Roving thoughts and provocations

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Letter From Rome: Scandal Among the Plutocrats

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Piero Marrazzo at the Rome Film Festival, October 15, 2009

Italy, from many standpoints, is in dreadful shape. The news is out and inescapable. People in the rest of the world wonder why, in the face of a stagnant economy and pervasive corruption, the country continues to keep Silvio Berlusconi as its prime minister. The reasons are many, from inertia to resignation to the conviction that at last the man can stew in his own juices—and he certainly looks awful enough to suggest that he is no longer enjoying the position to which he clings with limpet-like tenacity.

The reasons for Italy’s inaction also, however, include a well-founded fear that the left will not be able to do much better. Take, for example, Piero Marrazzo, the former presidente (governor) of Lazio— the region (roughly equivalent to a state in the US) that includes Rome. A member of the Partito Democratico, the largest party of Italy’s center-left, Marrazzo gave an interview on August 15 to journalist Conchita de Gregorio of La Repubblica, addressing the scandal that pushed him out of office two years ago.

In July of 2009, Marrazzo, who had been governor since 2005, was favored for reelection the subsequent March, but then he was photographed by a gang of corrupt carabinieri (the national police) in the squalid, cocaine-filled apartment of a Brazilian transsexual. He had come in his official car, and he forked over about five thousand euros for the night of fun. After a few days of pledging to “fight on” once he had been exposed (in his undies, no less) he resigned from his position. In March 2010, the governorship went to his right-wing rival, Renata Polverini. Marrazzo’s competent vice-president, Esterino Montino, had run for president in his stead, but by that point not even Romulus himself could have saved the Partito Democratico’s campaign.

The scandal turned even more sordid when two of its protagonists died in circumstances that could at least raise questions. “Brenda,” the transsexual prostitute with whom Marrazzo had been caught, was immolated in her tiny apartment by a fire. The Italian pusher who supplied the cocaine, severely overweight, died of an apparent overdose—or was it a heart attack?—in a suburban hotel. The four carabinieri who set up the sting have since been convicted of blackmailing Marrazzo—they wanted money to keep quiet about his special friends—along with four transsexuals associated with the sting and with the two deceased.

Marrazzo came to politics by way of television, the setting in which he met his second wife, who bravely kept up her on-camera career as a television reporter right through the media tsunami and has since discreetly left him, taking their daughter with her. (As photographs show, he wore his wedding ring at the interview.) After going into a religious retreat for two months at the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, Marrazzo has returned to making documentaries for RAI, the state television network, which is also the family firm; Marrazzo’s father, Giuseppe “Joe” Marrazzo, was a famous TV journalist, and his son claims to have entered the studios for the first time with his father at the age of 9.

What does he have to say about himself today? Twenty-four times in the course of the Repubblica interview, De Gregorio reports, Marrazzo’s message was “I’m the son of Joe Marrazzo.” He will admit that he made a mistake, though De Gregorio cannot push him too far on what the nature of that mistake might be.

Q: Was your mistake going to [Brenda], going there with your official car, taking drugs, trusting the wrong people, not understanding what was going on, not having told someone who could have understood, not having reported the blackmail? What mistake are you talking about?

A: A mistake bigger than any of these. My deep-seated fragility, a private need that’s so hard to explain, a weakness. A man who enters public life can’t have weaknesses. He should keep them under control. That’s why I resigned, even though I was the victim of a felony… a victim, not the guilty party.

De Gregorio points out that two people are dead in the wake of the events that brought him down (along with his party and the campaign), but Marrazzo is on another track entirely.

Q: You talk about how hard it is to live up to expectations.

A: I know it’s not nice to hear this, and it’s not easy to say it, but a prostitute is extremely reassuring, an inviting presence that doesn’t judge you. [Remarkably in the gender-loaded Italian language, Marrazzo manages to put all this discussion into neuter]. Transsexuals are women to the nth degree, they have an extraordinary nurturing power. That’s why I came to them. Of all the paid relationships, it’s the most restful. Excuse me for what I’m saying, I know there are aspects of this that are morally reprehensible, but that’s how it is. A rest. I wanted to ring that doorbell every so often and have the door open.

