The Cost of Beauty

Tiber valley, photo: G. Boccaletti

My partner and I are spending a few days in a remote house on the hills of northern Tuscany, “Covid-quarantining” after the flight back to see relatives. It is hot. Thankfully, our rented house is on a hilltop outside Sansepolcro, about forty kilometres north-east of Arezzo, and enjoys a mild breeze that brings some respite from the humidity of the valley below.

It is a time to reconnect with Italy, a country I left twenty-two years ago and which I visit periodically. This year, though, the circumstances are rather extraordinary. Everything has slowed down, as we all adjust to a socially distanced Covid world. It is also a time of economic anxiety. The impact of shutting down a national economy for several months is beginning to show. And with it has come the question of how to recover.

The Italian government has recently secured finance from Europe and is now contemplating how to invest this cash to fuel rapid economic growth and come out of the pandemic-induced recession it finds itself in. The problem is that Italy has suffered from low growth and a stagnating economy for over two decades, so whatever the government intends to do, it will have to somehow address decadal, entrenched problems, not simply put a short term fix on an unexpectedly deep business cycle.

There are many structural reasons for the sluggishness of the Italian economy, from the headwinds of an ageing demographic that weighs on the welfare system of the country, to a collapsing educational system that is unable to produce the talent the country needs to increase productivity, to historically underdeveloped capital markets, to a bureaucratic and ineffective public sector. The list of causes is longer than I can possibly accommodate in the few words of this short piece.

Amidst the long list of deficiencies, though, and at the heart of Italy’s challenge, is a chronic inability to think strategically about the future of its landscape. It is an unfortunate limitation that plagues Italian political discourse. And this particular pathology is rooted in a profound divergence between the image the nation has of itself and the reality on the ground.

My current surroundings are exhibit A for this very point. I am staring at “Tuscany out of central casting.” The picture above shows what I see looking out of the veranda: a blue hue shines down from the sky, pink at the edges, pouring a milky glow over the fields on the far side of the view; closer to me, several junipers peer out of the shade in the mixed shrubbery that fills the understory; Mediterranean cypresses spire through the canopy — a crowded mix of oak and pine — and frame a turquoise lake in the distance, at the bottom of the valley. The whole scene has the metaphysical quality of a renaissance fresco. Lovely. Timeless. Apparently immutable.

But what we see is a function of what we know. The lovely turquoise lake in the distance, for example, the centre of gravity of this picture-perfect landscape, is not — as a casual observer might imagine — an ancient, natural feature. If Piero della Francesca had stood where I stand right now over five centuries ago, looking out over the same vista seeking inspiration for one of his magnificent frescoes, he would not have seen this watery centrepiece.

Montedoglio Lake is the largest artificial reservoir in Tuscany, held back by a dam built as recently as the 1970s, when Italy was in the last phases of its industrialization. The reservoir holds over a hundred and thirty million cubic meters of water impounded from the upper reaches of the river Tiber, part of the water supply system for modern day Sansepolcro and for irrigating the countless farming districts downstream.

Piero would have also likely captured a rather different shade than the pastel blue radiating from the sky. Today, the valley is highly industrialized. Tobacco processing factories, pasta and paper manufacturers are the backbone of the industrial economy around here. The hillsides are covered in commercial wheat and vine. Multiple roads converge into the upper Tiber valley, opening up passages from the south-west to the north-east of the country. That lovely hue is not just the gift of a Mediterranean atmosphere, but the product — as it turns out — of equally scenic particulate matter emanating from production across the province of Arezzo.

The Italian landscape appears bucolic, but is highly anthropic, the legacy of a post-war economic miracle that delivered double digit industrial growth for most of the fifties and sixties. It may appear unchanged from the time of Petrarch, but is in fact highly industrialized. It is just that Italy’s modernity is blended into the historical landscape and hard to see.

The skill of hiding the present behind the past has had surprising and costly consequences for Italy. If you were to follow the country’s political discourse you would conclude that the country’s biggest concerns are a failing national airline carrier, tourism hampered by Covid, and public sector employment. These are the concerns of an immobile economy, mostly reliant on its lovely scenery to attract visitors.

In truth, Italy is a highly industrialised country, a manufacturing economy second only to Germany in Europe, and one of the largest exporters in the world. High precision mechanics, processing industries such as those that surround me right now, aerospace engineering are amongst the sectors that constitute the backbone of this country’s economy.

Yet, many Italians — and most foreigners who come to this country — simply hold the wrong image in their minds of what this country is, fooled by beauty of landscapes such as the one I am looking at right now, trapped by its history. And it is because of this that they have an inevitably limited range when it comes to imagining the country’s future, a limitation that stifles discussion about the future of its economic landscape too.

How people perceive their landscape has a profound impact on their ability to imagine the future and thus formulate strategies to cope with its transformation. Italy is a thing of beauty. The problem is not to give up on lovely scenery and historic landcsapes. But it is to recognize that this beatiful landscape is the product of centuries of mediation with economic activity, and decades of intensive industrialization.

There is a fine line between a symbiotic and sustainable relationship between a historic landscape and modernity, and one that stifles progress under the weight of an immobile past. Italy has been stuck in the latter for a few decades now. As the government considers how to invest the billions of euros it has managed to secure from the European Union it should ask itself what should the country look like when it has finished spending that money, for this landscape may need to look different. Preserving its beauty, preparing it for a different, sustainable economic structure, and securying it against climate change, will require deliberate, thoughtful, strategic investments.

Debates about the future of the country and of its landscape should take centerstage right now, if the country is to plan its future growth. Hopefully, Italian politicians will find inspiration in the sobering condition the country finds itself in and succeed in lifting the nation’s gaze beyond the next few months. Meanwhile, I shall turn back to listening to the incessant crepitation of cicadas that fills the air around me.

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