Voting for the Italian of the Year 2020 is open to the public until 23:59 on Tuesday 22 December. Here are our 12 nominees.
We like to say that a certain year will go down in history and, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s not as often the case. But 2020 has been that year: (many) more downs than ups, a seemingly inexorable onslaught of tragedy, hardship, and utter aberration. If a new normal is on its way, most of us haven’t received it yet.
And yet. Despite the truly surreal months that we have lived on a collective scale hardly imaginable before, there have been episodes of heroism, bravery, and even joy. Italy was one of the first countries to suffer tremendous loss in the Covid-19 pandemic but it was the heartfelt resistance to desolation that remains imprinted on the global consciousness. Even now, when the halcyon days of singing from balconies have faded and we trudge headlong into more uncertainty, there are moments of levity and love that manage to peek through those cracks. And in those moments, there were heroes.
In selecting the candidates for this year’s Italian of the Year, we looked for people who epitomized both the struggles that we collectively faced as well as the indomitable force to overcome those struggles. Some of the nominees will by now be household names, and others will perhaps have gotten obscured. All of them remind us that even in the midst of a bleak midwinter, there are those within whom there burns an invincible summer. These are the people who made us great and maybe, if we’re lucky, they might just make us good.
Voting is open to the public until 23:59 on Tuesday 22 December.
Here are our 2020 nominees.
The Last Man
There was a time at the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency that the Diamond Princess has recorded more cases of the virus than most countries, putting Captain Gennaro Arma in the unenviable position in which most world leaders would soon after find themselves. Yet unlike many leaders, Arma remained both unflappable and empathetic throughout the nearly month-long quarantine in a Japanese port, offering daily messages, notes of encouragement, and little touches like Valentines Day chocolates to the thousands of passengers under his watch. Lauded in Italy as the “anti-Schettino,” in contrast to the shameful — and criminal — actions of the Costa Concordia captain, Arma received the Order of Merit from President Sergio Mattarella for his extraordinary bravery. The last man to disembark from the Diamond Princess, his final message to his crew embodied his decency, humanity, and undeniable Italianità. “We will finish as we started: together. Thank you, my Gladiators, and buon appetito.”
Massimo Bottura is so prolific, and so well known, that it is perhaps easy to think of him as belonging to the world — or even the entire universe. With a three Michelin starred restaurant and other comparable projects around the world, it is also tempting to overlook the commitment he has made to charitable projects over the years and the importance that family plays in his work. But in 2020, all of these things came together and Bottura became once again the North Star of Italian food culture. From his nightly home cooking videos to his Food for Soul campaign that helped hundreds of thousands of people, to his impassioned plea for the government to save the restaurant industry in Italy, Massimo Bottura was in trenches, just like the rest of us. This year, when it mattered most, Bottura showed that no matter how high his star rises, his feet remain firmly planted in the mission he shares with thousands of other restaurant owners and workers in Italy. Oh, and in the midst of all of this, Osteria Francescana was awarded the Green Star from the Michelin group for its commitment to sustainability.
Annalisa Malara and Maria Rosaria Capobianchi
We will all remember the earliest days of the coronavirus emergency in Italy: the frightening scenes of cordons and military vehicles in Lombardy, the fear of an unknown virus that seemed capable of shutting the entire world down. And it all started on February 19 in the town of Codogno, where Mattia Maestri returned to the hospital after experiencing a worsening of his flu-like symptoms and the doctor on duty, Annalisa Malara, decided to test him for the novel coronavirus even though doing so went beyond the recommended protocols at the time. On the other side of that foresight was Maria Rosaria Capobianchi, the virologist and head of the Spallanzani Laboratory in Rome, who first isolated the Sars-Cov-2 virus. Both were awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and both symbolize the incredible fortitude that health workers and scientists have demonstrated at a time when public services and experts saw themselves once again on the frontlines of an unprecedented moment. Malara and Capobianchi exemplify the cogent analysis and compassion that have saved countless lives around the world.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing all that much about the most unlikely Italian Prime Minister at the beginning of this year, but you would have had to have been living under a rock not to know him intimately by now. The lawyer who seemed destined to be a footnote in Italy’s political machinations has emerged as its most popular leader in decades, both at home and abroad, and may just succeed in ushering a political, technological, and economic transformation that no one would have believed possible. Though there are always barbarians at the gate, Conte has thus far managed to retain a political consensus and perhaps, more importantly, to preserve public confidence in his leadership. He has consistently walked the narrow line between collaboration and concession: the dance has paid off in his historic deal to secure more than 200 billion euro in EU relief for Italy, but it remains to be seen the controversial measures he instituted to combat a second wave of infections will vindicate his position. Love him or hate him, the Conte effect is clear all over Italy. No television series has been as closely followed as Il Decreto, no one set more hearts (and more) aflutter, and we could hardly imagine anyone else with whom we might have navigated the inevitable waves of 2020. Don’t believe us? Just ask Tommaso.
