“Italy Is Excellent In All Things”

The Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius believed that one of Italy’s special gifts was its geographical location.  The nation was so situated, he believed, to combine the positive aspects of both cool and warm climates.  In his treatise De Architectura (VI.11), he notes that

For in Italy the inhabitants are exactly tempered in either direction, both in the structure of the body, and by their strength of mind in the matter of endurance and courage.  For just as the planet Jupiter is tempered by running in the middle between the heat of Mars and the cold of Saturn, in the same manner Italy presents good qualities which are tempered by admixture from either side both north and south, and are consequently unsurpassed.  And so, by its policy, it curbs the courage of the northern barbarians; by its strength, the imaginative south.  Thus the divine mind has allotted to the Roman state an excellent and temperate region in order to rule the world.  [Trans. by Frank Granger]

We often forget how important geography and climate are to history.  There is no doubt some truth to what Vitruvius says; we find the same sentiment echoed in Pliny’s Natural History (II.189).  Pliny talks about the need for a “tempering” of the extremes of cold and hot.  Perhaps this is so of nations; but for individuals, personal preference is supreme.  For my own part, I find myself becoming more and more concerned with climate as the years pass.  One begins to lose enthusiasm for battling slicks of ice, blasts of arctic air, and the disturbing volatilities of temperature.  There is no doubt in my mind that I intend to seek warmer climes in the years ahead.  Cold for me oppresses the spirit; one desires to feel the sun beat down on the face, to be unimpeded by excessive clothing.

An amusing anecdote reinforces the point.  The scholar Petrarch sent a long letter to Pope Urban V in June 1366, the purpose of which was to convince him to move the seat of the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.  He included a number of eloquent appeals to the beauty, fertility, and favorable climate of the Italian peninsula.  There was also a humorous story that I will relate here.

Petrarch tells us that an earlier pope, Benedict XII, was once sent some impressively delicious eels from the Volsinian lakes.  The pope could see that they were a great delicacy, and ordered them to be shared among the cardinals of the Curia.  He kept only a small portion of the eels for himself.  The cardinals ate them with gusto, and word quickly got around about how good they were.  When a group was visiting the pope’s residence a few weeks later, someone brought up the subject of the eels.  Benedict, who was a man not only of great humanistic learning but also a jokester, said to all of them:  “If I had known in advance how good the eels were, I certainly would not have shared them all with you.  I never imagined that eels of such quality could be found in Italy.”

Upon hearing this, Cardinal Giovanni Colonna (a man whom Petrarch had worked under) got a bit incensed, even though Benedict had been joking.  He said, “How is it possible that an educated man such as yourself, so learned in all things, doesn’t know that Italy excels in all things?”  Benedict’s response to this jibe is not recorded.  Petrarch went on say this about his country:

The climate is most healthy and marvelously blended between chill and heat, which is the reason adduced by certain writers for the origin of Rome and her empire over the world, because it was so blended from opposites that it countered the trickery of the South with physical vigor, and suppressed the savagery of the North with its moral virtues, so that it was inevitable that the extremities would surrender to the middle, which shared in both their natures.  Here there are lakes full of fish, such as no other region has in so small a space; there are rivers curving by the design of nature into most convenient bends in scattered places, so that a great part of Italy, Liguria and Venetia and Emilia and the Flaminian region scarcely have a distinguished place that is not accessible to a man calmly traveling along delightful waters.  [Trans. by Elaine Fantham].

Well said, indeed.  But we may concur with him that Italy excels in all things.  Even in eels.


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