La Serenissima

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

Hales, Dianne. La Bella Lingua, first published 2009, Harper Collins, 2010

Harrison, Chris. Head over Heel, Murdoch Books, 2008

Hawes, Annie. Extra Virgin, Penguin, 2001

Hawes, Annie.Ripe for the Picking, Penguin, 2003

Hawes, Annie. Journey to the South, Penguin, 2005

Hintzen–Bohlen, Brigitte & Jurgen Sorges. Art and Architecture: Rome and the Vatican City, h.f.ullman, 2005

Italian church architecture source:

Lollobrigida, Gina. Italia Mia, Sedifo, 1973

Mayes, Francis. Bringing Tusacay Home, Doubleday, 2004

Napoleoni, Loretta. Economist, author, journalist and political analyst; interviewed on ABC National Radio, Saturday Extra 28/5/11; commented on “Dualismo storico”

Severgnini, Beppe. La Bella Figura, Broadway Books, 2006

Steinbeck, Alice. Without Reservations: the travels of an ndependent woman, Bantam Books, 2000