August 6, 2010

Commie Travelogue: Firenze, City of Artisans, Artists and Reds

I recently visited Rome, Florence (Firenze) and the town of Positano on Amalfi Coast region, below Naples. Here I want to focus on the politics and culture of Firenze, but first I just have to say…I think the Amalfi Coast is the most beautiful place on earth.

A world-heritage site with winding cliffside roads jutting over the sea, terraced hillsides of lemon and olive trees, oleander vines, Moorish-influenced sun-bleached stone buildings, stunning ceramics and mosaics all over. And then the food! There’s an Italian saying that when a person from Positano dies and goes to heaven, it looks just like any other day. If you don’t expect to see heaven, I strongly suggest you check out Positano or one of the other coastal towns.

Moving north, I toured Florence for a day-and-a half, and realized that it combines the love of beauty and red politics in a totally unique way. Though I’d seen the city before, my eyes were opened to this by my friend Eric Canepa, who re-located there several years ago. With Eric as guide, I experienced church art, fantastic and reasonably priced food, and a historically and locally grounded activism. Eric, a musicologist whom many know as the former coordinator of the Left Forum in New York City, plays a 16th-century organ at his local church every Sunday. In Florence, it’s not at all weird to be commie, gay and into early music and playing a harpsichord.

One highlight of Eric’s whirlwind tour was a conversation with Andrea Montagni (affectionately known in Firenze by his nome di battaglia “Formaggino”), a national leader of the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL), the largest of Italy’s unions, and the one with a socialist and communist tradition.

Firenze is a city that retains its medieval footprint, so you can easily walk it, going back and forth on the different bridges across the Arno. Eric’s neighborhood of San Frediano is a 15-minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station and houses the highest concentration of artisans in the entire European Community: leather workers, bronzers, tailors, cabinet-makers, upholsterers, jewelly makers. People don’t throw shoes or purses out, they keep repairing them. When the actor Daniel Day Lewis went to Florence to study shoe-making for three years, he did it on Eric’s street. Eric doesn’t go to department stores but gets all his clothes from the tailor down the street who chooses from his own designs, tells Eric what suits him, and measures to fit—all for no more than what I spend at Filene’s Basement or Loehmann’s.

Many of the artisans, artists and musicians, the grocers, the tripe dealer and chefs in the hood see themselves as comrades. (I got an enthusiastic welcome from the grocer when Eric introduced me as a teacher of Marx’s Capital.) This means they are members of either the Democratic Party, the centrist successor to the Communist Party of Italy (PCI, dissolved in 1990) or Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), the left break-away which has been through many vicissitudes since the PCI’s demise. These folks combine epicureanism, politics and sometimes entrepreneurship in interesting ways.

For example, Il Cibreo is an internationally known, expensive restaurant which uses only local, mostly organic ingredients. Its chef, Fabio Picchi, also runs a “club” called Teatro del Sale, or Theater of Salt, in the building adjoining the restaurant, You can join the club for 5 euros, even as an international tourist, and then for 20 euros have a prix fixe lunch—with a changing menu set by the chef each day-- that would cost four times as much in the restaurant. (Eric, as a local musician who plays in concerts in the club, eats for free.) The rustic dining room features an open kitchen with a poster of Karl Marx above the oven. Every few minutes, a cook shouts out what the next dish will be—“vitello tonnato in 5 minutes,”—and you go back to the buffet table. The meal was out of this world, with the most delicious anchovies I’ve every tasted, and when you’re done and stuffed, you can go into a back room with battered old couches and takes a little nap!

We shared this meal with Andrea Montagni, aka Formaggino, the long-time activist and a leader in the largest of Italy’s labor federations, the CGIL. Noms de guerre seem to be more common in Italy than here, and Formaggaino got his because he had once said at a meeting that when you have a new slogan or campaign, you have to promote it like it’s a new cheese. Ever since then, he’s been called “Little Cheese.”

I asked Formaggino about the Italian labor movement and economy rather than overall electoral politics because one can get that info more easily from other sources. Formaggino explained that in Italy, overall, 30% of the workforce is unionized. While in NY, Domestic Workers United just won a historic victory in the passage of the USA’s first domestic workers bill of rights, in Italy domestic and agricultural workers have been unionized for decades. Agricultural workers are expected to work 6 months of the year but get their pay over the whole year, though sometimes, in the South, immigrant workers are brought in seasonally outside of national labor law.

Formaggino describes Italian agriculture as largely mechanized except for the harvesting of olives, tomatoes and grapes, which require hand picking to meet the standards of traditional production. Italy, he says, is now primarily an industrial country which gets much of its own agricultural produce (aside from the products that are “d’origine controllata”) from Greece, Spain, Israel and other countries, Much of Italian industry is co-owned with German firms.

On the second day of my visit, there was a one-day strike in public transit, affecting buses, trolley, light rail and all inter-city trains except the Eurostar. The strike was called to protest the lag in implementing the equalization of working conditions between the different sectors of transport, which had been won in the national contract. Like most Italian strikes, which are fairly frequent (including three general strikes in the last two years), its duration, scope, etc. had all been negotiated. However, anyone who participates in or leads a more spontaneous work stoppage that’s not negotiated in advance, is subject to severe penalties.

Regarding labor and international issues, Formaggino noted that even though Italy’s own imperial operations don’t generally take the obvious militaristic form that the US’s machinations have lately, there is still a problem of workers identifying with imperialism that revolutionaries have to challenge.

My visit ended with a stop by Florence’s vibrant municipal labor headquarters, where workers can get help with legal issues, housing, immigration, etc. Then I savored a final plate of pasta with wild boar, tomatoes, berries and spices, at a restaurant on Eric’s street.

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