Random thoughts on Italy

Totally off topic, but my wife and I recently spent 12 days in Italy.  Here are a few thoughts/suggestions for those thinking of visiting.

1.  I am currently teaching a course on “The Good Life.”  I don’t know what that means, but it seems like the US has “the convenient life” whereas Italy has “the beautiful life.”

2.  Italy is arguably the best country in the world.  I said arguably—I agree that arguments can be made for lots of other countries.  But it least it’s not one of those countries that are not arguably the best country in the world, like Moldova.

3.  I hate Italian cars.  I am one of those stupid Americans who never learned how to drive manual cars.  My rental car was actually considered an automatic–but I don’t know what that term means in Italy.  Fiat500, powered by a lawnmower engine.

4.  Venice isn’t just the best city in the world, the circa 1600 AD version was the best city ever.  Man’s greatest achievement.  Don’t miss Scuola San Rocco, which Ruskin called one of the three most valuable buildings in the world.  The other two, the Sistine Chapel and Campo Santo of Pisa, are also in Italy.  (Too bad the USAF didn’t read Ruskin.)  After seeing one of San Rocco’s Tintorettos Henry James commented “Surely no single picture contains more of human life; there is everything in it; including the most exquisite beauty.”

5.  Venice was packed to the gills with tourists–NEVER go there in August.  Fortunately the Accademia was nearly empty.  The arts are underfunded in Italy (or perhaps I should say they simply have too much art to take care of.)  The museum was obviously in need of money, but that made things easier for tourists.  You could walk right up to paintings like Giorgione’s The Tempestwithout even a guard nearby.   There are superb paintings by Bellini.    The room of Carpaccios is stunning.  Oddly, I saw very few Titians in Venice.  The Guggenheim has a nice collection of surrealist works, but that’s not why people go to Venice.

6.  We’d stayed in Vicenza for two days, but I recommend Padua instead.  It has a much livelier city center, with many good restaurants.  You can take the train to Vicenza and see the highlights in a single day (Villa Rotonda, Villa Valmarana, Teatro Olimpico, Piazza dei Signori.)  You can also see Venice with a short train ride from Padua.

7.  In Bellagio we stayed in the Hotel Panorama, which (as the name suggests) has an awesome view.  It’s only 2 stars, perhaps because the showers are too small.  But recall the set point theory of happiness.  All your aggravation in the shower will merely heighten the enjoyment of exploring the area.  We also had more luck conversing with people there than in the 3 star or higher hotels, just as David Brooks predicted.

8.  If democratic capitalism is the end of history, then Venice was the beginning of the end.  They were  a quasi-democracy, where the elected doge was nearly powerless.  About 2000 people from “good families” were given the vote.  It seems to me there is a sort of parallel between Venice and the Nordic countries.  The Nordics thrive despite relative high taxes.  Venice thrived despite the fact that it was a very expensive place to build, the entire city rests on millions of wood pilings driven deep into the mud.  In both cases the advantages of good governance overcame the disadvantage of higher costs (taxes or pilings.)  The first example of Seasteading?

9.  Is a market economy inconsistent with great art?  Answer:  Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo, Canaletto.

10.   When I first visited Venice at age 30 I thought about how I’d later return to do it right; with more money, time, and freedom.  I didn’t realize that when I returned I’d see the city through the eyes of a 55 year old man, not a 30 year old.  Don’t put off travel until you are old.



21 Responses to “Random thoughts on Italy”

  1. Gravatar of beowulf beowulf
    18. September 2011 at 10:25

    “You could walk right up to paintings like Giorgione’s The Tempest without even a guard nearby.”

