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Inside Italy: New Italians, Easter holidays and Berlusconi's secret tunnel

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Inside Italy: New Italians, Easter holidays and Berlusconi's secret tunnel
Italy's Good Friday events may seem lively to outsiders, but it's seen as a day of mourning among Catholics in the country. (Photo by MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO / AFP)

In this week’s Inside Italy review, we look at why hundreds of thousands of Italian children are described as foreign, why Italians don't get a day off work on Good Friday, and how a secret tunnel came to be behind a bookcase in one of Berlusconi's mansions.


New Italians

Another week, another incendiary and divisive statement from League party leader Matteo Salvini. 

This time, the deputy prime minister of Italy is not sticking up for the Russian regime, or crusading against the construction of cycle paths. Instead, he’s targeting schoolchildren - particularly “foreign” ones, of which he insists there are too many in Italy's schools. 

He was weighing in on the decision of one school in Lombardy where 40 percent of pupils are Muslim to close on the final day of Ramadan - unsurprisingly, he wasn’t supportive - and went on to say that the country must introduce a limit of "20 percent of foreign children per class", as he claimed most “don’t speak Italian” and this causes "chaos".

It’s tempting to dismiss these comments as just more unfounded, populist nonsense from the leader of a proudly anti-immigrant party. But they've also had a big impact. Salvini’s adoption of the topic means it has gone from simmering in certain corners of the internet to being seized upon by national press and mainstream TV talk shows as fodder for supposedly serious debate. As a result, this has been a trending topic on Italian social media for days, and was even the main talking point among regulars at my local coffee bar this morning.

Education Minister Giuseppe Valditara on Thursday voiced support for Salvini and pledged that the government would "take measures" to ensure the majority of children in each Italian school are Italian, in order to improve "assimilation" among non-Italians. It's unclear whether the ministers know that Italy already has such a limit in place.

It seems clear from the context that that the type of “foreign” schoolchildren Salvini believes there are too many of come from countries which are not European, or Christian. But in fact, hundreds of thousands of the children he's referring to were born and raised in Italy.

This is not something many of the TV debates mention. But Italy’s cruel and unusual rules on the acquisition of citizenship mean that children born to non-Italian parents in Italy must wait until they are 18 to apply for citizenship, and then they have just one year to do so, or face a years-long wait - meaning they're subject to tougher requirements and a far longer waiting time than any other applicants. Lawyers describe this process as the "longest administrative procedure in Italy", which is saying a lot.


If the Italian government really thinks these children need to better "assimilate" into Italian life and culture, perhaps changing the rules excluding them from Italian citizenship could be a place to start.

Easter celebrations - or not

Easter is a rare case when we in Italy get less time off work than our colleagues around Europe. Non-Italians are often surprised to learn that Good Friday is not a holiday in Italy – which, as we discussed in last week’s newsletter, is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, in which many religious festivals are also public holidays.


The explanation for this is essentially that, for Catholics, there’s nothing to celebrate (and no mass held). Though some of the theatrical displays and spectacular processions put on to mark the occasion may not feel especially sombre to outsiders, Good Friday here is a day of mourning marking the day that Christians believe Jesus died on the cross.

Why is Good Friday not a holiday in Italy?

Easter Sunday, however, is time to party - Italian style, with an enormous meal, perhaps after mass if your family attends - while Easter Monday is traditionally spent with friends or extended family. It's also very common to take a trip over the three-day weekend. Or four, as many people take the Friday off work anyway.

Berlusconi's secret tunnel

The late Silvio Berlusconi is still making headlines and causing intrigue. This week, members of Italy's Foreign Press Association were thrilled to discover one of the more unexpected features of their new headquarters at Palazzo Graziola in Rome, a building formerly used by Berlusconi: a real-life secret passageway hidden behind a bookcase.


The passageway is thought to have officially been an emergency escape route - though the international journalists who've just moved in wondered what other uses it may have been put to in Berlusconi's time.

This feature may not be too surprising to anyone who remembers headlines from 2012 about Berlusconi's lavish Sardinian estate concealing what the UK press described as "a James-Bond style secret underground cave" complete with swimming pool and another escape tunnel - this one leading directly to the sea.

Berlusconi said at the time that he'd been advised to build the hidden cave by secret services following death threats, and had sought advice from Pietro Lunardi, a colleague who had been serving as infrastructure minister, meaning its construction hadn't broken any planning laws - phew.

As new uses are found for the many buildings around Italy once used by the billionaire former PM, and much of his vast estate is expected to be divided up and sold off in the coming years, who knows what other secrets will be uncovered?


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