Today we visited Volterra, Italy. It was breathtaking. The ancient city is a network of old stone walkways, arches and high medieval towers perched atop a wild Tuscan hilltop. It’s a rainbow of flowers exploding from balconies and window boxes. It’s a view of rolling farmland that never ends. It’s a rare place that makes you gasp at every turn.
It’s quintessential Italy.
And yet, everywhere we went, I found myself thinking about this Japanese concept called “Wabi-Sabi.”
I know, it’s weird to be thinking about a Japanese concept (that sounds like sushi) when you’re in the middle of an ancient Italian town, but follow me for a minute:
Imagine a beautiful vase; pristine, perfect and new. Suddenly, it falls to the floor and cracks.
But not to worry; a professional can repair the vase with transparent adhesive, glaze and expertise. If they’re skilled enough, the crack will disappear completely. This is how it was usually done in Japan.
But then, artisans began repairing broken vases not with clear adhesive but shining silver or gold. They didn’t hide the cracks – they highlighted them. They accentuated the broken bits, finding beauty in the imperfection.
And so the concept of Wabi-Sabi was born.
In a nutshell, Wabi-Sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence. It’s an aesthetic concept but much more, it’s an artistic philosophy and way of life. Wabi-Sabi expert Andrew Juniper calls it “an intuitive appreciation of ephemeral beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world.”
Italy is absolutely drenched in Wabi-Sabi.
It’s everywhere I look, especially in places like Volterra. It’s tucked in the worn cobblestone streets and crumbling stone walls. It’s hanging from brilliantly hued laundry lines and paint-chipped shutters. It’s in the tarnished glow of each bell tower and in the cracked surface of every Renaissance fresco. And it’s especially potent in the explosions of fresh flowers and greenery dangling over every rust-dusted iron fence and balcony.
If this place were pristine and new, it wouldn’t make me catch my breath in quite the same way. And if you couldn’t sense impermanence and the unyielding progression of time at every turn, it wouldn’t be quite so precious.
Isn’t it funny how imperfection and impermanence can be so gorgeous here, and yet so loathed in daily life?
We try so hard to put forward a good front, to be polished and perfect, and dear God to slow or stop the progression of time on our faces and everywhere else for that matter. But when we obsess over perfection and try to slow the onward march of time (always a futile effort), we miss the breathtaking joy and beauty of Wabi-Sabi.
That’s not to say we should let everything go to hell. Wabi-Sabi doesn’t leave the vase broken – it just highlights the broken bits in gold. It’s like growing flowers in a centuries-old window box, fertilizing and tending a tiny garden perched on rugged old stone. It’s taking the broken and aging, and choosing to highlight the beauty in it, instead of changing or covering it up.
It’s finding joy not despite imperfection and impermanence, but because of it. It’s about embracing our own definition of beauty. It’s Wabi-Sabi – and Italian Wabi-Sabi is the best.