About beauty and why I couldn’t see it in the Netherlands

When you own just 2 cents, you should buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other one”.

In this ancient Chinese saying, in my opinion, we can find one of the engines that move the Universe: as human beings, we need beauty around us. It’s a matter of survival: it’s a very simple and short  word, as breath for instance, but behind it there is an amazing complexity of culture, history, personal taste, canons, evolution…The same as breathing: an act which we don’ t even have a clue we are doing but that hides a well-structured and brilliant human machine.

I’m from a country that during the centuries tried to amaze the world with beauty: poor but beautiful has been a motto for the Italians to define themselves for the whole second part of the ‘900.

The Romans (which,  I remind you all, were not Italians), the Greeks, the Longobards, the Spanish, the Phoenicians and other conquerors, plus that tireless factory of beauty that the Renaissance has been,  left a heritage in our daily life that, as Italians, we cannot ignore. Our history, even today in modern times, is our curse and delight.


Italy is a female name… And as Valentino used to answer to the question “what does a woman want?” with “she wants to be beautiful”.


When I moved in the Netherlands, I was afraid to find no beauty. I was wrong of course but I had to adjust and force myself to change the ways of finding it or to recognize it. Still, I wasn’t satisfied… At all. I was experiencing what I considered a lack of personal care, of taste for fashion. No care for the details, no efforts to try to reach perfections in the arts. The Netherlands seemed to me to be focused on the message, and not on the packaging.

I had to address myself to one of the master minds of my country and our contemporary times to understand what I was missing… He gave me the key to discover where the beauty was, because I couldn’t see any.

As it usually happens with difficult questions, the answer was easy: Dutch beauty is practical.


I leave you to Umberto Eco who will explain better than me what I mean: “…And there is no doubt that in this step [the understanding of beauty] are insert the historical events of the Reformation and, more generally, of the change of customs in the XVIth  and XVIIth  centuries […]. Nevertheless, it is precisely from the Dutch Flanders, under the the dual and contradictory tension of the rigid Calvinist moral and the secular and emancipated bourgeois costume, who generate new human types, in which the Beauty joins the useful and the practical. Even the popular language Schoon expresses both the beauty (of a landscape or of a starry sky), as the concrete concept of cleaning (of a house or tool)”.


Here it is, the soul of beauty in this country, painted by the Flemish masters during the half of the XVIth century, due to an important cultural and social conflict which you can still see, according to me, in a modern revisitation, in Amsterdam as in the whole country.

51VVwMXg6FL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Eco goes further in his thoughts  and opens my eyes a bit more: “[…] (in the paintings of that time), you can easily see how a culture oriented to the discomfort of abundance expressed women that can be sensual and tempting but do not fail in the role of efficient housewives, while the simple and gaunt elegance of males refers to the need to have no unnecessary frills that might be in the way if you had to run, for example, to repair a dam suddenly broken.

I guess that I just have to deal with the fact that the Dutch concept of beauty is freely practical.

At list now I can recognize it.


Quotes from: “History of Beauty” – Umberto Eco – Rizzoli – 2010





Marco Alf
2 replies

Comments are closed.