Sunday, 11 June 2017

Relations between the United Kingdom and Italy

Morris before her talk
Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Italy faced a challenge as she stepped onto the “Culture Talk” floor in the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library. On the eve of the UK General Election, just a few days after the attacks in Manchester and London, with Brexit on the horizon, to talk about England’s relationship to one of the cornerstone countries of the European Union meant she had to take on board a difficult national mood.

Many were expecting Jill Morris to take a more historical approach, guiding us through the relationship of the two countries and their numerous alliances throughout history, but it was with a far more personal tone that the Ambassador addressed the crowd. She began simply, noting how it is no surprise that English people are, and have been, in love with Italy for years, yet she was adamant that one of the lesser-explored mysteries she had found was that Italians have often been just as affectionate about the English. 

She thanked the Italian public profusely for their solidarity over the past few days in particular, noting how she was “personally very grateful” for the incredible demonstrations of love. During difficult times when it’s easy to feel far from home, the mayor of Florence placing a black band around the statue of David’s arm in Piazza della Signoria and a Union Jack in his hand makes one feel “we have friends by our side”; the overwhelming response from Italians is “really quite special”. At the British Institute itself, this mutual respect can be felt very strongly: in a place created to enable the exchange of ideas between the two countries there is always, in the ambassador’s words, “a real sense of welcome and joy”. 

Although she recognised that the strong relationship between Italy and England is “built on the past”, Morris was far more interested in contemporary matters, unsurprising given that she is the first woman to have been appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Italy. Morris’s job is to look forward, in particular to envisage how our two countries can continue to be a “force for good together”. She noted that both countries are among the biggest contributors to global peace-keeping, “something we should all be very proud of”. In an ever-changing world facing the problems caused by war, mass migration, and climate change, Morris stressed it was the “values of pluralism, human rights and democracy” that combat the wrongs of the world, values that Morris sees as being born in the Renaissance, and consequently in the city of Florence itself.

Maria Manetti Shrem & Jill Morris
Morris’s tone throughout was light. She joked easily about how at the outset England and Italy were very different: “Beer vs Aperol, Fish and Chips vs Fiorentina, Pizza, Vs well. . . Pizza’. Rather than accepting painful mistakes from English learners as simple ignorance: ‘what’s the Italian for Pizza?’ (when she gave this example you could practically feel some of the audience wince), Morris instead used the blunder as a testament as to how intertwined the two cultures have become. Beyond the rudimentary stereotypes, she senses something profound that binds us together, a deep and abiding belief in the importance of culture “as a civilizing force”. Culture, after all, is “a fundamental part of what it is to be human”. It’s much more than “going to a museum on a Sunday afternoon”, although she admits these small acts are crucial. But culture “can’t endure through good will alone”. In Morris’s eyes, it is a living force that “needs to be looked after, needs to be cherished”. 

In Florence, Morris notes, you see an active love of culture, but you also see “why it matters”. At G7, she recalls, it was Italy who organised the first meeting of experts in order to preserve cultural treasures and keep them protected in war zones. Italy has always valued its cultural heritage, yet a large part of the world is only just catching on. After the tragic losses in Syria, Iraq and other countries in the last few years, the importance of employing specialist units to defend our common cultural heritage has become ever more clear.

Despite her declarations that she “wouldn’t talk politics” the night before the General Election, Morris made clear to the audience that although the UK may well be leaving the European Union “it is not abandoning Europe”. She was adamant that England remains European whatever the future holds: “historically, culturally, and geographically” its identity will always be rooted in Europe. Brexit “should not change that”. We can only hope that she is right, and that the relationship between the UK and its fellow European countries will survive the negotiations to come. 

Towards the end of her talk Morris invited the audience to join her in a small “thought experiment”, imagining that Michelangelo’s David was damaged. If damage came to David so much more would have been attacked than mere marble. David remains even today “a symbol of the weak triumphing over the strong”. If he had been damaged, an assault would have been made “on the world’s culture, not just Italy’s”. In Morris’s eyes David belongs to us all, so “we all have a responsibility to protect him”. The variety of culture in the world is part of a mysterious unity. Despite our differences, it holds us together. 

“Art raises us from barbarism; that’s why barbarism fears art and wants to destroy it.” It is this “thread” that ties England and Italy together. For Morris, those core values that originated in the Renaissance, those ultimately “Italian” values, will defeat terrorism. Whatever the future holds, sitting in a room filled with Italian and English listeners, one couldn’t help but feel optimistic that whatever the world throws at humanity, people from different shores will always find a way to come together—even if only for an hour or so in an old library on the banks of the Arno.

The Ambassador Jill Morris with British Institute Director Julia Race