Your Christmas gift

Your Christmas gift
La Bella Italia

Monday, June 23, 2014

Italian spirit – family, madonna, church and the piazza


Barzini writes that “The first source of power is the family … Italy has often been defined, with only slight exaggeration, as nothing more than a mosaic of millions of families, sticking together by blind instinct, like colonies of insects, an organic formation, rather than a rational construction of written statutes and moral imperatives … The family extracts everybody’s first loyalty. It must be defended, enriched, made powerful, respected, and feared by the use of whatever means are necessary …”

“The fact that the woman is the predominant character of Italian life, even if not the most conspicuous, can be read in many small signs … popular songs are dedicated to la mamma … Mamma mia is the most common exclamation … wounded Italian soldiers (have moaned) mamma, mamma, mamma. The next most common exclamation is “Madonna”, which is a supernatural equivalent, La Madonna is the universal symbol of suffering and self-sacrificing womanhood.”

He goes on to say that “It is principally the pressure of the Italian faithful and the zeal of the Italian clergy which prodded the Church to proclaim dogmas concerning La Madonna, codifying and sanctifying traditions and legends dear to the hearts of simple people.”

Everywhere you go in Italy, be it Rome and other large cities, large towns like San Gimignano or little places like Mont Auto in Tuscany, there are Madonnas and shrines on the corners or sides of buildings, and often in small alcoves dotted along the road as you are driving the back roads between towns and villages.

Of course at Christmas time, the Madonna is centre stage. She, and of course her new-born son, adorn Christmas cards, postage stamps, nativity scenes, Christmas gift paper, she moonlights in the form of decorations on Christmas trees, and of course, is the centre of attention inside churches.

Christmas aside, you will see her across various centuries in art galleries across Europe, probably none more so than in Italian galleries. She is shown regularly from the twelfth century to the Renaissance in various stages of her life from the Annunciation, to the very early life of Jesus as a baby through to his cruxifiction and death.

As Carla Coulson observes in Napoli:

“Most of Italy’s public holidays are held in honour of a  saint. Every city, town and village worships a patron saint or the Madonna as its protector … The Madonna di Sovereto (the protector of Terlizzi) was discovered when a pecora (sheep) got a hoof stuck in a crack in the ground. After the shepherd freed the sheep he noticed a divine light beneath the crack in the ground that led him to an ancient painting of the Madonna in the cave below … I flew to Sicily to see i misteri (ancient carved wooden statue depicting twenty scenes of the Passion of Christ) and La Madonna in Italy’s biggest procession at Easter. I was overcome with joy (in) the centre of Bari to discover that among the beautiful white stone streets were 120 brightly coloured tabernacles to the Madonna, all decorated with little skirts of fabric.”

La Chiesa – The church

La Madonna is, of course, seen in all of Italy’s churches. I’ve often heard people who have travelled to Italy say that if they see another church, they’ll go cross-eyed and perhaps totally mad. But aside from the number of churches, do we know what church we are looking at? Here’s the low down:

There are six main styles of church architecture in Italy and you can see all of them pretty easily. The Classical period,  from 200 to 400 AD, is exemplified by the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The Byzantine period, from about the fourth to the tenth century, represents a continuation of Greek architecture, and is characterized by round arches, the use of brick instead of stone, central plan, domes, and mosaics, as can be seen in San Vitale in Ravenna.

The Romanesque period, from about eight hundred to the early Renaissance in fourteen hundred, saw the construction of the Duomo at Modena. Probably the best known Romanesque church is the part of the Campo dei Miracoli – the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The best known building that combines Classical, Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine is San Marco in Venice.

Overlapping the Renaissance style is the Gothic from about the twelvth to the sixteenth century. According to a writer during the Renaissance:

"The ancient Greek and Roman architecture answered all the perfections required in a faultless and accomplished building, but the Goths and Vandals destroyed these” and "introduced in their stead a certain fantastical and licentious manner of building: congestions of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles, without any just proportion, use or beauty."

