We’ve said good-bye to Italy many times over the past eight months, and one week ago we bade farewell to bella Italia once again. We don’t know when, but we’ll be back. A friend of ours just asked why. For me, the answer has to do with the way that Italy values beauty.
One of the things that has always most surprised me about Italy is its natural beauty. From the Italian Alps and the northern Dolomites, to the Appenines and the Lucanian Dolomites, to the coastal bluffs of Amalfi and Maratea, to the gorgeous green Adriatic of the Gargano and the beautiful beaches on the Ionian Sea, Italy’s landscapes are stunning and diverse, much like California’s.
Californians sometimes compare the hills of Sonoma or Napa to the hills of Tuscany or Umbria. Still… California’s hills are not crowned by this:
And its towns are not decorated like this:
Italy’s land was developed before industrialization brought along its more pragmatic approach to the built environment. Pragmatism was not the guiding force behind the building of the magnificent Duomo of Florence (pictured on our blog-site home page), or the wonderful cathedral of Pisa, which is far more worth visiting (in my humble opinion) than its much more famous bell tower.
Much of Italy’s development was guided largely by spiritual and aesthetic values (with lavish financial support from the Church and other wealthy patrons). The creation of beauty and grandeur was seen as an essential component of the worship of God and the honoring of the saints. Although most visitors to Italy find her cathedrals to be breathtakingly beautiful, I’ve seen some who react with a kind of repulsion that can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, and even farther back to the Old Testament. For these folks, the cathedrals of Italy are examples of the materialistic excesses of the Church, and the countless exquisite paintings of Madonna and Child as well as sculptures of the prophets and saints violate First Commandment prohibitions against idolatry and the creation of likenesses — especially representations of the spiritual realm. For its part, Catholicism reckons that once God actually took on physical form in Jesus, the Old Testament admonitions against representing the divine through art were superseded, much like the way most Protestants currently believe the Old Testament Kosher and Sabbath laws were superseded. It’s no accident that the greatest Western masterpieces of art were created in Italy and other nations where Catholicism was historically prominent. Even though religious fervor has cooled a great deal in Italy over the years, it still considers the beauty of its art and its built environment to be its great national treasure.
Correspondingly Italians have a much different attitude toward their cities and towns than Americans generally have, particularly their old towns. These towns are not practical. Americans would have no patience for them. They were created before the automobile. The streets are too narrow; the towns are often surrounded by ancient walls that make traffic flow so inconvenient that people often have no choice but to walk….and interact with each other, violating all sorts of New World notions of privacy in the process. The stone walls in their buildings are two-feet thick and not conducive to phone, TV and internet wiring. Still society gives them so much value that remodeling one’s home or widening a road in the “centro storico” (historical center of town) seems to require an act of God. Of course, Italy does have its suburbs and its box stores, as I mentioned in a long-ago post about Florence’s Ikea, but Italy is far more reluctant than the New World to tear down its old buildings and walls. They are too charming, too historical….too beautiful.
Similar attitudes can be found in other parts of Europe where the Catholic Church has had a strong presence. In early October we spent a week in Barcelona, Spain and visited La Sagrada Familia, a grand church that has been under construction since 1882, initially under the design of Francisco de Paula del Villar, but almost immediately taken over by the great 19th Century modernist architect Antoni Gaudi.
La Sagrada Familia has been open to visitors since 2010. It will be many decades before it is finished, but the church is already absolutely stunning, both outside and inside. Still, it must be utterly mystifying to those who see the value of a building in terms of functionality.
It’s very hard for me to imagine Americans having the patience to take centuries to construct a church….or any building for that matter.
The styles of architecture that predominate in La Sagrada Familia are modernist and neo-Gothic. Modernist elements are present especially in the facade, which clearly takes its inspiration from the natural world. To get a sense for why La Sagrada Familia is called neo-Gothic, it helps to compare it with the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona – soaring spires reaching toward the heavens, and tall, high stained-glass windows that pull in sunlight.
Many consider La Sagrada Familia excessive, even outrageous. The same has been said about both the baroque cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce in the southern Italian city of Lecce (the Florence of the South), which we visited at the end of September. Both were designed by the wild and crazy brothers Zimbalo in the 16th Century. Gargoyles, cherubs and critters of all kinds (some undetermined) cover the exterior façade of Santa Croce.
Sections of the façade of Lecce’s Basilica of Santa Croce were hidden by scaffolding during our visit there. Parts of the great churches are almost always being repaired or cleaned – a small price to pay for their preservation. So my photo doesn’t fully capture the fancifulness of the façade.
Baroque, Gothic and neo Gothic styles are not for those with more sober tastes in architecture. Those folks are more inclined toward the Renaissance and the Romanesque.
My tastes seem to lack sobriety. One prominent visitor once said that the Basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce was a nightmare produced by a lunatic. Of course, the same might be said of Dante’s Inferno — one of the world’s great works of literature.
Speaking of Dante, one of my main reading projects during my travels has been to read the complete Divine Comedy. I’d struggled through the Inferno and was just finishing the last cantos of the Purgatorio when we left Europe. The flight was long and exhausting. It was nearly 36 hours before we actually slept in a bed again. We awoke to a chorus of roosters and the smell of incense in a beautiful bungalow in Bali – just as I made it to Dante’s Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden at the apex of the mountain of Purgatory.