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A lifetime of bribes March 31, 2009

Posted by dorigo in history, news, politics.
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Do you remember Mario Chiesa ? Of course you don’t -seventeen years have passed since his arrest in flagrance of bribery, and, weren’t it for the explosive developments that ensued, his story would have only appeared as a one-column piece in local newspapers, and would have long been forgotten by now.

But Chiesa did make headlines for months in January 1992. The bribery system that was standing behind the curtains he took down as he spilt his guts bit by bit was one of gigantic proportions – italians were shown in a true coup de theatre how the current political system, led by Arnaldo Forlani’s Democrazia Cristiana and Bettino Craxi’s Partito Socialista, was one centered on systematic corruption. Politicians drew money from the business world in fixed percentages, and in exchange helped the businesses which paid those bribes; everybody thrived in this vortex of dirty funds. A few of the politicians got rich, but most of them contented themselves with their increased political means.The parties governing the country fed themselves to retain their power.

Of course, many had known about the whole thing for decades. The funny stories on Craxi and the Socialist Party were countless, and citizens who did not support the government with their votes felt a tad cleaner than those who did; all, however, stood in a sort of forbearance. But things changed overnight: Chiesa’s deposition constituted proof of the misdemeanor, and judges in Milano teamed in to expose the corruption with momentum.

Heads fell one after the other. Craxi fled to Hammamet, where he would spend the rest of his life in a gilded self-inflicted exile; others committed suicide; the toughest fought mightily in judicial courts, and some, as Mario Chiesa, did time. Those were the years of “Mani Pulite” (clean hands), which were saluted with relief by the largest part of the population.

Today, Chiesa is not the young, enterprising fellow he was back then. But he has apparently not lost his vice yet. He was arrested yesterday for charges of bribery, in a story of illicit drain of waste.

If I look back at these last 17 years, I cannot help smiling at the incredible turn-around which ensued. We once had a system whereby politicians received illegal funds to advantage businesses, and used those funds to retain their power. Now we have a system where the two subjects have become one and the same: this way, there is no more a passage of money: the politician and the businessman are the same person, which legislates in a perfect match of interests. He makes the laws that allow his businesses to thrive, and his businesses work to increase his political power. I do believe Berlusconi is serious when he says there is no conflict of interests in Italy: his is, in fact, quite the opposite: a matrimony.

The State is laic February 7, 2009

Posted by dorigo in history, personal, politics, religion.
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The other day, while waiting for my turn to operate the automatic coffee machine in the basement of the physics department, I read a small newspaper clip hung by somebody on the bulletin board in front of the machine. It was a comment by Michele Serra, who sarcastically thanked an italian archbishop of the catholic church, for clarifying in an interview that the Church’s rules, to a christian, come before the ones of the State. In other words, Serra clarified, catholics should not follow laws, in case those collide with the predicaments of the Church. So catholic physicians, for instance, are justified if they do not prescribe the “day after” pill against pregnancy: the State demands them to do it, but Christ comes first.

We of course have very clear and present in our minds how religious fundamentalism is dangerous to the civil world, thanks to recent terrorist actions in the US, in Spain, and elsewhere in the world. It still surprises, however, to read it clearly from the words spelt by a high mushroom in the catholic hierarchy.

And today, I was reading a book on the young catholics in Italy after WWII, their organization (GIAC, the catholic action movement), and their attempts to make sense of the conflicting needs of being a good catholic and a good citizen. My father was a member of this movement in the years immediately following 1948, when Italy was a young democracy and the relationship of State and Church needed to be rethought and rewritten (he became an atheist a decade or two later, after observing for a while the fundamentalism of catholics from a vantage point).

The book, by Francesco Piva, is titled “La gioventu’ cattolica in cammino… Memoria e storia del gruppo dirigente (1946-1954)“, ed. Franco Angeli 2003. I thus found a very interesting quote by Umberto Eco, who was to become a famous italian novelist and professor of Semiotic, and back then was a member of the GIAC along with my father. On page 205 Piva clarifies things in this revealing quote:

Eco insiste sul fatto che l’educazione cattolica era tutta concentrata sul sesto comandamento perche’ era impregnata di antistatalismo e non aveva alcuna sensibilit√† verso i doveri sociali: “Non dimentichiamoci che l’educazione cattolica che si riceveva era: il contrabbando e l’evasione fiscale non sono peccato, perch√© sono contro la legge dello Stato che √® contingente, non sono contro la legge divina. (…) Il problema era che uno non commettesse atti impuri: se poi fregava lo Stato…

