Fifty-one years since it first opened in Thessaloniki, the Italian Cultural Institute has been forced to shut down on the orders of the government in Rome.
The most recent representative in the tradition of Italian schools that started operating in the northern port city in the late 19th century, and one which helped bridge cultures between Greece and Italy, the institute has been sacrificed on the altar of the financial crisis dogging the neighboring country.
Reacting to the news, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris described the closure as a “major loss.” “Ties between Thessaloniki and Italy are old as well as strong. The presence of the institution carried something from the city's multicultural spirit during the interwar period as well as before that. Its closure takes something away from [the city's] multicultural profile.
“Thessaloniki's cultural scene has become poorer and the Aristotle University has lost a significant partner,” said Yiannis Mylopoulos, the university's rector. “We had often collaborated in the past. It's sad. [The institute] was a lively cultural hub in the city,” he added.
Established in 1963, the institute was like a second home for the members of the Italian community in Thessaloniki. For the thousands of Greek youths in the city and the broader Macedonia region, it offered a passport, as it were, to those wishing to study in Italy.
Writer Thodoros Ioannidis, a close friend of Umberto Eco, was a student and an Italian language professor at the institute.
“During the 1960s, Italian was somewhat in vogue and that drew many young people to the institute. But the real boom came during the dictatorship, when thousands of young people came here to learn the language so that they could go and study in Italy. People who left their mark on literature, including Edoardo Taddeo, used to teach here.”
It shouldered a heavy historical burden as it was called upon to manage the legacy of Italy's significant presence in Thessaloniki. Six schools operated before the war and were attended by students of different nationalities. Famed architects such as Vitaliano Poselli, Pierro Arrigoni and Eli Modiano left behind great works, including the Villa Alatini, the building that todays hosts the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, and the Yeni Mosque.
In a moving ceremony before the Italian government announced its decision, the institute awarded the school certificates of Jewish children who studied at Italian schools before they died in the Holocaust to their relatives. It was most probably the institute's final act.