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Jewish Journal

Handwriting Is on the Wall in Italy

by Gaby Wenig

January 15, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Graffiti in Milan, Italy

Graffiti in Milan, Italy

It's midnight in Milan and we're in a taxi racing through the streets to our hotel. We've just arrived from Los Angeles. We're hazy and tired from a 24-hour trip that should have taken us 15 and from spending too many hours delayed in Heathrow Airport, with nothing to do but sit on our luggage.

Bleary eyed, we look out the window, watching Milan zip before us as our cabdriver navigates the curves and spokes of the city's streets, which are all laid out in wagon wheels.

The streets are lined with trees and cars, mostly European-made Smart cars, the kind that look like they were guillotined on the assembly line into half a car before the foreman noticed. The buildings are pretty, wide fronted, about five-stories high, with curlicued plaster moldings and shutters framing the evenly spaced windows.

It all seems delightfully and authentically European until we look at the buildings at street level. From that vantage point they look like dreck. A confusing, messy, spray-painted mèlange of come-hither sex slogans, anarchy signs, people's names, little drawings, indecipherable scribbles, political messages and four-letter words covers every single one.

The graffiti's aesthetically offensive -- Milan looks like a city that had its hem dragged through the mud -- but moreover, a lot of it makes us uncomfortable, as equations like "Israel = Swastika," "Sharon = Nazi" or "Israel = Auschwitz" defile many of the buildings.

"It's out of control," said Adeena, my friend and traveling companion, who works for Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, as she stares in disbelief at the sheer quantity of the graffiti. "This would not go down in District 5."

But Italy is not Los Angeles' Fifth District, and we noticed when we were there that Italians are more uptight about making sure their espresso is strong and hot than they are about cleaning obscene language off 500-year-old buildings.

Graffiti has a long history in Italy. Rumor has it that Italian graffiti originated sometime during the Renaissance, when Michelangelo stood outside the Palazzo Della Signoria (the Lordship's Palace) in Florence, that city's municipal building, and while listening to a political debate, idly carved a drawing of a man's face into the building's wall. It remains there still. Unfortunately, Michelangelo's genius inspired thousands of far-less-talented louts to use public property as their own personal canvases.

Graffiti followed us everywhere in Italy. We saw it on the outer walls of churches in Rome, on apartment buildings in Florence and shop doors in Venice. We were simultaneously stunned by the beautiful buildings painted in festive pinks, oranges and greens and appalled by the demotic scribbling, which, in all fairness to it, was utterly democratic in the way that it didn't discriminate and defaced every building new and old.

We also found that Italians had an ambivalent attitude toward the graffiti. There was not -- to our eyes -- any move to get it off the buildings, and several people we spoke to actually welcomed its presence.

"It is not the most civil way of expressing yourself," said Maria, our friend in Florence, who in her own bedroom has a poster of graffiti from the 1968 French student riots that reads, "Plutôt La Vie" (we prefer life).

"But it is an outlet for people to express discomforts that otherwise would not be able to be brought to the attention of people," she said. "Freedom of expression here is largely impeded. The prime minister owns a large percentage of the publishing media, and the graffiti remains a means of expressing uncomfortable sentiments."

But even in the climate where the young and liberal like Maria view painted obscenities as the voice of the public, the blustery ignorance of the anti-Israel graffiti seems like the modernized, more politically correct version of Italian anti-Semitism.

Like the graffiti on the Milan buildings, anti-Semitism was an ugly blot on the magnificent culture and history of Italy. For hundreds of years, the authorities in Italy basically wanted to get rid of the Jews. They taxed them as heavily as possible, herded them into ghettos and did their best to get them to convert to Christianity.

For the most part, it didn't work. Jews thrived in Italy. They were bankers and merchants, and they built huge synagogues with stained-glass walls, domed ceilings and filigreed paintwork, and they constructed palaces along the Venice canals.

Now, the Jewish community is small and scattered, and in some ways it is thriving and in others it is weak. Venice and Milan have yeshivas now, and there are kosher establishments in the major cities.

Although the synagogues are still there, there are more tourists than locals in many of the minyans, and the heyday of Jewish life in Italy has been largely distilled into a selection of tourist curios, like the fried artichokes -- the culinary specialty of the Roman Ghetto -- that you can eat in restaurants, or the menorahs made of Murano glass that you can buy in Venice stores.

Still, the official anti-Semitism is gone. Nobody is hollering about putting Italian Jews back in a ghetto and the Vatican has rescinded its anti-Jewish policies.

But that darned graffiti is a sniveling reminder that many of the attitudes haven't changed all that much since Titus marched into Rome, proudly bearing the treasures of the Temple. It would be great if the Italians could start cleaning up that graffiti and, while they're at it, finish cleaning up their attitudes.

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