Last year I – Robert Fox – was awarded the Order of the Star of Italy by President Sergio Mattarella for the ‘promotion of British – Italian understanding’ over more than 40 years according to the citation. The honour was bestowed at the Italian Embassy, London, last Tuesday 27th July . This is a version of the speech of acceptance.
It all began 56 years ago, to the month. I had arrived in Florence by train to learn Italian (as part of my history course at university). I have been going back to Italy ever since, only missing one year, though possibly again this year – let’s hope not.
I learnt Italian for four hours for four mornings a week – the rest was meeting the Renaissance, swimming, pizzas and having fun. I did the same the following year, this time learning Italian through reading Dante. It was 1966, and by chance Clive James was in Florence at the same time doing exactly the same thing. Learning Italian via the Divine Comedy is the wrong way, we both have agreed. But the Italian habit has stuck , and so has the soaring mystery and legacy of Dante, in his way one of the most revolutionary poets of all.
The next big turning point came in 1976 when I managed to work loose from the BBC on three months unpaid leave – which I managed to extend to nearly six – to become a guest columnist of the Il Corriere della Sera . I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors I have ever served – Piero Ottone. (The other, Max Hastings, was in the room as I spoke). It was always a test of nerve and brain with Piero, short, sharp and to the point – which he could do in a dozen languages. I learned then, after nine years in the business that I really wanted to be a newspaper writer – and probably didn’t have a glorious destiny in broadcasting.
The great gift of the time at the Corriere was learning the true value and rare quality of Italian friendship, amicizia. Friendship drives all my relations private and public in Italy, and between our family and our Italian friends. Friendship was what made everything work. We were taken aback when towards the end of our time in Milan, Marianne, my wife, and I were summoned to lunch by one of the grandes dames of Milan society – her grandfathers had founded the Corriere group, Giulia Maria Crespi. She took our hands in hers and said “I would like to ask you to be our friends for life.” It was an extraordinary gesture.
Perhaps we don’t say such things to each other enough.
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The experience in Milan brought the dawning of another great quality of Italian journalism , the complement of friendship and amicizia . Columns and stories took me and later the family all over Italy – which I know better than the British Isles – and a whole range of incontri ,meetings and encounters, the essence of my writing and experience of Italy and Italians ever since. Some incontri, were quite random . On Christmas Eve I met up with a shepherd high in the Abruzzi , who told me he didn’t give a damn what happened on the morrow – it was a day like any other. What bothered him was if he could get through the winter with enough sheep to make cheese, ricotta, in the Spring.
The genius at writing up the news story as an incontro, almost a little parable, was Gianpaolo Pansa, a master writer who had the desk opposite in Via Solferino. I am fortunate to have from those days forth a huge parade of professional acquaintances and friendships, and friendships for life, friendships with the likes of Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, a Corriere colleague, Riccardo Muti, and the brilliant judge Giovanni Falcone. Some have fallen in the line of duty , Falcone himself at the hands of the Mafia, and my colleague Walter Tobagi by the Red Brigades.
I sense now that the Britain I have grown up with, and Italy over the same span, are on parallel paths. They have more than a little in common, quirky and unique humour, their own brand of irony, and at best a courage to think and act out of the box. But while Boris Britain has a tendency to oversell, Italy of Draghi and Mattarella sneakily undersells only to surprise with imaginative delivery – in anything from design and literature – and dare I say , sport. Few I know don’t think the best team won in the Euros – though don’t whisper this too loud.
“Britain talks of build back better,” says a newfound diplomat friend Pasquale Ferrara, “in Italy our motto for Cop-26 is ‘planet, people, prosperity.’
The great joy has been meeting up with diverting and often extremely witty writers like Italo Calvino – with whom I once walked down King’s Road to admire the parade of Punks and New Romantics – Umberto Eco, and spending a morning with Leonardo Sciascia in the last year of his life. The quality of the reinvented thriller by Italian masters like Camilleri, Maurizio de Giovanni, and the supreme philosopher-crime writer Gianrico Carofiglio is only just beginning to be appreciated in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Gianrico Carofiglio has been one of the latest incontri , sadly this last occasion only by phone, though we have met in London before, to discuss his latest superb Avvocato Guerrieri novel, “A Measure of Time.” Earlier this year I had a second interview/incontro with Carlo Rovelli, this time about his genius invocation of the origins of the Quantum formulation ‘Helgoland.’ I hope and believe these encounters evolve into amicizie for life.
In conclusion I must thank Ambassador Trombetta , his family and team, and above all President Sergio Mattarella for this singular honour. In parting I must mention the 26 years of the Venice Journalists’ Seminar from which so much of this began. It is a meeting between journalists, experts and Italian diplomats and ministers to promote Italian-British understanding, and Italy’s view of the world; all generally held at a weekend just before Carnival in Venice.
Sadly, this is the first year we haven’t been able to run it, owing to the incubo of Covid-19. In its way the Venice Seminar is an extraordinary incontro, full of surprise meetings and forging new friendships. In the early days the guest list was headed by Lord Eric Roll, with his firsthand memories of Bretton Woods, and the redoubtable Sam Brittan of the FT. One of the most brilliant interventions was a discourse on Italy’s tax labyrinth by the then Director General at the Treasury, Mario Draghi, now prime minister.
The spirit of incontri and amicizie has pervaded Venice, with wonderful concerts, visits and seminars at the University of Venice Ca Foscari besides.
So let’s hope in the true spirit of both – aimicizie ed incontri — which are the essence of a lifetime of Anglo-Italian esteem and affection, we can meet beside the Lagoon next Spring. Here’s to ‘L’anno prossimo a Venezia.”