Silvio Marchetti, who has silver hair and a dry sense of humor most atypical for an attache, tells a story about meeting the late Harold Washington, Mayor of Chicago, in the mid-1980s. Marchetti, who now heads up the
"I remember him saying to me, 'Why have you come?,'" Marchetti said, his eyes twinkling. "'You're already here.'
"I felt redundant."
Marchetti, who was sitting on a couch at the Italian Consulate on
On Wednesday in
"People in Chicago have tended," Motta said, "to identify Italian culture more with the ethnic group in the neighborhoods than with the country of origin." Said Marchetti: "Italian-American culture is something that has developed on its own, not always in concert with Italy."
As Motta and Marchetti see it, Washington was conflating Italian culture with Italian-American culture, even though Italians perceive the two as distinct. Italian culture in Chicago, they argued, is not broadly perceived as sufficiently new and fresh. In fact, they argued, Italian-American culture often focuses on preserving the very qualities that have changed in Italy.
"Many Italian-Americans really love opera and are very linked to that tradition" said Motta, by way of example, "and that's great. But many of them go much less often to the symphony, despite the presence in Chicago of Maestro Muti." Riccardo Muti, of course, is the poster child for the cultural image the Italian diplomats want to project: fresh, dynamic, globe-trotting, affluent, world-renowned.
"The image of Italy in Chicago needs updating," said Motta, carefully noting the limitations of the governmental checkbook in a "tight austerity period." "Culture is the most important asset we have. We are a superstar in the cultural field. We have to make a bet on that heritage."
Among the 2013 projects in the Year of Italian Culture, some of which are still being planned and have yet to be formally announced, are a planned series of concerts featuring Muti, pianist Maurizio Pollini and the
The conversation with the diplomats highlighted a fascinating dilemma as Chicago attempts to better internationalize itself, whether through business, the arts, diplomacy or the Council on Global Affairs. How, in a city with such a formidably intense immigrant heritage, does that heritage intersect with the modern culture of the old world, especially when one is talking about such a distinctive culture as that created in and around Chicago by Italian-Americans? Is the city's neighborhood heritage an asset or, in fact, an impediment to true internationalization in such a way that the city can really compete in a contemporary global cultural marketplace?
I asked Motta and Marchetti that very tricky question directly. They said the close historic relationship was, overall, an asset, and they spoke warmly of the pride Italian-Americans feels for Italy. But they had a strong caveat: the only way for Italian-Americans to update themselves on cultural Italy, they said, is to learn to speak Italian. Therein, they said, is the great divide.
"The key to opening up this conversation is linguistic," Machetti said, waving off a reference to his own superb command of English. "When we speak English, we inevitably become a little more like our interlocutors. Chicago must internationalize itself. Interact with the world, Chicago, by linguistic means, not just by your own disposition!"