Days of wine and Roman scandals: Michael Sheridan finds the eternal city in sober mood at the year end

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The Independent Online
WHO WILL stroll unworried through Piazza Navona this year's end, admiring the traditional toy fair around Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, sipping a prosecco at Tre Scalini; then off to view the Christmas crib at the baroque church of Sant'Andrea della Valle?

Not Bettino Craxi, for one. Gone are the days when this mighty politician could issue from the nearby Hotel Raphael to cast a prime ministerial eye over the festivities. Such is his disgrace at the hands of the investigating magistrates that, while not convicted of any crime, the Socialist leader and erstwhile Grand Reformer hardly dare show his face in public.

Not Giulio Andreotti, for another. Immured in his Roman apartment, when not on his knees in a pew, the old fox of Italian politics also finds himself in an unseasonal frame of mind. Beset by allegations of corruption, his power and acolytes are melting away like the flurries of snow that occasionally grace a Roman winter.

It was a sobering feast in Rome this year. To be sure, the traffic seemed as frantic as ever, the dedication to enjoyment unimpaired, the glorious acquisition of gifts to impress, to woo and, perhaps, to conquer, undiminished. But the scandals of the dying First Republic, its prolonged political death throes and a recession made inevitable by its excesses all combined to make this perhaps the most reflective of Christmases.

Here are some random newspaper items. The industrialists of Turin issue a solemn appeal to Italians: spend, for love of the mother country. Don't cut back on those costly little excursions to Ferragamo, Fendi and Ferrari. To buy a product 'made in Italy' - remember that slogan of the Eighties? - is nothing less than 'an act of solidarity'. When magnates invoke 'solidarity' every Italian knows something is wrong.

The Bank of Italy issues a statement observing that the fall in consumption 'is of a severity unequalled in the post-war period'. Its own portals remain resolutely closed over the public holidays, as, thankfully, do the foreign exchange markets. Forty-six per cent of Italians polled declare themselves 'pessimistic' about the country, 36 per cent are 'seriously worried' by the economic crisis and 21 per cent concede they might spend less on presents for the beloved bambini. Many children will have already received their treats but, traditionally, gifts are exchanged on 6 January.

And what gifts should we give in such a cold climate, sufficient to the demands of bella figura without inviting a charge of needless hedonism? One newspaper suggests books could be the thing. For Alessandra Mussolini, the Duce's blonde granddaughter and unsuccessful neo-fascist candidate for mayor of Naples - A Phrasebook for Going Unnoticed, a compendium of witticisms. 'She suffers from an equality complex: she feels herself inferior to nobody.' For Achille Occhetto, leader of what remains of the Italian Communist Party - Bruce Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here?.

Other traditions are expiring in Italy as rapidly as Marxism. Sad evidence is offered by the title of a cookery best-seller: Instant Cuisine for Women too Busy to Cook: How to Cook Appetising Meals in Less than 10 Minutes. Is nothing sacred?

Even at that sacred Roman gathering-place, the table, nothing is predictable. Tortellini, capons, eels, sea-bass and the glutinous panettone cake provide the staples of Roman tradition. Refined households may indulge in pheasant. But a growing number of heretics, doubtless corrupted by the cultural intrusions endorsed by Gatt, even served turkey, in the past disdained as cheap and tough. At new year, the customary menu offers hope. It comprises lentils, thought to symbolise money, accompanied by either a pig's trotter, to symbolise heaven knows what, or the heavy sausage known as cotechino.

Across the Tiber in the Vatican the Pope will have emerged from the liturgy of Christ's birth ready to do battle with the consumerism so piously invoked by the industrialists of Turin. He was in a pretty miserable frame of mind before Christmas, telling people that tales of scandalous misconduct in the American priesthood had moved him to tears. But his new year resolution, no doubt, will be resolution itself.

So how to divert the mind, please the eye and restore the spirit after a year that could scarcely be called allegro? The city itself is of unequalled beauty on a clear winter's day, the Alban hills sharp against an azure sky and old buildings aglow in pale sunlight. There is a major exhibition of the artist Mario Sironi, with works from the Thirties and Forties, including the famous murals he created for Mussolini's grandiose ministries. And new year in Rome, in contrast to the family-centred Christmas, is usually an excuse for parties, popping corks and that miraculous, wonderfully Italian phenomenon, street celebrations without drunken violence.

For one group in this resilient land there is, indeed, cause for celebration. The winemakers of Italy have just seen their genius rewarded by the influential American magazine, Wine Spectator. The Gaja Barolo 1989 of Piedmont has been rated second only to Chateau Latour (Pauillac) 1990 in a list of the world's 100 best wines, based on tastings of 4,000 wines throughout 1993, while the Tuscan Ornellaia 1990 at eighth place, sees off interlopers such as Chateau Lagrange St-Julien 1990 and Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Italy may be sobering up, but it still has taste.