One of the most common words in contemporary Italian is chissà, which roughly translates as “who knows.” The COVID-19 crisis that has brought Italy to its knees is a type of colossal chissà. Who knows why outside of China, the crisis hit with its fullest force in Italy and Iran, when it will end, and how high a price Italy will pay in health and wealth?
Italy’s history is rife with horrific disasters and dizzying cultural successes, from the Etruscans, through the Roman empire and the Renaissance. Mannerism and the baroque style of art changed the world.
Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the three literary lights who heralded the Italian Renaissance (the other two were Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarca), in the 14th century wrote what is today considered the ultimate plague narrative, “The Decameron.” It tells the story of 10 residents of Florence who flee the city, which has been struck by the Black Death. They spend 10 days telling 100 stories, a brilliant reflection of Italian society just before modernity erupted.
Boccaccio’s harsh descriptions of how humanity was coping with a disease that was ripping apart the social fabric remains a warning to this day, but also illustrates the great contradiction Italy maintained for hundreds of years – a blood-drenched history alongside unprecedented cultural achievements.
The history of Italian art is studded with works that combine fear of the plague with belief in man’s creative force. Titian, the greatest of Venice’s Renaissance painters, left an incredible altar painting, the “Pietà,” which he intended to have hanging over his grave if the raging plague would take him, too (indeed, he and his son died in an epidemic in 1576).
One of Titian’s Venetian followers, the artist Jacopo Tintoretto, was invited to paint murals on the building of the confraternity founded to help plague victims in the city, known as the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Rocco is St. Roch, who is invoked by Catholics against the plague. Tintoretto created a series of magnificent paintings honoring the patron saint, a type of artistic prayer meant to defend its sponsors against illness.
In possession of such treasures, the Italians perceive themselves, with some justification, as the guardians of Western culture. Without much status as an economic or political force, the Italians hold sacred the extraordinary legacy entrusted to them. There are certainly economic benefits to this; until two weeks ago Italy was one of the world’s most visited countries, and its cultural influence far exceeds its diplomatic or military might. From its cuisine to its literature and visual arts, fashion and design, Italy is a great power of sorts.
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The dramatic collapse that Italy is experiencing is now generating deep fear about the future role a diseased Italy can play. Dante, in his “Divine Comedy,” described Italy as “an abode of suffering” and “A ship with no captain in a great storm.” These metaphors seem more apt today than ever before, especially since it isn’t clear who will lead Italy to safe haven during one of its most difficult periods.
A look backward can at least put things in perspective. The bel paese (“beautiful land”), as Italians like to call their homeland, emerged stronger from periods that were even worse than now. Those who love the country pray that it will happen this time, too.