27 Jun 2012
Ask anyone in the world what they think of when they think about Italy and they are going to tell you a few things right off the bat. Most likely you are going to hear about pizza, pasta, the Roman Empire, wine, Venice, and love. You might also get mafia, Leonardo Da Vinci, red sauce (or Marinara), coffee, Catholics, the Pope and the Vatican.
Let’s distill those words down to the heart – food, religion, architecture, and art. These are perhaps the quintessential essence of Italy and over the past weeks, I’ve found myself exploring them all in ways that I might never have expected before I came here. Arriving in Pisa, I was knocked over by the leaning tower of Pisa before heading to Florence where I was fortunate to stay in the same hotel as a class of university students who had come specifically to study the architecture of Firenze (that’s Florence to Italians) and then the next day, I found myself on a historic walking tour of the center of the birth of the Renaissance. This after having stared face to face with the face of John the Baptist’s severed head while in Malta. This, my friends, is the convergence of religion and art – I might add that architecture was along for the ride too.
During my time here, I have stared in wonder at famous paintings, stood beneath astounding frescoes – while skirting the edges of ancient Christian churches sparsely populated by aging pensioners.
From Florence to the beach holiday city of Rimini, where Federico Fellini took Italian film to new heights while exploring the odd backroads and active Adriatic beachfront filled with even odder characters than those he brought to life with his imagination. For in fact, we can’t discuss Italian art without including Italian Cinema whether it be Sophia Loren as the Lady of the Eels or the exciting but somehow dreadful ambiance of Amarcord and the Grand Rimini Hotel.
And yet, with all of these, the thing that is present is not just the architecture and the holiness of sacred places but also one sees, tastes, smells, and enjoys the wide array of foods and products that bring Italian food to life (or should I say Italian life to food.) While each region of Italy has its claim to fame, there is nowhere more renowned or filled with the wonders of Italian gastronomy than the region of Emilia Romagna and within that region, it has to be the ancient city of Modena that wins the prize for production of some of the most important components of the specialized Italian menu.
And yet, there is more, the final and most important ingredient of Italy and the one that without, there would be no Italy at all. Can you guess it? Ah, yes, perhaps you can. It is the Italians that make Italy the place that it is and that have always done so – from the old men sitting in front of the cafes to the old women soaking up the sun on Sunday afternoons to the beautiful women riding bicycles to the cool guys that work in the shops, build and drive the incredible Italian sports cars, or the men and women who produce all of the products, art, culture, or cuisine that this country is so filled with. And yes, there are many other things and people who I might mention in this realm. Pavarati, Michelangelo, Monica Belucci, Machiaveli, Caruso, Columbus, Enzo Ferrari, Marco Polo, Marconi – the list goes on and on. Italians have not only made Italy the place that it is – they have also greatly contributed to making the world what it is. And, to answer – What am I doing here? In fact, I am getting to know Italians, getting to know their country, getting to know their cuisine, their art, their architecture, their sports cars, their lifestyle….and really, in the process, getting to know myself better too. For after all, the heritage of Italy, is truly the heritage of mankind.
Over the next few weeks, I will be introducing you to much of Italy – and, because it seems that in addition to all of the above, there is also more than a little laughter in the Italian character – I now introduce you to someone one of my Italian friends introduced me to earlier today – The Italian Man who Went to Malta. Be prepared to laugh outloud – not safe for work as it has some particular sounds that are remarkably like cuss words – and don’t spit your coffee all over your monitor as you watch this.