was something else. I would be able to check for new issues all of my favourite comics at a moment’s notice, and greatly increase the impulse purchase of sticker packets for my Panini albums.

The newsstand almost always came in the form of a small kiosk, with displays of magazines on three sides and a shop front on the fourth featuring all of the high-volume items, as well as the operator, who may or may not also be the owner.


The newsstand was a crucial piece of our cultural infrastructure. Italian city libraries seldom catered for children at the time, so the bulk of our reading material had to be purchased, and most of it came from newsstands. Activity books and very simple comic books, at first, then more complex comics and our first chapter books. This is the material on which I learned to read. Then newspapers, of course, and magazines. But also novels – romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction – which were sold as periodicals. For instance: the reason why thrillers and detective mysteries in Italy are known as gialli (‘yellow books’ or films for that matter) is that for decades their main publishing channel was a fortnightly series of books with yellow covers issued by Mondadori.

No single publication was more central to my early to mid-childhood than Topolino. It was Italian artists who revived the comic book story centred around Disney characters after the war, and the country is a major supplier of Disney stories to this day. The weekly magazine had a bit of everything: stories, yes, but also trivia, puzzles, and various kinds of informative columns of the kind one might find in a magazine for grown-ups.


The comic book offering in our new-stands was hardly confined to young readers (Tex, Diabolik and – later – Martin Mystère are notable examples), but equally the newsstand was the place for young adults and above to keep up with the latest offerings in genre fiction. I read every giallo from the age of 10 or thereabouts, but my favourite was Urania, the science-fiction series also published by Mondadori. It introduced me to writers who rate among my favourites to this day. For instance: I was about to go on holidays, in the summer of 1980, when I first encountered Douglas Adams.


Ah, yes, the holidays. The thing about the holidays was, it might be hard to find a newsstand. At the campsites where we typically stayed, the shop might stock the odd newspaper, but rarely more than that. So one of the first orders of business was to locate the newsstand in the nearest town or village – which, outside of the main cities, might be an actual shop, which often also sold stationery. You might find one near the main church. Alternatively, there would always be one by the train station, if the town happened to have one. You would instinctively know where to look, anyway.

This act of finding was crucial because newsstands were the Wi-Fi of my generation. They didn’t just connect us with the news – a transistor radio could do that. Much more importantly, like the web, they were hyper-saturated with all kinds of information packaged as entertainment. Without newsstands, we would have to spend a lot more time talking to one another. (It was hell. You weren’t there, man.)

While I’m drawing a comparison with the world wide web, I really need to mention the porn. There was so much porn. The habits of the operators varied, but I would estimate that at least half of all kiosk-shaped newsstands had one of their ‘blind’ sides devoted to displaying hardcore pornography. It was conveniently placed at child-height, and because it was a blind side no-one would see you standing there, and the covers were often little self-contained pornos. It’s quite amazing, in hindsight, the stuff we were carelessly exposed to.

Looking through the photographic archive of my trips back home, I see that the newsstand outside my apartment building was put on sale some time in 2010.


It seems that nobody was willing to purchase it, because now it’s gone.


Growing up, I always thought the children of newsstand owners or operators were the luckiest on earth, having free access to all of that printed bounty. Evidently, I thought they could just help themselves to the entire stock for free, including the sticker packets for the Panini albums. But how marvellous it would be to operate such a marvellous store! It was only later that I realised how hard the job actually was – having to get up before dawn to collect the newspaper deliveries, being trapped in that kiosk all day without a bathroom and with few breaks, in all kinds of weather.

The newsstand as an institution still exists in Italy, but many things have changed. Most obviously, we have actual wi-fi now, which has dispensed with the need for a great deal of low-value publications. Topolino still exists. So does La settimana enigmistica. So do I gialli Mondadori and Urania, although they are published half as often now. Supermarkets are cutting in on the business of the operators, and profit margins must be lower anyway, which explains why newsstands such as our local are closing. As always, I say this without nostalgia: but merely to remember that such a thing existed, and was an intimate part of the fabric of our everyday lives. So much so that you might forget it was there.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

We aren't astronauts (a holiday album)


The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft. It seats over 500 people on two decks, and can travel on routes of over 15,000 kilometres without refuelling. Last month, this monster of the skies took my youngest son and I on a near-18 hour flight towards Europe.

