Italian Design's Best Kept Secret: How the Old Helps the New

On a recent Sunday evening I was given an unusual insight in what makes Italian design so successful. It happened at the fair for young Italian designers, the A.I.Fair (it stands for Artisanal Intelligence) held on 29 January in Emperor Hadrian's Temple in the suggestive Piazza di Pietra in old Rome.

A eureka moment!

But I didn't know that when I got there with my husband around 7 pm. It was a beautiful night, with a young moon in the clear sky and I felt relaxed and romantic. And mildly curious. Here's the Temple:

Majestic! And here's the entrance, hidden among the ancient columns:

Once in, we were met by a noisy and colorful crowd, with a big video screen at one end of the vast hall:

Lots of stands manned by young people, all showing the most eclectic and inventive array of design and fashion products, ranging from weird hats:

to a variety of rings:



Hummm, a bit heavy, those heels...and when I climbed up to the mezzanine that girds the big hall, I discovered amazing dresses like this one:

Later I was told that these were the original dresses used in Piero Tosi's film "Barbarella" that got 5 Oscar nominations. These dresses are usually not shown to the  public, so that was a rare occasion. Then I came across this one: 

Wondering whether this particular one was meant for a one-breast Amazon, I walked over to the balustrade and took a shot of the hall seen from above:

Here you can really appreciate how the "old helps the young": this country has amazing architectural remnants of its long and glorious history that can be used to showcase the work of innovative, young designers. No doubt they're good and inventive, but this kind of environment really helps to set their work off! Old Hadrian called on to support the inventiveness of young Romans...The Temple allure makes the design ideas look elegant and trendy, even if some of them probably aren't.

It's quite a trick to pull off and no doubt one of the elements that help explain the success of Italian design worldwide. Yes, it is one of Italian design's best kept secret: how they are able to exploit the old to the benefit of the new. And of course, how they are inspired by the past to look to the future and invent news ways to do old things.

In one corner of the hall, I came across this surprising stand that confirmed my insight. Here it is:

Set between two small columns, a big "C" on a black background stands out  - the trademark for Archivio Cicconi, a collection of over 7 million photographs spanning the whole of the 20th century. It is reminiscent of Gucci's double "G" but much starker in its simplicity. Next two it are two of the products one young and inspired artist has ingeniously derived from the old photographs, with a process that was in use at the end of the 19th century.

Here's the artist, Edoardo Cicconi:

He explained to us that since these photos are reproduced with a handmade process, no two photos are ever alike, thus ensuring that it is an unrepeatable artwork. And they can be made any size, even big enough to cover a whole wall in your living room!

Here is one, derived from a photograph of models in 1948:

And here's the bizarre zeppelin floating above Piazza Venezia, looking surprisingly ominous:

And here's the most extraordinary of the three - a procession of nuns walking through Rome in 1950, like a black pond filled with white balls:

And here's a close up of the material on which the photographs are printed - 100% cotton and you can clearly see the brush work that leaks beyond the edge of the photo:

There were also other interesting things on the Cicconi Archives stand, like this old camera:

There were piles of their new catalogue - here's the cover:

Gregory Peck in 1959 - on the terrace of the Hassler Hotel, with St Peter's in the background. Inside, lots of American celebrities - including this one of Louis Armstrong and his wife, vacationing in Rome:

And here's Pino er Pasticciere (Pino the Pastry chef) serenading a very young  Ursula Andress:
We're in 1958...I met Pino at a party many years later (he came to our house in 1986) and he still had a remarkable voice and oodles of charm.

By 8 pm, the fair closed and we were out on the streets hunting for a restaurant. Actually, there were many, and since the temperature was so mild - in spite of this being January - many people were dining outdoors:
I prefer indoors in winter, no matter what. So we walked on and came to the Pantheon:

Turning the corner, on Via del Seminario, we came to this old restaurant (established in 1946) that my husband knew from his Dolce Vita days (!):

He told me their pizzas were excellent, and so they were:

Crisp and tasty - that stuff on the left side of the pizza are zucchini flowers...What struck me though was the fact that this restaurant is still in the hands of the same family. Now the third generation, and still fondly looking after their clients:

The family touch...that's what makes the difference!

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Italy in Revolt: First Protest against Monti's Government... a Flop!

