Per Favore, Put the Euro to a Vote

My piece on why a referendum on the euro could be good for Italy has just been published by Time.

Of all the proposals put forward by the wild-haired comedian turned populist politician Beppe Grillo during the run-up to Italy’s elections in February, one stood out as the most controversial: his insistence that Italy hold a referendum on whether the country should give up the euro as its currency. After all, Rome had just spent the previous 15 months doing everything possible to hold on to the euro — tasking a technocratic government with implementing unpopular tax hikes and reforms, amid fears that an unruly exit by the euro zone’s third largest economy would bring down the entire currency union.

Grillo’s proposition was easily dismissed by the country’s political and media establishment, providing ammunition for opponents eager to paint him as dangerously misinformed. But Grillo was, in fact, tapping into something real. More than half of Italy’s voters chose candidates who explicitly rejected austerity measures widely seen to be imposed by German and other European bureaucrats and bankers.

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For First Time, the Vatican Enters Prestigious Venice Biennale

My piece on the Vatican’s pavilion in the Venice Biennale has just been published by Time.

The first thing visitors will see when they enter the Vatican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale—an art show dedicated to the modern and cutting edge—will be a nod to the past: a three-paneled triptych on which the 20th-century Italian artist Tano Festa reproduced details from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The paintings, in tones of tan and ocher, serve two functions. They remind viewers of the Vatican’s past importance as a sponsor of art, and they serve as a frame for the rest of the show inside.

The theme for the pavilion, the Holy See’s first at the Biennale, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 24, is the same subject Michelangelo depicted in his famous ceiling: the opening chapters of Genesis. Spanning the history of biblical creation, from “Darkness on upon the face of the deep” through the collapse of the Tower of Babel, the events include the forming of the earth and the animals, the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Noah’s flood.

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All the Old, Familiar Faces

My essay on Italy’s failed politics has just been published by Time.

For anyone who’s spent even a modest amount of time observing Italian politics, it was difficult to watch the aftermath of the country’s elections in February and not think of the classic Italian novel The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Set in 19th century Sicily, at a time of crisis, the book’s most famous sentence is an explanation delivered by a member of the island’s threatened nobility as to why he is joining the rebels: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

After more than a year of technocratic rule and an election in which voters expressed an impassioned desire for renewal, Italy is back in the hands of the politicians who have repeatedly failed to solve its problems. At 46, the country’s new Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, may be young by the standards of Italy’s ruling class, but he’s also a representative of Italy’s political elite, a high-ranking member of the center-left Democratic Party who accepted his first ministerial post in 1998. Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-plagued former Prime Minister, is back at the heart of power with his party’s secretary, Angelino Alfano, confirmed as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Letta will be dependent on the center-right Berlusconi’s support as he begins the task of trying to change a country dangerously stuck in its ways.

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In New Job, Italy’s First Black Minister Confronts Culture of Casual Racism

My piece on Italy’s first black minister has just been published by Time.

Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, proposes a law that would give citizenship to the children of immigrants if they are born on Italian soil. Under the current legislation, Italian nationality is passed on most commonly by blood, meaning the grandchildren of an Italian who has never set foot in the country has more rights to citizenship than someone who was born in Rome to foreign parents.

But even if Kyenge, 48, is unable to push a single piece of legislation through Parliament, she will already have secured an important legacy. Her April 27 appointment as Minister for Integration in Italy’s newly formed government has kicked off a much-needed discussion on race and immigration in a country that still struggles to come to terms with its rapid transformation.

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Italy’s Compromise Government Faces Uncertain Future, Plays Into Berlusconi’s Hands

My piece on Italy’s new government has just been published by Time.

It’s a solution that came after all other avenues were exhausted. On April 29, more than two months after the Italian elections, the country’s Parliament is expected to give life to a coalition government. Led by Enrico Letta, a high-ranking member of the center-left Democratic Party, Italy’s new administration will be dependent on support from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a man many in Letta’s party regard as the enemy.

Indeed, the deal comes only after efforts to find another solution exposed deep rifts in the Democratic Party. After an election in which no party was able to secure a clear victory, Pier Luigi Bersani, the party’s leader during the elections, fervently opposed any compromise with the sex-scandal-plagued media mogul, only to resign his position last week after repeatedly trying and failing to get his parliamentarians to vote for his candidates for the Italian presidency. “On any issue of relevance, the party is split,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “Letta might get more support from Berlusconi than his own party. That’s the paradox.”

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Francis’ New Papal Style: A Comparison with Benedict

My comparison of the new pope with the old has just been published by Time.

Pope Francis began his address during the March 19 ceremony marking his installation to the papacy as he has nearly every other public speech since his election just under a week ago: with a passing reference to his predecessor Benedict XVI. “We are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude,” said Francis. But even if hadn’t, the comparisons would be inevitable. At 76, Francis walks with a limp and needs help navigating the stairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica. But his presence at the pulpit projects far more strength than what the 85-year-old theologian who came before him was able to muster.

In February, Benedict became the first Pontiff in 600 years to resign from the papacy, ending a pontificate under which the Vatican was rocked by scandal and internal divisions. Francis, by contrast, in his every public word and repeated gestures of humility seems to offer the promise of renewal of the Church’s badly damaged image. “One of the great hopes that everyone has is that this will be the Pope who will get people to like the church again,” says Alexander Lucie-Smith, a parish priest in the U.K. and a writer for the Catholic Herald. “If he can change the mood music, that will be an incredibly important achievement.”

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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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