Here is a tentative translation:

Eco insists on the fact that the catholic education was thoroughly concentrated on the sixth commandment, because it was filled with anti-statalism and it did not show any sensitivity towards social duties: “Don’t let’s forget that the catholic education that one was given was: smuggling and fiscal elusion are not a sin, because they are against the law of the State which is accidental, they are not against the divine law. (…). The problem was avoiding committing impure acts: if one then fucked the State…

Enlightening. It transpires that the archbishop mentioned by Serra in his article is not a white fly: they all have this belief deeply implanted in their roots. That, to me, is a clear reason for any politician, right or left, believer or atheist, to reject any ingerence in political decisions from the Vatican. This is another State trying to influence the law making in ours!

Pope Benedict for regime change January 8, 2009

Posted by dorigo in history, news, politics, religion.
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As the israeli offensive in Gaza intensifies, and the body count surpasses the 600 units -most of them civilians, as is unfortunately common to all contemporary wars, despite the “high moral standards” of the israeli armi and the “intelligence” of its bombs- talks for a truce are getting nowhere, and it is plain to see that the IDF will not stop until they reach their goals, whatever those are.

In the meantime, we record Pope Benedict pitching in to ask for regime change, the rationale being that these leaders cannot sit at a peace table:

It is very important that, in occasion of the crucial electoral dates for many inhabitants of the region in the forthcoming months, capable leaders can emerge, who can further with resolution this process and to guide their peoples toward the difficult but necessary reconciliation, to which it will be not possible to get without adopting a global approach to the problems of those countries […]. (Translation by TD)

A reasonable thought but, being the sarcastic SOB that I am, I cannot help wondering if the Vatican is going to follow words with facts. Regime change is something we have heard George W. asking insistently for Iraq, before deciding for a direct action. After the probable failure of the Pope’s auspices, will the Vatican send troops as they did less than a millennium ago ?

Stop the bombs! January 2, 2009

Posted by dorigo in history, news, politics.
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It is quite sad for me to see a country built on the ashes of millions of jews, victims of the nazis during WWII, show for the umpteenth time their leaders and soldiers are not altogether different from their grandparents’ executioners. We are all human, and that means we are all beasts. Israel feels threatened by the constant threat of palestinian attacks -not a big threat, to be honest: the wiping out of Israel off the middle east map is an oversold story which has lost all its meaning since the seventies- and decides unilaterally to unleash an attack on a strip of land so thin that planes would have trouble landing along its shorter side.

And hundreds die. More than 400 so far, plus 2000 wounded, most of them civilians of course. The acclaimed killing by israeli bombs of a Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, cost the life of his wives and 10 of his 12 children. Rayyan was no doubt an extremist and a fomenter of suicide attacks, but I ask your forgiveness if I can see no difference between the bombs that killed him and his family and those he tried to explode in israeli soil. Terrorist is Hamas, and terrorist is Tzipi Livni and her government.

What is striking to me is how plain it is to see, from a distance, that these bombs are only a political tool for power, and that they will but cause more suffering to the same israeli people that dropped them. Does Livni think that killing a few Hamas leaders and a few thousand civilians will cool down the minds of the arabs ? No, she does not. But she feels more powerful today.

Wladimiro Dorigo donates his library and scientific archive to the University of Venice July 29, 2008

Posted by dorigo in Art, books, history, news, personal.
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This morning I attended a very important meeting in the offices of a notary in Venice, together with my two brothers and the rector of the University of Venice. After two years of complicated negotiations, funding proposals to participating institutions, reviews of draft documents, walk-throughs, and miscellaneous diplomacy, we finally agreed to a document with which the University “Ca’ Foscari” of Venice accepts the donation of the personal library and archive of my father, consisting in about 10,000 volumes, thousands of periodicals, and a sixty-year-long scientific archive of his research activities. Wladimiro Dorigo passed away on July 1st, 2006, after having spent the last months of his life attempting to organize his vast material in the prospect of a donation to the University, which was his workplace for the last thirty years of his career.

