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Gianluca Rubagotti

Outgoing Italian consul gen. Gianluca Rubagotti shares his efforts in strengthening Calcutta-Italy relationship

You know, this is our life. We know that when we move to a place it will never be longer than three or four years

Farah Khatoon | Published 02.01.24, 10:12 AM
Italian consul general Gianluca Rubagotti at his Alipore residence

Italian consul general Gianluca Rubagotti at his Alipore residence

Pictures: Rashbehari Das and the consulate

December 2023 was the last month of Gianluca Rubagotti as the Italian consul general in Calcutta and when we met him at his Alipore address, he was preparing for the last event in his Calcutta calendar — the launch of the book Bengal And Italy. Rubagotti who arrived in the city amid Covid-marred 2020, is a practical man. On being asked how is he feeling as he will be leaving Calcutta soon, a city that was his home for three years, he said: “You know, this is our life. We know that when we move to a place it will never be longer than three or four years. So, I think once you have decided to become a diplomat you embrace the good and the bad of this profession.” And he embraced Calcutta and its rich culture and heritage too by organising around 100 events and worked extensively with various bodies in the city to promote Indo-Italian cultural heritage. A t2 interview.

The permanent exhibition space ‘Rabindranath Tagore in Italy’ at Jorasanko Thakurbari was inaugurated recently. Is that your farewell gift to Calcutta?


Well, it’s something that the government of Italy together with the institutions of Calcutta will offer to the city, to its people, and to its visitors. In the words of Tagore, we hope it will not be something ephemeral but it will remain and it will be used to further develop the people-to-people diplomacy, in this East-West encounter.

You arrived during the pandemic and one by one you devised ways of assimilating the Italian culture with Calcutta’s. So tell us about the journey.

The journey was not easy because when I arrived in July 2020 it was a semi-lockdown and it was difficult to interact properly with the city. We devised ideas and used them as tools to get closer to people. For instance, we launched together with Upal Sengupta, a comic strip dedicated to a young Bengali teenager called Puchki, who, together with her dog Cookie, travels to Italy and discovers my country. Another example is the photography exhibition, ‘From Kolkata to Italy’. Since it was not possible to go out and take photographs, we decided to take two photographic archives, one in Calcutta and one in Italy, and created a sort of dialogue between them. So, for every photograph, black-and-white, of Calcutta by Rajib De, Alessandro Rosani in Italy tried to find a matching photograph (from Naples, Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence and so on). And the result, I have to say, has been really appreciated by people because it could create links or bridges that people wouldn’t have normally thought of.

While in Calcutta you worked extensively on Indo-Italian cultural heritage through different bodies. Tell us about them.

We have organised around 100 events and as I like to say we have reinterpreted Italian themes using Bengali codes. The story of Pinocchio using patachitra or using hand puppets which are typical of Bengali folk art. Or the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci who became real in front of us thanks to Ushoshi Sengupta. We also asked Italian artists to see this part of India through their eyes. For instance, the renowned wildlife painter Maurizio Boscheri was invited, together with Daniel Calovi, to create a series dedicated to the Royal Bengal tiger. A beautiful mural was painted by Maurizio Boscheri on Moni Mukherjee Road, which is still available for everybody to enjoy, representing a tiger, the national animal of India, and a peacock, the national bird of India.

Apart from these any other event which you think was the highlight of your tenure?

Well, I enjoyed every moment in which we tried to create bridges and put our two cultures together. We believe in people-to-people diplomacy and I was very happy to have launched this series called ‘Italo-Kolkatan Heritage Conversations’ with important scholars from Italy to discuss artistic or historical links with Calcutta and we set these discussions in amazing heritage buildings in the old city. Then we have tried to dig out Italian stories from Calcutta because there are Italians who came to Calcutta in the past, contributed to the society and some of them never left. For instance, we had Olinto Ghilardi who was the vice-principal of the Government College of Art for 20 years and he was the teacher of Abanindranath Tagore. Art school books here tend to ignore this figure but if the Bengal School of Art was so skilful in pastels and watercolour, part of the merit goes to this Italian painter who came here. Everybody knows the story of Federico Pelitti, of Angelo Firpo, these very famous restaurants that opened in Calcutta and thrived. We had also people like Ermenegildo Bois who was a sculptor and probably he disseminated in the cities some of his sculptures. I managed to find a couple and gathered that he was working for a descendant of the Tagore family. You still can find a few of his statues in the city representing the most important people of that time.

Food forms an important part of a region’s culture. Tell us about your tryst with Bengali food.

I have of course tried Bengali food and I like it very much. I love Indian food in general but I have a problem with spices so I find Bengali food to be more delicate because of the use of coconut, gondhoraj lemon, mustard seeds, and poppy seeds. I am a dessert person and of course, mishti doi is the first one that comes to my mind along with chocolate sandesh.
Calcutta has a lot of people who are very interested in food and naturally Italian food comes as a very strong option for them. We have had an Italian lady, Anna Maria, who introduced Italian food in Calcutta more than 20 years ago and she has been considered a benchmark for everybody, for every newcomer in the sector. We have celebrated the week of Italian cuisine and also an evening in which we offered an extensive range of liquors and spirits from my country, from Limoncello to Grappa and from gin to whisky (yes, in Italy we have a limited production of this too).

Let’s talk about your work in cinema and theatre.

I was very happy to manage and get here Marco Luly, one of the greatest personalities in the field of Commedia dell’arte, an old tradition of improvised theatre that you have also in Bengal, of course in different forms. We managed to have this week-long workshop that was enjoyed by upcoming and established young actors.

You went beyond Calcutta. Tell us about the work in Assam and other parts of Eastern India.

Yes, my jurisdiction was quite extensive. I didn’t manage unfortunately to cover all the states, but I have been to the major literature festivals outside of Calcutta like I’ve been to Ranchi. We organised a series of events in Bhubaneswar trying to promote trade, as well as Italian universities for higher studies. We have been to the Bihar Museum in Patna for an exhibition of the Italian artist Tarshito. In Guwahati we had a very interesting informal poetry event with the university. And since Assam is famous for tea we tried to put together tea and Italian food, to create a menu. We also went to Darjeeling and discovered Louise Ildebrando Mandelli, a tea planter, not really a common figure among Italians, who became famous rather as an ornithologist. He classified the birds of the Himalayas, a number of which are named after him. His grave can still be found in Darjeeling.

And what about tourism and education, these two sectors are also very important.

Yes. We had important meetings with the tour operators, explaining to them the policy of the consulate in terms of tourist visa. As you know, all the diplomatic missions of Schengen, and not only Schengen, have been suffering after Covid, because a lot of their staff was called back and probably not replaced on time. But I’m very happy to say that the consulate general of Italy in Calcutta doesn’t have a daily cap on visa applications. It means that everybody can apply without having to wait for months. And compared to 2019, which was the peak year in terms of the number of applications received and visas issued, we have already exceeded that target by roughly 30 per cent.

I’m very happy we saw an increase in student visas. We have tried to promote Italian universities and I have to say that students are always very enthusiastic about going to study in Italy. We have tried to put together a group of former students in Italy who have come back to contribute with what they learned in my country for the benefit of society here in Calcutta.

What are you going to take back from Calcutta apart from good memories?

Well, as a general rule in life, I like carrying with me only good memories, and I think I will have enough good memories to cherish of these three years and a half that I spent in your city.

Last updated on 02.01.24, 10:12 AM

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