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Asked at the Opera Ball if he had taken a moment to telephone Terzi to see how his predecessor was surviving, Bisogniero replied he’d been too busy. And who can blame him? Italy under Letta is struggling to hold together a centrist government despite pulls from media magnate Silvio Berlusconi (recently found guilty of having sex with an underage prostitute) on the right and crusading comedian Giuseppe “Beppe” Grillo on the left. No wonder the ambassador prefers to stick to a more upbeat script.
Bisogniero won’t discuss the success of Grillo’s Five Star movement, but is happy to tout the strength of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, 89, known affectionately as “King Giorgio.” “He is fantastic,” says the ambassador, who turns 59 this month. “Universally respected both domestically and internationally, he has led the country through difficult times.”
So while Italy battles a tough economy and political confusion, the ambassador’s main goal is to end this year with a portfolio long on leads for future business and artistic collaborations for Italian companies and organizations.
Last month, Bisogniero zipped off on one of several overnight trips to President Obama’s hometown. “Chicago and Milan are sister cities,” he explains, later tweeting about attending opening night of four days of Verdi concerts by Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. While in Chicago, he also revisited discussions with an Italian-American doctor and medical robotics expert he met earlier this year about ways to collaborate with Italian researchers.
Italy’s commitment to focusing diplomatic missions on business and cultural exchange programs began in Tokyo in 2001, with Beijing in 2006 and Russia in 2010. “We Italians always have had strong relations with China from the time of Marco Polo and Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci,” says Bisogniero, looking dapper in a Davide Cenci suit. “And now investments are growing there in exports of fashion, luxury goods, cars and industrial goods.”
The year of Italian culture in America marks the first time Italian companies have bankrolled the project. “Given the financial crisis in Europe, we could not look to government for funding,” says Bisogniero. Contributors include Fiat; S. Pellegrino; Gruppo Campari; chocolatier Ferrero; lottery and online gaming giant Sisal; Sicilian vintner Donnafugata; multinational oil and gas company ENI; firearms maker Beretta, and Intesa Sanpaolo, the Turin-based banking group that owns up to 33 percent of Alitalia airlines.
In between traveling the U.S. to celebrate Italy, the Bisognieros make the most of cultural opportunities in the nation’s capital. The ambassador studies piano with a teacher from the Levine School, but his real passion is flying, especially with his friend and fellow pilot John Mason, the former chairman and chief executive officer of the National Savings and Trust Co. (now SunTrust Bank).
Laura Denise, who dislikes flying, prefers staying closer to Villa Firenze, the 22-acre estate that is the Italian ambassador’s D.C. home and which is near the official residences of Israel and Kuwait. She has decorated the house with antiques from her Olivieri family, which dates to the 12th century. Her grandmother’s house where she was born in Mache is near the papal city of Fabriano, where the Renaissance master Raphael got his drawing paper.
An avid reader of English literature, Bisogniero during university spent a summer abroad studying the subject in Dublin. She relaxes reading Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, along with modern Italian writer Dino Buzzati.
“You read about what moves people, and it’s all there. In books you can really learn about people. Because writers base their characters on the lives of people they know, reading books is like living 200 more lives,” she says. “Love, envy, searching for peace, it’s all there. We face it every day of life, and like the characters, we must choose what is right.”