hat is literature without politics? What is social study without politics? The word speaks for itself, at its heart polis — people, because the city is a community of citizens. When I was a student of Italian Studies in New England, my thesis supervisor, Prof. Wallace Sillanpoa, pushed me towards what was already my natural bent, politics and social justice. In that selfish decade, social justice was far from being the buzzword it is now; then it was hardly a concept.
The words stuck with me as I followed Prof. Sillanpoa on a journey through futurism, Gramsci’s prison diaries, and post-war Jewish Italian literature. And they stuck with me during my sixteen years in Tuscany with a card-carrying Italian Communist husband, during summer evenings eating watermelon and listening to debates at the Festa dell’Unità, Saturday night pizzas at the Casa del Popolo, and laughing at Nanni Moretti’s films-cum-cinematic social commentary.
Italian communism, so focused on the Resistance and freedom from Nazi and Fascist occupation, all so recent and so tangible, was not the fist beyond the Iron Curtain we’d been raised to fear. It was much more like the civil rights movement we grew up singing about. It meant educational reform, acceptance, outreach, community, transparency, common good, and anti-mafia. In its purest form, it sought to be the answer to the corruption and scheming of contemporary Italian politics. Was what I saw in that Tuscan-hamlet idyll of community outreach and grassroots governance scalable?
From where I stood, at the beginning of the 1990s it seemed it was. Even if fleetingly. Amid protests, the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) lost its hammer and sickle and became the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) under the shade of a glorious oak tree. Corruption was exposed on a national level in the famous “clean hands” investigations, and attracted international attention. A new Republic was born, and a new progressive government was in place.
Until, like in Dr. Seuss’ cautionary tale, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” it wasn’t. Silvio Berlusconi won his first election in 1994 and ruled, more on than off, until 2011. More arguments among the left ensued until the “S” for Left fell off the PDS flag in 2007. And the mighty oak was replaced with a meager olive branch, forming the catchall Partito Democratico (PD), the democratic party. What was once referred to as the “left” and the “right” became the “center-left” and the “center-right,” semantics and optics chosen for wider political appeal.
Scheming was back in practice. Like serial dieters who cannot stop snacking at night, it seemed Italian politicians could not stop their deal-making behind closed doors. Books like “The Dark Heart of Italy” by Tobias Jones and “Excellent Cadavers,” “The Sack of Rome,” and “Citizen Berlusconi” by Alexander Stille, as well as Bill Emmott’s film, “Girlfriend in a Coma” all speak to this period with authority.
Italy is now run by a Prime Minister who is as close to being a fascist as one can be in a country where fascism and all gestures and expressions referring to or inciting it are illegal and unconstitutional. Giorgia Meloni fully possesses and uses populist appeal tactics to her great advantage. This, in most instances, has to do with her stance on immigration.
One of her cabinet, Minister of Agriculture Francesco Lollobrigida, had his name splashed across international headlines on April 20, 2023, after referring to ethnic replacement theory in a speech. Philosopher Donatella Di Cesare called him a “neo-Hitler governor” on national TV on April 19th. Lollabrigida is repeating what Prime Minister Meloni herself has alluded to. Elly Shein, the new head of the PD, accuses this Government of “bringing Hungary to Italy,” likening Giorgia Meloni to Viktor Orbán. In reference to immigration policies, she says, “they are taking apart the countrywide reception system piece by piece. Unimaginable but they’re doing it.” (La Sicilia)
In this context, President Amedeo Ciaccheri runs the 8th Municipality of Rome with grassroots, community-based initiative. The same day that the national government references replacement theory, he announces “linguistic mediation” in his municipality; while the Government looks more and more like a Fascist retrospective, he prepares to host Rome’s Resistance Festivities in honor of Liberation Day, celebrating Italian liberation from Nazi-Fascist occupation. This means three days full of festive and educational events including panels of renowned journalists, politicians, academics, filmmakers, musicians. Flags go up in preparation for the big day, and bands gather to belt out Bella Ciao. I am drawn to the anniversary of liberation that takes place every year on April 25th; it marks a time when there existed a greater sense of purpose and unity across nations. From Calvino to Levi, Pasolini, to Ginsberg and all of Neo-realist cinema, in its hunger and mourning, Italy was at its most expressive.
