Venice, Italy. Photo @ Federico Beccari for Unsplash.

Italia bella: the discourse of beauty and crisis in Italian culture and media

Elena Borelli

Elena Borelli

Elena teaches Italian language and culture at King's College London. Before she was Assistant Professor at the City University of New York. Her research interests include the literature and culture of the European fin-de-soecle.

This piece discusses the recurring theme of the beauty of Italy in Italian media and culture, tracing its origins in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s political speeches at the turn of the twentieth century. The piece explores how the notion of a beautiful land, though plagued by economic crisis, is at the core of a narrative with political and social implications.
 
During the early weeks of the pandemic in Italy, when the strict lockdown had just begun, Oliver Astrologo launched a video that quickly went viral on the Internet and on most social networks (see video below). Narrated by actor Paolo Buglioni, the video celebrates the beauty of Italy by showing its most iconic locations. “We live in the most beautiful country in the world and we act as if we did not know it” says the narrating voice at the beginning of the video. Italians locked in their homes could picture the beautiful cities turned eerily empty, the familiar buzz of streets, markets, and piazzas faded into a disquieting silence. “But one thing should reassure us” continues the narrator “that once this is over, we will fill those streets and squares again, because this is, after all, the most beautiful country in the world.”
 

This video was soon followed by others repeating the same slogan, as the pictures of Italy’s beauty were meant to fill a frightened population with pride and courage. Indeed, Astrologo’s video was reposted by right-wing politician Giorgia Meloni with the tag “the beauty, strength and uniqueness of our Nation enclosed in one video.”

Another commercial, produced by http://www.visititaly.com, claimed that “the only virus in Italy is beauty”.
 

While these proclamations may have sounded outlandishly bold in Germany or the United Kingdom, they struck a chord among Italians, as a nation otherwise so divided and plagued by political instability could feel united on a notion bound to trigger a strong emotional response: the exceptional beauty of the land. Actually, the chord that was struck in the heart of Italians was not particularly new, but one as well-known and catchy as the lines of an operatic aria. It takes us back about 120 years, to the time marking the entry into politics of one character who certainly knew a great deal about beauty: the dandy, womanizer, poet, playwright, and soon-to-be soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio.

In 1897, when D’Annunzio joined the ranks of the Far Right, he had neither the political experience nor the knowledge of the already complex bureaucratic machine of the new Kingdom of Italy. He knew neither economics nor politics. However, he was spiritually attuned to the political movement sweeping Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, that form of nationalism described by George Mosse as a “secular religion of the nation” (1) characterized by the sacralization and aestheticization of politics: “'[In the twentieth century] politics became a drama, expressed through liturgical rites and symbols closely linked to concepts of beauty in which poetry felt at home.” (1) It was within this context that Gabriele D’Annunzio began creating his political propaganda, which centered on the vague but powerful idea of restoring Italy’s beauty. In his novels between 1880 and 1895, D’Annunzio had also vividly described the crisis affecting contemporary Italian society, as “grey democratic deluge”. (2) His ambitious programme was to “gather militant energies which could save some beautiful things from the muddy wave of vulgarity already drowning the privileged land where Leonardo created his imperious women.” (3)
 

Venice, Italy. Photo @ Federico Beccari for Unsplash.

The discourse of crisis was (and still is) another well-known narrative in Italy, as for centuries the intellectual elites and later on the educated bourgeoisie had been advocating a political change in the divided, war-ridden, and yet beautiful peninsula. This far cry for renovation goes back to Dante’s description of Italy as a “lady no longer of fair provinces, but a brothel” (4) and to his hope that the Holy Roman Emperor would come and restore order. It is the same call for renovation that informs Niccolo’s Machiavelli’s The Prince and made him place his hopes onto the politically ruthless Cesare Borgia. The ongoing deprecation of Italy’s condition was only temporarily halted during the Risorgimento, the process that led to Italy’s unification, which was indeed appropriately called a “resurrection” or a “rebirth”. Soon after unification, though, the myriad practical problems arising in the new country quickly curbed the enthusiasm of the patriotic minority who had driven the Italian revolution. As poet and patriot Giosue Carducci wrote: “The revelation of glory which appeared to our fantasy, the epic tale of our youth […] have disappeared and have gone forever. The best part of our lives is over.” (5) When entering politics, D’Annunzio knew how to weave his narrative of political rejuvenation against the general awareness of a crisis that had virtually never ceased to exist, but which had never weakened Italy’s one true strength: beauty.

