I know very little about Italy. My only contact with it has been a week in a Tuscan villa with friends-of-friends 12 years ago, and watching a couple of BBC2 documentaries by Francesco da Mosto (if you’ve never had the pleasure, seek him out. He’s a simian-faced Venetian count – a Venetian count! – whose accent could make you pregnant by the end of the programme) but it has been enough to ensure I can never go again.
Why? Because it’s just too… too… too MUCH , that’s why. For a start, it’s too beautiful. In my week there, in between swimming in the pool and roaming round the heartbreakingly gorgeous countryside whenever we had eaten slightly too much penne al’arrabiata to be entirely comfortable, we visited Siena, Florence, Rome and Pisa and it almost broke my brain. And eyes. And soul. Everywhere you turned there were museums, palaces, statuary, frescoes, gilded triptychs, mosaics, fountains, cathedrals, monasteries and basilicas strewn about like bricks from a child’s toy box. It’s hugely dispiriting after a while.
At least London has the decency to have plenty of sh*t bits inbetween its wonders, to give you a chance to catch your breath. OK, I may not be able even to conceive of how you begin to create Westminster Abbey, but at least I would never have built the Gherkin. In Italy, all you can do is walk around agape and occasionally prostrate yourself in awe at, say, every third unspeakably lovely creation standing in mute, enduring testament to the fathomless talents at work in centuries past. And then peel yourself off the floor, muttering, “Sod this, I bet Michelangelo couldn’t eat a 10th as much gelato as I’m about to. Scusi, fellers, mine’s a triple scoop of pistachio and don’t be stingy with the wafers.”
In Italy, all you can do is walk around agape
Everywhere you go is suffused with the confidence and style of a country that knows it was the birthplace of civilisation. Every building screams, “We totally OWNED the Renaissance!” Every serene square says, “Come in, sit down, chill. We’ve proved ourselves once. No need to start sweating any small stuff now.” You cannot help but stagger round Florence marvelling at the fact that while medieval Londoners were still picking their way through streets running with rats and sewage and wondering why they were suffering their 16th bout of plague, the Florentines were busy inventing banking (ignore the current Eurocrisis – it’s nothing but a tiny blot on the historical landscape!) and becoming the one-stop shop for all your wool-trading, silk-selling and all-round good-living needs.
And then there’s the Italians’ overwhelming commitment to la dolce vita. To living life at a pace and with a passion that maximises all its pleasures and minimises all its pains. If you give me plenty of warning and preparation time, I can relax for about 20 minutes a day. Not consecutively, in total. Part of the commitment to the good life is the prioritisation of sex and romance, of course. Unsurprisingly, it’s not for me. No-one who has refused to wear a bikini all her life is ever going to feel truly at home in a country that marks every twilight with la passeggiata. Though I’d probably give it a go if I could have a Venetian count susurrating in my ear every evening.
I find it both bizarre and magnificent that mad, lush, expansive Italy, so different in its mindset, remains such a popular place for us cramped Britons to go to. I am coming to realise that a visit there is probably best treated like a visit to a fashion show. Just as we’re not meant to go out and buy the precise outfits we see on the catwalks but recreate the general look in our own time once the high street has done its attenuating work, I should go there and just let it… influence me, work gently on my soul and generally improve me on the inside, as an ability to channel Milan fashion trends would on the outside.
But personally I can’t go back. I tasted too little of it too late. I’m too old and set in my ways now. The endemic ease, style and beauty of the place would kill me. You go. And send it my amore. My cold, bitter, wizened amore.
Do you agree with Lucy? Share your views in the comments below, or tweet us what you think of Italy @StylistMagazine