One of the most important points that Beppe Severgnini makes in his book La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind is similar to a concept that we’ve touched on in our readings of Alain de Botton’s Art of Travel. He is straightforward with this point, stating:
“Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring, but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun” (Severgnini, pp. 1).
He then proceeds to go on a 10-day trip through Italy to explain the inner workings of the true Italian culture and mind. He breaks some stereotypes, enforces others, and destroys the idyllic expectation of Italy that travelers have when they arrive. As a traveler who had the typical expectations whether or not I meant to have them, it was a very eye-opening perspective. When I got here, one of the aspects of Florence I was so excited about was the beauty of the city and its architecture. As I walk around the city now, I know I also have to consider “risks of being picturesque” (Severgnini, pp. 104) in my admiring of the Italian life and countryside. Picturesque some places might be, but there is so much beyond the superficial facade of beauty. Italy is not just for show, to be admired by those who visit because of its illustrious past.
This country is real, its cities teeming with modern Italian life that is just as significant and worthy of note as the past that came before it. Ignoring the present Italian culture is ignoring Italia, and it would be a shame to leave the country without examining that alongside the relics of the past.
An interesting point also related to the history that I had not considered before reading this book is in regards to the vast amount of art and countless museums in Italy. I had not thought about what it would be like to grow up and live in a city like Florence, and how that would affect a person’s view towards art. Visitors flock here to visit the many museums, but imagine being within a few minutes walk to all of this art for your whole life. Severgnini reveals the Italian expression “museum fodder” (pp. 71) which can apply to both native Florentines and to visitors of the city. For locals, the overabundance of art can end up reducing the overall appreciation of the art simply because there is so much of it to admire and it is constantly within easy reach. For visitors, they try to hit all of the most famous stops, and then the art begins to bleed together as they race their way through museums to fit everything in, without stopping to really understand and appreciate the individual pieces.
Svergnini’s description of the inner workings of the Italian family, and how central food is to general life, is also worthy of note. He is entertaining in how he talks about it, as if the “gastronomical pride” (Severgnini pp. 22) that Italians have involves an innate ability to seek out good food, whether it means choosing an authentic restaurant or cooking quality food. He states it as though it is a fact that all Italians automatically have this ability. It is a cultural stereotype that Italians love food, but it is a true, non-exaggerated stereotype. Severgnini says, “We talk about food before we eat it, while we’re eating it, and after we’ve eaten it. Digestive discussion reassures the stomach and prepares the mind–for another meal, and another discussion” (Severgnini pp. 25). Food is central to both culture and family, it is so much more than simple sustenance. It is a keystone to Italian life and society. This is evident to anyone who spends even a day in Florence, with all of the restaurants, gelaterie, and wine. Food is everywhere, and there are constantly people sitting down to enjoy it.
Severgnini’s perspective was eye-opening to read, and is definitely affecting the way that I think about my time here in Italy.