BUILDING NEW BRIDGES. Katia Pizzi is Director of the Italian Institute of Culture in London and 2021 is a year of Dante celebrations and many more.
Katia Pizzi, before becoming Director of the Institute you were Senior Lecturer in Italian at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the University of London and your books include “Italian Futurism and the Machine”, “Cold War Cities: History Culture and Memory”, “Pinocchio Puppets and Modernity”, and “City in Search of an Author – The Literary Identity of Trieste”. What was your experience of moving from the University a year ago and running the Italian Institute of Culture in this very strange period?
It’s been an uphill struggle, like it has been for everyone. I took leave from my post at the University of London, which I very much hope to return to at the end of my stint here. It was a fantastic mind-opening opportunity to move from my own research and teaching work and to suddenly find myself in a pivotal position, disseminating and promoting Italian culture in collaboration with the embassy and other institutional actors. I had about a month of getting used to this exhilarating new mission of cultural promotion when Covid hit.
What did you do?
We started straightaway to promote online publications, beginning with a digital series called “Stay Safe” where we posted daily to our website a little cultural pill in the form of a video or a short story or a song or a contribution relating to Italian culture. We have either organised new events online or translated existing events into an online mode. Of course, we all absolutely miss the presence of being in the same room, because obviously culture is sharing and conviviality, and that important dimension has been lost with the digital activities. Nonetheless, we have captured new audiences online and can now be followed by a wider audience.
There were around 127,000 Italians living in London in 2019. Who follows the activities of the Italian Cultural Centre in Belgrave Square?
It’s not always possible to exactly identify who our followers are. We know who has joined our newsletter and who we reach with the weekly promotion. (In fact, if I may take this opportunity, can I say to everyone to please join our newsletter? You can do it very easily on our website and then you have a full list of the weekly events that the Institute promotes.) There’s also a whole new constituency that we don’t necessarily reach by our newsletter, but that sees that we’re promoting cultural events on social media. Our public audience has become a bit more hybrid and eclectic. For instance, we promoted recent events in collaboration with the Archive Franca Rame Dario Fo and had followers from the Middle East because there was a pocket of interest in that sort of theatrical practice. That following wouldn’t have been possible under normal circumstances, when we largely did events here.
“It’s more important than ever to welcome British people who are interested in Italian culture.”
Detail of a painting by Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491) “Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem”, 1465, Oil on Canvas
Katia Pizzi, 2021 will the 700th anniversary of Dante‘s death in September 1321. Will his life and work be one of the major events that you will promote?
It’s going to be a year full of celebrations for Dante Alighieri. Obviously Dante is a literary heavyweight, but he’s also a philosopher and an artist and a thinker, and our events are across various modes of delivery. We’ll be celebrating his Commedia with an audiobook which has been translated into 31 languages. We will also celebrate Dante’s art in the medium of film in collaboration with the Fondazione Zeffirelli and the Embassy of Italy. We will have “Dante in Music”, a collaboration with Cambridge University with digital music of the time of Dante Alighieri. We will also promote an exhibition of our own very eminent little library, where we hold some really interesting, and not seen before by the general public, scrapbooks that the Victorians kept about Dante Alighieri. It will be an opportunity for people to look at these scrapbooks, and to reflect on how the Victorians appreciated and were inspired by the work of Dante Alighieri. And we have a collaboration with both University College London and the Warburg Institute for a series of 20 meetings.
Will these be online?
Hopefully not all. It is absolutely impossible to say exactly when we’re going to be able to start welcoming people on the premises of the Institute again, but I very much hope that by the summer we will be able to do so, obviously safely and securely. We will follow, as we always do, the guidelines of the governments of both Italy and the U.K. – but we very much hope to be able to reopen the Institute’s doors and welcome people again soon.
I believe you also have in 2021 a project on Luigi Pirandello, winner of the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature and another star of Italian culture?
It’s an anniversary of the first performance of Sei Personaggi in Cerca d’Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), so we will be celebrating Pirandello in the autumn with a conference that revolves around the six characters. There will be many more events, including the UK launch of your own book Una Giornata in January. Anyone can find something of interest, on, for instance, archaeology or environmental sustainability. We will bring part of the Venice Film Festival to London in November, so for those who are interested in cinema we will promote Italian cinema in London in partnership with the Venice Biennale. We are also hosting an exhibition by the photographer Marco Delogu, a former director of this Institute. And many, many more.
The scope of the Institute is wide. Can you tell me about the section in which you teach the Italian language?
We would like to make it known to everyone that the Institute is not only here to promote events. We have Italian courses in house, a very well-established collaboration that’s been going for over 20 years. The students are extremely happy with the courses, and the Institute is a sort of playground to test their Italian. They can learn Italian and then come to our events and hold conversations.
Do many people who want to learn Italian come to you?
While obviously at the moment everything is transmitted online, on a good year we have hundreds of people learning Italian here. At the moment the numbers have gone down a little, but not extraordinarily so. There’s still appetite for learning the Italian language, and it’s important that people see the Italian Cultural Institute as the best and the most prestigious and most competent provider of Italian language training.
