Four Great Gifts Italy Has Given America

Now that another several hundred thousand Americans have come back from spending part of their summer in Italy, they may be in a special mood to reflect on what we owe to the great Italian cities: four contributions in particular – a sense of civic beauty; bold and creative individuals; the Stoic ethic of ancient and medieval Rome; and the crucial social role of civic and religious associations.

1. The Italian sense of civic beauty is without peer. What other region of the world can match the profusion of beautiful vistas in Italy’s hilltop cities; magnificent public buildings (such as the City Hall in Siena); sacred spaces (the great churches of Florence); majestic open piazzas from Venice to Rome to Palermo; and virtually every village church in Umbria? All Italy seems to have been designed to lift our spirits with vibrant color, stunning statuary, soaring facades, and tall bell towers.

Moreover, Italy taught America that living spaces need beauty as the heart needs love and the lungs need air. How can a people become noble if they see around them no art idealizing nobility of soul? The effect of post-modernism has been to dehumanize our living spaces, to subtract from our vision the human moral struggle, the human drama. Held down by rusty wires, the wings of the human spirit cannot take flight.

2. The ideal of the bold and creative individual. Great individual personalities of Florentine history – Dante Alighieri, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Filippo Brunelleschi, Luca della Robbia – have indelibly marked American ideals of beauty and majesty. These men of singular accomplishment are the offspring of St. Paul. For Paul learned in inner pain that to follow Christ’s call he had to break from tribe and family, to become a distinctive, possibly solitary individual in order to follow his conscience, thus to join a new, eternal community. What is distinctive about Christianity is not that it is a community, but that it is a unique kind of community. For one thing, it includes the whole human family, not one race, nation, or tribe. Its most distinctive feature is that each individual must “choose” to cling to Christ, and thus to enter into this new kind of community. This Pauline insight spread the sails of autobiography (as in St. Augustine). It inspired the striking individuality of Florentines in virtually every field.

3. The humanistic ethic of ancient and medieval Rome is emblazoned on the ceilings of many palaces, churches, and public halls in Florence, in figures symbolizing nobility of soul; magnanimity; industry; pietas; the honor of self-sacrifice on behalf of the city; honesty; reliability; equanimity; prudence; temperance; self-mastery. Roman civilization was built upon several central human virtues. But Christian Florence added new notes:

In contrast to Renaissance courtly architecture with its intimidating Roman grandeur worthy of great princes and empires, fifteenth-century Florentine churches, chapels, and private palaces employed a small-scale Roman architectural language affirming the dignity of individual citizens and the republican horizontal rhetoric of ordinary citizens as equals before the law (Robert W. Baldwin).

Beneath his statue of David, Donatello inscribed: “Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride severed by the hand of humility.” So distinct in its aesthetic emphasis on virtue was Florence that Leonardo Bruni, one of the first modern historians, wrote in his Panegyric on Florence (1404):

If the glory, nobility, virtue, grandeur, and magnificence of the parents can also make the sons outstanding, no people in the entire world can be as worthy of dignity as are the Florentines, for they are born from such parents who surpass by a long way all mortals in every sort of glory.

4. Civic associations. Few cultures are more strongly rooted than Italy’s in the extended family and local voluntary associations of the city and the Church. Thus, Florence and her sister cities are the source of a crucial institution of Western freedom – the civic association, such as the confraternities of this saint and that, guilds, foundations to care for the upkeep of a nearby bridge or stretch of road, organizations to help the ill and teach the young. It was not the Italian state, nor even the city council, that took care of citizens’ many needs; rather it was the full galaxy of local associations. It was by the principle of association, not by state command or collectivism, that medieval Catholics built up civil society, and expressed the social nature of mankind. This principle binds together the Christian notions of the individual person and the free society.

In the Christian tradition, the terms “person” and “community” define one another. The true community is one that seeks the full development of each person within it. The fully developed person is one who, in gratitude for its gifts and ennobling traditions, does what he can to build up his community. This mutual interdefinition is not unrelated to the Christian mystery of the godhead: Communio divinarum personarum. The Trinity is, in a sense, the very model of Christian community: the distinctiveness of each Person, the Communion in which all are one. A similar metaphor lies in the liturgy of the Eucharist: out of many grains, one bread; out of many grapes, one wine.

These two inspirations blaze out from the most precious riches of Florence – the distinctiveness of each person (and each work of genius) and the communitarian concerns of the city that nourishes such individuals. Both of these inspirations are visible in every public place, civic and ecclesiastical, in Florence. From such inspirations as these the early Americans learned the art of association, as Tocqueville called it, “the first law of democracy.”

Michael Novak (1933-2017)

Michael Novak was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.