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America Hernandez

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'The global art market is worth between 58 and 60 billion euros.'

How Mafia Money Helps Drive The Global Art Market

Valuable pieces of art have a special appeal to people in organized crime, both as trophies — conveying power and prestige — and as a means to launder ill-gained earnings.

ROME — Gioacchino Campolo, Italy's video poker king, loved art. Among the 300 million euros worth of goods confiscated from him were about 100 very valuable works of art: paintings by Salvador Dali, Giorgio Morandi, Renato Guttuso, Mattia Petri, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Collections in the tens of millions of euros were also confiscated from: Nicola Schiavone, son of Franceso Schiavone, boss of the Casalesi clan within the Naples-based Camorra crime syndicate; and from Gianfranco Becchina, art dealer to Matteo Messina Denaro, boss of Sicily's Cosa Nostra.

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An almost empty canal street in Venice on Feb. 24
food / travel

Silence, Beauty, Fear: Venice In The Time Of Coronavirus

A Venice-based novelist reflects on the disappearing tourists, imploding economy and politicians siding with the apocalypse.

VENICE — For a few days now, I've noticed that something has changed on my daily walk along the Fondamenta delle Zattere near the Conrad supermarket that stays open even during high water and which, consequently, is also open now.

What's changed is that the Giudecca canal is mostly empty. In a city that's already silent, in a matter of days, the silence of Venice has multiplied. Two sounds, above all, have disappeared: the rumble of the lancioni that zip tourists around the lagoon, and the frequent screeching of the trolley wheels in the streets. The Giudecca canal has been emptied; The streets have been emptied.

I didn't know the statistics that led to this silence before I began writing because when you live in a place, you either minimize or don't care. Last Saturday evening, I selfishly thought to myself: you can go to St. Mark's Square without having to walk single-file the whole way from Rialto!

I didn't end up going to St. Mark's, though. I don't often go. And I suddenly understood, with a certain shameful sadness, that I, too, am sometimes seized by the desire to take away something from others that I, in reality, don't even want.

It irked me to imagine all those tourists in line and me stuck in the middle of them, even if in reality I had no intention to go to either Rialto or St. Mark's.

The statistics show a 60% cancellation rate. In a declaration given to ANSA, the Italian wire service, Marina Lalli, vice-president of the tourism association Federturismo Confindustria declared: "The international press has taken up our own alarmist spirit and in 48 hours we became an unsafe country to which it is best not to travel, and from which it is best not to welcome travelers."

Sunday morning as I walked toward the station from San Basilio, where I live, I only came across four people but I told myself, "It's not even 6 a.m. yet."

Three people at Piazzale Roma. Near an off-duty taxi stood two boys and a girl, dressed for the Carnevale, passing a plastic cup between them, perhaps filled with gin and tonic, drinking through the straw. Watching them, I thought of all the times in the past I'd stayed out until dawn.

Carnivale this year in Venice was a sad affair — Photo: Brian Whitnell

Arriving at the Santa Lucia train station I came across the fourth person of the morning, a man heading toward me from the opposite side of the station. We headed for the cafe-bar entrance together. He let me go in first.

Throughout the rest of the day, however, upon my return to Venice, I began reading the alarmist news about the Covid-19 coronavirus — and retracing my morning, my day, until in my mind's eye I saw the three kids from the Piazzale Roma again, this time as though they were in that historic AIDS commercial where the people touch one another and a fuchsia halo suddenly appears around them. The Santa Lucia station suddenly transformed into the film set of a Western, where I and the man who let me into the bar first were two gunslingers on the set of "High Noon."

I think that human beings, beginning with myself, only manage to concern themselves with problems if they are the protagonists in some way. My imagination is wild, blazing, but there are more ordinary things to imagine as well: grabbing the last can of tuna or the last banana, putting on the surgical mask or latex gloves and feeling safe, barricading one's self at home with the television on and accepting that this is reality.

It's convenient politically to take the side of apocalypse.

