Marketing Italy — with Sustainability(?)…and a Word about Museums

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Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome, Oil on canvas, 1757.  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome, Oil on canvas, 1757. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In a part of Florens 2012, the academics, business figures, and other experts who attend will explore the subjects developed two years ago, within a wide-ranging scheme, specifically tailored for this meeting, mainly the theme: “from the Grand Tour to the Global Tour.” Fundamentally, the way the world perceives Italy and enjoys the many extraordinary things the country has to offer descend from the Grand Tour, the capstone of an English aristocrat’s education beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing on into our own time, however much its character has been democratized in the twentieth century. On the Grand Tour a young man would make the journey to Italy, often in the company of a tutor, or some educated older male companion. He saw the sights, studied them, dabbled in the Italian language, indulged in pleasures, and collected. It would be a sorry Grand Tour that didn’t bring home antiquities, paintings, drawings, or some odd objects as mementos of the young man’s discoveries.

Today, Italy has become a global destination, as people from around the world, above all Americans and Asians, join the Northern Europeans and Americans who have been flocking to Italy for generations. This is not radically different from the Grand Tour, although the parties of travellers are usually greater in number. The people come to be in renowned places, to look, their vision usually mediated by the LCD of a camera, they indulge in pleasures, if nothing more than a mass-produced dinner with a splash of bad wine, and they buy things — not Raphaels, Guidos, or Salvators, but more modest objects, often made in their homelands. Mass tourism presents a problem. Although it may be profitable, its impact on the environment is considerable, as well as the disruption to everyday life on busy streets in centri storici. These crowds never patronize the better restaurants, the ones that represent Italian culinary traditions at their best, and the money they spend never reaches Italian artists and craftspeople, who produce things really worth taking home. This kind of tourist industry is not sustainable, not for the environment, nor for the economy, nor for the survival of the traditional arts, which are Italy’s most characteristic treasure.

As far as Italian exports are concerned, the global visit should be the primary educative experience for the consumer, the way by which the overseas consumer graduates from the shelves and display cases  of stores back home to the greater concentration of unique, refined products available in Italy. Once a visitor has discovered that, they will keep coming back for more, and they will demand ever finer, more characteristically Italian products in shops at home. For every busload of mass tourists, there is one, or perhaps a couple of visitors who have come to Italy, fallen in love with the country, and return many times. These people stay longer, and they may well learn some Italian, or take a course in art history. They may well join one of several tours designed for more serious travellers, often led by hired academics, or they may rent an apartment or a house in the countryside. They may enroll in a creative writing or photography course, many of which are availabel in Tuscany and Umbria. They will want to seek out the better galleries and workshops, where they can find Italian works of art and craft objects. They will want to visit farms and vineyards to enjoy typical Italian foods and drinks at their source, or shop in the better stores for handcrafted products. Without going into statistics, my impression is that this industry is thriving. The environmental impact of these tourists is low, since they travel at most in couples or small groups, and they know enough about the country to treat it with respect. In my last article I discussed an outstanding exhibition The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed at the University of Virginia and in Manhattan, offering Americans a sophisticated view of one of the great schools in Italian art. Those who saw the exhibition can complete this micro-education by visiting Siena, using the exhibition catalogue as a guide in their visit to the Pinacoteca Nazionale.

This experience leads the nascent Italophiles straight into the local identity which puts its unmistakable stamp on cultural production. As the program states: ” The message of Florens 2012 will be global, but from the perspective of bringing out the concept of local and of identity: it is differentiation that creates an economy. With its cultural products (art, literatture, fashion, gastronomy, design, archaeology, and the landscape) Italy indeed promotes and sells a piece of her own culture and of her own identity, which constitute added value for all her products.” The way to achieve this is not by lowering production costs, but by enhancing the value of the “hand made in Italy.” This kind of production will safeguard the landscape, local traditions, and the environment, but it will take advantage of the latest high tech resources, in fine food, as in the other industries. The goal is to create an economy sustainable in the long-term, a “golden economy.”

