Italy is a cultural superpower

September 29, 2018 Cultural institutes 0

Interview by Barbara Polin, ICRP | Discussion with the Director of the Italian Institute of Culture in Hungary, Gian Luca Borghese

As an organisation focusing on international relations with a special emphasis on culture, the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy initiated a series of interviews with top people of leading cultural institutions. Such organisations not only aim to promote a country’s image but, beyond that, also to contribute to support peaceful patterns of international relations through cultural diplomacy.  These interviews’ aim is to virtually open up the doors of cultural missions and to let us understand how cultural diplomacy works as an instrument of soft power in the 21st century.


All the city of Budapest is a hymn to the historical legacy of Hungary and Central Europe, a melody whose rich sound is further enhanced by the contribution of foreign cultural actors operating on the banks of the Danube. One of the most noticeable is the Italian Institute of Culture, where the Italian culture is nourished and it flourishes for the Hungarian citizens. On the behalf of the ICRP, I had the opportunity to interview Gian Luca Borghese, director of the Institute since January 2016.


What is the role of the Italian Institute of Culture in general, worldwide and specifically in Hungary?

The Italian Institute of Culture, like the Italian embassies and consulates, belongs to the peripheral administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Under its competence, the IICs have the goal to promote and divulge Italian language and culture worldwide, a mission funded both by the Italian government and self-organised activities. For example, we offer Italian language classes, that constitute a generator of both cultural and financial resources, or we rent spaces of our institute to local orchestras. Usually, the IICs set up a calendar of cultural events, whose variety aims to give a comprehensive view of the Italian culture. Its success often relies on the security situation of the host country: in some cases, the safety concerns do not allow the autonomous existence of a cultural institute, and its functions are assumed by the Embassy, whose strict controls guarantee the security of the employees but inhibits the free access. This is one reason for which I am glad to work here in Budapest: in addition to a safe domestic situation, there is a really low petty criminality, that makes me completely free to open my institute to the public. With this premise, the IIC can give life to a fruitful connection with the institutions and citizens from Budapest, a bound that is both culturally and financially significant. For example, I could not imagine hosting our yearly 700 students of Italian language in the Embassy, it would be frankly very challenging.


You said that the IICs work under the administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Do you think that culture can be a tool of foreign policy?

In the Italian case, I think it is unavoidable and recommended. There is an intrinsic richness in the Italian culture that represents an inestimable heritage on which we can count abroad. Since my early days at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I am used to hearing other people saying that Italy is a cultural superpower, able to exert the so-called soft power, and actually, I wonder if something better exists. What’s more, I can see that Italy is more and more promoting a culture of the “know-how”, that links an abstract concept of culture to concrete art. This passage allows the evolution from the pure art to handicraft, and from handicraft to industry, without losing the fundamental qualities of Italian culture. For example, the design is a concrete manifestation of an artistic spirit that can be reproduced on an industrial scale, and it is not a case that represents a major component of the Italian export. I think it is important to stress that our culture is constantly generating new knowledge, it is not only about the past, as testified by the quality of the Italian school of restoration, where students and scientist explore new methods to preserve and innovate our heritage.


Among all the components of the Italian culture, which are the aspects that attract the public the most, in Hungary and worldwide?

Well, from a general point of view, since our society is stimulated by visual incentives, I think that the Italian cinema is universally known and appreciated, even the people by the furthest world’s corner had the opportunity to see a fragment from our cinema. Even the gastronomic culture is immediately communicable, and it is at the same time vector and vehicle of our culture, a cultural tool that we have been refining throughout these years. However, I think that referring to our gastronomy only in terms of taste would be limiting. There is a whole and evolving science supporting it, as demonstrated by the university course in Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, located in the Italian region of Piedmont, or as shown by the molecular kitchen of the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, selected as the world best by international gastronomic reviews. As far as Budapest is concerned, the Italian classical and contemporary music is largely known and appreciated, since it can count on a widespread and precocial musical education of the Hungarian public, whose overwhelming majority is able to play an instrument. The Italian Jazz is particularly renown: Paolo Fresu and Danilo Rea are true stars here in Budapest. The contemporary art is probably the only field that is not widely appreciated by the Hungarian public, since it is not given an immediate reading key. Anyway, they are deeply proud of the national pavilion at the International Biennial Art Festival in Venice: I think it has been there since the institution of the festival, because for the Hungarians it is way to present their historical heritage and contemporary art to Italy and the rest of the world.


Besides cinema and gastronomy, are there any unexpected sides of Italian culture appreciated by the Hungarian public?

