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Friday, March 15, 2002

British Protest over Italian Cultural Envoy is Unfair

By Dr. Edoardo Crisafulli

This letter is a response to Geraldine Bedell's article - "British Stars Fight to Save Italy's Gay Envoy from Sack", The Observer (The Europe Pages), Sunday, February 24, 2002.

I was appalled and disappointed to read Ms Bedell's article, which is based on hearsay and innuendoes. I am a cultural promotion officer at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I find every bit of information in the article highly objectionable.

Ms Bedell focuses on the initiative of a number of British artists who are "fighting to save the job" of the current head of the Italian Cultural Institute in London, Mr Mario Fortunato.

A preliminary observation is in order: it is perfectly legitimate to write a letter extolling Mr Fortunato, who certainly deserves to be praised for the job he has done in London. However, I find it grossly unfair to question the decisions made by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in matters of cultural promotion, or foreign policy more generally.

In actual fact, it is fairly obvious that the letter supporting Mr Fortunato originates in the inimical (and politically biased) attitude towards Mr Silvio Berlusconi and the present Italian government, which is widespread in certain intellectual quarters in Britain.

What would happen if a number of Italian intellectuals were to promote a similar initiative by writing a petition against (or in favour of) the Directors of the British Council in Italy thereby flaunting their entrenched hostility towards Mr Tony Blair? I am sure that most British citizens would loyally stand by their government. RIGHT OR WRONG, MY COUNTRY.

Mr Mario Fortunato, on the other hand, has missed a great opportunity to show his loyalty to his country: I am sure he could have asked his British admirers not to write a public letter which implicitly casts doubt on the validity and efficiency of the Italian system of appointments.

Mr Mario Fortunato's willingness to play the role of the (political) victim will have one obvious and immediate effect: that of tarnishing the international reputation of Italy. I wish to congratulate Mr Fortunato on this major accomplishment.

I now turn to Ms Bedell's article more specifically:

1. There is no such thing as a witch-hunt against left-wing intellectuals at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the general tenor of Ms Bedell's article seems to suggest - Mr Silvio Berlusconi is a democratically elected head of government, not a dictator.

It is fairly easy to prove my point: I am an official member of the Italian party of the Democratic Left, which is the main opposition party in Italy, and yet I was successfully appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while Mr Berlusconi was in power.

I have not suffered from any kind of political discrimination: my appointment was made solely on the basis of merit.

2. It is simply false to claim that Mr Mario Fortunato will not be reconfirmed because of his sexual orientation or political ideas.

The vast majority of my colleagues are left-wing intellectuals and yet they have the opportunity to work as cultural attachés and/or Directors of Italian Cultural Institutes abroad. Incidentally, believe me or not, there is no shortage of highly qualified and experienced candidates for Mr Mario Fortunato's position.

3. The heart of the matter is that the current practice of appointing well-known intellectuals as Directors of the most important Italian Cultural Institutes has recently been questioned and criticized in many quarters in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In my opinion, the arguments against such a practice are solid and well-argued, and have absolutely nothing to do with personal 'vendettas' against anyone.

Regrettably, the appointment of well-known intellectuals as Directors of Italian Cultural Institutes is perfectly legitimate in that it complies with the existing legislation (Act/Law n. 401, passed on 22/12/1990).

Interestingly enough, a good number of colleagues of mine, who, yet again, happen to be left-wing intellectuals, would prefer professional managers and experts of cultural management to be appointed as Directors of Italian Cultural Institutes.

It is a paradox that Mr Mario Fortunato's behaviour supports their argument: professionals or tenured cultural promotion officers, on hearing that they have been assigned elsewhere (or unexpectedly have to go back to the main quarters in Rome), would never stir up a political controversy or promote conspiracy theories against their own government.

4. According to Ms Bedell, Mr Colin Firth, who is the staunchest supporter of Mr Mario Fortunato, made the following remark: "I dread to think who the Italian government might put instead of Mr Fortunato".

Mr Firth's remark is extremely offensive and unfair, besides being based on utter ignorance of the Italian system: the Italian government does not directly appoint Directors or cultural attachés: appointments are made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only after he or she has consulted - and taken on board the recommendations of - a specific and independent Committee based at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: the Committee for the Promotion of Italian Culture, the members of which are prestigious and well-known Italian intellectuals, journalists, academics etc. (see, again, Act/Law n. 401, passed on 22/12/1990) - not to mention the crucial role played by the Directorate of Cultural Affairs, which is presided over by a high-profile Ambassador.

In conclusion, I firmly believe that the tenured Italian cultural attachés (Culture Promotion Area), one of whom will hopefully replace Mr Mario Fortunato in the near future, are as well-educated and as well-prepared for the task of promoting Italian culture in a global context as their British counterparts working for the British Council.

I am certain that our Directorate for the Promotion of Italian Culture, aided by the Committee described above, will suggest a professional and highly experienced candidate for the post of Director of the Institute in London, when and if the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs deems it convenient and appropriate to make a new appointment.

Dr. Edoardo Crisafulli, Cultural attaché
Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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