Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Scandal on the Airwaves

Last week I was watching Fox News, something I rarely do unless Julie Banderas is wearing a particularly sexy outfit, but that day they carried the Senate grilling of Ben Bernanke live, something CNN decided to forego.

After cutting away from the Senate hearings, Fox turned to the top stories of the day, the first of which was the Tiger Woods scandal. It wasn’t clear then, and after some days of further reportage, the nature of the scandal still hasn’t revealed itself to me. He apparently drove his SUV into a tree and/or a fire hydrant, which miraculously revealed that he was cheating on his wife, who may have added to the damage incurred in the crash. I admit that my interest in golf ranks right along with cricket, another sport I’ve neither played nor watched. He may be the best golfer in the world, a bad driver, and worse husband, but I’m not sure how this “scandal” made the cut. Nobody died, not even a dog.

We hardcore sports fans all know that Michael Vick served two years in Federal prison for raising vicious pit bulls, getting them to fight, and then killing the ones who weren’t vicious enough. He got time off for good behavior; apparently there being no dogs at the prison. Now that was a real sports scandal, although should he ever decide to apply for a job as an assistant to Dick Cheney, or with one of our leading defense contractors, it might look good on his résumé. I recall that in the off-season, another famous QB was alleged to have gotten a Las Vegas waiter fired for asking a young lady in his entourage for I.D., and then (allegedly) proceeded to rape a waitress in the same hotel. Charges were dismissed. Everyone loves a dog but we’re apparently more ambivalent about cocktail waitresses, who are supposed to know how to treat famous sports stars. I don’t believe that story qualified as a scandal worthy of Fox coverage.

The second big story of the day certainly did. The jury in Perugia, after a seemingly endless trial, pronounced Amanda Knox, as well as Raffaele Sollecito her Italian boyfriend at the time, guilty of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. Whatever else can be said about the trial, which went on for about a year in scattered two day bursts of testimony, it shielded countless bars, hotels and restaurants in Perugia from the full brunt of the economic turndown, as journalists from all over the world repeatedly descended on Perugia to file updates on the case. It may have been the biggest boon to cable news since the O.J. Simpson trial.

The lead correspondent for Fox News was none other than Amanda Knox’s father, who dutifully reported that we all knew that Amanda was innocent, now it was just up to the jury to acquit. After the guilty verdict was pronounced The New York Times weighed in with a statement from Columbia University law professor George P. Fletcher saying “I think this is a scandal of the first order”, a statement which will insure him of frequent paid appearances on Fox News for the foreseeable future. He continued: “I don’t think this is an expression of anti-Americanism”.. but the verdict came about because the Italian judicial system has not “adapted correctly” to the American judicial system. Alas, Cheney-speak comes to the world of academia. Watch out Italy! The last country accused of not adapting to American standards was Iraq, and look at it now. Any day now we can expect some professor of commerce at Boise State or Yale to demand that the world drop the metric system and adopt the US (formerly British) Imperial Standards.

I confess that nearly two decades ago I wrote in unflattering terms about the Italian judicial system, where verdicts can be appealed by both the defense and the prosecution for two successive levels of review. There are other peculiarities but, as in all judicial systems, there is tension between the fairness of the process and the justice of the outcomes. Despite concern about the procedures and timing of the investigation in Italy, the Italian public appears to believe in Amanda Knox’s guilt in about the same proportion as Americans believed in O.J. Simpson’s guilt. Lucky for O.J. that some of the doubters were on the jury.

Among the American criticisms of the trial, there was mention of civil damages awarded by the jury in a criminal trial. Is this so outrageous? Despite his acquittal in a criminal trial, O.J. Simpson was effectively retried for the same crime in a civil trial, and found guilty of the crime he had been acquitted of, despite constitutional guaranties against the double jeopardy that incorrectly adapted Italian courts routinely impose. The defense in the Knox trial complained that no motive was established; yet they also complained that her character and behavior were improperly examined during the trial, something which might reasonably be deemed relevant to establishing motive.

We can quibble with the niceties of different judicial systems, and had this all happened ten years ago, I might not have taken exception to Professor Fletcher’s comments. However, he lives in a country where the Supreme Court effectively appointed George W. Bush president, a scandal of somewhat greater magnitude than anything associated with Amanda Knox. Among his own appointees, the President selected a young law graduate from a Pennsylvania Bible college, whose dedication to the Party trumped her oath of loyalty to the Constitution, to select and deselect all top US Prosecutors. His “Justice Department” authorized torture and the suspension of habeas corpus. With a murder rate five and a half times that of Italy, there are about 15,000 murders every year in the USA. The United States executes more than all but five countries in the world (places such as China, Iran and Iraq). DNA evidence has shown that in a significant percentage of these cases, an innocent person has been executed. I don’t know what Professor Fletcher could call this other than murder by the state.

Professor Fletcher’s time and effort might be better spent trying to improve the judicial system in the United States before he takes on the shortcomings of Italy. Then again, that probably wouldn’t help his chances of getting lucrative appearances on Fox News.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Teo Teo Teo

I listen to a lot of music. It started with records, then cassettes and more recently CDs. There was, and is also the radio, from Symphony Sid and Mort Fega after midnight in the sixties to WBGO on the Internet 24/7 these days. and the music just keeps on coming. Recently, my Irish neighbors lent me CDs of violin concertos played by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Irish folk music by Martin Hayes and Sharon Shannon; my supernaturally generous friend at Blue Note sent me a lot of music, ranging from the completely new to me Rosanne Cash to my longtime favorite Patricia Barber; one son-in-law, who is putting all his CDs on a monster hard drive, has presented me with a CD of the master takes of Charlie Parker with Strings as well as a 4 CD anthology of the blues. The wonderful Italian magazine Jazzit arrived the other day with a CD of JellyRoll Morton, something I wouldn’t have known to look for, but which is a sheer delight to listen to.

Amongst all the music I’ve gathered over a lifetime, one extraneous sound has lodged in my memory. At the end of Gingerbread Boy on his Miles Smiles album, Miles Davis can be heard to say to his long time producer Teo Macero “Teo, play that-- Teo, Teo, Teo”.

In 1995 when one of my daughters rescued a litter of abandoned kittens from the courtyard of her college apartment in Perugia, she found homes for all but two. We already had seven cats but my wife and I share a weakness for cats. We’ve all learned from childhood that “a dog is man’s best friend” but I’ve never thought of a best friend as someone you can train to fetch your slippers or beg for food. Apparently my masochistic streak is dominant. Whatever the explanation, we took the two cats and I was ready for the next task at hand, which was to give them names. Miles had died four years earlier but that refrain was fresh in my mind and I said, “This one is Teo”. His sister, a dark and silky gray miniature panther, I christened Tina. We never trained Teo to do anything, apart from brief efforts to make him play goalie with a ping pong ball, and my main interaction with him was to comb and brush the burrs out of his long fur in the morning. He wasn’t smart. He was castrated and long experience has led me to believe that 60% of male cats’ intelligence resides in their testicles. Still, he was good company. At night when it was time for the cats to come in, I’d go out and call “Teo Teo Teo”. I can’t play a trumpet. I don’t play any instrument at all, but that nightly ritual has always kept the presence of Miles vivid in my mind, just as I expect that Miles’ music will continue to be a reminder of Teo.

Last week we took Teo to the vet to end his long battle with a tumor that made breathing difficult and eating impossible. Tina is now the last of our cats. She too misses Teo.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Early Season Football Notes

Here in Italy there was a NFL blackout last year on SKY, our monopoly satellite TV provider. Following my resolution to drop the sports package (it requires a year’s advance notice) and who knows how many threatened lawsuits by other disgruntled football addicts, football is back on SKY TV. Not only back, but there’s a tidal wave of football, half a dozen college games from Thursday through Saturday followed by four live NFL games, all of them repeated at various hours throughout the week. After going cold turkey for a year, I feel as happy as Chet Baker in Marrakech. My eyes have been giving out after overdosing the first couple of weekends but I'm modulating my viewing, getting more sleep, and regaining some measure of equilibrium. I’m now fit and ready to join the horde of analysts on ESPN despite lacking 100 pounds of heft and a NFL resume, but they may not be ready for me.

