For the past 23 years, I have spent most of the summer in the Garden of Eden with about 42 students from all over the world. With each passing summer, I grow older yet they are always twenty, beautiful, slim, with eyes full of wonder. Indeed, for six weeks, myself along with half a dozen colleagues and a group of students from New York University and other universities move to Villa La Pietra in Florence, an estate with rolling hills of olive groves, opulent gardens, and five villas–one from the 15th century that houses a renowned art collection. This estate, donated by Sir Harold Acton, an Anglo-American writer and historian born and raised in Florence, is the largest donation ever given to an American university.
During the academic year around 300-400 students gravitate to Villa La Pietra, whereas, during the summer, I have the privilege of guiding a much more intimate group, as a full-time teacher, which is my true vocation. My interaction with students isn’t limited to the classroom, we also share meals, hikes, adventures and discoveries and, through their eyes, I see Italy and the many layers of its culture.
But what are these Americans looking for? Perhaps “Americans” is a misnomer; they are just studying in the United States but they’re actually students from all corners of the world – from India to Russia, from China to Mauritius. These short answer is they’re looking for great beauty. They want to be able to quote the Oscar award winning Sorrentino movie – the monumental beauty and, perhaps, the stereotypical attractions of our country enclosed in the Rome-Florence-Venice tourist trinity, outside of which Americans rarely venture (especially during their first visit to this beautiful country). They’re looking for great beauty embodied in Michelangelo’s David, the Brunelleschi’s Dome of the Florence Cathedral, Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring, the Bernini’s Colonnade and the Sistine Chapel, the Grand Canal, and St. Mark’s Square. The grandeur and decay of the Roman Forum and Colosseum speaks especially to students who have studied Latin and know of the ancient Roman civilization.
Over the course of these weeks, I see my students become more cultivated. They have seen Michelangelo’s David replicated in many horrible statuette-souvenirs in all sizes as well as printed on aprons and underpants. The Grand Canal (as they call it) has been trivialized for years by its copy, gondolas included, at the Bellagio in Vegas, and Bernini’s colonnade are seen so often on TV for paper programs that students feel like they’ve already seen them.
And here, inevitably, their eyes begin to wander and explore off the beaten path of the millions of American travelers that preceded them. This is when the search begins for “the understated beauty.” I call it understated not because it is less beautiful or important than the other forms of beauty I just tried to define, but because it is more hidden, less obvious and more unexpected. It’s the beauty of small cities like Sabbioneta, Mantua and Parma, which my students never hear of until we visit. Where they discover the frescoes of Mantegna and Parmigianino, the architecture of Scamozzi, Alberti and Antelami. These students discover the little daily beauties of a lifestyle different from that to which they are accustomed both in the US and Florence, which has been distorted by permanent and disproportionate mass tourism.
They discover the beauty of being greeted by people on their bikes, bakers that know their customers by name, cuisines that radically change every few miles and that use seasonal ingredients and recipes older than the country itself. They discover that wine is not meant for intoxication, but rather a nectar that exalts the flavor of food and that is to be tasted and not guzzled. They learn that Campanilismo (a word that cannot be translated into English) is not only the negative consequence of our country’s political fragmentation, but also the healthy pride of belonging to a community that you know and love.