Protagonist-centered imaginings that prevent us from taking measured and collective actions that we would and should otherwise be taking. Actions that can be resumed in the phrase, in the practice of "seeking to contain the contagion" — washing one's hands, not going anywhere if it's not necessary, not coughing or sneezing near those nearby (which, in any case, is just good manners). I don't think epidemics can be overcome with good manners alone, but I do think that proper civil and administrative measures, an information campaign that doesn't merely trumpet out alarmist headlines, and a healthy dose of reality can all help manage the emergency.

An emergency is not an apocalypse: It's an emergency. The other day, in the Corriere della Sera daily, Paolo Giordano said it well in his reporting on the epidemiological models. Before that, Adriano Sofri in the Foglio daily underlined just how important it would be to always keep in mind the difference between a statistic and a life. And this emergency is part of life, whereas the apocalypse is the end of time.

It doesn't surprise me that the anxiety around the contagion has effectively supplanted the possibility of contagion, because epidemics — especially ones that can be described as fatal — prompt thoughts of apocalypse, and the apocalypse by nature eliminates personal responsibility. If everything is ending, there are no actions and no consequences. If everything is ending, then it's useless to worry about the imagination of the country. Since our political class, for the most part, has no idea what the future holds, it's convenient politically to take the side of apocalypse. That's what has happened in Italy, with virtually no politician taking the side of the economy.

Here in Venice, the Christmas lights are still up, under the arcades of the Piazza San Marco and in the side canals. In certain streets, at about the height of second-floor windows, they mingle with the little cardboard Carnevale candy flakes and plastic bottles. The noises have not yet returned. But maybe this economic downturn, after the last high water, is the opportunity to rethink Venice, not just in terms of how many available beds there are in the B&Bs, hotels and private homes, but as a city of higher education, creativity and research, as a cultural stronghold not simply touristic in nature.

I ask myself what Cesare de Michelis, a native Venetian and founder of the Marsilio publishing house, would have said about the anxiety of contagion that has overtaken the possibility of contagion itself. And I ask myself this because Cesare, who died nearly two years ago, always had surprising answers to those questions to which others, wanting to sound worldly, would respond with banalities. Responding to questions with an inane echo seems to me our central civic problem these days, where the word "coronavirus' has overwhelmed the coronavirus itself.

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Taking precautions in Milan

Italian Businesses Slam 'Draconian' Coronavirus Controls

Entrepreneurs say ‘Basta’ to stop the ordinances they say risk paralyzing the economy.

VENICE — Two days ago, a leading Italian industrialist circulated a photoshopped image of Da Vinci's Last Supper to his contacts via WhatsApp. All that was left of the iconic painting was the laid table — no trace of the apostles, let alone Christ. And the caption? "We're exaggerating here in Milan."

Every Italian businessperson with a budget to balance, from the region of Lombardy to Veneto, from major corporations to the local bar, feels the same way.

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Tourists in Milan on Feb. 24

Fear, Tents And Triage As Coronavirus Spreads In Italy

Shortages of medical supplies are already hitting in the northern city of Turin, in Italy, which is by far the worst hit European country from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

TURIN — They began taking shape over the weekend, erected by civil protection officers from the northern Piemonte region, inside or next to the hospitals that have emergency rooms: pneumatic tents, lit and heated, for the pre-triage sorting. The goal: a different pathway to deal with suspected contagion of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Italy, which has confirmed five deaths and more than 200 cases Monday, by far Europe's most widespread outbreak of the virus.

First the inspections by technical officers, then the electrical connections, and finally the tents, spread out and inflated. Scenes from another time, reminiscent of a war zone, which never fail to make an impression on locals. It makes you want to explain that these are all preventative measures— no one has seen anything like this for decades.

"It seems like we're in a war," murmured an old man as he walked in front of the tent dominating the emergency room at San Giovanni Molinette hospital.

But before being allowed into the emergency room, everyone must have their temperature taken to check for fever, and answer the necessary questions to be directed toward the most appropriate course of care.

At Mauriziano hospital, a separate triage room has been proposed instead of the tents. The alternative is still under consideration — though no one knows for how long.