The September schedule has produced an unprecedented amount of last minute game-changing heroics but my early analysis is focused on names and uniforms. In the early years of my football fandom when about 70% of the players were Polish-Americans from western Pennsylvania, many were named Joe, Johnny or Dick, with a sprinkling of really big guys named Alex. Rare names were truly rare. “Doak” still comes to mind. Of course the South produced a lot of Joe Dons and the Bobby Joes. As African-Americans increasingly entered the league, Roosevelt became a popular given name. In addition to one of them, my own beloved Rams had two Deacons, Deacon Dan Towler and Deacon Jones, whose number was finally retired just last week, more than three decades after his own retirement. With African-Americans now achieving even greater dominance than the Polish steelworkers once had, the names have become ever more interesting. While Jamal and Jabbar have taken the place of Joe and Johnny, we also hear of Jamarcus, Jacory, Keyshawn, Knowshon, Ladainian, Laveranues, Erick, Plaxico, Rashard and countless others. While I am a strong believer in original and well thought out names (other than the Madonna all graven images in my house are of a man named Thelonious), my inner conservative is consoled in seeing the Seattle Seahawks with a quarterback bearing the classical name Seneca.

The Seahawks typically wear what I considered the drabbest uniforms in the NFL. What they call teal looks like two shades of blue-gray in the Seattle rain. This is football, not the Civil War, and part of the joy of my childhood was seeing the parade of visiting teams in different vibrant colors. Other people may have made the same complaint. A week ago the Seahawks came out in shirts which appeared to be fluorescent lime green highway safety vests over the usual gray sleeves, possibly the ugliest sports uniforms ever seen, but you can judge for yourself. See above.

I’ve never set foot in Cleveland, Anaheim or St. Louis and spent only one night in LA, but I’ve been a life-long Rams fan, largely due to their uniforms. (It helped that the QB was married to Jane Russell.) They wore bright sun-yellow jerseys when all over America the choice was between red, white or blue. “Yellow” was synonymous with cowardly and “yellow journalism” was in disrepute before it became the norm. so the yellow was called gold. Those jerseys were replaced for a while in the 60’s because yellow didn’t show up well on b&w TV. Bright yellow, always called gold, is popular in California, with USC, UCLA and Cal all wearing it in combination with other colors. After the Rams moved from California to St. Louis and won a Superbowl in their somewhat garish yellow and blue and white outfits, they switched to a more sedate beige-like “true gold” and blue, more suitable to the Midwest. Since then they’ve nose-dived steadily to where they are now clearly the worst team in the league. I’m hoping to see a return to respectability, but at the least, a return to yellow gold.

The Rams also were the first team to decorate their helmets, when in 1948 a halfback named Fred Gehrke, who had majored in art, came up with the idea of painting rams’ horns on their helmets. Logos now give a strong sense of team identity to all but one or two teams in the league; a function perhaps more successfully carried out than their original one, which was to protect the wearer. A study released last week showed that retired NFL players between the ages of 30 and 40 have an incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s 19 times that of the population at large. No similar study has yet been done on the rate of dementia in retirees who watch upwards of nine hours of football each week.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Herding Cats

Last week Todi held its annual Arte Festival. The Comune (county) of Todi has less than twenty thousand residents, half of whom live in the city, but in addition to its three major tourist-worthy churches and a large main piazza, which has served as the set for films such as “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Romanoff and Juliet”, the city has a magnificent 140 year old theater. The orchestra seats are surrounded by four tiers of boxes in the opera house style of the 1870’s. There is also a large 18th Century palazzo, the Palazzo del Vignola, which was restored following a tragic fire in 1982. The weeklong festival utilizes all these venues and while there are numerous concerts of various types of music, the emphasis is on theater, with the Teatro Comunale hosting a different play on each night of the festival.

On Friday I attended two concerts and several art exhibits with some neighbors I had recruited. A world-class noon concert at the theater, in which Ramberto Ciammarughi improvised for over an hour on movie music from Fats Waller to Leonard Bernstein and Disney to John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, kept the audience, which may have numbered as many as 45 people, totally enthralled. After lunch we headed for a large show of paintings by Roberto Banfi Rossi, in my humble opinion one of Italy’s finest living painters (I’ve written about him last February on this blog). The glossy 88 page program stated that the show was open in the morning and from 4 to 8 in the afternoon, and indeed the building was wide open at 4 PM when we went in. The subtleties of his glazes and incredible detail were not enhanced by the fact that nobody had turned on the lights. On the way out I asked a cheerful young woman downstairs in the huge Palazzo del Vignola about it and she said, “Oh, the show doesn’t start until 6 PM”. By 6 we were at a delightful concert of Neapolitan jazz by the Marco Zurzolo Quintet. Given that all 48 seats in the beautiful little Chiostro delle Lucrezie were filled, I suppose it could be regarded as a sell-out, as well as an undeniable artistic success. The Italians present may have numbered about 15, although I suspect none were local.

A couple of weeks earlier our tiny village of Acqualoreto had its own weeklong festa. I serve on the eleven-member committee which governs the Circolo di Acqualoreto and organizes the festa. My participation is essentially by default since, excluding children and women who no longer remember what month it is or where they’ve left their teeth, eleven more or less represents a quorum of the full time winter residents. What we really do well is food. The president of the Circolo procures and prepares most of the food himself, with precious help from some of the better cooks in the village. We had no trouble filling the tent for our opening night supper in the piazza with about 200 paying customers, well over our pre-established limit of 180. Younger people in town serve the food and all the diners seemed to love it. From there on our promotional skills seem to go downhill.

An old saying states that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. My long experience with cats has taught me that you can offer them new types or food, or their regular favorites, but you can’t make them eat. Forget about teaching them to do anything else. I’ve always been amazed by circus people who manage to train lions and tigers to jump through burning hoops. Tigers are, after all, just big cats.

Our local people are easier to deal with than horses or cats. You can always get them to eat or drink. The jumping through hoops becomes more difficult. In the case of our festa, it consisted of participating in a bocce tournament and an art contest. I foolishly tried to organize a bocce tournament. While bocce is a game frequently played by older Italian men, our 16 team tournament was made up of children, some of whom re-enlisted after losing in the early matches, and recent èmigrès from Bermuda and Ireland. The hordes of Italians, who return to sit in the piazza for the month of August, continued to sit in the piazza. We set up an exhibit of the artworks done, mostly by their grandchildren, during the art contest, but none of them ventured the 100 meters to the show during its three day run. Several did buy their kid’s or grandkid’s drawings, unseen, at the auction. But then again, attendance and participation in these events by the members of the organizing committee matched that of the piazza sitters.

I suppose that there will be a festa next year, since the people all say they are happy that there’s a festa. They just don’t want to get involved, except of course, to eat. My own involvement has brought me little satisfaction, but on the positive side, every year brings me a greater understanding of how Mussolini came to be so popular in Italy, before he wasn’t.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mission Drift

In my youth I argued continuously with my father about just about everything. One disagreement I remember particularly well was between his assertion that the purpose of General Motors was to make money and my counter argument that its purpose was to make cars. If he were still around today, Buick would have at least one faithful customer and we would probably be having the same argument, but it turns out that GM has failed us both.

Despite lack of agreement over just what its mission was, there’s little doubt that mission drift was central to the bankruptcy of the company. Instead of just making cars efficiently, GM got into providing health care for its workers and financing for its customers, with disastrous long term results.

I once had some stock in ITT, which had been International Telephone and Telegraph before it started making Wonder Bread, renting cars and running hotels, until it diversified itself out of existence.

In the public sector, the US Department of Defense became so immersed in creating weapons systems for unlikely wars, and promoting unnecessary wars to use or sell the products it developed, that a whole new Department of Homeland Security had to be invented to assume the neglected original core functions of the DOD.

Money is a strong motivator, as essential to most types of activity as air is to fire, but unbeknownst to GOP politicians, there are other reasons for doing things, and when money starts to drive out the other motivations, we often see the entity lose focus and degenerate. Local events here have recently brought this to mind more than ever.

Umbria Jazz was founded in 1973. Its mission seemed to be to enrich the cultural life of Umbria by providing a showcase for this vital modern music. Carlo Pagnatta was genius at organizing the festival, and if the mission was as I’ve outlined, his success was phenomenal, despite a few bumps in the road in the early years. He managed to line up governmental and private sponsors along with the world’s best musicians. The festival took off, to the point of expanding to Orvieto for a winter version, and occasionally to places far beyond. I believe the organizers still do truly love jazz but the sponsors and city fathers may love the festival even more. Seeing how much money tourists bring to the city to hear jazz, apparently somebody decided that even vaster sums could be generated by bringing in pop groups to appeal to the wider public. There is still some wonderful jazz at Umbria Jazz but the main concerts are now in a stadium (shown above) instead of the smaller and magnificent Frontoni Gardens. This year’s headline performers included such jazz greats as the Simply Red and Burt Bacharach. No doubt the money pouring into Perugia is more abundant than ever but the festival is well past its glory days as a cultural event. Celebrity sells! Maybe next year we’ll see Berlusconi’s teenage friend Noemi Letizia brought in as mistress of ceremonies.

