Fiddling While Rome Burns

Rome protests.jpg

Gregorio Borgia/AP Images

Police clash with protesters in front of the St. John in Lateran basilica, Rome, Oct. 15, 2011.

On Thursday, my students and I walked along from the Colosseum to the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Two nights later, those same Roman streets became a battleground, as a group of about 1500 black-clad, hooded incognito street fighters succeeded in derailing one of the largest economic protests that has yet been staged in any western country. It had been planned as a huge non-violent demonstration by some 150,000 “Indignati”—outraged Italian citizens—to decry the Berlusconi government’s failure to face the global economic crisis, and it was meant to chime in with similar protests taking place in many other countries. But as the demonstration moved peacefully down toward the Roman Forum, the masked street fighters, both male and female, jumped into action, smashing shop windows, uprooting signs, burning cars, throwing bottles, cobblestones, fire extinguishers and petards, and brutally beating anyone in their way: journalists, peaceful demonstrators, and police.

As smoke bombs and tear gas choked the air, the vandals split the demonstration in two, turning its final rallying point into a pitched battle. After five hours, 135 people had been injured badly enough to be hospitalized, and several people barely escaped with their lives: an elderly couple sitting around the table after lunch in a building that had once belonged to the armed forces suddenly saw their roof collapse in flames; a policeman who had a cobblestone smashed straight into his Mylar-protected face; the man who instinctively picked up a bomb with his hands to get it out of people’s way; the Carabiniere officer whose vehicle was set afire.

Like my students two days before, the peaceful demonstrators, the fighters in black, and the police all passed in their turn by the ruins of a fountain built by the Emperor Nero just before Rome went up in flames in the year 64 CE, an event that famously inspired him to pick up his lyre and sing about the sack of Troy—or, as we say, fiddle while Rome burns. The same area was devastated again by street fighting in 1084, when Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, descended on the city to battle Pope Gregory VII and his Norman mercenaries over the right to appoint bishops—events that would earn Henry the rare distinction of being excommunicated twice by the same pope. The flames and fighting on Saturday were nothing like the flames of 64 or the fighting of 1084, but they were nasty enough, as nasty as they were predictable.

Everyone in Italy this past week has been playing to a script written long ago, although the chain of events that led to Saturday’s violence began with something surprising: the failure of the Italian Parliament on October 10 to ratify the national budget, forcing Prime Minister Berlusconi to call for a vote of confidence in the government. This particular impasse has never happened before; it indicates how evenly the country is split between its ruling center-right coalition and the center-left opposition. Some of the most prominent ministers in Berlusconi’s Council of Ministers managed to avoid participating in that vote, their not entirely civic-minded way of flexing their own muscles in the boss’s face. In the meantime, for all his boasting about his own financial savvy, Silvio Berlusconi is the Prime Minister who has guided Italy from proud membership
in the G8 group of leading world economies to impending status as the second “I” in PIIGS –for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain, the dangerously tottering members of the European Union.

What more could an opposition want as a pretext for sounding the trumpet and swooping down on snowy white horses, shining armor glinting in the sun? Yet Berlusconi’s opponents may not want to move in quite so fast, because Italy right now is a seething hot potato, and hot potatoes have a tendency to explode. And so the center left continues to squabble indecorously over who will take the hypothetical pickings when Berlusconi’s coalition finally falls (which it will one day—just as Vesuvius will erupt, the Italian tectonic plate will be well and truly subducted, and the Sun will collapse into a white dwarf star).

In the end, on Friday, October 14, the government got its vote of confidence, by 15 votes: 316 members of parliament voted for carrying on as is and 301 against. Of course the votes were bought and paid for; by the next day the Prime Minister had named a new slate of undersecretaries to various government ministries—all loyal “yes” voters, and although everyone strenuously denies that money might have changed hands, no one believes those denials for a minute. All of which gave the Indignati even more reason to demonstrate in Rome the next day.


