Magazine article The Spectator

To Return to the Subject of Italians, They Don't Really like Opera-Or Even Women (the Men, That Is)

Magazine article The Spectator

To Return to the Subject of Italians, They Don't Really like Opera-Or Even Women (the Men, That Is)

Article excerpt

Some of the hate letters one receives in this job are as long as the Catalogue aria, but the most vituperative followed an article I wrote last year after the Fenice opera house in Venice had burned to a crisp. I had expressed scepticism about it being restored by the year 2000, as the Italian government was then claiming it would, on the grounds that most modern Italians are as little concerned with culture as were the ragbag of barbarian invaders from whom they are descended.

This caused something of a diplomatic incident - or rather an undiplomatic one. The Italian minister in London wrote to the editor of The Spectator expressing his distress. My assertions were not only unhelpful but a shameful attack upon a country with which Britain enjoyed peacetime relations. As for my allegation that the Italians had no sense of humour, this was quite clearly an outrageous untruth. It is with a certain recklessness, then, that I return to the subject of Italy, but I feel entitled to reply.

Last week I was in Venice, visiting Alistair McAlpine. While he surveyed, via the English newspapers, the ruins of the Tory party, I went to inspect the ruins of the Fenice opera house. The facade remains, the breeze drifting through the grey stones as the silvery rustle of gondola bells shivers the veiled canals. Strangely, though, restoration has not yet begun, and it is only three years until the millennium. Cultural heritage receives a mere 0.18 per cent of the Italian state budget, but after local weeping and wailing over the fire, Pavarotti sang for the Fenice and approximately six official funds were set up for the rebuilding. Recently L40 million was sent for this purpose from Rome to Venice. On the way, however, it would seem the money was mysteriously 'diverted'. The Venetian authorities are evasive as to what has happened to these funds. Actually, they are evasive as to what happened to the Fenice.

It appears that the fabled Italian love of music does not prevent them from burning down their own opera houses. In recent years, quite a number have been destroyed by arson. The official line now is that the Fenice fire `was not an accident'. There was a rumour that the mafia were responsible, but it is more probable that the culprits were ordinary Venetian builders with an eye on the enormous commissions they would receive for rebuilding it. At this rate, however, they might not be rebuilding it, which would have the salutary effect of causing them to think twice in future before destroying historic landmarks.

The point is, the Venetians do not really care. There are other opera houses in Venice. `Everyone here cried so loud when it happened', a local official explained to me, `because they hoped the world would feel more sorry and give us more money.' Among the few people in Venice genuinely concerned with the Fenice's ultimate destiny are the American and Japanese tourists who, from being summer visitors, now fly to the city all year round. Any restoration work in Italy is determined by the market forces of tourism, not by an innate, visceral love of culture. If a palazzo is repainted here and there it is because the Venetians are trying to attract foreign money. Thus three outlets of McDonald's have recently been opened for the enjoyment of American visitors, but it is mainly the Venetians who go to them.

Sometimes one thinks that it would really be best if Italy were taken away from the Italians and given to some other people to look after. …

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