Apart from talking about cooking while eating and about eating while not eating, Italians have a favorite subject, a kind of pet peeve, which they touch upon at least a dozen times a day in that same disarmingly artless voice in which the English exchange news of the weather. It is a fact that the English really do talk about the weather, for the simple reason that while the weather in Britain is not as bad as the natives would lead the foreigners to believe—in order to dissuade them from coming to Claridge’s wearing Mickey Mouse ears, perhaps, or paying homage to the People’s Princess in some other, less honestly felt but equally unsettling ways—it is extremely changeable. and hence a useful subject of conversation. No two Aprils are ever alike, nor two afternoons in any April, nor two hours in any April afternoon, and nobody in London ever saw the same kind of rain twice. It is always smaller, or flatter, or steeper, or softer, or whiter, or longer, or louder than another day’s rain, sometimes falling over just half a street, sometimes out of a cloudless sky, sometimes with more than one rainbow over the horizon.

Anyway, for Italians the perennially newsworthy equivalent is overcrowding. As though guided by the instinct of a swarming bee that leads him to do exactly what everyone else in the city, the province, and the country is doing at that particular moment, an Italian will invariably find himself caught in some obscenely populous swarm, survey it with an air of genuine surprise, and address in its general direction, as if appealing to the errant conscience of each and every citizen worker, the ritual remark: Troppa gente! To chide them over this apparent incongruity is like berating bees for their excessive interest in nectar: if you happen to approve of honey, there is nothing excessive about it. Still, it is a little odd seeing a bee point at his fellows with what seems like genuine disapproval and exclaim that he could never imagine so many of them turning out for a sunny afternoon in sweet clover.

One Sunday morning in the spring I found myself inside a small dusty Fiat with four other adults and three children, motionless among similarly freighted cars in the traffic along the Via Aurelia, the ancient Roman road that turns north as it reaches the Tyrrhenian coast and makes its way towards Genoa and on to the Riviera. Tomorrow, a family friend had confided Saturday evening, is a good day to have lunch in Fregene, but let us leave early because otherwise there will be too many people. It was obvious that by the stroke of midnight on Saturday every friend of every other family in Rome had made the same confidential recommendation. On any other morning the seaside village of Fregene would be 20 minutes away. Like everyone else in Rome, we got there by lunchtime.

Whatever the news of the weather. Englishmen carry umbrellas. Artless as that Troppa gente! sounds to the foreigner, it now proved, as I had begun to suspect, so much knowing coquetry. On arrival in Fregene, where the occasional dilapidated villa glimpsed through a wrought-iron gate informs the visitor that the place has seen richer pickings as a fashionable summer resort, I saw an endless avenue of some 40 open-air restaurants, each the size of a football field, ready to receive all of Rome on the day all of Rome decides that today is the day for Fregene. The abandoned resort had adapted and become a year-round destination for Sunday outings, attracting enough people for people to start complaining. There was something of Brighton in the old British films about it, but without the penny-pinching sadness, and something of Atlantic Git}’ in those same good old days, except I was never there of course and can only guess what that was about.

There was an amazing blonde beauty at the next table in the restaurant we had chosen, a cross between Jayne Mansfield and the dish of spaghetti with frutti di mare that had just arrived. I say this in all seriousness, and not only because the shells on my plate reminded me of that famous painting in the Uffizi, but because the sun was burning overhead like magnesium wire and the wine taunted the brain by being judiciously cool, and because there was a breeze from the sea that smelled like wet gravel and dried flowers, and because the dish in question was the work of a great artist and the woman really did resemble the Venus of Botticelli. She was having lunch in the company of two brothers, young men with crewcuts who looked like U.S. Marines, their father, who looked like an ex-Marine, and the other sister-in-law, who was also auroral in form but only irresolutely 1950’s in content, as though infected by some vague worldly sorrow while passing through a Ghirlandaio one morning on her way to the fishmonger’s near the Galleria Colonna. There was also the young men’s mother, fussing with a baby carriage where a newborn child belonging to one of the women cavorted like the infant Jesus.

