Italian tourism campaign with Botticelli’s Venus Faces Backlash

If Italy’s tourism ministry was hoping to make waves with a new marketing campaign for the country’s many wonders, it certainly hit the mark, if perhaps not in the way the government had envisioned.

The “Open to Meraviglia” campaign – which uses the Italian word for “miracle” – unveiled last week quickly faltered.

Branded a “virtual influencer,” a computerized version of Botticelli’s Venus immediately turned into a meme fest on social media, as critics said it played up stereotypes about Italy. One keen observer noted that the winery featured in a video explaining the campaign was actually located in Slovenia, Italy’s neighbor to the northeast.

And a marketing company snatched up the campaign’s domain name when it realized it wasn’t registered. “Marketing is serious business,” writes the Marketing Toys company on the newly registered website.

Even some members of the government were perplexed by the campaign, which was produced with national tourism agency ENIT.

Deputy Culture Minister Vittorio Sgarbi said he was taken aback by his slogan as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, had recently proposed a law that would penalize Italians who use foreign words in official communications.

“Why use ‘Open to Meraviglia’?” Mr. Sgarbi told ANSA news agency. “It would have been enough to write: ‘Italia Meraviglia’.”

The Italian government spent 9 million euros, nearly $10 million, on the new year-long global campaign aimed at boosting tourism to Italy, a sector still recovering from the catastrophic drop in travel that largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic. After a clear upward trend in 2022, tourism experts are optimistic that the current season could break records.

Armando Testa Group, the advertising agency that conceived the tourism campaign, has called the figure of Venus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, “one of the most famous women in the world,” and in a good way and way to represent Italy.

“Venus is back as an allegory of rebirth and renewal,” reads a blurb on the company’s website.

However, some critics complained that the transformation of the Renaissance icon into a modern influencer went against old clichés about Italy.

“Botticelli’s Venus transforms into Barbie,” snorted one commenter, while another dismissed the campaign as a mishmash of predictable clichés “missing only the mandolin that every real Italian is known to strum” after eating their pizza. (The campaign featured Venus as a hip fashionista, snapping selfies in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, munching pizza by Lake Como and posing with a bike in front of the Colosseum.)

Undeterred by the criticism, Tourism Minister Daniela Santanchè said she stood by the campaign, which officially begins in May. “One of the goals of this international campaign is to reach young people, so we used the tools and language that are close to them,” she said in a radio interview.

The campaign was also mocked when it was found that the German version of the website was too literal in some translations – among other things, the city of Brindisi was rendered as “Toast” (in Italian, “brindisi” is a celebratory toast while drinking). Mistake. The German version has been removed.

The footage of the vineyard in Slovenia left many Italians scratching their heads, especially given the importance of Italian wine to national identity.

“I don’t just want to make fun of the Ministry of Tourism,” because using stock photos or videos is normal — “everyone does it, so it’s not a problem,” said Massimiliano Milic, a filmmaker based in Trieste. “But at least double-check what you’re using.” Noting the similarities between the sun-kissed terrace in the video and a vineyard he knew in Slovenia, just across the border from Italy, Mr. Milic posted his findings online. The images came from a stock portal website and were not obviously identified as being shot in Slovenia, he said.

“It’s a mistake that can happen,” he said. But in the case of “an official video made for the Italian government, for the Ministry of Tourism, I just don’t know how that’s possible” or why the agency didn’t check the facts thoroughly, let alone not shoot any original footage, he added added.

Some critics noted that Italy’s national tourism campaigns have historically stalled. These include a homemade 2007 campaign featuring an Italian minister inviting tourists to “please visit our country”, the 2010 “Magic Italy” campaign voiced by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the more recent digital platform promoting Milan 2015 Expo, which was mocked when it was launched for being only available in Italian and for removing Sicily from its map.

But the makers of the Venus campaign find solace in the saying “There is no such thing as bad publicity”.

On Thursday, the Armando Testa group ran a full-page ad in Milan’s daily Corriere della Sera with the (ungrammatical) headline “Open to GRAZIE” to indicate that in the days since its presentation the campaign “had broken the wall of the indifference and enlivened a lively cultural debate.”

Venus is also grateful, wrote the advertising agency. “It’s been 500 years since she’s been talked about so much. If that isn’t a miracle.”

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