The Renaissance began in Florence, and saw a revival of Roman architecture and an articulation of forms and space based on precise measurements and proportions based on man. Classically styled columns, geometrically perfect designs, and hemispherical domes characterize Renaissance architecture. There are probably thousands of examples of Renaissance architecture, from Bramante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, to Brunelleschi’s dome for the Duomo in Florence and the façade of Santa Maria de Novella also in Florence, designed by Alberti.

Then came the Baroque, best known for Rome’s St Peter’s Bascilica. Designed by Bernini it started in 1600 in Rome and spread throughout Europe. It was influenced by the Church’s encouragement that the representative arts should speak to the illiterate masses rather than the educated. It created a sensual and emotive experience.

The other noticable thing about the church in Italy is that you see so many of it's office bearers in the streets – priests, nuns and brothers of all ages!

Handy links and references – churches in Italy

Top churches to visit in Rome

Documents over 500 churches in Italy

Lists the different architectural styles and periods

Paolo Rossi – The most beautiful Italian churches

Nine amazing cathedrals in a slide show

The number of priests and nuns in Europe, US and Oceanania

CARA is a national, non-profit, Georgetown University affiliate conducting studies about the Catholic church.

Street life and la piazza

No matter how small the place in Italy, whether there is a large population or a small community, there is always a piazza. Sometimes they are grand architectural affairs with impressive paving and sculptures, other times the piazza simply occupies open space between intersecting streets.

Like the beaker on your bunsen burner in science class at school, piazze are transparent containers for life in all its manifestations. Friends of all ages, family, lovers, colleagues, children, and people walking their dogs –– can be seen either strolling, eating or drinking wine or coffee and TALKING!

Of course, it’s both the ordinary and the inconguities that make you stop and marvel. For instance, Penelope Green, when strolling around Piazza di Spagna, enjoys the odd, yet not so odd at all, spectacle of “a tall Franciscan monk, his chocolate brown robes billowing in his stride, with a mobile phone in his hand.” Of course we should not be surprised at all – these people are living in the twenty first centuary like the rest of us.

I saw an amusing scene once, which caused me to laugh out loud. It didn’t happen in Italy, but it could have. I was in Jerusalem, just passing from the Muslim quarter to the Christian quarter where the path widens considerably (if it was in Italy it would have been a piazza!). I could hear a commotion ahead, before I could actually see it. Suddenly, rushing towards me was a group of eight or so young Italian priests, all talking at once, laughing and waving their arms about. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed them if I had been in Italy …!

Beppe Severgnini has the last word on the piazza. “An Italian piazza happens. Whenever we have tried to create one from scratch, the results have been indifferent. To understand a piazza you have to use it. And you can’t be in a hurry. The piazza will tell you all sorts of stories, in its own good time.”

In Rome, I always stay at an unbeatable hotel, for comfort, service and location, the Colonna Palace, in Piazza Montecetorio, opposite the Chamber of Deputies. The first time I stayed there I was highly entertained by a demonstration involving students, union members and ordinary family types. What distinguished this demonstration was that around midday, they downed their banners and stopped blowing their whistles, because it was time for pranzo (lunch). All was quiet until about 3.30 in the afternoon, when they put in another bout of placard waving and whistle blowing until 5 o’clock, when they decamped for an aperitivo!

 A favourite walk is along Via Campo de Marzio to Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina. There are several outdoor cafés where you can sip on your preferred beverage and enjoy the passing parade of stylish people, some stopping for coffee, others having business meetings and some browsing in the windows of the surrounding shops.

Piazza di Spagna is always worth a look. Yes, I it can be touristy (although there are lots of Italians there too) but it is also quite lovely. I love the languidness of people lolling in the sun on the Spanish Steps. Leading from the Piazza is Via Condotti, where you can window shop or better still, check out the people there. One time I saw a discreet limo driver looking the part in a dark grey suit – with matching BMW 7 series – and Armani sunglasses, parked outside Bulgari. Bustling through the little cross-streets like via Mario di Fiori, vintage and new Vespers zoom past, some driven by immaculately dressed young women, no helmet and wearing heels 5 inches high!

