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Calling the past...
Calling the past...
Massimo Gramellini

TURIN - So it’s like this: after having solved a mystery involving the Pope in Rome and the esoteric world of Leonardo da Vinci in Paris, the new Dan Brown thriller will be set in the streets of Florence, as well as in the pages of Dante’s Inferno.

Dan Brown is no master of style, but is an undeniable authority in fiction. He keeps putting our country in the backdrop of his books because he knows that all over the world, Italy sells. Not today’s Italy, obviously, which has become a mediocre Western suburb like so many others, but the Italy of the past -- that of the Renaissance and the ancient Roman empire. Those, in fact, were the only two moments in history when Italy was the driving force of humanity.

At this point, the only question that jumps out is why? Why, if Italy equals bestseller, should "the others" be the only ones to make money off of Italian culture? Why do the legends of Italian history fascinate foreign writers and directors, but not the Italians themselves?

Beyond Roberto expand=1] Benigni's theatrical readings of Dante, which are a wonderful exception but not exportable, why did Inferno inspire a whole book for Dan Brown and not Italian best-selling novelist Sandro Veronesi (a true and talented Tuscan), who at least could tell the adventures of footballer Paolo Pulici or Count Cavour, the first Prime Minister of a unified Italy? Why is the miniseries on the Borgia family made by the Irishman Neil Jordan and not by a descendent of Macchiavelli? Why was the story of the "Gladiator" told by Ridley Scott and not by the Oscar-winning Giuseppe Tornatore? Even the archeological writer Valerio Massimo Manfredi, despite some sporadic incursions with the Romans, prefers to focus his books on the sagas of the Greeks, Alexander the Great and Ulysses.

If the tomb of General Maximus Decimus Meridius -- played by Russell Crowe in Gladiator -- discovered three years ago along the ancient Via Flaminia roadway leading to Rome, was to become a tourist attraction, then it would be because of the efforts of foreigners who collected the necessary funds for the restoration rather than the helpless and uninterested Ministry of Culture, which should be the equivalent to the oil ministry in Saudi Arabia, but is considered a lowly posting among Italian political insiders.

But this stubborn refusal by the public to give the world the image of an Italy it likes is not just a matter for the artists and the politicians. It touches all of us. A good psychoanalyst would have plenty of material to study here in Italy. An entire nation layed out on the shrink's couch, proudly declaring its refusal to be like others want it to be, condemning itself to the margins of history. For this reason, the past that fascinates and stimulates curiosity and admiration in Chinese tourists as well as American best-sellers prompts such a lazy and indifferent air. Why are we refusing to be the huge open air museum, filled with the restaurants and themed shops that the world wants us to be? Maybe it’s a kind of existential short-sightedness.

Ancient Rome and the Renaissance, bewitching to explore by anyone who lives on the other side of the sea, but those who live in the middle of it are reduced to discounted scenarios: Bernini’s piazzas are like car parks for people and the Colosseum is just a continuous traffic jam. Or is it the schools that make it something laborious to study, turning something that should be glorious into boring homework? But maybe the short-sightedness has nothing to do with school: it’s the Italians who, for some inexplicable reason, are embarrassed by and keep trying to flee from the clichés -- sun, ruins, art and good food -- that the world wants to attach to us, to love and envy us.

Italy, the universal capital of beauty and pleasure, is the only country that can escape the peripheral destiny that awaits a tired Europe after 2,000 years of world leadership. But to do it would mean finally accepting the memory of itself. More than an industrial overhaul, Italy requires a psychological one. It is a country that needs a grand and ancient dream -- but meanwhile in Rome, they're just talking about the economy.

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