"Culture: the richest bond in a strong relationship"
Italian Ambassador Giulio Terzi speaks at the University Club of Washington DC
The following is the text of the remarks delivered by Italian Ambassador Giulio Terzi at the Uiversity Club of Washington, DC on June 30, 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel truly privileged to be here to address such an eminent audience tonight in one of the most renowned university clubs of the United States. A club which has welcomed so many of this Country’s protagonists, from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. I know that, before becoming the 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft had first to be elected President of this very club. Let me thus thank University Club President Fred McClure; International Committee Chair Richard Willett, and the International Committee Member, Mr. Pompiliu Verzariu, for this wonderful invitation and for giving me the opportunity to speak on relations between Italy and America. My warm greetings naturally also go to all the Members of the International Committee.
I am particularly pleased that this should happen at a time when we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy. A moment which enables us not only to reflect upon the founding moment of our Nation State, but also to rediscover and strengthen bonds with the United States.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
when the Italian Prime Minister, Alcide De Gasperi, visited the United States two years after the end of World War II, he said that the bonds between Rome and Washington were “essential for two nations loving peace and freedom”. The strong friendship between our Countries and Peoples is evident in all fields: defending security and international peace Italian and American forces are together in Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo; promoting economic prosperity through close collaboration and important investments in key technological sectors such as the automobile industry, energy, defense, ship-building and biotechnologies. Scientific cooperation is flourishing. There are over 15.000 Italian - or of Italian descent - researchers and scientists working in the United States. Space cooperation is rocketing – if you will forgive the pun - with the launch of many successful joint programs, from 1964 to the Endeavour’s final mission in May this year, with Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori.
These results spring from seeds sown long ago, which grew through the history of our shared identity even before our nations became States, respectively in 1776 and in 1861: well before this, our Peoples were - and still are - connected by common values and culture. In order to underline the crucial role that Italian Americans have always played in strengthening these bonds and in making them part of our shared legacy, allow me to dwell on some “legendary figures”.
Since the bonds between Italy and the United States date back to ancient Rome, develop through the Renaissance and flourish in the Enlightenment and the Risorgimento. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they looked upon the “Res Publica Romana” as a political model to follow. A system ruled by “Roman Law” [Romanae civitatis iura]. A system where the sovereignty of the People was guided by the wisdom of the Senate and where the Consul – the “Commander in Chief” held strong executive power. A time when civil virtue was respected and summed up in the fundamental principles of Honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, sum cuique tribuere [To live honestly. To not harm another. To give to each his due] and when a strong sense of community prevailed upon the interests of the individual. The Italian Renaissance rediscovered these principles and handed them down to us. These values furthered the development of democracy, rule of law, individual freedom, respect of human dignity and of the equality of all citizens, regardless of race or religion. On these values our nations are founded. They underlie our respective constitutional systems, as clearly shown by the most significant points of contact between the Enlightenment and the Italian Risorgimento, on one hand, and the political thought of the Founding Fathers on the other. Filippo Mazzei and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a great friendship and exchanged many ideas: the “All men are equal” phrase enshrined in the “Declaration of Independence” is attributed to the Italian philosopher. Gaetano Filangieri and Benjamin Franklin’s long and interesting correspondence wed the former’s dream of a universal constitution with the solid strength of a nascent federal State where freedom and equality could finally be achieved.
These and other “elective affinities” between Italian philosophers and the Founding Fathers are being highlighted through initiatives which will, among others, include a dedicated section in the future Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Fifty years ago, on the occasion of the Centenary of the Unification of Italy, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had masterfully captured the essence of the rich ties binding Italy and the United States. At that time, he declared: “All of us, in a large sense, are beneficiaries of the Italian experience. It is an extraordinary fact in history that so much of what we are, and so much of what we believe, had its origins in this rather small spear of land stretching into the Mediterranean. All in a great sense that we fight to preserve today had its origins in Italy. […]. From the banks of the Tiber there rose Western civilization as we know it, a civilization whose tradition and spiritual values give great significance to Western life as we find it in Western Europe and in the Atlantic community”.
These are the cultural, historic and philosophical roots of the bonds between Italy and the United States. We must, however, also recall who helped them to grow and prosper through time. There were many personalities, many Italians, whose actions and ideas exercised such a strong power of attraction on the American people, to the point that they became “legends” for both Countries and for their shared identity. Many names spring to mind, but just think of: Christopher Columbus, Andrea Palladio and Giuseppe Garibaldi.
America was discovered – and named - by an Italian when Italy didn’t even exist. Yet in Columbus we find many of the values which join our two countries to this day, and which seem to be ingrained in our very DNA. Columbus was the man who overcame his own limitations. Who innovated, and who wasn’t afraid to challenge the truths of his time. Who married utopia with science – the strength of a vision and the scientific grounds to make it real. His eclectic personality made him a hero of the Renaissance and, as such, he embodied the centrality of human beings - and their freedom.
Palladio’s ideas, his sense of proportion and beauty had a deep and lasting influence on American neoclassicism. Thomas Jefferson had a veritable devotion for Palladio. Projects for the President’s Monticello mansion, in Virginia, or his unfulfilled drawings for the White House, capture and reflect Palladio’s ideas and view of art.
