|Piero della Francesca, early 15th century, The Flagellation, via.|
David F. Brooks is visiting sunny Italy! Lago di Como, apparently, and like so many artists from grayer climes, giddy with the freshness of the air and the musicality of the voices, and working with a lively Italian-primitive palette in his new narrative work, "The Loving Place for Children That Assumes Beauty", for which he finds the bright, naive tone of a nursery tale or late-medieval saint's life:
Thirty-five years ago, the two Figini brothers,
Erasmo and Innocente, were living in Como
with their wives, Serena and Marina.
Erasmo was a famous fabric designer. Innocente
was a prominent eye surgeon. They were successful,
but along with their wives, spiritually unfulfilled,
unable to understand the meaning of
the suffering they saw and felt. Erasmo went
to see a renowned priest, Father Luigi Giussani,
who saw faith not as an intellectual system,
but as an encounter with beauty, a love story.
Erasmo returned to his wife and reported: “God exists.
I have met someone who is a witness to his reality.”
Serena was intrigued: Erasmo was the last
person you’d call religious. But eventually
both couples met with Giussani and all found faith.
One day in 1986, Innocente
reported that there was an H.I.V.-infected
baby at the hospital whose mother was dying.
Erasmo and Serena had vowed to each other that they
would never have children, but they felt a swelling
of gratitude and said they would foster the baby.
I won't quote the whole thing, but you get the picture, the once-upon-a-time setting, and the childlike unconventionally structured family at the center of the story, with the one couple of the brothers (one famous and the other prominent) joining the other couple of the wives in the big couple of their relationship, and the communal spiritual dilemma (which strikes me as a Buddhist issue, not a Catholic one) from which the famous priest releases them with his magical, senseless, aesthetic words.
And the strange vow (why does Erasmo promise Serena that he won't have any children either?) followed by a shared mystical pregnancy, "swelling of gratitude", which blesses them with progeny after all, in the end, not just the one HIV baby, but as their project, called Cometa, develops over the decades extraordinary mobs of children, up to 40 at a time, and the after-school program for 130, and vocational secondary school for 450 (Scuola Oliver Twist), and hotel management school whose students run the pasticceria and bar and banquet facilities and a CEO who also, I guess, sees faith as not an intellectual system but an encounter with beauty, a love story, and a pretty insistent appeal for donations, more naked at the somewhat rudimentary English part of the website but more enthusiastic at the florid Italian one.
Because that's where it ends up, as a gigantic social-entrepreneurial corporation.
I don't actually have any desire to be nasty about these people, who sound like very nice and committed people, and I'm always in favor of rich people seeking salvation by spending their money on the needy, and I'm actually strongly in favor of the aesthetic idea, that children, especially poor or otherwise disadvantaged ones, need to be raised in a context of beauty, having primitive-Italian or pre-Raphaelite, William Morris feelings of my own, or as David Brooks says, deploying the language of a marketing manager ("immaculate", "meticulous", "Architectural Digest", "elegant", "unusual"):
If you or I had hundreds of kids running(I think that's "Alzati, pezzo di merda!")
around there’d be general chaos. But
Cometa is beautiful. The gardens are immaculate
and meticulously designed. The family homes
are modest but look like they came out of
Architectural Digest. Every piece of furniture
in the high school is colorful, elegant, and unusual.
“Beauty educates,” said Serena, quoting Giussani.
The children who come here often feel tossed aside.
One used to be awakened by her mother with the words,
“Get up, you piece of [expletive]. Breakfast is ready,
you piece of [expletive].” But beautiful surroundings
make the children who come here feel important,
welcomed and cherished. If a toy breaks at Cometa,
it is fixed right away. Likewise, every child is recoverable.
But I see Cometa is also hailed by the social-entrepreneurship world in the form of Secondo Welfare, one of those Brooksian institutions that tries to leverage the charitable impulse into a plot to privatize the welfare state,
committed to enhancing the common understanding of what has recently come to be known as “second welfare”. The term, initially coined by Dario di Vico and Maurizio Ferrera by means of their contributions on the Corriere della Sera, refers to “a mix of social protection and social investment programs which are not funded by the state, but provided instead by a wide range of economic and social actors, linked to territories and local communities, but open to trans-local partnerships and collaborations (including the EU)” (Ferrera and Maino, 2011).
Through the collection and evaluation of new initiatives and best practices, the study seeks to promote a “virtuous nesting” between first and second welfare, that will ultimately be able to tackle the challenges posed by future demographic trends and the emergence of new social needs, and worsened by the present financial situation....The good aspects of the Cometa ideal, which I like very much, to be honest, are pretty expensive, and as long as we depend on private charity, they can't be made available to any but a tiny fraction of the children who deserve them. It's a trick, people. The only way to provide a whole package of beauty to everybody, as in the French école maternelle or the Swedish community music school, is to get it done by government, out of the tax base, and anybody who says it isn't is somebody with a reactionary lower-my-taxes agenda.
|Como sunset, photo by Andrew Mayovskyy via Robb Report.|