March 3, 2010

Bella Italia: They Just Do It Better in Europe

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You don’t have to go out of your way to notice just how much more elegantly Italians dress (your fellow Americans are not difficult to spot, even from a distance), or how much they insist on surrounding themselves with aesthetically appealing designs.

They can even be merciless –– try on some clothes and if they don’t look stylish enough on you, the store clerk won’t hesitate to tell you so. But what I like about Italian style is that it has less of the show-off quality you find in other Medi­terranean countries: You won’t find the frustrating hour-long waits for a hair-cut as the barber fusses and endlessly snips bit by bit at one or at most two successive customers’ hair.

It’s true that Italians spend absurd amounts of money looking stylish, but their love of a good sight extends even to their everyday sights of life. I had the bizarre experience while meeting with the visa officials of watching them all stop working and start talking excitedly as the sun sets in a brilliant scene over the industrial buildings and electrical towers on the outskirts of Rome. And then the official who was reviewing my paperwork saw a book on Caravaggio I was reading for art history –– it took several minutes of him flipping through and repeating “che bella” before he remembered that, in addition to his dream job as art critic, he also was responsible for visa applications.

But everyone is a critic in Italy and everyone has an opinion about the latest trend or work of art or car design.  With his drab, brown-brick blocks of buildings that served as his offices in Rome, Mussolini was very un-Italian and I wonder if some of the hatred toward him by almost everyone in the country stems in some part from his complete lack of taste (“Look at those ghastly, all-black uniforms!” I imagine some Italian of the thirties complaining), especially in his insistence on destroying many of the elegant ruins of ancient Rome to make way for the riot-proof boulevards of the new one.

A more typical attitude was held by the Medici who reigned in Florence at the height of the Renaissance: By the time the construction of a private office building next to the Medici palace was completed after a generation of labor and embellishment, the son of the prince who had commissioned it thought that it was far too beautiful to be an office building and  decided to house his private art collection in it.  Now after several centuries of further collection, thousands of people line up for hours just to enter the Uffizi every day (1.6 million visitors per year).

It’s an incredible sight to see constant crowds of people lined up, not for the latest club, but for a museum of Renaissance art. And nearly every block of this small town is full of such elegant buildings, many with priceless works of art inside.  You can see this desire to turn everything into an object of beauty even on doors, most famously, the gilded bronze doors of the battistero next to the Duomo. Who else would even consider designing and sculpting such superfluously ornate and over-the-top doors?

Of course, some credit for all this architecture and painting must be given to the Church. For all its faults, the Catholic Church is definitely the most stylish of the Christian denominations.  Which other religious head wears Prada shoes? Some might object to this as a betrayal of older custom, but this emphasis in the Church on style stretches back centuries when those in charge of St. Peter’s spared no expense in pursuit of luxury –– even when under siege by the coarsely clad Protestants of the north, the popes still made sure their personal apartments were decorated in the latest Mannerist trends of painting, as any visitor to the Castel Sant’Angelo quickly discovers.

Of course the more cynical might counter that it was only the great riches that the popes or the Medici and Sforza had obtained that made all this possible. But in the end, it’s more important how important how these wealthy people used their money than how the average Italian uses his money to this day; after all, the United States may be far richer than Italy, but I find it hard to imagine anyone seriously debating which group of people goes through each day with more elegance and style.  I for one finally caved in and bought some new shoes.

Original Author: Oleksander Bilyk