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Italian culture rep probes parallels

Promoter hones art of bilateral understanding, especially when whim and planning converge

by Natsuko Fukue

Umberto Donati, the 65-year-old director of the Italian Institute of Culture, is a force of nature when it comes to seizing every opportunity to introduce his country’s paintings, books, art exhibitions and language courses to Japanese.

A vivid-red edifice near the Imperial Palace, IIC works under the Italian government to assist the Italian Embassy with cultural exchanges, organizing numerous Italy-related exhibitions in Japan.

One of Donati’s strategies is “to collaborate with Japanese art institutions such as the National Art Center, Tokyo and Mori Art Museum,” he said. Another key to the mission is to “be connected with mass media.”

Constantly eager to let Japanese know more about Italian culture, Donati has also helped publish Italian books in Japanese.

One was “Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean and Fair” (“Suro Fudo no Kiseki: Oishii, Kirei, Tadashii”) by Carlo Petrini, chairman of Slow Food International. The book was first published in 2005 in Italy and the English edition was released in 2007, but it had not been translated into Japanese.

Donati suggested using funding from the Italian government earmarked for promoting Italian culture, and managed to publish the Japanese edition in November.

He also supported the publication in December of “Meeting with Japan: A Personal Instruction to Its People, Their Culture and Their History” (“Zuihitsu Nihon: Itariajin no Mita Showa no Nihon”) by Italian anthropologist Fosco Maraini, which was originally written in 1957.

Although he might not have expected to settle in Japan for several years, Donati said adapting to life in this country was easy.

He said he “never really felt culture shock” since he visited Japan in 2005 for his first long-term stay. “Italian and Japanese histories have a lot in common in some ways,” said the director, who became interested in the Tokugawa clan immediately after he arrived in Nagoya to participate in the 2005 Aichi World Expo for eight months as a representative of Italy.

A student of law who went on to serve as a secretary to an Italian senator, Donati’s association with Japan began in the early 1980s when he was employed at the Fiat group, working closely with former CEO Umberto Agnelli, who had great interest in Japanese culture.

“I got to know about Japan through him,” he said. “I had known Japan before going to Nagoya, so I was comfortable encountering Japanese culture.”

He wishes, however, that he could speak Japanese. “If I could speak the language, I would have been able to understand more Japanese culture.”

With Agnelli, who later served as Fiat chairman before his death in 2004, Donati organized “Japan in Italy” between 1995 and 1996, an event that officially introduced kabuki for the first time in Italy, and established the Italy Japan Foundation in 1998. “We also organized over 300 events during ‘Italy in Japan 2001,’ ” he added.

He has served as director of ICC since 2006, the year after the Aichi Expo.

Always working with people from different cultural backgrounds, he said he believes Japanese lack flexibility compared with Italians. “Japanese seem to organize everything beforehand. Italians tend to act on a whim, but they don’t always do everything they came up with,” he said.

For example, the Italian Institute of Culture organizes Italian-related art exhibitions together with Japanese companies, but he said Italians and Japanese often have different ideas on any small parts they have to decide for the exhibitions, such as which images should be used for a poster or what title is suitable.

“If we mix good parts of both sides, I think we can create a really good environment for Italians and Japanese (to work together),” he said.

And having a Japanese wife helped him understand the Japanese way of thinking, he said. Donati lives with his wife and daughter, who speaks both Japanese and Italian.