Pretty, even this.
As those who follow my blog already know, this is a diary of all things big and small and everything I know about life. Yet it doesn’t take much intelligence – or life experience – to say that in Italy everything is beautiful. It’s like stating that in the tropics the weather is hot and humid.
Because it is true: Italy is the land of beauty, Il Bel Paese, and nearly everything looks charming and romantic here. No matter whether it is a village church fresco dating back to the early Renaissance, or a breath-taking July sunset on a zigzagging seaside road – the chances are that it looks lovely.
In many cases things of true beauty here are world-famous, masterpieces that have existed for centuries, and tourists all over the world come to see and admire them. I mean, we have all had our fair share of Bernini fountains and Caravaggio paintings, just to name a few.
Yet beauty in Italy can also be ephemeral and intimate, something that survives for no more than a few seconds, and has no other witnesses than you and me, and a couple of other passers-by. It can be nothing more and nothing less than a chest of sun-kissed tomatoes, or the mouth-watering froth of an early-morning cappuccino. Or it can be the candle-lit splendour of an old opera house. Or an old Vespa parked in front of a tiny village church. Or a centuries-old cypress tree silhouetted against the cloudless sky. Or the aerodynamic contours of brand-new designer shoes, carefully wrapped in gossamer-thin tissue.
What’s more, you couldn’t think about Italian beauty without thinking about the sun. (No wonder that for centuries artists have come to work here, just because of that perfect light.) It’s everywhere, the Mediterranean sunshine; and maybe that’s why beauty here is playful and coquettish, and never, ever takes anything seriously.
And then there’s the depth of history. Because part of the charm of this country is nothing more and nothing less than the patina of time. It has layers, Italian beauty, of centuries and centuries of culture and civilization, and for that reason underneath the ornate seventeenth century church decorations you can find traces of Medieval architecture, and below that gorgeous cinquecento church you’ve got the foundations of a Roman temple.
In fact, Italian landscape and cityscape are so rich and plentiful that they are bound to make you dizzy. No wonder a foreigner must take both in small portions, reducing the number of museums and churches and sights to a bare minimum.
Not to mention that beauty in Italy is sensual. It’s the whole shebang of sensual delights, right from the pleasures of the eye down to those of the mouth and ears. It’s an ode to life and good living; and as such, it’s just as much about the creaminess of an artichoke risotto as it is about the mastery of an artist’s brushstroke, or the wonderful sound of a Puccini aria.
That’s probably why even the Italian language is all about elegance, and nothing sounds as melodic as a group of Italians chatting pleasantly about nothing in particular.
And what would Italian elegance be without Italians themselves? It seems that style is something people in Italy absorb with their infant formula – because whether it’s a question of a middle-aged businessman waiting for a train, or old ladies repeating rosaries in the village church, they all seem so goddam elegant. Like they’re not trying at all. ‘Even the homeless look smart here,’ a foreign friend noted, lamenting that she’d never look that good, no matter how many designer bags she collects.
So why is everything so pretty and romantic in Italy? Why Italy, and not some other country? I once asked an old professor, and, after smiling benevolently at my somewhat stupid question, he replied that maybe it was a question of many happy consequences. Like the gentle Mediterranean weather, that has encouraged civilizations to blossom here for thousands of years, thus giving that historical depth that makes Italy so special. Or the rich artisan culture that has produced true masters and world-famous artists – and the various landscapes, the magnificent combination of scenery that can be anything and everything from a rocky coastline to snow-covered mountains. Or the endlessly deep collective memory; the fact that you grow up playing hide-and-seek in church ruins dating back to the thirteenth century. That can’t but have an effect on you, of what is beautiful and harmonious.
But there is a danger, especially to the foreign writer, of seeing everything in Italy as picturesque. There is a risk of reducing Italy to a lovely post-card of guidebooks and tourist folklore, and focusing only on what is pretty and romantic.
And just like there is the Florence of art and Renaissance palazzi, there’s the Florence of suburban tedium. For if you venture out of the historical centre, at some point you are bound to find big industrial sites; and housing projects that are as grey and gloomy as the building blocks of a Moscow suburb; and bargain stores of every size and shape; and graffiti on cement walls; and household shop windows shining in fluorescent strip light; and veiled immigrant mothers with shopping bags and pushchairs. It might not be as picturesque, this Florence, but for sure it is just as real.
And it, too, has stories to be told.