Renzi Gets His Wings and EasyJet Lands in Venice – February 2

The “Italian Air Force One” has landed. During the early hours of Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s refurbished super-jet touched down at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, replacing his old Airbus A319 Corporate Jet, which required stopovers for refueling on long-haul flights. The 10-year-old Airbus 340-541 was leased from Etihad Airways, ending its civilian career in October 2015 after 54,000 flight hours. It has been fitted with four new Rolls Royce motors,and is able to fly up to 16,700 kilometers (10,376 miles) non-stop, and will allow Renzi to remain in constant communication through WiFi via satellite. While exact leasing costs have yet to be revealed, industry sources say that expenses could run between 230,000 to 315,000 Euro per month ($250,000 to $340,000), excluding repairs and fuel. The plane will flown by fighter pilots from the 31st Wing of the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare), which is based at Rome’s Ciampino Airport.

News of Renzi’s decision to upgrade his jet caused an uproar last fall, as critics claimed that the Prime Minister was wasting public funds unnecessarily. Retired Air Force General Leonardo Tricario, an ex-military advisor to Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Massimo D’Alema, called the choice “A clearly non-essential expense in a time when public expenditures are being restricted,” while Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister from 2013 to 2014, reminded reporters in September that during his time in office he “Reduced the fleet and sought to limit the number of official state flights.”

EasyJet, the UK-based low-cost airline carrier, is expanding operations at Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport. The inauguration ceremony took place on Monday, with Frances Ouseley, Director of Italian Operations for EasyJet, and the Mayor of Venice Luigi Brugnaro on hand for the debut of the company’s 27th base in Europe. Brugnaro commented that “The choice of Venice as a base demonstrates once again the infinite possibilities that our city offers…thank you to EasyJet for believing in the potential of Venice, a decision that will surely bring success to the company.” Four A319 Airbus aircrafts have been added to the fleet, along with ten new routes, with Edinburgh, Bristol, Copenhagen, Prague, and Stuttgart among the cities that will see increased service. EasyJet will now employ 150 personnel in Venice, allowing for up to 45 percent more weekly flights. The carrier began operating out of Venice in 1998, and now is the largest airline serving “La Serenissima,” with 12 million passengers per year.

The company’s new venture comes after it announced that would be abandoning operations at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport following a major fire in May 2015 which reduced airport capacity to 60 per cent. CEO Carolyn McCall stated in June that “We will reinforce ourselves in Italy, strengthening our presence at Milano-Malpensa, Venice, and Naples, where we believe there are the best opportunities for sustainable growth.” Service to Rome will cease completely in April.

Starting Up…and Standing Still – November 24

The best young web entrepreneur of 2015 is Italian, according to the jury at Europioneers 2015, who picked Domenico Colucci’s Nextome app out of 60 startup finalists. Colucci, who is a 26 year old from Puglia, created Nextome in 2012 after he had difficulty locating a restroom in a shopping center. Nextome works by picking up a series of signals from a building’s WIFI and transmitting them to the user via Bluetooth technology, facilitating orientation in chaotic indoor spaces such as museums or exhibition centers. The application’s website notes that the confusion we experience in a foreign environment is accentuated in large public spaces, and that pinpointing the user location will provide “nearby points of interest, the fastest routes, and ongoing promotions.” Colucci stated that he was “very happy for this important award,” and thanked the jury and the European Commission for supporting the Europioneers project and appreciating the “potential of Nextome.” This was the third edition of the competition, whose prior winners included presentation software Prezi in 2014 and audio distribution platform Soundcloud in 2013. Nextome previously won Best Startup at last year’s Web Summit in Dublin, beating out 2,000 competitors.

According to a study released Monday by Istat, the National Institute for Statistics based in Bologna, 1 in 4 Italians are on living the edge of poverty. This figure places Italy in the range of poorer countries like Hungary and Latvia, far removed from Western European nations such as France and Germany. The numbers do point to some slight improvements over the last few years in other areas, as now 49.5% of people cannot take a week vacation far from home, down from 51%, and 38.8% of people would not be able to afford an emergency expense of 800 Euros, compared to 40.2% previously. But another sign that the Italian economy still faces significant challenges is the news that 1 out of 2 Italian families make no more than 2,026 Euro ($2,151) per month, for a net annual income of 24,130 Euros ($25,600). The highest median is found in Northern Italy, with an income of 27,090 Euros ($28,700) per year, while the lowest is in the Southern regions of Lazio, Campania, and Calabria. 46% of people who live in the South are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, an improvement from 48% in 2013.

