A DESTINATION POINT IN NEW YORK. I am at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York in the office of the Director, Professor Fabio Finotti, a distinguished Italianist. He is professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the author of numerous books.

Professor Fabio Finotti, you came to New York in January 2021 and it has certainly not been an easy year with all the ups and downs of this pandemic period. In what did you succeed, and what did you fail to do because of this situation?

The situation was complicated, but it also offered many possibilities. Since this building of the Italian Cultural Institute was not accessible by the public we had the opportunity to fix it up. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings that the Italian state owns abroad. It is a landmark in New York that had been neglected over the years because it was so intensely used. We have also taken stock of all the book and art heritage that this building contains, because over the years many artists have donated their works to the Institute and we have an important heritage. These range from the end of the 18th century to works from the 1960s and 1970s to contemporary times. So we have rearranged the Institute.

Another thing for which I saw a great opportunity was to broaden the public beyond the physical audience that could enter the Institute in the past. Because of the covid problem, we decided to move to the internet, where we created a virtual building, “the Italian stanzas” (“stanze Italiane”), with which we began to communicate and reach a much wider audience, beyond the New York area and the United States. In Italy many universities use our videos. We consolidated the bridge that links Italy and the United States in both directions: from the United States to Italy, and from Italy to the United States.

Is there a particular direction for an institute of culture or is the director free to organise the programme as he or she thinks best?

There is a great deal of freedom, but there is also a vision of integrated promotion that the Foreign Ministry has insisted on in recent years. There is very strong collaboration with the Consulate, the Embassy, the other cultural and foreign trade institutes that work to promote Italy. When we imagine an activity, we always imagine it in this wider framework. For example, an exhibition of ancient paintings can also become a way of highlighting the scientific restoration techniques that are applied to them by an Italian team; a dimension that is therefore not only artistic but also scientific, technological and innovative in Italy. All our activities aim to combine the promotion of one aspect of Italian culture with the promotion of other aspects.

“We consolidated the bridge that links Italy and the United States in both directions”

Fabio Finotti

Alain Elkann in conversation with Anthony Tamburri and Fabio Finotti on January 28th 2022 at the Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue, New York.

Fabio Finotti, what aspects interest the public here in New York the most?

For the New York public, Italy is fashion, cuisine, a way of life that is experienced day by day. Italy is capable of proposing ways of being and living for the future, but Italy is also tradition, hence Renaissance, history and all the rest. There is this bi-frontalism of Italy in the eyes of the average New Yorker, and we are trying to put things together.

How do you organise the Institute?

On the one hand, we have many exhibitions linked both to contemporary art and to fashion focusing on the theme of sustainability, and on a dimension that is not purely artistic but precisely technical. Then we have many concert activities, since we are promoting the rediscovery of an European tradition that is specifically Italian. When I arrived I received proposals for concerts performed by Italian groups, but devoted to the usual big names such as Mozart, Beethoven and so on. There is an important Italian instrumental tradition, if you think of Clementi for the piano or Boccherini for chamber music, which should be studied and brought to everyone’s attention. We have therefore worked hard to enhance the historical dimension that has made Italy central to European and world history and that is often forgotten.

We have also promoted new works. The Institute’s aim is not to recycle, but to support innovative, never-before-seen productions, whether in the field of early music or contemporary art, literature and design. So, a new work dedicated to Dante, another one based on Dante’s sound or, as far as research into cuisine is concerned, new films. We have become a center for the production of culture, not just popularisation.

What space is there for literature and books in the Institute?

It is fundamental.  Now we can resume the presentation of books in physical presence, but for a long time we had to work with films or interviews. We have done a lot of reports on both literature of the past, from Dante to Manzoni, and contemporary literature. As far as fiction is concerned, this year a festival of contemporary narrators will take place in June under the direction of Maria Ida Gaeta. We will have three generations of the latest Italian narrators. We are also creating a similar festival for contemporary Italian poetry with Luigi Ballerini and Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, in partnership with the Casa Italiana at New York University, with a dialogue between Italian and American poets.

What about cinema?

We are working and have worked a lot with the other film festivals present in the US. We have also promoted the rediscovery of figures (such as Alida Valli), able to move between Italy and the United States. This will also be the case next year, with the centenary of Francesco Rosi, and the anniversary of Pasolini, and especially Rossellini. The winners of the Rossellini Prize for the production of an original documentary will come to the Institute to present it.

The Institute is a home for Italian-Americans in New York, and is there also an audience of non-Italian Americans?

Our task is linked to cultural diplomacy, which in a country like the United States must address the entire country; therefore the Italians, the Italian-Americans, but also to those who are neither Italian nor Italian-American. We need to reach all segments of the population and convince them to become Italian by choice, not by birth or genealogy. One of the Institute’s goals has been to reach an extremely wide audience by engaging in dialogue with other cultures and civilisations.

What about the teaching of the Italian language?

In the United States the Cultural Institutes cannot run language courses directly,so our responsibility is indirect. We give a lot of weight to the new generations, by organising a series of activities specially for children that are related to cooking. We have a series of conferences to train teachers, and are working with the large university training centres for teachers of Italian as a second language.

At the University of Philadelphia you worked hard to make people aware of the large, heritage-enriching Jewish presence in Italian literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. Is there a continuation of this work here in New York?

Absolutely. This is a theme that we have also taken up on the occasion of the Day of Remembrance and we have extended it to the past, with the desire to underline how the grafting between the Jewish world and Italian culture is centuries old and part of the very origins of our literature. We start from that time and go right up to the present day, recently presenting here the opera transcription of Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini.

“We need to reach all segments of the American population and convince them to become Italian by choice, not by birth or genealogy.”

