Italy’s easy charm is its strength and a weakness, says Tyler Brûlé, but the world can learn from both.
You might have noticed there’s a vague air of reinvention in this issue. In the case of our cover star Italy, we’ve travelled from top-to-toe to meet the people changing policies, the craftsmen reinvigorating workshops, entrepreneurs shaking up entire regions and cities doing things differently. While Italy is always a regular in our pages, in early December we started deploying writers and editors to check the health of the nation. In a semi-post-Berlusconi world is there a real sense of a kick-start or will it be more of the same? Are bright minds returning to give it another go? At the very least are they returning to take a peek and see if it is worth looking for a new apartment?
As research assignments were wrapped up and stories filed, we still didn’t have a precise fix on where Italy is sitting. Is it still in a funk or are there some fresh stories to tell? Or is it a case of a nation that’s still a leader in multiple sectors, boasts scores of globally recognised brands and has history on its side not being particularly bothered because life rolls on?
In Naples, the sun still comes out, you can zip over to Capri for lunch and then check in at the Hotel San Pietro in time for cocktails. Up in Rome you can live in a palace, dine like a prince, fly to most major cities around the world direct non-stop and wander to your favourite café every morning and never ask for service because they know exactly what you want. In the Marche region leather barons have built some of the most impressive art collections in Europe and continue to invest in new technology that keeps manufacturing in the country. On the coast of Tuscany the beach clubs continue to kick into gear every June and are packed right up until mid-September with the same families staking out the same patch of sand since the mid 1950s. No, it’s no longer an empire but the church that it plays host to has seen a moderate spike in popularity. No, it’s not about to become home to Europe’s new tech boom but its trains have become very, very good (just avoid some of the regional networks) and the UK, Canada and Australia might all want to pay attention.
So back to the question, where is Italy circa the end of Q1, 2014? Italy has shifted into that very comfortable place called semi-retirement. For the most part it has taken good care of itself but, like the dapper gentlemen who lets his eyebrows go a bit crazy or the elegant lady who might forget to zip up the back of her tweed skirt, Italy’s missed a few essential details. Nevertheless, you forgive them. Think of Italy as the very chic couple in their seventies who live next door. They’re always perfectly turned out and appearances count for everything. You’re not quite sure what they do or how they make it all work but they still keep a fine-looking garden. Their dinner parties are consistently elegant affairs but are always predictable. (Consider this, when was the last time you went to a brand new restaurant in Italy that you loved that was doing something other than Italian food?) In the driveway there’s a lovely old Alfa convertible but the runabout is a sensible Fiat Panda 4x4. (Italy doesn’t boast the most toothsome navy but it does have a very handsome new aircraft carrier that’s a showcase for homegrown engineering and shipbuilding talent.) And inside the sturdy home everything looks the same but somehow it’s always evolving – a new shelving system in the library, new lighting in the corridor or a jolt of colour in the sunroom.
Having achieved a level of greatness that 97.5 per cent of other nations are still striving for, Italy is horizontal at the beach club in faded trunks with a very dark tan and an espresso on the side table. The sun is beating down, it might sit up and do a bit of business but it might also walk over to the bar and talk about the state of the world. Life’s moving a little slower and it may not be the person that everyone wants to meet first but it’s definitely the one they all want some day to form a lasting relationship with. As we see it, Italy’s doing okay and given all she’s been through, we hope we look as chic when we’re her age. And on the topic of passing years, you might have noticed that our little journal has just turned seven. We’ve resisted scratching the itch and have refrained from doing anything too radical. Instead, we’ve sharpened things up a little bit by adding five new correspondents, tightening up our pages and also bolstering our retail offer with a fine set of garments designed by a lovely Italian (with some German roots) and made in both Italy and Japan.
At press time we’re in the kitchen cooking up a few more treats for 2014, so do stay close and see what we’re serving up soon. Thank you for seven superb years and we look forward to meeting up in the months to come. Finally, one question. If we invited you to an Alpine summit, would you come?
For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.