I adore Italy. In part this comes from my love of Latin at school: I loved the logical structure of the language (especially that the words in a sentence could be arranged in any order and still convey precisely the same meaning) and the history ancient Rome. I was fascinated by Pliny’s letters; there, as in Tacitus, we see Rome in its grandeur and also its cruelty, simultaneously ancient and modern. The Roman writers’ accounts of the political machinations of senate could very credibly have been lifted from parliamentary sketches in a modern newspaper; and yet theirs was a society in which death was sport. The Empire is long dead now, but Italy is the land of the Caesars and one can argue that its legacy is everywhere, in two millennia of Italian culture.
As the Empire disintegrated, it was supplanted by the Catholic Church, which for much of the last one and a half millenia can be argued to have enjoyed a reach greater even than that of the emperors. The corruption of the Church is problematic for Christians, whether or not they are protestants. An Italian friend of mine, a devout Catholic, once told me, “we have a saying in Italy: if you go to Rome, you will lose your faith”. Recent scandals about child abuse are but the latest in a long and sordid history of corruption, reaching back beyond the Borgias and the sale of indulgences into the dark ages. And yet the Catholic Church has done great good – not perhaps through the very worldly people who have exploited its authority, but through the many faithful believers who have given their lives to the service of the sick and the poor. For many centuries, the only source of learning and healthcare was the Church of Rome.
Italy offers much more than ancient history. There is the food, of course. What makes Italian cuisine so good is hard to define; it can be very simple – pasta and sauce, or cheese and cooked meats – and yet at the same time it is deeply satisfying. No doubt much is due to the quality of ingredients. But one feels there is more to it than this; perhaps it is also the importance of dinner in Italy, the tradition of eating at the heart of family life.
Italians have a deep-rooted love of beautiful things. Milanese shops offer fabulous garments…at extraordinary prices; and of course Italy is the birthplace of the Renaissance, that remarkable fourteenth century explosion of artistic innovation and creativity.
The Renaissance began in Florence, a city that I recently had the pleasure of visiting for the first time, when I managed to take a few days holiday after attending a conference in Pisa. I love art, although I cannot claim any special expertise; however, no special knowledge is required to appreciate the cultural importance of Florence, and great works of art are everywhere.
The photos on this page show (top to bottom) a view across the city taken from the Boboli Gardens; two views of the Cattedrale di S. Maria del Fiore, and finally myself on an early evening stroll around the shops on my first evening.