The Estates General of the Italian language commented by the Italo-Australian historian Gianni Pezzano: the Italian language is the means to transmit all the shades of our culture with the support of the 90 million Italians around the world
By Gianni Pezzano
When an event is opened by the Prime Minister and closed by the President of Italy the theme must be important and so it was in Florence at the beginning of the week. For the second time the Estates General of the Italian language discussed the element that defines our very essence, our language. The event began well with the announcement by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of an increase to the funds destined to teaching our language overseas and then the announcement by Mario Giro, the deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, who announced the result of the census of the students of our language around the world. In 2104 the figure was given as 300,000, but a precise study gave the number of students at over 2,000,000.
Reading the figures then shows that the biggest concentrations of these students are in those countries with a big presence of Italian migrants and their descendants, as well as the Balkans the Mediterranean and Chine which are source countries of migrants that now come to Italy. They are figures to be considered with calm, for their meaning, as well as for understanding how to deal with the differences between the two groups. Mario Giro recognized that the figures for the countries of Italian migration are low in comparison to the over ninety million Italians around the world made up of five million Italian citizens and the descendants of various generations of previous migrants.
However, like two years ago, there was an important absentee to the event in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, at least to the author. This was the Italian industry which should be the most interested in seeing an increase in the number of Italian speakers around the world, the Italian publishing industry. Italians around the world alone are one and a half times the population of Italy, without forgetting the effects of creating more international interest in our books, even if they are in translation, therefore creating more income for the publishers.
Then, once more like two years ago, those present in Florence for the two days are those who best know the glories of our language and of the Culture which springs from it. At one point it seemed like a gathering of converts listening to their preachers, without thinking that the problem in not with who already knows the language, but how to make it understood by those who direct the school systems around the world who often do not hold it in proper consideration. In his speech the Italian Prime Minister spoke about the importance of promoting “Made in Italy” and the “Italian system”, as well as the use of our language for the promotions. In one sense he was right, but in the course of the Estates General it became obvious that almost nobody thought of extending this logic to our language. If there is one thing that distinguishes “Made in Italy” this can be found in our language. This is the quality that gives worth to what we are and it keeps contact between the various Italian communities in five continents. An industrialist with a successful product does not look to promote it amongst his existing customers, but always seeks new customers interested in new products and this is exactly what was not done during the three sessions of the two days.
In the first session four important Italian industrial groups showed their use of Italian images in their advertising, yet despite the fact they contained elements of language the examples shown were composed in Italian stereotypes rather than the specific use of language. Nobody doubts the importance of Fiat Chrysler, Illy Coffee, San Pellegrino and Bulgari and their turnovers show this, but none of them gave proof that the images used in the advertising led to an increase in interest in the various faces of our Culture.
The presenters spoke about the glories of our artist and authors, yet as always the emphasis was in “High Culture”, instead of recognizing that there are other forms of Culture that are just as valid. Without forgetting that there are few overseas, especially amongst our fellow Italians, have the capacity to understand the language of Italian Opera and the Renaissance masterpieces in their original versions. As actor Pierfrancesco Favina read an extract from the Romanziere I wondered how many overseas understood the words despite the beautiful musical quality of the language.
In fact, this was the aspect of the Estates General that struck me in 2014 and since then nobody has managed to solve so that we will attract the descendants of Italian migrants to study our language. One reason is found within the educational systems of many countries and on the first afternoon two members of the CGIE (the General Council of Italians overseas) expressed the need to address the specifics of the Italian communities around the world which, despite their many points in common, also have important differences. These are all matters to be considered when planning how to best promote our language internationally.
As regards Italian Culture in Australia, proof can be given by those like the undersigned who passed through the Australian education system, in the private school and the university system of the country. I quickly learned that our culture and language were not considered on a par with those of the Anglo Saxons and the French. I went to a school that would be considered at the same level as the Classical Lyceum in Italy and the only non English texts we studied were ”The Outsider” by Camus and Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black”, both in English. Only later when I studied Italian outside the school system did I begin to truly know Italian authors, as well as the great figures of our country’s Culture and History.
The session that dealt with the Italian communities overseas was only assigned twenty minutes and naturally this brief time limited the number of matters treated seriously. Certainly an event of this sort does not come cheap, yet I wonder if it is not necessary having important contributions by those who know the finest details of the facts of the countries of residence of our relatives and friends overseas. At the same time, would it not be useful holding local versions of the Estates General in these countries, both before and after the event in Italy, initially to give important contributions to the organizers of the main event and after to put into effect practicable plans to increase the numbers of Italian speakers around the world?
There is no doubt that the Estates General have the potential to increase the knowledge of our language, Culture and eventually all the products of our peninsula. At the same time we must be aware that the serious and real intentions of the organizers and the participants are not sufficient on their own to achieve that place of honour on the world stage that our country deserves as the greatest and most important cultural heritage in the world. Language and Culture do not grow simply with good intentions, but with classes and teachers, they grow by making all the faces of our Culture known to the world and not only to those parts accessible only to who already possess a high level of Italian Culture.
Naturally the Estates General produced a book of results and proposals, but it would not be correct to judge them as an addendum to an article that only seeks to express the first reactions to the two days in the Chamber of the 500 in Palazzo Vecchio. It would be unfair to those who read them and to those who prepared them. Therefore they will be the subject of another more detailed article.
The two days in Florence expressed legitimate ideas, but they are not enough without the will and the commitment of the organizers and the participants to put into action the projects necessary to see an increase in the number of students learning our language. This would then have the effect of increasing interest in those facets of our Culture that up till now are not know sufficiently outside our national borders.
All the participants were well aware of the glories contained in all our regions and not only those recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. The commitment must be to also make them known around the world. Fundamentally these efforts would not be merely cultural activities; they would be steps towards increasing knowledge of what Italy can offer the international public. The final outcome would not just be to sell a few more books and more Italian products. This knowledge would mean more jobs which would make the country richer, culturally and economically. It is possible to live and live well on Culture, as the French have shown us, but we need to do so as a country and not only for two days in Florence every two years.