    If you haven’t already, do read Mark Helprin’s “A Soldier of the Great War”. That particular Giorgione work is a major plot point.
    It is a book about God, and honor, and joy, and endurance, and above all about love. Love in a spiritual sense, love among families, love between friends, the love of man for woman. There is a moment early in the book when Alessandro comes upon a young girl weeping quietly beside a Roman fountain at night. There is another when he goes to Venice to look at the enigmatic picture by Giorgione known as “La tempesta,” involving a young soldier and a naked woman with a baby facing one another against the background of a gathering storm. Both gleam with that magical grace which Helprin conjures so effortlessly. But both will resonate throughout the book to wondrous effect, more than once bringing tears to my eyes, and lingering in my mind for ever.

  2. Gravatar of Dave Dave
    18. September 2011 at 10:33

    Wait a minute, 30 isn’t old???

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    18. September 2011 at 11:13

    Man, oh man, I went to Italy 20-odd years ago and still miss it. For better or worse, my wife is Thai and so trips are to SE Asia for now.

    As for 55 being old, I wish Scott Sumner would just shut up.

  4. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    18. September 2011 at 11:40

    beowolf, That’s a very nice passage, thank you.

    Dave, I was a late bloomer. When I was 30 I was like most people at 22.

    Ben, Shut up? Or go back to pushing higher NGDP? 🙂

    BTW, Thailand is the Italy of Asia.

  5. Gravatar of My solution to all my problems: PRetirement « Left Outside My solution to all my problems: PRetirement « Left Outside
    18. September 2011 at 11:57

    […] this got me thinking of an old favourite idea of […]

  6. Gravatar of James in london James in london
    18. September 2011 at 12:48

    Glad you enjoyed it. I think Venice should charge an entry fee, or sell tickets, in August.

  7. Gravatar of Robert Robert
    18. September 2011 at 13:32

    A great Tyler Cowen impersonation.

    (I actually really enjoyed this post)

  8. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    18. September 2011 at 14:11

    As a most definitely young person, point #10 makes me sad. There’s so much of Europe, to say nothing of the world, to see before I get old!

    Unfortunately the only towns I managed to see in Italy were Milan and Verona. I hated Milan, but Verona was amazing. My only complaint is how expensive everything was.

  9. Gravatar of James James
    18. September 2011 at 15:46

    “The Nordics thrive despite relative high taxes…..good governance overcame the disadvantage of higher costs (taxes…”

    Is there a strong negative relationship between tax rates and ho well a country does? I don’t think there is. If there is however, what happens when you throw the quality of governance into the mix. To some extent the measure of good governance is their ability to provide the services that they provide efficiently.

    There are several sectors in which the government plays an important role: rail-network, health, law and order, national defence and education to name a few. Whether this is because of economies of scale, public good problems or informational issues.

    The argument against the government fulfilling these roles is that they will do it poorly. There is government involvement in these sectors in all OECD countries. Now making the assumption that this is not always inefficient it follows that it is better to have more of these services the more efficient the government is at providing them. Good governance implies that we would desire the government to be more involved in certain sectors than if we had bad governance. But for government to take a larger role requires a larger revenue base. Good governance, given my modest assumptions that there is some role for government and good governments can be trusted to take on a larger role, implies higher tax rates are optimal in the absence of other revenues or laffer curve/fdi style arguments.

    A further point, if the governance of Nordic countries is so good and high tax rates are so bad for Scandinavian countries then why do the governments of these Nordic countries choose such high tax rates.

  10. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    18. September 2011 at 16:30

    I have, alas, never been to Venice but have long been fascinated by it. It has a significance of particular interest to this blog: the Serene Republic invented bonds in 1171.

  11. Gravatar of Dan S Dan S
    18. September 2011 at 17:31

    Funny. I visited Italy recently and I was disappointed by how stagnant the country seemed. Of course I’m fully open to the possibility that I wasn’t in the right areas. It’s also worth pointing out that that very same week The Economist had a special report where they trashed Italy’s government and economy.

    And the food WAS delicious, I will say.

  12. Gravatar of pct pct
    18. September 2011 at 18:17

    You seem to be arguing that 30-year-old eyes are preferable to 55-year old ones.
    Why? My experience is just the opposite.