The other issue that infuriated Lazio’s voters, was, of course, the money that Marrazzo threw around as the blackmailers caught him on a hidden camera. He tells De Gregorio that this was his personal money, earned as a journalist (five thousand euros?). He fails to see that retreating to Monte Cassino, one of the great monasteries of Christendom, might smack of hubris as much as humility. He wants the public to know: “I am not a homosexual. I’m not bragging about that, I simply am not. That’s how it is. I’ve only loved women. A lot, and with frequent reciprocity.” [frequente reciprocità sounds as stilted in Italian as in English]

De Gregorio finally nails him:

Q: You were vulnerable to blackmail; that seems to me to be the point.

A: I was vulnerable to blackmail, yes. In fact it all went the way it went. But I still want it to be remembered that I resigned, that it was a private weakness, that didn’t hurt anyone but my family.

(As the people who pay the governor’s tax-free salary, car, driver and security detail, we taxpayers of Lazio might beg to disagree.)

To think that this pathetic creature once held the reins of an entire Italian region! Marrazzo reminds his interviewer that, “as she has just heard,” people are asking him, “Presidente, when are you coming back?” It is that complete lack of connection with the real world that is condemning Marrazzo’s side of the political spectrum to the same deep mistrust and seething anger that afflicts the ruling party in these dog days of August—traditionally a vacation time, but few ordinary Italians can afford much of a vacation this year. It is easy to understand why many have concluded that the entire political class is corrupt, entitled, and self-serving, incapable of running the country in any direction except into the ground. These days, when a government car goes by, someone on the street will mutter “Fascist” or something more pungent (venduto, “sellout”, is one of the cleaner epithets).

Earlier in the summer, I overheard some proposed solutions to the mess, offered by two of the richest people in Italy, at a restaurant in the shadow of the Pantheon. One owes a nice portion of her family wealth to an American textile fortune, one has US citizenship and a close connection to Detroit that is saving the dynastic business; their dinner companion was unknown to me. On their other side, meanwhile, sat the US Ambassador to the Holy See. It was a particularly fertile ground in which to cultivate their discussion, which consisted in blaming the state of the economy on the Chinese and “the Americans.”

Americans, they reminded one another, care only about preserving the privileges of the ruling caste. Americans keep preaching about human rights, while the homeless sleep on their streets. Americans don’t realize that the Chinese own their debt. In America, money is the only thing that counts. It simply never occurred to these people that their Italian conversation, conducted increasingly loudly as it gained momentum, might be generally intelligible (like any other Romance language with Indo-European roots spoken in a European city), or that it hewed to a line one used to hear in the 70s and 80s from hairy young Communists rather than spoiled plutocrats—except the bit about the Chinese and the US debt. That, at least, evinced knowledge of current events.

In a posh coffee house a block or two down the street from the scene of this disquisition, on two occasions in the past few years, juicily indiscreet political conversations been overheard and blazoned all over the papers the following day. There is no need for Twitter in the center of Rome; a little vino will open untold floodgates. But it will take more than wine and tweets to open the eyes of the people who belong to what Italians now routinely call “la casta”—the Brahmins—to what is happening around them. (Including homeless people sleeping on the streets right here in Rome, not just amongst the Americans). Berlusconi looks awful because he is no longer having fun, not because he gets it. Marrazzo, I had heard in the days before his August 15 interview, was hoping to make a comeback.

We ordinary people are looking forward to at least three years of serious privation, thanks to an attempt to settle the Italian national debt that puts the greatest burden, as always, on salaried employees, who cannot cheat on their taxes because their incomes are registered on the computers of the Agenzia delle Entrate, the Italian IRS. And so we retreat as best we can: into the beauties of art and nature—threatened though these are by rampant speculation and criminal neglect—and the joys of food.

Like that on offer at Il Buco Toscano, Via di S. Ignazio, Rome. As we listened to the litany of American sins, we ate tagliolini with truffles, and more recently have eaten linguine with truffles and porcini mushrooms, watered (well, wined), it goes without saying, with Tuscan red. The fluffiest, most obese cat in Rome presides over the premises, but then Rome’s ancient Temple of Isis, with its sculpted marble cat, is only a block away. Fortunately, the conversations are usually more brilliant than they were on that particular evening, when the plutocrats came down from Olympus.

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