Conversation with Massimo Bray, Italy’s Former Culture Minister

Italy’s former culture minister, Massimo Bray, has just concluded his second trip to Iran which he believes has been one of the most delightful and charming experiences in his lifetime. When Massimo Bray visited Iran in January of this year, he was a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Enrico Letta; however, following the growing criticism of the prime minister’s economic policies and his tensions with the left-wing Secretary of the Democratic Party, Matteo Renzi, Letta resigned and the cabinet was reshuffled. Subsequently, Dario Franceschini replaced Massimo Bray.

However, Bray’s enchantment with Iranian culture and history and his fascination with Iranian arts brought him to Iran once again and took him to the historical Iranian cities of Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan and Kerman.

Mr. Bray took part in a conference held by the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia’s Institute and had meetings with Iranian scholars, intellectuals, journalists as well as the head of Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization Masoud Soltanifar. Upon his arrival in Iran, Mr. Bray took part in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times and talked of his passion for Iranian culture and the lifestyle.

“Iranian civilization is certainly one of the greatest, globally,” he said “and people in Italy know this. I’ve just taken a new evidence of this fact by the fair amount of positive or enthusiastic feedback I received on Twitter, on my Facebook page or on my Instagram account, every time I posted any kind of Iran related content, [including] pictures, poems, etc.”

Mr. Bray says that nobody should judge such a beautiful and important country as Iran before understanding its complexities and realities.

I did an extensive interview with Massimo Bray about his second trip to Iran in 2014 and asked him questions about different aspects of Iranian culture, civilization, arts and the possible cooperation between Iran and Italy on joint cultural projects. The following is the text of the interview.

You’ve just made your second trip to Iran, and have visited the historical Iranian cities of Shiraz, Isfahan and Kerman as well as the different parts of Tehran. How do you see Iran, its culture, ancient civilization and modern lifestyle? How much is life in Iran different from what the Western media portrays?

My second trip to Iran has given me the chance of visiting cities of amazing beauty and vast cultural relevance. I’m thinking about Isfahan, which Robert Byron placed “[…] among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity,” with its ‘Imam’s square,’ one of Isfahan landmarks included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list.

It was in that very place that I really understood Iranian people’s sensitivity towards culture and its big role in shaping the future of your country. There I met a man along with his family, who approached me and asked me if he could take a picture of us, remembering of my last trip to Iran, in January, and saying: ‘The Italian minister who wanted to bring together our two countries.’ I was deeply touched, perceiving his consideration not of myself, but of what I’m able to represent for culture and, above all, of the importance of the cultural dialogue between Iran and Italy.

The Iran I’ve been lucky enough to see and discover is not at all the one which, unfortunately, is depicted in the Western world. There is an Iran who firmly wants to sport a relevant role in international relations; an Iran who believes in culture and in cultural identities’ value. No one should judge a country such as Iran before having understood its complexities and its true richness.

The public image that many Western citizens have of Iran in mind is the image of a country with no significant culture and civilization and a fanatic, aggressive people that have no connections with the outside world. The mass media in the West constantly propagates this belief that Iran is not a safe place for foreign tourists and that it poses a threat to global peace. How is it possible to debunk these myths and present the realities of Iran?

Since my first trip to Iran I asked – and obtained – to explore and discover it in total freedom. It was told to me: “Go, and see whatever you want!” So it went. In both my trips to Iran I visited museums and mosques everywhere; I met young scholars, both women and men, who showed interest and curiosity about my visit, and the greatest openness to discuss about your country and about what they would change of it.

I’ve never, ever, encountered any form of close-mindedness, similar to some of the stereotypes about Iran that mainstream media often portray. I’ve always felt at home, even while sitting at a cafè, on a late night, in a crowded city plaza, drinking my rose water as everyone else seemed to be doing.

Iran and Italy have historically maintained close relations in all fields. What do you think about the prospects for the expansion of bilateral relations? How can the two countries promote tourism and cultural exchanges and contribute to the creation of a better mutual understanding of each other’s cultural potentialities?

I had a long and valuable meeting with Vice President Masoud Solfanitar. We discussed how important it would be to plan the enhancement of the Iranian UNESCO sites. There’s indeed a lot to do. Italy is very much interested in developing any possible way to establish a solid cultural cooperation between our countries and I would be glad to help in building the best didactic opportunities for any young Iranian willing to take their future upon themselves, maybe putting the final touch on their education attending marketing classes in Iranian or Italian campuses.

During your first visit to Iran as the Italian Minister of Culture, you visited the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts and the National Museum of Iran. How much are you familiar with the Iranian arts and the international achievements of the Iranian artists?

During my first visit to Iran, I discovered some amazing museums, as plentiful of masterpieces as the ones you’re recalling, but I can’t possibly forget to cite even the Film Museum of Iran and, during my last travel, the Time Museum, in Tehran. Iran’s own contemporary art forms show the strength of a culture that has been enlightened with both a bold intelligence and an exquisite sensitivity towards its past and tradition, and which wants to show to the entire world its dignity and its craving to exchange ideas and content with the other cultures and civilizations of our time.

