The Beautiful Fans

Many comment on the decline of Serie A as an exhibition of the highest quality Football on the planet in the past two decades, but far fewer seem to correctly observe the fact that the Italian Football culture has been undoubtedly one of the most influential in the 20th century. Fanatics and Ultras from Lombardy to Sicily were the first to incorporate choreographies and tifos into the typical game day on a large scale, and this model of fan interaction that places a huge emphasis on visual appeal has swept around the world.

Curva Nord Livorno tifo
Original photo by Luca Aless.

Far from being incidental, it is unsurprising that it was the Italians out of all nationalities who most firmly tied together the notion of passionate support with grand, visually appealing choreographies. I will argue that an obsession with beauty is a core Italian characteristic, and that the evolution of a national Football culture that so highly prizes appealing visual displays in the stands is a logical by-product of this obsession.

It is, after all, the nationality that we most closely associate with beauty. When in Italy, if you’re not gazing at awe-inspiring architectural legacies of the Roman Empire nestled between heavenly renaissance-era cathedrals, you’re soaking in landscapes and rugged coastline suitable for any postcard. Furthermore the things that Italians produce are often industry benchmarks for elegance, style and aesthetics. Few countries punch higher than Italy does in the fashion world, and the country’s iconic automotive industry compensates for its reputation for unreliability with the sheer visual appeal that Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati have become synonymous with. And excuse me for dropping in the subtle nod toward how attractive Italians themselves tend to be.

I do not think that Italians have come to internalise a respect for beauty because they are surrounded by it. On the contrary, Italians surely meticulously design their environment with beauty for beauty’s sake, which results in a country where almost everything looks like an individual work of art. Of course they didn’t design the land in which they live, but everything else that Italy excels in is a consequence of their typical discerning taste. While many other nationalities put functionality in higher regard, Italians prioritise appearance more than their counterparts anywhere else do.

Ultras salernitana
Original photo by Tifoso Salernitano.

Just look at Italian stereotypes on the silver screen. The members of the Corleone family are Italian-American, sure, but their tastes and traditions are unmistakably those of proud Sicilians. As you watch The Godfather for the 17th time, which you should, you begin to really observe the detail taken in the set, the chairs they sit in, the suits they wear, the cars they drive and even the horse that gets slaughtered. All are the finest available, purely because that is what a powerful capo siciliano expects of himself. We can also take Tom’s experiences in “The Talented Mr Ripley” as an example of Italian enthusiasm for beauty. As the two lead characters occupy an outdoor table in a Roman piazza, a rather attractive young lady walks past. Her presence is met with a round of applause from the red-blooded folk sat in prime position to ogle the talent walking by, just because. Such a scene would possibly have been a little cringe-worthy in 2019, but it is still a film worth seeing.

The overriding question here is why. Why would Italians have such propensity to value beauty above almost everything else? What drives them to obsess about appearance in a way that possibly no other nationality in the world does? In answering this question, we have to be a bit speculative, which is always a potentially dangerous thing to do. But, looking at the history of the region, one narrative that potentially explains this trait stands out.

The invasion of Anatolia by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century saw Constantinople reborn as Istanbul in 1453 and the establishment of an Islamic empire that was resentful of the Christian kingdoms of Europe. The Christian crusades against fellow Muslims of the previous centuries hadn’t been forgotten. The Turks, who gained control of the overland trade in valuable spices from the islands of the East Indies (what we now call Indonesia) to the continent, refused to sell to the nobility of Western, Central and Northern Europe. The loss of the Low Countries, Britain and Spain was the gain of the Republic of Venice.

Frosinone ultras tifo
Original photo by Federica Celani.

Unlike most territories of what we now call Italy, 15th century Venice was a republic, not a kingdom, meaning that power was far more secular. What’s more the Venetians were the masters of maritime trade in the Aegean and the Mediterranean long before the arrival of the Ottoman Empire. Their competitive advantage in building trade vessels and sailing them around their network in the Med was an asset that the Ottomans lacked, and the way in which Venetians distanced themselves from the Christian rulers who had slaughtered so many Muslims in the Crusades helped convince the Ottomans to co-operate with the Venetians.

Venice quickly became endowed with exclusive trade concessions from the Ottoman Empire who had a monopoly over the procurement of spices from the East Indies but who lacked experience in the actual physical work of transporting and selling such valuable commodities across the Mediterranean. While other European powers would eventually bully their way into the East Indies spice market, the fortunate monopoly that the Venetians had in the European spice trade allowed the republic to flourish commercially. Venice and the surrounding areas were suddenly pumped with money.

With such abundance of hard cash, the nobility of Venice could now invest heavily in luxuries. The visual arts and architecture blossomed in the region, as leading artists and artisans (many from elsewhere in Italy) responded to the demand for their skills coming from Venice from wealthy individuals who were keen to spend their profits from the spice trade in unnecessary but glorious paintings, sculptures and buildings that only served the purpose to demonstrate the wealth they enjoyed. This phenomenon largely marked the beginning of the Renaissance, which subsequently spread across much of the Italian peninsula as these artists and architects eventually returned back to their towns and cities of origin, spreading their acquired wealth and zeal for beauty that had been inspired in Venice.

Milan derby tifo
Original photo by Nobbiwan.

The outcomes of this process are visible 500 years later in the pieces of art and architecture that have been meticulously preserved across the now-unified Italy. Modern Italians who are surrounded by the reminders of how their predecessors readily spent money on things that looked good but didn’t actually provide any survival benefit in the early modern era come to appreciate that beauty is to be admired and sought after. As such, it can be little surprise that Italians obsess about aesthetics more than any other nation in our times, and that also logically explains why it is Italian Football fanatics who were the first to incorporate striking visual displays into their game-day traditions.

In truth, I actually don’t know how much I actually believe in this narrative. It certainly makes sense, though Italy is not a country that I have spent a huge amount of time in. We welcome anybody who is more familiar with Italian Football and the country’s history and culture in general to share there thoughts in comments.


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