Alexander Stille is San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia. His most recent book is a memoir, The Force of Things: A Marriage in War in Peace. (April 2015)

The Pope Who Tried

Monsignor Francesco Borgongini-Duca, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Francesco Pacelli, Benito Mussolini, and Dino Grandi at the signing of the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, February 1929
During the past fifty years, most of the debate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with fascism has focused on the wartime period and the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust. Did the virtual silence of Pius XII, who became pope in early 1939, about the mistreatment and extermination of Europe’s Jews …

A Film Without a Country

A scene from Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital

Rightly or wrongly, we expect something different from the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars—something specific to the country that produced it, something that takes us out of the usual Hollywood way of making movies. The case of Human Capital, which was Italy’s entry for this year’s Oscar but was not nominated by the Academy, may be instructive in this regard.

Dancing to Nowhere

Toni Servillo and Galatea Ranzi in Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza is a visual feast, one of the few films that takes full advantage of the hallucinatory beauty Rome. The overripe city stands in stark contrast to the dull, futile, and empty life of the film’s main characters—the frenetic partying, the not-so-hidden desperation and the endless “blah, blah, blah” of their conversation.

Italy Under a Microscope

A train in Gravina, Puglia, Italy, 1991
An ophthalmologist visiting an exhibition of the artist Chuck Close spotted what he suspected was a serious condition in the eye of one of the subjects of Close’s larger-than-life, hyperrealistic portraits. The doctor left a note for the artist to urge the subject, Close’s own father-in-law, to have a checkup.

From Cocaine to Fascism

Benito Mussolini; drawing by David Levine

Behind Italy’s official façade of bourgeois morality, traditional family life, and patriotism, the early twentieth-century novelist Pitigrilli saw a world driven by sex, power, and greed. Cocaine, his most successful novel, describes a world of cocaine dens, gambling parlors, orgies, lewd entertainment, and séances; the principal occupation of the characters is distracting themselves from the horrors of real life. Cocaine appeared in 1921; the following year, Benito Mussolini and his fascist party came to power. Interestingly, Mussolini, himself a deep cynic and perhaps the shrewdest interpreter of the post-World War I mood, appears to have been a fan of Pitigrilli’s novels: “Pitigrilli is not an immoral writer; he photographs the times. If our society is corrupt, it’s not his fault.”

The Strange Victory of Padre Pio

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (center) with friars of the Capuchin order and several carabinieri, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, 1966
In the summer of 1960, the Holy Office of the Vatican dispatched an apostolic visitor to investigate Padre Pio, a friar of the Capuchin order who had apparently borne the wounds of the stigmata for more than forty years. A genuine religious cult had grown up around Padre Pio in …

The Corrupt Reign of Emperor Silvio

Poster for Erik Gandini’s documentary on Italy, Videocracy, 2009
In the past year, Italy’s political life has come to resemble some strange cross between a Mexican soap opera and Suetonius’ description of the imperial excesses of the Caesars. First there were the revelations of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s peculiar relationship with Noemi Letizia, a teenage girl from Naples who …

Italy Against Itself

In late April, Gianni Alemanno, a former neofascist, was elected mayor of Rome, two weeks after Silvio Berlusconi and a right-wing coalition had come back to power with a sizable majority in Italy’s national elections. Following the mayoral contest, the international press made much of the crowds of neofascist youth …

Italy: The Crooks in Control

Last year, Italy seemed to wake up to the problem of the Camorra—the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia—in the form of 2,700 tons of garbage. On the nightly news for several days running, TV viewers stared with a mixture of wonder and horror at mountains and mountains of garbage—some of …

The Berlusconi Show

Traditionally on losing an election, a politician calls to congratulate the winner and urges voters to put their differences aside and come together for the good of the country. But Silvio Berlusconi is anything but a traditional politician. Instead, after his narrow defeat by the center-left candidate, Romano Prodi, Berlusconi …

Italy: The Family Business

On January 26, 1994, Silvio Berlusconi—the country’s richest man, owner of a vast real estate, publishing, financial, and media empire—appeared simultaneously on the three private TV networks he owns and announced that he was founding a new political party and running for prime minister. Berlusconi’s sudden appearance in the living …

Apocalypse Soon

The book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has come as close to becoming an international best seller as a university press book dense with references to Spinoza, Marx, and Gilles Deleuze is likely to get. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it has become a cult book …

Making Way for Berlusconi

The recent Italian elections were not just a clear triumph for the center-right coalition of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. They were also a major defeat for the center-left parties that have governed the country since their victory in 1996. In one sense, their defeat bears some resemblance to Al Gore’s …

Palermo: The Photography of Death

One morning in 1993, several Italian policemen arrived unexpectedly at the house of Letizia Battaglia, where she has her office, carrying a warrant to conduct a search of her vast photo archive. Battaglia had worked as the photography director of L’Ora, Palermo’s left-wing daily newspaper, from 1974 until shortly before …

The Betrayal of History

Columbia University Professor Jack Garraty was surprised to open the latest edition of the eighth-grade textbook he had written in 1982 and learn that a Spanish explorer named Bartolomeo Gomez, and not the Englishman Henry Hudson, was credited with being the first European to discover the Hudson River. Garraty, who …

Italy: The Convulsions of Normalcy

Like a snake trying to shed its skin, Italy has been making convulsive efforts for the last few years to shake off its old political system and become a “normal” democracy, one in which the alternation of government and opposition is an ordinary, unremarkable occurrence. With the victory of a …