Matteo Renzi was once seen as the man who would restore Italy’s reputation as a centre of high culture, undoing the damage of the Silvio Berlusconi era. The Italian prime minister was viewed as a modern Renaissance man, a proud former mayor of Florence who once took German chancellor Angela Merkel on a tour of his home city.
First there was the furore over the decision to cover nude statues in Rome’s Capitoline Museum during the historic meeting between Renzi and Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president. The move drew criticism, particularly given Renzi’s long-held assertion that Italy needed to use culture and its “love of art” as a weapon against terrorism. But now an apparent Renzi gaffe in Argentina has provoked even more ridicule.
Renzi decided it would be appropriate at a recent talk at the University of Buenos Aires to recite a poem by Jorge Luis Borges. But while the text he read is attributed to Borges on various websites, Italian press reports were quick to point out that the poem was not actually written by the great Argentinian writer.
The poem, titled To Friendship (A la amistad), is one of a handful circulating on the web and attributed to Borges, who died in Switzerland in 1986. A gushing tribute to friendship with new age overtones, which Renzi said exemplified the friendship between Italy and Argentina, the piece in no way resembles the highly intellectual work of Borges, which are characterised instead by complicated labyrinths, mirrors, and alternate realities.
“I’m amazed and saddened that Renzi made such a mistake, especially considering the very close links Borges had with Italy,” said Fernando Soto, the lawyer of Borges’s widow María Kodama. The Fundación Borges in Buenos Aires, created by Kodama following his death in 1986, has been trying by all means to determine the real authorship of To Friendship. “You don’t need to be an expert on Borges to realise that the poem was not written by Borges,” said Soto.
In Renzi’s defence, the poem is widely attributed on the internet to Borges. “It’s a real pity that precisely the prime minister of Italy made such a mistake,” said Soto. “Borges won many awards in Italy and his last lecture tour before dying in Switzerland was to Italy in 1986.”
This is not the first time that Renzi’s desire to add literary flourishes to his speeches has backfired. He once said that “Dostoyevsky wrote that beauty will save the world. Let’s see if it can save Europe, too.” However, his use of the quote was not exactly right. It was not the Russian writer himself, but the protagonist of one of his great works, The Idiot, who uttered the phrase.
TEXT PUBLISHED IN ‘THE GUARDIAN’
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