  13. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    18. September 2011 at 23:26

    Venice also (re)invented mass production in its Arsenal, it could turn out a galley a day when it is was fully geared up. (I say reinvented, since the Romans had a form of mass production.) Mind you, English arrow manufacturers must have developed some mass production techniques, if one family could provide a million arrows in a year.

  14. Gravatar of Mabuse Mabuse
    19. September 2011 at 02:27

    “(I say reinvented, since the Romans had a form of mass production.)”

    Don’t forget about Tang and Song dynasty China, not only did they develop early forms of mass production and other industrial processes; but they also were the first to use petroleum as an energy source.

  15. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    19. September 2011 at 05:44

    Dan S

    Italy is stagnant – in the South. And it is interesting why. The Pope refused to allow railroad construction south of Rome – apparently because railroads cause atheism.

    When Italy was united as a single country the currency used was the currency of the north. That currency was too strong for the economy of the south, which promptly fell apart. Unlike with the German reunification no particular effort was made with Italy to do anything about this – so the south is a rotten welfare and crime sewer to this day.

    At least that is my understanding. Obviously there is more involved – but the stagnation of Italy starts in the south and spreads north.

  16. Gravatar of Sean Brown Sean Brown
    19. September 2011 at 07:45

    Sorry, but life is much more convenient in big/medium cities of Korea and Japan than in the U.S. I have spent over a year in Korea and speak fluent Korean, and have stayed several times in Japan.

    When I think of convenience: can walk to a convenience store within 3 min. Can walk to grocery store within 10 min. (This is from either office or home). Can walk outside home/office and take a taxi within 2 min. Can walk to a subway station within 10 min (often less). Can walk to a bus stop in 2.5 min. Can be seen by a doctor (anytime) 20-30 min from now (including transportation to the office + getting signed in, etc.). Can call to make specialist medical appointments (likely in your neighborhood) for the same day or the next day. Can go to another major city or the airport without a car and relatively quickly. Can walk into an interior store and have my bathroom totally redone the next day, or kitchen totally redone by the day after. Buy good, hot food made by middle-aged ladies at a nearby market. Order an item via the Internet and receive it that evening (if ordered in the morning) or the next day at the latest. All these are things I experienced during my most recent trip to Korea this month. (Things I didn’t experience include love hotels, which are extremely convenient + ubiquitous compared to U.S.-tryst logistical situations.)

    Yes, there are some shared elements of convenience like easy financial transactions via the Internet, dinner reservations online (less developed in Korea than U.S. and Japan), big-box discount marts, Internet shopping, quick fast-food (Korean street food is faster than any McDonald’s drive-thru, though.) Still, Korea and – though I have less detailed knowledge – Japan are MUCH more convenient when I think about specific “convenience metrics.” There are a few areas where I admit the U.S. wins out, though – eBooks: nearly nonexistent in Korea and there are a lot more Kindle/ePub books in the U.S. than Japan. Real-estate transactions are inconvenient in the U.S. but probably moreso in Korea and Japan (partly due to a lack of MLS system). Some convenient crowdsourcing sites like Yelp or Tripadvisor are much better than their Korean/Japanese equivalents.

    Still, I personally find overall quality of life in the U.S. higher due to much better workplace standards, work/life balance, and lack of pressure to stay up late or drink alcohol.

  17. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    19. September 2011 at 08:49

    James of London, Not a bad idea.

    Thanks Robert, There is no greater compliment.

    Johnleemk, I spent a few hours in Milan, and missed Verona.

    James, You said;

    “Is there a strong negative relationship between tax rates and ho well a country does? I don’t think there is.”

    I don’t think there is a consensus on this. If by “well” you mean GDP/person, my view is that high taxes do reduce this somewhat, mostly by reducing hours worked (compare the US and Europe.)

    The Nordics probably feel that the gains in equality more than offset the fall in average income–they have relatively egalitarian cultures.

    Lorenzo, Interesting. And how soon did it take them to start in on open market operations?

