Almost all of the essays and vignettes in this collection have their origins in the symposium ‘Australians in Italy’ organised by Bill Kent and Ros Pesman at the Monash University Centre in Prato in October 2005, and funded by a grant from Monash’s Institute for the Study of Global Movements. Australians in Italy were certainly visible in the week of the symposium, justifying, if that were necessary, our choice of theme for the meetings in Palazzo Vaj. Wall posters in Rome advertised the Macquarie Bank, which had recently bought a large stake in Rome’s International Airport; they also advertised an exhibition at the Galleria l’Agostiniana in Piazza del Popolo titled Viaggio nella Provincia di Roma di una pittrice australiana by expatriate artist Janet Venn-Brown. In Florence, the Renaissance palace of the Strozzi family – a monument to male dynastic fantasies described by a late fifteenth century tourist as ‘fit for Jupiter and the gods’ – had splashed across its forbidding facade an invitation to an international exhibition of women’s art bearing the image of Tracy Moffat’s 1989 photograph Something More I. All over the country the supermodel Megan Gale’s spectacular presence made itself felt on television and billboards. Gale, who lives in Milan, is indubitably the Australian best known in Italy at present.
At least after a glass or two of robust Carmignano red it seemed as if the traditional, stereotypical images of Australia and Italy were becoming not so much reversed as interchangeable: Australian bankers were ‘buying big’ into the home of modern banking; Australian artists were bringing their creative works to the birthplace of Renaissance art; an Australian woman had invaded the fabled heartland of the Latin lover. We also knew that these high profile success stories were only the most visible signs of a considerable Australian presence in and cultural exchange with Italy. Besides still other famous Australians – artists and literary figures such as David Malouf, Jeffrey Smart, Germaine Greer, Peter Robb and Shirley Hazzard who have lived for long periods and been creatively engrossed in the Italian peninsula – there were and are thousands of others settled and working there: artists; intellectuals and academics; business people and retirees; returning migrants and succeeding generations of Italian Australians; women and men with Italian partners who are bringing up a dynamic generation of young people often equally at ease with Australian English and Italian.
In his opening address to the 2005 gathering at Prato, the then Australian Ambassador to Italy, Peter Woolcott, spoke of the Embassy’s difficulty in ‘getting under the official radar’ of Australian activities in Italy: with the present volume, we are attempting to do just this, in order to begin to appreciate the multiplicity and depth of Australian engagements with Italy. We are sure that there is a story to tell here, one as interesting and intricate as the much better known narrative of Italians in Australia and their remarkable contribution to this country’s economy, society and culture since the Second World War.
This collection of studies intends to bring up to date, and go beyond, a pioneering treatment of the theme published some fifteen years ago, namely An Antipodean Connection: Australian Writers, Artists and Travellers in Tuscany, edited by Gaetano Prampolini and Marie-Christine Hubert. If that book emphasised the literary connections between our two countries, Australians in Italy seeks to capture something of the wider range and richness of Australian experiences of Italy. These go back a century and a half, but it is more particularly recent and contemporary impressions and encounters we wish to explore. By design as many younger as older voices are included. The editors have encouraged the authors of even the more formal essays to personalise their discussion, and the collection offers many shorter vignettes in which individual Australians from different backgrounds tell and reflect upon their Italian stories in very different registers. Some vignettes illustrate or gloss in a more personal way a theme addressed by a longer essay; others stand alone, or resonate directly with a number of contributions. We have requested all our colleagues to keep notes and references to a minimum, a recommendation that we cheerfully allowed several contributors to overlook when it became clear that precise documentation or an extensive bibliography were both necessary and useful. As with all structuring devices, the book sections and their titles are in some sense impositions, carving up complex and changing Australian responses to Italy which are multi-stranded and interweaving.
Australians in Italy aspires to be, in the words of a celebrated Renaissance diarist, ‘a salad of many herbs’, enjoyable and nourishing to consume in its variety and freshness, in the manner of an antipasto as distinct from a five course meal. For it goes without saying that this collection has many lacunae that only long, detailed and above all systematic research by a number of scholars could fill. The reader will look in vain for essays on Australians and the musical culture and architecture of Italy, to take just two examples. Some very well known Australian scholars of Italy will not find their names in the book, for which their colleagues offer apologies in advance. A distinctive Australian presence in central Italy, that of the Carmelite nuns at Morrocco, only sneaks in, as it were, because of the community’s charming garden, although one suspects that the self-effacing sisters will think nothing of this neglect of their other achievements. But our collection of essays and vignettes is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of its subject, let alone an encyclopedic one. Rather it is an invitation to scholars and others to dig deeper in the fertile soil of Italy than our contributors have been able to do; an invitation, as well, to the thousands of Australians in Italy to declare themselves, so to speak, and share their insights and perspectives.
This book is, then, a tour d’horizon of a subject that is crying out for a more ample treatment. If, as Donald Denoon said years ago, Australian history is about Australians not Australia – about ‘Australians wherever they are’ in Ros Pesman’s words – then in a transnational age, in which perhaps one-twentieth of the Australian population lives and works abroad for long periods, studies such as these, even if preliminary and tentative, concern the very substance of our national history.
Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.