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18 September 2019

Culture, the foundation for a European renaissance



The tragic fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in April 2019 was a reminder of how precious Europe’s extraordinary cultural heritage is and how much we cherish it, beyond national borders. Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe since 2012, takes this opportunity to talk about the importance of culture in building Europe and urges us to use it to forge a European renaissance.

Monday 15 April 2019. For once, I had got home early, at around 7 p.m. There had been no meeting that had gone on endlessly that day and no reception, dinner or other social obligation. That was an exception in my life as Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, where the time available for private life is all too often extremely limited.

I was sitting in my lounge, leafing through a monograph of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian genius who had moved to France in old age and was a symbol of the Renaissance and precursor of Europe, to whom particular tribute is being paid this year to mark the 500th anniversary of his death in the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. Five centuries divided what I was reading from the sounds and images coming from the television, which was tuned to BBC World News.

Suddenly, however, the screen in front of me seemed to sparkle like a log in a fireplace and take me still further back in time, with a close-up view of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, an almost 1 000-year-old building and masterpiece of Gothic art. A thick plume of black smoke was encircling it like a funeral wreath. What was happening? Was Notre-Dame on fire? I was dumbfounded by the scene being broadcast on screens all around the world and devastated when the spire collapsed in the inferno just before 8 p.m.

Friday 3 May 2019. I am in Paris representing the Council of Europe at a joint meeting of the ministers for culture and European affairs of the 28 European Union member states. We have come together in the prestigious setting of the Palais du Louvre, which is separated from Notre-Dame by a distance of barely 2 kilometres and the Seine. The shock of the fire is still in all our minds, as a cruel reminder of both the importance and also the vulnerability of our cultural heritage. I stress the term “our” because, even though Notre-Dame is the most French of symbols, the expressions of concern and solidarity and the donations received from all over Europe were the concrete reflection of a common identity. We are all moved by the loss which almost occurred.

The meeting in Paris had been called in response to that shock and that realisation: it revived co-operation at European Union level in the cultural heritage sector, with the full support of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Council of Europe. This very rich heritage, which we have been bequeathed by 2 000 years of shared history, has just as much aesthetic as historical value. More than that, however, it unites nations – and our entire continent – through the sense of an identity and a form of unity which we all share. It anchors us in our past so that we can look to our future with confidence.
This is something which the Council of Europe has understood ever since it was set up. Its founding fathers knew full well that if human rights, democracy and the rule of law were to advance, there was a need for greater unity in Europe – and that such unity had to be based on a foundation of common values underpinned by a heritage regarded as belonging not only to each of our nations but also to the whole of Europe.

One of the first Council of Europe treaties adopted after the European Convention on Human Rights was therefore the European Cultural Convention. And by an interesting historical coincidence, it was in Paris that the member states undertook in 1954 to work together to safeguard our common heritage, promote language learning, foster academic exchanges and encourage the protection and promotion of European culture.

After the disasters of the two world wars, the aim was to focus again on an obvious fact which had been lost sight of with the surge of nationalist fervour that had almost overwhelmed our continent – namely that beyond its linguistic diversity and political differences, Europe is united by its culture. From Greco-Roman civilisation to the Age of Enlightenment and the subsequent era of revolutions, through the Europe of cathedrals and epic poems, the Europe of the Renaissance and great scientific discoveries and advances and the Europe of humanists, philosophers and writers, our continent was always a fertile breeding ground where ideas, works of art and literature – and those behind them – circulated freely without borders. This formed a great crucible, which, in the words of Paul Valéry, meant that Europe was much more than “a little promontory on the continent of Asia”.

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Gabriella has served as the Council of Europe’s Deputy Secretary General since 2012. Before being elected to her post, she was the first female Director General in the Organisation’s history, and was in charge of Social Cohesion in 2001. Between 2004 and 2011, she served as Director General of Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport, introducing new and innovative programmes on democratic citizenship, intercultural learning and human rights to schools, youth projects and other cultural spaces. In 2011 Gabriella established the Directorate General of Programmes (ODG-PROG), enabling greater decentralisation of activities to the field. Under her leadership a new system was created to mobilise extra-budgetary resources in a sustainable and long-term perspective. Born in Brescia (Italy), she holds a degree in foreign languages and literature from the University of Venice and a diploma from the Institut européen des hautes études internationales, University of Nice.