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Review: Mussolini’s Italy: Life under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth 

This book was Fascist Italy not of the newsreels of frenzied Roman crowds cheering bombastic speeches by Mussolini but how fascism’s imperial grandiosity were an ill-fitting facade for an Italy that underneath remained substantially an impoverished, traditionalist, parochial society of peasant squabbles and regional jealousies. Bosworth, one of the world’s top experts on the period takes a granular look at Italy under Fascism and the reader comes away amazed at how Mussolini fooled the great powers into taking his regime seriously for as long as they did.

At 692 pages, including 88 pages of endnotes, Mussolini’s Italy lays out in exhaustive detail how ordinary Italians carried on as best they could under the dictatorship, with the traditional reliance on corruption and the influence of kin and “men of respect” to undermine and ameliorate “totalitarian” rule. Repeatedly the regime sanctions dissidents (usually politically naive -or simply drunken – tradesmen or villagers) to “confino”, internal exile to faraway unpleasant regions only to have the intervention of some Fascist bigwig result in a swift amnesty.The brutality of the regime’s informal sanctions – the beatings, castor oil, kidnappings and murders – carried out by roving Fascist squadrists or at the orders of a local Fascist Ras (boss) like Cremona’s thuggish Roberto Farinacci, were by contrast, real enough.

Outside of the violent hooliganism of blackshirt squadrism there at times seems little to have held Fascism together as a political movement without Mussolini’s tin cult of personality, there was seldom agreement among fascists about such fundamental political issues as the role of the state vs. the party, capitalism vs. autarky, the sanctity of private property, the need for unions, whether Fascism should be antisemitic or the role of the Catholic Church in Italian life? An incoherence that left Mussolini, who was never much of a stickler for consistency, as supreme arbiter. A role he kept secure by arbitrarily moving his preening, intriguing, womanizing and feuding cabal of uniformed henchmen and party apparatchiks from job to job all the way into his bitter gotterdammerung of the Salo Republic, where Mussolini was reduced to being the puppet gauleiter of Lombardy and eventually patheitic victim of popular revenge.

Bosworth does a scholarly take-down of the original Fascist regime, demonstrating the deep propensity for cultural continuity in any society in the long term, even in one under the heavy hand of self-proclaimed revolutionaries and Roman tyrants.

Sent to Coventry and much else besides

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — shall we say, not a great enthusiast for war? ]
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This image of Winston Churchill in the bombed out ruins of Coventry Cathedral is almost a self-referential paradox in itself, if you still believe the canard that he knew the Germans were going to bomb Coventry that night, and did nothing about it to avoid divulging allied knowledge of the German ENIGMA code.

It it walks like a canard and quacks like a canard…

For a rebuttal of the suggestion that Churchill knew Coventry would be the target that night, see Sir Martin Gilbert, Coventry: What Really Happened [pdf, pp. 32-3] — the post-literate can listen to this Angry History podcast instead.

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As an aside, I wonder what Churchill had in mind when he coined his celebrated mot about Russia:

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.

According to Wikipedia, the Poles had delivered their early Enigma-breaking theories, tools and sample cryptologic bombs to British military intelligence in Warsaw on 25 July 1939. Churchill’s broadcast, The Russian Enigma, was given on 1st October 1939.

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And another aside, while we’re here — just to note that conspiracy theories are often among the gaseous components of a fog of war…

On the other hand, conspiracy theories can often be revealing of popular and or archetypal hopes and fears. In the present case, the anxiety revolves around situations such as that invoked by Caiaphas’ claim “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people“.

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Coming at the destruction of Coventry Cathedral from another angle…

I have mourned before the losses at Bamiyan and Monte Cassino:

Here’s what’s happened to the Green Mosque or Mazjid Sabz, famous for its dome (upper panel only, lower panel h/t Bilal Sarwary), in the course of fighting in Afghanistan — the country whose oldest mosque it is:

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And yet prayer continues:

FWIW, the lower panel image (above) is from a Christian Science Monitor article titled Israeli settlers respond to mosque burning allegations — the caption reads in part:

Palestinian men pray Monday near a burnt part of the carpet in a mosque that was damaged in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to the West Bank mosque on Monday

The upper panel image, as far as I can determine, shows the continuing celebration of Mass in a German church after Allied bombardment in World War II.

