Culture /

The Catholic Imagination

“Catholicism in Italy is a striking combination of tradition, superstition, true faith, and show business.”

Every Easter Sunday, as a kid, I would go visit my grandma with my family. 

Every Easter Sunday we would find her in the living room, watching the mass officiated by the pope, streamed live on TV. 

“Shhhhhh!” She’d tell us to be quiet, like she was watching a thriller film full of suspense rather than a rite of which she knew every word by heart. 

In silence, we’d patiently wait for the mass to reach its climax, when the pope addresses Catholics from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica with the Urbi et Orbi blessing. 

(Literally meaning “to the city [of Rome] and to the world”, the Urbi et Orbi is a special benediction given by the pope on solemn occasions). 

In a momentum of religious fury, my grandma would order us to kneel down, to receive the blessing. And there we would stay – if only not to annoy her – one next to the other, kneeling in front of the TV set, waiting for the blessing to pass like a thunderstorm: Sancti Apostoli Petrus et Paulus, de quorum potestate et auctoritate confidimus, ipsi intercedant pro nobis ad Dominum. etc etc. etc.  

One year I summoned all my pre-adolescent rebellion and challenged her: 

“Grandma, I really don’t understand why we have to do this”. 

“Che male ti fa?” (Does it do you any harm?) she replied.

I couldn’t say anything back. 

Like most Italian kids growing up in the 1990s, my family raised me Catholic more by inertia than to honour a real faith in the Holy Trinity. 

I did the whole thing: I was baptised, I went to Sunday school, I attended mass pretty regularly. I even became an altar boy, mainly because I liked the look.

In my teenagehood I was too busy trying to understand my mood swings so I lost interest in trying to understand the Church and eventually stopped practising, however my Catholic heritage would prove to be of great help in my art history studies at university, years later.

Truth is, Italians are pretty ambivalent about the Church. 

Long gone is the anticlerical sentiment that galvanized the fathers of the nation in fighting against the Papal States to free Rome and unifying the country in 1870.  

Today, most of us don’t really pay too much attention to the Church at all, even if Italian newscasts care about informing us on what the pope has said or done on a regular basis. 

We get upset at the umpteenth scandal involving this cardinal or that priest (there are too many, some of which are proper crimes) but generally speaking we tolerate the Church and understand it as being irremediably part of our cultural identity. 

Practising Catholics aside, the majority of us goes to church only for weddings, funerals, and possibly on Christmas day. But that’s because they are social occasions to dress up – especially weddings – or to see members of the family we hadn’t seen in a while – typically funerals.

I’m somewhat an exception, as every time I see the façade of a church I feel the urge to get inside. Call it an occupational hazard: you never know which sculpture or painting may be kept behind the walls of a church. 

The only person that has ever convinced me to attend mass as an adult is an enlightened friend living in Florence. They once brought me to an 8am Sunday mass officiated by Padre Silvio at the Complex of San Firenze. Silvio, as he likes to be called, addressed his crowd of 6 devotees – whose average age was dramatically reduced to 85 due to my presence – citing Plato, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. I took notes during the entire homily. 

Catholicism in Italy is a striking combination of tradition, superstition, true faith, and show business.

Since its very advent, the Church understood that the key to be successful, whenever the concept of sin wasn’t enough, was to act on our imagination. In the biggest rebranding operation in history, churches were built on top of rocks sacred to the Celts in the North, cathedrals were raised incorporating the columns of ancient temples in the South.

In fact, it’s possible that part of our very national character, whether it is our talent for drama, our taste for beauty, or our peculiar interpretation of rules, come straight from the Catholic imagination. Heavy taxation, loan-sharking and selling indulgences might have been slightly amoral, but they also paid for many of the artworks Italy is still famous for. 

In the Middle Ages, with the Greek and Roman theatre fallen into oblivion, the Church would dramatize biblical episodes employing special effects: melodramatic unveiling of altarpieces kept behind curtains, rose petals drop from the ceiling, trapdoors, gears, ropes… 

Even Italian fashion is hugely indebted to Catholicism. Sense of style and sartorial know-how had been essential in designing the elaborate outfits of cardinals and popes centuries before we developed our celebrated fashion system.

Federico Fellini knew this pretty well, when he included a surreal Vatican fashion show in his film Roma (1972), promptly censored by the Church. 

Reality sometimes exceeds imagination. I’ve never seen so many colours of nun garments as in Rome. Besides covering the more predictable range of browns, whites, greys and blacks, nuns also come in more fashionable Pantone shades. There are Vallarta blue nuns, burgundy nuns, posy green nuns. All conveniently colour-coded to match their orders, like the Knights of the Zodiac, or the Sailor Guardians

While nuns had also been wearing socks and sandals for decades before it became a fashion thing, our previous pope had the reputation of being a fashionista. 

“The Pope Wears Prada” titled Newsweek in 2005, in an article describing Benedict XVI’s red loafers, supposedly realized for him by the fashion brand. The Vatican denied it, solemnly stating: “The pope is not dressed by Prada but by Christ”. 

In fact, Benedict XVI’s red Moroccan leather shoes were handmade by his personal cobbler in North Italy. Real chic people solely wear custom-made… 

In 2018 Vatican fashion travelled across the pond when the Costume Institute organized the exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Unprecedented, the show’s aim was “to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism”, showing incredible contemporary garments next to historical pieces.

I went to the press-conference of the exhibition in Rome. In the general confusion of the room, from where I sat I could clearly distinguish Donatella Versace’s radiant blonde scalp, Anna Wintour’s perfect bob, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s bright red zucchetto, one next to the other, in the front row. 

Fellini himself couldn’t have asked for a better scene.