This has been a week of beauty. I don’t mean discovering it or being surrounded by it exactly, but thinking about it. That must sound strange, since we all have an innate sense of beauty and normally our first reaction is to appreciate it and stand in awe of it, not write a blog post. A poem, sure. A blog post, no. Even those who couldn’t define beauty with a book of Shakespearean sonnets know it when they see it. It’s as readily identifiable as porn that way, which, given the connection between beauty and eros, makes some sense. I’m not defending that idea, mind you, just making an observation.
In last week’s post we looked at Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and how the character Tereza sees signs and symbols everywhere (see Signs that Aren’t). She sees signs not because she is delusional, lonely, or lost (in fact, she is all three) but because they provide meaning and beauty in her life. Kundera believes we all do this: “Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.”
This week I went back to a film in Italian cinema that has stayed with me since I first saw it nearly ten years ago, La Ragazza con la Valigia (1961). Directed by Valerio Zurlini and starring Claudia Cardenale as Aida Zepponi, it tells the story of a teenager, Lorenzo Fainardi, who falls in love with Aida after his older brother has kicked her to the curb. In an iconic scene, Aida floats down a grand staircase after taking a bath in Lorenzo’s mansion, which he has inherited from his mother.
Played by Jacques Perrin, Lorenzo reacts to Aida as if he has just seen the goddess of beauty herself, Aphrodite. This is Dante meeting Beatrice on the Santa Trinità bridge or Romeo meeting Juliet at the Capulets’ masquerade ball. Lorenzo plays the tenor Beniamino Gigli singing Verdi’s aria “Celeste Aida” as she descends, as it were, from the clouds (see Celeste Aida). It is a credit to Zurlini’s genius that he has the pair eat eggs in the kitchen afterward with Aida still clad in her bathrobe. The contrast of beauty with the mundane makes the scene incredibly tender.
In an uncanny acknowledgement of the role of signs á la Tereza, Aida is struck as she washes the dishes with the realization that she just took a bath in a black tiled bathroom. She confesses to Lorenzo that she always dreamt of marrying the Duke of Edinburgh, because she read that he had black bathrooms in his castle and they did not exist in Italy. At least she did not think they existed until meeting Lorenzo.
Relating this to Kundera, it is certainly true that Aida was under a lot of stress. She had no job, no money, no friends, and no way of seeing her young son who was at a summer camp. The only one she could turn to was Lorenzo, but even after they come together in a moving scene on the beach, he has to return home to Parma and his life there, leaving her at the train station. It is also no coincidence that both Tereza and Aida are weighed down by baggage, literal and otherwise.
There’s a lesson here about beauty, and it is this. We may all have an innate sense of the beautiful, but for beauty to have a real effect, for it to touch our core as it did to Lorenzo, who stood mesmerized as Aida descended from the heavens, it must be shared. Beauty does not exist by itself or for itself. It takes us out of our lonely, little lives just as it did to him. It drove him to do things like steal money, lie, and run away. But all of that was worth it, because it gave him a purpose beyond himself just as it did for Aida and Tereza, despite their suffering. Maybe even because of it.
So, the question is, what is it worth to you?
Image credits: feature by Brannon Naito; Claudia Cardenale, Public Domain; Jacques Perrin, Public Domain; Unbearable Lightness of Being, Fair Use. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.