This post is a natural complement to a post I wrote several months ago on the French sensibility.
When one thinks of Italian, probably the first thing that comes to mind is sound and the aural. Italian culture is a very auditory culture: it thrives on sound. The Italian language is very mellifluous; its pure vowels make it a singer’s delight, and the intonations up and down indicate the rise and fall of a person’s emotions. This is not an easy task for those who learn Italian as a foreign language, especially those who come from languages that are not intonation-heavy. The doubled consonants add pauses, creating a wonderful rhythm to the language that makes for interesting emphasis. And of course, naturally, with the Italian language goes the use of the hands: Italians are born with eurhythmy in their blood. The hands themselves speak an entire language of their own, frankly, though they served to highlight or underscore what’s being said.
Along with the Italians’ love of language goes the love of music, which is another aspect of sound. The Italians are naturally musical people. Their love of music is not something only formally cultivated; no, the average Italian can burst into song, or hum a well known melody with natural spontaneity from the soul that no amount of musical training could produce. This is, after all, the country that created opera! Think of opera but also of popular Neapolitan songs that have endured over centuries and have traveled all around the world. Mozart himself was probably the greatest “Italian” composer: his musical sensibility maintains all of the joy and grace of Italian culture, and his text setting of Da Ponte’s spectacular texts reveal his unbelievably nuanced understanding of the language. Don Giovanni is the ultimate Italian masterpiece. And the violin culture of Cremona, home to Stradivari and co., is yet another example of the Italians’ love for and understanding of music, through the making of complex string instruments.
As above, the Italians’ use of the hands gesticulating wildly speak leads to another facet of the culture—-the love of the physical, the kinesthetic, the body. The body is immortalized in countless Italian statues and sculptures over the millennia, admired openly by men on the street, and celebrated in fashion. Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the body is Michelangelo’s David, the colossal sculpture of the epitome of male beauty. The Catholic faith as we know it (also anchored in Italy) addresses both the sins of the flesh as well as the holiness of the body: think the Eucharist ritual enacted at every mass. Think, also, of the trope of the whore in Italian film or literature—-her significance is larger than the mere fulfillment of male pleasure. One need only cite the brilliant Camille Paglia here, for her extensive writings on images of women in Italian art, literature, and history.
Needless to say, drama is a key element of Italian culture, be it on a personal level or an artistic one. Witness a shouting match at a Milanese supermarket when the cashier decides to go on break just when it is a customer’s turn to pay. Imagine “Ridi, pagliaccio” being sung as a child throws himself on the floor after being refused a cookie by his mamma. Marvel in the art form of opera, which includes such elements as blood and guts, lust, murder, death, passion, forbidden love, scandal, seduction, and intrigue, to name a few. The southern Italians have a reputation for being more passionate and dramatic than the reserved Northerners, but still, the latter are still more expressive than the average American or Northern European.
This passion and love for language is also reflected in the Italians’ love of debate, philosophy, and intellectualism. Since the Roman times, there runs a critical, analytic, even cerebral streak in many Italians. This is evident in those who feel tired of the cultural and political shenanigans of their country, who have a lot of commentary. Think of all the great Italian writers and philosophers: Eco, Gramsci, Dante, Lampedusa, et cetera. Perhaps this concrete, practical side of Italians was the inheritance from the Romans, for it was they in their practicality who drained the swamps, built the infrastructure, and created an empire. Chances are, the Italian intellectual is not so much of an abstract, spiritual thinker, but one who relates to his or her society and social circles.
This relating to people is also at the root of Italian society, for familial and personal ties take precedence over all else. The Anglo-Saxon sense of individualism and the quality we find here in the US or Britain or other Anglophone countries is not held to the highest ideal. Rather, one’s priorities lie with those in one’s circles; this probably makes Italy one of the most psychologically healthy countries in the developed world. One’s personal life matters: it is at the core of one’s being, it is one’s sustenance in a country where the government is unreliable and the political situation eternally unstable. In America, the personal is political; in Italy, the personal trumps the political—-no self-respecting Italian would completely forgo his or her personal life for the sake of a successful career, as is all too common here. This is not to say that there are not successful Italians or that there is not a professional work ethic in Italy. Bear in mind Italy’s financial prowess and economy, which can only have resulted from hard work. But an abstract sense of what is “professional” is replaced by a sense of meaningful relationships with others. And if one dares to succumb to clichés, the love for the familial ties is ever-present in the Italian man’s love for his mother.
Finally, one cannot discuss Italy without discussing the love of beauty. Something unpleasant or disagreeable is described as “brutto” or ugly. The purpose of everything is to serve as a work of art, be it one’s wardrobe, appearance, or living space. “Fare la bella figure”—-to cut a fine figure—-is a worthy goal the high and low aspire to. Art is what redeems the challenges of living in Italy, with its crumbling buildings, corruption, unstable government, and dubious infrastructure. Rome itself is a living museum, full of beautiful things to see and explore. Art historians for centuries have spent time in Italy, and in the olden days of the Grand Tour, Italy was a must for the wealthy and art-loving people. Textiles, silks, painted pottery, blown glass, luthiers—-these are but a few examples of craftsmanship present in usable objects, where form takes precedence over function.
This essay could continue endlessly to extol the virtues of Italian culture (and, perhaps also criticize its faults). But as a final note, perhaps Italy’s best contribution to the world is its FOOD!