In a country where three quarters is covered by beaches and seashore, where a man became famous worldwide singing just three words “O Sole Mio”, and where flocks of tourists have been spending their holidays (at least since the times of Goethe), summer is an essential component of the Italian DNA–a piece that I’ve missed when I’ve lived abroad in countries with cooler climates. I feel a deep nostalgia for the gelati by the beach, the smell of Karite butter my mother used to apply on her skin, the colour of the edicola where I would buy comics.
Italian pop culture has played an important role in shaping both the realistic and stereotypical sentiment and iconography around Italian summer. From post WWII Italy onwards–through the economic growth of the 50s, the dreamy 60s, the political 70s and the hedonistic 80s until today–Italian summer–or as we say l’estate Italiana–has always meant much more than holidays for Italians. We see this best in Italian cinema, in which summer is the setting for many memorable stories and is often the main character itself.
During the 50s, the representation of l’estate Italiana in Italian cinematography became, in the hands of capable directors, a way to describe the vices and virtues of a country full of contractions and its attempt at grappling with unexpected economic growth post WWII. In Domenica d’agosto (Sunday in August, 1950), Luciano Emmer portrays the life of a society in which members of the fallen nobility, the working class and the middle class spend a summer day all together in Ostia, near Rome. Far from being a judgemental movie, A Sunday in August shows, in a typical Neorealist way, how interactions between classes, customs and behaviours were changing at the time; WWII was a close memory, but people were looking ahead to the future. This great movie perhaps laid the foundations of many cliches around l’estate Italiana: there are people eating pasta on the beach, American cars are shown with pride, rich families live next to middle class families. And no matter their class, everyone is seeking happiness after the dark times of WWII.
Aldo Fabrizi’s La famiglia Passaguai (The Passaguai Family, 1951) is a comedy about the Italian bourgeoisie of the time, struggling to adapt to new values and lifestyles of holiday during the vibrant, energetic 50s, when Italians were learning how to spend their holidays by the beach as a social construct. For many families, the year became divided between work in big cities like Milan, Rome or Turin and summer at the beach.
Alberto Lattuada’s cold and elegant depiction of the power of envy, La Spiaggia (The Boarder, 1954), which takes place in the post WWII Italy where a large part of the population became part of the bourgeoisie, tells the story of a prostitute on holiday with her daughter in Liguria and how the local population judges her once they discover her profession.
The directors of the 60s analysed l’estate Italiana from a different angle, no longer showcasing a changing society in which the holidays were considered a status quo that every middle-class family should have pursued, but taking a more critical approach, often disenchanted. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960) depicts a mysterious summer set in the Aeolian Islands, where a stormy sea divides and hides secrets, and where the great late Monica Vitti plays the role of Claudia, a distressed woman in love with her best friend’s partner. Italian summer is darker in the 60s, especially in Dino Risi’ Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) in which Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant, a slacker bachelor and a diligent law student respectively, drive away from a deserted Rome to reach the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Together with L’ombrellone (Weekend, Italian Style, 1965), again by Dino Risi, the movie represents the pain of a nation’s loss of innocence, thanks to wild industrialisation, violent gentrification and a sudden shift from old school values to a scattered modern life, which clashes with the wonderful Italian landscapes and summer settings. The director smartly reverses the classic dichotomy of city/bad vs. holiday/good. In this movie, the beaches of Riccione are depicted as overcrowded places, where humans have covered every inch of land, even the water of the Adriatic Sea. Where humans are lost in vices and morally bad behaviours. The desire for civilization has produced humans without any taste and depth.
The political turmoil of the 70’s in Italy pushed directors towards more sociological movies. Lina Wertmuller’s Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto (Swept Away, 1974) is a sensual comedy in which Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini mirror the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between communism and capitalism, between men and women. Working-class sailor Gennarino Garunchio and posh Milanese lady Raffaella Pavone Lanzenetti shipwreck on a beautiful Sardinian beach where the power dynamics of the duo shift, creating hilarious comedy sketches. The rich, snobby woman begins by shouting orders at the Sicilian sailor and ends by cooking for him.
