How Italy captured our hearts and created an unstoppable culture along the way

How Italy captured our hearts and created an unstoppable culture along the way

From ‘The Australian’ (you can read the original article here).

For centuries, France was the standard for the world’s cultural wannabes. But somewhere along the line Australians embraced Italy as the epitome of the good life.

For centuries, France was the standard for the world’s cultural wannabes and its prestige endured, despite the not inconsiderable dent of the French Revolution, until the outbreak of World War II. But the war’s end brought with it a decisive cultural shift. Hundreds of thousands of mainly poor, and mainly southern, Italians left their broken homeland for new lives in America, Canada, Australia and Argentina, and they transformed the rundown inner-city suburbs in which they chose to settle into images of themselves. Cafes, trattorias, pizzerias, grocery stores and delis soon mushroomed across the inner ’burbs.

In time these Little Italies, which oftentimes abutted universities and CBDs, became gentrified. Life in Australia changed radically, and much for the better. Australians soon realised that anything the French had – a cuisine, a wine culture, a glamorous history, a seductive language, a future-facing design sensibility, and the dream factories of film and fashion – Italy had too. But the Italians also had good coffee. And pizza. A sunny climate and, seemingly, a sunny disposition. We fell in love with Italy, and the world did too. Last year more people around the world googled the words “holiday in Italy” – 226,860 a month – than any other country. And at the travel search engine Rome2Rio, Italy is the most searched destination.

How did a culture of indigent economic refugees transform itself into a coveted way of life? The answer, in part, is that we became Italianised. Australians embraced “café culture”, which we took to be Italian. In the process we reinvented the café latte and, in the modified form of the Aussie “flat white”, exported it to America – along with our baristas. We looked to Italy for our style cues, our status symbols, and we made them our own. In the meantime the children of the post-war economic exiles grew up, finished school and university, and travelled to Italy, and it was there they learned about their true patrimony. They learned, in essence, about style.

Italy’s swinging sixties, which really began in the late 50s – years both celebrated and satirised in Federico Fellini’s anthemic masterpiece La Dolce Vita – thrust it to the fore of industrial design, motorsports, furniture, and luxury in all its guises. The designers of the country’s industrialised north, such as Gio Ponti (Milan), Carlo Mollino (Turin) and Carlo Scarpa (the Veneto), came to define the style of the age. The great Italian brands – Ferrari, Alessi, Ducati, Vespa, Zegna, Prada, Lavazza, S. Pellegrino, Versace, Gucci, Olivetti – were markers of status with magical properties that, once possessed, could make life beautiful with the wave of a consumerist wand. In the 1960s Rome was one big film set: Cinecittà, on its outskirts, is still the largest film studio in Europe. Milan, playing to its manufacturing strengths, solidified its position as a global design incubator (Salone del Mobile was launched in 1961) and catwalk.

Australians, cursed by an incurable wanderlust thanks to the tyranny of distance, began to covet Italian clothes, to watch Italian films, to learn Italian, to embrace Italian cuisine. In the process, spaghetti Bolognese – which the Bolognese call ragu and serve with tagliatelle – became one of our best-loved dishes. At a cooking class in Bologna recently I broke the news to the Modena-born chef, who was so chuffed that he pledged to serve “Spaghetti Australianese” – the culinary equivalent of a spaghetti western – at his restaurant.

My love affair with Italy began at university. I became friends with an Italo-Australian whose father was a restaurateur and sister an artist. I soon learned that coffee was best prepared with a little Bialetti stovetop, that my clothes were awful, and a good southern-style pasta dish with broccoli and anchovies wasn’t too hard to make. I began learning Italian. I adored Bernardo Bertolucci, Gina Lollobrigida and Italo Calvino. And when Umberto Eco gave a lecture at university, I was one of the first to take a seat. Afterwards he took questions from the audience before heading off to see the fairy penguins at Phillip Island. So Italian!

Many years, and many Italian trips, later, I asked an Italian in Rome with whom I happened to be sharing an aperitivo cocktail what the key difference between Italy and other bucket-list European destinations was. She paused from her Italianate patter, took a sip of her drink, and answered with one word: “Beauty”. And she was right.

