To me, Italy is “the old country.” My great-grandparents emigrated from Italy to the United States in the early 1920s. But no matter your heritage, there is no denying that Italy is an old, old country. It’s ancient. And though its soil may not be any older than that found across the ocean, it has both carried empires and consumed them.
Matter is the most ambiguous and resilient thing out there. It cannot be created nor destroyed. Everything that ever was still is in one form or another, and the dust, the soil we live on, is uniquely privileged to taste it all. The weather, and the people, and the legends, and the wars. If the spice of life was more than a metaphor, if it was something to be held, I think it’d have to be the dirt we walk upon. It’s made of life. And when you think of dust that way, not as oblivion, but as everything that ever was and ever will be, then Italian soil is exceptionally flavorful.
It was on Italian soil that the most famous of stargazers and star-crossed lovers laid their roots. It was a battleground for gladiators and philosophers. It was nourishment for vineyards and olive groves and some of the most creative minds who ever lived. I don’t know where to begin or end in describing so rich a history. It’s like the Grand Canyon or an inside joke or a home run hit in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded.
You just got to be there.
But in Italy, when you’re there, you’re there. You cannot escape its history, not only because it is literally plastered on the walls in the form of frescos, but it is the walls. While studying in Italy, I attended my classes in a ballroom with a gilded fresco painted across the entire ceiling. The ballroom was inside a 500-year-old palazzo with warped marble staircases. And the palazzo dwelled inside the steep and sturdy walls of a medieval city founded in the mid-12th Century.
Basically, you can throw a stone in Italy and hit a World Heritage Site. And chances are the stone you threw is a ruin onto itself.
That was an exaggeration. But in all seriousness, that country has enough old world charm to make me question just how many time zones I crossed getting there.
Everyone is a time traveler in Italy.
That’s the allure of it all! You’re not traveling as much to a place as you are an era, be that the Renaissance or the reign of the Roman Empire. I spent the majority of my five weeks abroad in the university town of Macerata. During that time, I walked nearly every street, alley and tunnel within the city walls, but it was never clear to me which era I had traveled to. Like my school building, most of the palazzos within the city had been renovated into banks and museums and university buildings, yet they still bore the crests of their founding families and all the trappings of Renaissance flair. I explored churches with Gothic steeples and dined under Romanesque arches. The streets were made of cobblestone and the shutters were painted in a shade to make you smile. Pigeons nested where the church bells tolled. Flower petals dripped from the balconies.
That’s the norm. I could round a corner in any small town in Italy and see all of those things. Italy is an old soul that proudly wears her inheritance. She is adorned with heirlooms of the ages—cities that are themselves microcosms of time.
And it’s for that reason—that zealous preservation of the past—that I was surprised to find that where there is a historical wall surrounding a city, some just see a really large canvas.
Was there more graffiti splayed across the walls of these Italian towns than American cities of similar size? I haven’t the slightest idea, but the contrast of spray paint on ancient stone—or at least in the shadow of it—certainly made it seem that way. These are cities seemingly impervious to time and yet spray paint found a way to touch them.
It was jarring at first, like looking at a kindly, old grandmother with a full sleeve of tattoos. Unexpected and unusual. But all it takes is one crinkly-eyed grin to see the woman who gave life to generations.
There’s really no getting around the fact that graffiti is vandalism, but that’s not all it is. Not nearly. Just like any crumbling ruin, these 21st Century frescos are too an heirloom of the ages. And it’s one I think Italy looks ravishing in.
It’s not the kind of art that draws a crowd, but it drew my eye. Like tattoos, some were merely decorative, but others were profound and personal. Poetic, even. Some were less than tasteful and some I didn’t even try to understand. All of them, however, left me wondering about the people beneath the ink.
There’s not much point in explaining street art. Or any art for that matter. So, instead, I’m just going to show you some of my favorite places in Italy where spray paint touched what time could not.
These modern murals will not last forever. They’ll be painted over with tax dollars, or reduced to dust by an earthquake, or washed away by years of rain and weather. But the Colosseum won’t last forever either, or the Great Wall, or the Taj Mahal.
Neither will this body of mine.
But there will be flecks of spray paint in the soil.
[Photography by Alaynee Fink]