Italy according to Umberto Eco
- Read this article to find out more about Umberto Eco.
- Read the following excerpt from the foreword Eco wrote for the book Why Italians Love to Talk About Food by Elena Kostiukovich (2009)
It is always awkward to speak about “Italian culture,” just as it is awkward to speak about the “Italian landscape.” If you rent a car and drive across the United States, you can travel for days and days across endless plains; if you travel in northern Europe you can drive at length across equally vast stretches of rye fields. And let’s not forget the steppes of Central Asia, the Sahara and Gobi deserts, and the wide expanse of the Australian outback.
One does not come to Italy to find the dizzying verticality of the Gothic cathedrals, the immensity of the pyramids, the cascades of Niagara Falls. Once you have crossed the Alps (where you might certainly have sublime impressions, but ones you could find in France, Switzerland, Germany, or Austria as well), you begin having a different experience. In Italy, the horizon never expands to titanic dimensions, because it is always limited by a hill on the right, or by the modest relief of a mountain on the left, and the road is continuously interrupted by small villages, at least one every five kilometers. On every stretch of the route (except in a certain section of the Po Valley) there will be a curve, a change of course, so that from region to region, but also within the same region, you will continually discover a different country, with infinite gradations from mountains to sea, passing through endlessly varied hills. There is little difference between the hills of Piedmont and those of the Marches or Tuscany; at times, all you have to do is cross the Apennines, which traverse the entire boot like a backbone, from east to west or vice versa to get the impression that you entering another country. Even the seas are different: those on the Tyrrhenian coast offer panoramas, beaches of a sort, and coastlines different from those of the Adriatic seaboard, not to mention the islands.
This variety applies not only to Italy’s landscapes, but also to its inhabitants. Italian dialects vary from region to region. If a Sicilian hears a Piedmontese from the northwest speaking, he will often not understand a word he is hearing. But few foreigners imagine that the dialects also vary from city to city, within the same region, and at times, though only slightly, from village to village.
This is because living together in the boot are the descendants of the Celtic and Ligurian tribes who inhabited the North before the Roman penetration, as well as the Illyrians of the East, the Etruscans and the various Italic stocks of the central region, the Greeks of the South and scores of ethnic groups that over the course of the centuries invaded the autochthonous populations: the Goths, the Lombards, the Arabs, and the Normans (not to mention the French, the Spanish, and the Austrians). On the country’s northwest borders something very similar to French is spoken, while German can be heard in the mountains of the northeast, and Albanian in some places in the south.
This same variety of landscapes, languages, and ethnic groups also characterizes Italian cuisine. Not the Italian that one tastes abroad, which, as good as it may be, is like Chinese food sampled outside China, a generic brand that draws its inspiration from various regions and inevitably gives in to the expectations of the “typical” customer who is looking for a “typical” image of Italy.
To come to know Italian cuisine in all its variety is to discover the monumental differences, not only of language but of taste, mentality, creativity, sense of humor, attitude toward suffering and death, loquacity or taciturnity that separate a Sicilian from a Piedmontese or a Venetian from a Sardinian. In Italy, perhaps more than anywhere else (though the rule applies to every country), discovering local cuisine means discovering the spirit of the local inhabitants. […]
3. What do you find most surprising and/or fascinating about what Eco wrote in the foreword? (Answer in English).