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In The News

Beyond Byzantine: Why Italian Politics Matter More Than You Care To Know

Photo of soldiers parading in Rome

When in Rome ...

July 23-24

  • Why Putin wanted Iran’s drones
  • The plight of the Maasai ethnic group
  • A long, strange hunt for a golden owl
  • … and much more.


Beyond Byzantine: Why Italian Politics Matter More Than You Care To Know

Foreign correspondents who land in Italy are advised to stick to stories about culture and business, food and travel. The readers back home want tales of ancient Rome, hip new brands in Milan or maybe a nasty mob boss in Naples. And politics? Poco o niente…

To international eyes, Italian political news looks like one long indecipherable and neverending government crisis, a revolving door of prime ministers, insider plots and power plays that ultimately, to paraphrase Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous book The Leopard, leave you where you started.

In the end, some may even whisper, it doesn’t really matter.

The abrupt downfall of Prime Minister Mario Draghi this week is a perfect example of both the navel-gazing folly of Italian politics, and a sharp reminder that in the end, it does indeed matter. Also, for readers back home.

Still we must first confront that folly the Italians themselves are forced to laugh and cry through. That doesn’t mean wasting extra effort figuring out how and by whom Draghi — perhaps the most internationally respected Italian public official of his generation — was suddenly ousted.

Suffice it to say that most of these would-be government “crises” begin with some politico’s self-serving maneuver (often meant to merely be a bluff) that winds up taking on a life of its own in what Italians call the teatrino — little theater — of whispers and insults and shifting alliances that accumulate into a manufactured crisis that makes all the actors look bad. And the spectators are left feeling more powerless than ever.

Marco Iasevoli of Avvenire magazine described Wednesday’s final act of the Draghi drama as “a day where farce and tragedy took turns in the Senate, destined to dig a new trench between politics and citizens exasperated by all these Byzantinisms, as (politicians) ignore the appeals to "responsibility" from every corner of the country.”

So if you care at all about Italy and Italians, the broken politics matters precisely because it is so broken. The bel paese is a beautiful country in so many ways in spite of its political class. How much more beautiful might it be?

And yet somehow this gaping divide between the people and their representatives is also the first clue that something tucked into the Byzantine spectacle in the halls of Rome may be something that matters to the rest of us too.

Italy is the faraway place the rest of the world feels it knows, and maybe even loves. Forever in search of unity from within, from the outside it appears as a well-defined nation that is both emblematic and unthreatening, with none of the remnants of lost empire that appear in some of its European neighbors. Its geography, jutting southward from the continent and surrounded by the sea has facilitated the coming and going of peoples for centuries.

For these and other reasons, Italy is a kind of laboratory for the rest of the world to study, and eventually expand upon. In the good and the bad. And in politics, Italy has given us Mussolini, inventor of fascism that was taken to its logical extreme by Hitler. More recently, Silvio Berlusconi’s shameless antics and post-democracy power grabs offered a playbook for Donald Trump.

Right now, history appears to be unfolding quickly. And Mario Draghi’s political demise may have much more immediate ramifications beyond Italy’s borders. The former central banker came to power as the ultimate guarantee to solidify the country’s post-COVID recovery at a moment suddenly ripe for greater European integration and harmony.

The ante on that would soon be doubled with Ukraine. In an interview earlier this month, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made a point of singling Draghi out for his support for Kyiv’s cause and candidacy to join the European Union. It was a stance questioned by both coalition partners and opponents in Italy, which has been described by some as “the most pro-Russian country in the West.”

Early elections have been called for September 25. It will likely be a moment in which the war in Ukraine begins to weigh even more heavily on national economies as energy worries multiply ahead of the coming winter — and the much talked about unity of the West will be put to the test.

So for the next couple of months, it may be worth following Italian politics: a little theater for Rome, a live laboratory for the rest of the world.

— Jeff Israely


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. This week saw two world leaders visit Tehran to discuss policy in Syria: Russian President Vladimir Putin and … who else?

2. Protests have erupted in Sri Lanka after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as president. Security forces clashed with demonstrators in the capital of the island country: Madurai / Colombo / Medan?

3. What cult movie did outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reference during his final session of “Prime Minister’s Questions”?

4. What surprise discovery was made in the courtyard of a Chinese restaurant: Fragments of a meteor / Flowers thought to be extinct / Dinosaur footprints?

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


An NFT collection from artist and poet Amber Vittoria, “Memories Of A Masterpiece,” began trending on Twitter shortly after its release last week, and sold out almost immediately. The work includes ribbons of color in abstract forms, and each of the 999 NFT’s in the collection is hand-made with paper and scanned. This isn’t Vittoria’s first NFT drop, and she has received widespread support from the NFT community on Twitter after collaborations with The Hundreds, a streetwear brand and media platform, and the Adam Bomb Squad, a project by The Hundreds. Vittoria says her work “aims to represent nuances of womanhood.”


• “Ukrainian Revival” exhibition in Monaco: The Principality of Monaco is hosting the exhibition “Ukrainian Revival” to show support to the war-torn country through August 5. The event will showcase painting, sculpture, photography and modern techniques work by Ukrainian artists, including painter Anatoly Kryvolap, neo-baroque artist Oleg Tistol and Victor Sydorenko, the president of the National Academy of Ukrainian Arts.