The recurring metaphor in D’Annunzio’s political speeches is that of an image, a human face representing Italy: “the effigy of beautiful Italy.” (6) This beautiful image shines through the mud of the present crisis, only seemingly “deformed” or “lost”. (7) D’Annunzio planned to steer the nation towards a new “Renaissance” for Italy by appealing to the people’s pride for the beauty of their country, its nature and its artistic treasures: “No Italian – I believe- even in the current unfortunate obfuscation of every ideal – no Italian will read without gratitude these sincere words, in which the ancient Mother of Beauty […] is saluted with such noble sentiments of hope and faith.” (3) And again: “Which politician today seems to remember that Italian life was once the ornament of the world? […] The destiny of Italy is inseparable from that of Beauty, of which she is the mother.” (7)

I will not focus here on the racial and racist implications of D’Annunzio’s metaphor of the effigy of Italy, which is inextricably connected with the nationalistic theme of the “stirpe,” the “ancestry”. This theme becomes increasingly prominent in the poet’s writings before World War I. I will simply point out that at the beginning of the twentieth century D’Annunzio – and he was not alone – began configuring war as the cleansing (blood) bath from which the beauty of Italy would emerge purified and more resplendent (8). The culmination of crisis into war allows D’Annunzio to imagine a glorious future for Italy as a great empire among the other powerful European nations. This dream was short-lived as Italy’s victory was – in the opinion of the Right – mutilated and incomplete. However, it is worth noting that fantasies of rebirth and rejuvenation frequently occur in times of severe crisis. If we fast forward to our current situation, everyone can surely remember another viral video that circulated in March 2020, in which a father told his child the story of how humanity learned kindness and love from the experience of pandemics (see video below).
 

In the past decades Italy has known a series of political turns, as well as being deeply affected by the crises of the global economy. In 2015, when Italy was still crawling out of the Great Recession, Mauro Magatti, an Italian economist interested in the transformation of economic and social systems, wrote on the pages of Il Corriere della Sera an article entitled: “The destiny of a country, Italy and Beauty: a value to be cultivated.” In this article, Magatti suggests a possible way out of the crisis for Italy, proposing a model of economic growth based on creativity, new ideas, and on the careful cultivation of the beauty of which Italy abounds. Magatti’s words summarize the old dichotomy of beauty and crisis: “[…] when we [Italians] search for a positive image of our Country, we say that we are the children of a land whose characteristic trait is beauty: where else can our quest for identity be fulfilled? […] However, we have not always been up to the standard of this tradition: how much ugliness have we built, or how much beauty have we maimed or simply forgotten?” Italian beauty is acknowledged everywhere abroad, continues Magatti, but it is not simply a resource to be exploited recklessly, but the starting point for the creation of a new society with a new economy based on sustainability, education, and creativity: “[…] we need to clear our eyes at the beginning of each day, cleansing them from expectations, resignation, old habits, so that they can become transparent to the beauty which will welcome and surprise us.” It is uncanny to observe how Magatti’s article closely follows the old narrative of the rejuvenating power of beauty. So does an interesting booklet re-published in 2020 called Manifesto per Riabilitare l’Italia, a collection of philosophical essays devoted to the political and economic future of Italy. (9) In particular, one essay seems to literally echo D’Annunzio’s speech on the effigy of beautiful Italy: “Every tree, rock, and fountain contains the ancient gods. The air and the land are filled with them […] How to describe this fundamental reality: that our daily life, even the most laborious, anonymous, and grey, unfolds in a space made extraordinary not only by the beauty we see, but also by the one we do not see, passing by like a mysterious angel.” Beauty is what constitutes the national identity of Italians, and a resource upon which to build the uncertain future of the country.

Italy’s problematic situation has also been a recurring theme in the foreign press of the last two decades, especially in Northern Europe, as interventions by the EU aimed at saving Italy have invariably triggered mixed reactions among the so called “frugal” countries. In 2018 the Clingendael Institute in the Netherland published an essay by two economists, Arthur Weststejin and Pepijin Corduwener, co-authors of a book titled “Laboratory Italy. How the most beautiful country in Europe invented modern politics.” Here, the authors claim that Italy has always been the birthplace not only of beauty, but also of dangerous political experiments that spread elsewhere, thus calling for Europe’s attention on what was happening in the country. The tone of this and other essays on the Italian situation “is not of hate, but rather of concern about the catastrophe hitting a place dear to everyone, the source of beauty and culture, which no event so far had destroyed or brutalized… Italy, beautiful and beloved, is the thorn in the side of European politics.”

Italy, “the sick man of Europe” became even more so during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, as it was the first European country to be hit by the virus, with tragic consequences. After months of complete lockdown the economy is reeling and businesses are struggling to reopen. The hymns to beauty sung by Italians by their balconies went quiet after a few weeks of quarantine. At the beginning of the summer there was major concern about the travel restrictions, as Italy relies heavily on foreign tourists, and on the losses of various sectors of the national economy.

