A President's Reflections
People and Places

A report from Italy

Posted on March 2, 2014

I am in Milan and pretty sure that there is not a single article of clothing in my possession that measures up.  If Italy is the fashion/style standard setter for the world, Milan is its beating heart.  I’ve seen three-year olds with artlessly wrapped scarfs and stylish shoes that already have more style than I’ve mustered in all 56 years of life.  It’s actually liberating: there’s nothing we can do it look like we belong, so we can just relax and give up trying.  Surrender, in this case, is a virtue.

Yes, I know some of you are thinking, “Not me, I could pull it off.”  Hah!  You’d be missing the point.  It’s a DNA thing, a way of deportment and style that Italians have naturally and that we Americans lack.  I remember a previous trip to the Italian coast and watched as a sixty-year old guy with a pot belly stood at the wheel of his speed boat, wearing only a speedo, Ray-Bans, one of those white captain’s hats, and a dark golden tan.  Ugh, you’re thinking.  No – he pulled off the whole thing. It’s about confidence bordering on insouciance and a belief that, of course, everyone is looking at you and likes what they see.

We Americans have our own innate DNA of deportment.  We walk through the world with confidence, as “if you own the whole place,” as one British friend put it.  We are sometimes too loud and almost always too friendly and generally pretty generous.  I have a habit of asking taxi drivers in any country I visit what they think of Americans and maybe they are playing me for a better tip, but they always say that Americans are among their favorites: they tip better, they are friendly, and don’t treat drivers like servants.  Most of the world looks at our foreign policy and militaristic impulses with disdain and even fear (a recent British poll listed us #1 threat to world peace) and thinks that our cultural gun fetish is scary and bewildering, but they mostly seem to like actual Americans.  We might be too upbeat for taciturn Europeans, but think about it, most people like Golden Retrievers more than Dobermans.  We are the Golden Retrievers of the world’s peoples, a little goofy, but hard not to like.

Italy may be my favorite country to visit.  My “still to be visited” list of countries is long, but we can’t go more a couple of years without a yearning to return to Italy.  It has a nearly impossible to beat combination of food culture, history, art, music, sights, countryside, aesthetics, and people.  We yesterday visited the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the great collections of Italian art in the country.  One of the most profound and influential courses I took as an undergraduate was Italian Renaissance Art and the Brera reminded me of what an amazing place was 15th and 16th C. Italy, maybe unparalleled in human history for the sheer magnitude of the  intellectual and artistic explosion that took place there and then.  While the Church remained the primary patron of the arts and the subjects were thus primarily religious, artists like Giotto and then Michelangelo and Caravaggio discovered humans as subjects in startling ways.  At the Brera, we were struck by Donato Bramante’s Christ at the Column:



It seemed so modern in its secular pain and phsyicality, and yet it was painted in 1490.  Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus has the too real faces you imagine he saw in the alleys of Naples and Rome:


Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, with his typical dainty beauty, was painted when he was only 20.  Think of the genius manifest at such an early age.  Think of the genius on display on the walls of the Brera.  Today we scored some of the last remaining reservations to see The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo) at Santa Maria della Grazie, one of those must-see items in a nyone’s Milan checklist. 

We are also returning to the Duomo, the magnificent (and fifth largest church in the world) cathedral here in Milan.  We visited briefly yesterday, but want to see it with a guide so we better appreciate what we are seeing. 

It was 500 years in the making and it was Napoleon who managed to the get the ornate façade finally completed when he occupied Italy (Italians have style in adundance, but a relaxed sense of time). When you think that medieval people mostly lived in hovels, squat dark places, what could they have thought as they approached the cathedral for the first time.  And then then the soaring interior? 

We probably have no analogous experience in architecture.  We shrug at ever taller high rises.  The closest thing I’ve experienced maybe last summer when we first saw the Grand Canyon and stopped breathing for a moment. 

Not quite as profound, my search for the world’s best pizza included a stop at a lovely little restaraunt right down the street from our hotel.  It was no Pepe’s, but it was wood fired and tasty (in an oven that seemd an homage to Warhol):


The young pizza maker was eager to get our reacton and my two thumbs up got a big smile.  Truthfully, the salad with shaved pear (shaved pear?) and gorganzola overshadowed the pizza.  One does not leave Italy hungry or lighter.

Off to tour!  More to come….

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