This focus on the local recognizes what is most characteristically Italian among Italians, even after 150 years of unity. Consciousness of the local grows in strength, although in a different way than in the past, notably in the immediate post-war years, when it reflected the local ways of less educated older generations. Today, it represents local traditions, which must be preserved, and local products, which are to be marketed. It is striking how little national enthusiasm there was for last year’s anniversary of the event. Italian culture remains a local culture. Many people cherish their local dialects and use them, at least part of the time or in a mixture with Italian. Intellectuals show pride in their local dialects, and they provide a welcome alternative to the linguistic monotony of Berlusconi’s national media. If you look back a few centuries beyond the Unification, you will find a patchwork of small states and cities. To travel from one to another required formalities. There was not only a different dialect spoken, but the cuisine was entirely different; the crafts and their materials were different; different saints were venerated in the churches; the churches were made in different styles, as were the sculptures and paintings in them. Leonardo and Michelangelo were trained in a richly defined Florentine tradition, as it had developed in the time of their formative years. Art historians can look beyond them into even more granular views of artistic practices belonging to different quarters of the city or to different familial groups. These artists embody what is most characteristic in Italian art to the layman and represent it in contemporary popular culture.

On the other hand, some Italian cities were cosmopolitan, including some with strong local traditions, including Florence, which had many foreign residents because of her trade in wool and other commodities, banking industry, and intellectual life. Venice was no different, and the universities of Padua and Bologna attracted foreign students and teachers. Cities like Siena on the pilgrimage route to Rome and the Holy Land enjoyed a medieval variety of the tourist industry, which they did not fail to “valorize.” Rome itself, as the spiritual hub of Europe and a pilgrimage center in itself, was almost as cosmopolitan as it had been as capital of the Roman Empire. At one point, Pope Julius II invited Michelangelo to Rome to work, and the Urbinate Raphael, who was working in Florence at the time, as well. Others followed to the center of patronage, and Rome became an artistic melting pot — a powerful unifying force among the regional schools which persisted for generations. Eventually we find Titian in Venice, Guercino in Cento, and Poussin and Claude in Rome, painting for patrons all over Europe, while remaining firmly planted in their natal or chosen towns and creating a lofty precursor of today’s “hand made in Italy” export.

"Made in Italy" alla Piranesi: a caffettiera (modern construction after Piranesi's design). Photo 2011 Michael Miller.

“Made in Italy” alla Piranesi: a caffettiera (modern construction after Piranesi’s design). Photo 2011 Michael Miller.

Piranesi, working at the height of the Grand Tour, made this into an industry. He could well be the tutelary spirit of Florens 2012, since he studied and promoted the antiquities of Rome through his publications, in this way studiously creating a brand, and sold  restored antiquities and original works in his own recreation of antique style. For Piranesi and the other artists, restorers, and agents who catered to the visiting milords, the authority and power of their brand emerged from that of ancient Rome, while for our generation, it is more an all-embracing “Italian” quality, in which the force of the antique has been weakened in favor of many more contemporary elements of a generally hedonistic bent, which include the landscape, the films of Fellini and de Sica, Ferragamo shoes, a Vespa with Audrey Hepburn on it, pasta and olive oil, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, Fiat and Ferrari cars, Pomodoro sculptures, and Roland Barthes’ immortal Panzani ad, to mention only a selection.

