The complete irresistibility of La Bella Italia | Jack Marshall's column
In the southern Italian city of Taranto, deep in the dip of the ‘U’ of the country’s boot, legend has it that there is only one way to rid oneself of the poison from the local wolf spider Lycosa Tarantula after being bitten: a thrashing, vigorous dance to sweat out the venom.
This demon dance is known as the Tarantella and, during the 16th and 17th centuries, huge outbreaks of such dancers were not uncommon, leading to an even more widespread mass hysteria phenomenon known as Tarantism, which enraptured all into a dervish mania.
At this point, I should say that the venom of the Lycosa Tarantula is not particularly toxic to humans and, whilst intimidating, the spider’s fangs do not necessitate an exorcism of Tarantella or cause victims to dance involuntarily. The mania is a mass psychogenic illness.
But I love the story behind Tarantism because, for me, it encapsulates Italy, a country which fascinates me like no other. It’s raw and ancient and historic and irrational. Powerful, scary, and confusing, but alluring and irresistible and impossibly beautiful. Utterly unignorable.
I’ve never been to Italy. In as clear-cut a case as ‘the grass is always greener’ as you’ll ever find, I grew up in Spain, shrugging my shoulders at the Conquistadors and dreaming of the Romans. The language, the food, the people, the style, the coast, the fields. Everything.
In my mind, I have impossibly-high expectations of the country. Every beach is the Amalfi Coast, impossibly blue water shimmering below genuflecting cliff divers who land without a splash. Each field a vineyard lined with Tuscan cypress trees below a terracotta sun.
Italy is a land where your Vespa could never break down, where you’d never get arrabbiata sauce on your crisp white shirt. Where the people are healthy and bronzed and happy and effortlessly attractive. Where the pace of life is relaxed, the sea clear and the sun warm.
I know this is entirely unreasonable. Italy has fascists and poverty and aggressive football hooligans. It has knife crime and unhinged drivers, a dodgy economy and a needlessly aggressive machismo culture towards women. Like us, it can treat migrants horrifically.
But I still have an unshakable sense that Italy is flawless which invades every measured appraisal I might momentarily entertain. Anyone can fawn over Lake Como and Florence, but I can’t even get enough of the scattergun graffiti on the shadiest Neapolitan side-street.
Get me to the Ponte Vecchio in Spring, to the Castel Sant'Angelo in the rain. Let me try all the food in Bologna and see that tiny famous balcony in Verona. Sure, I’ll be wearing my rose-tinted glasses and an air of naivety, but let’s face it...
How could it not all be perfect?