Italian Cops and Jesus Statues

by Timothy Lutts

This was originally published November 8, 2010.

Today we begin with some scenes from my recent Italian vacation, which for the most part, consisted of two solid weeks of fabulous food, delicious wine, good friends, an d beautiful churches and museums.  Nothing unusual there.

What were unusual were two incidents that involved the law.  After a week in Umbria, I had just driven, with my wife and another couple, down past Rome and Naples, and over the Sorrentine Peninsula to Amalfi.  That last stretch was the most nerve-wracking dry-pavement drive of my life, roughly like the famous stretch of Lombard Street in San Francisco but steeper, a thousand times as long and with two-way traffic.

We made it.

And while checking in to our hotel, which I had reserved months before, a funny thing happened.

The well-dressed man at the desk brought out my reservation, and pointed to a figure, saying in a quiet voice, “This is the rate you contracted to pay,” (it was correct) “but if you’d like to pay in CASH you can have it for THIS price,” (at which he wrote a number that was 13% lower than the first).

I thought a few seconds, calculated that a couple visits to an ATM would yield the necessary cash, and said OK.

I was happy to save the money, and he no doubt was happy to avoid paying both the credit card fees and (more importantly) taxes to the Italian government.  Now, technically, I have no proof the hotel was engaging in tax evasion, but considering that it’s ingrained in the culture of Italy—which has some of the highest taxes in Europe—and that I can think of no other reason a hotelier would ask a guest to pay in cash, I feel fairly confident in my conclusion.  So the question is this.  Am I complicit?  Should I fear a visit from the Guardia Finanza, the Italian Police force targeting tax evasion and other financial crimes?

The other incident that involved the law came while I was driving along a secondary road in Umbria one Sunday morning.  Seemingly out of nowhere, a trim Italian member of the Carabinieri appeared in the road, holding up a little red stop sign on a stick, and motioned me to pull over.  Approaching the car, he asked for the vehicle’s papers, and then my license … took them back to his partner—who was standing by his car with a machine gun just in case—and then returned and asked me to join them.  Turns out they wanted to enter my information in their book, but they needed my help to identify exactly what, on my license, were my name, state, etc.  (The word “Massachusetts” is tricky one for Italians!)  So I helped.  And then they let me go.  Routine traffic stop?  You tell me.

Leaving law enforcement, let’s talk about Jesus statues.

Driving south from Amalfi, on the way to Sicily, we spent two nights in the beautiful town of Maratea (population 5,000), which has what I believed to be the world’s second-largest Jesus statue.

Here’s a picture of me in front of it.

SONY DSCDoesn’t look too big, does it?

Well, look again.

Christ-the-Redeemer-of-MarateaThis statue, named Christ the Redeemer of Maratea, was erected by Piedmontese entrepreneur Stefano Rivetti who owned hotels in the town.  Faced in beautiful white Carrera marble, and standing 69.7 feet high, it was completed in 1965.

We were there on a Sunday morning about 11, with no one else about.  Amazing.

But now I know that this is only the world’s fifth-largest Jesus statue.

The fourth-largest, which was completed in 1959, is in Lisbon, Portugal.  Named Christ the King, it was begun under orders from the authoritarian President of the Council António de Oliveira Salazar, and is now a national monument.  The statue is 92 feet tall.

The third-largest—and most famous—is the statue called Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Completed in 1931, the statue is 99 feet tall, and stands on a 31-foot pedestal, for a total of 130 feet.

The second-largest is the statue of Cristo de la Concordia in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is 112 feet tall and stands on a 20-foot base, for a total of 132 feet.  It was completed in 1994, and until recently was #1.

But just last week the good people of Swiebodzin, Poland (population 22,000), claimed the title with a statue that’s 108 feet tall, that stands on a 59-foot base, and has a 6-foot golden crown, for a total of 167 feet.  (108 feet equals 33 meters, one for every year Jesus lived.)

The driving force behind the project was the Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki (now 78 years old), who raised the $1.45 million for the project from donations.  Locals expect the town to benefit from increased tourist traffic, and I wish them well.

But I wonder if the folks in Rio de Janeiro should start calling the mountain that sits under their statue a  “base?”

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