Panzani Ad, discussed by Roland Barthes in "La rhétorique de l'image," 1964

Panzani Ad, discussed by Roland Barthes in “La rhétorique de l’image,” 1964

This is a simplified sketch of the polarity of the Italian and the local in art and decoration. In promoting everything Italian in the world at large, the stress has been, since the end of World War II,  on national Italian qualities rather than on the regional. Beginning in the late 1950s, in Italy itself, regional differences in culinary traditions weakened, as pizza, once easier to find in New York than in Rome, spread upwards over the peninsula, and Ligurian pesto trickled down it. Perhaps as a reaction, books on regional cooking became popular in their localities, and distinguished experts like Luigi Carnacina and Ada Boni published influential compendia of local recipes. Perhaps it was the growing popularity of Tuscany and Umbria with foreign visitors and the marketing of luxury foodstuffs which led the way in introducing regionalism into “Italy” as an international brand. The massive effort to improve local wines into an exportable product and to do the same with olive oil, through the “denominazione di origine controllata” and the concept of “extra virgin” olive oil, called for an effort to distinguish different types. The qualities of soil and climate are as real in Italy as they are in France, although local wine-making traditions were not so finely cultivated, and anyone can taste the difference between a Sicilian olive oil and a Tuscan growth. Such regional differences no longer obtain in art, design, fashion, or automobile manufacturing, and there is no way to restore the reality of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Only crafts offer such an opportunity. Maiolica, for example, is still as strongly established in its traditional center as ever.

While the average Briton or American may not know the regional origins of some of his or her favorite dishes, they will surely become more aware of them as Florens 2012’s promised “road show” gets underway. We should not forget that Italy has done a brilliant job in global marketing in the past. Otherwise, we would not be paying $40 for an excellent, but modest bottle of Italian wine or a more ambitious olive oil or $20 for a bowl of fettuccine in one of the countless upscale Italian restaurants in our larger cities, and women would not be paying $1500 for a pair of Italian shoes. The organizers of Florens 2012 believe it is time to rethink all this and to renew its energy.

While Italian luxury products, above all in fashion, design, and gastronomy, retain their desirability, and a second house in Umbria or Tuscany remains as chic as ever among the wealthy and among artists and writers, Italy has lost the much of the aura it had in the 1950s and 60s, when Italian culture seemed exceptionally vibrant, with Italian artists regularly shown in London and New York, Italian films attracting keen interest among a constantly growing public, and Italian writers reaching the bestseller lists, or, if not, still attracting a significant, sophisticated readership. Not all of the more important thinkers reached a wide audience in the non-Communist world, but the impact of the others was powerful. This flourishing of Italian culture had its impact on foreign consumers, and I doubt that a marketing campaign could change this without any real cultural fermentation to support it. This would require a separate treatment of its own. And for that matter Americans at least hardly see films or read books in foreign languages any more.

While this addresses the central concerns of Florens 2012 and that part of it in particular, there is one issue among those realised by Florens 2010 that I’d like to hear discuss at the conference, which could be an excellent forum for the problem. This is the privatization of museums — an especially timely subject since a private organization to operate the Brera in Milan has just been formed, in spite of protests from many quarters, most eloquently from the art historian Tomaso Montanari in Il Fatto Quotidiano, which he published as a counter-argument to a strong letter from Eleni Vassilika, director of the Egyptian Museum of Turin, which has already been privatized, that is, leased in 2004 to a private foundation for a period of thirty years. Among several important points he made, his objection to the easy way of imitating American solutions and the compromise in principle — in fact a constitutional  violation — of the democratic mission of Italian museums are especially serious. In European republics like Italy, where many public museums were formerly royal or noble collections taken over by the state for the benefit of the people, government ownership is seen as a guarantee of the continuance of museums for the public benefit. Turning such an institution over to a private non-profit which depends on wealthy donors for support seems like a violation of principle. The idea of an American solution is also dubious. In the United States museums are owned and run either by the federal government, the state, a county, a city, or a private non-profit corporation. All of these are administered in more or less the same way, regardless of their status, and all depend to some extent on private donations to build their collections and to operate. Americans like to think that historically there is a civic-mindedness among the wealthy and successful which impels them to support institutions for the betterment of the people. This is to some extent true in this country where the government does little for the arts and private patrons shoulder most of the burden, although it took a good deal of pressure from the government over tax issues to fill the National Gallery. One of the founders of the Cleveland Museum of Art owned an upper middle class housing development nearby. Civic-minded philanthropy in cities like Cleveland has decreased as the cities have declined and the old families have moved away. Today fund-raising for museums is a field in itself, and museums must negiotate a complex web of interests and exchanges to obtain the desired check. The foundations of these patterns of charitable behavior were imports from Britain. Can a country like Italy with quite different economic mores support major institutions with private patrons? In relation to this privatization, the term “finanziatori illuminati”  seems to have become a buzz word in the press. Doesn’t that seem rather optimistic in a world where Diogenes had to carry his own illumination along with him?

