How Italians are keeping priceless artefacts out of private hands

As the recession bites, state funding for Italy's museums and galleries has disappeared, and Italians are coming up with inventive forms of common ownership, to challenge power from the bottom up.

To the right of the grand staircase leading up to the circle at the Teatro Valle in Rome is a plaque that says the theatre hosted the premiere in 1921 of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Now regarded as a modernist classic, the play shocked early audiences and was greeted with shouts of “Manicomio!” (“madhouse”) on its opening night. Today, the plaque is complemented by a more recent message, spelled out in pink stencilled lettering in English on the staircase: No Violence, No Homophobia, No Sexism, No Racism – repeated like a mantra as the steps stretch up into the darkness. “That’s from an event we did for Rome Pride,” says Valeria, my guide. “But we liked it so much, we decided to keep it.”

Built in 1727, and located up a narrow street halfway between the ancient Forum and the Pantheon, Teatro Valle is the oldest theatre in Rome. It has long been known for promoting innovative work – but now the building itself is home to a bold social experiment. In June 2011, after Rome’s city council threatened to close the theatre, actors and employees occupied it in protest. This was not an unusual step as such: as the eurozone crisis drags on, Italy’s cultural assets – referred to as petrolio italiano (“Italian crude oil”), because of their economic importance – have become a flashpoint for discontent. Art gallery and museum workers have been particularly restive as state funds have declined – and the Colosseum has become a focus for strikes.

But what began as a symbolic protest at Teatro Valle rapidly grew into something more. The occupation drew endorsements from some of Italy’s leading cultural figures, as well as thousands of messages of support from members of the public. Instead of leaving after three days as they had originally planned, the occupiers decided to stay and to keep the theatre running.

Valeria explains that they have tried to make the venue as welcoming as possible. “Older ladies come and bring us lunch, or newspapers,” she says. “People who would never dream of entering a squat come in. It’s created a centre of community in central Rome where there was none.”

Decisions are taken collectively: once a week, an open assembly is held in the theatre café, a room with tall glass windows that look on to the street, so that members of the public can see what’s happening and join in, if they want to. There, they discuss everything from the cleaning rota to the programming. “The point we are trying to make,” Valeria says, “is that there are things that cannot be managed by the public or the private. Some things cannot be privatised – schools, hospitals. But when the state cannot manage them properly, I the citizen should have the right to run it.”

August in Rome is usually a time of mass exodus, as city-dwellers escape the oppressive heat and head down south to the coast or up into the mountains of central Italy. At the start of the month, roads leading away from Rome are jammed and the emergency services work overtime to deal with traffic accidents. But, as a recent edition of Italian Vanity Fairmournfully reported, those days “no longer exist”.

Italy is mired in its longest postwar recession and has suffered eight consecutive quarters of negative GDP. Fewer people are going on holiday, and those who do go away take shorter stays in cheaper hotels. In the past year, apartment purchases fell by a quarter nationally. Four million fewer phone calls were made, and 3.4 billion fewer litres of petrol were used. Above all, the unemployment rate has soared to more than 12 per cent. Personal savings – or, for younger Italians, 42 per cent of whom are out of work, the option of returning to live in the family home – have provided a cushion of sorts in recent years. But as an Italian friend told me, “This year, for the first time, we’re starting to see the savings run out.”

Public anger has turned towards Italy’s political class, its image already tarnished by the scandals of the Silvio Berlusconi years. At the general election in February, discontent manifested itself in a huge vote for the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo. A few months later, Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, was kicked out of office after five years in power.

To many, Alemanno represented everything that was wrong with Italy’s political culture. Having begun his political career in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, he was minister of agriculture under Berlusconi from 2001-2006. Fascist salutes from a crowd of young Roman skinheads greeted his election as mayor in 2008 and there was a flurry of alarmed international press coverage. But his reign was less dramatic, even though it gave a stimulus to the various far-right fringe groups active in the city.

Guido Caldiron, a prominent political journalist and the author of a recent book on the extreme right, says Alemanno initially won support by exploiting anxieties about immigration and Roma gypsies, but he had no answers to the much more pressing economic problems. “He really did very little – there isn’t a single public initiative he undertook worthy of mention, while there are many shadows that accumulated along the way.”

Caldiron is referring to corruption – one of Alemanno’s close associates was arrested in March on suspicion of taking bribes. And so many former members of right-wing extremist organisations were given official jobs that the press named the influx into the city’s administration “fascistopoli”.