Willy Monteiro Duarte
Willy Duarte was a 21-year-old cook whose life was tragically cut short in September, when he was beaten to death in Colleferro, just outside of Rome. The brutal murder reignited the debate over racism and migrant discrimination in Italy. Duarte, an Italian of Cape Verdean origin, had finished work and joined friends when one was confronted by the Bianchi brothers, already known to the police for previous violent crimes. The murder shocked the country and both politicians and public figures from across the spectrum condemned the act, which occurred when Duarte intervened on behalf of his friend. It was perhaps this, his final act of bravery, that made Duarte stand apart and made his death all the more painful. When President Mattarella awarded him the gold medal for civil valor it was in praise of this extraordinary gesture, and in honor of the life that was taken as a result. His friends and family remembered him through a song, and scholarships have been set up in his name around Italy. We might not have known Willy Duarte were it not for the tragedy that ended his life, but his death is a tragic reminder that our bond is fragile and in constant need of attention, now more than ever.
Every culture needs its power couple and it’s even better if they have a handy portmanteau that sticks in our collective memory. Before this year, Chiara Ferragni and Fedez may have been that and little more to most of us: two unreasonably attractive people who between them managed to captivate the public through nothing more than their presence. While Ferragni’s impressive background in fashion, business, and design, and her husband’s equally accomplished status in the music world already cemented them as the millennial ‘it’ couple, their actions in 2020 made them something much more than that. A fundraising effort to support the intensive care unit at Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital raised more than 3 million euro in 24 hours, and they launched Scena Unita, a non-profit organization to support workers in the music and entertainment industry, one of the hardest-hit sectors in the country. So wide were their reach that it was to Ferrgnez that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte turned for help encouraging young people to wear masks and observe safety protocols throughout the year. That, friends, is influence.
If we learned anything this year, it might be that the performing arts mean more to any of us that we had previously realized, and thatour lack of attentionto art and artists contributed to a steady decline that was only made worse by wholesale closures. But singer and songwriter Max Gazzè has been paying attention, and this year he did so in a way that recognized not only the artists, but the legion of supporting workers that make performance possible. When Phase 2 restrictions limitedconcert attendance to 1,000 people, Gazzè, who has regularly filled festivals and venues like the Terme di Caracalla in Rome, decided to proceed with his concerts at a personal loss to ensure that the hundreds of people who depended on it for income would be able to earn a living. During a series of memorable live performances in 2020, Gazzè took to the stage “to sit together with those who have accompanied me for years and without whom concerts would not exist, from the musicians to the staff who work behind the scenes.” As he had done during a livestreamwith 1,000 of his fellow artists from around the world, Max Gazzè reminded us what music can do and that for everyone’s sake, the show must go on.
If the first part of the year was spent baking bread at home and lamenting the ‘quarantine 5’ (or 10, or 15) we put on as a result, that didn’t necessarily reflect in a changing perception of the female form. That is, not until Italian-Spanish actress graced the cover of Vanity Fair in late September to declare, “It’s my body, and it’s fine as it is” with nothing more than her body in front of the camera. After facing years of fierce criticism and bullying over her physique, Incontrada decided to pose nude in order to dispel stereotypes of what women ‘should’ look like and in so doing, she became the Italian emblem of body positivity, a growing legion of women around the world challenging the stereotype of what beauty is and can be. Her message was simple, and her platform vast: “We are women, our body works like this. It’s natural, it must be accepted and above all respected. Nobody can or should judge you.” With the kind of year it’s been, couldn’t we all use a little less judgement?