Masks, gel and disinfectant are running out.

Some hospitals, such as Città della Salute di Torino, forged ahead . At the entrance of the emergency room at Molinette, in the "hot room" where ambulances stop to unload patients, a table was set up with doctors and nurses, all wearing surgical masks.

To each arriving visitor, some of whom were also wearing masks, the staff politely asked the same questions: "Pardon me, by chance do you have a fever, any symptoms?" Questions that the new arrivals had anticipated, having been informed by the public health campaign transmitted by the media. They said no, or simply shook their heads, before making their way toward the emergency room door to visit friends and family who were ill.

In Turin — Photo: Alberto Gandolfo/Pacific Press/ZUMA

The collective unease, mixed with concern, was palpable even with the masks on.

"Afraid? Hell no, I spent nine years in the army…" quipped one of the workers at the entrance.

The worst is to be assumed with a virus about which little is known, from the length of the incubation period to its ability to survive on surfaces. Italian nurses' unions are asking for guarantees. "The nurses and health workers, in addition to offering their skills, are putting their bodies on the line, and the risk of contracting the virus themselves or passing it on to their families is multiplied for obvious reasons," reads a statement from the union NurSind Piemonte. "The chronic shortage of staff in these services is also cause for concern."

Hospitals are beginning to ration.

Another union, Nursing Up, has sought to focus attention on the protection measures it judges insufficient, and more generally on what it calls a "hobbled" organizational effort.The messages that arrive from hospitals to union representatives give the impression of a growing desperation. There are those who lament not being consulted or involved in the mounting of the tents ("They don't even know where to start!"), those who curse themselves for having switched swifts and finding themselves in the middle of it all ("Total delirium today, the people are crazed").

The Amedeo di Savoia Hospital— which specializes in the treatment of infectious diseases (treating 120 cases of tuberculosis each year) and is on the front line against the virus — is already short on the chemical reagents needed to carry out the specific test that allows workers to exclude the possibility of contagion in a patient.

Same story at Molinette, the other medical stronghold in Turin. In several emergency rooms, masks, gel and disinfectant are running out. Hospitals are beginning to ration all that is being requested, with increasing insistence, from suppliers. It is the primary concern of health and administrative officials. The 911 service doesn't have the swabs needed to carry out home visits ordered by the Piemonte region.

It all adds up to a widespread feeling that the worst is yet to come.

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Gänswein and Francis in St. Peter's Square

Between Two Popes: Father Georg Gänswein Redefines Vatican Diplomacy

It is the most delicate of roles right now, as Father Georg continues to serve his original boss, retired Pope Benedict XVI, while also heading the Papal household of Pope Francis.

VATICAN CITY — During the morning audience, Father Georg sits smilingly beside Pope Francis. In the afternoon, he returns to play guardian angel to — and be the eyes and ears for — Benedict XVI.

Jockeying between two worlds has never scared Georg Gänswein.

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Fra. Rino Sgarbossa in the San Francesco della Vigna vineyard
food / travel

In Venice, Winemaking Monks vs. Hotel Developers

Locals are pushing back against plans to build a five-star hotel that would throw grape-killing shade on the famed Italian city's last 'real' neighborhood.

VENICE — The wine is called Harmonia Mundi, a rather grandiose name for a table red. It's made from refosco grapes that soak up the sun near the waterfront of the Fondamente Nuove canal, in the Castello district, the last truly Venetian neighborhood of Venice. There's no other vineyard like this for miles around, and the vintners themselves are brothers — of the religious variety.

Just across the way for where the monks reside is a space that contains the skeletal remains of two gas holders, relics of Italy's industrial past. But that could soon change. If developers get their way, it will soon be the site of a five-star hotel — Venice's umpteenth, and a large one at that: tall, stacked in rows, with 10 floors, 286 rooms and 572 beds.

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An ad. lib. kind of journey

Mozart In Italy: The Journey That Launched A Child Prodigy

The legendary composer — just 13 at the time — left Austria exactly 250 years ago for a lucrative but exhausting odyssey through the powerful Italian kingdoms and duchies of the day.

