Imagine if you had inherited an infinite treasure dated 500 years old. A wealth of art revered across the world. Your primary purpose as care keeper of these prized possessions is to channel all this global admiration into a beautiful experience for the endless barrage of fervent tourists that descend year round to view these treasures. You practically sneer at the fools who have to cross oceans to visit your treasure but, of course, you share their passion too as it was created by generations of your own history passed down through the centuries. But you also fully recognize in the transparent reality of the global economy today that you depend on them to survive financially. Such is the challenge of modern day Italy.
The cultural achievements of the Italian Renaissance period are unparalleled in human history. This era was incredibly prolific in the sheer volume of painting, sculpture and architecture. The upper class, which held such a distorted inequality of distribution of wealth, completely galvanized this revolution into a singular focus as a rebirth in artistic culture circa 1350 to the end of the 16th century. Poets, artists, scholars, thinkers, philosophers, powerful families like the Medici and even the Papacy all collectively contributed to this transformative period with breathtaking synergy. The inevitable competition between city-states simply fueled the artistic fires to even greater heights as Italy was still divided and each vying for power.
Fast forward now to modern day Italy. It is a clash of centuries; a struggle of two eras. While the new generation of Italians are living in the present, they are equally inescapably tied to the past. They are bestowed an amazing blessing with these miracles of art, yet handcuffed with the dilemma of keeping up with the global economy. In fact, I would argue they are overly reliant on the magnificent greatness of their country 500 years ago. More than 3 million Italians work in the tourism industry, which accounts for 12% of their GDP, but so many more cater to visitors in all service related industries. Everything revolves around, and seems geared toward, chasing the almighty tourist credit card. Not always in an aggressive way, mind you, as any apathetic waiter at a busy restaurant will prove as you idly wait for hours to have your order taken. In fact, it’s precisely this nonchalant manner where Italians seemingly know they are surrounded by historical greatness and therefore don’t have to try harder to win your business.
Which leads me to my ultimate point: Where is the aspiration for greatness with modern day Italians? The last great Italian artist, arguably, was Caravaggio who died in 1610. The only new art I see is the despicable graffiti defacing so many monuments, city walls and train cars. With the exception of Piazza Venezia in Rome to signify the unification of Italy and honor their first king, no new extraordinary sculptures or monuments has been created since the Renaissance. [The palazzo (building) itself was built in 1455 and subsequently moved to complete the overall palace. Ironically, this piazza arouses the most ambivalence and vitriol from its citizens.] So why this drought of five centuries? No new prominent artist, sculptor or architect has stepped up in over 400 years. Even cultural pursuits like the performing arts, music and theatre are on the massive decline.
Renaissance literally means “rebirth”. Italy had one 500 years ago that made it the epicenter and envy of all the cultural world. It is a testament to the sheer volume and unmatched quality of this prolific period that the output of this era is still just as compelling today. Perhaps modern day Italy is content in managing their vast treasures. That’s okay with me and, I’m guessing, the millions who continue to flock to Italy annually as a top touristic destination. They can stay frozen in time and continue to reap the fruit of their ancestors. But in order to thrive and be fully relevant in the future as a modern day economy, I would argue they need a rebirth to this magical renaissance of 500 years ago.