Italy’s Luxury Companies Step Up to Restore Monuments

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on how luxury firms are contributing to historic preservation.

It would be hard to imagine a bigger confluence of luxe brands assembling to help preserve Italy’s cultural treasures. First there was the fashion house Fendi, personified for the occasion by its creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, dressed in a high-collared shirt, dark glasses, and fingerless lace gloves. Then there was the city of Rome, represented not so much by its mayor—though he too was in attendance at the Jan. 28 ceremony—as by one of its most famous symbols: the 17th century Trevi Fountain, featuring horn-blowing mermen, heaving hippocampi, and the water god Oceanus astride a seashell chariot.

In an era of European austerity, the Italian government has declared itself all but unable to take care of even its most iconic monuments. When a chunk of the fountain’s ornate sculpting fell off last summer, Rome appealed for help. Last week, Fendi answered that call. “The Fountain of Trevi is the symbol of Rome,” says Lagerfeld. Over the next two years, Fendi will spend $2.9 million to completely overhaul the fountain, cleaning the statues and fixing cracks in the marble. “With this crisis, I think the city of Rome has other priorities to spend its money,” notes Lagerfeld.

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In Italy’s Disarray, Berlusconi Emerges Anew as a Power Broker

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the Italian elections.

In any other country, Silvio Berlusconi would have been a mortally wounded candidate. He is appealing a conviction for tax fraud, facing trial on charges of prostitution with a minor, and the last time he was in office in 2011, he stepped down amid fear that his clumsy handling of the economy would cause the country to collapse.

But in Italy, it turns out, none of those factors are fatal. After a two-month campaign in which the 76-year-old media mogul sometimes appeared with his 27-year-old fiancee, Berlusconi raked in enough votes to nearly put him in charge of the country once again. For more than 10 hours of vote counting Monday, the former prime minister was neck-and-neck with his closest rival. The balloting ultimately left him with 29.2 percent of the vote in the lower house of parliament—just 0.4 percent behind the center-left candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani—and with enough support in the Senate to deny his opponent the majority he would need to easily form a government.

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Entombing the Tomb of the Gladiator: Who Will Save the Roman Ruins?

My piece on Rome’s “Tomb of the Gladiator” has just been published by Time.

When archaeologists announced the discovery of the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus in Rome in 2008, the find was heralded as the most important in decades. Built in the shape of a temple, with tall fluted columns and an intricately carved sarcophagus, it was the final resting place for the Roman general who served as inspiration for Russell Crowe‘s character in the movie Gladiator, unearthed a the site of a planned housing project some 1,800 years after its construction.

In contrast, the December 2012 announcement regarding the tomb was much more muted. Italy’s cash-strapped ministry of culture declared it was unable to find the several million euros that would be required to protect the ruins and turn them into a tourist attraction. Instead, the Gladiator’s Tomb, as the site has come to be known, would likely have to be buried once again.

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Is it Possible to Spot Earthquakes Before They Strike?

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the science of predicting earthquakes.

Warner Marzocchi remembers waking up well before dawn on Apr. 6, 2009, because the bed underneath him was trembling. Certain it was his wife having a nightmare, Marzocchi, a researcher at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, reached out an arm and fell back asleep. It wasn’t until morning, when he saw the messages on his cell phone, that he learned the real cause of the shaking: An earthquake had struck the city of L’Aquila, some 60 miles from his home in Rome.

The powerful tremblor killed more than 300 people and left thousands homeless. Last October seven natural disaster experts were convicted on manslaughter charges for having failed to adequately warn the city’s residents that a quake was imminent, setting off an international controversy. Marzocchi, like other scientists around the world, has criticized the decision; jailing scientists for giving advice will deter others from using their expertise in the service of public safety, he says. Marzocchi also believes that, when it comes to warning the public about the risk of an earthquake like the one at L’Aquila, there’s much that can be improved.

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Italy, Fast & Slow: Behind the Unlikely Rise of Eataly

My piece on the Eataly supermarket chain has just been published by Time.

Three days a week, a retired agricultural officer named Teodoro Vadalà sets to work in the back of what was once a small roadside shop about an hour and a half south of Rome, making a cheese that has twice come close to extinction. Using a stirring stick and a large aluminum vat, he curdles sheep’s milk into small wheels of cheese, which he shapes by hand and sets on a table to dry. Il Conciato di San Vittore, as the cheese is called, represents the deepest roots of Italian culinary production — small scale, artisanal, steeped in history. Yet the chances for its survival would be slim if not for a recent partnership with an Italian business operating on a vastly different scale: the newly opened Eataly supermarket in central Rome.

With four floors of aisles and restaurants connected by moving walkways and glass elevators, the location is the gourmet chain’s newest and biggest, a flagship in the Italian capital to complement its branches in New York City, Tokyo, Torino and Milan. Mario Batali, a partner in the booming New York outpost, has turned Eataly into a hit by selling Americans on the appeal of traditional Italian culture. Eataly, in fact, is much more than that. With its big-box decor, globe-spanning ambitions and innovative marketing, it represents an opportunity for Italians to reclaim a culinary heritage that’s slipping away. On the broad spectrum of food culture, Eataly and Il Conciato di San Vittore are a world apart, yet each would be lost without the other.

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