La Dolce Vita
A once popular phrase and lifestyle common around Italy of the late 1950s and 1960s, la dolce vita means “the sweet life.”
This expression leaped to the forefront of the Italian lexicon following the success of the 1960 comedy-drama movie La Dolce Vita. Written and directed by Cinecittà (Cinema City, Italy’s large studio lot in Rome) icon, the late Federico Fellini, this internationally acclaimed film stars Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée and Anita Ekberg — she of the famous late-night romp in Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Who can ever forget.
Of course, la dolce vita would have been a commonplace expression – with or without Fellini’s capo lavoro (masterpiece) – around Italy prior to 1960, as the post World War II economic miracle, known as Il Boom, was well underway and giving Italians a real shot at the sweet life; but, the expression ebbed into the English lexicon on the heels of the ground-breaking, classic film.
The very first known written mention of the sweet-life expression can be found in Dante Alighieri’s 13th century epic poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy): L’esperienza de questa dolce vita (The experience of this sweet life).
La dolce vita is an almost legendary era of modern Italian history to foreigners. We “outsiders-looking-in” believe, still today, that the made-in-Italy sweet life is the ultimate symbol of a laid-back, relaxed lifestyle.
Whether it’s in some quiet village under the Tuscan sun or out in the rolling Umbrian countryside, or meandering around quaint little streets of the Trastevere district of Rome enjoying great Italian food, drinking her fine wines, having a caffè (coffee) and basking in the Bel Paese’s realively mild climate, we’d all like to have a taste of la dolce vita.
Now, I don’t want to burst your bubble or rain on your parade – if you’re one of those in serious pursuit of said sweet life – but that period in Italian history is over, dead and buried, at least in the eyes and minds of most hard-working Italians.
Italians, the ones that are now eking out a living around La Peninsula with less earning power than before, use the expression - la dolce vita - in a much stricter sense, confining it only to that period from the end of the 1950s to the end of the 1960s.
For them, the sweetener in that good life went bitter with age and, coupled with the current economic recession, they’ve moved on to more practical, attainable pursuits. Anytime after that decade-long period is really the dream of expats and tourists caught up in their own personal take on what life is like here in Italy today.
La dolce vita, as a lifestyle, pretty much came to a screeching halt when social and political unrest and upheaval, known as sessantotto (1968), swept across the Bel Paese, as well as other parts of the world, and shook her very core.
Students, workers and ethnic groups rose up with political rallies, sit-ins and nationwide strikes to draw attention to the plight of the common Italian in the street and away from those who had the means – legal or otherwise – to continue living the sweet life.
Media magnate-politico Silvio Berlusconi aside, gone are the years of luxurious and often excessive parties in rich villas or in the best restaurants in Rome and Milan or in exclusive locations on Sardinia and around Venice.
Gone, too, are the days when “normal folk” could actually sit elbow-to-elbow with international movie icons at some of Rome’s more popular outdoor cafes.
Stars like Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Peter Sellers, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Anthony Quinn and Charlton Heston, who were all in Rome filming movies by day and dining – right out in the open, in plain sight of the paparazzi – at the finest restaurants along the legendary Via Veneto by night.
Just like the fashion trends that preceded it and those that came after, la dolce vita quickly faded after its ten-year run and is now just a distant memory, a curious footnote in the annals of modern Italian history.
Ah, la dolce vita. It may be over for the general public, but I’m still in pursuit of my own version of that made-in-Italy lifestyle.
It’s doubtful that I’ll ever reach it, but the journey, thus far, has been sweet.
©The Palladian Traveler