Here in the little village of Acqualoreto we’ve just held our summer festival. The festa pays for itself and it has paid for the opening of our small clubhouse and bar. We have events such as an art contest, a bocce tournament, theater, a card tournament, concerts and film, all designed to enliven the village and entertain the people, although since we’re in Italy the vast majority of activity revolves around eating. So far it has worked fairly well, but I do see a tendency to value the events in terms of how much money they bring in rather than how much they contribute to the community. Lotteries are a big hit with the committee. They contribute nothing to village life but they do bring in reams of money.

Yes, money is important. GM factories and jazz festivals go silent without it and when our little festa loses money, that will be the end of it. But as we’ve seen with Enron and Bernie Madoff, the health insurance companies and the banksters, when money becomes the only motivation, the world becomes a desert.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Ninth Circle of Heaven

Monotheism can be a drag. It inhibits our natural human tendency to elevate revered figures to the status of gods. I’ve been building my own pantheon from the worlds of sports, politics, cinema and especially jazz all my life, evidence of which can be seen here. This One God concept is in direct contrast to our highest goals of democratic capitalism, i.e. maximum consumer choice.

One might think that monotheism would bring the peoples of the world together, but the Middle East alone has spawned three separate monotheistic traditions. While neither the Jewish version of an eye-for-an-eye God nor the Islamic version of a God urging perpetual jihad has done a whole lot for world brotherhood, one would think that Christ’s message of loving one’s neighbor as thyself could have helped us all get along, but the idea never gained much traction, no matter how numerous His professed followers have become.

In our polarized society it seems only fair that I should be able to worship Venus and Bacchus while my Republican friends openly profess their devotion to Mars. For some time now Neo-Cons have elevated Ayn Rand to the status of goddess, despite public protestations of devotion to the One God. Some prominent GOP figures of a strong Christian bent have recently been confusing their constituents and their congregations by appearing to have divided loyalties. Those good folk in SC and NV should remember that Jesus Himself said: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…”, suggesting His acknowledgement of dual loyalties.

The Catholic Church has accommodated our irrepressible urges toward polytheism through the creation of saints. This works up to a point, but its limitation is in its insistence that its saints measure up to the relatively conventional standards of piety exalted by monotheism.

Working within the limits of Catholic tradition, Dante Alighieri elaborated the various regions in Hell with spaces reserved for every species of sinner. Alas, Hell has fallen out of fashion lately; other than in the occasional invective that we hurl at our enemies, “May you rot in Hell”. However, references to Heaven still do occur with some frequency, as in ”she’s moved on to a better place”

Following Dante’s lead, (but not too far) I would suggest that that there are different circles of Paradise. Our Muslim brethren have led the way with their special designated zones for martyrs, but the fascination with people of self-destructive urges is not confined to Islam. We regularly assign our greatest esteem to people with such tendencies. My personal jazz pantheon may feature Miles, Monk and Trane but the real gods of the jazz world remain Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, whose sublime skills were matched by their unrelenting urges toward self-annihilation. Still, they remain minor gods, since their talent was never appreciated in the wider society.

There is a special circle of heaven reserved for the celebrity gods, those larger than life personages who capture the imagination and devotion of the teeming masses. Many aspire to it but few arrive. The requisites for popular canonization are ambiguous but surely, Blondie’s advice to “die young, stay pretty” is fundamental. A long productive life and happy dotage just won’t cut it. We’ve seen Liberace lose his spot in celebrity heaven by overstaying.

The good news is that the elite ninth circle of heaven is now complete. Michael has joined Elvis and Diana to form the perfect triad of popular gods. At future memorial ceremonies marking the decades, a larger number of the weeping matrons placing large bouquets at the various temples and shrines will be black, which seems only fair in this day and age, although in truth, at recent appearances Michael seemed almost as white as Diana. Never mind. Michael’s shrine at Neverland will rival that of Graceland. Despite the news that Diana’s shrine at Althorp House has been closed due to a diminishing number of visitors, we’re confident that when William eventually ascends to the throne, pilgrimages and worship services will return to levels of the glory days.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Paramus, Umbria

Being born and growing up within five miles of the intersection of Route 4 and Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey has conditioned my whole life. Route 4 connected Bergen County to the George Washington Bridge and Route 17 was a major highway, which carried thousands of New Yorkers to the Catskills on weekends throughout the summer. While other towns had severe residential zoning and restrictions on commercial development, Paramus was a free for all. Both of these four-lane highways came to be lined with stores of all kinds and from the 50’s until the 70’s shopping centers grew like cancer along both, rendering them useless for travel other than from one shopping center to another. Alternate highways, such as Route 80 and the Garden State Parkway were built at great expense to take traffic from the increasingly clogged older roads. This process was going on throughout the United States but I believe Paramus was the leader, the first and worst in the development of the suburban sprawl model. With the growth of the Bergen Mall and the enormous Garden State Plaza, the nearby downtown shopping areas went into irreversible decline. Hackensack, the county seat, was seriously impoverished, but the larger and once bustling city of Paterson, established by Alexander Hamilton to be the major industrial city of the east coast, simply was transformed into a large depressed ghetto. It took years but the wealthy neighboring town of Ridgewood eventually lost all its fashionable shops, replaced by a tidal wave of new restaurants serving the increasingly rich population of nobody’s ever home families.

How did all this condition my life? Well, Paramus was one more element that made me want to get as far away as possible, for example to a city or village where every movement is not necessarily by car. I’ve lived in Italy since the early 1970’s so I thought I had escaped, but one should never underestimate the power of progress.

Perugia sits on a big hill with the Tiber Valley passing below it to the east. One of Umbria’s main north-south highways, E45, passes through this valley connecting Terni and Rome to the south with Cesena and other cities to the north. The A1 autostrada is half an hour to the west and , except for some coastal roads, most north-sout traffic in Italy is on A1 or E45

Sometime following WWII, a Jewish philanthropist owned a large parcel of land in Collestrada adjacent to the path of the highway. He wanted to set up a summer camp for poor children on the land. Most Italians in such circumstances would donate their resources to a charity run by the Church, but being Jewish, he decided to entrust the land to the Comune of Perugia to be used as the site for the desired facilities. Alas, the city or provincial fathers knew better. They decided that the land could be put to better use by putting a big shopping center on it. There was some resistance but when large commercial interests are at stake, resistance has a way of being overcome.

Some scandals did come out of the construction of the center, built around a IperCoop market, with one of the developers doing some jail time, but they seemed to concern payoffs in the construction process rather than the misappropriation of the land.

The commercial center is less ugly than most and the COOP ipermarket is one of the best places to shop in the Perugia area. The Italians apparently learned something, a little at least, from Paramus. E45 is a limited access highway so there is no direct entry to any of the big stores that now line the road. Nevertheless, on major shopping days, traffic running up and down Italy on E45 is totally blocked near the Collestrada exits and there is no alternate route. The point of blockage is just a kilometer or two before the turnoff for the rapidly expanding Perugia airport, so if you’re flying out of Perugia it’s wise to check if your departure date is on a big shopping day or not. For shoppers, the whole idea of monster shopping centers is a leisurely wandering and choosing from the glut of stuff, so the delays are a minor inconvenience. For the long distance travelers, both private and commercial, it’s one more unwelcome incitement to road rage. As for those poor children, well, they never carried much weight in the deliberations over what to do with the land donated to their welfare.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Grand Tour Jazz Fest 09 starts well

Last night the Grand Tour Jazz Fest 09 got started at the Parco delle Fonte in San Gemini with the Iiro Rantala New Trio. The weather was cold, damp and threatening so at the last minute the Vanni brothers wisely moved the concert indoors to the auditorium adjacent to the park. While the auditorium lacks the magic of the park, on this night the magic was in the music.

Wine critics who write of hints of mint or suggestions of walnut, raspberries, anything, that is, except grapes, have always amused me, but at the risk of sounding just as silly, I’ll try to suggest the flavor of this very original Finnish trio, made up of Iiro Rantala on piano, Marzi Nyman on electric guitar, and Felix Zenger on beatbox. The beatbox, which amplifies and distorts sounds made orally by the performer, substitutes for a bass, drums and percussion, and adds some original zoo-like sounds. Given my age, I prefer the traditional instruments, but this kid is a phenomenon, both entertaining to see and hear, and effective in contributing to the musical concept. Marzi Nyman seems to be a hairless Frank Zappa. He sang in a couple of numbers, his voice as wildly distorted as his electronically modified guitar playing. While Zappa is his model, I detected hints of Jimi Hendrix and George Benson in his playing. Iiro Rantala resembles Bennie Hill and projects a similar zany persona. Like the Danish performer Victor Borge before him, he subverts the sweet romantic classical playing that he’s so good at with an irrepressible tendency to veer off in comic detours. At times he leads the group into swelling passages that conjure soundtracks for really big movies, with Nyman adding symphonic effects, while at other times he does his take on boogie-woogie. Rantala described his composition A Chick from Korea as having three parts: a Finnish tango, a funk section (very electronic), followed by Norwegian art jazz, and the music perfectly followed that unlikely scenario. All told, an astonishing and entertaining concert, brilliantly performed. The audience loved it and I think the performers had just as much fun.

