Welcome to the magical world of Italy, to its very cuore— musei Vaticani!
On the third floor in the Palace of the Vatican, overlooking the Belvedere Courtyard, lay painted four rooms that magnificently depict the virtues of Italian culture through the vivid frescoes created by painter Raphael during the High Renaissance. Within one of the rooms entitled Stanza della Signatura or “Room of the Signature,” are painted four beautiful frescoes: Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, The School of Athens, The Parnassus and The Cardinal Virtues. It is in this room where papal documents are signed, that the virtues of the Roman Catholic Religion, the great thinkers of Greek philosophy and the authors of Italian poetry are portrayed in harmonious form.
The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament illustrates the salience of religion beautifully. Across from the Disputa is The School of Athens where the Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Socrates are painted in still-motion as they converse among their fellow scholars. To the left above a window is The Parnassus which represents the resting place for the Roman mythical god Apollo and the Muses. In the middle, a Muse is seen playing a violin and to the left of him stands the blind poet Homer and Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Across this fresco is painted The Cardinal Virtues where three women are symbolizing the virtues of Fortitude (a woman with a lion), Prudence (a woman holding a mirror seeing the clear truth) and Temperance (a woman holding reigns attached to a child, tempering him.) It is in these frescoes and carefully painted bodies that compose what can be considered “Italian culture.”
Home to the world’s largest church, the Vatican speaks for itself as the headquarters of the dominant religion of Italy and the West. Deeply entrenched in Italian culture is the religion of Catholicism where mostly everyone goes to Sunday mass and celebrates Catholic holidays. Italians love their Pope, and his residence of the Vatican. The sheer grandezza of the Vatican piazza needs no words to communicate its greatness. The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament illustrates this religious dichotomy.
The Italians also take great pride in their education for it is a part of their cultural heritage. The Bologna University, for example,– is the oldest university in Europe, which grants the city one of its famous names, Dotta! Even Leonardo De Vinci did research there. The School of Athens displays this virtue of education through wisdom and truth by showing the great philosophers and their contribution to human thought. In the middle of the fresco is Plato, who conceptualized the art of the soul, and to his right walks Aristotle, who through empirical evidence rationalized the thought that truth may be relative. These two ideas spawned what Italian education is today, with two subjects divided into the arts and the sciences. Education is clearly an important virtue in Italy.
Along with education, Italians love their literature. The Parnassus portrays the profound poet Dante Alighieri who mixed the Catholic religion into a beautifully written epic poem, The Divine Comedy 1308 ce. The poem outlined the theological structure of Catholicism by vividly examining the levels of Hell, the mountain of Purgatory and the sky of Heaven. It is in this description that Catholics could finally envision the realms of the afterlife and thus plan their lives accordingly. The Italians loved Dante so much that they constructed a piazza after him in the 19th century called, Piazza Dante located in Naples. Dante is to the Italians as Shakespeare is to the English.
Lastly, The Cardinal Virtues of Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance make up the virtues of Italy. Fortitude, resembled by the lion, shows strength “forza,” and power “potere.” This is a very salient Italian value. It can be seen in the Forza (power) sports car race, the most popular car race in Italy, in the city streets of Naples, and in much of the Italian architecture ranging from the capitals on the top of the ancient Roman columns in Pompeii to the Medieval Villa Rufolo down by the Amalfi Coast. Don Corleone from The Godfather (1972), even derives his name from the lion. “Cuore” meaning “heart” and “Leone” meaning “lion.” Together the name becomes “Corleone”- “Lion’s heart.
Contained in this mentality exists the Italian social institution of la familia and especially la mamma. In Italian culture the mother figure is the most crucial component of the family. She is placed at the top of the social hierarchy where even the most powerful men submit to her demands. La mamma is an important part of Italian culture because ultimately she is the bearer of the next generation and the fortitude of la familia.
Within the Italian culture lay these ideals and virtues that make the culture what it is today, but it is in this respect that outsiders may not know about these traits and may misinterpret them. This is the challenging side-effect of a “high context” culture such as Italy. High context refers to a culture where meanings are derived from the implied individual beliefs, values and norms of the society. They are covert and simple just imply their significance. In the case of Italy, Italians do not say but just know they are proud of their religion, education and strength. To a foreigner from the United States, they may not understand this and perceive these values as arrogant. This is because the United States is a “low context” culture where meanings are explicit, overt and verbal. The reason for this behavior is that the U.S. is a country composed of immigrants which carry many different cultures, resulting in a loss of a unified identity that can be categorized as “American.” The United States can not be a high context culture because one can not imply a single set of values to the American people– there are just too many. Take for example two friends going out to dinner. One is Italian the other is Filipino. The Italian expects a four-hour food function with coffee as desert. The Filipino expects a cocktail and a fish/rice-based dish. If both parties are culturally sensitive to each other, they will find a comfortable medium in which to comfortably eat together. But what about an American? What would an Italian or Filipino expect from an American at dinner? Fact is that they could expect anything! To be “American,” is to be mixed. There are not Americans but Italian-Americans and Filipino-Americans which both bring a variety of values to the table. Therefore, Americans must be specific in their cultural meanings– thus framing the United States of America as a low context culture.
It is clear that cultural history and values are the essence of how people behave in certain cultures. Italy’s rich history in Catholicism, philosophy and the arts are reflected in it’s high contextual cultural formation. Italians won’t miss a day of Church, will embrace a true sense of life and how to live it, and will understand as well as appropriate artistic representations of all forms. The strong family ties of Italy explain why the mother is so vigorously praised and why family dinners last so long. It is Italy’s dynamic history, spanning the Holy Roman Empire to the rise and fall of the Mafia, and emphasis on the interpersonal connections Italians share, that establish the distinct Italian culture– forging it into a fascinating culture to study, explore and uncover.
So – for now – arrividerci, Bel Paese!
– Italia, ti amo! (Becky!)
– Omerta! (Mafe!)
– Pizza Napoli! (Giovanni!)
– Ho lascioto il mio cuore in Italia! (Leah!)
– Alla prossima! (Brooke!)
– Italia, dove il cielo bacia la terra! (Matthew!)
– Italia e’ l’amore che muove il sole e le stelle! (Joel!)
– Ciò che accade in Italia rimane in Italia (Julia!)
About the author:
I’m Joel Delgado and I’m a senior student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. A Communications major and Film Studies minor, I love not only the interactions between people but film as well. I also enjoy the Italian culture and all that it offers!
This past summer I got the most grateful opportunity to study abroad in Sorrento, Italy. There, I traveled Southern Italy visiting places as Naples, Pompeii and the Sistine Chapel. I vigorously researched the Italian culture and immersed myself in the Italian sphere. After living and learning in Italy, I eventually grasped the culture and am proud to say that Italy has a strong and proud national identity that can not be easily broken.
Italy will always be in my heart and I promised myself that I will return to dive back into the rich culture that is Italia.
——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-Thanks to my family who has helped me fund this adventure. To Julia Khrebtan, my mamma cioccia, for guiding us through this beautiful land of Italy. To our host school, Sorrento Lingue Institute. To the Communications Chair, Dr. Sue D. Pendell for allowing us the chance to take this trip and see the wonderful world outside of the United States. To the nation of Italy for opening your gracious arms to the wondering eyes of the curious traveler.
Thank you and Grazie!