Wherever one looked, a similarly tangled and absorbing family scene caught the eye, and, once caught, the eye had no choice but to take in the whole Sunday gospel of physical and spiritual wholesomeness, verse after orotund verse. I know I am beginning to sound like a voyeur with strong Nazi predilections, and under ordinary’ circumstances I might apologize for being charmed by bare arms and golden hair and even Wagner, but in this case I stand my ground. The sheer size of the spectacle before me endowed it with the stature of a natural phenomenon, and most would agree that it is unfair to accuse a geologist (even one obsessed by the health of the Alps) or an astronomer (even one with a romantic attachment to Alpha Centauri) of being a dirty old man and a fascist creep. There must have been eight or nine hundred people around us, which, multiplied by 40, amounted to something like 10,000 happy families crammed into a couple of square miles of blinding sunlight framed by the pale sand and the waveless sea. Gloriously, they seemed all alike, just like Tolstoy said.

Last month I wrote in this space about a brief visit to New York, and that afternoon in Fregene it occurred to me that during my stay there I had not seen a single beautiful woman. To make the observation more categorical, I would equate beauty with health and simply say that the women I saw in the streets of New York all looked like they were undergoing prolonged chemotherapy. The impression I now have (which admittedly pains the equivocal Russian in me, a Russian brought up on the harmony of Chekhov’s kindness and the counterpoint of Dostoyevsky’s individualism) is that beauty is not merely objective, but collectivist and conformist: more like a doctor’s clean bill of health or Italian country cooking or a Mussolini rally than a clever remark or French nouvelle cuisine or a volume of Nietzsche. Why else would all happy families look alike? Why else would anybody come to Fregene?

The lumping of truth with beauty is a characteristically northern, cold-blooded platitude. In reality they could not be farther apart, those two, like Moscow and St. Petersburg in the last century: one intimate, cloistered, spontaneous, untidy, the other public, designed, perfumed, splendid. A writer who says to himself, “I think this and find it to be true because everyone else does” is a fool and an insult to philosophy, but a lover who thinks “I like her and find her beautiful because others do” is part of the natural order of things and will probably make a good husband. This is because truth lives in cobwebs and musty corners, in interstices and even underground, coming out of a maze of cobbled streets to speak with the tongues of sometime carpenters and country doctors. Beauty is handsomely greying senators and opulently uniformed policemen; it is church bells and brass bands disturbing the non-conformist’s sleep; it is spectacularly laid-out thoroughfares, parade grounds, and public gardens; in short, it is everything that all the imperial capitals of the world have always done so well. Truth is so original that it resists publication and courts only martyrdom, remaining intensely personal even when of necessity it must become universal. Beauty is an endlessly fascinating exhibition of itself, depersonalized and objective like a set of X-rays marked “Venus,” inviting all who would succumb to its open-air, sunlit, and crowded, impossibly crowded vernissage.

A Russian writer I know used to say of Botticelli’s allegorical representation of the pagan goddess of love that she looked like a Soviet factory worker, and I would hate to hear what he thought of Jayne Mansfield. I recently watched on Italian TV a clip of Mussolini addressing a beautifully laid-out and splendidly decorated town square, in Turin if I’m not mistaken, on the war in Spain; “Our enemies vow, No passeran! But I tell you, we have passed and are passing!” And then the camera panned the crowd of thousands upon thousands, and I saw the same scene I witnessed in Fregene, and every woman factory worker was no more sad or sickly than a Hollywood star of the 1950’s, and every man was as fit and alert as a U.S. Marine. And 1 am sure that each and every one of them said, as they were getting dressed to arrive in the square no earlier and no later than anyone else in town, that the trouble with these fascist rallies is that there are too many people.

Troppa gente!