Next up is the Omer Avital Band of the East at the Chiostro Boccarino in Amelia. There’s also a wonderful exhibit of black and white photos in Terni throughout the festival by Roberto Paolillo, the son of the famous jazz producer Arrigo Paolillo. It contains images of visiting American jazz legends, from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman in the 60’s and 70’s. On Thursday Kurt Rosenwinkel will be at the Abbazia di San Pietro in Valle.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Sienese Invasion

Years ago, when visiting Umbria for the first time, my brother exclaimed: “My God, what wretched lives these people must have lived!”. This was in response to his first sight of the once gated portals and crenellated towers enclosing Todi, an experience that more commonly evokes comments such as “How lovely” from the bewitched tourists.

He was right of course. Life in medieval Umbria was no doubt short, hard and cruel. City-states frequently attacked neighboring towns and those walls and portals were not there for decorative purposes, no matter how decorated they were, nor how attractive they may appear to us today. What escaped him was the irony of the fact that while the portals of Todi are no longer closed, those of his own gated community are not only closed, but also defended by armed guards around the clock.

The most popular anecdote routinely told to Todi visitors is about the façade of the Church of San Fortunato. It has remained unfinished since the late 1400’s when people came from Orvieto to put out the eyes of the architect, so that he couldn’t create a rival for the façade of their own splendid cathedral.

In the future, our children may have a sequel. While I’m unaware of any further threat from Orvieto, we may be under some sort of stealth attack from Siena. Why Siena? I can only guess. Tuscany received the first big influx of foreign settler money and after everything there has become overpriced and overcrowded, some of the surplus foreign money started flowing to Umbria. Just as Orvieto had its own great cathedral, the Sienese have had plenty foreign investment but perhaps, like the old Orvietani, they don’t want to see a neighboring territory share the wealth and the glory.

The evidence? In the past several years, an architect from Siena, Andrea Milani, has secured three major commissions in the Todi area: the Parco Fluviale in Ponte Rio; a new office building on the site of the old olive oil consortium in Todi; and the renovation of the old convent of San Bartolomeo in Ceccanibbi. This isn’t necessarily unusual, or evidence of an attack, given that once architects get their foot in a regional door, they always try to branch out with multiple local commissions. While I’ve studied neither the first nor the last of these projects in any great detail, and I continue to hope for the best, the new office/retail building (ex-elaiopolio tuderte), just across the street from the medieval wall, has raised the specter of a regional invasion. While there have been no news of bombings of Umbrian wineries, this assault seems more in the spirit and methodology of the Greek invasion of Troy. Rather than a crude attack on the city, say by sending 50 progress-crazed geometre to plan 100 new industrial warehouses on the farmland below Todi, the attack has been brought by a smooth talking architect speaking in glowing terms (on his website) of the opportunity to bring contemporary architecture to a site of particular historic/environmental interest. The florid descriptions of the rich materials to be used and their dialog with the antique walls are too poetic for me to adequately translate. If you can read Italian, I suggest you read it for yourself here under progetti, nuove architetture, No.2.

The emerging building is not quite complete, although a supermarket has opened in the basement this week. The building’s huge glazed areas are framed in gleaming, untinted aluminum and the walls, which were a dazzling white, smooth concrete, have been darkened down somewhat in recent weeks. Perhaps it really is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear although at this writing, the silk purse has yet to emerge, and there is no trace of the delicately perforated weathered copper sheathing specified to cover the left side of the building. The deeply striated stucco surface of the right side of the building still seems as smooth as a plain sheet of paper.

There is some irony in the fact that the building houses a supermarket. We used to shop in a tiny supermarket just across the street in what we referred to as the hole in the wall, literally a simple unmarked door in the ancient wall of the town (first door on the right in the picture). That shop was driven out of business by the opening of four new and larger supermarkets in the Todi area.

Questions remain. What’s behind it? Has the ufficio tecnico of Todi been infiltrated by hostile Sienese? Have an architect’s noble intentions once again been subverted by a budget-cutting owner? Was the project submitted for approval as per description on the web site, or as built? If as described, what is the city doing about it? I visited the technical office hoping for answers. The clerks there told me that the director of the office who had approved the project no longer held that position. I don’t know if he was a political appointee who had been replaced after the recent change of administration, or was simply a disgruntled retiring employee taking revenge on the city for imagined slights. Those in the office conceded that there had been a flood of protests and they couldn’t imagine how such a building could have been approved for such a site.

Finally, a plea to our Sienese brethren. Please halt the invasion. Keep sending us your wine and your panforte and your ricciarelli and caciotta di Siena, but if it’s not asking too much, please keep your architects at home, or at least out of Umbria. Grazie.

Postscripts: While it’s in my protestant nature to protest more than most, I should say that in my years here I’ve been impressed with the efforts of Todi to keep new development compact and in reasonable harmony with the existing ancient city. Adjacent to the new building there's a middle school with a long parking lot several meters below the main road along the wall. A sidewalk has recently been built along the road supported by new columns, creating not only the sidewalk but also a sheltered area below, stairs, and a covered pavilion where kids can wait for a school bus or their parents. The concrete, brick, steel and glass employed have a modern look and feel, but seem to fit in comfortably with the old walls across the road. At the end of this area, a one-story nondescript computer shop was recently torn down, to be replaced by a two-story building. The ground floor has display windows, as before, but the addition above has a stone wall with a series of small square windows, with a sloping tile roof above. Call it post-modern if you want, or perhaps pre-modern, but it’s functional and fits well with the look of the town. Such developments make the big new building all the more mystifying and discouraging.

For any of you interested in urban issues, a friend of ours, Frank Gruber has recently reported on a Congress for the New Urbanism for Huffington Post. It’s a fascinating and informative series of reports.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Local Politics:Left, Right and Wrong- Part 2

Two planning mistakes, similar to the proposed artisan zone, have been made in the past several decades. In 1972 the national or perhaps regional government decided that Umbria should produce more meat. A seventy-meter long block and eternit barn was built just down the hill from Acqualoreto, paid for with government subsidies. It lasted something like six months, maybe even a year or two, before going out of business. After 37 years, the barn remains a scar on the landscape. There are apparently no subsidies for tearing down such eyesores. Perhaps it could house the new artisan activity, but then, building in virgin woods is no doubt cheaper than rehabilitating a huge dilapidated shack.

Acqualoreto, Collelungo and Morre each had their own elementary schools. The post-war exodus left too few children to support the three schools, so rather than close two of them and expand one, it was decided to construct a new school at the intersection of the roads leading to the three villages, on previously unbuilt land. Unlike the livestock barn, the school is not an eyesore, but it is located on a curving three-way intersection, which is hazardous enough for motorists without the addition of a schoolfull of children. More important, all the children and teachers arrive every day by school bus or car from the villages, which are two to four kilometers away. This may be just as well, since the roads connecting the villages are narrow and rigorously devoid of sidewalks. Thus, while we’ve avoided periodic human roadkill, we’ve done nothing to alleviate the epidemic of childhood obesity.

The political decision may have been astute since it left all the villages equally unhappy but none jealous of the others for receiving favored treatment. Nevertheless, it was and remains an environmental error, despite seeming just the way it always was to the recent generations, born after its construction.

Umbria is a gorgeous region, one of the least populated in Italy. Much of it has been defaced in recent years by ill-considered development. This is one small area that has remained relatively intact and every year it attracts more and more visitors. Turning it into just another nondescript zone of marginal industry, besides being an affront to nature, will have negative economic consequences for the area.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

local Politics:Left, Right and Wrong- Part 1

We are currently in the midst of a local election campaign to see who will run the municipal government of Baschi, a comune of about 3000 residents spread over a large area of mountains, forests and hilly farmland. Our “mountain zone”, about 24 km from the main town of Baschi, contains three villages of 200 or so, plus two smaller villages, all within a radius of about four or five kilometers.. The center left and center right coalitions will compete and the center left will probably prevail, as they traditionally have for decades. There’s little ideology involved. Everyone wants better roads, more tourism, school improvements, better lighting, etc., and the Comune struggles to do its best with limited resources. They’ve done a pretty good job considering the difficulties.

