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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 18, 2009
Italy in Poland
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Kindred Souls
November 18, 2009   
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The ambassador of Italy to Poland, Aldo Mantovani, speaks with Hilary Heuler.

What was your diplomatic background prior to your posting in Poland?
After more than five years as the Alternate Ambassador of Italy to the UN, this is my first posting as chief of mission. But my diplomatic career started very early, I was second in charge in the economic field at the Italian embassy in Paris, and it was a fascinating time also because of the so-called economic wars at the time about wine, about flowers, and so on. You know, sometimes, like brothers and sisters, when you are as close as Italy and France, some discrepancies may arise. But I treasure the great opportunities I had in these circumstances to gain experience working with many branches of the French administration, not only with the classic diplomacy of the Quai d'Orsay. Then I was in Saudi Arabia-Jeddah, a beautiful town, where the working conditions were not easy because it was a completely different world from the one I was used to in Europe. I was in charge of the political office, which was quite a stimulating and rich experience. After that I was in the foreign ministry for a long time, dealing with economic, scientific and technological affairs, and what I remember most of those times is my involvement with international space cooperation and the space station project.

Then I moved with my family to Washington, where I was in charge of the ambassador's office first and then head of the economic section-it was a very challenging time because it was the time of "Clintonomics," when priority was given to international economic relationships.

After that we moved to Switzerland, where I was the deputy chief of mission. There were no substantial political issues between the two countries, thus we could focus on developing our cultural relationship, based on the language commonality in parts of Switzerland. The first Italian-speaking university abroad was opened in Ticino at that time.

Then I went back to Rome to work on internal matters at the ministry, and from there I was named as an the alternate ambassador to the UN and was posted in New York for five years. This was probably the most challenging experience of my career. We first held the rotating Presidency of the European Union in the UN '91 membership arena. Then we engaged in the battle to reform the Security Council, fighting against naming new permanent members to the Council, and winning in the end. In the area of human rights, we fought many battles especially to protect children and women, not to mention the moratorium on the death penalty. At the end of 2006 Italy was finally elected with an almost unanimous vote to the Security Council, and for me it was a fascinating experience to be directly involved in the management of so many difficult international crises. Starting with the war in Lebanon, then Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, all the problems concerning nuclear proliferation and the never ending crises in Africa (Sudan, Chad, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe). And then came Myanmar and the war in Georgia, ending with the Gaza crises.

I left the UN and the council at the end of last year when the Italian term expired. On Dec. 31 I flew from New York to Warsaw, stopping only in Paris for a bottle of champagne-it was New Year's Eve, after all!

You have been in Poland for nearly a year. What do you find most pleasant, and what is most difficult about your current post?
The most pleasant part is working with my Polish colleagues. They are very capable and easygoing, there are no difficulties at all. You understand everything they want to say, and as long as you speak clearly, they understand you too. It's smooth. Being posted in Poland though has been challenging over the past 10 months because the Italian prime minister has visited the country twice, coming to Warsaw and Gdansk, including for the biggest event in the entire 90-year history of diplomatic relations between Poland and Italy: the Enhanced Intergovernmental Summit in April, with both prime ministers and five key ministers from each side in attendance, opening up new avenues of collaboration.

Poland has been a member of the European Union for five years, and provides great added value for Europe-it is a natural voice for so many interests coming out of this region. We wanted to give ourselvs the chance to work together on issues of mutual cooperation between our two countries and in the European Union framework. It was a great event that gave a real boost to relations between Italy and Poland, both in terms of politics and business. We're seeing the results now as our businesses are competing well, and have a better understanding of the rules of the game in this country. I am very proud that there are big Italian companies that will play a very important role in the implementation of new infrastructures here, in this country and particularly in Warsaw.

But to achieve these goals you have to work hard, because the Polish people are very hard-working. One difficult part of my job is that the country is huge. About 40 million people are spread over an area that is one-and-a-half times the size of Italy. So if you want to visit all the regions, you need to spend a lot of time traveling around here. But it's very useful to get in touch with the local authorities, because they have a very important part in the development of this country. All this takes time though, and 10 months as a tenure in Poland is not enough! I have visited a lot of towns since I've been here, including Cracow, Gdańsk, Łódź and Lublin. But I need more time to explore all of the opportunities offered by this beautiful country.

How do you feel about the fact that Poles are sometimes called the "Italians of the North"?
Well it's true. We can sometimes detect in the Polish character some features that are considered typically Mediterranean, and especially Italian. Look at the movies, for instance-we have an important movie industry, and there is also a strong tradition of cinema directors in Poland. There are a lot of mutual influences between the two. Something like architecture is more long-lasting, for instance I've been told that if you go to places like Zamość, you feel like you're in a town in Tuscany or Umbria. Zamość was designed by Italian architects, as were many historical palaces throughout the country. Queen Bona Sforza's court of Italian artists, artisans, but also poets and musicians, is the best known example of cultural exchange between our two countries. This means that the Poles have been receptive to Italian and Mediterranean art for a long, long time. This is well represented by the story of Bernardo Bellotto, a 18th-century Venetian painter whose paintings of Warsaw were later on widely used for the reconstruction of the Old Town.

The point is that there is a great deal of common feeling between our two peoples. They say that you can find gems of Italian architecture here in Poland-villas, castles, and so on-that you can't even find any more in Italy. These were either inspired by Italian architecture or built by Italian architects, and this means that Italian culture was in demand among the local aristocracy and the owners of these beautiful buildings.

There have also been many Polish people working in Italy. I am from Florence, and I know of one example of a printing shop there, "la stamperia polacca," owned and managed by a Polish nobleman, Count Tyszkiewicz, for about 30 years, until 1953. He had such a good reputation that his shop even used to print students' credit- books ("index") for the University of Florence-this is a job, like printing passports, that you would not give to just anybody. He was considered to be a very trustworthy and capable printer.

How would you assess the relationship between Poland and Italy?
"Excellent" is too mild a term. The chemistry between the two countries and between the two leaderships is really top-notch. There are strong similarities between our two cultures and our two peoples, and we are ready to engage with Warsaw in close cooperation. There is a long history of commonalities between us-in terms of culture, civilization and religion, think John Paul II-and just walking through the streets of Warsaw, you can see how much common heritage we have shared throughout the centuries. Protecting and bringing out this shared treasure is really one of the main purposes of my mission here, because our political relations are so good that I could not add anything to that. But in terms of promoting our culture in Poland and the Polish heritage in Italy, we can always improve. We can also enhance the flow of tourism between the two countries, as well as strengthening our economic and business relationship.
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