THERE’S A FAMOUS quote by the eighteenth-century English novelist Fanny Burney that makes a perverse case against visiting Italy. “Traveling is the ruin of all happiness!” she wrote. “There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy.” Burney’s anguish is understandable to anyone who has spent a day gliding along the glittering Arno River in Florence, peering up at the Dolomites from snow-bound Bolzano, or racing down the thousand impossible steps to the beaches of Positano. Once you get a taste of paradise, it hurts to return to the salt mines of the rest of the world. Yet I’d argue that Burney has her whole notion of Italy backward. The meaning of the country — its beauty and purpose for those of us not blessed to be counted among its current population of 60 million — is not to destroy our less wondrous realities at home. Rather it offers itself up as a guide, an Italian way of living — sensorial, passionate, fully realized, with gilded eyes and no remote sense of punctuality — that, like tea leaves steeped in water, can color our lives long after we leave it. (At the end of this essay, I will provide an embarrassingly quotidian example.)
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Where does one begin with love affairs? The first brush, of course. My first visit to Italy was of the rote, tour bus, checklist variety. I was a teenager slouching around the predictable mind-blowing wonders with my Ohio family: the goodly Bollens herded through the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Uffizi to stand before Venus in a scallop shell, under the balcony where Juliet was seduced by a handsome family enemy. On that trip, I, too, was vulnerable to seduction, and it was Venice that gave me a particularly illicit idea of what my future could hold. I noticed a gangly troupe of squeaky-clean young Americans manning the desks and gallery rooms of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal. My first thought was not so much attributable to a survival instinct as an urge to be deliriously spoiled: Why can’t I be young and live in Venice too? A plan hatched in my teenage head, and I followed it to the letter after I graduated from college, applying for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection internship, which afforded me a summer living in Venice at the age of 23. There, over the course of those magical months, my hair turned blond from the Adriatic sun, I filled large plastic water bottles with red wine from the casks of the local vintner for 50 lire a pour, and I spent free mornings sitting in front of Veronese’s giant masterpiece “The Feast in the House of Levi” on the first floor of the Gallerie dell’Accademia, like visiting a wise, sickly aunt. I remember how the golden afternoon light bent around the bricks and stones bouncing off the green canal water. I also remember as my shoes tapped down the marble bridges, feeling so utterly lucky for having been given the gift of Italy in my youth. When I flew back to New York City after the internship ended, I cried. It wasn’t just the fact that a glorious summer in Venice had come to a close; it was precisely Burney’s fear that I’d touched gold and wouldn’t ever have it again. I’d gotten my arms around Italy far too young; I’d been spoiled and nothing for the rest of my life would compete with it.
Even more than its Roman ruins or Renaissance art or the plain fact that lemons, tomatoes, and capers burst with more flavor on this boot-like stretch of Mediterranean soil than anywhere else on the planet, it’s the everyday life of Italy that makes it so addictive and extraordinary. I question whether clocks are even needed here because no one seems to respect them. Italy runs on a time told by slow conversations and fast family squabbles, by the rhythm of the traffic and the restaurants on the sidewalk or the end of a song played on a neighbor’s radio, by appetites signaling the need for lunch or dinner, by close contact with friends over drinks in a campo as the sun fades and the church facade turns purple at twilight. I’ve always found it ironic that the Catholic Church is based in Italy. Or it’s rather all too clever and practical, for, without that constant reminder of a punitive spiritual thereafter, a sweeter religion could be made out of ordinary Italian days in the here and now. Nevertheless, for all of this grand Italian-ness, there are so many different Italys. It’s not simply one whirl of a place. Since that summer at the impressionable age of 23, I’ve had the fortune to average about one trip back to Italy per year. Each visit, each destination, each inch of that country is utterly distinct. The melancholic glamour of Turin has no shade of similarity to the black-rock swimming coves of the island of Linosa; the red mud and salt air of Sardinia couldn’t be fathomed in the echoey, candlelit basilica of Padua’s St. Anthony (indicative of the fact that Italy became its own united nation rather late by Western European standards). Each village is its own universe; each seaside restaurant, each Tuscan church crypt, each ground-floor living room of floral sofas and waxy linoleum tiles, its own dominion.
But I promised to give a specific example of how the spirit of Italy can be brought back home to counter the depressive tendencies of the Fanny Burneys among us. In the spring of 2014, I traveled to Palermo in Sicily, where Mount Etna was slowly spewing lava in the distance. After a few days of exploring that enchanted city, I took a trip along the coast to the island of Favignana, known, among other distinctions, for reeling in some of the most delicious tuna fish in the world. On this visit, I splurged on a can of the island’s delicacy that was, in effect, the beluga caviar of tuna fish. It was the same size as an ordinary can of tuna in my Upper West Side grocery store, only in its special lacquer-black packaging, this Favignana variety cost upward of 100 euros. I couldn’t wait to eat it. I brought it back to the States and put it in my kitchen cabinet, and there it sat, month after month, until they collected into years. This can of Favignana tuna fish was a treat, a reward, a sacred edible souvenir of my Sicilian journey, befitting a special occasion. I wanted to wait until the right time introduced itself in order to whip out the can opener and fork it daintily onto a plate. As much as I was dying to sample the tuna, the occasion never quite felt special enough, and on I went through my humdrum Burney-like existence in New York until, in the winter of 2018, I noticed the can was missing from the cabinet. I confronted my then-partner, who admitted, “Oh, yeah, the can was past its expiration date so I threw it out.” In a breath, this incident encapsulates the fundamental difference between my piteous American mindset and the romantic underpinnings of the Italian spirit. Italy doesn’t believe in waiting for a special occasion to enjoy the rewards of life. Today is reason enough to absorb the tastes and beauty like a life-sustaining nutrient. Italians would have opened that can of tuna the very next day and savored every fish flake. A delicacy not experienced is wasted. We should take that embrace of the day as a lesson. Living is the ultimate Italian art.
Header image: SALVATORE FERRAGAMO dress.
Christopher Bollen Writer
Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor based in New York City. He is the author of four novels, including his latest, “A Beautiful Crime,” a literary thriller set in Venice, Italy. He is currently the editor at large of Interview magazine and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Cedric Buchet Photographer
Cedric Buchet was born in Paris and is of both French and Danish descent. He moved to America at the age of 13 and studied philosophy at Vassar College. Buchet maintains a strong hand in both the fashion and the art world, yet demonstrates a singular approach regardless of the genre. His work is held in the permanent collection at MoMA and the Fonds National d'Art Contemporain in Paris as well as in private collections.