However, one proposal of the ruling coalition is controversial. More than controversial, it’s just flat wrong. The zoning map calls for a new “artisan zone” down the hill from Collelungo, on the road to Todi. In the winter landscape at the top of this page, the two villages of Collelungo and Morre sit atop the hills, and the proposed industrial site is the light green area to the right of the big tree.

Some 15 years ago, a similar proposal for an industrial zone on this site was heroically fought by the late Nino Cordio, an artist who lived next door to the site. He took the fight through the Department of the Environment and the high courts, with the industrial zone eventually being declared unconstitutional, as I recall, because it had been conceived for the exclusive benefit of one family. This family has a saw mill in Collelungo and wanted to expand down the hill where the trailer trucks bringing large logs would not have to navigate the extremely steep and winding road up to the village. The owners subsequently opened a new mill in a flat industrial zone some 25 km to the south.

What brought on the new assault on the environment I don’t really know. Some cynics say that the mill owners still want to expand locally and they have “invested” a lot of money in approvals and demand payback. My own understanding is that EU rules reward local government with subsidies for establishing industrial zones, and the Comune doesn’t want to lose the money. However, the official line is that there is a need to stimulate the creation of local jobs, and that tourism is not enough. This is short-sighted nonsense!

First of all, the beauty of Umbria resides in the fact that its medieval villages are compact and surrounded by lush countryside. Towns, villages and cities are by definition, places of human life and activity. They need new activity at times and workshops would be welcome additions, but not at the cost of despoiling the surrounding countryside. This region was abandoned en masse by its tenant farmers after their post-WWII liberation. Starting in the 70’s the empty farmhouses were bought and renovated by writers and artists from Rome, later joined by an influx of foreigners, all attracted by the quiet unspoiled beauty of the place. The local people who remain derive most of their income from providing services to the outsiders. Many are builders who do their renovations and additions, others clean their houses, tend their gardens and pick their olives. There is also tourism, given that many houses are rented, and restaurants, staffed by locals, are mostly supported by outsiders.

Local natives may hope their children can find work near home but when they send them off to a university, their aspirations are not to see these sons and daughters return to work in some mechanic’s shop in the woods. There’s a huge demand for electricians, plumbers and construction workers here but few local youth seem to be interested in these trades. Construction firms resort to getting workers from Eastern Europe and North Africa. I’m told that a few local businesses do hire trainees at a minimum wage and get government subsidies for doing so. When the training period ends, so does the work, until the process can be started again. There’s little protest, as the workers are typically foreigners and come and go like migrant birds. More can always be recruited.

When I mentioned the dubious nature of the hoped-for jobs to some aspirants to the Town Council the other evening, they said, oh, but there could be good jobs such as web site designers. Wonderful! Such activities are carried out now in nearby Todi and could easily be accommodated in any of the local villages. They don’t require a shack in the woods! Most of our roads are hilly, narrow, curvy, and full of potholes, which the Comune struggles in vain to fill. The last thing we need is a growing flotilla of oversized trailer trucks to service new industries of questionable viability.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Live Music and Background Music

Last week I brought a CD of Blossom Dearie to to our weekly International Happy Hour at the Circolo of Acqualoreto to honor her memory (she died in February at 82) and celebrate her birthday. For those who don't know, hers was the anonymous female voice on King Pleasure's classic recording of Moody's Mood for Love. That bit of information I picked up from either Symphony Sid or Mort Fega in the 60's when their midnight to 4 AM shows were the only jazz to be found on the radio in NYC, the Jazz Capital of the World.

We talk at the Circolo so probably nobody heard her. (A critic once said her voice couldn't make it to the second floor of a dollhouse.) That's OK, because this wasn't a concert, she's dead, and we come to socialize, not to listen to music. However, it got me to thinking about the idea of background music vs. live music.

I'm neurotically respectful of performing musicians. When my wife calls saying "dinner is ready" and I'm listening to a record or CD, I have trouble turning it off in mid-track since it feels disrespectful. Logic would suggest that it's more disrespectful toward her. This isn't something I learned at home. My older brother took violin lessons and I don't recall being overly reverential when he practiced. More likely, it was fear, the fear induced years later at the Half Note in New York when the volcanic Charles Mingus reacted to the lack of respect he detected in some of the club's noisy patrons (not me, I hasten to add). Mingus, a giant
physically as well as musically, had an ability to intimidate his audience every bit as impressive as his compositional skills. Thus, the lesson that musicians are to be respected was permanently etched into my consciousness some fifty years ago.

My most recent encounter with similar purposeful truculence was at Iridium in NYC six years ago. Tony Scott, my former neighbor in Rome, was in town to play a week with another veteran clarinetist, Buddy De Franco. On the evening that I knew to be his 82nd birthday, I went to celebrate, bringing him a nice bottle of Italian wine. His children and wives were all in the room for the occasion and I sat at a tiny central table at the edge of the stage. At one point Tony was in mid-solo, standing right over me, when a waiter, seeing my empty glass, insistently asked if I wanted another. Embarrassed, I silently waved to signal yes, but it was too late. Tony stopped the music and let fly a string of expletives at the waiter before returning to his interrupted solo.

One of the unsung joys of life in Italy is that jazz clubs often have separate bars for talking and drinking, and listening rooms, where the music is played and listened to.

Mingus and Tony Scott are no longer with us, and now Blossom Dearie too is gone. I never had the pleasure of seeing her perform. She played exclusive clubs, such as the Hotel Carlyle, in New York's upper East Side, which are out of my zone. I wonder how those patrons behaved with respect to her dollhouse voice and her magical way with words.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lipstick on a Pig

Perugia's new "Silvestrini" Hospital was inaugurated last month. For the occasion a slick new entrance canopy was added and part of the facade was painted red. The main building was built in the 80's and inaugurated in 1985 but since then Perugia has had two hospitals, the old in-town Policlinico of Monteluce, and Silvestrini, on a hill about 6km. from the town center. With the closing of Monteluce last December, all medical facilities have been tranferred to Silvestrini, now renamed "Santa Maria della Misericordia, Polo Ospedaliero Unico di Perugia". New buildings have been added and more are coming The medical school of the Perugia University has moved to the new hospital, although classrooms, residence halls and most student apartments remain back in the Monteluce neighborhood on the northeast side of the city.

The "new" unified Perugia Hospital is just one of a number of new hospitals in Umbria. I have no quarrel with the medical services provided by these hospitals and have faith in the qualifications and skills of the doctors working in them. It is to be hoped that the unification of the hospitals will create efficiencies in the provision of medical care.

At the recent inauguration the Umbrian politicians were in a self-congratulatory mode of celebration as unwarranted as it was unsurprising. I've googled and googled to find out who was responsible for the design but it seems to be a well kept secret. The opening of new hospitals follows a pattern, which is questionable at best. In Perugia, just as in Città di Castello, Gubbio, Orvieto, and soon for Todi and Marsciano, new hospitals have been built well outside the cities served, and the old hospitals in town have been closed, with mixed but mostly negative consequences for the cities.

While I'm not a hospital designer, I do know that hospital design is complex and the techical requirement make the buildings among the most expensive of all building types. The costs involved and the need for frequent expansion conspire to make most hospitals less than architectural jewels. Without doubt it's easier to design and build on virgin land than to renovate and enlarge existing facilities. Silvestrini was built 25 years ago and the consolidation was determined at least a decade ago. Roads to this new hospital have not been completed yet. The unshaded parking lots cover almost all the space around the buildings. They are being expanded ever outward but for years have been inadequate even for the old building. I have commented before on the horrible traffic patterns of lower Perugia. Highway signage is possibly the most confusing in the world and this inability to indicate directions has been extended right into the maze-like interiors of the hospital. There are various reception desks throughout the hospital, but ask a person staffing one of these posts where a certain office is and you'll get a wave of the hand and "to the right at the end of the hall", the hall simply leading to another maze of unmarked or badly marked corridors.

The worst of the planning involved mass transit, or the lack thereof. Most hospital patients not arriving by ambulance are almost certainly going to get to the hospital by car, and doctors, having busy schedules and high self esteem, will always arrive by car. Many other people, nurses, technicians, cooks, and visitors, could reasonably get to the hospital by public transportation

In this decade, a Mini Metro was planned and built to take people in small cars from the main train station (and intermediate points) to the city center. People on the political right hate it because it was an iniative of the center left government, while those on the left praise it because it's an iniative of their government. The critics claim that it is underutilized, noisy and cost way too much (€98 million to build and €25,000 daily to operate). The left takes pride in the fact that the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Jean Nouvel, was engaged to design the stations, and that it is an innovative means of urban transportation. There is merit in all of these views. The scandal is that this little Metro, conceived, designed and built in this century, does not go to a hospital that has been under construction for twenty-five years. There are plans to extend it to the hospital, just as there are plans to complete the roads, enlarge the parking lots, and eventually add a little landscaping, but why was this not done before the hospital took over the functions, such as the medical school, that were housed at Monteluce.

