I’m writing this from a villa in Tuscany, lying beside a swimming pool, still drenched in sunshine at seven in the evening. And as Under-the-Tuscan-Sun saccharine as this sounds, there is even the dulcet chime of church bells echoing from the local village and a heady scent of campagna. My skin is golden brown; my bank account is triste; my telefono is full of beautiful messages from an Italian boy who loves me; my future is uncertain; my heart is full.
I’ve just spent 10 days on the island of Ponza, diving off rocks into turquoise water, eating fresh fish bought direct from the coloured boats of 90-year-old fishermen, and celebrating the religious festa of San Silverio with all the locals on the island.
Tomorrow I’m donning a black ball gown to dress up as Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita for a fashion party in Florence hosted by Karl Lagerfeld. Then it’s a week of la moda for the world’s most prestigious men’s fashion event, Pitti, where – as my dear gay friend laments – “My gaydar has never been so off! So many ridiculously stylish men in pastel shades who love women!”
Then I return to Rome where I’ve just furnished my cosy new appartamento in one of the most historic streets of the city with vintage furniture, an antique tapestry, Modigliani nudes and fresh flowers in every room from my local market.
I know there’s a lot wrong with Italy and the urge to return home where things are easier is enticing… but mamma mia, there is equally A LOT that is right in this country.
As an expat here, you go out into the world, be it to ‘take a coffee’, an aperitivo, or even just to do your grocery shopping and inevitably, the following questions arise from friends and strangers.
“Ah, you’re not Italian, no?”
“Where are you from?”
“You speak so well, how long have you been here?”
“What made you decide to come to Italy?”
“But la crisi … but il traffico, but non si puo trovare un lavoro, but your country is so beeeeeeello, it is my dream to live there!”
Ultimately, they have a point. Why are we here? Irrespective of your industry, it’s almost certain that you could be earning more back home. And while I’m not overly avaricious, hiding from the landlord when the rent is due can be damn inconvenient when you just want to leave the house for a coffee… or answer the citofono every now and then.
However, the other night I watched a brilliant documentary by the philosopher Roger Scruton called ‘Why Beauty Matters’ (you can watch it for free on Youtube). An eloquent staunch conservative, he puts forward the unfashionable yet convincing argument that art (from architecture to paintings) has departed too radically from that which is classically beautiful; visual works that enrich us, that transport us from our worries and the mundane or the brutal through both the romantic eye of the artist and the sheer skill involved in creating the piece.
Contemporary art of a pile of bricks recontextualised in the corner of a gallery space and termed ‘art’ is, for Scruton, a poor comparison with a work as transporting and inimitable as a sculpture by Michelangelo or the beauty of human frailty depicted in the wrinkles of a Rembrandt portrait. He believes that architects and installation artists have become so fixated on originality for cheap shock value that they’ve abandoned the former requisite creativity and talent involved in creating something that gives the viewer hope and a feeling of being sated.
Where am I going with this and how does it relate to you being in Rome?
Here we are surrounded by this exact type of aesthetic beauty; we needn’t even go into a gallery or museum. Rome is not the type of cutting edge urban city that puts up a new building every month or provides myriad professional opportunities. It is not a progressive, cosmopolitan city where everyone speaks English. But this is a city where you wander the streets, through piazzas, over cobblestone, past palazzos covered in decorative frescoes, and all of a sudden you feel deeply romantic in the broader sense of the word. This feeling is your body emotionally responding to all the shapes and colours and textures around you that were not created for utility or to endure merely one ephemeral trend in architecture or one PR-fuelled exhibition, but rather, to last as beauty that has proven to be eternal. A love of authentic beauty, as found in Rome, is neither superficial nor old-fashioned – I think it’s the mark of someone who has realised the very simple secret to quality of life.