How to live like an Italian

VOL.2.14

The pleasure of domesticity from Ancient Rome to Renzo Piano.

 

Living like an Italian: it’s a style and mode of life which has few parallels throughout the rest of the world, and has for centuries been a model for others to replicate. Needless to say, our cult of the home has deep historical roots: the Romans would take care to consider the astrological alignments and locations for their temples and residences, preferring proximity to woods, lakes and springs.

 

The Latin domus, overseen by its own guardian deities, is a space that structures the life of its inhabitants—the Latin “habitare”, ‘to inhabit’, shares its root with “habeo”, ‘to possess’, and by extension, ‘to reside in’, ‘to settle’, ‘to stop’ – framing the house as a secure port. For this reason Italy is to this day the country with the highest percentage of house ownership in Europe, 79.1% according to the 2011 Census. This figure confirms the home is still for Italians an existential certainty, a status symbol, not simply a life-style but a fact of life. This is the explanation for our atavistic attachment to domestic space; so different from the Anglo-Saxon notion of the house as a practical but often transitory commodity.
It is no coincidence that Franco La Cecla, anthropologist and architect, claims that thoughts are generated by location. That idea was celebrated in 2007 with the wonderful “At Home in Renaissance Italy” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which illustrated the connection between domestic habits and Italian cultural aesthetics. The sixteenth-century house plan showed a balanced positioning of spaces familiar to us to this day—the atrium, the living room, the bedroom, the study. In time, this has become the model for many European homes. And despite the repeated attempts at 90s-style métissage, with foreign imports such as the loft, in the end one always returns to the humanistic structure of the home’s skeleton: the spine of the corridor, whose rhythm remains visible even when the odd partition is demolished; rooms that open to the sides, full of objects with strong aesthetic impact, along with familiar furniture, prototypes by young designers, rare vintage pieces, unique objects found on eBay, as if to paint a personalised fresco of one’s own life within four walls. The pleasure of domesticity has always embraced all social classes in Italy, from the big cities where ex-novo construction invites brave aesthetic gambling (as is the case in the new neighbourhoods of Porta Nuova and CityLife in Milan), to the suburbs, for which Renzo Piano has recently called for a strategy of “stitching up”.

 

Having abandoned the idea of the “total look” home, new generations customise 70s condominiums, farmhouses, warehouses and ex-industrial spaces as if they were vintage clothes. This is a creative process that takes into account new realities of life like working from home, house sharing, kitchen gardens on balconies, verandas and roof gardens.

 

In the spirit of resilience, today’s Italian home is reconnecting with its ancient roots in the courtyard, the street, the neighbourhood, the local market and the urban fabric.

 

This renewed dialogue with the past confirms once again its extraordinary eclecticism and capacity to mutate with the exigencies of the future, in balance between materialism and poetry.