Meanwhile, many public assets were sold off to private developers or otherwise left to decay. When in 2011 the government, under Berlusconi, closed the fund that administered Italy’s most important theatres and handed over control to local councils, there was good reason to fear for the future of Teatro Valle. Already, two historic cinemas had been sold. One is now a shopping mall for the luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton; the other is slated to reopen as a casino.

Rome’s new mayor, the centre-left Ignazio Marino, has made encouraging noises about his commitment to culture in the city, but the immediate prospects do not look good. Nationally, politics has stalled. After the financial crisis forced Berlusconi from office in November 2011, Italy underwent a period of technocratic government, led by the economist Mario Monti, who imposed a programme of spending cuts and tax rises. This year’s elections, in which Grillo’s Five Star Movement came second, ultimately delivered a fragile governing coalition of centre left and centre right. Millions of Italians may have voted for change, but what they’ve got essentially is more of the same. Austerity continues apace and state funds for cultural projects keep on shrinking.

A few miles north of Teatro Valle, in a working-class suburb of Rome, I visited another occupied building. This one - now named Officine Zero, "Workshop Zero" - was a former train repair factory, sold to developers and then occupied by its workers with a little help from a student squat next door. On the afternoon I arrived, you could see how the place straddled the divide between two generations of the Italian left. In one of the workshops – surrounded by the dismembered carcasses of Trenitalia carriages – I saw a set of faded photos of the workers taking part in trade union demonstrations. Pride of place was given to a framed panoramic photograph of a huge rally in Rome in 1984: a sea of red flags, viewed from behind the head of a speaker on the platform.

In a tree-lined courtyard outside, some of those same employees seen in the photographs were sitting on plastic chairs in a circle, chatting quietly. The former train engineers have turned one corner of the factory into a recycling plant, and on the other side, office buildings have been converted into studio space by students, artists and writers. As Camilla, an Italian-language teacher involved in the project, explained to me, the recession has forced increasing numbers of young people into “freelance” employment, and working together like this is a way to overcome their isolation.

Italy has a long history of setting up squats and occupying social centres, but the financial crisis has helped them to flourish anew. In San Lorenzo, Rome’s university quarter, a sprawling network exists, little centres of community life. When I visited, one was hosting a swing dance class; another was providing study space for students shut out of university library buildings that now close early because of budget cuts. Shendi Veli, an activist with the long-running ESC Atelier social centre, explained to me that, “for many people, the only alternative to the crisis has been self-organisation”.

The occupation at Teatro Valle has tried to take this a step further. A few weeks after they first occupied the theatre, the activists invited the distinguished law professor Ugo Mattei to help them draw up documents that would give legal protection to their work – allowing them to continue running the theatre collectively. In 2007, Mattei had been a member of a commission of legal experts and jurists appointed by the government to make adjustments to Italian property law. They recommended a big change: to introduce a third category of property, neither public nor private, but “common”. When I contacted him by email, Mattei explained it was “based on access to and diffusion of power”; a challenge to the idea that the market knows best, .

His proposals, which he describes as “anticapitalist” but transcending conventional left-right divisions, allow groups of ordinary citizens to take over public services and cultural institutions to stop them falling into private hands. In 2010, for instance, Mattei masterminded the successful campaign for a No vote in a referendum on whether Italy should privatise its water supply.

With the help of Teatro Valle, this has become a growing movement. Activists have held meetings in cities around Italy at which participants are invited to discuss local problems that could be fixed with collective action. In Pisa, the people talked about factory closures. In L’Aquila, the mountain city partly destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, residents aired their frustration at the lack of progress in rebuilding – and the laws that ban them from doing it themselves.

After several years of ignoring the commission’s proposals, the Italian Senate has just reopened discussions about whether to adopt formally the principle of “common” property. “We don’t need the state,” Mattei told me. “We need people organised from the bottom up, and that is why power is so scared of us.”

To Valeria, the experiment at Teatro Valle points to a new way of doing politics. “People think that participation means ‘give my opinion’,” she told me. “But we have a strong belief that politics is made with bodies.” We were sitting on the main stage as we talked. Actors had just been rehearsing there, and through the lights I could just make out the rows of empty red velvet seats, overlooked by ornate baroque balconies. Valeria continued: “When people from other towns ask, ‘How can I help Teatro Valle?’, we say, ‘Occupy a theatre in your own town.’”

That's a wrap: Italians are creating forms of common ownership and challenging power from the bottom up. Photograph: Stefano De Luigi/VII.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit