The Italian Cultural Institute of New York is an office of the Italian government, dedicated to the promotion of Italian language and culture in the United States through the organisation of cultural events.
You have now been Director of the Italian Cultural Institute of New York for almost a year. What kind of experience has it been for you?
A wonderful experience. Just being in New York, which I believe is still the centre of the Western world from a cultural point of view, has been wonderful. Then the experience of working at the Institute, promoting Italian culture by choosing what is useful and interesting to learn about, is really wonderful. It is one of my most creative experiences, because the opportunity to cover a full range of things is something that wasn’t available in my previous jobs, even though they were very interesting.
In what jobs?
For instance, when I was in charge of the Papal Stables at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, but was only in charge of one area: exhibitions. Or the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the annual arts festival in Florence, where I was in charge of opera.
How did you design your programme for the Institute in New York?
I was appointed to promote Italian culture to Americans, and I came up with the idea of following three major themes. The first one is to draw Americans in, by giving them what they expect and believe Italian culture to be. For example, to mark Dante’s 750th birthday this past December we exhibited Bronzino’s portrait of Dante from the Uffizi. We also did a full reading of the “Inferno”.
The second theme is to get Americans talking about Italian culture and what they appreciate about Italy. For example, alongside the PEN World Voices Festival, on 28 April we will commemorate Umberto Eco with Salman Rushdie and Siri Hustvedt. At the beginning of May Rick Moody will present Valerio Piccolo, an Italian singer-songwriter who puts writers’ words to music.
The third theme is presenting contemporary Italian culture, showing that it didn’t stop at Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Fellini, by highlighting young people who already have a relationship with New York. For example, an exhibition in February and March of the two young illustrators Emiliano Ponzi and Olimpia Zagnoli was very successful. These illustrators already work with the most important publications in New York, and there are many young Italians from the humanities and the sciences whose creative abilities contribute to making this city what it is.
There is a lot of love for Italy in New York, and there’s a lot of talk about Italian cuisine, fashion and the way of life, but do you think Italian culture isn’t well enough known or appreciated?
Yes. I believe so. There’s a tendency to dwell on the past, but I do see some attention being paid to more modern times, which is the case with the success of the writer Elena Ferrante. The main problem has to do with language. Italian speaking hasn’t grown much at all, even within the Italian-American community, and we need to work more on promoting the language. We offer language courses at the Institute, and we try to support Italian departments at universities.
I thought Italian was the most studied of the European languages?
There are larger communities, the Spanish-speaking first and foremost, and French and German. All European languages are having the same problem today because there’s a feeling that other languages are more practical professionally, like Chinese for example; but knowing Italian is fundamental when you work in certain fields such as fashion, food and opera.
What strikes you most about the cultural and artistic life in New York?
Both the quantity and the quality of what is on offer. There are dozens of things going on every day and every night – high-level shows, exhibitions, concerts… there is the liveliness and rhythm of a city that always pushes ahead, inspires, and enthrals.
Do you find new trends to pick up on?
There certainly are new trends, but because New York is a city that is culturally encyclopaedic, it’s not easy to find the newest trends. Culture as an experience is becoming much more popular, shows in which the space, the proceedings, and the presence of the spectators all come together to create something that is really strongly engaging. Legends are made here in New York, and there are events that are impossible to ignore, such as the musical “Hamilton”, which is sold out for months.
Do you think people here follow what is going on in Italy?
They pay more attention to Italians themselves, as they are a symbol of a certain type of creativity. Italians are appreciated unreservedly, though opinions are more complex when it comes to Italy as a country.
You are a writer and recently published “Tales of Lost Books” with the Laterza publishing company. Your book will be presented at New York University at the end of April. What is it about?
My book includes the stories of eight books, written by great writers like Hemingway, Gogol and Sylvia Plath, books that were destroyed or lost for various reasons. These are wonderful, sometimes tragic, stories. For example, I tell about the terrible case of Bruno Schulz, whose only book was lost during World War II when the Nazis occupied Poland and killed him. The book he had just finished was lost. Gogol burnt the second edition of “Lost Souls” because he wasn’t happy with it, and Hemingway’s early writings were stolen from his suitcase on a train… It’s interesting to speak about these books that once existed, but now no longer exist, and which have bought about my book and other books inspired by these writers.
Are books written by Italian authors read very widely in the United States?
More than in the past, because there’s a greater willingness to read translated works. From this point of view the translator is held in very high regard – as he should be because it is a very difficult job.
You know that because you have translated books from English into Italian?
Yes. I’ve translated Stevenson, Kipling, mainly the classics. I find it to be a wonderful experience and a challenge. Translating is like writing.
Do many writers and artists come through New York?
Yes many, this is one reason why it’s fairly easy to plan events and keep costs down. Nanni Moretti was just here, he did a reading of “Caro Michele” by Natalia Ginzburg and he also held an event at The New York Film Academy. The poet Valerio Magrelli is now here in New York for one month. We had a meeting with Gianfranco Rosi, who directed the film “Fire at Sea”. I would like everyone who comes to New York to let the Institute know. For example, the Italian orchestra directors who conduct at the Metropolitan Opera come here to talk about their work, people like Fabio Luisi, Gianandrea Noseda, and Maurizio Benini.
Do many people come to the Institute?
Tens of thousands come each year. But my work is not all carried out at the Institute itself, but wherever I can contribute to putting on events to do with Italy.
Do you have enough funding?
We don’t have a great deal of money, but that’s not a major problem. When things are beautiful and important you can find the money.
What kind of initiatives do you have planned?
We are holding an exhibition of young Italian artists; we are having an evening event dedicated to the film director and screenwriter Ettore Scola; we are publishing a book for the Giorgio Bassani centenary, with interviews and conferences held here at the Cultural Institute; we are going to mark the 50th anniversary of the Florence flood with a look at 50 years in Florence; and we are going to open the European Cinema Festival with Gaudino’s last film “Per amor vostro” (2015) with the star Valeria Golino as a guest. In June our annual cinema festival, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, will be at Lincoln Center.
Why is cultural promotion needed, and what makes it effective?
Cultural institutes have often been criticized in the past, but I think they are useful; otherwise I certainly would never have put myself up for the job. I think we need to strengthen these institutes. In New York, the French even have two important buildings, one is their Institute and the other is the Alliance Française. Cultural promotion is a basic resource for a country like Italy, a decisive part of its identity, and from this point of view New York offers fundamental visibility, like London, Paris and Berlin. Today Beijing and Tokyo are also decisive for our future. I think a cultural institute needs to provide a comprehensive, varied view of its country, but every director brings their own experience. I have more experience in the fields of music, literature and art, but it’s important to highlight other areas as well, such as design, architecture and science.
What is your overall impression of the United States today?
A country that is more optimistic than Italy, but with some similar problems in the relationship between its policy makers and its citizens. We share a common dissatisfaction and intolerance for the establishment.
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17th April, 2016