“The cultural roots and links are not going to go away.”
Katia Pizzi, is Italian culture received with interest in the U.K.?
Yes. Every event has its own constituency of interested people, some who are interested in events about photography, others who are interested about art, cinema, film. It’s particularly important at this time to build more bridges across to the British culture that is hosting us, and right now, at this particular juncture, it’s more important than ever to welcome British people who are interested in Italian culture, and disseminate and promote more widely Italian cultural content in the U.K.
Do you believe that Brexit will change things for the Institute of Italian Culture in the UK?
No doubt a lot of things, not least administratively, but we want to take this challenge and treat it as an opportunity to really consolidate our already existing relationships with cultural partners, not just in London but across the UK, and to build new connections and important partnerships. We talk often with the National Gallery, we have very good rapport with local art galleries, with the Hayward Gallery for instance, and we will continue to promote the “Made in Italy” Cinema Festival in partnership with the Institut français du Royaume-Uni. We really hope to use Brexit as an opportunity to consolidate and to strengthen our relationship with the local community and the local culture that is hosting us.
Is Italian opera and music popular in the UK?
It is indeed, and we have an established collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music, the Guildhall School and many other partners. Even though with Brexit the UK will be leaving the European Union, the cultural roots and links are not going to go away. I believe it’s true that culture is soft power, and that we can start from culture to build new bridges.
Historically, many British people lived or travelled in Italy. Will link between Italy and the UK always be strong?
Absolutely, yes. This is not going to go away. In fact, as I said, it’s a great opportunity to reinforce these things and to establish new things. Recently, we’ve celebrated the “Festival Italiana della cucina nel mondo” and on 11th of December there was a conversation between Simonetta Agnello Hornby, a renowned Italian author who lives in London, and Professor Diego Zancani of Oxford University, about the joys of Italian food and what it means to migrate Italian food to the British culture.
Poised between the Mediterranean and the Mitteleuropa, crossroads of civilizations and seat of vibrant cultural and literary life, Trieste is now acknowledged as enjoying unrivalled cultural status amongst Italian cities.
Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature for “his almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre.”
Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Dante’s Inferno was never realized. Nevertheless Sala Inferno of Fondazione Zeffirelli exhibits fifty-five sketches, projected spectacularly on the ceiling and walls.
The TV Series “Inspector Montalbano” takes place in the fictional city of Vigata. Most of the show has been filmed in Sicily.
“The right to cultural expression and culture is, or should be, a human right.”
Katia Pizzi, from universities in Oxford to Cambridge to London to Scotland do many people study the Italian language, literature or culture?
Yes, but there’s been a crisis in language learning and language teaching in recent years. This is not affecting Italian exclusively, every single European language has been in a state of poor demand. Unfortunately, the world is very monolingual English, and increasingly so. Italian has to some extent been involved in this declining demand for languages, but on the whole, looking at the state of Italian departments compared with other foreign languages, Italian has defended itself quite well. There are still incredibly prestigious Italian departments across the U.K. and in the anglophone world, and these departments have grown in strength.
Do you have to fight to promote the importance of the humanities?
It is a fight, but at the moment there’s a very strong impetus to promote the so-called “digital humanities”.
What are digital humanities?
Digital humanities means anything, including transmission of cultural content, that would traditionally be conveyed by a medium of books, via online media. It’s a buzzword that you hear a lot in universities nowadays, the idea that the digital world can offer humanities a way to thrive going forward through the digital medium.
Is Italian literature still much translated into English?
Yes, and there are many success stories. Look, for instance, at the incredible success of the novels by Elena Ferrante in the English speaking world. That’s really a testimony to how alive and vibrant Italian literature is. Look at the incredible success of the TV series of Inspector Montalbano. That, in turn has created a virtuous circle whereby more people have become interested in Italian literature and in visiting Italy. The success of Inspector Montalbano has had a big impact on tourism in Sicily. Beginning from literature, it becomes a wider range of Italian culture, including tourism, cinema, television, et cetera. Talking about translations, one particularly important initiative promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Italy is a digital platform called New Italian Books, with content about Italian literature translated into English and other foreign languages. It’s a testament to the vibrancy of Italian literature today and how much it’s translated and followed outside Italy.
Even if times are not the best, are you optimistic about your many projects for the future?
It’s very easy to let circumstances pull us down, but I remain optimistic. I was recently on a digital meeting with the British Council, and I heard something that really struck me, and I do believe it’s true, that the right to cultural expression and culture is, or should be, a human right. I believe very, very seriously, and very strongly, that every culture and every person should have the human right to express their culture. This is what I have the enormous privilege to do – to promote and stand for Italian culture in London and in the U.K.
Katia Pizzi, thank you very much for your interview and for your invitation to talk about my latest book, Una Giornata, on January 27, 2021 with Marina Valensise.