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (5)

  1. This is not the first time I read a really excellent article by Michael Miller. I’ve always liked his sharp look and free of prejudice. I’m an Italian writer, but I was also a publisher, creative director of an international advertising agency, professor of aesthetics and company image consultant. So I’m not completely abstract from reality, and the Italian reality is that described by Michael Miller.
    I can seem unpatriotic, but I consider a disgrace the so celebrated Unity of Italy. The inefficiency, ignorance and corruption of the state administration have flattened, trivialized and undermined the varieties and local resources.
    In fact, there are still good local initiatives (such as might be “Florens”), but always bad state intervention. If there is hope, for Italy, is local, rather than “globally Italian”.
    I’m pessimistic, because good Italian schools have been destroyed, and the obtuse mentality of the bureaucrats won (too many foolish rules, too much conformism and resignation). In addition, the laws are outdated (it’s enough to say that anyone who buys a painting cannot deduct the expense from taxes).
    Miller is right (by the way, I really enjoyed the evocation of the Grand Tour, the analysis of mass tourism and tourist industry) when he says that “Italian culture remains a local culture”, that “the idea of an American solution is dubious”, that “the term ‘enlightened donors’ seems to have become a buzz word in the press”, and I share his doubt “a marketing campaign could change this without any real cultural fermentation to support it.”
    Well, here there is no “real cultural fermentation.” The contemporary Italian culture is the waste of culture. We are not doing research: we only do autopsies.

    Nanni Cagnone

  2. Thank you, Nanni.

    An interesting new book came my way recently: Alessia Ricciardi’s After la Dolce Vita, a Cultural Prehistory of Berllusconi’s Italy, Stanford University Press, 2012, in which she takes up many of these issues we have both raised.

    Nanni Cagnone 9/13 • 11:50 Miller is right… here there is no “real cultural fermentation.” The contemporary Italian culture is the waste of culture. We are not doing research: we only do autopsies.

  3. Thank you, Nanni.

    An interesting new book came my way recently: Alessia Ricciardi’s After la Dolce Vita, a Cultural Prehistory of Berllusconi’s Italy, Stanford University Press, 2012, in which she takes up many of these issues we have both raised.

  4. In Florence the walls were itchy
    So I scratched ’till I found a da Vinci
    And though I defaced a mystery
    I revealed so much history
    That the ghost of Vasari got twitchy.

  5. Grazie per il tuo contributo elegantissimo. Sarai lieto di sapere che non sei da solo. Una certa persona mi ha mandato il testo graffito sul muro dietro il ponteggio della National Geographic, un testo di rime volgari in inglese, che riprodurrò qui, benché non siano degne della nostra rivista:

    There once was a grave man of science,
    Who ‘changed San Diego with Florence.
    He liked to pick holes,
    Until out of his nose,
    He produced some black paint with defiance.

    Sono forse un lamento di un assistente sandieghese malcontento? O la pasquinata di un passante cinico inglese? Non oserei dire.

    Ma sono sicuro che l’epopea della ricerca per “La Battaglia di Anghiari” prenderà un posto nobile nella storia artistica ed intellettuale fiorentina. Ci saranno altri chi graffieranno dei versi ispirati dal lavoro seracinesco sul muro. Io credo che non è solo la grandezza dell’impegno, ma un’ aura spirituale emergente dal muro stesso. Sono assolutamente sicuro che il colore che si vede al muro nella Sala del 500 è uno strato moderno. Indietro si nascondono rime “limericks” del gran maestro del genere, Norman Douglas, chi abitava a Firenze durante parecchi anni. Solo un vigliacco pusillanissmo lascerebbe questi tesori della poesia inglese dietro strati di colore e d’intonaco. Si deve strapparli immediatamente! Chi non è d’accordo può fregarsi.

    Il Sindaco

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