London’s Istituto Italiano di Cultura, otherwise known as the Italian Cultural Institute, is fortunately on the fashionable side of Belgrave square.
You may remember that, in Wilde’s most brilliant play, Lady Bracknell regarded no. 149, the number of Jack’s house in Belgrave square as being on its unfashionable side. However, the Italian Institute is at no. 39, over a hundred numbers away!
The Italian institute in London mean a lot to me, not just because it’s often got a very good event happening there, but because it’s where I first met the girl that would just over ten years later become my wife. (Her dad was secretary-general of the Institute).
In the inter-war period there were precursors of the Italian institutes throughout the world in the form of centres run largely to propagate the wonders of Italy under fascism. I do not need to go here into the thousands of Italian fascist sympathizers that then existed (maybe some still exist today?) throughout the UK, Churchill among them, who is once reputed to have said “if I had been an Italian I would have been a Fascist. (Well, there wasn’t much of a choice then if you wanted a job.)
After WII something drastic needed to be done to restore Italy’s face in the world as a peace-loving, culturally-enriching place. Apart from artists and the intelligentsia, Italy was still regarded as a country inhabited by a childish band of mandolin players and ice-cream makers (despite the fact that composers like Vivaldi wrote some of his best concertos for that instrument and that Italian ice-cream is enviably emulated throughout the world).
And as for the old adage of Italian tanks having one forward and three reverse gears, just look at the role the Italian army is today playing in world peace-keeping with probably the highest rating of local respect among any such generally ill-tolerated force.
In the 1950’s many British were still able to be conned by that brilliant BBC April fool spoof about the spaghetti harvest and I’m still meeting people who think Dante is just the brand name for a certain olive oil…
That’s when the idea of the Italian institutes, which now number ninety throughout the world, came into being. The aims of these institutes are as follows:
- To establish contacts with institutions, agencies and organizations of the cultural and scientific environment of the hosting country and to promote proposals and projects with the aim of knowing Italian culture and facts oriented to cultural and scientific collaborations.
- To provide documentation and information about Italian cultural life and connected institutions.
- To promote initiatives, cultural manifestations and exhibitions.
- To support initiatives aimed at cultural development of the Italian communities abroad, in order to encourage their integration in the hosting country as well as cultural relationship with the home country.
- To assure collaboration with scholars and Italian students in their research activities and study abroad.
- To promote and support initiatives for Italian language diffusion abroad, making use of Italian lecturers at the hosting country’s universities
I don’t know how the London Italian Institute managed to get such a good address in London. Italy has an even better one in Grosvenor square where its embassy is one of the last original eighteenth century buildings still standing in that square and is enhanced by a wonderful collection of paintings, furniture and tapestries.-
While in London we attended a lunchtime concert at the Italian Institute. It was a piano recital by the young Costanza Principe, whose programme was as follows:
Bach Italian Concerto
Beethoven Variations in A major WoO 71
Schumann Toccata op. 5
Ravel La Valse
The last piece was, in fact, substituted by Janacek’s 1905 sonata supposedly on the grounds of difficulty which was strange as I thought the Janacek was an exceedingly complex work to perform.
All items showed Principe’s technique to the fullest with an ample range of dynamics and excellent tempi. I felt that her great past hero must have been Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and this came out at the very beginning in her rendering of Bach’s Italian concerto, which during the great composer’s lifetime (and perhaps still today) was considered his most popular work.
Beethoven’s’ variations is a slight work but was beautifully played.
Schumann reckoned his Toccata was his most difficult work of the piano but this didn’t seem at all evident in Principe’s flawless technique.
Although I would have enjoyed her playing Ravel’s la valse but the Janacek was a worthy substitute – an ambiguous work with every shade of the weather in it and, again, performed without any problems.
As is so often the case with Italians the pianist not only played well, she looked good and I felt that her very high heels actually helped her with the pedals of the wonderfully toned Fazioli piano, forming an easily graduated triangle.
After the free concert, which regrettably was not well attended, we emerged again into London’s breezy sunshine which captivated us for most of the time we were there.
Incidentally, the Italian institute has an excellent web site at
which also helps in keeping one in touch not only with what’s on at the other Italian institutes in Edinburgh and Dublin but also about Italian-oriented events of all types from gastronomy to painting in the UK.
Finally, the Italian institute is the place in which to learn that country’s divine language.