Paranoia and Passports – November 20

The FBI issued a warning to the Italian government on Wednesday, saying that several national landmarks are at risk for terrorist attacks. According to the U.S. intelligence service, the Basilica di San Pietro, the Duomo of Milan, and La Scala are considered particularly vulnerable, while restaurants, bars, and hotels across Italy should be on alert. As security is tightened, Italian investigators are also trying to determine why Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect of the November 13th terrorist attacks on Paris, passed through Northern Italy on his return from Syria more than a year ago. A massive manhunt for Abdeslam is currently underway across France and Belgium, after he was not found during a raid Wednesday in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Perhaps as a result of this tense atmosphere, a series of bomb scares have swept through both Rome and Milan this week, leading to long delays on public transportation. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has sought to reassure Italians, promising that everything is being done to ensure the nation’s security and that “we must first of all live, demonstrating the courage to not stay at home and not renounce our heritage or identity.” Renzi emphasized Wednesday in an interview on Sky Tg24 television that the Extraordinary Jubilee, which will open in Rome on December 8th, will not be cancelled “under any circumstances.”

The Schengen Area, which has facilitated travel through Europe by doing away with passport and border control since 1997, may be at risk. France had already suspended the agreement from November 13th to December 13th for the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference before the attacks in Paris that killed 129 people a week ago, but the country’s officials are now pushing for stricter rules across the EU in order to combat terrorism. In an interview on Thursday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that the Schengen Area will “become endangered unless Europe begins to take responsibility for its borders.” The European Commission also announced Thursday that “it will be necessary to begin systematic, coordinated controls on European borders, also on individuals with European passports.” An emergency summit is scheduled for today in Brussels, where future restrictions on air travel and the movement of EU citizens is expected to be discussed.

Precautions and Mourning – November 18

In the wake of Friday’s devastating terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 130 people, the Italian government is stepping up security measures. On Monday, Minister of Defense Paolo Gentiloni stated that the government will “work to flush out terrorists wherever they seek to infiltrate…Italy needs to play a larger role in contributing to the coalition against ISIS and will help with the political transition in Syria without leaving voids that terrorists will attempt to fill.” Safety concerns have been raised about several major upcoming events in Italy, including the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which will be opened on December 8th in Rome by Pope Francis, and the Carnival of Venice, set to begin January 23rd. While in Rome 700 additional soldiers have already been stationed around the city and police patrols have been increased, the attacks combined with the recent ISIS video which lists Rome as a future target are already having an impact on the city’s tourism. According to Roberto Necci, President of the Association of Hotel Directors of Lazio, “The first impact of the attacks on Paris has been an above average cancellation of reservations in Roman hotels…people are afraid.” But officials are rejecting calls to postpone the Jubilee, saying that to modify the country’s behavior would mean “the terrorists have won.” The Governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, announced Monday that he is calling a roundtable to develop measures to strengthen security before millions of visitors descend on the city in January. Zaia stated that “We need to move quickly, because the Carnival is at our doors and after ISIS vowed to strike Italy as well I do not feel we are ready at all.” The measures under consideration include barriers to control the flow of pedestrians, the removal of masks at control points, and metal detectors.

The family of Valeria Solesin, the 28-year-old Venetian woman killed during the terrorist attack at the Bataclan Cafe on Friday night, arrived Tuesday afternoon in Paris to collect her body from the morgue. The sole Italian victim of the attacks on France’s capital that resulted in hundreds of dead and injured, Solesin was a PhD student studying demographics at the Sorbonne and had been living in Paris for four years. Her dissertation compared French and Italian families and the role of women in society, and she was working as a researcher at The Paris 1 Demography Institute. The Bataclan attack began around 9:40pm on Friday, when four terrorists entered the venue during an Eagles of Death Metal concert and began shooting, killing 89 people before being shot dead by French security forces after a 3-hour siege. Solesin is believed to have been killed close to the exit, as she attempted to flee. Her boyfriend, Andrea Ravegnani, was also at the concert, but survived. Chiara Ravegnani, his sister, remembered Solesin as “A great friend. Free. Full of ideas and strength. The best student in my course at the Sorbonne. She was very involved in volunteering, not only with Emergency. We had discussed the issue of terrorism at length, especially after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. She was against any war, any military intervention.”