Italy in revolt! Today, January 27 2012, starting at 12:30 pm, people converged on Piazza San Giovanni in Rome to protest against Monti's package of measures to fix the debt problem and stimulate the economy. The police, expecting the worst, had cordoned off the streets and a helicopter surveyed the scene:

Here the protesters march down the Viale Carlo Felice, coming from Piazza della Repubblica where they had convened earlier this morning:

Most of them are middle-aged, some are even old and there's only one group of young people, about fifty of them, walking behind a sign which says "Students and Workers United - General Strike". 

Note the hammer and sickle: long time, no see! 

Actually there were very few such reminders of Communism, although I did note some leftovers from radical parties, weakily waiving antiquated flags, and a couple of young TAV protesters (TAV is the high speed train that is supposed to link Italy to France and has roused the ire of environmentalists ). Perhaps they were few because at present, some 25 TAV protesters are in prison, after the violent demonstrations last summer that left hundreds wounded.

By one pm, the protesters had gathered in the Piazza and gleefully let off some smoke bombs, just to add a little ambience:

Looks threatening but it's only pink smoke! 

Here they are listening to their union leaders (these were mostly from the public transport system unions - local trains, buses and subways are stopped today for a 24 hour strike - a nuisance of course, but everyone's used to these strikes that conveniently start after 8.30 am so people can get to work and are suspended between 5 and 8 pm so people can go back home):

As you can see, there are very few people...And if you look at the piazza in the other direction, that's what you see:

I'm not kidding you: the piazza was empty! 

This protest was a total flop - maybe four or five hundred people came, no more. A far cry from the way Piazza San Giovanni had been filled to the brim some two years ago when there was a mega protest against Berlusconi. You couldn't even edge in your way into the piazza from the side streets!

All told, this was just a pleasant outing on a sunny day, with a couple of t-shirt vendors. Here's one:

And here's the t-shirt I would buy (it reads: "and I pay!"):

Yes, echoes of Occupy Wall Street: it's always the common man - the 99 percent - who ends up paying! By the way, that's a picture of the famous actor Toto, still an icon in Italy (and rightly so).

You know what are the real problems of life in Rome this week? Lack of fruits and vegetables! Because 10 percent (that's right only ten percent) of truck drivers have blocked the roads from vegetable collection points, we are getting no fruits and vegetables from Southern Italy (the area that produces the best tasting stuff!). 

So supermarket shelves have looked like this all week:

And like this:

The asparagus you glimpse on the right come from Peru, by air and via Milano. Because we get all the stuff from Milano: Northern Italy hasn't been blocked. 

A pity, because the tomatoes, eggplants and other veggies all come from Spain that unfortunately is very good at using modern agricultural techniques and packaging/distribution methods and very bad at producing tasty produce: tomatoes and eggplants are all precisely the same size and color and utterly tasteless. Actually, when you eat them, you can't tell the difference between a tomato and an eggplant!

Apart from the unpleasantness of being unable to locate good produce, what makes me really angry is that a minority of truck drivers can manage to block half a country - some twenty five million people -  and curtail our rights as consumers to get the food we are used to eating. 

All because they have to pay a little more tax and participate in salvaging the Italian economy. Haven't they got any sense of civic responsibility? What kind of people are these, always thinking of making more and more money? Because I'm quite certain that these truck drivers make a nice, steady income. They just won't admit to it, that's all. And nobody is investigating their real income, neither journalists nor the Finance Police (Guardia di Finanza - true, sometimes they do check on people, but it's all rather sporadic). Truck drivers are part of the privileged class (along with restaurant and bar owners) that never pay the taxes they really owe the government.

This said, the problem in Italy is that the ultra rich don't pay either. Landowners, doctors, lawyers, accountants etc - nobody pays the taxes owed. 

Tax evasion is so universal that it is the real disease Italy is suffering from. 

If the one percent gave the good example of paying the taxes it owes - the way it does in Northern Europe, in Norway, in Germany etc - then maybe the 99 percent  (and among them the restaurant owners, the taxi drivers and trucksters who constitute niches of privilege) would follow suit...And Italy would at last function as a modern state.
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The American Credit Rating Agencies are in Trouble in Italy: is it the Beginning of the End?

English: A logo of the Standard & Poor's AA- r...Image via Wikipedia
The American credit rating agencies are often seen as the villains of the financial world, particularly by governments whose debt is downgraded. The credit rating agencies  have held hostage the Euro-zone governments, starting first with Greece and moving on steadily through the Euro-zone until France was knocked off its triple A on January 13, together with Italy and a number of other Euro-zone countries, sparing only the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and of course Germany. But Germany for the first time got a negative outlook to it's Triple A - suggesting that with any downturn in the European economic outlook, even Germany risked its Triple A. 