I sometimes take the bus from via del Tritone, up past the Forum, Colosseum, the Palatine and Circus Maximus back up to Piazza Navona. I love this spot, especially by November when the summer hoards are gone and you can have a peaceful view of the fountains and palaces that fringe the piazza. It’s interesting to watch the waiters in crisp white shirts and black trousers, plying patrons with plates of pasta, crusty bread and glasses of vino. One time I listened to a great jazz trio playing at the far end of the Piazza near Via del Governo Vecchio.

When I stayed in Perugia for the Italian course, I loved experiencing the changes in the Piazze at the different times of day. In the mornings, on the way to class at the Universita per Stranieri, I walked down Corso  Vannucci, past Piazza Danti and Piazza Matteotti. At that time, the air was cool in the Piazze and Corso, the caffé tables were not yet out and food and drink deliveries were being decanted from the trucks to the various cafés and trattorias. The smell of fresh baked bread and coffee filled the air and the sounds of people greeting each other floated up between the medieval buildings.

Then returning after lunch, the same areas were throbbing with people eating, drinking and talking, shaded by umbrellas now needed to shelter from the hot sun. After class, at aperitivi time, the same spaces were crowded again, except this time people were clutching a prosecco and swapping stories about their day.

The buzz of the streetlife continued in the many streets off Corso Vannucci – the entrance to some marked by medieval archways, such as Via dei Priori off to the left, where my soon-to-become favourite deli/mini super was located. Some were looking at the fashion boutiques, others were planning and buying for tonight’s meal and some just strolling.

At the end of Corso Vannucci is the old medieval Piazza Danti, with a 14th century fountain, and the Duomo. Young people were relaxing on the Duomo steps, dozing in the sun. Others were crowding the outdoor cafés overlooking the Piazza.  A few feet further on is Via Battisti, framed by Etruscan arches and thronging with students on their way to Piazza Fortebraccio and the Università per Stranieri overlooking it.

 The buzz of modern human traffic melts into ancient spaces. Modernity with antiquity. On the western side of Giardini Carducci, is the well used system of commuter escalators (scale mobile) – three sets in all – which take you from the high position of centro storico down to the modern town, including the very efficient bus depot. The system is enclosed in Etruscan Towers, now subterranean!

Like a scene from a movie, Piazza San Marco in Venice is clearly a well-known hangout for people watching. But there are many other places in Venice that afford you the opportunity to watch life unfolding before your eyes. I was once enjoying a coffee and people watching at a nice café in Via Larga XX11 Marzo – a wide street that functions like a piazza – where I watched West Africans selling knock-off Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags. Well, that doesn’t sound so exceptional, but the vendors were positioned right outside a real Gucci store!! Word that the police were coming buzzed around and the vendors packed up hurriedly. Some time later four policia, with eyes averted and examining the prevailing cloud cover and the direction of the breeze, stumbled along, finding nothing wrong happening at all!! Pa-a-leeze …! The café staff just laughed and went on with their chores … they said this piece of theatre happens every day!

No matter where you are in Italy, take the time to sit in a piazza, listen and look, and your spirit will be rewarded.

Links and references – le Piazze

The six best piazze in Italy – covers all of the main ones

This is a fabulous site and gives information on many piazze, including lesser known, and in some cases less touristy, piazze.

Four piazze you must not miss

The meaning of piazze to Italians and Italian life

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas wishes & my gift to you – La Bella Italia!


In 2011, I wrote a book about Italy – La Bella Italia. I published it through, which provides free and easy to use software; they make their money (well deserved I think) through the sale of the many books they publish. The quality of their finished product is very good, and there are many choices of book format and style, including eBooks.

Here is the link if you are interested to browse or buy the book online with Blurb:

La Bella Italia

During the  next couple of months the book will be featured on the blog. So, let's get into it:

What IS it about Italy and Italians that entrances the world so?

Italy is at once a place that delights the senses, combining elegance, ingenuity and joy, and intense frustration, trickery and horrible poverty. Yet the two sit enduringly side by side, perhaps as if to balance each other or to parody one another. Some Italian writers, perhaps like all of us when subjecting our own country to scrutiny, tend to mention, if not focus on, the defects and irritations rather than the positive attributes.