Seven years ago, Prof. Umberto Veronesi, a world renowned oncologist who had been appointed Minister of Health, wrote a wonderful description of a model hospital, which he wanted to be the basis for all new hospitals in Italy. The plan was brilliant and humane. Unfortunately, the realization of new hospitals in Umbria has not lived up to the model, especially with regard to the integration of the hospitals into the community. My concern is less about how well the new hospitals function than about the impact of the suburbanization of the hospitals on the affected cities. The world is facing the duel challenges of energy shortage and climate change. Italy's hospital planners act as if we're in the 1950's. There is a plan, drawn up by the competition- winning German architects Bolles Wilson, for the Monteluce property. The plan calls for a hotel, new housing, shops and meeting spaces. Will it be realized in this time of economic crisis? The hospital brought large numbers of well paid workers, students and visitors to Monteluce every day. They will soon be gone. Will the new plan fill the void? What will bring new residents and workers to the emptied-out neighborhood?

Who put the lipstick on the pig? Cynics on the right say it's the left-wing government that wants to paint everything red. Others say it was Jean Nouvel, who also painted the trim of the MiniMetro the same red. The Perugia soccer club's colors are also red and white. Does it matter? Lipstick or not, the pig is still a pig.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Rites of Spring

Despite the economic crisis and the earthquake tragedy in L'Aquila, life goes on, and we're in a season of celebration and renewal. A few evenings ago I attended my second Passover Seder ever and we're now in the lead-up to Easter. It's that magical moment when the dreariness of a long gray winter gives way to an outpouring of color.

Both Seders I've attended have been involved with a writer named Ruth Gruber. In the first, the Seder was at the home of a close friend who had come to America with his family on the one ship authorized to bring refugees from Europe during WWII, a voyage documented by Ruth Gruber in her book, Haven, the Unknown Story of 1000 WWII Refugees. My wife and daughter and I were the only gentiles at that Seder. This year I participated in a Seder hosted by a younger writer, our neighbor and friend, Ruth Ellen Gruber. As it turned out, Ruth was outnumbered 10 to 1 by gentiles but she did an excellent job of guiding us through the ritual and explaining the miracle of the Passover. The miracle she didn't explain was how matzoh balls could taste so good. While I'm in no position to judge her religious officiating, she did seem to have some divine guidance in the kitchen.

It got me to thinking that perhaps I should host a celebration of some Calvinist holiday for my neighbors in Italy, but short of Thanksgiving, which has long been rather ecumenical (and which we have introduced to a number of Italian friends), I couldn't remember any. Come to think of it, communion in our Dutch Reformed (later Presbyterian) church, was celebrated with grape juice, which may have something to do with my being a lapsed Protestant, although I'm told I do still tend to protest a lot.

Next week our fourth grandchild is due to be born. I hope they'll name him Tiberio, but between children and grandchildren this is the seventh baby I've hoped to see named Tiberio. Due to an accident of birth, I grew up in an American family but for much of my life I've felt that Rome was my spiritual home, and of all the beautiful Roman names, Tiberio is my personal favorite. Easter is here and with its celebration comes the end of Lenten sacrifices. Jack Daniels will reappear. So here's to Tiberio, or Jack or Daniel or whoever he'll be. Salute!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Out of Exile

It was a good omen when the cats never uttered a sound on the way home. When we had gone to Perugia three months ago to escape the daily rigors of fetching firewood and the terror of heating bills, they sang a sad lament all the way, and once inside the apartment, they hid under the bed for two weeks. Now they're home, taking the sun in the morning and sitting by the fire in the evening.

Our own return was traditional in that upon our arrival, Filotea, the most generous and prolific cook in the village, presented us with a large batch of freshly made fettucine. While she suggested it would be good to freeze them right away, I would have none of that, so we cooked and devoured most of them right away. Thank you Filotea. Yesterday, our second full day back, we joined the rest of the villagers at the funeral of Romana, a 95 year old woman we'd seen every morning for many years waiting in the piazza for the bread delivery van to appear. Later, we foreigners gathered for our weekly Happy Hour at the Circolo. This week's discussion centered around the AIG bonus scandal. Yes, even here in rural Umbria, people are outraged. The day's best arguments on the subject come from Gail Collins, on the lighter side, and Eliot Spitzer, with a meatier analysis.

Perugia was OK. We enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time with two of our grandchildren and their parents. Just as August is not the ideal time to spend in Miami if you want to visit that city, the three months of winter are not the ideal time for a sojourn in Perugia, although it served our purpose and it gave me a chance to know the city a little better.

I see Perugia as three distinct zones, corresponding roughly with heaven, purgatory and hell. The compact hilltop center can be seen as a paradise for pedestrians. Corso Vannucci, the main street, is a wide avenue, closed to traffic, and always full of people. Along with Perugia's stepped and arched streets, it is prominently feutured in a wonderful book I've had for nearly 40 years, Streets for People, by Bernard Rudofsky. The book is a tribute to the world's most pedestrian friendly places, many of them being in Italy. It also gave me another little push toward moving here.

Unfortunately, just outside the medieval walls enclosing the center, the more recently built neighborhoods that continue down the steep hillsides have been built with the "rational" idea of having the streets follow the contours of the land. (Oh, if only the crackpots who had imposed the rectangular grid on San Francisco had operated here!) The result is a serpentine weave of long, looping, terraced streets that make short distances seem immense. From my daughter's balcony you can look down on a supermarket about 400 or 500 meters away and the equivalent of 15 stories below. Walking up with a lot of groceries is beyond the abilities of the aged or infirm and there is no simple and direct path to walk, so going there typically involves a 2 or 3 km trip by car, assuming we use one or two slightly illegal shortcuts to avoid long loops on one way streets. Otherwise the trip might run to 10 km. There are some straight (up or) down the hillside streets (we lived on one) but they often have one lane for parking, one for traffic, and no sidewalks. What could be a small area, easy to traverse on foot, has become a zone almost completely given over to short trips by car, with all the attendant problems of parking.

Once you get to the bottom of the hill, the new Perugia (Zone 3- Hell) begins. The flatter terrain should have meant easier and better planning. Instead the city fathers went with the 1960's American strip mall pattern and we have an unplanned nightmare of of big box stores and factories on roads divided into right and left turn lanes forcing you to go to God knows what other anonymous horror of a place. The outer circles of this hell spread well beyond the city limits to other growing towns which have engulfed the surrounding countryside, leaving the occasional old rural building sitting in the midst of mostly garish new strip malls and apartment buildings. Perhaps the worst is Via Settevalle, a complex series of chainlike one way roads resembling an urban road racing circuit. Just as lane markers identify the pit lane of such circuits, here they determine the direction you must take at the end of each 500-800 meter straightaway. Obviously pedestrians are banned here, and when someone accelerating to swerve to the other lane happens to crash into another car slowing to pit at the parking lot of a big box store, the police (race wardens?) also must arrive by motorized vehicle to sort out the mess. Despite my love of auto racing, shopping on a F1 circuit has little appeal.

Note: Objectivity requires mention that younger members of my family find a paradise in this hell. Inside those big boxes can be found all manner of stuff, from Chinese electronics to cars, to baby accessories, clothes, housewares, and international kitch. Being of an age where I no longer have any further need or desire for more stuff, I can only tender my apologies to the makers and vendors of stuff for not doing more to support the economy. My only possible help for Perugia's economy is to suggest that they put more people to work building sidewalks and stairs.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Karrin Allyson closes Terni in Jazz Winter Season

On Saturday night I had my first chance to hear a live performance of Karrin Allyson and I'm happy that I made the effort and the 180 km round trip to do so. The other three members of this fine quartet were Ed Howard on bass, Todd Strait on drums, and Rod Freeman on guitar. The concert, in the comfortable Palazzo Gazzoli Auditorium, started off in a bossa nova vein with Allyson singing in a fluent Portuguese, and a good deal of the concert followed that direction, although there was also a Joni Mitchell song in the mix. My favorite of the evening was a lively vocal interpretation of Hank Mobley's "The Turnaround", enough so that, after the concert, to fill in a notable gap in my record collection, I bought Allyson's Footprints CD, which contains that number along with many other vocal interpretations of jazz instrumentals. I recommend it.

While Allyson's voice and delivery are completely her own, the slight raspiness in her voice on slow tunes and her sex-kittenish manner and delivery made me think of the late Eartha Kitt. It was a fitting end to the excellent winter season of Terni in Jazz. If you get a chance to hear Karrin Allyson in person, by all means, go!

