Wednesday, April 28, 2004

I’ve been thinking hard about what to enter for the photography competition. Thinking about my Reflections of Italy idea I asked some friends if they knew of any large, modern, shiny pieces of architecture that sit opposite classical Renaissance buildings. There certainly aren’t any in Verona; maybe in Milan, I thought.

However one respondant pointed out to me that the Italians don’t seem to go for these grand, modern public buildings. Spain has the Guggenheim, Germany the Nazi Museum, France the Pompidou Centre and Britain the Tate Modern (to pick just a few examples), but Italy has no such equivalent. And any new business buildings tend to go up on the outskirts of towns, and in anonomous surroundings.

This got me to thinking: why not? Where is Italy’s Tate Modern? A few weeks ago I, along with 80,000 others that day, paid 10 euros to see the Colloseum. That adds up to half a million pounds. A day. What are they doing with the money?

A similar situation occurs at Pompeii – 8 euros, and tens of thousands of visitors daily – and at many other similar locations. Italy has more UNESCO heritage sites than the rest of the world put together. Where is all this money going? Italy must have a vast income from its history, and yet it is so conspiciously lacking in modern public monuments. This is worse than a travesty. Whatever the causes – be they corruption, inefficiency, laziness or something else – I can’t help, as an outsider, but see it as a national embarrassment.

It’s reflections like this that have caused me to observe lately, when asked about the matter, that despite the beauty of the country, despite all the fun I’m having, and despite all the nice locals I’ve met, I don’t respect Italy. How can I respect a country whose Prime Minister controls huge swathes of the national media, where nepotism is standard and expected, where corruption is frequent and only thinly veiled, and where vast chunks of money go into the public system but don’t appear to come out anywhere? In many ways this is all the worse in a mature Western democracy; aren’t we past this?

One friend, agreeing with me, pointed out that it seems that I’m not alone: many Italians don’t respect Italy. Certainly the primary idenfication seems to be with the family unit, as I’ve said here before. After that comes the region and only then the nation. This is perhaps inevitable given that the country is so recently united. And maybe it is in fact healthy: once you dig under the impeccably turned-out surface, Italians frequently despare at the grotty details of the state of their nation.

Before I came here, a half-Italian, half-English friend in London told me that Italy was a very insecure country, unsure of its place in the modern world. Certainly it often seems that I get asked “What do you think of our country? Do you like it?” more often here than I did in Bolivia. But a rich, beautiful and significant European nation shouldn’t be angsting over its place in the global village; that’s for small, poor, dictatorship-ravaged South American states. Italy should instead be boldly and confidently asserting itself as a major part of the most evolved continent on the planet. And, with such a fantastic base from which to work, that could so easily mean exciting architectural fusions of the old and the new. So why is there so little of that?

I replied to my friend’s comment by asking if she thought the country’s insecurity was related to the high value placed on la bella figura. She said maybe. I don’t know if there’s a causal relationship between the two, but there’s certainly a metaphoric parrallel. Of course, many people will tell you: if you’re that beautiful, why try harder? After all, everything will come your way eventually. Sadly, I can only conclude there is something of that complacency in the national character. And hence a confusing paradox presents itself: as individuals, they are charming, but as a nation they seem content to sit on their culinary, climatic and cultural riches. That seems so sad.

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