You know how Milan has become the capital of innovative design? Thank Rossana Orlandi for that. Oh, and that little thing we call the Fuorisalone? Also due in no small part to the impact of the woman known as the point of reference in Italian design around the world or more simply, the guru. With a career that began by producing fabrics for Armani, Donna Karan, Kenzo, and many others and evolved into the mystical space that is the Galleria Rossana Orlandi, she could have sat this year out. But sitting things out is not her style, even if she’s got an unlimited number of designer spaces in which to do it. Instead, she launched #smileworking to promote children’s designs on her social media and lobbied the Mayor of Milan to allow parents and children to purchase drawing materials when stationery was declared ‘non-essential’ during the lockdown. And despite the cancellation of the Fuorisalone, she continued her ROGuiltlessPlastic competition, which promotes the creative use, recycling, and upcycling of plastic waste in design. In the midst of a health emergency, the effects of plastic pollution on the planet were sometimes sidelined; for Rossana Orlandi, they were another source of inspiration.
Aboubakar Soumahoro and Teresa Bellanova
Everyone has their favorite episode of Il Decreto, but few were more emotional than the moment that Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova announced the government’s intention to regularize the status of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers living under the capolarato system. As a child growing up near Brindisi, Bellanova worked in the fields herself before rising through the ranks as a union leader and finally obtaining the position in Conte’s cabinet. Her announcement came through tears, and while some mocked her, the majority of the Italian public saw in her imagine the reality of a food system that had become dependent on inequality to survive. For those who hadn’t quite gotten the message, Aboubakar Soumahoro was there to reaffirm it: the labor union activist launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of PPE for farmworkers and organized the ‘Strike of the Invisibles’ to raise awareness of the deplorable conditions of agricultural workers in Italy. In June, Soumahoro chained himself outside of Villa Pamphilj for a two-day hunger strike, where Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte met with him to discuss further provisions for migrant workers. Both Bellanova and Soumahoro carried a straightforward message to politicians and the public alike: we are not invisible. Through their efforts, the rest of Italy is finally starting to see them, and many others.
If there were a breakout category in Italian popular culture this year, it would surely have to be Governors and Municipal Leaders, who went viral with their exasperated pleas for people to stay inside during the first wave of lockdowns. Luca Zaia was not among those promising drones and flamethrowers, and despite his longstanding membership in the Lega, he wasn’t taking maskless selfies in crowded assemblies in the height of the crisis. Instead, Zaia quietly and systematically governed the Veneto region during the earliest days of the Covid emergency, making the controversial yet ultimately sagacious move to test all 3,300 inhabitants of the town of Vo’ which had become an epicenter of the crisis. In Zaia’s words, they “went looking for the virus” instead of waiting for it to come to them. Not only did the virus recede to manageable levels in Veneto, so did the waters: the long-awaited Mose barrier held back high tides twice this year and though not perfect, shows signs of promise for the future of Venice. The subsequent path of the region has differed starkly with that of neighboring Lombardy and while that region’s governor awaits possible criminal charges, Zaia is being touted by some as the next leader of the Lega. What a difference a year makes.
Many Italians have stood out for their actions this year, but few have seen those actions culminate in a change to the legal system in the country. Politician and LGBT activist Alessandro Zan can claim both: the eponymous law on which he has worked for years was finally passed in the Camera dei Deputati in November, and will now pass to the Senate for approval. The bill outlines discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, as well as gender-based violence, and offenders face up to four years in prison if convicted of these offenses. Zan, an openly gay member of Parliament and former President of Arcigay, stated that “if we succeed in definitively approving this law, Italy will finally be a country that accepts LGBT rights,” a step up from the country’s current position among the lowest for LGBT protections. As one of the figures who led the charge for same-sex marriages to be recognized in Italy in 2016, he is no stranger to the arguments against LGBT rights. While the right-wing still stands firmly against the bill, calling it an imposition on the freedom of expression, Zan fights on. “Many nights I can’t sleep because I feel the responsibility of this great goal that we have before us,” he confessed in a recent interview. Here’s hoping he gets to hibernate sometime very soon.
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