Washington’s architecture, as a quintessence of Italian classicism, bears clear references to ancient Rome. And it is certainly emblematic that just a couple of weeks ago the Mayors of our two cities signed a Sister City agreement; just now the Capitoline Venus is on view at the National Gallery of Art. Our friendship is therefore “sculpted” in the neoclassical style of the buildings which are the symbols of American democracy: the White House, Capitol Hill (splendidly frescoed by Constantino Brumidi), the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials and the Supreme Court.
Giuseppe Garibaldi is another formidable myth for both Italy and the United States. His reception on July 30, 1850 upon reaching New York on the heels of his deeds in South America and the fall of the Roman Republic, was extraordinary. Citizens, personalities, press and, naturally, the Italian committee of New York, met him enthusiastically. Dr. Doane, the port health officer, greeted him with a long speech and had the tricolor of the Roman Republic flown alongside the stars and stripes in his honor. During his stay in America, Garibaldi further developed ideas which would eventually lead him to guide the “Expedition of the Thousand” in 1860 which set the south of Italy free and paved the way for the reunification of my country.
Garibaldi was he to whom Lincoln offered a Command in the Union Army, saying that “thousands [..] will glory to be under the command of the Washington of Italy”. This summarizes America’s great admiration for his heroism, military deeds and for the values he fought for. President Obama, in his Proclamation on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy, recognized the influence of Garibaldi and his heritage on the American Civil War. Further, during the celebrations in Rome on June 2nd, which Vice President Biden attended, the United States gave Italy a copy of the letter that Garibaldi sent Lincoln in 1861, in which he called the American President “the great emancipator”, for having abolished slavery.
The bonds between Italy and the United States aren’t made solely of “legends”. They are made of countless stories, of many “Italian patriots” who emigrated to the United States and hence became “American patriots”. Think of Enrico Fermi who found refuge from the fascist regime in the United States, and was awarded with a Nobel Prize, and planned and guided the first nuclear fission reactor. His work led to many cooperation projects: over seventy physicists from Italian universities are employed in the greatest particle accelerator in the United States, which takes its name, precisely, from Enrico Fermi.
I would also like to mention Amedeo Giannini, the founder of the Bank of Italy. The son of Italian immigrants who came to California at the turn of the twentieth century, he started his career by opening the Bank of Italy in 1904 - which merged with the Bank of America in 1928 - to offer immigrants the financial services which they were denied by other institutes. Intuition, skills and creativity enabled him to amass a fortune. Last but not least, Lorenzo Da Ponte, the renowned opera librettist. His name is inexorably intertwined with that of Mozart, as he is the author of librettos for “Le nozze di Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and “Così fan tutte”. He came to the United States after many misadventures, and opened a bookshop in New York. He was committed to teaching Italian language and literature, and established a first professorship in Italian in what would later become Columbia University. And in this too his legacy lives on as today Italian is the fourth most studied foreign language in the United States.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
the special, unique bonds which join our two Countries would not exist without the invaluable contributions of so many Italian Americans. The latest census shows that 17 million Americans claim to be of Italian descent – 2.5 million more than the previous census. They are the backbone of the friendship. They, as President Obama said in his Proclamation for Columbus Day, “have done so much to build the strength of our Nation”. [“the incalculable contributions of Italian Americans, whose determination, hard work, and leadership have done so much to build the strength of our Nation”].
These significant words bring to mind that the history of the United States is one of immigration. “A Nation of Immigrants”, in the 1958 words of President Kennedy which President Obama recalled in his El Paso speech last May. A “Nation of Immigrants” ready to welcome foreigners who are willing to embrace its ideals, values and rules. A Country whose strength lies in its ability to make one out of many - yet without leveling different traditions and cultures (“E pluribus unum”). Over 2000 years ago the Roman Empire willingly embraced differences; today Italy continues this tradition in its stance over the intense migrations which followed the “Arab Spring”. This is another thread woven into the tapestry of our cultures. It is part of a broader picture which encompasses our shared values and identity, and which continues to be the base for our future.
I don't want to steal anybody's job, and certainly not that of my US colleague in Rome, Ambassador David Thorne. But I wouldn't be doing mine if I closed my remarks without mentioning, and paying tribute to, the immense contribution that throughout the years the American people, the American culture, the American art have given to my Country in return.
I’ve already mentioned the special relationships between Franklin and Filangieri, Lincoln and Garibaldi: of course they worked both ways and helped Italians to build Italy as a new Nation.
In the 20th Century, the role and the influence of the United States grew stronger and Italy benefitted more and more from the friendship with Americans and from iconic figures in the US world of arts, social sciences and technology. To mention just two, let us think of Andy Warhol, his connection with Naples and his epoch-making Pop Art; or of Philip Guston, his strong ties with the eternal city and his stunning “Roma” series, which were, until recently, on display at The Phillips Collection in Washington.
At a time when politics seem to be dividing Americans over the concept of exceptionalism, I think I may diplomatically conclude my presentation by having all of you here tonight agree on the idea that - no doubt- exeptionalism applies to the US-Italy partnership.
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