An Ode to Italian Sunlight
Italy’s sunlight is warm, luxurious and almost scientifically superior
Sunlight consists of electromagnetic waves that pass through the air. The latter’s quality – as well as the angle of approach through the atmosphere – determines sunlight’s uniqueness and quality in a particular place. Visitors in Italy often comment on the country’s “special” and “distinctive” sunlight and, indeed, the country’s geographical location – its latitude and its atmosphere (the dust, pollen, ash and vapor) – does influence this. In other words, there is a quantifiable, scientific explanation for the country’s distinctive sunlight. Of course, sunlight varies from region to region, but those famous artistic depictions of Italian sunlight throughout the centuries is, as it turns out, based on natural phenomena.
A report issued by the University of Milan in 2019 highlighted that in the past 40 years, the atmosphere in Italy has been unusually clean. This results in a very limited presence of fog and polluting particles, causing a less disturbed diffusion of sunlight. Aside from a few highly polluted industrial areas, such as the Po Valley and cities such as Turin and Milan, the country’s unique sunlight can, in part, be attributed to its unique atmospheric clarity. Italy is also located in an area with relatively safe levels of stratospheric ozone, meaning there are low levels of water vapor. This leads to the formation of fewer clouds that could interfere with the transmission of sunlight. Furthermore, the wind and air temperature also determine how particles in the air are mixed, with strong winds and temperate climates causing particles to move to higher strata of the atmosphere instead of getting trapped near the surface of the earth where they lead to decreased visibility. The country’s unique geographical position as a peninsula provides favorable conditions for high air quality, as well as less diffuse sunlight. This, in part, accounts for the uniqueness of Italian sunlight. It also helps explain the variations in the quality of sunlight across Italy. One doesn’t need data to differentiate between the saffron hues of Venice, the pale pinks of dawn in Milan or the brilliant whites of Puglia.
Italian artists have responded to these differences. In Venetian painting between the 13th and 15th centuries, sunlight is always depicted as being distinctively golden, suffused and shimmering. Painters such as Giorgione, Bellini and Tintoretto used this type of sunlight as a unifying force in their compositions, emphasizing both the earthy tones and textures of the natural world as well as the more artificial brocades and draperies found inside homes. Art historian Paul Hills argues that Venetian color, in particular, was born out of the city’s unique geographical and physical location; it’s easy to see how the interaction of sunlight with water inspired these artists. To this day, golden reflections and shimmering surfaces are features in the Venetian landscape. Representations of sunlight are no less unique in other parts of Italy. Italian directors and cinematographers are renowned for their evenly lit, airy sun-drenched scenes, particularly in movies set in southern Italy. Sicily, Naples and Puglia are uniquely positioned to catch the sun head-on, not only because they are closer to the equator but also because of the white coastal sands that reflect the rays. Turquoise skies and sand-colored buildings with little or no shadow are found in classic 1950s movies such as “Scandal in Sorrento” (1955) as well as contemporary movies such as “Baarìa” (2009).
Camilla Sagese, 24, is a communication student from Marche, a region on Italy’s 4,660 miles (7,500 kilometers) of stunning coastline. It’s unsurprising that most Italians love the sun and beach. With its temperate climate and 2,500 hours of sunshine each year, beaches play a central role in Italian life. Camilla says: “I’ve been living and studying in Milan for five years now but I’m originally from Marche on the coast. I miss the central Italian sunshine every day. Milan can get very hot, but the sunlight here feels different – it’s almost as if the sun is lazy and tired! Or not convinced that we, too, deserve to be kissed by its rays as passionately as people who live south of the Po Valley. As an obsessed beachgoer, sunlight has a big impact on my way of life and my identity. The greater the sunshine, the larger my sunglasses get! Sun-drenched beaches give me the chance to play with beachwear and I only feel well when I’m suntanned. I take every chance I get to bask in the sun year-round.” Sagese isn’t alone – every day during summer, thousands of Italians flock to the country’s beaches to soak up the sun.