Fabio Finotti, the Institute is multicultural, from ballet to music, from literature to cinema, to…?

Comics. One of the exhibitions we will be holding during the summer will be linked to the Spaghetti-Western, starting not with film, but with Tex Willer, the main fictional character of the Italian comics series Tex, who experimented with this world of the Western in advance of the movies. Then there will be a big exhibition linked to the films and the posters, and the transition to Sergio Leone‘s films. For me this is something extraordinarily interesting, because on the one hand it shows how much the American world has influenced Italy, but it also shows how Italy was able not only to discover, but to recreate America, creating an Italian rather than an American Western world. This meeting of cultures is one of the foundations of the Institute’s activities. One of the first activities we did for the Italian rooms was a series of in-depth studies led by Laura Mattioli, president of CIMA (The Centre for Italian Modern Art), on American artists who were inspired by Italian art. Not necessarily Italian artists, but American artists who take Italian art as a model. We are also doing dialogue between cultures in other fields.

Many great American artists and writers have lived in or been inspired by Italy and by Italian things.

This is one of the most beautiful parts, because it shows the vitality of Italy outside Italy. By working on this, it is also possible to make people discover, through the Institute of Culture, not only Italy, but in part show America to America.

What changes have you seen in Philadelphia and New York over the pandemic time?

In Philadelphia today, unlike when I left it three or four years ago, the shops in the station are empty and closed. Taxis are not to be found. When I last went, about a month ago, I called the taxi service and was told that the waiting time was two and a half hours. It is another world. The world in the provincial towns has changed even more profoundly than New York, which was very strange when I arrived because it was practically deserted. New York is a big tourist city. It’s still one of the great centers of finance and commerce, but it’s also basically a big market. The market was empty, because there were no more Europeans arriving and no more Americans. One of the Institute’s projects was to show America during covid, the America that the Europeans couldn’t see. Covid helped us to see how New York is also, in the end, an old city and, from a certain point of view, a historic city; not a city completely projected towards the future, with this architecture that is partly early 20th century. At that time there was a lot of reliance on the internet, and the internet was jumping offline ten times a day.

Is New York becoming antiquated, a new Venice?

A little bit. At a certain point a group in Palermo that we work with a lot to create our films were experiencing these drops in internet speed. I thought it was Palermo’s fault, but they did some tests and it turned out that in New York the internet speed was a quarter of what it is in Palermo. The American infrastructure has come to a standstill over the last twenty or thirty years. New York is not a new Venice, but it certainly suffers from a bit of old age.

Fabio Finotti

Professor Fabio Finotti leads a presentation at the Institute

Fabio Finotti

Fabio Finotti in conversation with Alain Elkann

Fabio Finotti

Professor Fabio Finotti

Fabio Finotti

A presentation at the Institute to mark the publication of Alain Elkann’s novel ANITA in English, translated from the Italian by K.E. Bättig von Wittelsbach



Fabio Finotti

The author Alain Elkann is President of FIAC, the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture, and is shown here with Professor Fabio Finotti

“We have become a center for the production of culture, not just popularisation.”

Fabio Finotti, we hope that this pandemic will become like a flu, less invasive and terrifying. How do you imagine the Institute of tomorrow?

The Institute now has this hybrid dimension, in the sense that the presence of the Internet allows us to enhance many activities in Italy, such as the concerts on the fortepiano or the performance of Titus Andronicus by the Teatro Stabile of Verona, near the Museo Lapidario, or the great seminar we organised on sustainability with the participation of many Italian and American companies. Some things were done for us and came here thanks to the Internet, as well as many contacts we had with a world outside New York. This hybrid aspect will remain as it is and we have already organised the Institute to have a television in every room, so that the audience can be distributed and there is a dialogue that is not purely through physical presence, but through connection. The Institute must also become a destination point, alive even when there is no specific activity. I hope to open a bookshop and a café at the Institute, where people can come to buy or see Italian books and stop to have an Italian coffee or something Italian to eat, especially when they go to the Consulate to get their passports. To create a community, not only of Italians of course. In this way, the Institute will become alive beyond the initiatives and events that take place in it during the week.

Do you dialogue with other cultural institutes?

Absolutely. It is true that we are in a global and hybrid perspective, but at the same time we have to connect closely to enhance the context. For the closing of the ‘Medici’ exhibition at the Metropolitan we organised three seminars: on gastronomy at the time of the Medici, with the passage of cooks and recipes from the Italian world to the French world when the Medici were related to the French royals; on the poisons of the Medici, apparently a more fictional, but real aspect; and a whole series of conferences on restoration and on the restoration models of the works that came to the exhibition from Florence. We do the same sort of thing in our relationship with other institutes.

Do you receive specific guidance from the Embassy and the Consulate, such as for example to work on the theme of the pandemic?

We are very free, although we have obviously worked on this theme from Paolo Diacono, through Boccaccio’s plague and on to Manzoni’s description of the plague. From the Embassy and Foreign Office we get suggestions for some special days, such as a cookery day or a design day. Last year we decided to dedicate the Design Day, in collaboration with the consulate, to immaterial design, to light, which is one of the strong points of Italian design: Artemide, but also Bulgari jewellery and so on, everything that concerns the use and play of light.

And this year?

This year the theme of design will be recycling, which for us will be interpreted as upcycling, i.e. creating something higher from what has apparently been discarded. There are general themes that mark the calendar of the Ministry and on which we coordinate with the other forces of Italy abroad.

Italy is very present in culture and your work is almost infinite. Thank you for defending culture, which deserves an influential presence among the technological and scientific progress we are witnessing.