I am very happy of finally fulfilling that desire of my father, but the hard part has not started yet. After the move of the material, which in Venice is not a trivial thing to do, a very detailed inventory and cataloging are estimated to take two more years. Then, the books and the scientific archive will finally be made available to researchers and students in the BAUM, the library of the University, which already arranged the area where the donation will be kept.

The BAUM already collects the volumes which were originally dispersed in the various departments, for a total of about 250,000 books. Today’s addition is a fairly small one, but the symbolic meaning is not negligible: Wladimiro Dorigo worked for all his life for Venice: for its history, its culture, and its future. He was an administrator in the fifties, a journalist in the sixties, a director of the archive of the Biennale di Venezia in the seventies, and a professor of medioeval art history and a researcher for the rest of his life. With his library, the University accepts his legacy of a lifetime spent desperately loving Venice.

Venice lagoon pictures June 14, 2008

Posted by dorigo in books, history, personal, travel.
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Today I brought my family to a tour of the Venice lagoon by boat. Not one for tourists! Rather, a very interesting excursion organized by Co.ri.la, a research institute which studies the lagoon and the impact of human activities on the environment. Its director, Pierpaolo Campostrini, is a friend (and also a colleague amateur astronomer). He invited us together with other researchers and affiliates to a boat trip to explore some little-known parts of the lagoon, be lectured on the research going on, and spend a nice day together.

The weather was way less than good at the start. Forecasts gave all chances for a nice afternoon, but the sun slept on the job, and rain poured mercilessly until 2 PM. But it was not too bad, since in the morning a visit had been scheduled to the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where Meckhitarist Armenian monks have had their home since 1717. In that year, on the eve of a defeat of the venetian empire by the Turks and the loss of the territories formerly home of the Armenians, the venetian Senate offered Mechitar the island to settle a monastery and build a place which could be used also for the secular activities of diffusing culture in the east. There, along with the church of San Lazzaro, visitors are welcome in a wonderful library with 200,000 books and 5000 manuscripts, and a museum. The island was home to a very important typography shop which printed books on science, literature, and religion in dozens of different languages since 1786 and was quite successful in carrying out the plan of diffusion of culture designed by Mechitar. The business stayed in the island until 1989, when it was finally moved it to Treporti because of economical reasons.

Another fact about the monastery: Lord Byron spent six months in the island in 1816 to learn Armenian, and he assisted armenian monks in writing a first English-Armenian grammar, which he tried to publish later in England. He was deeply impressed by the armenians and their culture, as he wrote “These men are the priesthood of an oppressed and noble nation…. It would be difficult, perhaps, to find the annals of a nation less stained with crimes than the Armenians, whose virtues have been those of peace, and their vices those of compulsion. But whatever may have been their destiny … their country must ever be one of the most interesting on the globe; and perhaps their language only requires to be more studied to become more attractive.

After San Lazzaro, we had lunch in another small island nearby, San Servolo. This island was home to a psychiatric hospital until a few years ago, and is now home to the Venice International University, whose members are Venice, Duke, Timisoara, Tilburg, Waseda, among others.

The weather finally cleared after lunch, and we left toward the northern part of the lagoon. I took a few pictures from the boat, which I paste below without commentary. The Venice lagoon is home to many human activities (fishing, agriculture) but also a delicate environment where many animal species live unbothered: birds, fish, even small mammals. Moreover, the archaeological importance of virtually every square meter of its floor -which has seen a millennium of human activity- calls for interdisciplinary research between history, archeaology, religion, art, oceanography, climatology, and geology, of the kind that my father, the late Wladimiro Dorigo, has been an acknowledged master. I am bound to cite here two decades of his research on the history of this fascinating place, particularly in two important books, “Venezia Origini. Fondamenti, ipotesi, metodi” (“Venice origins. Foundations, hypotheses, methods“, Milano, Electa 1983) and “Venezie sepolte nelle terre del Piave: duemila anni fra il dolce e il salso” (“Venices buried in the land of Piave: two thousand years between fresh and salty water“, Roma, Viella 1994).

Above, the campanile of Torcello.

Seagulls love to stand atop these poles, which provide temporary clinch to boats and signal the boundary of canals

From a distance, the silhouette of the Colli Euganei (very old volcanic formations) stand on the background of towers in Porto Marghera

A wrecked building in a deserted island

Above, one of ten monitoring stations installed throughout the lagoon for environmental studies.

A view toward the north, with the alps barely visible in the mist.

A seagull lingers over the “barena”.