In 1964, Italian journalist, politician, author and publisher Luigi Barzini wrote an insightful, disturbing, depressing and at times humorous book, “The Italians”, in which he analyses and endeavours to explain the forces which have shaped the two Italies – the ingeniously talented, innovative and artistic Italy and the divided, unfocused, invaded, bureaucratic and disaster-prone Italy. Although these are not his words, he tries to answer the question, ‘what IS it about Italy and Italians that entrances the world so?’ It was a hugely challenging piece of work, especially given that its focus is on his own country and culture. He says:

“This book was difficult to compile. It is notoriously easier to write about things and people one does not know very well. One has fewer doubts … I knew too much. I saw too many trees … One of the sources of confusion was the absurd discrepancy between the quantity and dazzling array of the inhabitants’ achievements through many centuries and the mediocre quality of their national history.”

To illustrate, he notes that “the list of famous Italians is awe-inspiring” but he puts all this information in a footnote, and says having noted it, he takes as read that people (now) know these facts and that he will concentrate on the converse.

The saints: Saint Francis, Santa Catarina di Sienna, San Bernadino da Sienna, San Luigi Gonzaga, Saint Thomas of Aquino.
The sinners: the Borgia family (Spanish, but acclimatized), Cellini, Caravaggio, Cagliostro, Casanova.

The political thinkers: Dante Alighieri, King Frederick of Hohenstaufen of the Two Sicilies (born in Italy, the inventor of the modern state, ‘the state as a work of art’), Lorenzo de Medici (inventor of “the balance of power”), Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Mazzini, Cavour.
The military leaders: Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Raimondo Montecuccoli, (who led Austrian armies), Napoleon, Garibaldi.
The admirals: Andrea Doria, Mocenigo, Morosini, Bragadin, Caracciolo.
The scientists: Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, Volta, Marconi, Fermi.
The navigators: Columbus, Vespucci, the Cabots.
The thinkers: Saint Thomas of Aquino, Campanella, Croce, Vico.
The poets: Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni.
The sculptors: Verrocchio, Donatello, Ghiberti, della Robbia, Cellini, Michelangelo, Bernini.

The painters: Giotto, Botticelli, Bellini, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Modigliani.

The musicians: Palestrina, Pergolesi, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, Toscanini.

These are, of course, the names of first magnitude. The second and third category could easily fill a small city’s telephone book.”

Once I read this list I realised that I could think of several other eminent Italians without trying too hard. Barzini would probably describe some of them as second order, but I think in any other place they would warrant a mention up front.

Statesmen, philosophers:
Cicero (philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist), Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius (politician and general), Marcus Aurelius (emperor and philosopher)

Artists: Alberti, Arnoldo Cambio, Cimabue, Fra Lippo Lippi and son Fillipino Lippi, Masaccio, Signorelli, Pinturicchio

Explorer: Marco Polo
Architects: Borromini, rival of Bernini and architect of St Agnese in Agone. Vasari (respected architect and painter who wrote the first book of art history called “Le Vite” – full title “The lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters and sculptors, from Cimabue up to our own times”, first published in 1550 with a second edition in 1568). Because he travelled widely to interview artists and view their works, in a sense he was also first travel writer. Diane Hales covers this and many more things in her wonderful book “La Bella Lingua” which will be referred to again in later chapters here.

Printing, book designing and production: Pietro Bembo, who has a type face named after him, and in the 16th century produced a little book of Petrarch’s work described in Dianne Hales’ book as “a petrarchino – prayer book(s) of a lay culture”.
Two famous women in writing and publishing at the time: Vittoria Colona first published woman poet greatly admired by Michelangelo, and Isabella d'Este.

Curious about 20th century Italian architects, I googled it (!) and found several references, including a comprehensive Wikipedia entry covering all areas of endeavour, extensively referenced to sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so I read on with much interest:

Architects: Aldo Rossi (1931–1997), architect and theoretician. His book “The Architecture of the City” (1966) is a classic of modern architectural theory. He was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize; Pier Luigi Nervi, 1891 – 1979, leading figure in modern architecture, along with Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

That these lists of names can be generated or recognised so easily is astonishing and instructive about the influence of Italians on the world in such a range of domains. Many of the names are from the 13th to the 17th centuries, with the majority from the Renaissance period, arguably perhaps Italy’s finest hour. In contrast to these glittering names and their vast achievements, Italy has had over 60 national governments since WW2, with only one lasting it’s full five year term. Such political turmoil and instability probably speaks for itself as evidence of what Barzini calls “mediocre quality” of national life.

