Umberto Eco: ‘It’s culture, not war, that cements European identity’

Gianni Riotta – La Stampa. The Guardian, Thursday 26 January 2012.

ecoOutside Umberto Eco’s office window in Milan looms the intimidating mass of Sforzesco castle, a reminder, with its towers and black birds, of various continental wars. Here once stood the 14th-century Castrum Portae Jovis – the Porta di Giove fortress – which was destroyed by the short-lived Aurea Republic of 1447. Between these walls, Leonardo Da Vinci and Donato Bramante once laboured; these very buttresses were conquered by Napoleon. And just beyond the moat – an area now invaded by tourists who have come to visit Michelangelo’s La Pietà Rondanini – Marshall Radetzky’s Austrian troops bombarded the rioting city in 1848.

“When it comes to the debt crisis,” says Eco, “and I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t understand anything about the economy, we must remember that it is culture, not war, that cements our [European] identity. The French, the Italians, the Germans, the Spanish and the English have spent centuries killing each other. Today, we’ve been at peace for 70 years and no one realises how amazing that is any more. Indeed, the very idea of a war between Spain and France, or Italy and Germany, provokes hilarity. The United States needed a civil war to unite properly. I hope that culture and the [European] market will do the same for us.”

Eco sips his coffee, preferring suitably postmodern Nespresso capsules, whereas his German wife, Renate Ramge Eco, defends the traditional Italian coffee pot, the moka. He has just returned to Milan from Paris, where the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, conferred on him the rank of commander, the third rank of the Legion of Honour.

“Those were the hours of France’s battle for the AAA rating, but Sarkozy still didn’t want to miss it – great. I must admit it was also a moving experience when I was conferred the Dodecaneso Cross in Greece: they hand them out right inside Patmos cave, where St John wrote the Apocalypse,” says the writer, with a laugh. “One of the advantages of living in Europe is that I get birthday greetings from the German president, Wulff, and the Spanish prime minister, Rajoy, neither of whom I know. After being at each other’s throats for years in fratricidal wars, we’re now all culturally European.”

Asked to describe European identity in 2012, Eco says it is widespread but “shallow”. “I am using an English word that is not the same as the Italian wordsuperficiale, but which is somewhere between ‘surface’ and ‘deep’. We must change this, before the crisis strips it [Europe] of everything.

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