Then on 16 January S&P downgraded the European Bailout Fund (the EFSF - European Financial Stability Facility) because it is backed by downgraded countries, chief among them France...In practice, this does not affect the EFSF lending capacity of €440 million that is in place until the European Stability Mechanism becomes operational in July 2012, but it certainly doesn't help. It has all the look of a quite unnecessary move on the part of S&P.

Europeans are becoming restless and even the German Foreign Affairs Minister, Guido Westerwelle, muttered on his way to Greece that a European Rating Agency should be created. "The time has come for Europe to prove that it can resist credit rating agencies" he told the press.  

But the Italians are not waiting for any new agency to be formed. According to the Italian newspaper Repubblica (reported in 20 January edition ), the Procura (Public Prosecutor's Office) of the cities of Trani and Milan launched an investigation on 16 January and the Italian Finance Police - the Guardia di Finanza - struck, raiding the Milan office of Standard & Poor's, taking away computers and email exchanges. In addition, the Consob (the Italian equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission) has issued a warning to both agencies, S & P and Moody's, inviting them to "adjust their procedures" as they are "not in line" with European Union guidelines (see news on consob.it site).
English: Guardia di Finanza (Italian finance p...Image via Wikipedia

So far it seems that seven persons are under investigation: three analysts from S&P, one from Moody's and three directors from both agencies, all accused of having spread in May, June and July 2011, news that were "not correct and in any case false and tendentious regarding the strength of the Italian economic-financial and banking system". To this was added the "episode" of Friday 13 January: the unexpected bump faced by the Italian bond auction that morning. 

In some ways, what happened that day could have become much worse if the markets had not already discounted to a large extent the downgrading of Italy's debt. Nonetheless, the bond auction that morning was not covered by bids to the expected extent, and the infamous "spread" (difference) between the Italian and German bond prices rose once again, reaching the danger zone of 500 base points - and this in spite of the fact that Italy had taken all the required measures to face the Euro crisis and satisfy investors. 

This odd behavior found an explanation by 4 pm that day, when rumors widely circulated that France and Italy were about to be downgraded that very evening by S&P. Blame was laid by the Trani Prosecutor at the doorstep of S&P.

Why all the legal fuss? First, because by law, Standard & Poor's is supposed to inform the concerned authorities of its downgrade before anyone else and certainly before the markets, yet somehow the news had spread earlier...

Add to that the fact that the downgrade of Italy was universally perceived as excessive, even wrong in the face of Monti's government efforts and highly praised austerity and growth measures: Italy was downgraded by two steps and not one, from A to BBB+.

Do the Italians have a case against the rating agencies? The agencies, as might be expected, loudly claim their innocence. But the Trani Prosecutor and his office have prepared their case very carefully, pooling expert opinions from respected economists as well as from personalities in the world of finance and banking, including testimonies from ex-Prime Minister and European Commissioner  Romano Prodi, Mario Draghi, the new head of the European Central Bank and Giulio Tremonti, the Finance Minister in Berlusconi's last government and Torino University Professor. 

So it's their word against the agencie's. Moreover, the numerous linkages between the rating agencies and banks who are their customers (in particular Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley) and investment and hedge funds such as Black Rock, State Street, Capital World Investors, Vanguard, Fidelity etc have become the subject of striking diagrams in Italian newspapers and elsewhere, where the lines cross each other, embedding the agencies in a spider network...

That is probably the most dangerous aspect of this story for credit rating agencies: their unhealthy relationships with the world of banking and investment - their natural customers - are at last revealed to public opinion, voiding their claim of independence and transparency.

What is needed is a truly independent rating agency...As Chakrabortty of the UK Guardian observed (see article below), "the agencies are neither accurate nor merely observers - yet they bully governments around the world and make billions doing so. The obvious solution would be to take this public service into public hands. Let's have a ratings agency run by the UN, funded by pooled contributions from both lenders and borrowers. It should be the only one to have preferential access to data from corporates and countries. Let's make the ratings business a utility rather than a semi-cartel that intimidates elected politicians and rakes in excess profits. It's time to break up the bullying double act."

Strong words...with which I fully agree. Because unfortunately one cannot do without credit rating agencies: any borrower, whether corporate or government, that needs to go to the bond market needs a credit rating report to show investors. It's a necessary function, but it need not be in private hands that twist it to their own advantage...

English: World countries by Standard & Poor's ...S&P's World: Green = AAA; Turquoise = AA; Blue = BBB...Image via Wikipedia

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Occupy Wall Street? No, Occupy Rome and March to Athens!

