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The Italian Love Affair

This might come as a belated consolation to poor Karen Hughes, who is leaving her post as the U.S. head of public diplomacy after struggling for two years to advocate American ideas around the world: although Italians dislike aggression (81 percent opposed the Iraq War), Italy just loves the United States. In 2003, 30 percent of Italians had a positive image of the country, a 60-year low. But now, according to a Pew Research poll, America's image is positive among 53 percent and negative for 38. Italy beat everybody in the European Union but Poland: in Britain, 51 percent love the United States; in France, 39 percent; and in Germany, only 30 percent are pro-American, with 66 percent against.

Italians like America so much, they want to see the real thing. Due in part to the strong euro, more than 1 million Italian tourists headed to the United States this year, breaking the old record. In August, Italians defy the humidity and head to Florida, and while cheap fares to Britain still make London the most favored destination for Italian travelers, this year New York surpassed Paris for the No. 2 spot. A new Italian airline, Eurofly, now connects even minor cities like Bologna and Palermo to New York. Among the visitors: Italian politicians, who come for art and fashion shows financed by Italian institutions, and to meet and greet with Italian-Americans who, since 2006, may vote in Italian elections if they still have their Italian passport. Former prime minister and now opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi just bought a house for his youngest daughter to attend university in New York City. And indeed Italians of every political stripe love U.S. politicians. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton inspire the left. Ronald Reagan is a mythic figure for the right. Walter Veltroni—Rome's mayor, and possibly Italy's next prime minister—says his political idols are Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. His new party: the "Democrats."

But let alone politics. Fashion designers Valentino, Cavalli, Prada and Armani all own homes and spend time in New York City. Donatella Versace and her daughter live there. Other positive indicators of pro-Americanism: nine out of the top 10 movies at the Italian box office in October were from the United States. In France, ticket proceeds from domestic films equal that of American movies. But in Italy, Hollywood films outgross Italian movies by a margin of 38 percent. At the recent Rome Film Festival even American B-listers received celebrity treatment. George Clooney is a fixture, as well, in his villa on Lake Como, and Italians are proud that Tom Cruise got married here, that Brad and Angelina began loving each other while shooting in Amalfi and that Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal rekindled their romance in Rome. Eighty percent of the television series broadcast in Italy are also made in the U.S.A. "House" is the most successful series in a decade, with 22 percent of prime-time audience share. Music? Zucchero, Italy's biggest star, considers himself a Louisiana bluesman. Art? Larry Gagosian, the American dealer, will soon open his first continental gallery in Rome. Invitations to the opening are the hottest tickets in town.

Italians have adored America for 60 years, ever grateful for liberation from the Nazis—and for introducing them to rock and roll, disco, "Sex and the City" and the iPod. Rome was once the world's capital, but Italians are happy to acknowledge that the power has shifted to America. "America is a big place where people like to chew problems and projects," says Beppe Severgnini, author of "La Bella Figura: A Guide to the Italian Mind." "Italy is a smaller country obsessed with people and with the past. To look at, read about, dream and talk of America is like taking a mental holiday for many of us."

This month, the most comprehensive exhibition of 19th-century American art will open in Brescia, near Milan. Works will come from Washington's National Gallery and lesser-known spots like the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. That museum also contributed to "The Mythology of the American West," an exhibition that opened in September in France. Yes, it seems all of Europe is back to admiring the cowboys. But, remember, the Italians were first.

The Italian Love Affair | World