As unseasonably heavy rain poured down in Rome earlier this week, it was easy to see the weather as a meteorological mirror for the general economic climate. A Milanese guest at an event on Tuesday night commented that the city was starting to feel as lifeless as the mausoleums and marble monuments that it’s studded with.
Walking around town and stumbling across Egyptian mini-pyramids and Dacian victory columns, I was reminded of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s opening to Istanbul: Memories and the City, his melancholic love letter to his home town in which he explains the spectre that hangs over the Turkish capital as a reminder of lost Ottoman grandeur. Pamuk describes a life lived out in the ruins of a great civilisation, and the indignity currently being experienced by Greece has also been discussed in these terms – the people who gave the world democracy now being treated as the errant child of Europe.
Italy is blessed with incredible material culture but this blessing hasn’t always been carried easily. While researching the Monocle guide to Florence last year, I interviewed the inspiring deputy mayor for culture of that city, Giuliano da Empoli, part of the young and rigorous administration of Mayor Matteo Renzi. He surprised me by claiming that Florence was the hardest city in the world for him to do his job.
With an art historian stepmother specialising in the Medici, I’ve been coming to the Tuscan capital my whole life and have been taught to see it as the pinnacle of Italian cultural achievement. The problem is, da Empoli explained, that most of the Italian government thought so too and had done for 400 years. “An open air museum,” is how he described Florence. His work to support contemporary artists, musicians and filmmakers is a battle with the moneymen who want only to preserve renaissance grandeur. Of course, da Empoli had a healthy respect for Italy’s past but he also realised that a cultural life that always looks backwards has little hope of a future.
The same can be said for much of Italy’s business community. With Mario Monti undertaking radical reforms to tackle the “privileges and clientele-ism” that developed under Silvio Berlusconi, the World Bank still rates Italy as 87th in its global ease of doing business survey – that’s behind the likes of Mongolia, the Bahamas and Zambia. An estimated 120,000 companies went out of business in 2011 alone.
The structural issues of the Italian economy aren’t going to disappear any time soon but by tackling time-consuming bureaucracy, a torturous civil justice system and curbing the powers of big business lobbyists that have all but suffocated small business interests, perhaps some life can be breathed back into these marble-clad streets.
After all, when faced with the choice between setting up shop in a slightly shabby European capital enriched by the patina of centuries of life versus a concrete Chinese east coast boom town, I know which I’d prefer.