Zeal, Design, and the Advantage of Faith: An Interview with Luca Cottini, part 2
by Lisa Lickona
Editor’s note: this is the second part of our interview with Luca Cottini, Associate Professor of Italian Studies at Villanova University, founder of the Italian Innovators website and Youtube channel, and the author of The Art of Objects. (Check out the first part here). In this part, Luca shares the origin of his Youtube channel, his "anti-academic" project, and how joy comes in a dialogue that reveals "the excitement of a presence."
CL Newsletter: I was fascinated with your episode on Saint Frances Cabrini. You explain to us why she, a saint, was an innovator. You say that what is extraordinary about Frances Cabrini is “her capacity to love ordinary things intensely, to see them more deeply, to engage them meaningfully as terminals of a love-relationship. . . Because of the Beloved, all things, even the smallest details, become relevant, worthy of attention.” I love this because you are bridging the gap between the view of the saint as a "really good person" and a more secular view. And you do this with the idea of “dance,” bringing in a quote from Rudolph Nureyev. People who have given themselves totally to something like ballet have a level of passion and commitment that is “saint-like.” It immediately pushes us into a different dimension of what it is to be a human being, of what we are striving for, what the motion of our souls is.
Luca: If you are looking for the other “Catholic” episode, check out the one on Margherita Guarducci, the archeologist who founded the tomb of Saint Peter.
My audience is not Catholic, my colleagues are not Catholic. I am not surprised that this video is the one I care the most about and I risked the most and it is the least viewed.
The show was born because I published a book called The Art of Objects in 2018. It went very well: I got tenure, I got a medal from the president of the Italian republic.
I wondered how I could maintain that livelihood, how not to let it get old. I decided to do a podcast as a way of learning a new language. This episode was part of the first series. Last year, in the second season, I started to do interviews with persons of caliber: the chief designer at Pepsi, the guy who designed Lady Gaga’s show, the former mayor of Rome. Then I interviewed a top influencer. She posted something on her Instagram account and then suddenly my Youtube channel became a thing. Then I realized I had to convert the podcasts with slideshows, and I started doing videos.
This explains what dancing means. Dancing is really the experience of my life—when you are entrusted in a relationship. This is the experience of Christianity: the more you are entrusted in a relationship, the more you are willing to follow where the relationship leads you. If someone had told me five years ago that I would be on Youtube doing these stupid things, I would have laughed. When I started my podcast, I was embarrassed. I did it to maintain the livelihood of my book. But I was not convinced of it. But people started to like it. And the more that people started to like it, the more you want to dance with it. You start appearing on video and saying, let’s play with it. The more you start learning how to edit—buying the lights, buying the microphone. You start saying, this is fun.
This is my story, moving to the U.S. fifteen years ago. I wanted to do something fun, to get out of my house. I went to Notre Dame, met this American woman, and we started dating. I went to Harvard: I didn’t know if I could do it, but it was just because I wanted to marry her. I had not planned to get a doctorate, but I applied to a Phd program, and I got into Harvard. It was brutal, but you dance with it. Then we moved to Canada—and you dance with it. Every time, you realize that there is a piece of reality the Lord gives you to see.
We are used to thinking of the Christian life as movement. But movement can hide the fact that you have to move from the spot. Whereas the image of dancing is really the image of Christian life that is a walk, a journey. You really go somewhere else. I am really going into uncharted territory. I have been in uncharted territory for fifteen years—when I had to let myself go, and dance.
There is the mystical moment—because you have to look your partner in the eyes. There is no journey without the moment of adoration of the lover. The hour I spend every week in front of the Lord is the hour that makes me certain that in this uncharted territory, I am walking the right path. Even though I don’t know where this thing, the channel, is leading me.
There is a psalm that says God gives growth. God is there because something is growing. You cannot grow by yourself. There is something that must make you grow. I tried to open many other paths. They didn’t grow. This is growing—maybe this means that someone is making it grow.
With regard to innovation. I talk about this in the episode, “What Does Beauty Have To Do With Innovation?” and the one I dedicated to literature and digital marketing. I took a course this summer at Yale on digital marketing. I learned a lot about the relationship between humanities and entrepreneurship and the humanities and the digital era. There is a lot that is similar. I have studied classics in Italy, and modernity here. I went to Notre Dame, a Catholic school and Harvard, a very secular school. I have studied Italian, French, Spanish traditions. I have felt that I am in between worlds.
One experience that is interesting was realizing at Harvard that my secular colleagues didn’t know anything about the Gospels. But I realized that I don’t know anything about their “gospels.” I started reading what is behind their thought as a way to study their language, and not to “judge” it. Only when you start learning a language and understanding its logic can you begin to appreciate it.
What I am doing with presenting Italy is the same as the gesture of the evangelization that the Church proposes. Everyone has a sense of what Italy is. We all have an image of it. Everyone thinks they know what the Church is. But let’s try to get more out of it, give you a taste of what it actually is. This is the struggle.
The lobster tail at Red lobster, phonetically, is the same as the red lobster tail you just caught in Maine. But only in the sense that you actually taste them, put it in your mouth, do you see that there is something much deeper here. This is what I am trying to do with the show with regard to Italy.
But this also has to do with the intelligence that comes from faith. What I am staging is an intelligence or an understanding of reality that starts from this affective knowledge we were describing earlier. It is secular. The word saeculum in Latin means “the culture of the century.” I am dealing with the culture of my century—which I observe from the perspective of faith with a lot of interest. I am not one of those who says how great the Middle Ages are. We are having a conversation in this age that would have been impossible in an earlier time.
I am interested in how I can get to know my fellow humans, to enter a relationship with them, to share the good bottle of wine I received, to let them taste, to share it in such a way such that the passion for drinking grows bigger.
Real knowledge enables you to savor life and to savor it by sharing it. In this sense I am very anti-academic. The academic culture is very elitist. Many people see what I am doing as superficial, shallow. But to re-learn what you think you know in dialogue with another, with the saeculum, the American culture, is the ideal situation, in which you encounter a partner, a “you” radically different, that obliges you to observe them with curiosity, to ask yourself what makes me “me”? It is like my marriage—coming from two different cultures, an object of constant negotiation and discovery.
I am not doing this because I am making money. The fruit of my work is the ability to know more, to enjoy life infinitely more, to get to know people who are writing to me all the time. This becomes a platform of encounter and dialogue and understanding. Capere, “to understand,” is really “to grasp.” The joy of connecting, the joy of grasping, getting something. Like when Isaiah says, they will exalt in front of me when they divide the spoil (cf. Isaiah 53:12).
When do we have that joy—not the moralistic or clerical joy, where we say we are joyous but we are not—but the joy you have when you win the NBA? This is where the zeal of a presence becomes the excitement of a presence, the excitement of saying “I wish you could know my wife, how incredible she is.” Or, “I wish you could taste a little bit of my culture and know how incredible it is, beyond the stereotypes.” And “I wish you could have a taste—taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”❖