I’ve lived in Garbatella, the heart of the 8th Municipality for many years. I’ve watched Ciaccheri grow from community builder and councilperson to President, not once but twice. He is a figure worth watching and listening to. I wait to do just that in the hall outside his office as the weekly giunta—city council meeting—is underway. Only forty minutes past our agreed time, a muscular woman with a tattooed sleeve poking out of her jeans shirt calls me into Amedeo’s office. He greets me, excusing himself for the delay, with a hardy handshake and a kiss on each cheek. Amedeo has a small frame, a big smile, a full beard, and thick hoop earrings. He walks me into his office which doubles as a meeting room. I might as well have happened onto a Nanni Moretti set. The room is drenched in afternoon sunlight. On the walls behind his desk are Antifascism and Resistance posters. Strewn across his deskin a pattern so random it looks staged were loose tobacco, lighters, ashtrays, opened soft packs of filtered Lucky Strikes, and one lone cigarette.
“Ah, you smoke,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “but I’ll refrain while you’re here.”
My decades-old cough kicks in with no warning nor clear cause. Afraid he might be killing me, he palms the heaving ashtray moving it further away. “No worries,” I tell him, “it’s just part of me.” Cough out of the way, our conversation starts and stops in a matter of minutes. A few of his staff are in the corridor, waiting. I’ve missed my window. We agree to resume on Saturday morning across from the grand Palladium Theatre at Bar Foschi, the sidewalk café catering to Garbatella locals and visitors.
In the background of our 75-minute recorded interview, I hear babies whine and wriggle and friends greet each other. The surly proprietor Francesca loudly clears tables, scraping the metal chairs against the paved patio back to their places. Further in the distance, sounds of the milk steamer give way to shaken ice as late breakfast gives way preprandial gatherings, and then cappuccini and Aperol Spritz and peanuts. Every once in a while, an acquaintance walks by to say ciao, interrupting the President’s flow as he responds, “oy, ciao bello.”
In between his long, free-flowing reflections, he pauses to light a cigarette. While I ask the next question, he looks intently at his phone and rapidly types responses to messages as they come in with such millennial dexterity that I’m slightly concerned he’s not hearing me. At the end of every question, he lays his phone down on the table, now strewn with demitasse cups and cigarettes, and dives into the next lesson in the historical and socio-economic context of his municipality, l’Ottavo. The 8th.
Amedeo Ciaccheri is a thirty-four-year-old politician who embodies Prof. Sillanpoa’s theory of polis at the heart of everything. He is clearly in love with the area of Rome he governs and the people who inhabit it. Born here and an alum of Socrates, one of Rome’s most leftwing classical high schools (schools, like newspapers, have a clear and declared political bent), Garbatella is in his DNA. At sixteen years of age, he headed up the local youth center, La Strada, offering a constructive social meeting place for debate and after school programs, filling a void where local authorities were lacking.
He has been elected twice as President of the 8th Municipio, and twice before then as councilperson. A Municipio is similar to the Parisian arrondissement. Unlike Parisians, Romans refer to their neighborhood by name and not by number. I live in Garbatella, not “the 8th.” The voter turnout for his first presidential election exceeded that of any other municipality in Italy. And he was also elected by a landslide margin this last time, garnering 70 percent of the votes, from left, right, and center.
In many respects, Rome is an ungovernable empire. A giant circle on the map, it forms a wheel whose spokes are the ancient roads (now thoroughfares) jutting out in every direction; thus the saying “all roads lead to Rome.” Comprising fifteen municipalities, it reaches the hills of the Castelli Romani, the Mediterranean of Fiumicino and Ostia, the volcanic lake of Bracciano. The 8th Municipality of Rome contains eight neighborhoods, including popular Garbatella and Ostiense. Home to 135,000 people, it holds the Basilica di Saint Paul.
Garbatella was built over 100 years ago.The idea was to create a housing development for workers brought to Rome to develop a major port on the Tiber and adjacent industrial center. Innocenzo Sabbattini, charged with this task, based his vision on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, the model of early 20th Century housing in the industrialized cities of northern England. Construction of the lotti took place between 1920 and 1935 and incorporated the hilly landscape behind the Basilica of San Paolo into its design. Walkways and courtyards, gardens and squares weave through the buildings in signature Barocchetto Romano style. The influences of architects from various parts of Italy are identifiable as one wanders through the walkways and stairs, squares and courtyards.
