On the first day of class, I always ask my students why they picked Rome for their study abroad experience. Unsurprisingly, they reply that they came for the art, the history, and the food. Yet, when the first outbreak of the corona virus spread in Northern Italy, the first places forced to shut down were theaters, cinemas and museums. The message coming from the government was troubling to me. Cultural venues were treated as unnecessary gathering places, as a luxury we may live without, as superfluous and not essential.
Then the virus spread and Italians had to adjust to a social distancing practice that, little by little, locked us down at home taking away all the kissing, hugging, chatting, sharing meals. For those of you who have been to Italy, you know how difficult it is for Italians to avoid physical interactions, you know that our “personal space” is tiny compared to the American one. As a reaction to the lockdown, Italians organized musical flash mobs, every day at 6pm. People opened their windows, stood on their balconies and sang together (first and foremost our national anthem, but also “Il cielo è sempre più blu” by Rino Gaetano, “Azzurro” by Paolo Conte, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” by Domenico Modugno). This daily flash mob proved to me that art is more than necessary. It is vital because we recognize ourselves through music, dance and theater, we acknowledge that we are human beings who share similar memories, anguish, or hope.
With the passing days, the death toll numbers skyrocketed. That is when I started feeling a certain discomfort towards those daily singing moments. It seemed inappropriate to celebrate life and unity with happy music, while so many people were losing family members so tragically. I started to believe that, after all, the arts were accessory and non essential. A somber demeanor, and some silence would have been a better response to the situation. I went through an emotional roller coaster that perfectly represented the surreal times we live in.
Then again, I teach my students the principle of psycho-geography, that is to say the idea that a place can affect our mood and change it. If I am surrounded by beauty (the beauty of nature as much as the beauty of the Sistine Chapel) I will most likely acquire a more relaxed, happier view on my life, here and now. For instance, I thought of those instances when a person in a coma starts responding when doctors make him listen to his favorite music every day. I also thought that all the theater I love, from Greek drama onward, was a way to metabolize, digest and process collective tragedies. One thing is the individual, with his own story of pain and sorrow, another thing is the national community that, as an independent body, gathers to see that pain represented on stage, feel empathy, and move beyond to survive.
Singing on the balconies is, for now, our collective way to survive. I do not have a definitive answer on whether beauty, the arts, and culture can save us. But for sure, our need to experience beauty in these hard times is not a form of disrespect for those Italians who are suffering the most. Beauty and artistic expressions are vital, necessary, profound ways to pour our individual emotions into a sense of belonging to the community we proudly call home.