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Zeal, Design, and the Advantage of Faith: An Interview with Luca Cottini

by Lisa Lickona

Editor's Note: Italian Innovators is a Youtube Channel that “will make you discover Italy’s present contribution to arts, fashion, technology, business, design; learn about great Italians in a dynamic and informative way; and explore Italy’s cultural history and its path to global success.” Its creator Luca Cottini is associate professor of Italian studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia. Luca recently took time to talk to the CL Newsletter about his fascinating work. What follows is the first part of our interview.

CL Newsletter: Italian Innovators has grown out of your work as a professor of Italian Studies in the United States. On your website you say that “it starts from scholarship as a zeal for constant discovery and teaching as an empowering art of sharing.” “Zeal” is such an interesting word. What is the source of your zeal?

Luca: Zeal is the translation of the Latin word studium in English. It is a deliberate word, not one you would use commonly. I am a classical philologist. For me, studium is the word that expresses the most what the passion for knowledge is. Studium is the zeal for something that is a presence. You study because there is something that is attractive, that elicits an interest. But an interest does not become real until you put a zeal, a care, an effort into a relationship.

This happens with a piece of reality—and it is a piece of reality that I like, I enjoy, and I dedicate my scholarly work to. I began with the classics, Italian literature, and I ended up working on design—and zeal applies to a text as an object of a relationship, as well as to an object as an object of a relationship. So I treat a typewriter as if it were a piece of The Illiad, with the same scholarly attention that I was taught when doing philology.

But that zeal ultimately coincides with the zeal of a presence, and it coincides with prayer. There is no study without prayer. There is no prayer without study, as the zeal of a presence. And this is immensely clear within the dynamic of marriage.

The other person is infinitely attractive, and the only way to get involved with that attraction is to care for it, to have zeal for it. This is valid for my relationship for my wife as it is for the relationship with the Lord. In this sense, the more you zoom in, the more you realize that an object is not just an object, you realize that it contains something else.

CLN: In your Youtube episodes you are dealing with people who are doing this in all different areas of design. Can you help us understand your approach through a concrete example?

In an episode that I dedicated to the Italian costume designer Milena Canonero, I brought in the example of Pinocchio—not the cheesy Disney version, but the book by Carlo Collodi, that starts with two artisans that are dealing with the same piece of wood. One is Maestro Ciliegia, and the other one is Geppetto. Maestro Ciliegia just sees a piece of wood but, as he hears a little thin voice coming from it, he dismisses it and continues with his plan to carve the log into a leg for a table. As he hears the voice a second time, he decides to throw it away. Geppetto instead looks at the same piece of wood, hears the voice and thinks, what a nice piece of wood, I will make a puppet that can sing and dance and fence with it.

The problem of the one is not his materialism, but his lack of imagination. The interesting part of Geppetto—and he is actually the archetype of the designer for Italians— is his ability to see in matter its potential or to listen to matter’s little thin voice that comes out that calls out to express life. If you have zeal for a relationship, you are prone to see this life, this livelihood in everything, not as a clerical thing but as a human experience. There are many great artists that are able to see that things are endowed with an energy that makes us taste life in a way that is phenomenal.

For me, the experience of observing objects is an experience of zeal in interacting with them. The zeal is what allows you not to mistreat the object, to use it right away, but to see the object as the center of a network of meaning. In a recent interview, I had the chance to talk to the top Italian engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto, who found in silk a protein that allowed him to discover and create a number of applications in nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. In our conversation we ended up commenting upon this episode of Geppetto and Maestro Ciliegia. When I look at silk, I see fashion. When he looks at silk, he sees a building block with infinite applications.

CLN: You mentioned study as "prayer." How does faith or prayer relate to your way of observing objects?

Luca: What is fascinating in what I am doing is the ability to observe objects as the terminal of a very complex reality that is unfolding. What an intellectual is called to do is inter-legere, to “read through” these signs and to connect them as part of this relationship. In this, faith gives an ultimate advantage over the secular world. The premise of an academic investigation in a secular context is that ultimately reality is not entirely intelligible. To the nihilist, reality does not make sense at all. You have to slice it up in infinite divisions, compartments, or “departments” to be able to find in a very thin layer a moment of truth in it. But it would be hard to claim that all these dots are connected in a real truth, in an universitas, which literally means the “converging of everything into one.”

For a person of faith, being in this relationship allows one to see every single dot as part of the same loving relationship. Every single piece of reality talks about the joy and love I have for my wife. Every single piece of reality reminds me of the feeling of the presence of my father. This is a secular experience, but one that contains the ultimate development which is the understanding of the relationship with Christ as an affective knowledge of reality, that allows you to connect points, to dare to connect points and allow you to see the meaning in them. That is very similar to the faith of Geppetto of seeing in matter, in our bodies, the temple of God, the moment of life in which everything is revealed. That is interesting to me.


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