The word bourgeois can carry a negative connotation; as Alberto Moravia put it, a conventional attention to relative details. A member of the bourgeoisie wants to feel part of a group, in a society with a code of values based on affluence, rather than feel isolated and different or special in some way. “Heart? What heart? That thing used for pumping poison.” I grew up in a bourgeois setting, and fought against my background by turning to poetry, like so many other people. Today I understand that my upbringing as a “nice chap,” part of a well-mannered milieu, bourgeois in fact, defines my belonging to the history of the city of Milan. Let us imagine an impossible conversation, with Alberto Moravia picking up the subject again: “I saw the worst things in that woman. She was grasping, inhibited and homophobic, rigid, snobbish, ignorant and always firm in her convictions, conventional and so on. She summed up every one of these aspects in just one word: bourgeois.
I began using the term bourgeois to refer to all those things that made me want to rebel, to reject them.” His perhaps rather long-winded speech is interrupted by Dorothy Parker: “I hate women who make their own dresses, who read magazines and try out the best recipes, who suddenly exclaim Oh I must hurry home to see about dinner. Men aren’t much better though” – winking at Scott Fitzgerald because, yet again, the pair are bound to end up in bed together, too drunk to manage a decent session between the sheets. “It’s quite incredible,” yawns Fitzgerald, “how the only human being I don’t sleep with is my wife.” Hedi Slimane looked to the codes of the bourgeoisie when inventing the Parisian woman at Celine (sans accent). “Respect means considering the integrity of each individual, recognising what is owed and belongs to others with honesty and common sense,” Slimane says in an interview with Le Figaro. These bourgeois codes were notably also present in the 1961 Yves Saint Laurent collection that invoked Libération. In the late eighteenth century the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution – the monarchic, magnetic, despotic city of Paris fired up the bourgeois engine that, through Napoleon, rolled on as far as Lombardy: Europe’s most fertile land, the battlefield for Carlo Borromeo’s hard-won counter-reformation, which for two centuries already had been an agricultural region with akin to industrial production methods; the Lombardy-Veneto region was so rich
that it was dubbed the Treasurer of Europe. We in Italy were used to having “a not insignificant civic education, a substantial familiarity with the rules of coexistence and free debate,” writes Galli della Loggia, defining the industrious Italian bourgeoisie of the second half of the twentieth century, which was lucky enough to have four creeds, four keystones, four foundations: the Church, military conscription, schooling and public television. Archaeologist Andrea Carandini is the last of the bourgeoisie. He is generally referred to as the Great Bourgeois. “We are drowning in images. We take photographs of ourselves even in the most intimate, private, and even embarrassing – at least they used to be – moments. Writing and reading, learning and studying no longer seem to make sense. In the Middle Ages, there was an abundance of imagery precisely because everyone was illiterate.” I believe in beauty and I believe in hard graft. Those are the bourgeois values, and the values of Milan; of the lady sketched by Miuccia Prada, or the Tullio Pericoli cover where he shows Lina Sotis with a quill pen that’s larger than she is. I believe in a Corriere della Sera that is authoritative to a greater extent than a gossip magazine.
I believe in good manners, common sense and elbow grease. Milan is a bourgeois city founded on entrepreneurship and publishing – from La Scala opera house to its cathedral which, as a matter of fact, is still a Fabbrica, a “workshop”. The bourgeoisie means to act as a team and operate as a system, with professionalism and gravity. Bourgeois values no longer trigger a reaction; instead, they foster a sense of reassurance and self-confidence – they allow the engine to start up again. Let us turn to simpler words – the words of a lady who used her own bourgeois attitude to convey the finest fashion commentary: “The best mark you leave is through your children, but if you leave one independently of whatever family you have, you create a story;” and Franca’s voice rings true, even now.