The Joker’s Wild

My profile of Beppe Grillo has just been published by Time.

The comedian Beppe Grillo, the leader of the party that won the most votes in Italy’s February election, sits in his beachfront villa in Tuscany as Italian journalists crowd outside, desperate for a sound bite. “They film me while I eat, while I fart,” says Grillo, with characteristic vulgarity. “They point their cameras at me 24 hours a day. If I need to pick my nose, I first need to go hide.”

Nobody, least of all Grillo, expected his Five Star Movement to do so well. Campaigning on a radical platform, the 64-year-old satirist led what he dubbed a Tsunami Tour, visiting 76 towns in 45 days to urge Italians to vote for a slate of candidates who had never before held office. He triggered, if not a tsunami, then a sizable wave. Almost 26% of the vote flowed to M5S, as the party is widely known on social media, giving

its wild-haired, foulmouthed founder significant influence over the fate of the euro zone’s third largest economy. “This thing here, it’s like a virus,” Grillo says of his movement.

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New Pope Shows Eye for Symbolism

My piece on Pope Francis’s media savvy has just been published by Time.

As a Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t always have the smoothest relations with the press. Said to be shy, he gave few interviews, preferring to address his congregation directly. Journalists in his native Argentina accused him of silent complicity during the country’s so-called Dirty War — charges he denounces as “slander.” In an interview with La Stampa’s Vatican Insider shortly before his election to the papacy, Bergoglio bemoaned the media’s focus on negativity and scandal. “Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia,” he said then. Yet when he addressed a group of several thousand journalists and their families on Saturday as Pope Francis, he opened with the words, “My dear friends.”

Seated on a chair on stage in an audience hall next to St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope was greeted by the assembled journalists with applause and a few cries of “Viva.” Whether performing mass or giving an address, Francis’ speaking style is more like that of an actor than a preacher: his tone is intimate, with touches of humor and folksiness, but he never loses command of his audience. In his delivery, if there’s a politician he resembles, it’s Ronald Reagan. During one passage in his address thanking the media for their “service” covering the conclave, Francis broke from the text, looked up and said with a smile: “You’ve worked, eh? You’ve really worked.”

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Re-Branding

My piece on Fendi’s efforts to save the Trevi fountain has just been published by Time.

When Rome’s 18th century artists put the final touches on the city’s famous Trevi Fountain, they capped the Baroque monument with a dedication from the Renaissance-era Popes who commissioned it. The fountain, immortalized in the film La Dolce Vita, is about to undergo a $2.9 million renovation, but this time, the sponsor isn’t a Pope, an Emperor or even the Italian government. It’s the luxury-fashion firm Fendi. “This is a gesture to give back to the city that did so much for us,” says Fendi CEO Pietro Beccari.

As Italy stumbles through political and financial crises, it is struggling to preserve its historical treasures. Since 2010, funding for archaeological maintenance has been slashed by 20%. Increasingly, help is pouring in from the nation’s high-fashion firms, including Fendi, Tod’s, Gucci and Prada. (See sidebar.) All these firms built their fortunes with the aid of Italy’s reputation for beauty, elegance and craftsmanship. The upkeep of that reputation–which means the upkeep of the nation’s priceless works of art and architecture–just seems like good brand management. “These companies see themselves as linked to the country’s heritage,” says Darius Arya of the American Institute for Roman Culture.

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Italy’s Beppe Grillo: Meet the Rogue Comedian Turned Kingmaker

My interview with Italy’s Beppe Grillo has just been published by Time.

Before sitting down to an interview with TIME, Beppe Grillo, the comedian who has upended Italian politics, stops to give his wife a goodbye kiss. “Ciao,” she tells him. “For goodness sake. Don’t create too much chaos.” When Italy’s elections resulted in a hung Parliament, with no party pulling in enough support to form a government, Grillo came out as the biggest winner. His Five Star Movement fielded a group of political novices on a platform of political renovation and took 8.7 million votes, more than any other party. But while his opponents have scrambled to try to build governing coalitions, Grillo, who didn’t stand for office himself, has refused to bargain with the old guard he considers the root of Italy’s problems. From his house on the Tuscan seashore, Grillo rails against his country’s political parties, marvels about the Internet and jokes about the papacy.