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It is at least worth pondering the words of these Trappist sisters in Azeir, Syria…

They came to Azeir to continue in spirit the work of the monks of Tibhirine, about whom I wrote, giving extensive background and the entire text of Fr. de Chergé‘s great, final testament here. The sisters write:

Today we have no words, except those of the Psalms that the liturgical prayer puts onto our lips in these days:

Rebuke the Beast of the Reeds, that herd of bulls, that people of calves…oh God, scatter the people who delight in war…Yahweh has leaned down from the heights of his sanctuary, has looked down from heaven to earth to listen to the sighing of the captive, and set free those condemned to death…Listen, God, to my voice as I plead, protect my life from fear of the enemy; hide me from the league of the wicked, from the gang of evil-doers. They sharpen their tongues like a sword, aim their arrow of poisonous abuse…They support each other in their evil designs, they discuss how to lay their snares. “Who will see us?” they say. He will do that, he who penetrates human nature to its depths, the depths of the heart…Break into song for my God, to the tambourine, sing in honor of the Lord, to the cymbal, let psalm and canticle mingle for him, extol his name, invoke it…For the Lord is a God who breaks battle-lines! … Lord, you are great, you are glorious, wonderfully strong, unconquerable.

We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….

About today, a normal and highly significant Thursday

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — remembering that there are two calendars, two times, the secular and the sacred, and that there’s more poetry, more depth of heart and thus intellect too, in the sacred calendar — a truth made known also to popes and monarchs ]
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Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, washes & kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users, Maundy Thursday, 2008

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It’s an extraordinary day, today, for myself as it happens, and more significantly for the world. Specifically, it is significant for poor and powerful alike, for it sets them in a proper relation to one another.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christ’s Last Supper, which became and remains the prototype of the Catholic Mass, is remembered. His Last Supper would be closely followed by his crucifixion the next day, Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter Sunday.

After that final supper, Christ made a gesture which initially disturbed his close followers — he washed their feet, then instructed them to do the same.

His gesture repeats itself to this day.

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Pope Francis, who as an archbishop had followed this practice by washing and kissing the feet of young people in drug shelters (image above) and AIDS clinics, is breaking with Vatican tradition — the pope washing the feet of priests in some major basilica in Rome — this year, by going to a youth prison today for the ceremony:

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper that Pope Francis will celebrate on Holy Thursday in the chapel of the Casal del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors will be, by his express desire, very simple. Concelebrating with the Holy Father will be Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, and Fr. Gaetano Greco, chaplain of the Institute.

Around 10 girls and 40 boys will take part in the Mass. The Pope will wash the feet of 12 of them, who will be chosen from different nationalities and diverse religious confessions. The youth will also say the readings and the prayers of the faithful. Given the intimate nature of the pastoral visit, journalists will be restricted to the area outside the building and no live coverage will be transmitted.

That’s a slightly formal Vatican announcement of the occasion: “diverse religious confessions” in this case almost certainly includes Muslims and atheists or agnostics. Father Greco, the prison chaplain, is quoted as saying:

Only eight of our residents are Italian: six boys and two girls … The others are all foreigners. And most of them are Muslim. Then there are some who have no religious belief at all. Therefore many of them don’t even know who the Pope is. For this reason too, it was far from easy to explain to them the importance of the Pope’s visit.

A young Neapolitan who has been here for a while came to my help. He gathered them all together, to try to make them understand above all what the Pope’s act, which is an act of love for them, actually meant. I was upset for a moment by the first looks, that were either blank or only faintly curious about my enthusiasm. Then our friend broke the silence with that most classic of Neapolitan expressions: “Maronna mia, o Papa accà!” [good heavens! The Pope here!] and he ran his hand through his hair, his face betraying emotions mingled with happiness. At that very instant all the others, seeing his amazement, realized that it must really be something very special and began to question me. Little by little, I saw their enthusiasm growing.

Father Greco said of his young charges that the Pope’s visit “will make them see that their lives are not bound by a mistake, that forgiveness exists and that they can begin to build their lives again.”

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This symbolic gesture, this washing of the feet, does indeed have enormous imaginative power, if we will allow it, to touch the heart and transform our behavior.

I’ve quoted this before, I know: it’s the account given by the man I know who, more than any other, prayed, lived, worked, and saw his great dream and hope accomplished in his lifetime — the overturning of the apartheid regime in S. Africa. For myself, it’s the heart of what he taught me: here, in his own words, Fr Trevor Huddleston CR describes how his own role in that drama began:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

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Earlier today, Queen Elizabeth II will have celebrated “the Royal Maundy” in the chapel of my old College and that of my mentor, Trevor Huddleston, at Oxford, Christ Church — our college chapel is also the cathedral of that great city.

The current Dean Of Christ Church, the Very Reverend Christopher Lewis, gave the BBC this historical detail:

The last time it happened here was in 1644 when Charles I was thrown out of London and welcomed in Oxford.

Here’s the glorious building where the ceremony will have taken place:

The chapel of Christ Church, Oxford, and Cathedral of the Oxford Diocese

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The Royal Maundy is celebrated by the monarch giving two purses to local pensioners — 83 men and 83 women this year since HM is 83 years old — a white purse containing sterling silver 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p pieces, and a red purse contained a £5 and a 50p coin commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

Maundy Thursday commemorates the day of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the command or ‘mandatum’ by Christ at the Last Supper, to love one another.