From the 40's through the 70's, jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington were very much a part of the shared popular culture. Three female jazz singers, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn tended to monopolize media attention, despite the fact that there were many other great singers around. As specialized radio and the internet gained our attention, audiences were fragmented and channeled into ever more narrow categories, so that the only singers who gain wide recognition appear to be those who provide salacious videos and keep their names on the pages of gossip magazines and police blotters. Nevertheless, after the passing of the three great ladies of jazz, a remarkable number of first rate female jazz singers has emerged. None of them has arrived at a dominance of the category the way Ella or Sarah did, but instead we have an all-star team of a dozen or a score of really excellent singers, all of whom deserve wider audiences. Karrin Allyson is part of that imposing team.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lent and the Inner Conservative

Like all Americans of my generation raised in moderate Republican, suburban homes, by the time the Reagan revolution signalled the extinction of that slice of the American political pie, I had found a new political home. Giving in to the assurances of my multi-cultural urban friends that fears of John F. Kennedy's blind allegiance to the Pope were unfounded, I adopted the identity of "liberal". After years of GOP efforts to redefine the term as an obscenity, and the cowardly acquiescence of Democrats hiding behind the "progressive" label, I persist in my auto definition as "liberal". Please note that the opposite of liberal is illiberal, not conservative. Indeed, while people like me were shifting their allegiance to JFK and his party, the more radical elements of our sheltered communities, inspired by a poisonous melange of watered down futurism and the unadulterated bile of objectivism, embraced a nihilistic, social Darwinist creed bizarrely described ever since in the popular media as "conservative".

The 100th anniversary of the publication of the Futurist Manifesto passed largely unnoticed last week. It's a shame since nothing else I've seen could so plausibly explain the life's work of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. While the foot soldiers of the Reagan Revolution have been white men in the Sun Belt whose soft minds have been molded, by jingoist Sunday sermons from evangelical pulpits and non-stop 24/7 talk shows hosted by Goering clones on their truck radios, into supporting policies diametrically opposed to their own interests, the command center has always been manned by Grover Norquist-style oligarchs. These two disparate classes at the top and bottom of the coalition would never have gotten off the ground without the intermediate cadre of radicals, usually from such down-to-earth fields such as economics and engineering, captivated by the second tier "isms" of futurism and objectivism. Among them, Alan Greenspan has recently confessed that his conversion by Ayn Rand contributed to the Wall Street meltdown. These people were united by a limitless conviction that their personal successes resulted entirely from their own hard work, talent, and natural superiority, and by a religious faith in the infallibility of the "market". I regard such people as the black sheep of the family and the neighborhood, and they reciprocate in kind, but the lines are never all that black or white. Though I pay little more heed to to the Futurist Manifesto than to the Ayn Rand claptrap, I do admit to an irrational futurist love of racing cars and my favorite artifacts in the Garden State are the Pulaski Skyway and the old brick industrial buildings near the Great Falls in my native Paterson, while the objectivist/futurists tend to favor fake colonial style ranch houses in gated two-acre plot sylvan exurbs, despite, or in addition to, a boyish fascination with weapons and supersonic airplanes.

Soon after my seduction by Camelot, my inevitable liberal tendency toward appeasement asserted itself again when I married a Catholic, rendering null and void three decades of anti-papist indoctrination. Not just any Catholic, but one of the most ardent Catholics in all of Christendom. I've gone on to sire an ever expanding Catholic family, and while I continue to dash hopes of a death-bed conversion, I do allow myself to be dragged into the occasional mass, usually when it's too cold to sit outside in the car for an hour. As my two devoted readers know by now, I am fond of old places, things and rituals. Despite our divergences in matters of faith and doctrine, my wife and I agree that the substitution in "liberal" churches of recycled 70's guitar-strumming folk singers for the majestic unused organs, is an inexcusable abomination. We both prefer the Latin mass, she for the tradition, I because of its mystery and reassuring incomprehensibility. I love much of Catholic tradition: the art, the architecture, the ecclesiastical robes, and the incense, giving me as legitimate a claim to the title of "conservative" as that of any of my radical right brethren.

The other under reported event last week was the beginning of Lent. It usually comes up only in stories covering Carnevale, Fasching or Marti Gras, unless you read church bulletins, but for someone raised with no idea of Lent, the cyclical concept of Rabelaisian revelry followed by a period of repentance and purification is as appealing as the waving of the incense. It's similar to why the four season climate of New York or Rome is so much more appealing to some of us than the always perfect, always warm and sunny weather of Florida, no matter how much we may lament the cold. For many years I have given up something for Lent, usually wine, but sometimes all alcohol, less from a devotion to God than from a concern that my liver might be in need of a period of repose and regeneration, but also, in part, from the satisfaction obtained through self-discipline. Sadly, with the ravages of time and a declining economy, the pre-Lenten celebrations have become ever less Dionysian.

This year I decided to shield my friends from my self-induced suffering and consequent foul humor, so when those rare occasions for socializing with friends come up, I will momentarily set aside my vows of sobriety in the name of conviviality. I will however renounce the warming embrace of Jack Daniels on those bleak evenings of lingering winter. My daily bread will be taken with water until we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the coming of spring, and with a little luck, the beginning of an upturn in the economy. This year promises sacrifices for everyone. There is something to be said for voluntary sacrifice. Think of it as spring training for the long season ahead.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Roberto Banfi Rossi and the Rembrandt Syndrome

Cribbed Klimt

Bogus Bacon Holy Bird
Borrowed Dalì Fires

Walking toward the scala mobile to go to the center of Perugia, my eye has been regularly drawn to a shop on Via Masi just across from the Sangallo Palace Hotel. The two stories of Lemmi Sartoria are devoted to selling beautiful silk ties, scarves, and accessories, but what caught my eye is a painting in the main display window. The painting is a surreal landscape of warriors, brides, markets, horses, mountains and architectural fragments, sometimes transparent and glowing with color. I've tried to photograph it but as you can see, the reflections of the the outdoors complicate the scene more than it is already.

Recently, while meandering around the center of Perugia, I came upon the Artemisia Gallery in Via Alessi. Its sleek well-lit interior contrasts cheerfully with some of the forlorn neighboring shops. Piero Dorazio paintings on the walls inside invited a closer look. Dorazio was perhaps Todi's best known painter, with an international reputation derived from his teaching in New York and his distinctive, colorful, minimalist op art style. I enjoy his work and consider his fame and success well-deserved. Still, op art and minimalist abstraction have never stirred deep enthusiasm in me. Proceeding further into the gallery past works of other excellent artists, I unexpectedly found myself in front of other images clearly from the same mystical imagination as the painting in the Lemmi shop. The painter is Roberto Banfi Rossi. He lives and works in Perugia and he should be better known.

I have painted for most of my life and my paintings have been influenced by artists that I've admired, from Dalì in my youth, through impressionists to George Grosz, Francis Bacon, Aubrey Beardsley, Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt to Duccio di Siena and other medieval icon painters. I've tried to copy or borrow elements from all of them. The painter at the top of my personal Olympus has always been Rembrandt. Seeing reproductions of his work in school I wondered what the fuss was all about, but upon finally seeing his paintings "live", I finally understood, and I've been blown away by them ever since. Unlike my other favorites, rather than being an inspiration, Rembrandt's work stopped me cold and induced long pauses in my painting activity. I can imagine Miles Davis having a similar effect on on young trumpet players, just as surely as hearing John Coltrane got more tenor players to quit than to start mastering the tenor saxophone. When the mountain ahead looms too high, sometimes it's hard to take that first step forward.

I can only hope that some of the elements that come together in the work of Banfi Rossi, from the brilliant color to the historic memory, incisive brush strokes, luminous glazes and above all, the fertile imagination, can find their way into my own work. At the least, may Banfi Rossi not inflict the curse of the Rembrandt effect. If you have any money for art, go buy a Banfi Rossi. They're way underpriced.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Where's Rudy?

A cliché that went around New York City in the late 90’s was that New Yorkers prefer their state and national governments liberal but their city government a little fascistic. These days the local preference seems to have shifted slightly towards plutocracy, but there was some truth in the old dictum. I never had much enthusiasm for Rudy Giuliani, finding repugnant his tolerance for police brutality. His revitalization of the city was largely due to the dot.com bubble during the Clinton years when New York’s economy was awash with cash. His post-mayoral self-aggrandizement has only gotten worse, but he did get one thing right. He understood that the tolerance of petty crime leads to the abandonment of the streets by a majority of the people, which in turn makes the streets less safe and leads to more serious crime.

