Friday, 29 April 2016

Six types of Pesto

Friday 29th April, 2016

"Is this one good?" Gill enquired of the Italian woman next to her, pointing to the label of one of the six kinds of fresh pesto lined up on the cool-shelf, in jars ranging in shades of green, from Kermit the Frog to mushy peas. "Si, Si, all good, all different..." The reply, meant to help, did not assist with the Pesto purchase dilemma at all. All good, all different - true of so much Italian produce, tomatoes, onions, eggs, pasta, risotto rice, tomato paste, all comes in a range of varieties quite beyond anything you might find on British shelves.

Herein lies an important difference between the two countries. The IMF and Moodys may wring their hands, probably rightly, at the state of the the Italian financial sector - under-capitalised banks, endemic tax dodging, institutionalised corruption, but at the level of the everyday, the quality of produce, the civility of human relations  - to be always greeted by a smile, then Italians are blessed by mundane riches. Arguably the opposite is true at home. We constantly are told by the OECD and reports by the World Bank on how the UK has the strongest growing economy in the developed world, unemployment falling, wages rising, our economy is the sixth largest in the world, but the quality of food on offer is poor, you are greeted in supermarkets with robotic messages of welcome and thanks, and woe betide you if you catch a stranger's eye, they will snap their head the other way, in embarrassment, alarm or annoyance. Sadly, we are more likely to laugh at others than smile. 

Years ago, when we visited Italy for a week or two at a time I used to claim that I had never been miserable there. I could not claim this now, after a visit of four months. It must be said that the mysterious complexities of Italian bureaucracy, haphazard, and  suicidally dangerous driving habits, poor signage and potholed roads have made me quite grumpy from time to time. Really it's an unreasonable expectation to think that a change of geography could, in itself make you happy. Alain de Botton, in 'The Art of Travel' observes that the fatal flaw in seeing travel as 'an escape', is the one thing that you cannot escape from, that you are doomed to forever have as a constant companion, is yourself. Whether you stand before a sublime scene or wander the streets of some exotic, vibrant metropolis you will always be accompanied by the 'same old'. And if the same old you has a tendency towards the curmudgeonly, then your delight will be forever  tempered by grumpiness. However, given the good natured street theatre that washes around you in Italy, then I have to admit that I have to try harder to be grumpy here than anywhere else I have ever been.

Another misguided notion I came up with back in the day during our travels in Italy was that if God wanted to save humanity from itself he could magically re-populate Earth solely with Italians. I can see now that this is a ridiculous romanticised stereotype, almost inverse racism, but there is a kernel of truth in it; there is a lot of kindness and jollity on show in Italy, particularly towards children and young people. So lamentable are the British at this that the last Labour government developed a doomed programme of social engineering - Every Child Matters - in an attempt to improve the general behaviour of parents towards children in the country. Almost every day in Britain you can observe parents being snappish and horrible to their kids; it's much less noticeable south of the Alps.

So, if the spirit of Italy can have a civilising effect on individuals, is it the case more generally?  What effect do Italian genes have on the strange hybrid beast we call 'European Culture'? This is a bit tricky. With some countries their contribution to modern Europe is obvious. In the realm of ideas, then it's easy the reel off a list of German and French philosophers who have shaped our thinking over the past 250 years. Similarly, Britain has produced scientists of incomparable genius - Newton and Darwin - both revolutionised mankind's view of itself in relation to Nature and the universe. Less noble, yet more ubiquitous is Britain's place in economic history. The factory system was dreamt up in the bleak hills of Northern England; Scotland gifted the world through the writings of Adam Smith a clutch of ideas which became basic tenets of capitalism. What of Italy in this regard, are we to characterise their contribution to European culture as the notion we should be nicer to our kids, and thank them for inventing  expresso and a zillion types of pasta? 

I think the impact of that Italy on our shared culture  is difficult to see, because it is all about the way we see - it is a structural, rather than a material contribution. This idea occurred to me on the short train ride between Vernazza and Levanto. The woman sitting a few seats down from us was not especially beautiful, but her looks were striking. She had a sallow complexion, heavily lidded eyes, dark hair and a straight 'Roman' nose; had she been soft featured then she would have borne an uncanny resemblance to one of those shadowy Leonardoesque angels, but her face shape was angular - a beautiful bone  structure. If we are looking for pictorial antecedents - then a chalk sketch by Michelangelo of a Sybil who never made the ceiling short-list would be more accurate. The artists of the Italian Renaissance did more than others to reconnect Europe to notions of human beauty developed a more than a thousand years before in Ancient Greece and Rome. 

If you think that you are unaffected by this, you are wrong, because this conception stare at you everyday from hoardings and glossy magazines and stalks the esoteric domains of the cat-walk and red carpet photo-call. 

However, to believe that the influence is limited to our conception of human beauty is to ignore the work of Palladio who popularised the writings of the Roman architectural theorist, Vitruvius. The Classical orders of architecture defined much of the rebuilding of our cities and towns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - Parisian boulevards, Regency Edinburgh, Bath and Bristol; in Washington DC, The White House, The Capitol, Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials and the Supreme Court, all have a provenance that is ultimately Italianate.

However, this influence goes beyond the built environment. The perspectival tricks developed by Alberti, Uccello and Correggio- one and two point perspective, recession, foreshortening,  sotti in su - these ideas permeate the way 'the West' sees and represents the world.  The mathematics of beautiful proportion derived from the Euclidian Golden Mean pop up everywhere from window frame design to photography's  'rule of thirds'. Even our perception of what constitutes a pleasing landscape reveals Italianate influence. The aristocrats who embarked on the Grand Tour admired the classically inspired landscapes of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, artists who reimagined the  Roman Campagna as an idealised, arcadian landscape. On their return, they remodelled their estates in in the English shires to resemble these arcadian dreams by constructing meandering rivers framed by clumps of trees, and popping in the occassional fake ruined temple for good measure. These pictorial conventions influenced early tourists too. They set out in pursuit of the 'picturesque' with 'Claude glass' in hand to discover in North Wales, The Lakes or Derbyshire Peaks scenes that conformed to 17th Century Italian ideas about what constitutes a pleasing landscape. Such ideas still persist. If you don't believe me, next time you are in WH Smiths have a look at the English Heritage and National Trust greeting card range. I bet you will find photographs of rural tranquility composed along Claudian lines.

Perhaps you still regard this Italian influence on our visual culture as fanciful? Then consider this - if you are reading our blog on a smart phone, then it's probably in portrait format, on a laptop, in landscape. The usual proportions for portrait and landscape emerged in Northern Italy in the latter half of the 15th century - we westerners look at the world through an Italian window frame.

Of course as well as this, Italians happen to have the worlds best food, beautiful old cities, and have invented really useful things like the Vespa scooter and the Mocha pot, and of course  there is the question of sultry, curvaceous screen goddesses, all that AND they redefined how we picture the world. I can't quite decide what could possibly illustrate this - Adam and God from the Sistine Chapel, a Vespa, Siena at sunset, a monochrome still of a youthful Gina Lolabrigida? No, I will photograph what is right in front of me. Four Tuscan sausages sizzling on the BBQ, here in St. Tropez, in France thinking about Italy, sad that we probably won't be back until 2018. Just look at those sausages, says he, adjusting the iPhone so the circle of the grill is framed a little asymmetrical - what was I saying about the rule of thirds?


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