Postgraduate Lives: Christopher Thorpe, PhD at Aberdeen University

Why we are inspired by visions of Italy


Christopher Thorpe, 27, is writing a PhD thesis on British impressions of Italy from the 15th century to today, at the University of Aberdeen

When I was 18, I worked at a campsite at Lake Garda cleaning mobile homes and looking after British tourists. I'd grown up watching Football Italia and I'd imagined this wonderful place where people spent their time talking about football and eating ice cream. It was that facile.

Today, I'm fluent in Italian and enjoy Italian film and literature, especially the work of Pasolini and the Modernist writings of Pirandello, Moravia and Calvino. And now my PhD is provisionally entitled: "Imagining Italy: Britain and the vision of Italy from Chaucer to the present day." I'm looking at the way we think about Italians and their culture, art, fashion and food from a sociological perspective, and why the British have sought out Italy as a travel destination.

I've divided my research into five periods: Elizabethan, Classical, Romantic, Victorian and the present day. Since the 15th century, the British have turned to Italy as a source of inspiration - philosophical, literary or artistic. To begin with, it was the aristocrats, but in the Victorian period the upper bourgeoisie started going to Italy - professional classes like lawyers and bankers - much to the aristocrats' disgust. But the Victorians were often intimidated by Italy; it was traditionally a destination for self-styled connoisseurs with cultural capital (knowledge about "good" food, music, literature and so on).

On one level, little has changed. You still won't find low-income family packages to Italy. But what's interesting is that in the 21st century, as our class structure has changed and we don't have an aristocracy, Italy is marketed to different audiences. Lifestyle magazines such as Italia! are aimed at the middle classes; "Chiantishire" in Tuscany is for the affluent business set, and then there's the downgraded version, like the Italy promotions by McDonald's.

Italy has always been viewed as artistically better than us, and it is still venerated in lots of areas; put "Italian" on a pair of shoes and they are instantly desirable. We have inherited that Victorian legacy, although today Italy has less mass appeal to travellers and holidaymakers.

I hope one day to quit the gloom of Britain for the "Lydian laughter" of Tennyson's Lake Garda. But I want to be an academic, and academia in Italy is largely impenetrable for foreigners. For my PhD, I'm lucky because Aberdeen has original travelogues going back to the 1660s.

I'd like to turn my thesis into a book. What I'm saying is: here are the visions of Italy, but why do we have these ones?

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