I read a wonderful summary of this dichotomy recently. Phil Doran in his “A reluctant Tuscan” includes a line from one of his characters Rudolfo “We’re Italian. We live with a million laws and no rules.”

Different expatriot views

Expatriots from all over the world, who come to stay or live in Italy for long periods seem to fall into two groups – those enchanted with the place, who see everything as magically wonderful, and those who experience more of the knife-edge between the beautiful and the frustrating, seeing both sides of the coin.

Chris Harrison writes in Head over Heel, that “tourists adore Italy  because they breeze through in summer and glimpse a transitory personality, the sparkling disguise of a bleak reality. They follow their guide books to the historic highlights of a modern mess, queue to see frescoes rather than to pay phone bills, and believe life in Italy to be wonderful because the Italians tell them it is so … Hollywood cinematographers have played a role in this deception … travel writers are also to blame … But most tourists leave swearing allegiance to illusion, convinced the mirage is real … Only those who stick around discover the ‘the sweet life’ can turn sour. I was happiest in Italy when I too was a tourist and enjoyed watching the news until I understood what was being said …  in Italy the word ‘government’ is synonymous with ‘corruption’ (so) … cynicism seems justified, a form of self protection if nothing else. This is where paradox creeps in. Only by ignoring Italy’s imperfections have the Italians perfected their lives. By snubbing their nation’s shame they have found it’s main strength – escapism. Escapism so colourful that it slaps misery in the face.”

On the other hand, Carla Coulson says “Italy has always held a place in my heart, since my days as a backpacking twenty year old. I will never forget the feeling of awe as I exited the train station at Venice and clapped eyes on the Grand Canal and the faded palazzi with the musical Italian language surrounding me. Or the image of thousands of flickering candles held towards the sky at the encore of the opera Aida in the ancient Roman theatre in Verona. To me, over the years it was only natural to return and pass holidays in Florence, Rome, and Venice, listening to the language I always dreamed of learning.”

And Marlena de Blasi says of being in Rome “I want … to be awakened by the powdery sunlight sifting in through the chinks in the shutters. I like the way my heart beats in Rome, how I can walk faster and see better. I like that I feel at home wandering through her ancient ecstasy of secrets and lies. I like that she’s taught me I am only a scintilla, a barely perceptible and transient gleam.”

Another Italian’s perspective …

Alberto Moravia was a major figure in 20th century Italian literature, a journalist, short-story writer, and novelist. Moravia hints at the enduring, ordinary human dimension of Italian life and the once powerfully influential sixteenth century Italy attempting to capture its greatness in guises which back fire on and satirize its former world leadership. He says to Gina Lollobrigida in a letter at the front of her wonderful book of photos “Italia Mia”:

“Your photos speak about an Italy of real people, of humble artisans, of habitual devotion, of simple pleasures, of family feelings, tourist landscapes, of monuments so famous that now they have become almost invisible … The Italians had their last creative and unifying moment in the Renaissance and from then on they have repeated it always less successfully, in a world that does not know what to do with humanism taken to the point of a D’Annunzian parody, to fascist tragi-comedy and rowdy indifference. Anyhow the Italians have remained faithful to their original genius, one might say, too much so. And it is this faithfulness underlying the photographs of your unpretentious, provincial and humble Italy which you show us in filigree.”

So then, the question remains – ‘what IS it about Italy and Italians that attracts people so?’

So many of us are drawn to Italy, like the moth to the flame. The richness of its art and architecture alone, preserved, or at least not demolished, lives happily alongside 21st century life and is there for all to see. This integration of a past spanning some 5 thousand years (I’m starting from the Etruscans) with the present scene, peppered with Vespas, Fiat Cinquecentos, Apes (the tiny single seated trucks that farmers use), fashionistas, business people, and street markets, I think, is one of the compelling things about Italy for stranieri (foreigners). The humility of ordinary people getting on with their lives, some with theatrical flourishes, others with determined forbearance is also striking.

