Dr Ilaria Grando shares a personal account of the Coronavirus emergency in Northern Italy, explored through the lens of Milanese urban art culture.
Can you imagine living in a world where you cannot give a hug, a kiss, or even a caress to your loved ones? Can you imagine living in a world where you relating to the other implies at least 1-metre distance?
“We are only left with a window view,” said my mother watching the moon shining bright and free in a dark sky. I cannot remember which day of the Italian lockdown it is. Time in quarantine runs as dense as honey, days overlapping with each other. Out there the world as I knew it has changed. The cities are deserted, the hospitals overcrowded. My country is padded in a noisy silence. And for me, a quarantined person in the North of Italy, it is a war within. I am not living with the virus, but I am living under its dictatorship.
In a red area country, the rules to follow are simple. Do not leave the house; clean often; if you have to leave the house for exceptional reasons keep at least 1-meter distance from and to another individual; avoid handshakes and hugs; do not touch eyes, mouth, and nose with your hands; cover mouth and nose when you are coughing or sneezing; wash your hands frequently; wear a face mask if you believe to be ill or if you are taking care of someone who is ill. More simply: minimise and if possible avoid any unnecessary form of physical interaction.
A humanity who has been deprived of touch, the humanity living at the time of COVID-19 has elected as its symbols face masks and hand-sanitisers. In the age of a celebrated virtual living, the pandemic has confined us to the sole use of the web as a way of communicating and interacting with other human beings, generating a crisis within the crisis. Italian street artist Tvboy has captured the problem in an image soon elected as a symbol of the COVID-19 reality in Italy.
“L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19” (Love in the Time of CO…VID-19) appeared on the 28th of February 2020 in the streets of Milan. The announcement, given by the artist himself on social media, did not reveal the exact location of the work, leaving an aura of mystery. Colouring an outside that is no longer accessible, Tvboy’s work appropriates a painting, symbol of the Italian Romantic movement, Francesco Hayez’s Il Bacio (The Kiss). Presented for the first time in Brera in 1859, Hayez’s work was meant to celebrate the positive outcome of the Second War of Italian Independence. Set in an imagined Middle Ages, Il Bacio conveys the hopes of a soon-to-be nation in the tender kiss of a young couple. The success of the painting is immediate: the audience likes the subject and understands the message clearly. Eight years later, Hayez decides to approach the work again, and realise a second version to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle. The political situation has changed, Italy is now an independent reign, and the colours can become livelier. The Italian and the French flags shine with decision in the clothes of the young lovers: in their kiss a story of alliance and national independence, in their kiss, the story of those who have left their country and loved ones to fight for their nations.
1867, Il Bacio as the emblem of the individual’s sacrifice for the common good.
A hundred and sixy-oneyears later, Hayez’s young lovers are still engaging in a tender kiss but the premises are completely different. Tvboy, an artist living at the time of COVID-19, has thoughtfully provided the main characters with face masks. Once again, Art exits History to make sense of the present. This time, however, the image becomes paradoxical. The kiss is not a passionate expression of love but a representation of a past that, for now, can no longer be. Looking at Tvboy’s work, the audience will probably recall the adolescent beauty of Hayez’s painting, some will even remember its historical meaning. But in the clashing evidence of the differences standing between the two images, they will also start to question the realities depicted, confronting them to what it means to live and love at the time of COVID-19. Observing the image and comparing it to its original, it is soon clear that Tvboy’s lovers have very little to do with Hayez’s. The couple is close and yet extremely distant: they are protecting themselves from each other. The embrace is clumsy, unsure; their hands are too busy holding onto a hand sanitiser bottle to hold each other, and the kiss is obstructed by a safety mask. Touch but not touch. Kiss but not kiss. Tvboy’s couple is the perfect depiction of a virtual love that cannot exist in the practicality of life. I imagine the instant after the kiss, and I see a sudden departure of the two, almost as if, waking up from the suspend time of History, the lovers would finally realise how things have changed, and how their present, which is my present, can no longer permit their kiss.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization has officially called the COVID-19 crisis a “pandemic”. 416,686 cases, 18,589 deaths in 196 countries (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm CET). 57,521 cases, 7,503 deaths, and 9,362 healed only in Italy (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm). Over 15 days upon changing my status from Italian citizen to Red Area inhabitant to citizen of a world facing a pandemic, I listen to the news with increasing concern letting tears streams out of my eyes.
The politics and the poetics that have defined Il Bacio since day one are once again summoned. Mediated by Tvboy, the painting adapts its meaning to the contemporary time, exiting its historical dimension. In the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see the big little sacrifices everyone is doing for the common good; in the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see a past memory, and the hope to make it a present reality soon.
2020, Il Bacio as an emblem of tomorrow when we will take those masks off, and kiss again.
 “FAQ – Covid-19, domande e risposte; Prevenzione e Trattamento,” Ministero della Salute, Mar 10, 2020, accessed Mar 12, 2020, http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioFaqNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=italiano&id=228#6
 Tvboy (@Tvboy), Tweet. Feb 28, 2020, access Mar 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/tvboyofficial/status/1233524989447589888
 Giovanna Galeschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (Sep 1, 2007): 346.
 Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020, https://www.raiplayradio.it/audio/2015/12/Il-bacio—Puntata-del-06122015-cc4b6ef1-3d55-406e-970a-337c67c3625a.html
 “Il bacio, Francesco Hayez,”Pinacoteca di Brera, accessed Mar 25, 2020, https://pinacotecabrera.org/collezione-online/opere/il-bacio/
 Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.
 Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346-347; Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.
 Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” World Health Organization, Mar 11, 2020, accessed Mar 12 2020 https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020.
- Nancy, Jean Luc, Georges Didi-Huberman, Nathalie Heinich and Jean Christopher Baily. Del Contemporaneo: Saggi su Arte e Tempo. Edited by Federico Ferrari. Milano: Pearson Paravia Bruno Mondadori S.p.A, 2007.
- Faleschini Lerner, Giovanna. “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History.” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (2007): 342-358.
Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history.