A torchlight procession in her memory is scheduled for Wednesday evening in front of the Basilica di San Marco, and flags have been lowered to half-staff across the city.

The Two Sides of the Same Coin – November 16

In the aftermath of the tragic events that occurred in Paris, Italian newspapers have been divided. The morning after the attacks, the headline of the Italian newspaper Libero read “bastard muslims”, openly labelling the terrorist attacks as acts initiated by the entire muslim community. “Il Gazzettino” and “Il Messaggero” blamed Islam for the attacks similarly. Other Italian newspapers did not directly assault the islamic people, but underlined President Hollande’s decision to declare a state of emergency in France and close all borders in an attempt to prevent the escape of the presumed terrorists as well as the arrival of any more. Several analysts and intellectuals have also argued that the attacks in Paris are direct assaults against the West and therefore the retaliation should be from the west as a whole and not just France.

There was an Italian national amongst the victims of the attacks. Valeria Solesin was a Ph.d student at the Sorbonne University of Paris. She served as volunteer in the Italian NGO Emergency. From Turkey, where he was attending the G-20 meeting, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared that he wants to create a scholarship in Solesin’s name.

Italy is on high alert for two reasons: the first is that a few of the terrorists are still fugitives and there is a risk that they could cross italian borders. The second is that Rome is scheduled to host the Jubilee next december. These two reasons aside, the Islamic State has repeatedly threatened Italy and its capital; to further discuss this serious matter, Renzi announced a convention of the National Committee for Order and Public Security the day after the terrorist attacks. The Minister of Internal Affairs Angelino Alfano has increased the level of alert in the country.

From Bologna to Riyadh – November 9

Protesters filled the streets of Bologna yesterday as politician Matteo Salvini and supporters of several right-wing parties including the Lega Nord gathered for a rally against the Renzi government in Piazza Maggiore. The disruption began at dawn when the high-speed Bologna-Milan rail line was found sabotaged, with cables burnt at different points and graffiti reading “November 8th, sabotaging a world of racists and borders” scrawled on the pavement. Skirmishes between police and protesters intensified toward midday, when hundreds of students and members of left-wing social centers such as Crash and Cua bearing signs reading “Defend Bologna from the Lega Nord Invasion” attempted to break through the cordon blocking access to Piazza Maggiore. Riot police charged the protesters several times, resulting in several injured, including a police officer. The rally was an occasion for Salvini and other right-wing leaders to demonstrate their growing national popularity, as according to a Demos poll last month the Lega Nord now registers 14 percent popular support, and would garner 48 percent nationally if allied with rival right-wing party Forza Italia. In his speech Salvini launched several attacks against Matteo Renzi and members of his administration, calling the prime minister “a worthy representative of the parasites,” and Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano “a useless and incapable character…an idiot who should abandon politics because he is clearly not in his element.” He concluded by pledging that he wouldn’t back down if his supporters stayed by his side, saying he would continue the fight and that “I won’t give up until this country returns to being the most beautiful country in the world.” Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also made an appearance on behalf of Forza Italia, rousing the crowd with his certainty that “with this renewed unity we will win the next election!” Berlusconi did not avoid controversy during his 25-minute speech, saying that he saw parallels between the rhetoric of Beppe Grillo, the figurehead of the populist Five Star Movement party, and Adolf Hitler. 25,000 Lega Nord supporters are estimated to have attended the rally Sunday.

While visiting Riyadh today, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi responded to Sunday’s events in Bologna, saying that “Italy is not made only of those who yell and insult…we are tired of those who are blocking progress: we will restore Italy to its place in the world.” Renzi was in Saudi Arabia to witness the groundbreaking of the capital’s first metro line, which is being built by a group of Italian firms, including Milan based Salini Impregilo and Genova based Ansaldo STS. The prime minister expressed his approval of the positive impact that these companies are having on external perceptions of Italy, assisting with the effort to portray Italy “not only as a country where people vacation occasionally but one which can offer exciting investment opportunities.” The CEOs of both companies were present at the meeting, as was the Saudi Arabian Minister of Social Affairs Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi. There are 6 lines currently under construction in Riyadh, with the Italian designed one being the longest at 26 miles (42 kilometers). Minister of the Economy Pier Carlo Padoan echoed Renzi’s positive rhetoric in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, saying that “after years of stagnation, Italy is recovering quickly, because of the administration’s profound structural reforms.”