The view of Mount Taranaki as we travelled from Wellington to Auckland

I had been on one of those extra-long hauls once before, but had somehow forgotten how punishing they can be. It was worse for Ambrose, as the dozens of personal television screens around him played on his ASD, proving a significant source of anxiety. We arrived in Dubai sleep-deprived and already teetering, our three-week holiday threatening to fall over at the very first hurdle. We are not designed for this, I told myself as we took our second dose of clock-resetting melatonin. We aren’t astronauts.

I would rather not, Air New Zealand

The second flight, a mere 8 hours long, took us the rest of the way to London. In the space of one day, somehow, we recovered. Ambrose had just received his first phone for his tenth birthday, a cheap model with a nonetheless remarkably good camera - better than the trusted compact digital I used to take on my earlier trips, a short decade ago. Unfortunately, it took us some days to realise the lens was covered by a piece of protective blue film, so his very first pictures look like heavily filtered postcards from another era.


He  was especially fascinated with the tall buildings. The gherkin, the shard, the walkie-talkie (his favourite). He couldn’t get enough of them and snapped them from every angle, whenever they peered in-between other buildings.




In stark contrast with my last visit, London was grey, cold and wet. I got sick immediately. Nevertheless, we saw friends, caught up with my sister, visited the Tate Modern and the British Museum. We enjoyed an array of excellent soups. We stopped by at Highgate to pay our respects to a great man.

...grandpa?

While London was a sure-fire hit, I didn’t know what the boy would make of Italy, a place of antiquities that – I feared – would have no meaning for him. His older brother, at the same age, was easy to persuade of the historical and aesthetic merits of monuments. I knew with Ambrose it would be different, in ways both delightful and unpredictable.

As it turns out, I need not have feared. By far the most treasured moments of our journey have to do with the time we spent with family and friends, and aren’t pictured here. But the places themselves, which he was seeing for the first time (including the inside of churches, along with the very troubling images of Christ on the cross), made their impression, although I was not always able to communicate to him the conventional sense in which they could be said to be special, unique.

What follows is a gallery of those impressions, through his eyes and mine.

We both thought this London street sign was a kiwi seen from behind.


London frieze.


Piazza del Duomo, Milan.


Responding to street art, Milan.


In my home town we stayed in an old typical casa di ringhiera ('guard rail house').


'Look, behind you!' (At the museum of Natural History in Milan. Here Ambrose was re-enacting a photo taken years ago by his older brother.)


A diorama at the Museum of Natural History.


Posing fiercely in front of the fierce Saint Ambrose, patron saint of Milan.


The two of us outside the church where my parents got married, in Pieve di Coriano.


Ambrose spent an afternoon with his cousin's Year 3 class in Quistello, and left with this rather wonderful card.


The astonishing flooded crypt of the church of San Francesco in Ravenna.


Urbino.


This cat.


This horse at the church of San Giovanni in Urbino.


Ambrose did his best to play with every dog on the Italian peninsula (this is Pongo).


Outside Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, Ambrose saw his first swallows. Here he is, trying to photograph them and demonstrating how there are things that are more important than the Italian Renaissance.


Small boy meets tall tower, Florence.


Cicli Pieraccioni, Florence.


Ponte Vecchio.


Neptune under wraps. 


Street art, Florence.


Pisa is 30 people posing for pictures like these at any one time.


Eating pizza in Piazza dei Miracoli.


The wonderful worn-out marble steps of the tower of Pisa.


A boat off the Ligurian coast.


Camogli put on a show for us.



The next day was the first warm day of the year, and we had the place practically to ourselves.


What do you even say about San Fruttuoso?




Liguria was magical and we didn't want to leave. I love this photo of the sea that Ambrose took, and I might as well end there.