I’ve been in Italy for 18 years. And I never stop marveling at how pretty it is. And the real head-scratcher is this: how is it that Italians have a knack for creating beauty in a particular way that the rest of us don’t have? How is it that their benign neglect or their very way of simply living creates a beauty that sends Stendhal-Syndrome-sufferers to hospitals and clinics? How is it that someone’s dishtowels, hanging overhead can make my heart ache? Did this person know that that red towel would perfectly complement the deep shade of the alley and the sage green of the adjacent wall?
Oh, the rest of us can design stuff. We can make it hip and chic and modern and cool. We can make clothes and living spaces adhere to the latest graphic, fashion and architectural trends. We can arrange things—personal shrines, closets or bedside tables—so they look good enough to photograph. We can consult websites and blogs ad infinitum. We can try and try really hard. But will we ever succeed in creating that slightly neglected, found-art quality that almost everything Italian seems to have? Will it feel so…genuine? If I hung my laundry out to dry, would it look so good? Would it be art? Could I convince my neighbor to park his black scooter under my laundry so that the whole thing would be—oh I don’t know—that much more picturesque?
When Italians renovate, they seem to know when to stop. They seem to know when to let the crumbling wall stay in a state of crumble. They seem to realize that water-stained surfaces are more stunning than those of a single, uniform color. Maybe this laissez-faire is born of fiscal necessity (I know it often is). But I also think Italians know in their bones that they live in loveliness, and it is their national duty to allow it to persist. Why else would they laboriously maintain cobbled streets instead of just paving them?
The Italian aesthetic seems to quiver vibrantly between the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi (in which beauty resides in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness) and the Greek ideal of proportion and absolute beauty. Here what was historically beautiful is in a state of lovingly prolonged decline. And what is natural, real, human, useful—those objects that define the everyday—assume their place easily in that mis en scene. Everything breathes. Everything is part of a passage. The fact that, ultimately, none of it will last just adds to the magnificence of it.
And Italians contribute to the beauty as easily as breathing. They never try too hard. In fact, they may not try at all. They just make it so.
I’ve filled this post with hanging laundry because it’s an omnipresent national monument that never ceases to attract my eye. But consider these last two images. Peppers out to dry. Not because they’re pretty, but because—duh—they need to dry. And the most unassuming alley-side cafe you’ve ever seen. What could more beautiful then these tableaux? (I mean, please, a bare light bulb hanging over just one of the tables?) And you know there wasn’t a set dresser, designer, architect or expert-of-any-description in sight. It’s just beautiful because it is. And we non-Italians are left to wander in the midst of it all wondering how it could possibly be…