The Idea of Italian Travellers to Iran. Scholarly Research and Cultural Diplomacy in Post-war Italy

From Firenze University Press Book: Rereading Travellers to the East

Emanuele Giusti, University of Florence

All researchers interested in Iran and its history are well aware of the utility of the prestigious Encyclopaedia Iranica, a use that extends to the history of the political and cultural relations between the lands of Iran and the rest of the world. To look at Europe, for example, the Encyclopaedia offers a wealth of thoroughly researched articles under separate headings, each dedicated to a major country: Great Britain, France, Russia, even Poland. The list of European countries also includes Italy, which did not exist as a unitary state before 1861. As is well shown in the sub-entry “Italy ii. Diplomatic and Commercial Relations” (Casari 2007a), this conundrum is solved by incorporating all information on the relations between Iran and the pre-unitary states of the Italian peninsula, with discussions in separate entries in only a few cases (e.g., Bernardini 2000). Such an arrangement is clearly the result of an editorial choice implemented consistently throughout the Encyclopaedia and, from an organizational point of view, it is as valid as the Europe-wide framing adopted by the Cambridge History of Iran (Lockhart 1986) as well as by more recent scholarly literature (Rota 2021). In this regard, the national framing has many advantages: uniformity, readability and usability.

Researchers will probably thank the editors for this policy, as I have done countless times. However, it is arguable that by adopting present-day states as categories, the articles of the Encyclopaedia Iranica belie a tendency to mould a multifaceted history of fragmentary connections into a uniform past. Of course, the very long resulting histories are rarely presented as coherent and continuous; nonetheless, they run the risk of appearing to be linked, chronologically, by the supposedly ongoing identities of Iran and its European counterparts. Reading the very first words of the first sub-articles about Italy gives a glimpse of the clash between such overarching concepts and the implacable elusiveness of a complex past. In “Italy i. Introduction”, the author uses geographical categories, stating that “[d]irect commercial and political relations between the Italian peninsula and the Iranian plateau date at least from the Parthian period” (Cereti 2007a); the above-mentioned article by Casari, shifting from geography to modern diplomatic standards, opens by saying that “[the] privileged relationship between Iran and Italy dates back to the age of the ancient Roman and Persian Empires” (Casari 2007a); the entry “Italy iii. Cultural Relations” strikes a different note, stating that “Italy and Persia have hardly ever had a direct and continuous cultural exchange” (Casari 2007b), while the entry “Italy iv. Travel Accounts” informs us that “[c]ollections of Italian travel accounts, together with biographical and bibliographical details, have been published from the Renaissance up to the present day” (Bernardini and Vanzan 2007). In addition to their fundamental unimportance, experienced researchers will recognize these statements as mere preliminaries and will be able to see the rather more nuanced picture just by keeping on reading. However, they may rise their eyebrows when confronted with the consonance between this national framing and the rhetoric often found in Italian-Iranian public relations. A recent example of this is the letter sent by the ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hamid Bayāt, to the editor-in-chief of the daily La Repubblica on 1 March 2021.

Caro direttore, un proverbio persiano recita: “Ogni cosa nuova è buona, tranne l’amicizia.” L’amicizia tra l’Iran e l’Italia affonda le radici nella storia antica di due grandi civiltà. Radici di secoli in cui le due civiltà persiana e romana interagendo tra loro, hanno tessuto la trama e l’ordito della storia. Le relazioni di queste due civiltà sono lo specchio delle interazioni umane, nonché della storia delle 183 relazioni tra l’Occidente e l’Oriente del mondo; una storia lunga più di 20 secoli. Il primo patto culturale tra i due Paesi fu siglato nel 533 d.C. tra il re sassanide Anushirvan e l’imperatore romano Giustiniano (Bayat 2021).

The emphasis on long-term historical continuity seems to serve the purpose of explaining the good relations between the two countries while, at the same time, justifying their preservation. The letter was published for the 160th anniversary of the 1862 treaty of friendship and commerce between the newly established Kingdom of Italy and Qajar Iran. It is easy to see how such a discourse can contribute to the projection of national identities into the past and, consequently, to processes of nation-building in the public sphere on both sides of the relationship. We are thus presented with two entities that defy the boundaries of time — thanks to the fundamental “idea” that brings them to life — yet are embodied by historically contingent forms. While the idea of Italy and Iran has been the subject of extensive research4 and, in the latter case, fierce debates (Ansari 2020), what we are interested in here is the encounter between them, in itself an idea made out of the constant rereading, rewriting and retelling of historical experiences of encounter. In this paper, I will discuss travelling and travellers as one of the expressions of this idea. In other words, I will analyse how a set of early modern travel-related sources and experiences came to be reread and reused in order to more or less explicitly embody the idea of the continuous cultural and “civilizational” exchange between Italy and Iran.

Furthermore, I will try to show the fundamental intertwining of very different uses of the same sources, examining how this process played out through both the scholarly appraisal of these materials and their uses as instruments of cultural diplomacy against the backdrop of a phase of extraordinarily intense Italian-Iranian political, economic and cultural relations between the 1950s and the 1970s.5 These decades, commonly connected to the rise and demise of the Italian “economic miracle”, were when both a new foreign policy orientation in Italy was formed, aimed at achieving a greater autonomy on the international stage vis-à-vis the constraints dictated by post-war Atlantic and European politics, and a time of deep political, economic and cultural transformations in Iran, spanning from Moḥammad Reżā Shah Pahlavi’s (1919–1980) restoration to power in 1953 to the 1979 revolution. It is worth stressing that this work is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis of cultural and diplomatic relations between Italy and Iran in that period. In the first place, my work mainly rests on published documents: a more in-depth analysis of the motives moving many of the actors discussed here can only result from further research of the relevant archives. Secondly, my focus is restricted to the Italian-speaking side of the question. Iranian views on and contributions to the matter are considered insofar as they were expressed in Italian and were thus able to have a direct impact on the Italian public. In turn, while a diverse range of Italian experiences are discussed, the bulk of the research has been conducted on the activities of one of the main Italian powerhouses of twentieth-century oriental studies, the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente of Rome (IsMEO). While IsMEO has only recently started to draw the attention of scholars, the perspective adopted here may offer some new insight into its postwar history. Despite these limitations, this paper may still offer an invitation to reflect on the consonances between scholarly research, economic interests and international diplomacy, as well as their impact on subsequent research.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–579–0.11

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