‘Arabs have left so many traces in Italy’: inside Abu Dhabi's Italian Cultural Institute

The new hub opens with an exhibition by Italian artist Fabrizio Plessi

An ensemble of 100 cellos and a concert by soprano Tiziana "Tosca" Donati are some of the Expo 2020 Dubai events planned by Abu Dhabi’s Italian Cultural Institute.

Open to the public from Thursday in Al Bateen, the venue aims to be a hub serving both the UAE’s Italian community and culture lovers.

Speaking to The National, director Ida Zilio-Grandi expresses as much satisfaction as relief at the institute's opening, saying it was a long time coming.

“We were supposed to open in March last year. We had the venue ready and everything in place, but then the world turned upside down with the pandemic happening,” she says.

“But everything happens for a reason and it just feels great and a blessing that we are finally able to do so.”

That good fortune also extends to the centre opening with an exhibition by Fabrizio Plessi.

The renowned multimedia artist brings his Digital Wall exhibition to the institute, a series of searing images that meditate on the great force of nature.

“He was also set to come to the initial opening last year,” Zilio-Grandi confirms. “So it truly feels like we are just picking up where we left off.”

Making connections

While its doors were closed for more than 18 months, the institute has not been idle.

The Abu Dhabi launch comes on the back of an extensive online programme of events signalling its intention to be a catalyst for genuine cultural exchange.

In June, the organisation worked with the Sharjah Museums Authority on the exhibition Drop by Drop Life Falls from the Sky: Water, Islam and Art, a collaboration with the Fondazione Torino Musei museum in Turin, Italy.

Last October, the centre collaborated with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi for a digital arts event featuring illustrators from the UAE and Italy.

While the online format was far from ideal, Zilio-Grandi says it illustrated to global viewers the close cultural links between Italy and the Arab world.

“It is something perhaps that some people don’t know because what has been discussed more, and for good reason, is the historical ties between the region and Spain,” she says.

“While it is true that, historically, Arabs stayed in Spain longer than Italy, they left so many traces in Italy in everything, from their poetry to food and language.”

The ties that bind

When it comes to language, Zilio-Grandi, formerly a professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Ca' Foscari University of Venice, cites the Middle East's influence on Dante’s seminal 14th-century poem The Divine Comedy, considered one of medieval Europe's pre-eminent literary works.

Zilio-Grandi is one of several scholars who argue that The Divine Comedy is heavily influenced by an Islamic text known as Kitab al-Miraj (The Book of Ascension), which was translated into Latin and Spanish a century before Dante's work.

“That influence is there in the structure of Dante’s work and how it moves through various scenes and environments,” she says.

“But generally, Italian poetry was influenced by Arabic literature in the themes. The beginning of Italian poetry is called The Sicilian School and it has various themes such spiritual love and divinity.”

It is a fascinating subject the institute aims to explore in February with a symposium on ancient Arabic texts and European literature.

This is in addition to the aforementioned Expo 2020 Dubai shows by singerTosca and 100 Cellos Live in Dubai in February and March.

“Really, we are just getting started,” Zilio-Grandi says. “While the centre will be arranging and consulting on events across the UAE and the GCC, it is really here, our place in Abu Dhabi, that is the heart of what we do.

“We want to do film screenings, book readings and art exhibitions and collaborate genuinely with artists from the UAE. I want them to know that this is also your place.”

A home away from home

It’s a message Zilio-Grandi also extends to the UAE’s 10,000-strong Italian community, with children’s language classes planned as well.

“There will be a focus on connecting with Italian children because at school and with their siblings all they speak is in English and they rarely read Italian,” she says.

“Italian families are not only looking forward to our opening but there is also a sense of expectation. That will be the challenge for us, to strike that balance of having a programme of Italian culture dedicated to Italians and the international public.

“It’s not a choice of picking one over the other. We will do both.”

The Italian Cultural Institute is located at 537 Al Qasbah Street, Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi, and opens to the public from Thursday. More information is available at iicabudhabi.esteri.it

Updated: October 6th 2021, 9:45 AM