March 13, 2011

Italy’s top 15 cultural exports

Petrarch, by Andrea del Castagno
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
I must confess that debating on what is typically English or French or Italian, etc., is something I like less and less as time goes by and I get older. And this for the simple reason that I like to think of the West (or “Western Civilization”) more as a whole, as a single and, somehow, complete entity, than as the sum of its parts. This, of course, without smoothing down or denying the peculiarities of each nation and its peoples.

But perhaps it’s me who is missing something here. The fact is, in my view, that one cannot think of Shakespeare, to make an example, without thinking of the ancient Rome and the Italian cities of Venice and Verona. Or, to make another example, one cannot think of the American Revolution without thinking of the marquis de Lafayette and the French Revolution, and vice versa. And even the American exceptionalism, which, besides being at the heart of American conservatism, is also real and true per se, would be inconceivable without referring to, say, its Puritan roots, that is, its deep English roots. It was one Puritan leader, John Winthrop, who first expressed the idea that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community—the “City upon a Hill”—for the rest of the world!

But the above said is only a preamble for the real issue of this post, that is, what the Independent says about Italy and its contribution to the world. It’s a list of fifteen Italian cultural typicalities (“Italy’s top 15 cultural exports”), including Dante and Leonardo da Vinci, the sonnet, and, why not, beautiful women, great soccer players, and fast cars. The choices are questionable in some cases, but nonetheless arguable. In any case, it’s a loving tribute to Italy from a British newspaper, or, as I would prefer to say, a gracious homage to an Italian speaking Western country from an English speaking Western newspaper. In other words, a tribute to the West itself, and a must read piece.

As for the sonnet, however, more precise information is necessary. The article says that “the 14-line, strictly rhyming poem so loved by Shakespeare derives from a 14th-century scholar called Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch.” Well, I’m bound to say that it is Giacomo da Lentini (1210 circa – 1260 circa), head of the Sicilian School under Frederick II, who is traditionally credited with the invention of the sonnet. Moreover, other Italian poets, including Dante and Guido Cavalcanti, wrote sonnets some decades before Petrarch (1304-1374). But then again, it was Petrarch who polished and perfected the sonnet form (the vast majority of his 366 poems collected in the Canzoniere were sonnets). Not by chance the Petrarchan sonnet still bears his name...