From its origins to the 1960s: the history of a cultural landmark in the Czech capital



At the end of the First World War, the bond of friendship between Czechoslovakia and Italy was reinforced and, based on this renewed feeling and due to local and Italian academics, the Institute of Italian Culture was formally created on October 27, 1922, in Prague (in Czech Ústav italské kultury), and officially inaugurated the following year, on March 2, 1923. Held at the Obecní dům in Prague, the event was attended by the Minister plenipotentiary Antonio Chiaramonte Bordonaro and important Praguian authorities such as the Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš, the Chancellor Přemysl Šámal and, on behalf of the Charles University, the professor and literary critic František X. Šalda.

In its early stages, the ICI grew mainly due to public and private donations, such as the personal contribution of 5,000 crowns of the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Tomaš G. Masaryk. Located at first on 26 Ječná Street (Prague 2), the Institute, which was created de facto as a semi-private Italian-Czech company, aimed to “spread and deepen the knowledge of Italian culture in Czechoslovakia and organize mutual intellectual and artistic connections between Italy and Czechoslovakia with all the means suitable for this purpose”, as mentioned in its statutory articles from 1922. For this purpose, five sections dedicated to science, school, artistic and social sectors and also publishing were established within the Institute. A library was added to the Institute as well, having a catalog that laid the foundations of what would become the largest Italian library in the Czech Republic.

Many personalities were close to the new institution, including the writer Giani Stuparich, Italian language lecturer at the University of Prague between 1921 and 1922. Within the same academic circle, we mention Bindo Chiurlo, one of the first directors of the Institute, curator of the magazine La Rivista Italiana di Praga, along with the Bollettino dell’Istituto di Cultura Italiana di Praga, a magazine about the mutual cultural events in Italy and Czechoslovakia.

The ICI took culture through language as a motto and from its early stages committed to organizing the first Italian courses. Due to its innovative methods and to the great success of the cultural relations between the two nations, the ICI of Prague became the matrix of what would become, in the following decades, the Italian diplomatic network specializing in the promotion of Italian culture and language in the world.

“A “home” for ICI” (1930s – 1940s)

In 1938, the ICI relocated to 38 Jungmannova Street (Prague 2) and, in 1938, its management was taken over by the Slavist Ettore Lo Gatto, whose appointment was positively seen by the cultural intelligence of Prague. After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Lo Gatto maintained the ICI on good relations both with the Nazis and the Praguian cultural elite and, in 1941, he considered himself satisfied of having fulfilled, through the activities carried out, the “cultural and scientific desires of its members, Italians, Czechs and Germans without distinction”. The inevitable greater presence of members and Czech students at the ICI was not appreciated by the authorities of the Reich and the then consul of Italy Casto Caruso, in wanting to soften the political tension, proposed to change the name of the Institute of Italian Culture to the Italian Cultural Institute, changing the Italian-Czech organization into an exclusively Italian establishment.

In 1942, the new director of the Institute, Enrico De Negri, foresaw the relocation of the ICI to the current headquarters in Malá Strana, at the time the new “Casa d’Italia”, ceded to the Italian state by the Congregation of Italians. It was a complex year, given the choice to close the Italian language courses for Czech students, for political reasons. De Negri wrote on this topic: “This is a measure that the Czechs have foreseen and feared, and the prospect of which has never been attributed to the Italian initiative. Thus, the last institution of an academic nature to which the Czechs still had access closes now in Prague. It is truly painful and tragic for a Director of a Cultural Institute to suspend a noble tradition, and to prohibit a non-small and not unworthy group of people to access a spiritual good, moreover, in this case, Italian, – that should be open to anyone by natural right. Hence, the need to act with caution and tact, so as not to hurt an intellectual class already harshly tested and not to turn it against us. If the Czechs, excluded from the courses, can have access to the premises and the library, or at least to be able to borough books, these are small details that could have, even for the future, a great weight”.

During the same year, Casto Caruso obtained from the Protectorate’s authorities the entry permission of Czech students to the Institute until 1943. That same year, with the overturning of the war situation against the Reich, the attention of the Nazis on the Institute weakened, preventing it once again from closing the doors to the Czech population.

La Biblioteca dell’Istituto Italiano di Cultura negli anni ‘40 / The Library of the Italian Cultural Institute in the 1940s

 The Library of the Italian Cultural Institute in the 1940s

At the service of freedom (1950s – 1960s)

At the end of the war, the Institute, now part of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, resumed its cultural activities with valuable initiatives, such as a seminar of the future author of Magic Prague, the Bohemist Angelo M. Ripellino. At the same time, enrollments to events and Italian language courses increased both in the Prague headquarters, and in those of Brno and Bratislava. A period of rebirth stopped by the coup d’état in 1948 which led to the rise of the communist regime during which the Institute had to deal with the political and social transformations of the country. The back then director Edgardo Giorgi-Alberti took a cautious stance, reducing the humanistic character of the cultural activities of the ICI for the benefit of scientific initiatives, thus avoiding “conflicts of an ideological nature” with the regime.

With the harsh laws of the dictatorship against the “capitalist” cultural institutions, in 1952, the institute was forced to limit its cultural services only to the library, the slide library, the film library and to assisting scholarship holders. After almost 15 years, and a skilled diplomatic action, the new director Sergio Prato reactivated the Italian Cultural Institute in autumn 1965, not formally recognized by the Czechoslovak authorities, with a more articulated cultural approach, based on language courses held extraordinarily by Italian teachers, on library service and on projections of documentaries with a touristic theme.

Despite the ban on using advertising material externally, the cultural calendar was a success: 180 students enrolled to courses just in a few days and the 33 projections in four months were assisted by about 3,000 spectators. A statistic designed to grow considerably during the entire 1960s, counting many young people among the students. After Prague Spring in 1968, despite the high number of enrolled students, Prato noted that, before the tragic events, the courses had “began in a truly special atmosphere of fervor and spiritual tension. But the time that has passed since has turned off these turmoils, suffocating them under a blanket of discouragement and distrust”. And more: “The short greeting speech I addressed to the new students, in which I underlined the heart-felt and very wide participation of the Italian people in the tragic events of Czechoslovakia, raised a wave of emotion and gratitude whose magnitude I had not foreseen”.

by Flavio R. G. Mela

Concerto all’IIC alla fine degli anni ‘50 / Concert at the IIC in the late 1950s

Concerto all’IIC alla fine degli anni ‘50 / Concert at the IIC in the late 1950s