The tradition of the Sovereign giving money to the poor dates from the thirteenth century. The Sovereign also used to give food and clothing, and even washed the recipients’ feet. The last monarch to do so was James II.

The recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gives us a sense of the rich symbolism of the occasion:

It’s a curious survival, the Royal Maundy, but a touching one, looking back to the days when the monarch really was expected to be a bit like a priest for the nation – acting out the great symbols of faith on behalf of everyone. …

And that’s very much what the Royal Maundy is about. What we see today is only a shadow of what used to be done hundreds of years ago, when the monarch would actually do what Jesus did at the Last Supper and wash the feet of a number of poor people. Back in the Middle Ages, this meant that the King was just doing what priests and bishops often did, not only on Maundy Thursday but on many other occasions.

They didn’t all do it because they were lovely humble people – some were, and some definitely weren’t – but because they accepted one great truth that needed repeating over and over again, the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.

And that was – and is – the truth that power constantly needs to be reminded of what it’s for. Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves. The Bible is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

Not everyone would agree — but I believe the current Queen and the current Pope would — as would his predecessor, Benedict XVI. It bears repeating:

Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.

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Here is the text from St John’s gospel — the gospel that focuses its attention at the symbolic level — describing the original event [John 13.1-15]:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?

Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.

Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet.

Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.

Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.

Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

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Here finally, for sheer beauty, is the great 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria‘s First Lamentation for Maundy Thursday, sung by the Tallis Scholars in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford — just around the corner from Christ Church:

Via New Liturgical Movement

Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]
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Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?

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As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism

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The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…

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So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.

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I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…

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And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.

Mourning the loss of Monte Cassino

Friday, January 18th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — destruction of sacred spaces ]
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Do we grieve the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino as we grieve the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas?

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With playful and appropriate scholarly tongue-in-cheek, Umberto Eco describes the importance of monasteries — and of the Benedictine Order specifically — in preserving culture, literacy, the arts and sciences through dark ages in his novel, The Name of the Rose:

“Monasterium sine libris,” the abbot recited, pensively, “est sicut civitas sine opibus, castrum sine numeris, coquina sine suppellectili, mensa sine cibis, hortus sine herbis, pratum sine floribus, arbor sine foliis. … And our order, growing up under the double command of work and prayer, was light to the whole known world, depository of knowledge, salvation of an ancient learning that threatened to disappear in fires, sacks, earthquakes, forge of new writing and increase of the ancient. … Mundus senescit. If God has now given our order a mission, it is to oppose this race to the abyss, by preserving, repeating, and defending the treasure of wisdom our fathers entrusted to us.

Monte Cassino is the spiritual home of the Benedictine monastic order. It was here that Saint Benedict of Subiaco built a retreat in 529 CE, here that he wrote his Regula Monachorum or monastic Rule, the central text of western monasticism, and though the monastery had been previously sacked by the Lombards in 585, the Saracens in 884, and the Normans in 1046, it was devastated anew during the Battle of Monte Cassino 1944, an American artillery commander telling his men:

I don’t give a damn about the monastery. I have Catholic gunners in this battery and they’ve already asked me for permission to fire on it…

Harold Bond, in his book Return to Cassino A Memoir of the Fight for Rome, describes the scene as 256 American heavy bombers began dropping 576 tons of munitions on the abbey in waves, in words echoes by the video below:

There was no anti-aircraft fire from the Germans, either, just the drone of the big planes. They were very close now, and the first formation flew in over the abbey, releasing the bombs. We could see them fall, looking at this distance like little black stones, and then the ground all around us shook with gigantic shocks as they exploded. Another formation flew in, and then another, each followed by thunderous detonations. Now where the abbey had been there was only a huge cloud of smoke and dust which concealed the entire hilltop.

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The bombing appears to have been authorized on the basis of a mistranslation. An intelligence intercept of the question “Ist Abt in Kloster?” — “is the Abbot in the Monastery” — was translated by the US as though Abt was short for Abteil, “Is the HQ in the Abbey?” The recorder answer “Ja” then led to the bombing.

Three days after the bombing, the Abbot was interviewed in person by the commander of XIV Panzer Corps, himself a lay brother of the Benedictine order, and reported:

Until the moment of the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey there was within the area … neither a German soldier, nor any German weapon, nor any German military installation.

Thankfully, the abbey was restored and reconsecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and remains to this day the mother house of the Order of St. Benedict.

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I hope to review relevant portions of Peter Caddick-AdamsMonte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, available in the UK and due to be released in the US in April 2013, later this year. A review copy has been my source for details of the Battle of Monte Cassino described above.

Image sources, upper pair:

Destruction of the taller Bamiyan Buddha, CNN via Wikipedia
Montecassion destroyed, from Monte Cassino Tour

Image sources, lower pair:

Bamiyan Buddhas, from Random Walks
Monte Cassino by John `Warwick’ Smith, from the Tate


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