No ambassador in Rome would admit to taking part in a competition to see which country has the biggest embassy – that would hardly be a gracious approach to diplomacy. But rather like everything in this city, embassies here tend to be superlative. France’s mission HQ – the staggering Palazzo Farnese – is the unofficial victor in this tournament of architectural prestige. It is little surprise, therefore, that the annual Fête Nationale celebrations draw plenty of fanfare, as Christian Masset, France’s ambassador to Italy, explains. “The Palazzo is like a beating heart in the centre of Rome,” he says before the evening’s festivities begin. “It is very familiar to the Romans and, of course, they like to visit.”
Palazzo Farnese is no ordinary embassy and 2019 has certainly been no ordinary year for Franco-Italian relations. In an almost unprecedented move, Emmanuel Macron recalled Ambassador Masset to Paris in February following a slew of antagonising remarks from Italy’s deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini. Masset returned to Rome shortly after but myriad issues – from Salvini’s take on immigration and Di Maio’s support for the gilets jaunes to the faltering Turin to Lyon high-speed rail link – have meant that transalpine rapport is at its lowest ebb for more than 70 years.
In the past a diplomatic posting at the magnificent Palazzo Farnese – built between 1513 and 1589 – might have been considered a prestigious but somewhat secondary role. But France’s current man in Rome finds himself at the forefront of French diplomacy within an EU engulfed by nationalist scepticism. Could the Fête Nationale celebrations help to thaw frosty relations between the two countries.
As he prepares to host a party for 3,000 guests, Masset, an elegant man with an aristocratic demeanor, doesn’t make light of the diplomatic difficulties between Rome and Paris. But he’s also optimistic, emphasising the spirit of openness, friendship and co-operation that this party aims to celebrate. “If you look at things on the ground, everything is up and running: exchanges, investments, university co-operation, cultural co-operation,” he says. “People to people, the relationship [between France and Italy] is excellent.” This grand event offers a chance to prove that the bond remains strong. Tonight, as Masset puts it, “We must show the evidence.”
Just minutes before the Palazzo’s great doors open, intense, almost tropical rain begins to fall. In the courtyard a three metre-high pâtisserie replica of the Arc de Triomphe is in peril. “God save the macarons!” says the ambassador. Then, as if by magic, the rain stops, clearing the evening air and allowing the quintessential golden light of a Roman evening to illuminate the lofty surroundings. The confectionery bears only minor damage.
Guests flood in; among the first to arrive are the vips. There are some 2,000 of them: Italian officials, ministers, generals and French counterparts based in Italy. They are joined by diplomats and leading figures from the worlds of culture and business. The queue of elegantly dressed and well-coiffured dignitaries lengthens as the ambassador and his wife, Hélène, diligently greet each arrival with a firm handshake and customary double kiss.
To the jovial pomp of the uniformed Carabinieri military band, guests including Giovanni Tria, Italy’s economy minister, former prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and Lewis M Eisenberg, the US ambassador to Italy, rub shoulders with a smattering of Roman countesses and princes. “Of course, it is our national day,” says Masset. “We want to celebrate France but we cannot imagine France without Italy.”
In among the suits and gowns is Jean-Pierre Darnis, an adviser at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. As a Frenchman who is a long-term resident of the Italian capital he has seen plenty of Fête Nationale parties in his time. “I have to say that this is the best party in years,” he says as the merriment builds and champagne flows. But when asked if the apparent charm offensive has paid off, Darnis is more reticent. “Well, as they say, it takes two to tango.” He points out that Italian government representation here is thin on the ground – a stark contrast to Salvini’s very visible appearance at a recent event hosted by the UK ambassador to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.
The party is in full swing: conversation and drinks flow and, an hour after the officials have arrived, some 1,000 French community guests join the soirée, turning the lively hum of chatter and laughter decidedly more Gallic. As founding members of the EU, it is often taken for granted that France and Italy are akin to brother and sister, close and deeply connected. Masset uses the phrase, “L’un pour l’autre” (one for the other) to describe the relationship between the two countries. “We are perhaps the world’s first, or closest, cultural partners,” he says.
But the recent animosity between the two countries rocked even those cultural connections. The spat led Italian government officials to publicly threaten to refuse a loan to France of works by Leonardo da Vinci. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death and both countries are keen to mark the milestone. So it’s no surprise that Masset makes much of Italian president Sergio Mattarella’s May meeting with Macron in Amboise, the French town where da Vinci died in 1519. As Fête Nationale guests pass screens showing footage of this visit, they are encouraged to take a tour of the palace, with its breathtaking frescoes and the halls of the piano nobile. This is the principal floor of the palace, where the doors of the ambassador’s opulent office have been thrown open in a nod to the historic ties between the two countries.
Dignitaries later gather in the palazzo’s courtyard, which is flanked by formidable renaissance colonnades. They are spared a long, overly serious speech from Masset. The ambassador speaks clearly in fine Italian but chooses to include his native tongue in the final toast. “Vive l’Italie! Vive la France! Vive l’Europe! Addesso champagne!” Now is not the time nor the place for diplomatic sobriety.
The way to work: diplomacy
France’s outpost in Rome is one of the country’s largest in Europe with some 150 employees – and it is certainly well endowed with Palazzo Farnese. But having opulent diplomatic digs is more than just luck; it’s a vital element of a smart geopolitical strategy.
It might seem frivolous but, in fact, it’s precisely when relations are tense that the true value of a grand embassy with a real presence in the city – or an elaborate party with a cracking guestlist – is most apparent. While political tension between two countries waxes and wanes, it’s up to diplomats to maintain a steady hand when it comes to maintaining ties.
Given the cultural and architectural significance of the Palazzo Farnese – partly designed by Michelangelo – it is only right that the French embassy hosts tours during the week. And, as ambassador Christian Masset has shown, throwing open the doors to a range of events – from intimate dinners with a handful of VIPs to sensational fêtes for thousands – is a savvy way of making your residence pull double duty as a diplomatic destination.