• South African poet Don Mattera dies: Renowned South African author and poet Don Mattera died on July 18 at the age of 87. Mattera received tributes from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other political leaders as an acclaimed cultural leader in the fight against apartheid.

• Ice skating royalty Yuzuru Hanyu retires: Japan’s “Ice Prince” Yuzuru Hanyu has announced his retirement from competitive ice skating at the age of 27. Hanyu won his first Olympic gold medal in Sochi in 2014, and retained his title at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games — the first man to do so in 66 years.

• Don McLean reveals meaning behind “American Pie” song: American singer Don McLean has revealed the meaning behind his 1971 hit song “American Pie” in a new documentary, The Day the Music Died. The title borrows one of the 8-minute-long song’s lyrics, which refers to the death of singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson in a plane crash in 1959.

• Quidditch becomes Quadball: The real-life governing body of Harry Potter-inspired game Quidditch has announced it is changing its name to Quadball in a bid to distance itself from author J. K. Rowling and her transphobic comments. The International Quidditch Association also cited commercial reasons, as Quidditch is a trademark owned by Warner Bros.

🇮🇷🇷🇺  Is Iran Building A Drone Army For Russia?

According to intelligence information from the United States, Iran wants to deliver “several hundred” drones to Russia and train Russian soldiers on the devices. Copying parts from U.S. drones that the country shot down in the past, Iran now has a variety of different series and types — from unarmed reconnaissance devices to combat drones and those called kamikaze drones. While the Russia-Iran potential deal is unlikely to be a turning point in the Ukraine war, Russia could use the drones “to damage Ukraine's strategic infrastructure comparatively cheaply, without having to put expensive war equipment at risk,” Christine Kensche writes in German daily Die Welt.

Read the full story: Inside Putin's Deal For Iranian Drones

💥🌳 Africa’s Maasai, Victims Of Violence In The Name Of Conservation

Tanzania’s government has tried to confiscate 1,500 km2 of the Maasai’s ancestral land for years in order to use the land for trophy hunting, elite tourism and conservation. For the African ethic group, the conservation areas have turned into war zones: last June, agents opened fire on a group of Maasai who were protesting against an attempt to expel them from the Loliondo Game Controlled Area in northern Tanzania. Fiore Longo, a researcher for Survival International, the global movement for indigenous peoples, writes in Spanish independent magazine La Marea: “The brutality in Loliondo shows the true face of conservation.”

Read the full story: Plight Of Maasai Reveals Racism Of Africa's Conservation Policy

🦉🔍 The French Quest For A Mysterious “Golden Owl”

In April 1993, a man calling himself Max Valentin buried a bronze owl statue, an artifact, in an undisclosed location in France. The original, a gold and silver owl covered with diamonds worth 1 million francs (150,000 euros), was somewhere in a safe. A few weeks later, Valentin published a 60-page book he wrote with artist Michael Becker called On the trail of the golden owl, filled with eleven enigmas treasure hunters would have to solve to retrieve the owl. Since then, thousands have searched for the artifact — in vain. “The mysteries do not seem to discourage the chouetteurs, who remain numerous, as if the quest itself has become more important than the discovery of the solutions,” writes Valérie de Senneville in French daily Les Echos.

Read the full story: The "Golden Owl," France's Enigmatic Treasure Hunt Still Unsolved 30 Years Later


Contrary to humans, octopuses don’t have trouble manipulating wet and slippery objects underwater thanks to their dexterous tentacles. Inspired by the cephalopod, researchers from Virginia Tech in the U.S. have developed the “Octa-glove,” a glove covered by fingerprint-sized rubber synthetic suckers and sensors which can activate or release adhesion to an object on command. The team hopes the glove can be used in future underwater search and rescue missions.


South Korea went “aww” for this video showing strangers stopping to help out a truck driver after hundreds of bottles accidentally tipped over from his vehicle.


• Indonesian President Joko Widodo will visit China after receiving an invitation from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Aside from the Winter Olympics last February, Widodo will be the first foreign leader to be received individually by Beijing in two years.

• The Tour de France 2022, the world’s most famous cycling race, will end on Sunday on the Champs-Elysées after the 21st and final 115km-long stage. The women’s Tour de France will start on the same day.

World Hepatitis Day is Thursday, with the campaign theme “I can’t wait.” The day aims to bring awareness to the burden of viral hepatitis (an inflammation of the liver) and influence change, because “Hepatitis can’t wait.”

• After cryptic hints and a surprise reveal, Beyoncé will release her new albumRenaissance, coming six years after the release of her last solo album.

News quiz answers:

1. In a trilateral statement in Tehran, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to continue their ongoing cooperation to “eliminate terrorist individuals, groups, undertakings and entities” in Syria.

2. Sri Lanka’s security forces raided the main anti-government protest camp in the capital of Colombo, where hundreds of people have been living for over three months. The crackdown came one day after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the country’s new president.

3. Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson quoted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s cult phrase “Hasta la vista, baby” during his final session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

4. Dinosaur footprints dating back 100 million years were discovered in a restaurant's outdoor courtyard in southern China, thanks to a sharp-eyed diner.

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*Photo: Luigi Morante

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