Coronavirus: How art is lifting Italy's spirits

Limited access to cultural pursuits may be a tragedy for them but the priority for now is human life

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By Mariella Radaelli

Published: Thu 26 Mar 2020, 2:15 PM

Last updated: Thu 26 Mar 2020, 5:16 PM

Asking impassioned, creative Italy to stay inactive has proven to be an enormous request from government leaders. The land that brought the world creative geniuses such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Dante, Verdi - and so many other names it would fill the page - does not usually glorify quiet, isolation and reserve.
Yet, these are strange and special times. Even the Italians are adapting to staying inside, foregoing their love of the outdoors, a fine meal al fresco and the traditional promenade through city piazzas across the nation. Today, the coronavirus quarantine has turned it into a resplendent prison.
For now, like an increasingly large swath of the world, Italians are staying indoors and practising social distancing. But that doesn't mean they have gone silent. True to their heritage and character, they have found creative outlets for expression.
Even in vibrant Italy, Naples is known for its colourful character. As the energetic locals were forced indoors by the coronavirus, in mid-March, apartment residents broke spontaneously into song on their individual balconies. It triggered a ripple effect across the country as others sang and played music. The new, intimate grassroots theatre was repeated on other days, combining the fierceness of the national anthem Fratelli d'Italia with pop songs, or opera arias with partisan folk songs and even heavy metal hits.
Unfortunately, we can't say music is the pill to abolish the coronavirus. It is, however, an extraordinary medium for connecting with others, especially in these traumatic days, when Italians instinctively channel their innate sense of beauty to help relieve anxiety and decrease pain. Though they are known to be a bit hypochondriac, they don't bother the family doctor with minor nuisances any longer. Today, they just take care of themselves without overreacting to things like the mysterious Italian affliction cervicale (known simply as neck pain in the rest of the world). The cool thing to do is give vent to creativity and abundant imagination in an attempt to feel reborn even after a night of vivid nightmares.
In condos, people play tunes on keyboards or guitars, sing their favourite songs or chant in different tones. There are those who prefer playing the violin such as Mirko and Valerio, two Sicilian teenagers, whose cover of Coldplay's Viva La Vida went viral on Instagram. Their performance was so intense that the British band itself endorsed their talent.
Last night, beneath our apartment, an entire family was singing along to a series of classic Neapolitan songs. They sang real loud and sounded a bit off-key, but we did not complain. It must have been liberating for them to scream their heads off like that.
Though it has lost its position as an economic powerhouse, Italy remains a cultural superpower. The vast heritage is a core component of the country's economy, generating some 270 billion euros a year, a great loss with the entire culture sector (museums, art galleries, opera houses, movie theatres, and other creative industries) closed down these days.
Italians miss going to the theatre. So they do it themselves through home videos. Some families have turned their homes into an intimate ballroom where their body language enhances their attitude of wonder. A family transformed their living room into a beach resort; they enter only in swimsuits or bikinis.
Italians also miss not going to shows. La Scala Theatre in Milan is as inoperative as all the other enchanting opera houses across the country that were forced to stop their concert season while it was in full swing. "We will return to laugh, to be moved, to get angry. We will go back to being proud of La Scala Opera House. #WeAreLaScala but #IStayHome", wrote Alberto Mattioli, opera critic for the newspaper La Stampa.
The lack of drama is tragic to us. Its absence may drive us mad as we need to feel the same emotions as those displayed by actors onstage, to live the cathartic experience brought to us by a play; it helps us regulate our emotions in real life. The same release of emotional tension is enabled by a work of art when we visit our top museums and art collections available around the country.
We solve the problem by applauding at screens instead, as several theatres have established streaming services and other virtual venues have popped up. The Milan Cinematheque was the first film archive to make its rich catalogue available to stream online for free due to the spread of COVID-19.
Several museums have virtual tours available online, including the Vatican Museums that offer 360-degree tours of the Sistine Chapel, Raphael Rooms and more. People can peruse the works on view at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, explore the treasure of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, or watch the Teatro Massimo in Palermo perform operas that include La Traviata, Nabucco, and Madame Butterfly.
Va Pensiero is Giuseppe Verdi's most famous aria from his operatic triumph Nabucco (1842). Claimed as the anthem for Italian unification and a call to arms for the oppressed everywhere, last week, it reacquired its patriotic potency through a moving performance by the International Opera Choir of Rome. Each from their own home, the choristers intoned Va Pensiero (Go thought, on Golden Wings), the lament for a burdened homeland ("Oh my land so beautiful and so lost"), dedicated to all the doctors who fight death on the coronavirus front line.
Renato Sarti, a playwright, director, and actor at the Theatre of La Cooperativa in Milan, stays productive under the lockdown. "I take refuge in writing but I also do physical work such as washing behind the sink or making wooden marionette puppets. I carve them with chisels and a gouge. I focus on the detail of an eye: it is something that distracts your mind, like when you paint." In terms of economy, who knows if we will recover from the current catastrophe, he says. "But now, the priority is human life."
In these strange hours, I also find myself recalling songs I grew up with, a selection from American songwriters. I pick up my mental jukebox made of Bob Dylan's masterpieces and I get loose with a rendition of Desolation Row and Tears of Rage. Then I coerce myself into changing register. I'd better turn to Verdi, to his arias from La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), a celebration of human energy, humour and stoicism, the disciplines of greatness.

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