This interview with Frédéric Mitterrand was made in 2009, when for almost a year he had been the director of Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome.
Your predecessors as Director of Villa Medici include the great painters Poussin, Ingres, Balthus, and many great French cultural figures. You are a filmmaker, a writer and a man of television. How do you find this new role?
I certainly don’t feel like I’m at the same level as those great figures, but times have changed and I don’t think that Villa Medici currently needs a great artist. It needs someone who can make it work in carrying out its activities. The times of the director having a direct relationship with the king or General de Gaulle are over. The times of the Academy serving as a boost to cultural life in Paris and Rome are over, but it can still be a point of reference as long as we work hard and carry out our activities with a lot of humility. I believe that the institution needs to get with modern times without that French cultural arrogance that I deplore and that I’ve always fought against. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a relationship with the President of the Republic, Sarkozy, or with the French or Italian cultural establishment.
Actually President Sarkozy came to meet with you and the eighteen students who are residents at the Villa Medici.
Yes, he’s the first president to come to Villa Medici after François Mitterrand’s visit twenty-five years ago. He came as a sign of friendship with the director and to show his respect for the institution.
Does this symbolise the great friendship between Italy and France?
Yes, Sarkozy sees the Villa as an opportunity to create a bond between the two countries and a tool for cultural contact with other countries in the Mediterranean.
With Minister Bondi you’ve organised a bilateral meeting between French and Italian intellectuals focused on the theme of “Thinking about the Crisis.”
That will take place on 17 and 18 April. One of the aims of the Villa is to integrate Italian and French culture. This can also be seen in the amazing exhibition of works by the painter Granet, which focuses on the relationship between the two cultures during the era of Chateaubriand and Stendhal. In the summer, we will show photographs by Marina Cicogna and designs by Ettore Scola. And in the summer, the Villa will be open to visitors to show them how it is part of the Italian landscape. It shouldn’t be an imposing fortress in the city of Rome. It should be an open house.
You also recently had a visit by the Italian President of the Republic and Mrs. Napolitano.
I wanted to pay tribute to scientist Rita Levi Montalcini for her one-hundredth birthday, and I gave her the medal of honour of the Villa Medici. The president had said he would stay fifteen minutes and he stayed an hour and a half. His visit was a great honour.
What do you think about Italy?
I have to say that aside from my family, I don’t miss France. I know Italy because I devoured Italian films and music. The French look upon your country with an amused detachment that I find to be belittling. Everything strikes me in Italy. The relationship with one’s body, the sensuality in the streets, the elegance, the good manners, and the whole way of living. I am struck by the way Fellini rendered such a poetic impression starting from the simplest details of daily life. I see Italy through this prism. I think, for example, of the film Gomorra. No French filmmaker would have ever been able to provide such a lucid look at France the way he did of Italy. There’s an Italian intelligence that fascinates me and that certainly doesn’t work the way French intelligence does.
In what sense?
Ours is Cartesian, orderly, and at times brilliant. But the constant risk is of dogmatism and ideological leanings. Italian intelligence is fully in tune with real life and the everyday. It is a sense of history that avoids being slaves to doctrine. Our two countries are really complementary, and this is why each year we have four hundred applications from those that want to come to Villa Medici, even though there are only twenty places.
Do Italians complain about their country a lot?
The French do it too, and all European societies are going through a period of unease. However, I think we are living through a golden age. We have never had so much available to us, and I wonder whether this flow of cultural wealth isn’t contributing to the loss of perspective. I think it is a golden age, and if we went back to the tragedies of the past like wars and revolutions, we would realise immediately what we risk losing. I have seen societies without cultural development, indigent societies where they lived in fear, and in the strictest forms of cultural conformism. I am talking about Asia and the countries in the East. In any case, no Communist parties have returned to power. But in terms of changing values, Italy is very much behind the times. I’m referring to civil unions and the right to die freely when the suffering is too great.