What is Italy Like? “Geo”

This show is the best introduction to Italy and Italians that you will ever find.

If someone were to ask me: “What is Italy like?”, I could do no better than to say: “Geo.”

What is Geo you ask? Geo is a program that has been on Italian television for a very long time. If you want all of its particulars, you can read about them here. What I want to provide in this piece is something more impressionistic. Many tried and true metaphors come to mind: pulling on a single thread of a sweater until you have unraveled the entire garment or, reversely, using that same length of yarn to knit together a new sweater, but one that drags into the weft and warp all of the little bits of things that the yarn passes through: dust, leaves, crumbs . . . whatever there is lying around, is one of them. This is not a comment on the production values of the show, which are excellent, nor one on the cleanliness of your house, which I am sure is equally impressive, but rather an attempt to convey the extraordinary scope and complexity of the show. Indeed, Geo means ‘Earth’; so if a thing exists on earth, Geo has covered it or will cover it eventually.

Being a geographer by formation, I find the show to be exactly suited to my tastes, not so much because it has our planet as its topic but more because of the synthesizing nature of the program, its ability to see and reveal the relations that exist among all phenomena. Everything is related — at some scale — everything is related, and Geo does an excellent job of showing how this is true.

For example, take any topic; let’s make it bread. How might we start to explore this most common of items without which life would be nearly impossible, or at least much less nutritious and enjoyable, for billions of people around the world? Certainly an understanding of wheat is in order — how it is grown, the different types there are, the history of its cultivation. This leads us to agriculture, which would be the next topic to explore, then perhaps water, then soil, then air, then climate, then the industries that affect it — including baking! — then economy, let’s say the global trade in wheat, then the politics and infrastructure of that trade, shipping and transportation say, then the social customs of baking and eating bread, the culture of it, thus bringing us from the scale of the kitchen table to that of the globe and back again, all with a focus on just one everyday item.

This, in at least one conception, is what Geo does, or tries to do, because no program, no team of people, no matter how large and diverse it may be nor how talented its members are, can ever fully explicate such a complex subject thoroughly. But that is okay, because trying is half the fun, and that is really where the genius of Geo lies. It would be easy to make a show like this wonky, that is, to make it overly technical or scientific, in such a way that it would no longer remain interesting to a general audience and that would, in fact, strip its subject matter of its humanity, and therefore make it less comprehensive, less complete. And this is the genius of Geo, in my opinion: its ability to cover any topic in great technical and scientific detail while still remaining rooted in the deeply humanistic traditions of Italian culture and history. Well, you might say, surely this tradition applies to all people and places all around the world: first we were hunters and gatherers, then we were herders and planters, then we built cities, developed industry and advanced technologies, and so on. And I would say: no, unfortunately not.

Take where I currently live in California, for example. Here, agriculture has always been a large scale industrial activity. With perhaps one or two exceptions, California has never had a culture or tradition of the family farm, the nexus in which the beautifully intimate connections among land, people and plants, to use one grouping, develop over time into a rich skein of social and environmental relations. In Italian the relation is clear: coltura e cultura: or agriculture and culture, as we would say, clumsily, in English.

This is why the world needs Italy, why people like Sting and George Clooney and Frances Mayes buy villas in the country and go on and on about how much they love it. And while it is true that some other countries have a similarly rich history of human and environmental relations, none exhibit the same level of development and preservation and celebration that Italy does. And in any case, Geo covers these other places and cultures also because no one is more interested in and expert at valorizing the heritage of places than is Italy, even or perhaps especially those that are not Italy. This in why, for example, it is the de facto leader of the UNESCO Wold Heritage Program, and why its conservators travel all around the world to help preserve the art, architecture and landscapes of other countries. This is why Slow Food International has its foundation in the small piemontese town of Bra. Italians, for whatever combination of history and sensibility and accident they share, are the global experts at this kind of thing.

And this is really the heart of Geo. I cannot recommend highly enough that you go online and watch a few episodes, which you can do here. Even if your Italian is not perfect, you will be able to understand something and in any case absorb the flavor and spirit and warmth and beauty of the show. If you do that one time, or twenty times, or one hundred times, you will be well on your way to absorbing and understanding the flavor and spirit and warmth and beauty or Italy itself.

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Italics Magazine was born from the idea of two friends who believed that Italy was lacking a complete, in-depth, across-the-board source of information in English. While some publications do a great job, writing about the latest news or focusing on specific areas of interest, we do believe that other kinds of quality insights are just as needed to better understand the complexity of a country that, very often, is only known abroad for the headlines that our politicians make, or for the classic touristic cliches. This is why Italics Magazine is quickly becoming a reference for foreign readers, professionals, expats and press interested in covering Italian issues thoroughly, appealing to diverse schools of thought. However, we started from scratch, and we are self-financing the project through (not too intrusive) ads, promotions, and donations, as we have decided not to opt for any paywall. This means that, while the effort is bigger, we can surely boast our independent and free editorial line. This is especially possible thanks to our readers, who we hope to keep inspiring with our articles. That’s why we kindly ask you to consider giving us your important contribution, which will help us make this project grow — and in the right direction. Thank you.