    Dan, I agree the economy has significant problems. I didn’t find the food all that great, although if you spend the money you can get great meals. But in my view average restaurants are better in France. That may be because I don’t like heavy foods (fat, pasta, sugar, cheese, etc) but rather prefer salads. Italian salads seem bland to me.

    pct, I’m glad to hear that. I find the world seems less charged with magic as I get older. You start seeing things you’ve seen before.

    Lorenzo and Mabuse, Thanks for the history. Didn’t China also pipe natural gas through bamboo tubes?

    JimP, In my view cultural differences are more important than the lack of railroads. The north has poured a lot of money into developing the south, but it hasn’t worked.

    Sean, Thanks for that info. I’ve never been to either country, but I have been to (extremely inconvenient) China. That probably explains why I overlooked those two cases, I falsely generalized about all of East Asia.

    One advantage the US has (outside of places like NYC) is the convenience of driving. Driving and parking is much more difficult in Italy. But I like walking and subways, so the Japanese lifestyle sounds appealing.

  18. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    19. September 2011 at 15:11

    “The Pope refused to allow railroad construction south of Rome – apparently because railroads cause atheism.”

    One Pope didn’t like railroads (he said they were “devlish,” not that they “caused atheism”!) and didn’t allow them in the Papal States. But the first rail line was in the south — the Pope controlled the middle of the country, NOT the south! And after unification, the Pope had no say in the matter at all.

    This kind of silly “blame the Christians” explanation should set off alarm bells as soon as you hear it.

  19. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    19. September 2011 at 17:17

    how soon did it take them to start in on open market operations?
    According to William Bernstein: almost immediately. (His A Splendid Exchange is a great read.)

  20. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    19. September 2011 at 22:09

    Lovely post, Scott.

    I would take a slightly different angle on some aspects but that’s rather personal.

    Most enjoyable car I ever drove was my Lancia Delta turbo. You could have rented huge automatic Lancias, Alfas or even large Fiats, instead of that 500.

    I never actually managed to enjoy Venice. The crowds wreck it for me. Best Venice experience for me was a November stopover (train change) with mysterious fogs and workmen chatting in the cafes. I was there this June and it was like what you describe for August.

    I do love those many less well known or underrated cities of Italy, from Reggio Emilia, to Trieste, Ferrara, Padova, Brescia, Verona, or say, larger places like Genoa which I absolutely love. Genoa was at the Venice level too in historical importance, just less playful. It has a much more stern feeling, and few tourists. And it is said it never developed democracy because it didn’t have any large enough public square to fit a crowd…

    Sean, good points, Korea sounds a bit like Singapore, although those aspects of Singapore are disappearing in part. But I do miss the megastores of Europe and the US (yes, Europe and the US are in one class way different from the class Singapore is in)

    Travel and getting old – I enjoy specific things more one average now than I did before, if only because I tend to now escape the dreadful low end transportation and lodging. But I am much much more jaded too. The novelty aspect is gone. I suspect, like you Scott, that it’s less age and more experience that wrecks the thing. I’ve seen too much already. I used to become hyper aware while traveling, soaking it all in, noticing the smallest thing. Now most things seem just a different version of something else that I already saw.

  21. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    20. September 2011 at 11:26

    Gene, I agree.

    Lorenzo, Thanks for that very interesting link.

    mbk, You said;

    “Most enjoyable car I ever drove was my Lancia Delta turbo. You could have rented huge automatic Lancias, Alfas or even large Fiats, instead of that 500.”

    No, I couldn’t. I checked many websites and the Fiat500 was the only “automatic transmission” car available for rent in all of Italy. There was one large van, super expensive.

    I agree about the off-the-beaten-track cities being fun to visit. I saw Genoa in 1985 and recall how dense it seemed–not many open spaces. Given that it was so commercially successful, it’s interesting that it lags Venice so dramatically in the arts. That’s not a criticism, all cities lag Venice in the arts–but Genoa had a fairly similar history, doesn’t it?

    Your final paragraph is very well put–exactly the problem I was thinking of.

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