You don’t have to worry. Famous last words. “And then there was this blast. Seriously! Just at that moment, and the windows are shattering!”
“I honestly didn’t understand what was happening. It was my first bomb attack. Not the last one…”
Welcome to the life of a diplomat. Italian Consul-General Dr Alessandra Schiavo was explaining to her Israeli almost-landlord the typical diplomat clause that says she can terminate the lease in the event of extreme circumstances. As she explained, “It is only if there is a war going on or something.” Then the bomb went off. “Just at that moment, and the windows are shattering!”
Before she left for her first overseas assignment to Tel Aviv, she told her parents not to expect a call if ‘something happened’ as she would no doubt be busy in her capacity as the head of the Press Office in the Italian Embassy. If someone else called, the worst had happened. No news was good news.
She managed her four years without being placed in direct danger in what were an eventful four years in the land of milk and honey. Advances in the peace process meant more bombs went off in an attempt to derail their progress. The highlight of a Papal visit was a highlight of an exciting appointment for a young analyst in the Holy Land.
Dr Schiavo (via a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden) may have started with her first love, The Middle East, but was drawn to the centre of European power – Brussels.
Passione per le convenzione europa
Diplomacy is not all wins. It can be two steps forward, one step back. Dr Schiavo’s went to Brussels to head up trade relations in the Embassy for bilateral relations, but was quickly posted to join the new European Convention. Essentially loaned out from the Italian Foreign Service, she was paid by Italy, but performance reviews were with the Convention. One of only 20 people from across Europe in the secretariat, they served about 220 participants from member and candidate states.
A pioneering body, it collected not only representatives from member states, but also candidate states, some which are now members – and some not. Turkey was included. One of their two representatives was Mr Abdullah Gul, currently President of Turkey.
The European Convention had a limited mandate and was that rare creature of government that did its work and closed on schedule in 2003. After the Treaty of Nice, considered insufficiently ambitious to provide structure for a dramatically growing EU, was signed, work started on proposals for its successor. The Convention was unusual in that it contained representatives from all member, and candidate nationally elected representatives.
Previously, work had been done by technocrats in ministries and then elevated to the top political levels for agreement. Dr Schiavo, whose old contacts can still be found on the old European Convention website, and her team had to explain issues and options to the members. After members agreed on recommendations, those wishes then had to be translated into legalese for a future treaty and reviewed again.
On Hong Kong: Only rarely here does something endure … this impermanence [is] part of my character
One sees the passion of a genuine policy wonk in Dr Schiavo when she waxes eloquent about this work – work that many others would consider dry and technical, if not outright boring.
“We worked like crazy.” The Convention was expected to come up with ‘daring reforms’, “out of the box.”
“It was the most interesting thing I could have possibly done in Brussels.” The results were eventually presented as a modified text of the Constitution of the European Union. But it was too ambitious for the members to digest. The proposed reforms: Rejected. Specifically by French and Dutch voters, scuppering it for all.
“I was not happy, but I expected it.”
“We tried to be as ambitious as we could because we knew another round would follow.” And indeed it did. The Treaty of Lisbon was not as ambitious, but drew heavily from the results of the Convention. The work on Lisbon proceeded quickly – because of the work work done by the Convention, which was mostly adopted in the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, after final ratification by Ireland.
She moved to the President’s office, advising first President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi then President Giorgio Napolitano. But she kept an eye on the Lisbon Treaty negotiations. She was passionate and this was personal. She “had to see how my treaty actually advanced – my baby.”
At the same time, she was specialised in coordinating the mission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the office of the President. Her speciality was Europe and then the Middle East. It was during this time that she was awarded the Commander of the Order of Independence of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. She played a pivotal role in a visit of King Abdullah to Rome in 2009. The upright bearing of the President, consistently a public figure beyond reproach. Independent Diplomat research revealed his role contrasted to that of the then Prime Minister, Berlusconi who was criticised for traveling to St Petersburg to see Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the latter’s birthday, missing out on meeting King Abdullah.
This was a period characterised by the North Atlantic Financial Crisis which hit many parts of Europe particularly hard, including Italy. She claims the ‘crisis was not born in Europe…but then it became a European crisis.” While most of the drama happened on the domestic front, Dr Schiavo was responsible for the Middle East. A visit to the Lebanese military, Israel and Mubarak era Egypt were some of the missions she was involved with. Upheaval was in the air. “It was clear the world was changing.” She just missed out on the Libyan uprising, having already been reassigned – to Hong Kong.
La passione per l’arte
Four years in, the Consul General has had some major accomplishments she can point to and some business left undone. A commitment to bringing Italian institutions close to her people in Hong Kong was delivered through a passion for art and her people. In addition to the day to work that consumes all Consul Generals, there were signature projects that brought Italy, its people, its culture and heritage to Hong Kong and Macau.
Publication of the book, 500 years of Italians in Hong Kong, was launched to great fanfare at the Italian National Day party last year, high above Hong Kong in Central Plaza. It is a curious collection of a 500 year love affair, a chronicle of missionaries in the Delta, ‘Voices of the Italian community’ and a history of diplomatic representation. Angelico Paratico (Harbour Times, issue #5) wrote the first section and last. A photo essay in black and white presents the current faces of Italy in Hong Kong – a startling collection that might make a Hong Kong reader stop and say, “I know that person.”
Last year, the Consulate partnered with Italian, Hong Kong and Macau organisations to bring Botticelli’s Venus (ca. 1482) to University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) at Hong Kong University. Not to be neglected, Macau’s exhibition at the MGM Art Space was the best ever attended art exhibition in the SAR’s long history. Much of this was made possible by the establishment of the Italian Cultural Institute in 2011, a new body that will provide a foundation for future art driven cultural exchange between Italy and Hong Kong. Music, film, educational seminars and, of course, painting have an will be part of that exchange.
Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus
And last week (and continuing), Caravaggio came to Hong Kong. When Diplomat interviewed the Consul General, she was, frankly, very ill – but insisted on completing the interview, knowing that she might not be long in Hong Kong to complete it.
Her passion for Italy and her sense of duty kept her in Hong Kong for the launch of the first ever presentation of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s masterpiece, Supper at Emmaus (1606). She wanted to speak to the Hong Kong community through the painting, linking their common peasant heritage and subsequent successful rise, showing their common soul.
This was not another day at work. What should have been a moment of triumph, was infused with sadness. Dr Schiavo knew her father’s health was failing when she met with Diplomat and as she made the final preparations for the Caravaggio exhibit. For Italy, she needed to be here for the launch. Between the time of the interview and the event on March 11, her father passed away.
At the Caravaggio launch, she dedicated the exhibit to the memory of her father. Earlier in the interview, Diplomat asked about her first posting to Israel, one potentially laced with danger, and how her family had reacted. She brightened and said ““I come from a family of artists” “My parents are very Italian. Very caring.” They said, ‘Don’t worry. We will come and visit you.” The bond was obvious, heartfelt and deep.
Dr Schiavo went directly to Italy after the launch event. In the interview, when asked about how assignments were made in the Italian diplomatic service, she replied, “We are a little bit like soldiers, they send us we go wherever they think we can serve best.” This diplomat soldiers on, with the passione in her heart.