Tents have come up by the dozen all over Rome, with posters of protest. Was it another Occupy Wall Street in the making? 

On January 14, I decided to take a stroll and find out. I came up to the old walls of Rome at the San Giovanni gate:

Crossing the gate, you arrive upon the vast piazza of San Giovanni, with the Church hiding behind the trees:

Across from it is St. Francis' statue, raising his arms to the sky and...covered with posters and surrounded by tents:

What do the posters say? There were more than I could take in, but the protest messages were quite clear:


Here you have to interpret a little: made in China = slavery, referring no doubt to the low pay and hard wok conditions of Chinese workers. And next to it in Spanish: This is not Woodstock, This is (a fight for) Justice (literally: this is not Woodstock, this is Right).

Far from not having any political ideas, they seem to be boiling over with them (with possibly some not quite "baked"). Here is one of the posters announcing their political activities:

It announces that on Sunday 15 January, they plan on having an assembly on the theme of Work and Social Income followed at 2 pm by a "*Carnival of the System* Creative Action Through the Streets of Rome". To be followed on Monday 16 by a "Meeting on the Situation in Palestine" and a "Proposal to [organize] a March to Palestine". Given the tension in Gaza, I wonder how many will decide to do that...

In case you missed the overall objective, here it is, spread in big letters across St Francis' statue:

Yes, it reads: "[For the] Construction [of a] Better Future". These kids certainly have a clear agenda: overhaul society and make it better. And just in case you didn't get it, here is the place they dedicate to the role of books and ideas:

The two posters in the back make it clear: "Because Books transmit the Revolution to [future] Generations" and "Because Change is Achieved through Culture". 

At that point, I wanted to know more about them. I spotted a couple of girls painting posters on the sidewalk and walked up to them:

I approached the girl who's turning our back to us in this picture and asked her what she was doing. A multiple poster, she said. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see she had completed the drawing of a missile and was now working on painting a peace dove. She showed me the sketch she was working from:

The message here needs no translation! 

I first started speaking to her in Italian and she shook her head, answering in Spanish. I asked her in that language whether she was coming from Spain and she said she came from France. At that point we both laughed and fell into French (my mother tongue). 

She told me there were about 80 of them in the encampment and that they came from everywhere: Australia, Bangladesh, Spain, Peru... Looking at them, anyone can see they come from all over:

She said she had joined them here in Rome on 5 January - and that there was a hard core of some 30 participants that had started from Nice (France) in November. They plan to walk down through Italy all the way to Bari and then cross over on a ferry headed for Greece. They expect to reach Athens by March, stopping along the way in all major towns to express their "indignation" - as they were doing here in Rome during their two week stay, organizing meetings and marches through town, like the one planned for Sunday, from Piazza San Giovanni to Piazza del Popolo.

I asked her whether she was staying with them till Athens but she shook her head, no, she was a design student in a Paris university and had to work and study.

So this is the March of the Indignados to Athens. When they stop on the way they are joined by others like this girl who give them a hand for a few days - thus clarifying to me one of the mysteries of the Occupy Wall Street protest movements. Since they last so long, I thought they included only the unemployed or otherwise disoccupied young. But no, that is not the case. Those who work join them temporarily, swelling their ranks when they stop in big cities and adding fuel to their enthusiasm...And while overwhelmingly young, there are some older people too, like this man on the foreground, busy drawing a poster:

I asked my French friend whether the police had bothered them and she shook her head. Actually people in the neighborhood were nice and supportive,she said. One had even lent them his apartment so they could have warm showers. And food was regularly brought to them every day:

Certainly the mild winter weather in Rome and Athens helps maintain the momentum of such protest movements. I imagine that for the moment, with snow and sleet, there are very few such movements in the States...

Is there any around you?

Post-scriptum: On Sunday January 15, the march across Rome from Piazza San Giovanni to Piazza del Popolo took a wrong turn. A small group (about 50, mostly French and Spanish) went as far as St Peter's and tried to set up a protest encampment, only to be dispersed by the police in riot gear. A couple of people got hurt but the plaza in front of St. Peter's was cleared.  

It seems one of the protesters was disguised in a pope's outfit and bore the slogan "indignant heart", a reference to the Spanish Indignados movement. They naively expected support from the Vatican. Instead, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said that "considering the actions undertaken and the language used, these Indignados evidently wanted to use the piazza in an improper way, not in keeping with the spirit of the place." 

It goes to show that some disobediance is ok but you can't win them all!

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