The authorities knew that there might be trouble from a violent fringe—the so-called Black Bloc; the Internet has been full of chatter for months. While masked street fighters dressed in black have showed up at “no-global”—anti-globalization—rallies all over the world, it was notably in Italy, during the G8 summit meeting in Genoa ten years ago, that such a protest turned into a bloodbath. More recently, violent incidents have accompanied protests against running a high-speed rail line to France through some of the most scenic terrain in northwest Italy. Some of these people style themselves “urban guerrillas” and ally with anarchists—still a force to be reckoned with in Italy, and the “social centers,” associations of radicalized, mostly young people. Unlike the protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park, and in other US cities, and most of the protesters in Rome on Saturday, these groups have no ethic of non-violence—in fact, they crave it.

Everyone in Rome was wary: the Indignati, the police, the government, the merchants and workers who stayed home. But they weren’t wary enough, in part because the police had been otherwise detailed to protect public buildings like Parliament, the Senate, Berlusconi’s official residence (which he doesn’t use), and his private residence, and the residence of the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano. And so, once again, the most vulnerable people suffered disproportionately: the owners of the pet supply store on Via Cavour who had their windows smashed in and their sign burned; the elderly couple who lost their roof to the flames; the demonstrators who have lost their jobs or fear losing them, and lost their demonstration on top of it all. A group of masked and helmeted fighters tried to smash their way into the eighteenth-century church of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, with its beautiful carved wood interior, but the door held—they burst instead into the parish house next door, vandalized the crucifix, and dragged a plaster statue of the Madonna into the street, where they smashed it. Someone tweeted approval online; most people, irrespective of creed, saw this assault as just plain mean.

Clearly, then, whatever anti-globalization political agenda the Black Bloc may claim to espouse, they have only a tenuous relationship with the Indignati (most of whom cheered when the police charged). With their helmets, bats, bottles, and testosterone-fueled arrogance, not to mention their characteristic colored uniform, they have more in common with the soccer hooligans who were expected to run riot Sunday night when Rome’s two teams faced each other for the annual Derby, Roma’s yellow and red against Lazio’s sky blue and white. (In the end, Lazio won 2-1, and the Derby-related violence was less than it sometimes is).
In fact, some of the Black Bloc have turned out to be hooligans. As Rome licks its wounds, the identity of the fighters is becoming clear. Along with the soccer scene, the rioters have been connected with the anarchists and the radical “social centers.” They range in age from their teens to about 35. All told, they have a good deal in common with the violent youth who plunged Italy a generation ago into its “years of lead”—few if any come from the ranks of the poor (unlike the anarchists of a hundred years ago), and their most remarkable quality is not their political passion, but their impenetrable narcissism.

Consider the much-circulated image of a paunchy kid throwing a fire extinguisher, so vain that he is caught, oh-so-stylishly, with his jeans hanging precariously low on his hips beneath his ballooning black (of course) underpants. (Thanks to the photograph, police were able to track him down and arrest him on Monday; he whines that he was just trying to put out the fires.) One of his violent colleagues was so thrilled to be interviewed by La Repubblica that he gave away their training ground—Greece—and their strategy, proving once again that flattering vanity is infinitely more effective as a fact-finding tool than waterboarding.

By causing so much mayhem in front of the cathedral of Saint John Lateran, the fighters ultimately prevented a final rally where the Indignati could air their concerns and their convictions; instead, some demonstrators flocked into the side entrance of the ancient church, where they sheltered underneath Francesco Borromini’s sublime Baroque arches. The rest faded away into the night, many of them weeping, and not because of the tear gas.

For the next month, all demonstrations are banned in Rome, as government and opposition try to figure out what to do and the economy spins down another ring of its descending spiral (Standard and Poor’s just downgraded its rating of 24 Italian banks). The Indignati are more indignant than ever. The spoiled kids who took over their demonstration are the direct descendants of the young men in tights who ran riot in Verona in the days of Romeo and Juliet: the Mercutios and Tybalts of our era, people who have never had to make anything in their lives and therefore have no idea what it means to create even a small thing like a
window, a planter box, a store, a tree, a home, a work of art, a human hand, a face. With their sovereign sense of privilege and their frantic amassing of weapons, clothing, and technological gadgetry they are, in their own way, as much an expression of the rampant consumer capitalism they claim to deplore as the bankers they claim to be slaying on behalf of the rest of us.


Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in