Bringing Italian language and culture to the world

Former Consul General of Italy to Melbourne, Marco Maria Cerbo, spoke to Segmento about his new role in promoting the Italian language and culture abroad as Head of the Italian Training and Education System in the World.

When did your diplomatic career start? 

I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1999, and the journey has been very rewarding. Working as a diplomat offers diverse experiences. I have monitored elections in remote regions of Ethiopia, discussed industrial investments with Hong Kong tycoons, negotiated joint Ministerial statements about the war against Ukraine in Paris, and served an incredibly active community as Consul General in Melbourne. 

Do you recall any particular experiences as a Consul in Australia?

One of the results obtained in Australia that I am most proud of was sponsoring the creation of the first bilingual school in Victoria–maybe it was a taste of things to come in my future career!

Welcoming the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to Paris (2022)

What are your responsibilities in your current role as Head of the Italian Training and Education System in the world at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and what is the mission of this role?

The Italian Training and Education System in the World is an international network composed of seven Italian state schools, 45 Italian state-recognized private schools, 92 Italian sections in foreign, international, and European Schools, 130 Italian lecturers in foreign universities, and more than 10,000 courses, organized by private, non-profit bodies. In 2021 there were 302,799 students registered in the network.  On the one hand, our main responsibilities are related to the administrative and financial management of this network, as well as selecting and training Italian school personnel, including teachers and lecturers. On the other hand, the purpose of the network is to promote the Italian educational model and the Italian language and culture abroad through cultural diplomacy, educational projects, and communication.

Do you have any personal ambitions for your time in this role?

Having the responsibility of promoting our culture and language abroad can be challenging. Unfortunately, daily managerial issues often overshadow strategic ones. In the longer term, I would be satisfied if I managed to improve the functioning of the system through some regulatory reforms and, at the same time, advance the status of Italian schools outside Italy, making them more and more appealing for students and families who don’t have already a connection with Italy but appreciate what we have to offer in terms of education.

Launching of a new model of Maserati in Hong Kong (2005)

Are you working on any projects you are particularly proud of? 

It’s always hard to answer questions like this, but I’ll try. Let me mention a couple of programs. The first one is aimed at digitalizing a large amount of our work – and the first tangible result was moving selection procedures for teachers to be sent abroad online. The second was the attempt to link our various promotional activities involving students. For example, some students are now competing to draft a short story about Corto Maltese, a famous comic book character. At the same time, our schools have been invited to participate in the 2023 edition of Italian Language Week (ILW) with student comics on the theme of sustainability, which will be held in autumn. To create a connection, the comics based on the winning draft will be shipped to Antarctica during ILW: a symbolic gesture to mark our educational system’s commitment to the environment and our vocation of going beyond borders.

The existence of your role, among many other things, indicates that the Italian government is extremely engaged with its diaspora as compared with other countries. How and why does the Italian state leverage the diaspora as a strategic asset? 

There are almost six million Italians abroad. This is about one-tenth the population of Italy. There are millions more who can claim an Italian background. In Australia alone, in the 2021 Census, over a million people claimed Italian ancestry.

I would define the diaspora as an intrinsic component of Italian society rather than an asset. Italians abroad regularly engage in the social, economic, and political life of their country of origin, in particular since 2001, when they were given the right to vote outside Italy. Having large and thriving communities in many different countries means that Italy can count on allies to create international ties and that Italians can find a friendly interlocutor nearly anywhere. 

Restitution of the Obelisk of Axum to Ethiopia (2005)

How specifically does language training operate contribute to this?

Of course, keeping our language alive in foreign countries is instrumental to boosting bilateral relations, both by maintaining the link between the diaspora and Italy and creating interest among those who are not of Italian descent.

On the topic of students of Italian with no Italian heritage, how do you explain a small language like Italian remaining so popular as a foreign language?

Let me correct you: Italian is not a small language. People who speak Italian as their first or second language number nearly 100 million worldwide; Italian is the lingua franca in specific domains (e.g., art, humanities, music) and within the Catholic Church. Moreover, it is an important business tool. As a G7 economy, Italy relies on a backbone of small and medium enterprises, so speaking Italian means having a fast track to such an important marketplace. The efforts put in place in our promotional activities also count. Thanks to an extensive network that includes 84 Cultural Institutes and, as I mentioned before, 52 schools, joined by several other institutions, including those created by former migrants, committed to the same common goals. Last but not least, Italian culture is appreciated everywhere, both in its popular forms (everybody likes pizza) and its high expressions, with an artistic and literary heritage ranging from Dante Alighieri to Lucio Fontana. 

Cover: Marco Maria Cerbo at the Italian National Day at the Veneto Club in Melbourne (2014)
Images provided by Marco Maria Cerbo