Spaceship Italy

Spaceship Italy

How did blue become an Italian national color?

Is it just me or does everyone feel like they have just entered a spaceship when the evening news comes on on Rai 1? There is something about the luminescent blue background that makes me feel like I have been instantly transported into another dimension, or maybe fifty years into the future. In these first few seconds, I feel genuinely excited by the prospect of watching the news, as if what I am about to see will be really new, unprecedentedly new, totally different from what news stations are reporting in all of the other countries.
What is it? Is Filippo Tommaso Marinetti still exerting his Futurist influence on the country, the bright blue television screen being the reigning stronghold of his vision, apart from bright red plastic Milanese chairs, all primary colors all the time? I suppose if you grew up in the rich organic environment of grey-brown stones and rolling green fields, even if it was reflective more of an idealized Italian landscape than the one you saw in and around Milan, rich in the history of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, and of a kind of timeless agriculture, that your mind would yearn for and gravitate toward violent shades of electric blue, which has to be the least organic color imaginable. The mind needs visual relief from time to time, even from the earthy tones of nature.

But it is not just the visual aspect that seems strikingly futuristic. Even the music has that feel, a kind of synthesized trumpet that announces the beginning of the program, as if to tell you that you need to stop what you are doing and listen, because what you are about to hear is more important than anything else you might be doing at the moment. Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio, the music tells us in its own nonverbal way: Either be silent or say something better than silence. The quote is actually found in a self-portrait done by Salvator Rosa in 1641, who glares at us sternly in front of a dark and stormy sky. As always, the future is rooted in the past.

I dare anyone to try speaking to others in the room while watching the Rai 1 Telegiornale on a Sunday evening. The dazzling azure screen has taken over the circuitry of your brain and it will not be released until Fabio Fazio, all kind face and affable spirit, hovering over his swirling fish tank, delivers relief on Che tempo che fa, as he banters with the pixie-ish Luciana Littizzetto, who exerts her own liberating influence, through wit and charm. Still, the blue background of the brightly lit aquarium reminds you that the power of the azzurro is never really gone, it just crouches down in the corner of the screen for a while, like when you merely reduce a browser page instead of closing it completely, afraid that you will lose it forever if you actually close it for good.

All of this raises the question of how azzurro became the official color of Italian national sports teams. The colors of the Italian flag, il Tricolore, are green, white and red, symbolizing either the country’s verdant plains and snow capped peaks, along with the spilled blood of its courageous soldiers; or for the more religious and less bellicose minded: faith, hope and charity. Blue, or azure, is nowhere to be found. Clearly the color had already been claimed too many times, first by Britain, then by France, and then by the United States.

You would have thought that Britain especially would have been drawn to green instead of blue because of the ubiquitous green of its dewy landscapes and the persistent gray of its skies, but virtue signaling, to use the modern term, won out over anything the environment could offer, so blue it was, symbolizing vigilance, truth, loyalty, perseverance and justice, which considering the nature of the Italian state at the various times that the Tricolore was adopted, was probably a color that was best avoided by il bel paese.

The entire design was doomed from the start, the three band pattern being too militaristic for such an artistic, romantic and variegated population. It would have been better, as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina ponders in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, to have retained the elegant gold fleur-de-lis of the House of Savoy centered on a pure white background, a combination that expressed the spirit and character of Italy much better.

So how did blue become an Italian national color? Again we need to go back to the House of Savoy, to Conte Verde Amedeo VI in particular, who flew the color in the 14th century while on crusade for Pope Urbano V. Despite the green referenced by his name, he chose azure in honor of the Virgin Mary, which communicated the fealty of his troops and invoked the Madonna for divine protection. The story of why blue is the color of Mary is a complicated one that involves lapis lazuli and Afghanistan, so it will have to wait for another time.

All of this, of course, would have been hopeless if Italians did not look good in blue, which they do. But then again, most people throughout the world look good in blue and for this reason it is the most popular color used for clothing globally.

Still, the twinkling neon blue of the Rai 1 stage set communicates an otherworldly and futuristic imaginary for the country, one that is a marked departure from the deep greens and umbers that characterize its built and natural landscapes. I cannot think of another country that manages to engage so energetically and actively both the past and future. As always, the imagined future is always vague and unusually uniform, because we can never picture the future in any real detail. But we do know one thing: it will be blue, or azure, or azzurro, which after all is the color of the sky, and of day lit space, the perfect backdrop against which to imagine, and construct, the future of a people and of a country.