It was a tragedy for Italy that it became the European – and for a time the global – epicentre of the coronavirus. But it’s no small thing that a country so closely associated with the pleasures and arts of life should have discovered such inner resilience and fortitude: Stoic, rather than Epicurean, qualities. In the darkest hours of the pandemic Italy looked within and found an inner core of communal strength that few – even in Italy itself – thought it possessed. The extremes of the Red Brigades and Autonomia Operaia movements, the Sicilian Mafia assassinations of judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, Silvio “bunga-bunga” Berlusconi and the revolving door of Italian political leadership have shaken confidence in the country’s moral character. But as Italy came out of quarantine, that confidence was restored.

Italians have endured severe deprivations in this annus horribilis. In April when I spoke to a friend in Rome, I could hear the sound of a chopper hovering over the streets at night. Further south, families were starving. The north, meanwhile, endured the largest loss of life. The country is only now celebrating a return to something like normality, and as the streets, bars and cafes fill up it has reason to celebrate a newfound sense of unity in adversity.

Centre-right Italian commentator Giuliano Ferrara recently observed that during this “dark and shadowy nightmare”, the food chain has “resisted, essential services have not in general, and for the vast majority of citizens, been lacking, and the cycle of assistance and charity has done divine things to alleviate social suffering where it was most intense and cruel”. Italy has rediscovered its strength, resolve, compassion and common purpose – qualities we didn’t think it had. What the beautiful Italy might accomplish, now that it is galvanised, resolute and determined, remains to be seen. But it’s worth recalling what happened when Italy endured the Black Death of 1347-50. In Florence, which lost half its population to the plague, there was rebirth, and this surge of cultural dynamism and optimism spread throughout Italy and Europe. We give it a name: the Renaissance.


I’ve dined at a Michelin-starred Milanese restaurant run by celebrity Italian chef Carlo Cracco – champion of “progressive” Italian cuisine – and eaten at a thoughtfully renovated, but in all other respects quite rustic, trattoria in the southern Italian town of Matera. And the largely vegetarian meal in Matera wasn’t inferior to Cracco’s “ta-dah” riffs on Italian classics. That’s the key to Italian cuisine: it’s all about the quality of ingredients and relatively simple dishes prepared to showcase the basics.

Of course, reverence for nature’s bounty doesn’t rule out experimentation. I once interrupted the Italian culinary impresario Oscar Farinetti at lunch. If there’s something that Farinetti, founder of the 35-store global Italian food emporium Eataly, doesn’t know about the food of his homeland, it’s probably of little consequence. That day, he was tucking into a dish of gamberi rossi and a glass of barolo, with its classic notes of tar and roses, was at hand. The prawns hadn’t been tricked up, reduced to carpaccio, foam or essence, or coated with gold leaf – they were simply grilled. And the barolo was the last wine you’d expect as an accompaniment for such a sweet, mildly marine dish. When quizzed about such an eccentric food and wine pairing, Farinetti roared with laughter. The only match that mattered, he insisted, was quality.

Italy’s great culinary asset is its biodiversity. To the north, regions such as Friuli and Alto Adige border the uplands of Austria and Switzerland, while Lampedusa, Italy’s most southern island, is geologically akin to Africa. Italy produces 7000 species of edible fruits and vegetables, 58,000 species of animals, 1200 grape varieties and 538 olive cultivars. This cornucopia, Oscar Farinetti insists, is the essence of a cuisine that honours produce.

“In Liguria, in Genova Pra, where the sea and the mountains meet, the basil is fantastic,” he says. “In San Daniele, Friuli, the prosciutto is famous, and there you have the influence of the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites. The pasta is fantastic in Gragnano, near Naples, because there exists the sea and Vesuvius. In Calabria, the sun and the Ionian Sea produce the best liquorice; in Sardegna, the myrtle is fantastic; in Abruzzo, the saffron is incredible.”


The one Italian film that rarely fails to make cinephile lists of the best 10 movies of all time is Fellini’s 8½: a carnivalesque whirl centred on the director as world-weary hero, as indulgent as it is fantastic, and every frame a winner. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Fellini’s birth, and the 60th anniversary of La Dolce Vita. Who could forget Anita Ekberg’s famous wet T-shirt without a T-shirt scene at the Trevi Fountain?

