Knight in Gucci armor helps charge geothermal dragon

Jason Horowitz, The New York Times

Posted at Jan 28 2020 08:40 AM

Citizens opposed to a geothermal plant, including Alessandro Michele, center, Fausto Carotenuto, third from left, and Jonathan Nossiter, third from right, during a meeting in Castel Giorgio, Italy on Dec. 8, 2019. The area has become for some synonymous with the essence of a certain Italian ideal — a rustic, unsullied paradise. Stephanie Gengotti, The New York Times

CASTEL GIORGIO, ITALY — Fausto Carotenuto, the owner of a spiritual wellness and yoga center in Umbria, the ancient Etruscan heartland of Italy, senses bad energy underfoot. A geothermal company wants to build a plant on a fallow field near his land. He envisions apocalyptic consequences if he and his allies fail to stop it.

There would be artificially triggered earthquakes, poisoned wellsprings, barren gardens, ruined lakes. “A disaster,” he said.

For nearly a decade, Carotenuto has battled the plant with the help of the mayor of Castel Giorgio, on the rim of Lake Bolsena. But in July — after myriad lawsuits, accusations of conflicts of interest and political maneuvers — the office of Italy’s prime minister decided the experimental project could go ahead and dig deep into the volcanic land.

In September, Carotenuto sprung into emergency mode, drawing together an array of illustrious allies.

They include the lead designer of Gucci, a Cannes Grand Prix-winning director and luminaries of festival-circuit filmmaking and organic gardening who have adopted this part of Italy as their Holy Land. Far from the crowds of Rome and Milan, and from the Tuscany beloved by hedge fund tycoons, this area had become for them synonymous with the essence of a certain Italian ideal — a rustic, unsullied paradise. They didn’t want a geothermal plant spoiling it.

So against the backdrop of a country scarred by environmental abuses, industrial eyesores, special interests and political corruption — but also a place where “dietrologia,” or the belief that a conspiracy always lurks behind the surface, is widespread — they hatched a plan.

Carotenuto — who expounds on “Who’s Behind It?” web videos about the “authentically satanic elements of free masonry” and other conspiracies — convened these local knights of his round table in a room decorated with a painting of warring medieval cavaliers, Etruscan-style amphorae and a white piano.

Key to have on their side was Alice Rohrwacher, a Cannes Grand Prix-winning director who grew up on a honey farm in the area, along with her sister Alba Rohrwacher, who has been recognized as one of the finest European actors of her generation.

The director has deep ties to the land, and alliances with local activists. To protect the area’s biodiversity, she had waged an earlier battle against the invasion of lucrative hazelnut trees planted to feed Italy’s insatiable hunger for Nutella. (“We’re surrounded by hazelnuts,” she warned.) Now she would support their fight against a new foe.

Then there was Jonathan Nossiter, a film director who has become the Errol Morris of the ecology set for his documentaries against Big Wine and for natural agriculture. “We are drawn here for a reason, culturally and environmentally,” he said. “There is something sublime here. An Italian ideal.”

Nossiter (whose brother, Adam, is a correspondent for The Times in France) hustled to the emergency meeting from his nearby heirloom seed nursery and organic vegetable farm, which also was a location for his latest movie, starring, among others, Alba Rohrwacher, Charlotte Rampling and Nick Nolte. (“He’s an avid organic farmer,” Nossiter said.)

To help activate the locals, Carotenuto, who said he spent 15 years in Italy’s spy services, also tapped Nossiter’s partner on the farm, Massimiliano Petrini, a local who once treated a viper’s bite with electric shocks.

And then there was their Lancelot of the Lake, Alessandro Michele, the lead designer of Gucci and owner of a nearby castle. He agreed to contribute financially for an expensive environmental lawyer to sue and stall the plant’s construction, and perhaps buy surrounding land as a strategic buffer against the hazelnut hordes.