Some of the artistic traditions have through the times been the characteristic features of Iranian people, including the art of carpet-weaving that has been a hallmark heritage of the Iranian culture for decades, the art of calligraphy, Islamic illustration, pottery, ceramics, architecture and tilework. Why aren’t the Iranian arts and artists so much unknown and unfamiliar to the international community? How should they be promoted?

These are just a few examples of how Iranian handicrafts are art forms of exceptional value. Vice President Mamoud Solfanitar told me that among 460 known forms of craftmanship, 360 of them are traditionally practiced in Iran. It’s a tremendous achievement which should be safeguarded and divulged all over the world. One day it occurred to me, for instance, to be recognized by a calligrapher, while visiting one of your cities: his report about the history of his art was memorable and I’ve still got with me the sheet of beautiful paper in which he transcribed my own name. I think there’s a lot to do for the enhancement of these best practices, which are indeed a meaningful part of Iranian cultural heritage.

You had visited the Shazdeh Garden near the southern city of Kerman in January this year. Shazdeh Garden was one of the nine gardens that were registered as exemplifying the Persian Garden on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. What’s your impression and feeling towards the Persian gardens and their environment? What is in the Persian garden that makes it qualified for being listed as a global heritage site?

This time I visited the enchanting Fin Garden, in Kashan. In the history of Iran there were numerous, wonderful gardens, which adorned the Achaemenid kings’ palaces. Xenephon recounts of the astonishment of Lysander when facing the beauty of the garden of Sardi. Cyrus the Great wanted his garden near Pasargadae, a few steps from his future tomb’s location.

Iranian gardens are built trying to embody a symbology which represents heaven. With their water games’ beauty, the scents released by their flowers, the perfect order on which their architecture is based, Iranian gardens are not just places, they are ascetic images of ‘other’ places.

Bam Citadel is the world’s largest adobe building, and in this quality, is one of Iran’s major tourist magnets. It sustained serious damages as a result of the deadly earthquake in the southern city of Bam in December 2003, but I read that Italy is willing to help Iran with the reconstruction and restoration of this magnificent fortress. Would you please elaborate on Italy’s plans for contributing to the restoration of Bam Citadel? What was your feeling when you encountered the ruins of Bam Citadel, knowing that it was once one of the most beautiful ancient buildings in the region?

The standing of Bam’s cultural footprint is such that we can consider it one of the most important places in the history of mankind. In 2003, since the earthquake’s news began to spread, Italy has been standing by Iran’s side in the appalling emergency it was fronting.

In January 2014 we signed an agreement so that the restoration of Bam’s citadel could be carried on, as with Cyrus’ the Great tomb. We’re going to initiate, for instance, a project about the seismic risk of the citadel’s area and a feasibility study for the precious – and much damaged – caravansary of Bam. Commitment of both our nations is pivotal for reaching goals such as these.

You once said that Iran’s culture and history is taught in the history textbooks of Italian students along with the history of Roman Empire and Greece. So, it seems that your country has recognized Iran as a major global civilization. What do the Italian people feel about Iran? There seems to be some cultural affinities between the two nations and some similarities in their traditions and heritages. What’s your take on that?

Iranian civilization is certainly one of the greatest, globally. And people in Italy know this. I’ve just taken a new evidence of this fact by the fair amount of positive or enthusiastic feedback I received on Twitter, on my Facebook page or on my Instagram account, every time I posted any kind of Iran related content, [including] pictures, poems, etc.

Our two countries share the determination to protect their own cultural heritage, second to none, all over the world; and to rethink attentively about the cultural identities’ real value. It’s something like a firm, cultural obligation for us, moreover if contextualized in a global scenario where globalization puts in jeopardy our different histories and traditions.

I’ve already discussed with my friend Madhi Hodjat about which would be the best tools for safeguarding and enhancing our cultural heritages and I’d be happy if our two nations found an effective way to discuss this issues together.

Why did you decide to travel to Iran for a second time? What will you tell your fellow citizens about Iran? Will you invite the Italian citizens to travel to Iran and enjoy visiting a country which is said to have some 7,500 years of civilization?

I was invited by the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia’s Institute to discuss about the perspectives of the encyclopaedias in the years to come and to talk about books in the digital era. I had the pleasure and the honor to talk over such matters with the President of the Institute himself, Kazem Bojnourdi.

I’ve come back to Italy after a wonderful tour, packed with emotions. And with the proof of one of my strongest beliefs about Iran: how crucial is culture for your country’s destiny and how urgent is our commitment to keep alive and strong the cultural relationship between Iran and Italy, spreading the word about your treasures, your knowledge, and your sensitivity.

I would really be glad to serve as an Iran’s ambassador for arts and everything related to your immense cultural heritage, on which your very identity is founded.