To try to shed some light on this question, I have chosen 8 major themes which open windows into aspects of Italy that I find endearing, compelling, funny, nourishing for the soul and just straight out beautiful. I include my own experiences and those of several authors who are from, or have lived for extended periods in, Italy. Although very different, each author writes with a passion, which brings to life, for me at least, the irony and beauty of Italy. The stories are illustrated by photos taken in Italy across a decade from 2001 to 2011.

The themes are

  •  La lingua
  •  Street life - la piazza e la passeggia

  •  Icons of belief belief - la mama, la famiglia, la Madonna e la chiesa
  •  Al mercato
  •  Mangia, mangia!
  •  Il bar – Caffé Bonazzi
  •  Style
  •  Luce e colore

La lingua

I’ve always loved the sound of the Italian language – well, who doesn’t really? I didn’t have the opportunity to learn it at school (only French, German and Latin on offer there) so I came to it as an adult, listening to Julian and his family speaking Italian, mixed with English when they couldn’t think quickly of a suitable Italian word and vice versa. Learning Italian was always one of those things I was “gunna” do when I got the time. Spoken Italian transforms a sentence into an occasion.

When I was seven in primary school, we had two recently immigrated Italian boys join our class. I was fascinated listening to them talk together, although they were very sensitive about this and tended to speak in lowered tones. One day, I asked one of the boys, Frank, what his real name was and how did he say it. Well, I had to swear to secrecy that I would NEVER repeat what I was about to hear … yes, yes Frank, I solemnly promise … cross my heart, hope to die” etc. “Franco” he said simply. “But, Franco’s a really great name; it sounds much better than Frank … “ I ventured bravely. “Don’t say it, ok?” It sounded more like a threat than a question. Well, I never did say it – until now – but this little story serves to illustrate the musicality and appeal of Italian, even to a monolingual 7 year old.

Dianne Hales notes that there are growing numbers of foreigners going to Italy to learn Italian. This resonates strongly with me – I went to Perugia to do just this in 2006. After some research I decided to go the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia to do a one month Italian course. My class had fourteen people in all, ranging in age from 60 to 18, with a predominantly young group of twenty somethings. We hailed from all round the globe – the UK, USA, Poland, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Turkey and Australia.

The teaching format consisted of written texts, with grammar a focus each day for several hours, conversation practice classes twice a week (which I really liked) and the language lab (ditto) once a week. It’s just a personal thing, but I don’t learn languages well through the traditional “text” approach. Listening and repeating work much better for me, as practiced in the language lab and it is how we actually learn to speak our first language. When was the last time you saw a 6 month old sitting in their pram reading “Introduction to Grammar”??

Differences in preferred learning techniques aside, we all learnt quite a lot and enjoyed the classes, despite the hot weather, which often saw us sprawled limply across our desks, begging for a “pausa” (break). Learning a language in that country bestows many gifts – emersion in the local way of life and the stimulation that brings. It also brings the chance for new friendships; I gained a wonderful friend, fellow student Margaret, from the USA.

“Energised and harmonised by vowels and double consonants, Italian words massage the mouth of the speaker and tickle the ear of the listener. Saying the word stuzzicadenti (toothpick), for example, will do more for your mouth than actually using one … Italian sentences are like symphonies, composed with the onomatopoeia in words like zanzara (mosquito). There is harmony in humdrum words like pipistrello (bat) schizzinoso (fussy) and malvventurato (unlucky), or inoperosamente (idly).” Chris Harrison, Head over Heel.

Louise Fili and Lisa Apatoff include a great illustration of how precise Italian can be and at the same time delight the senses by differentiating shades of grey in meaning. For example, “bello (beautiful) is elevated to bellissimo (very beautiful), bellino (beautiful, little and cute), bellona (a lovely, showy, unrefined woman) and belloccia (a large, florid, provocative yet refined woman).”

