Italy boasts more than two thirds of the west's artistic heritage, but Italians do not read books or go to the theatre.by Andrew Hill / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Italy’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s was accompanied by another almost unnoticed phenomenon: the purchase of pianofortes. Upwardly mobile Italian families imported saloon-bar uprights and boudoir grands by the thousand-new and second hand, majestic Steinways and obscure east European marques-to stand in front rooms from Bolzano to Bari.
Untuned and often unplayed, most of these status symbols are now falling apart. Talk to an Italian piano tuner about these orphaned instruments and you are likely to receive a lecture on Italian cultural priorities: “Ask for 2m lire to refurbish a piano and you are turned down flat; but the same people will spend twice that much for two weeks in the Caribbean.”
Cervelli d’Italia (Brains of Italy), Riccardo Chiaberge’s caustic critique of the state of Italian science, education and the arts, takes up this theme early on: “We’ve jumped from illiteracy to television without passing through the civilisation of the written word. It is hard to find books in most houses; newspapers sell few copies, the curtain rises on half-empty theatres.”
Cervelli d’Italia was published just before the new centre left government won the election in April, but it should be required reading for Walter Veltroni, Italy’s new deputy prime minister and culture minister. Veltroni, a cinema buff, has already expounded his ideal of a cinema in every small town, and is pressing for cultural affairs to be brought under a single authority. Critics accuse him of wanting to create a version of Mussolini’s “Minculpop.”
Chiaberge claims that this sort of ideological sparring, combined with bureaucracy and corruption, has nearly extinguished the life of the mind in Italy over the last five decades. The author, a commentator with Corriere della Sera, is admirably even-handed in his criticism. Christian Democrats, communists, bureaucrats, arts impresarios, entrepreneurs and trades unionists-all come under attack.
One of Italy’s problems is complacency. For many people, the country is art. According to Unesco, Italy is home to between two thirds and three quarters of the west’s artistic heritage. And this is the time of the year when tourists queue for hours outside the Uffizi and pay over the odds for an unsatisfactory seat at Verona’s open air opera.
When the patrimonio is threatened by accident, terrorism or decay, benefactors are almost always ready to step in. Short of war, Italy’s artistic heritage is an asset that will never really depreciate. But living with…