Tensions Heighten Between Rome and Tripoli – November 3

Tensions between Italy and the Libyan government intensified over the weekend as officials in Tobruk claimed that Italian warships had violated their territorial waters. According to the Libyans, three vessels were sighted off the coast of Benghazi on Saturday, later moving towards Derna, around 190 miles (300 kilometers) east. The Council of Deputies, Libya’s internationally recognized parliament since 2014, accused Italy of testing its defense capabilities and vowed to protect their nation’s sovereignty “at any cost.” The Italian Ministry of Defense responded by dismissing the Libyan claims, stating on Twitter that “there was no violation of territorial waters by Italian ships.” Roberta Pinotti, the Minister of Defense, later asserted during an interview on Rai 3 that “this is an obviously a false rumor,” and that all Italian military vessels were “well beyond the limits of Libyan waters.” Italian patrols in the area have recently increased as efforts to combat the trafficking of migrants and refugees continue to intensify. Libya is an important departure point for thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, contributing significantly to the new record reached in October of 218,000 people crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe thus far this year.

Relations were not helped by the news that the Italian Catholic Cemetery in Tripoli was desecrated again on All Saints’ Day by unknown vandals. On Sunday photos obtained by ANSA, the leading Italian wire service, showed tombstones damaged and mausoleum windows smashed. Giovanna Ortu, president of the Association of Italians Repatriated from Libya (Airl), commented that “it is sadly not a new occurrence, it is a bitterly recurring one.” The Italian Ministry of Defense deplored the news, stating that the “desecration of a cemetery is vile gesture, one of incivility and intolerance which is made worse when it occurs on a day when Italians traditionally visit to pay respects to deceased relatives.” The cemetery, better known as Hammangi, is the burial place of 8,000 Italians, and was established in 1955 as a resting place for Italian soldiers fallen in battle in Libya between 1911 and 1945. Hammangi was reopened in May 2009 after extensive restoration work completed by Integra AES, a Rome based architectural and engineering firm.


A Tale of Two Capitals – October 28

Mantova was unanimously voted the 2016 Capital of Italian Culture on Tuesday, beating out competitors including Pisa, Parma, and Como. Mantova and 9 other cities were judged on the basis of their project proposals, which ranged from Taranto’s “Taranto Spartan City,” concentrated on its Greek roots, to Pistoia’s promotion of itself as a festival center, ranging from Blues to urban renewal. The city will receive a prize of 1 million Euro from the Ministry of Culture Heritage and Activities and Tourism, which will go toward the realization of its project of fusing its Renaissance heritage with the objective of becoming a Smart Human city by 2019. Mantova’s plan was determined to be the most easily attainable, with many restoration and renewal projects already underway. Dario Franceschini, Minister of Culture Heritage, stated that he was “very proud and I believe next year the competition will be even more exciting, with more cities participating.” Mattia Palazzi, the recently elected mayor of Mantova, said he was glad that the city was receiving recognition for its extraordinary culture, and pledged to demonstrate that the award was merited. 2016 will be the first year that the award goes to a single city, as this year it was shared between Ravenna, Cagliari, Lecce, Perugia, and Siena. The selection for 2017 will take place in January.

Milan is Italy’s moral capital, according to Raffaele Cantone, president of Italy’s Anti-Corruption National Authority (ANAC). He made the statement during an award ceremony Wednesday in Milan, where he was presented with the seal of the city by Mayor Giuliano Pisapia. Pisapia praised Catone’s role in making Expo Milano 2015 a resounding success, saying his efforts to combat corruption in the development of the event have elevated Milan in the eyes of the world and made it an “example for national and international organizations seeking to fight crime.” During his speech Cantone remarked that he was “honored to receive such a recognition in a moment when Milan has decisively assumed the role of moral capital of the country, in a moment when the national capital is not showing the moral strength it needs and which we all hope it rediscovers.” He was referring to the scandals that have challenged Rome since the revelations of “Mafia Capital” last year, as well as the the accusations of mishandling of city funds which caused Mayor Ignazio Marino to resign this month. Cantone was appointed in March 2014 by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, following his many successful years directing anti-mafia operations in Naples.

