“I wear a mask, and indeed must do so, for without it no one could live safely in Italy.”—Paolo Sarpi
While enjoying an aperitivo on Orvieto’s Corso the other night, I ran into my friend Toni DeBella, who was chatting with some visiting Americans—a very cool couple, Benjamin Orbach and Ashley Kushner. (Ben is the director of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, dedicated to increasing the number of Americans who volunteer in the Muslim world, and author of Live From Jordan; Ashley works for the State Department.)
Over a glass of vino and several small dishes of complimentary snacks (gotta love that Italian tradition), we talked about their work and time they’d spent living and working in Israel. Toni described to them a situation in Italy that has frustrated an Israeli friend of hers, who lives in Rome. “The Italians won’t just come out and say something straight to the point,” her friend has complained. “They talk ’round and ’round and you never get a straight answer or opinion.”
Welcome to the land of dissimulation. Webster’s defines the word as “hiding under a false appearance.” Apparently Romans practiced it in Bernini’s day—the 17th century—as well, and probably long before then.
My Italian isn’t yet good enough, and I haven’t had enough time here to experience this myself, but as I was reading a biography of my 400-year-old boyfriend, Bernini: His Life and His Rome (by Franco Mormando, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011) in bed that night, I came to a section called, “I Beg You To Dissimulate,” and it explains what Toni’s friend has been up against.
Mormando writes that Queen Christina of Sweden, one of Bernini’s powerful friends, said, “To be unable to dissimulate is to be unable to live.”
In the courts of Europe, and especially in Vatican-controlled Rome, no one would say what they really thought or meant for fear of harsh reprisals (in 1600, Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori for his opinions). There were even treatises published about the art of hiding your true meaning: “On Honest Dissimulation,” writes Mormando, was “the Baroque handbook par excellence on the art of survival in an age of divine-right, absolute (but nonetheless insecure and paranoid) government.” That’s going on my list for my “Searching for Bernini” quest! (See About.)
The risks of speaking one’s mind, especially if it went against the general consensus of the times, were great: Galileo was one famous victim—What? You say the world revolves around the sun? Basta! To jail with you!
And think of the Inquisition. So thinkers and artists, like Bernini, who dealt with powerful, rich patrons, had to guard their tongues. One wrong word could destroy a career or even end a life. So Bernini learned to keep his true opinions to himself.
He was a master of deception in his art, as well—hiding how difficult it actually was to make marble look as pliable as flesh. His deception in his work resulted in an appearance of effortlessness.
But regarding speech, Mormando quotes from The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, by the artist’s son, Domenico, who wrote, “When it was not possible to praise a work [of art, Bernini] preferred to remain silent. When it was absolutely necessary for him to comment about a painting, he found ways to say nothing even while saying something.”
Ecco la! There you have it: Toni’s friend was merely experiencing a true Italian tradition, part of a long cultural history in which the wrong word could wind up sending the speaker to jail, or worse. In Rome today that wouldn’t happen (although I wouldn’t cross the mafia dons just to find out), but the art of the practice—like Bernini’s own works—hasn’t been forgotten. Che ci voi fare? (What are you gonna do?). Just go with it. And have pazienza!