Most important, the designer, who had come here to put an “embankment” between him and the world, said he would “put my face” to the issue and show there was what he called an “authentic resistance” to combat a “a monster, a medieval dragon.”

On a recent Sunday morning, Michele, with cascading black hair and beard, stood outside his property like a knight in Gucci armor, wearing a cardinal red sombrero, sunglasses and a luxurious plaid overcoat.

Inside Michele’s living room, two languid Boston terrier dogs, the inspiration for a Gucci special collection, snored loudly as he and his boyfriend, urban planning professor Giovanni Attili, sat next to a Christmas tree and made clear their activism was no radical chic hobby.

“We have a great sensitivity to the things that cry for help,” Michele said. “This place cries for help.”

Michele said he first learned about the geothermal plant while he was in France from a member of the family that had sold him his property. “Yeah, we learned about it afterwards,” he said.

His first instinct was to sell. But upon reconsideration, he thought, “maybe we would have bought it anyway,” because he had become so enchanted by the ancient oak trees. “Think what these trees have seen.”

He also pointed to the rugged, authentic beauty of an area that possessed a “strange energy” that attracted people like himself and the others.

They all needed to defend the land as if it were a sick child, Michele said.

“I’m not a geologist, I have another job,” he said shortly before pricking one of his fingers, garlanded in Renaissance rings, on an exposed nail on the back of the chair. “My job is to preserve beauty. And hasn’t beauty a value?”

The opponents of the plant have tried to prove it will be an environmental menace. They also say the approval process was rigged.

They have seized on the fact that Franco Barberi, a volcanologist and former government minister who is a member of a state commission that approved the project, is married to a woman who is also a volcanologist and was one of the experts who helped determine the area was seismically safe for digging.

Barberi denied any wrongdoing. He said that he recused himself from the decision, that the process was legitimate, and that his wife did only preliminary examinations before the project even began.

“My wife and I have a clear conscience,” he said.

The company building the plant says it uses an environmentally friendly system with zero carbon emissions to produce electricity. It would help, not harm, the environment and never trigger an earthquake, it says.

“The well-off want everything to remain the way it is so they can remain the ones who are well off,” Diego Righini, the company’s general manager, said in his offices near the Spanish Steps in Rome. He portrayed the resistance as “Not in my backyard” elites.

He argued that the more than 10 million euros, or $11.1 million, invested to build the plant would draw workers, creating families and nursery schools.

“The battle that these directors are waging is to have a future without children bothering them,” he said, adding that construction would begin in February, despite the lawsuit.

He accused Carotenuto of being a “guru and hypnotist” leading an “emotional opposition” exploited by larger interests that they failed to comprehend.

In Righini’s deeper dietrologia assessment, it was Italian energy giant Enel, which had dug unsuccessfully for geothermal energy in the area decades ago, that had stuck “secret deals.” He suggested that Enel had manufactured, and potentially bought off, the opposition of local advocates and mayors to crush independent competitors like him. He warned that digging below the story’s surface could be dangerous.

“Do we want to wake the dragon?” Righini asked, referring to Enel.

Luigi Parisi, the head of geothermal operations for Enel’s green power company, “categorically” excluded any involvement with the opponents to geothermal energy, calling accusations of plotting against the Castel Giorgio project “groundless.”

And Andrea Garbini, the town’s mayor, said the only thing he had ever received from Enel was information belying Righini’s claim of his plant having zero emissions.

All this business and politics disgusted Michele.

“Italy is going through a dark moment, worse than the collapse of the Roman Empire,” said Michele, who is sometimes seen getting away from Italy’s current malaise by wandering through the surrounding blackberry bushes with his friend, actor Jared Leto, both of them dressed like pashas.

Michele spoke with wonder about his new home — the deer he encountered in the wood, the “good karma” of the land, the cheese farm where a young Sicilian plays classical music for his goats.

“I ask myself,” he said, “in 2020, do we really need to still destroy everything?”


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