The message never made it to Perugia, or perhaps to anywhere else in Italy. When living in Rome decades ago, I was always amazed by the routine trashing of trains, buses and cars by soccer hooligans. When some of the worst offenders were caught, they would be “punished” by being forbidden from attending matches for a few weeks. It never dawned on anyone to hold the hooligans responsible for the damage they caused. Perugia is an old city. Its Etruscan walls still have five huge arched portals, most of them with their upper portions rebuilt in the 14th Century. Old places have always fascinated me. I went to the sixth oldest college in the United States and loved walking over the hollowed stone steps, worn down over centuries by the footsteps of students before me. When I first encountered Rome, the experience of walking by two thousand-year-old buildings in the heart of a modern city created a sensation difficult to describe but which has never left me. It has to do with a connection to history and a sense of continuity. That feeling runs strong in all Umbrian towns and cities. It also intensifies my distaste for the disastrous sprawl on the outskirts of these cities, but seeing the growing abuse of a physical environment that records two thousand years of human history, the reaction goes beyond distaste. There is a serious drug problem in Perugia. The authorities say nothing can be done. Many drug dealers are arrested but 95% are back on the street within a few days. Syringes are freely sold in all pharmacies, with the undoubted advantage of limiting the spread of HIV and hepatitis among drug addicts, but what does it mean for the children playing and the sanitation workers cleaning up in the city’s parks, where thousands of syringes are discarded? As students and residents all know, the steps of the Cathedral, about 50 meters from the central police station, and the front of the church next to the entrance to the old hospital in Monte Luce are among the most trafficked drug dispensing venues in Perugia. It seems that the police don’t see it or don’t want to be bothered. The plagues of graffiti and discarded syringes may not be causally related but they seem to live in symbiosis.

A current scandal in Perugia is referred to as T-red. In part of the ongoing drive toward the glories of privatization, the city contracted for the installation and administration of equipment that would photograph cars passing through red lights at selected intersections. The contractor then sent out summonses and collected fines totaling millions of Euros. Points were also applied to the car owners’ drivers’ licenses. After a flood of protests, an inquiry discovered that many of the traffic lights had been speeded up to go from green through orange to red in considerably less than the legally mandated time. Judges have thrown out the procedure, at least until the abuses are corrected, and while the politicians run for cover, restitution of the fines awaits the outcome of class action suits.

Instead of employing all those cameras to entrap and defraud motorists, the city fathers and mothers might have deployed those cameras in historic parts of the city to capture the artistry of the local vandals. The cost of such surveillance could probably be recaptured by assessing fines equal to, and in addition to, the not insignificant costs of repairing the vandals’ handiwork. If the costs of maintaining the cameras prove excessive, the Comune could simply offer to pay a reward to anyone providing a photo of vandals in action leading to a conviction. With the current proliferation of digital cameras and even cell phones that take pictures, the economic crisis could be turned to the advantage of the urban environment as bands of unemployed bounty hunters patrol the streets at night. No doubt there would be some public outcry. “Boys will be boys” is a common theme in a country where boys are boys until eligible for pension, and TV “intellectuals” will plead that youth without hope need to express themselves. Self-expression is wonderful and many people have learned to write and to paint in all sorts of environments, even while in prison. Let’s just not confuse self-expression with the devastation of the shared public environment.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jazz and Painting

The largest art show ever held to celebrate the relationship between jazz and art ends its three-month run in Italy on February 15th. The Century of Jazz: art, cinema, music and photography from Picasso to Basquiat, is at MART, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Roverato, in Roverato, near Lake Garda in the far north. The show, curated by Daniel Soutif, Gabriella Belli, and Joseph Ramoneda, will next move to the musèe du quai Branly in Paris for three months and then to the CCCN in Barcellona from July 21st to October 18th.

Many painters such as Dubuffet, Leger, Pollack, Grosz, Van Dongen, Picabia, Picasso, Otto Dix, Mattisse, Stuart Davis and Man Ray have been inspired by jazz and are represented in the show, not to mention record jackets and a number of films with jazz soundtracks. Several musicians, most notably Miles Davis, also painted, and have space in the show. Daniel Soutil, the organizer, says that in his opinion, Mondrian, whose work was transformed into the style we know him for by his exposure to jazz, best captured the essence of the music. What then, is the essence of jazz; spontaneity, rhythm, exuberance, emotion, aural decoration, composition, texture? Fortunately, many people see it in different ways, and many are represented in the show. My own feeling is that the work of Paul Klee, or even more, that of Miro, reflect the spirit of jazz better than does that of Mondrian, but I have no idea if either of them paid any attention to jazz. We do know that Jackson Pollack, whose work might suggest an affinity with Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, listened to Dixieland while painting. Many people painting jazz musicians or suggesting images of the music today, tend to favor expressionism, whether figurative or abstract. That approach often works well but it runs the risk of becoming a convention. My own paintings of jazz figures are really reinterpretations of old paintings, especially 14th century icons, rather than any attempt at a graphic interpretation of the music. The music moves us in different ways. The notable thing is that it has moved so many and continues to do so.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Provincial Elders Speak

Although A View from Acqualoreto is a new blog, its title is not entirely appropriate at the moment since we’re in winter exile in Perugia. Nevertheless, Perugia is still Umbria, indeed it’s the capital of Umbria. Last week I noticed a poster advertising a joint meeting of the provincial councils of Terni and Perugia, open to the public, to discuss the role of provincial governments in the new political plan for Italy. This is not an insignificant issue. The Italian Constitution was modified seven years ago with a view to delegating more autonomy and responsibility to local government but thus far the Government has not managed to define how the federalism is to work. It seems that now the Berlusconi Government has proposed the elimination of the provincial governments.

There are four levels of government here: national, regional, provincial and local. The two Houses of Parliament in Rome have about 950 members. There are 20 regions of varying sizes, each with its own regional government, and within the regions there are a number of provinces, each with its own full supply of elected officials. The number of provinces per region varies, from the eleven of Lombardia to the two of smaller regions such as Umbria, with a total of 103 provinces in all of Italy. Within the provinces there are large numbers of comuni, or townships and their size varies enormously. For example, the Comune di Roma contains more than three million people while our Comune of Baschi has about 1800 residents. Of Perugia’s 50 or 60 comuni, only 15 have more than 5000 residents. The complications are predictable and I’ve seen some of them before in New York, where New York City building regulations often conflict with those of the state, and some national codes and standards must also be complied with. Building applications routinely require the services of a whole new professional category, the expeditor. It is perhaps worse in Italy where overlapping jurisdictions are the rule.

The meeting was scheduled for 10:00 AM in the meeting chamber of the Province of Perugia. Stepped banks of seats on all four sides were individually labeled with the name of their occupants, while in the central (orchestra) section, the first two rows of seats were all marked “reserved”, leaving three rows of seats (18 total) for the public. At 10:00, apart from a few people at the assistants’ and press tables on the periphery, the only seat occupied in the room was the one I had taken. Eventually a few councilors wandered in to take their seats and “the public” doubled to its final size of two with the arrival of a 68 year old geometra from Giove. He later got up to make an impassioned plea for the diffusion of solar panels, an interesting and welcome discourse which seemed to have nothing to do with the topic at hand. At 10:30 a woman, the President of the Province I believe, tried to call the meeting to order to hear a live speech on a huge TV screen by another official, probably the President of the Association of Provincial Governments, who couldn’t be there. At first the audio didn’t work but after a few minutes a crackling, inaudible sound was established for the remainder of the speech. Whatever might have been able to be heard was drowned out by the continual chattering of the 20 or 25 delegates, out of the anticipated 50 or 60, who eventually showed up.

Many live speeches followed. One of the first, by Sig. Giovagnoli, a representative of the Region, said that while the Constitution must be respected, it was essential that the inefficiencies and overlapping responsibilities be eliminated. The last and best speaker that I heard, (I left after 3 hours)a councilor named Ruggiani, spoke articulately and passionately, saying that if something needed to be eliminated, it should be all the appointed agencies, never accountable to the voters, which had been created to administer the water resources, the forests, parks, etc., and that the provinces should reassume the responsibilities for what they are supposed to administer. Between those two speeches, most others were nearly incomprehensible to me. In part, this is because after 35 years, my comprehension of spoken Italian is not what it should be, and in part because my hearing isn’t all that good anymore. Nevertheless, some of it was because many of the speakers mumbled, spoke in a monotone, or worse, spoke in an empty political rhetoric signifying nothing. Virtually all started by affirming that they would never defend the role of the provincial government just to protect their jobs and proceeded to say how they only wanted to protect the Constitution and the citizenry. I’m not sure that the elimination of the institution of the Province is a good thing, but the conduct of this meeting was as good an argument for its abolition as I could imagine.