La Dolce Vita... e il dolce far niente

MUSIC: Vacanze Romane (Roman Holidays), by Matia Bazar - 1987

Romans cherish two forms of art, in addition to the world-acclaimed works of art scattered everywhere in town. They are the famous La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), and also Il dolce far niente ("Sweet Doing Nothing" or "Sweet Idleness").

The meaning of Il dolce far niente goes far beyond innocently spending time doing absolutely nothing in the most pleasant way, which would lead to the stereotype of portraying Romans as lazy. As the British italophile Michael Dibdin puts it, doing nothing alla Romana is not a matter of idleness or indolence. In fact Romans have taken this apparent non-activity to the level of an art form. To a Roman, to see and to be seen, to experience life to the fullest, to love and to be loved, are the very essence of living — and the Eternal City provides an enchanting venue in which to “do it all.”

A distinctive feature of Rome in fact is that it throbs with life ticking every second with an enjoyable spirit of enthusiasm, innocence, intuition, improvisation and leisure.

To see - and to be seen - by the Spanish Steps

It means letting your senses be the guide, getting lost, immersing in the place and just watching it live and display, also being impressed by how much beauty can be created by so many non-planned aspects crammed and layered through the millennia.

Dibden concludes: "Rome will reward you as no other city can, by making you feel as all her visitors have for over two thousand years: that you are the first person to really understand and appreciate her, the only one truly worthy of her infinite charms."
Visitors love Rome precisely because it can do this to them, especially in a global era in which a hectic working pace makes us all forget the taste of life, and its facets.

Related to Il dolce far niente, and an equally creative art form, la La Dolce Vita takes its name from the film presented in 1960 by maestro Federico Fellini, a most imaginative film director, and a man capable of understanding people and life in all their nuances.

Few films have the same iconic force. Many of its scenes, like that of sensuous and irreverent Anita Ekberg immersing herself in the Trevi Fountain and inviting Marcello Mastroianni to join her, embody cinema itself, not just Rome let alone The Sweet Life. The film caused heated debates. Italian right-wing parties invited to ban the film, claiming it would corrupt youth with its philosophy of edonistic, hollow, decadent life. On the other hand, left-wing parties applauded the film for its ability to break through conservative hypocrisy. Most typical of them, Italians were equally divided on both sides.

People-watching, by the Vatican

Sadly enough, the English-speaking, also nowadays, in general view negatively La Dolce Vita and the lifestyle it embodies, portrayed often as a decadent way to squander life. Yet repugnance and attraction are simultaneous, and never the Dolce Vita is neglected, and no presentation of Rome avoids mentioning it.

In any event, the idea of "The Sweet Life" is inseparately chained to its natural shooting location, Rome, as if it could not happen in any other place – no matter how pleasant or exciting.

Fellini's film created a myth, yet myths have their foundations in reality. In fact the movie reveals the spirit of an era. Europe and Italy, following post-WW2 reconstruction, were undergoing deep-seated social and economic changes. Il miracolo economico (the economic miracle), a period of economic prosperity and optimism was at its peak. Rome was at the centre of the attention of the flourished movie industry. Films such as Ben Hur (1958) and Cleopatra (1961) were shot at Cinecittà, Rome’s film studios, renowned as "Hollywood on the Tiber", and which attracted directors and film stars the world over.

Fellini portrays the eccentric night life of would-be actors, impoverished aristocrats, playboys and dandies, fashionable intellectuals, and ever ready paparazzi. Sports cars ran along down the Via Veneto and its trendy cafes. A slight minority would attend the most intriguing, exciting, outrageous parties and leisurely events, defying work principles and social obligations, squandering time and resources in Rome's long summer nights.

La Dolce Vita Poster

However, the film portrays the intrinsic contradictions and crisis of a society undergoing transformation, disconcerted as it faces the volatile values of the new age of mass communication and consumerism.

Anti-hero Marcello Mastroianni embodies the disorientation, and also captures the quintessentially Roman disenchanted irony. And who hasn’t dreamed of living a Dolce Vita fantasy at least once in life?

Nowadays Via Veneto boasts some of the most luxurious hotels in the city, and the cafes where the La Dolce Vita was shot still exist. Yet the atmosphere is quite different from that of those roaring 60s, it is rather an elitarian quarter for wealthy tourists.

Today the Roman sweet life can be best found in the area around piazza Navona (Piazza del Fico, Piazza della Pace etc.) and Campo de' Fiori, although at night time, especially on Saturdays, also the area of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain rekindles the magical atmosphere.

(Right): Anita Ekberg in
La Dolce Vita

Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

Yet Rome’s long, pleasant nights and its simultaneously relaxed and enthusiast attitude, allows each one of us to have even a taste of La Dolce Vita. Dining until late in the favourite restaurant with friends and with the "special someone", strolling very late through the maze of streets and fountains trying to find the night baker just to taste the early morning croissant before dropping off to sleep will make you understand the magic of Rome, and that in no other place it would be the same.

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