Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta
and his wife, Lila, at Villa Firenze
Lila's diplomatic schedule keeps her busy around the clock, but rather than feel burdened by the constant demands of a high-profile diplomatic lifestyle, she relishes her role as one of Washington's most popular hostesses. "I was raised in a family that lived a similar life to the way that Giovanni and I live now, and many of the things I'm doing now, I learned from my mother: how to receive people, how to open my house. This is all part of my background from Iran. Persians are so hospitable and generous. They receive guests in such a gracious spirit, and they are willing to give them anything they have." These early lessons have proven invaluable to Mrs. Castellaneta in her current role, where, in an average year, she will welcome more than 50,000 friends, and friends of Italy, to Villa Firenze.
Despite her busy schedule, Lila has found time to explore the neighborhood. She particularly enjoys visiting Hillwood, the museum on Linnean Street N.W., that was once home to Marjorie Merriweather Post, who entertained there in grand style throughout the 1950's and '60s. "It's a beautiful house," she says, "and Marjorie Post had an incredible collection of Russian art and artifacts that she acquired while her husband [Joseph E. Davies] was the ambassador to the [Soviet Union]." As she gazes across the lawn in the direction of Hillwood, one cannot help but see a bit of Mrs. Post in this newcomer to Washington.
She is abruptly ushered back to the present by Cocolino Picolino, a spirited Bijon Frisee who responds only to Italian, only to Lila, and then, only occasionally. She laughs and picks him up. When I'm retired, I have already told my husband that I want to come back here and live in Washington, because I love this country and I believe strongly that the friends one has made along the way will always remain friends." Later, sitting in his wood-paneled study, the Ambassador shares his wife's enthusiasm. "Americans are so charming," he observes, "and very open to discussion and to sharing different views, so it has been a great pleasure for us to be here. This is especially true in Washington, where so many doors have opened to us, even more than I could have expected."
This was exemplified when Castellaneta presented his credentials to the President, a ritual that marks every new ambassador's official acknowledgement by the government of his host nation, but one which is often fraught with delays. "We arrived in Washington from Italy on a Saturday, and we were staying in a hotel, because our things had yet to arrive from Italy and my predecessor had only left on Friday, but to my surprise, first thing on Monday morning I was invited to present my credentials to the State Department, and then, late Monday morning, to present them to the President, whom I like very much. That was the warmest welcome I could think of!" Giovanni Castellaneta possesses a humility that is at once refined and completely unscripted. For centuries, the Castellaneta family owned wheat farms in the southern Italian region of Apulia. "I grew up in the country, and spent a lot of time outside when I was young. I never expected to join the diplomatic service, but after returning from a year of practicing law in Brussels, I decided to take the [foreign service] exams," (which, in Italy, as in much of Europe are extremely competitive), "and I was accepted, which was an honor." Twenty years and three continents later, he holds his country's most coveted diplomatic post, and Lila makes no effort to suppress her admiration for him. "In Italy," she explains, "every young man who enters the diplomatic service wishes to become the Italian ambassador to Washington … This post is a dream for any diplomat."
As he describes his life's work, the Ambassador reveals a subtle understanding of the difference between international relations and international relationships. "When two countries have a relationship that is as deep as our two countries, there can be a tendency to take for granted our knowledge of each other, which can get in the way of our curiosity and our drive to learn more about the other. But we must keep improving our knowledge, and not be content to rely on what we have learned up to that point, and I hope to continue to read, and to learn, until the last day of my life. In many ways a relationship is like a garden, and you have to tend to it so that it will grow."
He points to the wall opposite the desk in his study. There, prominently displayed like a piece of art, is a high-tech mountaineering pick-axe. "It was given to me by a Sherpa in Nepal," he explains. "I keep it above my desk everywhere I go. In many ways it reminds me of my current role, which is to walk ahead, and sometimes to climb mountains, in order to create the right conditions for a great friendship between two countries. It is also an emblem of my career in a broader sense, and of service; of showing the way and clearing a path so that others can travel safely and we can all arrive at the summit."
Keenly aware of the power of a strong relationship, the philosophical ambassador has a perfect partner in Lila. She is "more enthusiastic, and creative than I am, and perhaps I'm more diplomatic and more organized," he says, "but she brings her energy, and her great taste to us, and we complement each other in so many ways." This exceptional couple is at home both in their partnership and at Villa Firenze. Washington welcomes them, and looks forward to celebrating with them, Italian style.