State production of cultural nationalism: political leaders and preservation policies for historic buildings in France and Italy

May 16, 2019
Interview Open Society
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How much important is university research to encourage the internationalization of a university?

Today research is fundamental for universities international reputation. The key issue is whether people are producing interesting work. Having staff who publish is essential, but it goes beyond just publishing to include whether their work is noticed, whether they go to conferences, where they present their work and whether they are cited. Citations are one indicator of how important work is, as you can see whether or not research is being used internationally.

Are people reading it in other countries? Equally, citations indicate whether researchers are engaging in debates so that other scholars are taking notice and engaging with that research. Research is also bring important for students, because they want to know that their professors are publishing interesting work and they want to read what their professors have written. In universities, when teachers are giving advice about where to do a Masters or a PhD, they will want to send good students – to universities which have a good research record. This applies if when they want to send them to individual professors, because they have read their work. So, what really matters for universities is whether people are producing work that is read, work that’s interesting, work that affects academic debates, work that students have read and think: I’m fascinated by this, this person has said something important and I’d like to go and study with them in person. So interesting research that is read and has an international impact is absolutely fundamental to universities’ international reputation and international development.

What are the reasons that led you to a comparative analysis of the behavior of France and Italy in the care and conservation of cultural heritage?

There’s a lot of debate in political science about different kinds of States and usually both France and Italy are seen as States in which the public sector is very present, but usually they contrasted. Often, France is seen as what is called a strong state: very centralized, with a long tradition, very stable institutions, whereas the Italian state is seen as much more fragmental, as well as being more recent and seen to have many problems in terms of its public administration. So, I thought it would be interesting to compare them. In addition, there is the fact that in cultural heritage they are quite close, as quite lot of artists and architects have worked in both countries; there have been many interchanges between them. And finally, it seems to me the State in Italy has been seen as less strong than France, but Italy was creating protection before France. In fact, when you look at it, in France the development of cultural heritage protection went hand-in-hand with the development of the birth of the modern state; so, in France, you get legislation and policies to protect heritage that developed after the revolution of 1789, and every time you get a change of regime, you get new policies, sometimes immediately. Very strange in some ways, immediately you get a revolution when the first things that the government thinks about is cultural heritage. But in Italy, as we know, unification came much later. What was interesting for me was the puzzle that Italy created legislation before France and the legislation was more extensive than France. So this is surprising if you think about the general views about two countries, if you think about their history, if you think about their administrations.

Do You think that the “habit to beauty” could be actually considered as a fundamental character of Italian culture?

Every country believes that it has a special place in heritage. What is true is that the ideal, “il bello” is particularly present in Italian discourse. It is present in a way that it’s not the case in England, it’s a word that’s rarely used. “Beauty” in English politics doesn’t come up so often, whereas it comes up a lot in Italy; but each country believes it has a special style and that it has a special place in cultural heritage – so the English will tell you all about their English country houses, the French will tell you about their different traditions and that Paris is the most beautiful city in the world and Italians will tell you that, of course, they have more heritage that any other country. Now, in some respects are true: there are more UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy that in any other country in the world. But of course we have to be careful because each country is promoting its view of its particular “beauty”. Another factor that is especially important about Italy – is the amount of art that has gone to other countries. However, that is also true of France, if you think about French paintings from the Impressionists are all over the whole of the world. So each country’s art has been exported but some countries’ art has been exported much more than others.

Today there is much talk of a “coming back” to nationalism: have you actually found what You highlight in Your studies, so the link between nationalism and the protection of a country’s cultural heritage?

One of the reasons for promoting cultural heritage is to try to promote a sense of the nation, a sense of belonging: sometimes trying to promote a “sense of nostalgia” for the past. This often happens when nations are under pressure and/or when there are difficulties. So it is not surprising that after wars and revolutions you tend to get a lot more attention given to cultural heritage policy; and it is not surprising that in periods of crisis, countries and their governments try to underline heritage, try bring people together. This is clearly a period of difficulty and there’s quite a lot of use of heritage to pay attention to the past and to make us believe that the past was this remarkable period and create “nostalgia” for the past.

Why countries might promote cultural heritage today? In what sense should looking to the past – for countries that have a rich cultural heritage – be a push to build a modern state and therefore for the economic growth of a modern country?

There is a double movement: one is a movement looking back to the past, the “nostalgia” for the past, but then there is another movement which is using the past and heritage for economic growth. One of the reasons for current interest in heritage is that it’s a very large market and typically in highly developed countries in which heavy industry is in decline, people are spending more and more on services and therefore promotion of heritage aids other industries so one of the biggest and fastest growing sectors of Italy as you know is tourism. Now, tourism doesn’t mean just about beaches today: it’s about people that are coming to visit different cities; they come to Rome because it has a fantastic cultural heritage and they generate a lot of other business: restaurants and tour guides, hotels, AirB&B and all kinds of other activities.

The other thing is because that heritage is in part created, so you get what’s called “heritagisation”, that is, certain buildings, certain cities and sites, certain memories and pieces of arts become seen as being part of cultural heritage, including modern art and contemporary art. So, for instance, a lot of people now will come to London and they will come to London to see among other things, the Tate Modern, which 30 years ago was a disused power station. So hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, are coming to London to see modern and contemporary art in a disused power station that of course has been completely renovated. That’s a lot of visitors and it’s a very important economic sector. So, heritage forms part of a wider set of cultural industries and also a set of related sectors, particularly service sectors.

I think that’s another reason why heritage is becoming so important. And it’s not just of art and monuments if you think of all the things that will go with it; so, for instance, you know, people want to eat traditional food, they want to see how traditional food is made, they want to see people living in certain tradition, they want to drink particular kinds of wines and another drinks and they want to see how they are made and they want to know that they are been made in a particular way. This is a whole set of industries and sectors that are related to cultural heritage.

Tags Francia, italy

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Professor Mark Thatcher teaches the Politics of Cultural Heritage in Europe in the Department of Political Science, teaching and researching at the London School of Economics.  At Luiss, he is focused on comparative policies towards cultural heritage.


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