How many roads lead to Rome?

The Great Beauty but crippled by taxes and corruption. And Italians' notoriety as 'nice folks' is fading.

During this year’s expo, the eyes of the entire world will be focused on Milan and thus on Italy. The Expo Milano 2015 offers the country a great opportunity to show what it can achieve and ultimately improve the perception foreigners currently have of the bel paese. These days, when Italy is mentioned outside its borders, the comments are not always necessarily flattering.

Evidence of this has been obtained by analysing nearly 27 million online texts in English, Russian and Spanish that explicitly referred to Italy in 2014 (mainly posted on Twitter and Facebook).

Almost half the comments came from Europe, though Italy is much discussed in the United States as well. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are among the cities where Italy is most often mentioned in online comments, along with Madrid and London. The list continues with Moscow, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Mumbai: a sign that Italy and Italians find their way into conversations everywhere. 

The Italy brand is still somewhat stereotyped. Most remarks were related to football (13.3%), art and culture (11%) and tourism (9.9%).

Based on the comments, Italy's image did quite well: positive remarks were expressed in all of the geographical regions studied (an average 71.8% viewed the country favourably), with peaks in Russia (84.2%), Asia (77%) and the US (76.2%). The more critical comments came from closer to home: Europe and Britain in particular.

Those aspects that foreigners usually appreciate most about Italy were all very prominent. People like Italian food, fashion and design. And the country elicits positive remarks for its ingenuity, technological know-how and craftsmanship (from Made in Italy products to local start-ups).

Most of the criticism – no surprises here – targeted the Italian economy, on all fronts, including its production system (21.5%), scandals and corruption (11.9%), and even taxes (8.8%). Less expected were the many negative comments about Italians' excessive intolerance (17.2%) of others (foreigners and Italians, on the same footing), which is a harsh blow to the longheld idea of Italiani brava gente (Italians, nice folks).

A closer look at the results shows that Russians – at least in 2014 – viewed Italy as a shopping destination with good prices, while they criticised the many workers' strikes and complained about bad weather (11.1%), which last summer clearly upset the plans of Russian tourists looking for their place in the sun on the peninsula, which never materialised.

Italian cuisine was highly appreciated in Europe (17.4%) and notably in the UK (21.5%), while the Italian economic system elicited the strongest criticism. South Americans (listen who's talking!) criticise Italians for their excessive corruption and general attitudes but do like the language (12.5%).

In the US and Asia as well, Italy is criticised for corruption and a scant tolerance and receptiveness towards other cultures. These regions in any case view Italy as a country of great beauty: over half of the positive comments from these two areas referred to art, aesthetics, culinary delights and beautiful cars.

To sum up, in this Expo year the image of Italy abroad, at least on the web, is generally a positive one. People like Italian food, but not Italian corruption. It's hard to say just how much Expo Milano 2015 may shift perceptions of the Italy brand, given that food and corruption, at least thus far, have played a major part in the run up to the world's fair.

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