As the world was forced indoors, individual countries found ingenious ways to lift spirits and simulate moments of togetherness despite being confined at home. In Italy, where the national lockdown was rigorously adhered to, videos of citizens singing and dancing in unison from their balconies, went viral. They show Italians young and old, with their speakers on full blast performing opera, jazz, and passionate renditions of the national anthem whilst waving their tricolore flags in a joyous display of defiance and patriotism. But Italian flags were not the only pieces of flying fabric to be captured in these scenes. Lining the buildings and balconies across the land were rows and rows of washing lines adorned with the nation’s laundry.
In Italy, hanging laundry to air-dry outside is the norm. This is largely for financial reasons: the extortionate price of electricity means that machine-dryers — found in only 4% of Italian households — are simply not worth the expense. In any case the quality, fragrance and texture of naturally dried laundry is far superior to the quick-fix mechanical alternative and generally reliable weather enables Italians to benefit from this simple luxury.
Yet Italy’s laundry methods are not solely driven by pragmatism. The traditional approach is deeply rooted in a nostalgic joy and a communal dynamic which epitomises the Italian way of life and has thus-far resisted the modernisation of this otherwise mundane domestic duty.
Long ago, the contadine (peasant women) of rural Italy would travel together at the crack of dawn to the nearest river in order to wash their family’s clothes. The labour was by no means idyllic; it was a physically demanding, monotonous task carried out in the sweltering summer heat and biting winter cold. But the one mitigating factor of this unrelenting chore was the pleasure of social contact shared between the working women. The laundry ritual offered an interactive sanctuary for conversation and banter away from home-life and other more solitary duties. Even as washing standards advanced in the late 1800s and public wash-houses (lavatoii) begun to appear in town centres, the communal element of doing laundry has never dried out.
Whilst many aspects of the process are antiquated (not least that it is no longer only a woman’s job!) the core elements of interaction and togetherness have withstood time. This is epitomised in the multitudes of hanging clotheslines which often straddle the street, creating a physical link between the opposing buildings and their inhabitants. When strolling through the domestic quarters of Italian cities, towns, villages and hamlets, neighbours can often be spotted chatting away from across their balconies as they peg their laundry to a shared line which inextricably unites them to each other as well as to the washing conventions of the past.
When I first visited Naples I was too young to remember much beyond a few impressions which are indelibly stamped on a generally blurry reel of childhood recollection. But the most lasting memory is of staring down an endlessly long and straight street and seeing the washing lines strung between the buildings, concaved by a burdensome weight of damp clothes and dangling high above the bustling crowds below. Every inch of floating space was overflowing with multicoloured fabrics arranged like a never-ending triumphal arch of linen, swinging gracefully, unaware of the modest beauty which it imparted upon the chaos of Naples’ urban centre.
But I am by no means the only one to have picked up on the mesmerising visual impact of hanging laundry which dances in time to the soft Italian breeze. Many famous names tied to various art forms have used laundry as a powerful icon in their work. Fellini’s films of magic realism reveal how something as unremarkable as laundry can take on an enchanting and evocative life of its own.
In his 8 1⁄2, the film’s protagonist, Guido Anselmi (an on-screen alter ego of Fellini) experiences a childhood flashback of him and other bambini being washed, then lovingly hurled into and enveloped by a freshly-laundered towel which is held out by two adoring women. It is a nostalgic scene of happy domesticity accentuated by childhood laughter, doting nurses, a roaring fire and massive white bedsheets hanging up to dry. It is such a comforting memory that at the culmination of the film, in a dreamlike rendering, the fully grown Anselmi imagines himself back in those childhood surroundings being once again wrapped up in those fresh towels and tended to by all the women who have made a mark on his adult life. The scene is bizarre and quickly begins to unravel but Fellini demonstrates a yearning for youthful innocence which is conjured by strong evocations of domestic symbols such as a hearth, a bath and not least — that staple of the Italian household — hanging laundry.
The beautiful sight of billowing laundry on the streets of Italy is a subtle but quintessential emblem of Italian authenticity. Imposing icons of Italian culture such as the Colosseum or the Leaning Tower of Pisa are universally recognised emblems of the country’s illustrious history, but Italy is also rife with less forceful symbols, such as the garlands of washing, which celebrate the longstanding customs of daily life in all its humble charm.
And while the viral lockdown videos show the proud Italians waving the tricolore flag for the world to see, their clothes, bedsheets and underwear fly proudly alongside them, reinforcing the unwavering sense of resilience, tradition, and above all, community upon which the country stands.