When Mussolini came to power the industrial plans for the southern part of Rome and Ostia were scrapped, favoring industry in northern Italy. Nonetheless, development of subsidized housing in Garbatella continued. These houses sheltered those families ousted from the Roman and Imperial Fora when Mussolini razed shanties. Most of the lotti are still subsidized and have housed the same families now for going on five generations, contributing to the small town feel despite its central location. The neighborhood has been enjoying a revival over the past ten years, a popular area for Romans and tourists looking for good food, meandering walks and convivial night spots. As partial to Garbatella as Amedeo is, he also realizes that the 8th Municipality comprises many neighborhoods, each with something to offer. “Ostiense is the next neighborhood that will really blossom,” he tells me. “Not if they can’t figure out what to do with the abandoned general markets,” I retort.
He agrees with me and provides a lengthy explanation of every project approved and then scrapped in the past twenty-one years since they closed. The General Markets, known now as the ex-mercati generali, covers an area of 85,000 square meters (915,000 square feet or 21 acres). Abandoned when the markets were moved out of the city center in 2002, the massive hole left is a daily reminder of missed opportunity. In all this time, not one of the three very expensive redesign projects approved under three different mayors broke ground. But Amedeo tells me that development is imminent. As much as I admire him, I’ve learned not to pin my hopes on swift change.
In a city renowned for its ungovernability, either because of corruption or heavy bureaucracy, the Ciaccheri administration persists. Some things — like the bridge over the train tracks that “momentarily” closed for seismic structural repairs seven years ago, or the ex-mercati — are beyond their reach and wound tightly in the city’s web of dysfunction. Others — like the parks and nursery schools, senior centers and after school programs, domestic violence shelters, and immigration clinics — flourish. And through these initiatives and more, citizens of the Ottavo feel seen.
No matter how far right the national government glides, Ciaccheri remains faithful to his roots, steeped deep in the Resistance. Not only was his family actively involved and true to the Resistance but so was the neighborhood of Garbatella in significant ways. The irony that the Prime Minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, also grew up in Garbatella has attracted a lot of attention. She also joined local politics as a high school student but on the less-than-popular MSI side, the organized expression of extreme right-wing politics. “Journalists have come to ask me about this from as far away as Finland!” Amedeo laughs. Does her popularity and government, so antithetical to his own politics, concern him? How’s his favorability rating holding up? He says he checks in everyday; he looks at whatever mechanisms they have in place to measure his performance. He knows for a fact that many who voted for him on his Green Party/PD affiliation for both of his landslide victories stand far to the right of his politics and most likely also voted for Giorgia Meloni. And he is grateful for their vote and wants to do right by them. No pun intended.
Not only have the Finnish press traveled to learn about this unique example of successful local governance, but events with internationally renowned activists and authors, directors and artists take place regularly. When the iconic building which housed the public baths in the 1920s became — by squatting and then negotiating — a fully functioning public library and archive, Ciaccheri’s administration made sure it was properly inaugurated. Among the first to be invited: American activist Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, one of the founders of Weather Underground, and Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the BLM movement. He also has a very special bond with Ada Colau, former Mayor of Barcelona, citing affinity between his Municipality and her city.
When I ask Amedeo what he attributes his wide appeal to, he blushes and smiles bashfully. “Possibly it’s rooted in attention to the needs of every citizen, particularly the very young, the very old, and the vulnerable,” he offers. Amedeo Ciaccheri is a unicorn in this fraught time of hostility, vitriol, and partisanship. In him the heart and the head act together for the benefit of his constituents. All of them.
He meets each of his constituents where they are; just as the 100th anniversary celebrations were getting under way in 2020, Covid restrictions hit. The 8th Municipality’s administration took all the energy they’d been dedicating to a year’s worth of celebrations and poured it into social programs for those isolated in their homes. Garbatella took the national trend of balcony songs to the next level. They organized the projection of family-friendly films on the sides of buildings; domestic violence hotlines sprung up and were advertised in discreet ways at supermarkets and pharmacies; spesa sospesa (suspended shopping) was born so a citizen could leave a week’s worth of shopping for families less fortunate. As things opened up with caution, Amedeo and his administration were visible, welcoming businesses back into the fold. Businesses they’d helped get started by turning over public spaces to them on long and favorable leases now had free use of sidewalks and parts of the roads for outdoor dining.
I ask Amedeo what he envisions next in his future; he’s been in politics since he was 16, serving in progressively more important roles until his current position. I ask him if he thinks that Rome will soon have a Mayor with two hoop earrings, tattoos, a thick beard and home-rolled cigarettes. This elicits another bashful smile. “Grazie,” he says, and then, “who knows? Everyone asks me that and my answer is always the same. I have a dream job; I’m like a little Mayor of the little city where I grew up, where my parents and grandparents grew up. I love what I do and it deserves my undivided attention. I can’t say more than that.”