Aside from the amazing cuisine, Italy’s largest cultural export is its obsession with aesthetics. You have the fashion houses of Milan: Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana. You have supercars like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati and, of course, the hypercar founders of Bugatti and Pagani. These are by and large contemporary reference points for the incredibly vague term, “Italian design,” but there’s a historical context for these high-end luxury brands.
On the surface, the design aesthetics of Italy appear to be a certain obsession over line and proportion. However, Italian design doesn’t live in the sketches of prototypes and samples; it is embodied in the ability of a small army of expert craftsmen to materialize those sketches. Design is meaningless without its physical end product. The heart of Italian design is really Italian craftsmanship: yes, the perfect seams sewn by hand on the leather of a supercar, the impeccable tailoring of a couture gown, but also the gleaming mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and the simple elegance of an espresso.
Behind the gorgeous exteriors is a group of Italians grinning like proud parents when their work is sold to a happy customer. That is what impressed me the most, during this trip to Italy; people take pride in their work and inheriting a family business, perfecting their craftsmanship through generations of labor. In the United States, we always aspire to “improve” upon the previous generation’s work. We are scared to “settle” for inheriting the family business, and failing the American Dream, failing to earn more for ourselves.
Many people lament the ailments of modernity which can be described as an unpleasant cocktail of uncertainty, anxiety, and general malaise. Like so many single-sailor ships, we blink and realize we are not safely tucked in a harbor, but somewhere in the middle of some nameless body of water with no fucking idea where we are going. In some sense, that is a truly American fault. We all want to pioneer our own individual paths and all end up feeling as if we’re lost or have lost a connection with our personal history. The freedom of choice is certainly a luxury that most middle and upper class Americans enjoy, but sometimes I wonder what would happen if we didn’t immediately dismiss the choice to deepen our connection to a familial trade or skill. There’s a beauty in tradition that allows us to add to something that is infinitely richer than our individual history.