A Sardinian Money Trail and Ferrari Comes to America – October 22

Francesca Barracciu, Undersecretary of State of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, resigned on Wednesday after pressure mounted regarding allegations that she misappropriated funds belonging to the regional government of Sardegna between 2004 and 2013. Barracciu stated that she was stepping down in order to effectively confront her critics and emerge from the controversy “with her head held high.” Nearly 81,000 Euro ($90,000) are said to have been used illegally by Barracciu to pay for campaign events and personal travel expenses. The Undersecretary denies the accusations, claiming that the money went to fuel and other transportation costs accumulated during her official travels across Sardegna. During an interview on the talk show Otto e mezzo, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who appointed her in February 2014, complimented Barracciu for the choice, saying that it was a “commendable decision, worthy of respect,” while urging her critics not to rush to judgment. This is not the first controversy Barracciu has faced, as similar accusations caused her to withdraw from the regional elections for President of Sardegna last year. The first hearing in the case is set for February 2nd at the Tribunal in Cagliari, and Barracciu will be defended by Franco Luigi Satta.

Ferrari burst out of the gate in a dazzling fashion Wednesday as it opened 15% above its initial public offering price on the New York Stock Exchange, trading 17 million shares at $60 each. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler and chairman of Ferrari, rang the opening bell as passerby admired the supercars parked on Wall Street outside. Founded in 1947 by Enzo Ferrari in Maranello (Emilia-Romagna), the company has grown to employ 2700 people and is one of the world’s leading luxury sports car manufacturers, producing 7,000 units per year. Marchionne expressed his enthusiasm over the debut, saying “it is a great day, to see Wall Street full of Ferraris is something extraordinary and would have been impossible ten years ago” and that Ferrari should arrive on the Italian stock exchange (Borsa Italiana) by next January. Ferrari, trading under the symbol RACE, closed at $55, giving it a market value of more than 10 billion dollars.

The Week in Italian News: Brain Drain, Less Traffic, and the Postponement of Civil Unions – October 16

On Monday Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced a new effort to persuade Italian professors who have gone to teach and do research abroad to return to Italy and invest in the nation’s higher education system. During an interview with Fabio Fazio on the talk show Che tempo che fa, Renzi said that he will work to insert measures to counteract the current “brain drain” that universities are experiencing into the legislative package known as “la legge di stabilità,” or economic reform laws. The measures will include a national competition based on merit and generous grants for research projects. Many recent stories focus on the success Italians have found after emigrating to countries like the United States, including those of Enrico Moretti, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, or Barbara Mellone, a biologist who has garnered nearly $3 million in funding for her research from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

Ignazio Marino is committed to fulfilling one of his major campaign promises before he steps down as Mayor of Rome on November 2nd. Marino declared Monday that he plans to complete the pedestrianization of Via dei Fori imperiali, which runs between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum in the heart of Rome’s historic district. One of his first acts following his election in 2013 was banning private vehicle traffic on the road and lowering the speed limit to 30 km (18 miles) per hour. Buses, taxis, and rented cars with drivers were still permitted. The complete prohibition of vehicular traffic is intended to provide visitors with a “historical promenade” past some of the most significant archaeological sites of the city, including the Forum of Nerva and the Forum of Augustus. Marino’s plan is not without controversy, however, as it will cause significant rerouting of public transportation and increase taxi rates from the Colosseum to the city center. Alessandro Atzeni, a representative of Uiltrasporti, which operates many of the taxis in Rome, stated that the plan is “foolish,” and that in the “interest of everyone it would have been more useful to leave behind a project to rebuild Roman roads, which have become as bad as mule tracks.” The road is expected to be bike and pedestrian only by the time Pope Francis convenes the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on December 8th.

While appearing on the talk show Porta a Porta on Thursday, Maria Elena Boschi, the Minister of Constitutional Reforms, stated her concerns regarding legislation on civil unions for same-sex couples being “postponed until next year.” Roberto Blasi’s October 13th post on Facebook pushed the issue to the forefront of national debate this week, drawing wide media attention and generating discussion on the treatment of gay partners by the Italian state. Blasi, who married 80s pop star Giovanni Scialpi in New York last August, wrote in the post that for the “healthcare system and the State I am considered a complete stranger,” even as his husband underwent a serious heart surgery. The question of civil unions has been a contentious one in Italy for years, as legislation has been introduced 46 times since 1988 without any concrete results. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi commented on multiple occasions about civil unions this year, declaring on Twitter in March that “discussion was underway in parliament,” and in September that the “question of civil unions should be resolved by October 15th.” While for now it seems as though little progress will be made by the end of the year, Democratic Party (Partito Democratico) Senator Monica Cirinnà’s proposal has gained wide support due to its careful terminology and allowal of adoptions by one member of the same-sex couple, known as the “stepchild adoption.”