Learn Italy holidays are nearly always based in cities, but for many north Europeans contact with Italy consists mainly of a stay by the beach. At the end of August huge processions of overloaded family cars from Denmark, Holland, and Belgium toil northwards.
What fascinates me is how strange it is that, in pursuit of pleasure, we should strip off most of our clothes, lie down on the ground (sand, I suppose, is a special kind of dirt) and expose ourselves to the rays of the sun, while occasionally taking a dip in the sea. Even more surprising is the way images of people indulging in this strange practice have become the ubiquitous symbol of blissful holiday. As the travel industry gears up for the forthcoming year, we are assailed by pictures of couples or families in bathing costumes ecstatically enjoying the seaside: blue skies, sand, the ocean, perhaps a palm tree or two according to the location, and a boat in the distance. This is what holiday means.
Sea-bathing, with machines to trundle out into the sea, began in the eighteenth century. From then on seaside towns have a special popularity, as is shown by the countless nineteenth-century pictures of people walking along promenades or in the vicinity of the sea. But a holiday in which the chief occupation is sitting doing not very much on a beach is a twentieth-century phenomenon. It seems to come into being at about the turn of the century. The prototypical study of a north European coming into contact with Italy is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1913) in which the protagonist becomes obsessed by a boy he sees in the bagno of the Grand Hotel des Bains. Built in 1900, this was where Mann stayed in 1911, and Visconti filmed the story in 1971.
In the 1930s Coco Chanel took the lead in making a suntan not just acceptable, but even a symbol of wealth and leisure. Formerly it had been a sign of rural labour and therefore poverty.
So what is it about the beach? It is, I suppose, an elemental experience, where we compose ourselves in relation to Earth, Water, Air and Fire, without any particular aim in mind other than to be human, to be the poor bare forked animals that we are. Perhaps this is the closest we may get to simply existing, without seeking after anything but being in the world.
I can close my eyes at any time and conjure up the memory and sensation of being on a beach; the constant sound of the sea, always the same and always different, the cool texture of the sand in the morning, aimless cries of children at play, the bright sun warm on the skin, and with my head buried in my arms, a private darkness in which to contemplate these elemental sensations. Am I alone in this?