Fast cars to Latin lovers: Italy's top 15 cultural exports

By John Walsh

Everyone knows Italian icecream is better than any other. It's because gelato contains 5-7 per cent fat, while most icecream has a minimum of 10 per cent. Photo / Thinkstock
Everyone knows Italian icecream is better than any other. It's because gelato contains 5-7 per cent fat, while most icecream has a minimum of 10 per cent. Photo / Thinkstock

1. Claudia Cardinale

Some might say Loren, some Lollobrigida, some Bellucci, but of all the Italian screen goddesses who dominated post-war cinema, it was Ms Cardinale who took the Garibaldi.

Equally ravishing when tousled (The Professionals), or tightly coiffed (The Leopard), playing bosomy peasant girl (Cartouche), or leggy trapeze artiste (The Magnificent Showman), she glowed, pouted, teased and always looked indefinably, sparkily on-for-it. "If you ask me," said David Niven. "Claudia Cardinale is, after spaghetti, Italy's happiest invention." Quite.

2. La dolce far niente

"The sweet doing nothing." Pleasant and carefree idleness. Delicious laziness. Taking it easy as an existentialist statement. Italians have somehow managed to patent this exhortation to chill out, kick back and not get hung up on work or the pursuit of fame and fortune.

Not to be confused with La Dolce Vita (the sweet life) a film in which playboy paparazzo Marcello Mastroianni spends three hours frantically racing from party to party in pursuit of voluptuous birdbrain Anita Ekberg.

3. Cars

How do they do it? What is the mystical connection between Italian engineers and the automobile? They were in at the start, with the invention of the Barsanti-Matteucci internal combustion engine in 1860. The small-but-whizzy car was invented by Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Fiat) in 1899. Since then, Lancia, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Lamborghini, Maserati and pre-eminently Ferrari have set the gold standard of car design. In 1925 the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio compared the Fiat 509 to a beautiful woman for its grace and ability "to pass with ease every roughness". In 1999, Jeremy Clarkson rhapsodised for 20 minutes on the perfection of the Ferrari's gear-knob. Italian cars make grown men sigh and weep.

4. Gondoliers

Straw-hatted, stripy-vested, red-kerchiefed and indefinably louche, the Venetian hybrid of taxi driver and ad hoc crooner has proved irresistible to visitors for 900 years. Though their rowing motion suggests a kitchen scullion stirring the contents of a giant cauldron, these men embody the soul of Italy, as they ferry supine romantics down the Grand Canal in black-painted, 12m-long floating coffins, and sing O Sole Mio and That's Amore for fares of up to $400 an hour. The city's 425 male gondoliers were finally joined by a (sola mia) female, Giorgia Boscolo, in August last year.

5. The sonnet

The 14-line poem so loved by Shakespeare derives from a 14th-century scholar called Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch. He laid down iron rules. The rhyme scheme of the first eight lines should go ABBAABBA and the last six should be CDECDE. And the metrical stress should follow iambic pentameter. Clear? Without this, we wouldn't have the sonnets of Milton (When I consider how my light is spent), Wordsworth (Earth hath not anything to show more fair), or Elizabeth Barrett (How do I love thee?/ Let me count the ways.)

6. Gelato

Everyone knows Italian icecream is better than any other. It's because gelato contains 5-7 per cent fat, while most icecream has a minimum of 10 per cent. Also, it's churned at a slower speed than most icecream and folds in less air - and it's stored and served at a temperature warmer than freezing. The Medicis served it at their banquets, after Bernardo Buontalenti pioneered refrigeration techniques in 1565. And its appeal rocketed after the first mobile gelato cart (remember Chico Marx? "Get your tuttsi-fruttsi ice-a cream-a") trundled through the streets of Varese in the 1920s.

7. Caruso

Before Pavarotti, before Bocelli, before Gigli, Enrico Caruso set the template for the massive-lunged, cavern-throated, fat-but-romantic Italian operatic tenor that became a 20th-century archetype. His significance lies not just in his uniquely powerful-but-lyrical voice (he could hit top C, even late in life) but his embrace of modern recording and communication systems. One of the first classical singers to be recorded on the phonograph, he was the first to sell one million copies of a record - Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci, in 1907.

8. Federico Fellini

Sensuous, lascivious, perverse, voluptuous, bawdy, childish and fixated by the grotesque, Fellini stands out among the great Italian directors for his embodiment of appetite. Among the neo-realists of postwar Italian cinema, he stood out as a myth-maker. From the pathos of La Strada to the broad comedy of Amarcord, he presented life as a carnival of tragic comedy, driven by cruelty, luck and desire.

9. Latin

Amo, amas, amat. Amor vincit omnia. Veni, vidi, vici. Annus mirabilis. Annus horribilis. Lingua franca. In flagrante delicta. In loco parentis. Tempus fugit. Homo sapiens. Caveat emptor. Terra firma. Video. Audio. Fellatio. Whoever said Latin is a dead language is talking through his hat. Classical Latin flourished among educated folk towards the end of the Roman republic and, after Rome's conquests of the Mediterranean, Latin became the mother-lode of romance languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.

10. Mafia

Italy didn't invent gangsters, but it engendered the concept of the criminal family. It began in western Sicily in the 1860s, where landowners and merchants needed protection from bandits and bounty hunters.

11. Ancient Rome

It dominated western Europe for 1200 years, starting as a collection of settlements around the river Tiber, and growing into an empire that stretched from Britannia in the west to Egypt and Syria in the east and comprised a Greater Europe from Constantinople to Africa. It was a byword in autocratic rule, corruption, decadence and personal folly, until it was overrun by barbarians.

12. Casanova

His name translates prosaically as "Jack Newhouse", but Giacomo Girolamo Casanova is a byword for heartless womanising. Neglected by his parents, he pursued careers in law, church, army, gambling and playing the violin. His main occupation, however, was playing the nobleman and having intrigues. This reckless adventurer, lover and serial scoundrel ended his days as a librarian in Bohemia.

13. Dante

The "father of the Italian language" was born Durante degli Alighieri, but his nickname is enough to harrow the ears of hearers. This cartographer of the afterlife takes us into the furthest recesses of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, to meet Virgil the poet and be shown where we shall all eventually be consigned. Its main significance is that he wrote it in "Italian", or at least a blend of dialects and Latin, to prove that Latin need not be the only voice of "literature," and that Italian could cope with epic themes.

14. Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps the most diversely talented person who ever lived. During his heyday in the late 15th century, he produced workable designs of a motor car, a tank, a helicopter, a calculator, a bobbin-winder and a machine for testing the strength of wire. He made vital discoveries in medicine, optics and hydrodynamics. He played the lyre brilliantly. And he painted a handful of astonishing masterpieces and, incidentally, the most famous portrait in the world.

15. Roberto Baggio

Known as The Divine Ponytail and feted almost as much for his satanic good looks as his magical footwork, Baggio was the finest embodiment of the golden age of Italian football in the 1990s. His speed, his agility and his ability to find impossible angles made him a legend. He appalled goalkeepers by sending shots sailing in over their heads rather than past their arms.

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