TURIN — Father Beda Hübner, the young librarian at St. Peter's Abbey in Salzburg, was dismayed. "These Mozarts," he wondered. "Will they ever stop?"

The family of musicians had just returned from an extremely long trip — Austria, Germany, Belgium, Holland, England, Switzerland, France — and already they were talking about heading off again. "Insistent voices are saying they'll go to Scandinavia, Russia, even China!," Hübner added.

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Tosca discovers that Scarpia has betrayed her and Cavaradossi has actually been killed.

Tosca In The Time Of #MeToo

A new rendition of the famous Puccini opera opens this month in Milan, and it all revolves around the powerful and predatory Scarpia character.

MILAN — The title should be "Scarpia," not Tosca, because he's the protagonist, in life and in death, of Giacomo Puccini's opera, which opens the season at Milan's La Scala theater, on Dec. 17.

In this rendition, conducted by Ricardo Chailly and staged by Davide Livermore, some form of Scarpia's presence — be it a shadow or a grin — is alive and sealed into every character. He appears as a nightmare in every scene, every narrative junction of the opera's three acts, from the opening to the end.

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Eviction of Baobab Migrant Camp in Rome on Nov. 13, 2018.

Human Trafficking Routes, From Asia To The Fields Of Italy

'Entry to Italy guaranteed for €10,000’ is the hook: An inside report of how Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants arrive in Europe, following the death of 39 Vietnamese in a refrigerated truck in Britain.

ROME — The first to pierce the veil on the illegal Pakistani immigrants may have been the magistrates of Sassari, on the island of Sardinia, investigating another very serious crime: international terrorism. Instead, they stumbled upon a well-oiled machine bringing a steady stream of people to Rome.

The system was simple: false documents, fictitious contracts for seasonal agricultural work, permits that frequently changed hands, and a corrupt official replacing ‘damaged" passports with new, altered ones in the embassy in Rome. And just like that, without even getting their hands dirty, all problems were solved.

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Dec. 6 protests in Paris

France: Strikes And The Social Fractures Of Retirement Reform

Reforming the retirement system is necessary, but must be be done in a way and at a pace that won't tear an already divided French society further apart.


PARIS — Well, off we go, headed who knows where, for who knows how long. The actors in this national drama on retirement reform are all in place, each playing a role learned by heart. The loudest are those who don't want to budge, on either a single parameter or the system as a whole. They're playing defense, in any case. These social security "carpe diemists' have a line: Make the most of what we have today, for we don't know what tomorrow may bring.

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'In Italy only heterosexual couples have access to sperm donors through official channels'

Undercover Hunt In Italy's Black Market For Sperm Donors

Medically assisted procreation is restricted by law in Italy to heterosexual couples. A La Stampa reporter posed as a woman seeking to get pregnant and found dozens of willing men online.

In Italy, medically assisted procreation is restricted to heterosexual couples, but websites for would-be mothers have proliferated. Our journalist posed as a woman seeking to get pregnant and found dozens of willing men online.

ROME — Elisa is three years old. In a few months her little brother will be born, and her mother is preparing the girl for the change. She tells her daughter how wonderful it will be to play together, and to do all the things families do when a little boy finally arrives.

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'Terrorized silence'

Behind The Changing Face Of Italy's Sex Trade

Thousands of Romanian girls are tricked and coerced into working the Italian streets, which are controlled by brutal Albanian mafia clans.

MILAN — Corinna was 16 years old when she was sold by her mother. She'd lived in a small town, in a Romania that had just recently been admitted into the European Union, a time and place of both hope and misery. But Corinna's family didn't believe in hope.

The mother pocketed 300 euros and let her daughter, the eldest of three, go into the hands of a "lover boy": a companion-master, feinting infatuation, a professional illusionist. Such men manage a large part of the sexual trafficking of Romanian girls in Italy. They're now trying to do the same with young Italian girls.

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