If there is something Italian directors can do well, it is producing bittersweet comedies, movies in which the audience laughs at the movie, but also at themselves. This is the case of Dove vai in vacanza? (Where Are You Going on Vacation?, 1978) in which Alberto Sordi and Anna Longhi, two veracious fruit sellers, end up at the Venice Biennale, lost between intellectuals and contemporary art under the scorching August sun.
The economical expansion (perhaps more illusory than real) of the 80s generated a cultural expansion in Italy–movies, music, fashion and much more. Perhaps because of the unbridled hedonism typical of these years, summer in the 80s became synonymous with pure escapism: a time and a place where movie directors (and TV advertisements) could play with nostalgia, joyful characters and love stories. Many movies were set on the beach in the 80s, most of them fun comedies; the retrodated Sapore di Mare (Taste of the Sea, 1983) and many more tell light stories of love and friendships between the dunes of the beaches and the dancefloors of the clubs, depicting an ideal generation without real problems. These directors represented l’estate Italiana as the ultimate escapist setting in which love is real and Italy is seen as a lost paradise, a forbidden dream. Italian summer was a place where real life was suspended and anything could happen.
After the 80s, deleterious events of the 90s–Tangentopoli, the nearby Gulf war, mafia murders–altered the standard iconography of Italian summer. People eating ice cream by the beach, having spaghetti with their families under giant striped beach umbrellas, changing costumes in the wooden bathing facilities and all similar cliches disappeared from cinematic aesthetics. Instead, in the 90s, l’estate Italiana became a more psychological (e)state. The 90s iconography of Italian summer is perhaps best represented by Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (Dear Diary, 1993), in which the main protagonist stays in an empty Rome, and unlike Gasman in The Easy Life, he embraces the vacancy, which he fills up with thoughts, feelings and anxieties. Wandering around the city with his iconic Vespa and sunglasses, he makes Rome an extension of his mind, where he can get lost in streets/thoughts.
Similarly, the summer in Io ballo da sola (Stealing Beauty, 1996) by Bernardo Bertolucci represents the passage from adolescence to adulthood in an intimate and touching fresco, perfectly acted by Liv Tyler. Paolo Virzì’s Ferie d’Agosto (August Vacation, 1996) is a pretext to talk about the political differences of Italians in the 90s, in which left-wing intellectuals clash against Berlusconian values of the right-wing rich.
Lately, the 21st century has brought a handful of excellent movies in which Italian summer is a place for love and friendship. Silvio Soldini’s brilliant comedy Pani & Tulipani (Bread and Tulips, 2000) tells a story of a woman who gets lost in Venice and starts a flirtation with a waiter, the late, great Bruno Ganz. Critically acclaimed, this love comedy is set in the hot streets where l’estate Italiana becomes the perfect setting for a timid love. Pranzo di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch, 2009) by Gianni Di Gregorio is a delicate film about old age and friendship, set in Rome’s Trastevere during the August holiday of Ferragosto. L’estate italiana is also one of the protagonists of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), a gorgeous love story between a young man, Elio, and an older man, Oliver. Summer provides the context for love, whether familial or romantic, in both Mid-August Lunch and Call Me By Your Name: in the former, love is represented by the food a middle-aged man cooks for his mother (and a bunch of other old ladies), while in the latter, Italian summer is a place for self discovery when Elio finds himself in love with a man and begins to explore his sexuality.
The many attempts to describe Italian summer made by directors during the last century have shaped a unifying cultural factor for the nation–to the point that everyone in Italy can still relate to movies directed more than 60 years ago. A language made by classic stereotyped iconographies such as ombrelloni (giant umbrellas), jukebox with summer hits, granite on the rocks (pun not intended), gelati eaten with new morosi or morose (north-east slang for boyfriend or girlfriend). But while it’s clear that Italian summer is a canon in the cultural production of Italy, and while we have so many movies depicting these months, it’s still not easy to define its DNA. What is sure is that l’estate Italiana is much more than a period of time we spend in holidays: it’s a sentiment, a feeling, a way of living. (And if you want to live it even more, here’s a playlist to get in the mood. Best listened to while having a drink by the sea.)