Looking at Italy’s top 10 exports in 2019, you’ll find all the usual suspects: manufacturing including tech, followed by vehicles and pharmaceuticals. Cosmetics and fashion also made the list, with Versace, Gucci and other household names all doing a swift trade.
There’s one important sector missing from the trade reports, however. But only because its output is fiendishly hard to measure. The elusive industry also happens to be the export category Italians are most proud of: design and architecture.
Millenia of architectural styles
Speaking at the Italian Export Forum in New York in January, Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, spoke eloquently of Italy’s gift to the world: “The Italian community continues to make great contributions to the entire world, well reflected in the distinctive tastes, timeless styles, and bold designs generated by individuals of prolific talent and creativity.”
Long after the last centurion hung up his armor, the legacy of the Roman Empire continued shaping cityscapes across the continent. As anyone who has been to St. Petersburg would attest to, even 3,000km from Rome, in Russia’s icy northern capital, such masterpieces as the Winter Palace and the Palace Square bear many architectural markings left by the virtuoso Italian architects commissioned for those colossal projects.
In Prague, the Czech Republic, the stunning Royal Summer Palace is known as the most stylistically pure Renaissance building outside of Italy. And such examples of the breadth of Italian influence are many.
That Italians are an art-loving nation perhaps helps explain the fascinating fact that in a country with an area of just 301,438km2, there are more than 30,000 churches, 20,000 castles and 3,000 historic sites, making Italy a number one contender for the tile of a state with the most masterpieces per square kilometer.
In Rome, Florence and Venice, a common opening line of a tour guide is to remind you that “with every step you take, you are walking on the history of architecture and art”. And this is no exaggeration.
Florence - Where Renaissance architecture was born. | Source: Shutterstock.
In Italy, daily life is steeped in art and history. The styles and patterns of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance are as relevant today as they were millennia ago, and are a treasured part of everyday life. It’s like living in a giant open-air museum: children playing on cobbled piazzas bookended by ornate Baroque structures, families listening to mass surrounded by objects of art that any museum in the world would be honored to have.
There is no resting on your laurels
Their country being a source of so much man-made beauty, you’d think the Italians would be content to put their Gucci-clad feet up and bask in the knowledge that they are officially the world's arbiters of taste.
But relying on past successes is not their style. Italian creatives continue to share, inspire and build. It’s as if the country’s mission was to help design a world where functionality and sustainability can and must combine with aesthetic beauty. But then it probably is.
Now in its 4th year, the Italian Design Day ultimately ties back to this mission. Launched by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Fondazione Compasso d’Oro and the Triennale di Milano, the annual celebration of Italian design has been warmly welcomed in many countries around the world, including Vietnam.
Hosted by 100 Italian ambassadors in 100 cities, the program includes exhibitions, talks and other events creating a platform for art lovers, designers, architects, as well as landscape and urban developers to explore the idea of sustainable development and preservation of beauty on a global scale.
The theme of "Italian Design Day 2020" is "Drawing the Future. Development, Innovation, Sustainability, Beauty". Explaining the event’s vision, Dante Brandi, the Consul General of Italy in Ho Chi Minh City, said: “The Italian Design Day is not simply a stage for admiration, but a stage for interaction. That is why we want to involve Vietnamese architects and designers, and not as a passive audience, but as interactive contributors, discussing solutions for a sustainable future through design.”
From New York to Vancouver to Jakarta, the first Design Day in 2017 attracted more than 20,000 scholars, architects and designers resulting in such ambitious projects as “The Revival” in which architecture students explored the idea of using technology to connect the present with the past and give new relevance to forgotten buildings.
This year, the public in Vietnam can look forward to exhibitions bringing the stories of inspiring Italian creatives to life, while a series of panel discussions and workshops will attempt to find design-based solutions for sustainable development.