When Fellini, a five-time Oscar-winner, died in 1993, the Milan-based Corriere della Sera newspaper described his funeral as the “end of an epoch”. And so it was. The master’s body lay in state for a short time on his beloved Set 5 at Cinecittà. Stars such as Marcello Mastroianni came to pay their respects and thousands filed past the coffin. Martin Scorsese later celebrated Fellini’s vision of the world – almost a mythic one – which was first unveiled in his 1954 La Strada, the story of a low-life love triangle set in the director’s hometown of Rimini. “It started as a poetic realism that became more abstract and ultimately highly stylised,” Scorsese observed. “More than anyone else he created his own world, with music by Nino Rota, the look of people, camera movements … So much so that the word Fellini-esque became common to describe something bizarre on the surface but really like a painter working on film.”

An exhibition of Fellini’s work, titled “Immortal Genius”, was held this year at Rome’s Palazzo Venezia, and many of the exhibits will move to Rimini’s new Fellini Museum in December or January. “If Italy is considered the world of the Dolce Vita, it is due to Fellini’s unique and distinctive vision,” notes the introduction to the Palazzo Venezia exhibition.

“Very few artists have been able to describe the entire history of our country as he did. Fellini invented a new imaginary world capable not only of telling the story of his own generation, but also of reaching out to the next generation.”

The generational baton pass was made explicit in Paolo Sorrentino’s 1993 film The Great Beauty, an homage to Fellini’s study of Rome’s glorious decadence and decline, its antiquity and its exuberant vitality.


Contemporary scholars offer fluid definitions of the Renaissance – that it began in the 12th century, with some green shoots in the 10th – but there is no doubt that it reached its full flowering in the 15th century and that its heartland was Florence. The Medici stronghold is not only a treasure house of Renaissance art, it’s an artwork in itself. In 1944 the retreating Wehrmacht could have made a mess of Florence but the damage was pretty much limited to four of the city’s five bridges, and so the Florence that greets the visitor is much the same as the city that greeted 14th-century pilgrims to the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation. They came from all over Christendom to pray at its famed image of the Virgin Mary, said to have been painted by an angel.

Today’s Renaissance pilgrim sights are well enough known to warrant only scant mention: the ever-present Duomo, the Uffizi and Accademia, the Ponte Vecchio (the only bridge spared by the Nazis), the Pitti Palace, the Basilicas of San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito and Santa Croce, the towered Palazzo Vecchio and Bargello. So richly larded is the city with art treasures that even the lesser-known sights – the inner courtyard of the Medici’s La Petraia villa, the Perugino crucifixion at Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi – are world beaters.

When Florentine painters weren’t working on religious themes, they were channelling the classical world; oftentimes, as in the work of Michelangelo, the two species of poetic myth are intermingled. As a result, very little painting of the Florentine Renaissance celebrates the city itself. An exception is the fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli that wraps around the interior walls of the Palazzo Medici. It’s a richly coloured, vibrant though slightly odd work that depicts a procession winding through the Tuscan countryside, with the background figures strangely cramped. It celebrates a famous moment when the hierarchy of the Eastern Church in Constantinople descended on Florence for an ecumenical talkfest – and the world changed. The great Florentine figures of the day, including a pretty young Lorenzo the Magnificent, are centre stage. Cosimo de Medici, for his part, rides a humble donkey. Behind him are the lords of Rimini and Milan.

The most Florentine quality of Gozzoli’s masterpiece is its mastery of material detail, its sumptuousness. Even the horses are gorgeously attired. Gazing at it, we remember that here is a city of wealth and ambition that was founded on a thriving textile industry.


After the Romans in the 4th century BC conquered the neighbouring Etruscans to the north – on the evidence of their funerary art, a fun-loving race dedicated to food, wine and the enjoyment of life – they set about conquering the Mediterranean, and then some. Their goal was finally achieved in the reign of Trajan, when the empire spread out from the world city on the Tiber for an estimated 5 million square kilometres. The title of Edward Gibbon’s famous history The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire is misleading: Rome didn’t fall in the 4th century of the Common Era, under Emperor Constantine, it simply changed address. Constantinople, which lasted another millennium, was the new Rome.