Dianne Hales has written a fascinating and erudite book about the influence of Italy on the world, “La Bella Lingua”. With chapters such as “How Italian civilised the West” you can easily see where she’s coming from. In her first chapter, ‘The confessions of an innamorata’.

She says “The first miracle of Italian is its survival. No governments mandated its use. No mighty empire promoted it as an official language. No conquering armies or armadas trumpeted it to distant lands … (in fact) the Mediterranean peninsula remained a patchwork of dialects, often as different from one another as French from Spanish or English from Italian. Italian as we know it was created, not born. With the same thunderbolt genius that would transform art in the Renaissance, writers of 14th century Florence – Dante first and foremost – crafted the effervescent Tuscan vernacular into a language rich and powerful enough to sweep down from heaven and up from hell. This priceless living legacy, no less than Petrarch’s poetry, Michelangelo’s sculptures, Verdi’s operas, Fellini’s movies or Valentino’s dresses, is an artistic masterwork.”

Hales cites playwright Giovanni Battista Gelli, who in 1551 said “ many diverse people of intelligence and refinement, outside Italy no less than within Italy, devote much effort and study to learning and speaking our language for no reason but love”. She goes on to say “Those acolytes included Elizabeth 1 of England, Francis 1 of France, and Emperor Charles V, who once declared “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

 Yet as a spoken tongue, Italian is nuovissimo (very new) says noted linguist Guiseppe Patota. “Rallying for one nation united by one language, Italian’s won their country’s independence in 1861 … at the time four in five citizens were illiterate. Fewer than 10% spoke Italian exclusively or with greater ease than local dialect. Not Until 1996 – 135 years after unification – did more than half of Italians report using Italiano standard.”

But you have to be prepared to take the plunge when learning a new language as an adult. Chris Harrison says of his experience when practicality apart from anything else dictated that he should learn Italian. He was after all living in Italy with his girlfriend who was to become his wife.

“The biggest obstacle to learning a foreign language is pride … if you can’t laugh at yourself and are not prepared to hire ‘paedophiles’ rather than ‘pedal-boats’ (referring to a hilarious day at the beach mentioned earlier in his book), “you might never be humiliated but you’ll never excel. Inaccuracy is a moss covered stepping stone towards accuracy, and I slipped on it often. I even asked a butcher for a ‘kilometre’ of sausages rather than a ‘kilogram’. ‘You must be hungry’, he replied, friend first, smart arse second … the more I erred, the more I learnt. The more I learnt, the more I realised that the beauty of the language masked a litany of complexities, knots I needed to untie if I was going to read and write Italian.”

List of Images, taken from my photo library

Giovanni Bellini "Pala di San Giobbe GallerieAccademia Venice

Bernini's elephant and obelisk Piazza S Maria Sop Minerva

Bernini Fountain of Four Rivers Piazza Navona Roma

Caravaggio "Madonna of Loreto" Chiesa San Agostino Roma

Filipino Lippi S M Sop Minerva

Raffaelo S Agostino Prophet Isiah

Campidoglio M Palazzo Nuovo marble bust Cicero 1 AD

Rome Campidoglio M PalazzoNuovo M Aurelius bronze detail

Rome Campidoglio Palazzo Nuovo Hadrian

Piazza in Montalcino

Piazza in Lucca

Rome – view from Palazzo Colonna roof garden, Roma

Ceiling detail Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Roma


Barzini,Luigi. The Italians, first published 1964; Touchstone, Simon and Schuster edition 1996

Coulson ,Carla. Italian Joy, Lantern, Penguin Group, 2005

de Blasi, Marlena. A thoudans days in Venice, Allen and Unwin, 2003

D’Epiro, Peter & Mary Desmond Pinkowish. Sprezzatura: 50 ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, Anchor Books, 2001

Doran, Phil. The reluctant Tuscan, Gotham Books, 2005

Eye Witness Travel Guide – Italy, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, Penguin, 2004

Fili, Louise & Lise Apatoff. Italianissimo, The Little Bookroom, New York 2008

Green, Penelope. When in Rome, Hatchette Australia, 2005

Green, Penelope. See Naples and Die, Hatchette Australia, 2008

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