Making a bet on Chicago's Italian heritage for 2013

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 Italian Cultural Institute in Chicago, had come from Italy and requested a mayoral audience to talk up the cultural riches of his native country.

"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 Michigan Avenue with his genial boss, Alessandro Motta, the Consul General of Italy in Chicago, then took a sip of his espresso. "The idea that the world is already here is typical of Chicago," he said. "It has been a lot more insular than the cities on the coast."

On Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Giulio Terzi, made a speech formally declaring 2013 as the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. Chicago is to be a big center of the action. Marchetti and Motta are using this moment to promote the notion that, in fact, the world is not already in Chicago in the way it could be. Diplomats by trade, they know they have to tread carefully, not wanting to offend the 800,000 citizens of Illinois who trace their origins to Italy. But they still want to make a distinction.

"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 Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Muti and the CSO are to highlight the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi with a "Requiem," and in various others ways. The Piccolo Theatre of Milan, Italy's leading theater company, is headed to Chicago with the Italian theater artist Toni Servillo. The Field Museum plans to project images taken from Dante's "Divine Comedy" on its facade. There is to be a symposium involving Philip Gossett, an expert on Italian opera. Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events plans to host various exhibitions of works by Italian artists. And so on. Interestingly, the Italians put their scientists under the umbrella of culture — a strange concept on this side of the Atlantic — which explains why the Year of Italian Culture also will showcase the robotic surgery taking place at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a field in which Italians are prominent.

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!"

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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