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.”

Read the rest.

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.”

Read the rest.

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).

Read the rest.

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.

Read the rest.

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.

Read the rest.

The Pope Tweets with You: Benedict XVI Joins the Twitterverse

My piece on the Pope’s first Tweet has just been published by Time.

At first glance, the Pope taking to Twitter has the taste of anachronism: an 85-year-old pontiff, who still writes in longhand, tapping out messages 140 characters at a time. But when Benedict XVI sent out his first tweet on Wednesday, soon after his weekly audience in St. Peters’ Square, Vatican officials believe he will be following a long tradition of Christian communication. “This is not a new approach,” says Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “What’s new is the technique.” As for the long awaited tweet, it read: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”

On Wednesday, those first tweets will be answers to questions solicited from Twitter users under the hashtag #askpontifex. Cardinal Ravasi’s office is one of several charged with looking at submissions from #askpontifex. As a result, some of his staff have been screening tweets that range from the sincere to the buffoonish, from the political to the vulgar. (Some, referring the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal, are both.) While some have worried that wading into the wild — often dirty — world of the Internet will demean the office of the Pope, Ravasi and his team see it as part of the pontiff’s pastoral mission to engage with all segments of society. “I see the Internet as a playground, and I see the church as playing the role of a responsible adult,” says Richard Rouse, the Cardinal’s spokesperson.

Read the rest.

A Time for Mischief: Will Monti’s Departure Mean Berlusconi’s Return?

My piece on Mario Monti’s resignation has just been published by Time.

The reaction to the news from Italy — that Prime Minister Mario Monti will soon step down to make way for early elections featuring the possible return of Silvio Berlusconi — has been nearly unanimously negative and, in some quarters, uncharacteristically vocal. “Worried about the resignation of Italian PM Mario Monti,” wrote Finland’s Minster for European Affairs, Alexander Stubb, in a tweet on Sunday morning. “I think he is one of the best European leaders we have.”

Martin Schulz, a German politician whom Berlusconi once likened to a concentration-camp guard, was more direct. “Europe needs stability,” he said, in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA. “And Mr. Berlusconi is the opposite of stability.” Even Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, expressed his worries. “We can’t allow a year of sacrifices to be ruined,” he said, referring to painful austerity measures Monti has introduced in order regain the confidence of the markets. “What’s stunning is the irresponsibility of those who think of their own interests while the house is still burning.” By Monday evening, the markets had weighed in as well, with the Milan Stock Exchange down 2.2% at the close of trading.

Read the rest.

Why Always Mario?

The cover of TIME’s international edition this week is the profile I did with Catherine Mayer on the Italian football player Mario Balotelli.

This game won’t turn out well for Mario Balotelli, but Manchester City’s star striker is always watchable. A Mohawk adds a bristling inch to his strapping frame, and even by the balletic, fast-paced standards of top-tier football, he moves with a mesmeric grace, twisting past defenders without losing speed. Sometimes he attracts attention for the wrong reasons too. Eighteen and a half minutes into the Oct. 20 match with West Bromwich Albion, his tackle on an opponent is deemed a foul, and the referee brandishes a yellow card. A further infringement risks earning a red card, banishing Balotelli and leaving City a man short. He knows he ought to accept the decision as surely as everyone watching knows he will not. And soon enough he is arguing with the referee, returning at the halftime whistle to remonstrate with him again until a teammate roughly pushes the player away.

Whether on the pitch or in private, Balotelli seems to generate energy rather than burn it. Dramas flare around him; passions ignite. When he isn’t playing, he fidgets. But if called to take a penalty, at the very peak of pressure, he turns icily calm. Since signing with the English Premier League club in 2010, “Super Mario” hasn’t missed a spot kick at the goal. (Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s most prolific scorer and winner of this year’s European Golden Boot award for racking up the most goals in the season, had a success rate from penalties of 82%.) “It’s just like a game of mind, me and the goalkeeper,” says Balotelli of his perfect penalty record. “Me, I know how to control my mind.” The secret lies in his distinctive stuttering run-up to the ball, so different from his usual fluidity. He waits for the goalkeeper to guess at the likely trajectory of his shot and in that fraction of a second aims into the opposite corner of the net. “When the goalkeeper moves before me, it means that in this game of mind he lost,” he says.

Read the rest.

An Italian Job: Why Silvio Berlusconi Won’t Be Going to Jail Anytime Soon

My piece on Berlusconi’s latest conviction 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.”

Read the rest.

The Vatican Sentences the Pope’s Butler: Is a Pardon on the Way?

Time has just published my story on the verdict on the trial of the Pope’s butler.

Paolo Gabriele, the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI who was convicted Saturday of leaking the pontiff’s personal papers, has been sentenced to year and half in prison–but he’s unlikely to serve any time. Minutes after prosecutors declared Gabriele guilty of aggravated theft, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, told journalists assembled for the trial that a pardon by the Pope was a “likely hypothesis.” He added, “I can say this without fear of being contradicted.”

It was a trial in which the pontiff was at the same time the victim, the person in whose name the crime had been committed, the authority under which the proceedings were being held—the judgment was delivered “in the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning” — and the ultimate arbiter of whether the sentence will be carried out.

Read the rest.