Italian cultural leaders rally behind arts centre chief 'threatened by Berlusconi'

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Prominent Italians, including the writer Umberto Eco and the film directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Michelangelo Antonioni, have thrown their support behind a campaign to keep Mario Fortunato as director of the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

In a letter published in The Independent today, the Italians have joined British arts figures including Colin Firth, Harold Pinter and Salman Rushdie in praising Dr Fortunato's work.

Dr Fortunato has been in charge of Italy's equivalent of the British Council in London for the past two years and is credited with transforming it into a thriving and popular centre, attracting leading names in British and Italian artistic life.

But contrary to normal procedures, halfway through his expected four-year term of office his contract has not yet been reconfirmed.

In the absence of any other explanation, supporters fear that Silvio Berlusconi, who became the Italian Prime Minister last year, may have his own person in mind for the posting.

Colin Firth, who has appeared at the institute and whose wife is Italian, wrote last week that Dr Fortunato "had single-handedly reformed not only the image and reputation of the institute, but also the standard and substance of events".

Today 20 leading Italians add their voices to the clamour which has now aroused interest throughout Europe.

Headed by Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, Bernardo Bertolucci, director of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, and Michelangelo Antonioni, director of films including Blow-Up, the letter calls on Mr Berlusconi to consider what has been achieved by Dr Fortunato.

They write: "In the last two years, we have all, in different ways, been involved in the activities of the Institute in London. For each of us ... it has been a greatly stimulating experience."

They speak of being impressed by the programmes and the way Dr Fortunato, himself a successful novelist, has made British and Italian cultures interact. Among the signatories are Alessandro Baricco, the author of bestsellers such as Silk, the poet Mario Luzi, and Piero Gilardi, one of the artists of the Arte Povera school, which was featured at Tate Modern last year.

Paolo Bonacelli, who starred in Pasolini's last film, the controversial Salo, based on the Marquis de Sade's writings, and the writer Dacia Maraini also add their names.

The letter is being sent to Mr Berlusconi and is being published in La Repubblica in Italy and Libération in France, as well as in The Independent.