To what do you credit your success?
It’s the Internet. The Internet creates transparency, creates a change of mentality, brings people together. The Pope resigned, partly because of his health, but also because he started tweeting … The sheep wanted to talk with the shepherd. Centuries of tradition crumbled there. He understood it was no longer possible to continue.

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Impossible Italy

My profile of Pier Luigi Bersani has just been published by Time.

It speaks volumes about the flakiness of Italian politics that the candidate most likely to emerge as Prime Minister from Italy’s elections on Feb. 24 and 25 identifies as his greatest adversary a man who claims not even to be competing for the top job. Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, the leader of the left-of-center Democratic Party, is campaigning as the anti-Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and three-time Premier whose last stint in power ended in November 2011 amid an underage-sex scandal and market turmoil. Berlusconi has told allies that he will not seek to become Prime Minister if his People of Freedom party unexpectedly triumphs later this month. Though technically not the man to beat, the flamboyant 76-year-old remains a potent force in Italian life, a manifestation of a political system that rewards blatant populism and unabashed showmanship.

The balding Bersani, burdened with the downbeat demeanor of a suburban bank manager declining a loan, lacks the tools to fight on those terms. But he’s trying to recast his limitations as an advantage. And so, peppering his speeches with words such as seriousness and sobriety, he makes an unusual pitch to lead. “My objective isn’t to please,” he tells TIME. “My objective is to be believed. Italians have had an overdose of spectacle.”

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Italy’s Elections: Split Vote Yields No Clear Winner and an ‘Unholy Mess’

My piece on the Italian election results has just been published by Time.

The single most important thing to know about Silvio Berlusconi‘s Oct. 26 conviction on charges of tax fraud is that it’s not the first time the former Italian prime minister has been sentenced to jail. In his two decades of battling the judicial system, the billionaire media mogul has previously been found guilty three times, on charges ranging from perjury to illegal financing of a political party to the bribing a member of the tax police. Each time, he’s managed to get the charges overturned or dropped. There’s little reason to suspect that this time will be any different. “When Americans see a newsflash that Berlusconi has been convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they picture a paddy wagon around the corner ready to take him away in a prison suit,” says Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome, a biography of the former prime minister. “But if you know any thing about the Italian justice system, you know that’s very unlikely that he’ll go to jail anytime soon, or probably ever.”

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How Berlusconi May Upend the Italian Elections

My piece on Berlusconi’s rapid rise in the polls has just been published by Time.

It was supposed to be an easy victory for the Italian center-left candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani. After all, his opponents include Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister facing trial for underage prostitution; Mario Monti, the technocratic Premier many Italians blame for a year of harsh austerity; and — vacuuming up the protest vote — Beppe Grillo, a bombastic comedian who refuses to campaign on television.

Instead, as Italians head to the polls on Feb. 24 and 25, the result is anything but certain. Bersani has spent much of the past two months watching Berlusconi close the gap between them. Since the beginning of the election season, the former Prime Minister has been ever present on Italian television, both on the channels he owns and those of his competitors. In January, he appeared on a program hosted by two of his most ferocious critics, making a show of walking into the lion’s den, and, in front of a record audience, wiping the floor with them (almost literally; at one point, he used a handkerchief to dust off a chair where one of his opponents had been sitting).

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‘Operation Ohio’ Hits Italy’s Election Campaign

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on how Italian politicians are trying out American campaign tactics.

On a bright winter morning in Monza, a town near Milan in Italy’s Lombardy region, a few dozen young political activists walk through neighborhoods rustling up votes for their candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the center-left Democratic Party. Many of the volunteers have traveled from distant cities. “The idea was to come where it’s really needed,” says Elly Schlein, who took a bus from Bologna, some 140 miles away. “Everybody is realizing that Lombardy is where the game will be played.”

Busing in outsiders to knock on doors is an age-old election-year practice in the U.S. Not so in Italy, where campaigns are usually top-down and focus on national rather than local concerns. But this is an unusual election year. No candidate for prime minister has sewn up enough support to be confident of forming a government after ballots are cast on Feb. 24-25; the contest will likely be decided by voters in a handful of closely contested areas, including Lombardy and Sicily, which have emerged as the Italian equivalent of U.S. swing states. To win their support, political pros in Italy are experimenting with American campaign tactics.

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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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