The Burden of Beauty

If you haven’t already, please see THE GREAT BEAUTY (La grande bellezza), the new film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino – and winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film! Many consider Sorrentino’s film to be the cinematic heir to such masterpieces as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, another probing look at Italy’s “sweet life.”thegreatbeauty.poster.wp

As you can see from this publicity poster, The Great Beauty explores the presence of Italy’s monumental culture and beauty in the present day – how their incredible power can be overwhelming, even paralyzing, in an Italian society intensely anchored in the past. In my book My Two Italies, I discuss how (if!) a Renaissance city like Florence can have a “modern” afterlife [read more here]. Sorrentino’s film also asks us to think about how Italian culture and art, so justly celebrated throughout the world, can be a burden as well as a blessing to the Italian people, who are surrounded everywhere by glories of the past that can sometimes crowd out the present.

Paradise in Translation: On Ghiberti’s “Gates”

On September 8, 2012, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece “The Gates of Paradise” was once again available for public viewing after 27 years of restoration—but not its original home, Florence’s Baptistery. Instead, these two massive gilt doors, which depict ten scenes from the Old Testament, are now enclosed in a protective case in Florence’s Duomo Museum.


Tourists at the Baptistery admiring a copy of the “Gates”

Art lovers around the world may wonder: Can the copy of a masterpiece move us like the original? Must we see it where its creator intended? No stranger to dislocation, Ghiberti’s “Gates” has elicited such questions for a long time. During World War II, the doors moved to safety, only to be damaged in peacetime during Florence’s great flood of 1966. Slower, equally corrosive enemies followed the Arno’s waters: pollution in Florence, which only recently banned unauthorized vehicles from its crowded center; fluctuations in humidity, which caused the interior bronze to damage the gold surface.

The transfer of Ghiberti’s “Gates” from its natural habitat to an artificial, protected one follows a general trend. In Florence and throughout Italy, masterpieces are often tucked away in museums, while their copies stand undefended and vulnerable in the original sites. The most celebrated sculpture in Florence if not all of Italy, Michelangelo’s David, stood in the Piazza Signoria from 1504 to 1873, when it was moved to the Accademia to save it from acts of vandalism (albeit unsuccessfully: in 1991, a deranged man attacked the David with a hammer, breaking off the left foot). Meanwhile, copies of the David occupy some of the most exquisite real estate in Florence: the original site of the statute at the entrance to city hall, and a perch across the Arno where tourists enjoy breathtaking views.


Copy of Ghiberti’s “Gates” at Giotto’s Baptistery, Florence

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin developed the influential theory that original works of art contain an “aura” that even an exact replica forever lacks. This aura refers to the work’s existence as the product of a specific time and place. No reproduction, no matter how skilled or convincing, can capture that original moment and context of creation. Benjamin brilliantly intuited that, once we begin to reproduce works of art and display them as copies in new venues, we open the door to politicizing these works and manipulating their social impact. This question was hardly abstract: Benjamin wrote his essay on artistic reproduction in the 1930s, when extremist groups like the Fascists and Nazis used mass aesthetic spectacles to seduce the public.

Of course, Florentine officials moved Ghiberti’s “Gates” out of brutal necessity rather than any pernicious political motive. The museum that houses the fragile panels provide a controlled haven, while placing them alongside other artistic marvels. But something will be lost in this flight to safety. The word “aura” comes from the Latin for gold, and in this sense we can think of the original work as having a shine or brilliance that cannot be replicated. Part of the luster comes not just from the work itself but also from its relation to the outside world. When Ghiberti’s doors decorated the Baptistery, they separated the city streets, with their mix of nature and commerce, from the womb of a holy site and cultural shrine. Strolling past the newly sequestered “Gates” can never compare with gazing at them under the sun or rain, as part of a walk through living, breathing Florence, just after an espresso and a brioche at a local bar.

But then again, I only experienced this “natural encounter” too long ago to remember the details, when I first went to study art in Florence as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. Ghiberti’s doors were removed for restoration in 1990, so any sun or rain that accompanied my subsequent visits did so while I stood before a copy. Nonetheless, Ghiberti has continuously inspired me for over twenty years. If done correctly, the reproduction or relocation of a work of art signals not its defeat, but its translation, in its original meaning as “carrying something across,” an essential element in a work’s preservation and dissemination. The transfer of Ghiberti’s fragile “Gates” enables us to enjoy it for centuries ahead. Rather than lament the masterpiece’s relocation, better to embrace its new split identity, as a site-neutral original and a site-natural copy. These two new forms may lack the aura of Ghiberti’s original Baptistery doors, but they can suggest the paradise beyond them nonetheless.

You can learn more about the “Gates” here.

Never Let Them See You Sweat

There are many words in Italian that defy translation: bella figurasimpatico, and my favorite, sprezzatura. The Oxford New American Dictionary will tell you that it means “studied carelessness,” but that’s only a small part of it. What the word actually suggests is a truly Italian approach to the fine art of living—at least as it was practiced several hundred years ago.

Sprezzatura may be difficult for us to understand today. William Deresiewicz has described our “virtually exhausted” American way of life, a time of nonstop and hyperconnected labor, with little boundary between the office and the home. “We’re in a panic as a nation,” Deresiewicz writes, “that we don’t work hard enough, and blame this iniquity for our ‘decline.’ ”

They saw things differently in the Renaissance. The key then was to show people how hard you were not working, to effect an air of nonchalance. This was a sign that you were a cool, capable customer. A gentleman never sweats under pressure.

The book that sums up this practical philosophy is Baldesarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). Part of the Duke of Urbino’s inner circle, Castiglione offers courtiers advice on such matters as the art of seduction, the games one should and should not play, and the nature of love. Most famously, he advocated sprezzatura, a way of acting that “conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought” (trans. G. Bull).

Castiglione was friends with one of the greatest painters of his age: Raphael. His legendary portrait of Castiglione brings the words and ideas of The Book of the Courtier to life.


The eyes are warm and welcoming: the courtier’s signal that he is ready to charm and serve. The openness of expression stands in stark contrast to much Renaissance portraiture, which often emphasized a subject’s nobility and majesty through impenetrable even haughty gazes (I described one of these lofty portraits as “hieratic,” highly formal and stylized, in my essay “Faces of Florence“).

Raphael’s portrait radiates poise and grace: the clothes are nice but not too nice (a courtier never draws attention to himself); the hands are peacefully folded (he always radiates calm); the head is turned toward us, awaiting the prince’s command (but in an inviting, not demanding way). Overall, the effect is what Joseph Epstein describes as “the art of artlessness“—the sprezzatura that reveals the ideal courtier’s effortless savor faire.