Between June and July the leaders of the European Union discussed a plan of financial intervention in favour of countries whose economies had suffered most from the impact of the pandemic, the so-called Recovery Fund. An agreement seemed hard to reach, as the Northern countries such as the Netherlands and Finland were reluctant to increase their debt by financing countries such as Italy, who are well known for their reckless spending and huge public debt, as well as for tax evasion. The negotiations lasted long, as Italians closely followed news of the outcome of the EU summits. The popular reaction was mixed, judging from the letters sent to newspapers such as Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera and to the comments on social media. It went from a heartfelt condemnation of the political condition of Italy, which had led to such mistrust from the European Union, to rage against the “frugal” countries and in their unfair refusal to help. It was particularly interesting that the discourse of Italy’s beauty resurfaced, as some of the comments on social media went as far as wanting to forever ban the Northern tourists from Italy’s sunny shores, or accusing them of being jealous of Italy’s beauty. Even a reputable journal such as Repubblica somehow engaged in this controversy: on 21 July it published interviews with Dutch tourists in Italy, asking for their opinion on the Recovery Fund. The Dutch were staunch supporters of Mark Rutte’s refusal to grant money to the Southern countries. They lamented the bureaucracy that, according to them, was responsible for Italy’s debt as well as the early retirement policy, which they found outrageous. “Having said that” stated one of the tourists “I would come and live in Italy tomorrow… when we come to Italy, we are happy”. Another stated “If we look at you from the outside, we are confused and a bit fearful. But then we come to the lake and we forget everything.” As it turns out, the sick man of Europe is also still a beautiful person who can seduce its detractors; das Krisenland is also Northern Europeans’ “own and favourite holiday land.” (10)

In early June, Mr. Conte had organized a summit with some prominent economists and European ministers which was called “General States of the Economy”. During this meeting, a plan for the recovery of the Italian economy was to be discussed, in preparation for the European funds that would perhaps come later in the year. Mr. Conte delivered the initial remarks, outlining Italy’s plan for recovery. Interestingly, the Italian Prime Minister inserted a note on beauty: “Within this strategic plan we include the investment on the ‘beauty’ of our Country. And let me tell you that the choice of this location, which someone found unusual, the Casino of Bel Respiro in the park of Villa Pamphilj, is a homage to Italy’s beauty. Just when we plan the relaunch of our economy, we need to make sure that the whole world focus on the beauty of our country.” D’Annunzio would have applauded Conte’s speech and the choice of location, which he had praised in his novel The Child of Pleasure.

Finally, the European Union signed an agreement that was rather advantageous for Italy. The agreement on the Recovery Fund was hailed as a great victory for the Italian government led by Mr. Giuseppe Conte, and a sense of relief ran through the population, although the time and means of the European funds were and, at the time of writing, are still to be decided. Meanwhile, the summer was hailed as a welcome break from the lockdown and Italians were encouraged to holiday in their beautiful land, thus supporting the local tourism industry. Myriads of cultural programmes started airing on TV and on the Internet, all focusing on the beauty of Italy even in its most remote corners, Italians were reminded that indeed, they live in the most beautiful country in the world, and this beauty was to be a consolation after the hardship of quarantine.

These last few years in Italy, and the last in particularly, have significantly revived a quintessential topos of decadent and fin-de-siècle European literature, the ambiguous relationship of beauty and illness. In the case of Italy, the duality is between its economic precariousness and the tragedy of COVID-19 on the one hand, and its unique charm of lifestyle, art and stunning nature on the other. The Recovery Fund and the plan of growth and modernization, which this new “Marshall Plan” is supposed to bring about in Italy indeed suggests a rebirth after the dark night of the pandemic. We will see if Italy will indeed capitalize on its beauty and on its many other strengths to crawl out of the crisis and combine its beauty with health, prosperity, and sustainability.

 

Elena Borelli

 

References:

  1. George Mosse, Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality, 1997, p.88.
  2. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Il Piacere, 1894, p. 38.
  3. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Il Proemio del Convito in Scritti Giornalistici, Annamaria Andreoli, 2 vols, 2003, 2, p.283-317.
  4. Dante Alighieri, Purgatory, VI, 76-78.
  5. Giosue Carducci, Prose 1859-1903, 1905, p. 926.
  6. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Inaugurazione della Loggia Orsanmichele, 1900, in Prose di Ricerca, Annamaria Andreoli and Giorgio Zanetti. 2 vols, 2005, 2, p.2214-18.
  7. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Proemio del Marzocco, in Scritti Giornalistici, 2 475-88
  8. Gabriele D’Annunzio Orazione per la Sagra dei Mille, 1914, in Scritti Giornalistici, 683-85.
  9. Cersimo and C. Donzelli (eds.). Manifesto per Riabilitare l’Italia, 2020.
  10. Stern, June 2009.
Received: 03.10.20, Ready: 02.11.20, Editors: Anna K. Stelling-Germani, Robert Ganley.

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