I was amused by their attachment to the figure of Carlo Pedersoli, better known as Bud Spencer. There are specific reasons behind his popularity: he was used to being a swimmer, a very important sport for Hungarians, but, what is most important, his movies were among the few authorised by the Communist regime. As a consequence, entire generations grew up with Bud Spencer, who advertised an image of a cheerful, generous and fatalist Italian. Immediately after his death, in 2016, both the IIC and the Embassy were not prepared to the public manifestations held in his honour: there were candlelight vigils and mass requests to sign the Embassy’s book for visitors, plus the inauguration of a statue in Corvany promenade, still existing today. Another unexpected, pleasant fact is the widespread knowledge of Italian, that is the third most studied foreign language. There are high schools that not only teach it, but also host entire courses in Italian language: I am used to being an inspector during the final exams, and I believe that the existing academic commitment is a significant proof of the strong cultural attachment to the Italian heritage. In Italy, there also chairs in Hungarian language and culture, but the comparison gives an unbalanced result.


In your opinion, are there any historical roots to this attachment?

Well, it probably dates back to the national struggle for the independence from the Austrian Empire in the 1840s. The Italian Garibaldinis fought together with the Hungarian revolutionary government in the 1848 riots: even if Vienna defeated Budapest at that time, a premise for the cultural affinity was set. I think it developed later, during the 1920s and the 30s, when Italy was the most unsatisfied winner of the First World War and Hungary the most penalised loser. Rome and Budapest started a closer cooperation, in order to verify if it was possible to gain something from the state of the play: even if there were no political achievements, the cultural relations intensified, and the first bilingual high school was opened in Budapest in the 1920s. The affinity was so strong that the study of Italian language continued even under the hostile Communist policy.


Until now, we have talked only about the relation of the Hungarians with the Italian culture. What about the Italian community in Budapest?

The Italian community in Budapest, and, more generally in Hungary, has formed quite recently. The majority has arrived after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is less numerous and less dependent from the IIC than other communities in countries like Argentina, far from Italy in terms of geography and culture. Anyway, Italians who have to spend a long period in Budapest for job or academic purposes find in the IIC a place where to feel home, surrounded by their native culture and language.


The Italian Institute of Culture is a member to the EUNIC network, whose members are cultural institutes located in foreign countries from all the European Union. Which is the relevance of this cooperation?

I think that the main desirable outcome is going beyond the dynamic of the showcasing, that implies the separation between the identity of the single institute and the surrounding context. Italian culture played a major role in the construction of the European identity, so we are not only citizens of Rome, but also Europeans. The EUNIC network helps us to be fully aware of our common heritage and culture, and this happened in a very concrete way last May, when all the EUNIC members organised a series of common projects, focusing on the areas of gastronomy, handicraft, music and dance aimed to show the prominent traditions of every country.


Let’s go back to the local dimension of the IIC in Budapest. Which are the outcomes that you achieved that make you the proudest as Director? Which are the goals that would you like to reach?

I am pleased by the high degree of the cooperation with the local institutes, a condition that implies the capacity to operate in synergy and that strengthens the IIC. I am convinced that it is also a premise for a mutual cultural and human enrichment, since the institutional dialogue between cultural institutions is both a window to promote the Italian culture and a growth opportunity for the Hungarian interlocutors. Up to this month, I am particularly proud of the partnership with the Liszt Academy, with which we have organised master’s classes, concerts and celebrations with Hungarian and Italian students and professionals. I am glad also about the collaboration with the MUPA, that was an opportunity to give life to the Bridges Festival, a cultural event that celebrated the importance of sharing a common legacy. As far as my expectations are concerned, I would like to give more visibility to our contemporary culture, that is sometimes shadowed by our enormous heritage. Italy is constantly generating new and original art, reflecting the evolution and the challenges of our culture. In terms of cultural cooperation, I am convinced that it would have deeper roots and more followers if there was the opportunity to enlarge it to the countryside. As a matter of fact, the IIC in Budapest is responsible for all Hungary, a condition that implies the sacrifice of an entire rural heritage to the capital city, where there will be always a great abundance of cultural offers. I would like to reach a balance between the biggest city and the rest of the country, as it happens in Italy.


Even if the IIC operates only in Budapest, it is a prominent protagonist of the cultural scene. Could you give some examples of forthcoming events?

We currently have twenty events scheduled for the autumn season. As far as the events promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the beginning of October we will host the “Week of the Italian language worldwide”, that will be followed by the “Week of the Italian kitchen around the world” in November. In addition, the “Days of the Design”, that take place in March, have been confirmed. The IIC in Budapest is also promoting events on its own, like the one in partnership with the Urania Cinema. In November, this historical cinema will host 12 movies dedicated to the different Italian regions, like “Sense” by Luchino Visconti, that was shot in region of Veneto and tells the struggle against the Austrian empire. Another autonomous event, but collateral to the Ministerial initiative “Giornate del Contemporaneo” will be “Residence of artist”, that will take place by the beginning of November. During this event, a famous Italian artist will create contemporary art while being guest of our Institute, and our public will be able to look at his work taking life and shape.


In conclusion, would you like to draft a balance of your permanence in Budapest?

Since the very first days, I felt welcomed by this city. Budapest is in the heart of Europe, but it seems to be in the centre of the world for the number and the variety of the cultures represented here. I also felt positively challenged by its citizens, because they are a sophisticated public, and they deserve the whole richness that Italian culture can offer.


September, 2018 | iicbudapest.esteri.it

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