With a heritage like that – a palpable one of temples and aqueducts, theatres and cobbled roads, marble statues and the frescoed interiors of the Vesuvian cities – it’s little wonder that Italy struggles with a Daddy complex. The vapours of past greatness went to the country’s head during the reign of Mussolini. “My journey means the strengthening of the Italian power which has descended from ancient Rome,” he told his Fascists. Fasces were the staves of the Roman lictors – a class of civil servants – bundled up with an axe. Mussolini swore to “lead our country once more in the paths of our ancient greatness”. He went on: “We represent the spirit which once carried the legions of the consuls to the farthest limits of the earth.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way for Mussolini and his blackshirts. They may have got the trains to run on time, and they created some intriguingly austere buildings such as the Colosseo Quadrato in Rome, but Mussolini’s legions didn’t exactly do the legacy of Trajan proud.

They occupied Ethiopia and conducted a dirty war in East Africa, only to be defeated by Emperor Haile Selassie and his rag-tag barefoot army in 1941. Things went no better in Egypt, where a British force of 36,000 crushed the Italian 10th army, five times its size – a result that may have given rise to a wartime gag. Question: “How many gears on an Italian tank?” Answer: “Five. Four reverse and one forward in case of rear attack.”

The collapse of Mussolini’s forces during the Allied invasion of Sicily, and Il Duce’s summary execution by partisans, brings to a bitter end a cautionary tale about the crazed pursuit of ancient glory. We look to the great tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare to learn sobering truths, or to reacquaint ourselves with them, and Italy’s war is nothing less than tragic. What it says about the folly of attempting to relive past greatness was summed up by Shelley’s Ozymandias in the famous poem: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”


Is Italian the world’s most beautiful language? Romance language buffs debate this question, and I admit I’m on the affirmative side. Spanish is racy and sexy, but a little rough; Portuguese is best in song; French is famously fluvial. But Italian has it all.

It’s subtle and song-like, grammatically rational, with an expansive vocabulary. But it’s no doddle. In English, sophistication is largely registered through vocabulary; in Italian, it is expressed grammatically. There is a big difference between Italian and good Italian, and it’s important to understand the difference. Modern Italian is really a mutation of the Tuscan dialect and it reflects the prestige of the great Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri.

Nobody much outside of an Italian classroom reads Dante anymore, but the language he minted finds universal expression in opera – or musical drama. Operas are sung in French (Bizet’s Carmen), German (Mozart’s The Magic Flute) and English (Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes), but there’s nothing to match the work of Italian composers Monteverdi, who invented the art form, Bellini, Puccini, Rossini, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Salieri, and of course, Verdi.

It’s often said that Verdi, whose arias were sung in the streets from Turin to Palermo, wrote the soundtrack to Italy’s liberal-nationalist unification in Va, pensiero, the slaves’ chorus from Nabucco. It’s a people’s lament for a homeland “so beautiful and lost” and it became a rallying cry against Austrian occupation after the opera’s first performances in 1842.

Verdi was the most influential composer of the 19th century, and his scores are propelled by Latin brio and powerful emotion: his most famous character, La Traviata’s consumptive heroine Violetta, is a former courtesan with a pure heart and her death never fails to bring showers of tears from the stalls.

Something rarely mentioned is Mussolini’s fondness for Verdi, despite the latter’s progressive passions. For Il Duce’s benefit, composer Pietro Mascagni once directed a mass chorus in a performance of Va, pensiero. Of course Verdi was no anti-Semite – quite the opposite. But he was a romantic and he wrote music saturated in national sentiment that was used to serve distorted nationalist ends.


Fashion is ephemeral. What goes down on the runways of Milan is designed to entice, to stimulate desire and an aspiration to live Chrysalis-like for the moment. But style is a whole other thing. And while Italy, particularly Milan, is a global fashion capital, the nation’s innate sense of style runs deeper than the season’s latest obsessions. The essence of Italian men’s fashion is attitude. Be always stylish, but never look as if you want to appear stylish. Paolo Zegna, Ermenegildo Zegna’s chairman, puts it simply: “In the end it’s about whether you feel good in whatever you are wearing.” That could be a recipe for sartorial disaster, but not if you have a sense of elegance in your genes – perhaps even your jeans. Asked for a personal definition of style, Zegna says it is “very closely linked to attention to detail”, to “quality and the best materials”.