Illustration by Nous Vous
Illustration by Nous Vous

They discovered another Mona Lisa at the Prado in Madrid, just hanging about in the stock room. “What do you think that is?” asked some Spanish curator. “Let’s clean it and see. Caramba. It’s another Mona Lisa,” painted contemporaneously by Leonardo da Vinci’s favored pupil, perhaps his significant other.

It’s been a good year for Leonardo. His exhibition at the National Gallery in London was praised as the greatest in living memory. There were lines around Trafalgar Square and a thriving black market for tickets. The show came as a startling reminder, even to people who work in the art world, of what a toweringly subtle and moving painter he was. We get blase and forget.

But the genius and peerless beauty of Leonardo reminded us of something else we’d forgotten in the slow convulsions of the euro crisis and all its miserable consequences. As a continent, what we do well, we do better than anyone anywhere. Yet Europe is now suffering a huge crisis of confidence. Not just confidence in our banks and our chancelleries, but confidence in our politics and our social fabric.

France is having an election which, even by French standards of insouciance, is a choice between the unappealing and the unexciting. Britain is unpicking its own seams. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and poor, benighted Greece are slipping back into a black economy of make-do-and-moan. The new democracies of eastern and central Europe are reverting to strong men and xenophobia. Angela Merkel was going to be Mary Poppins, now she seems more like Rosa Klebb.

Cruise Liner Analogy

The strain and the weariness of hard times are ripping the fabric of the continent. The Italian cruise liner on its side was so obviously an allegory. Europe is tetchy and short-tempered. Frightened, it passes round the catharsis of hot blame. Bankers are humiliated out of their bonuses and their knighthoods.

There aren’t ropes hanging from lampposts quite yet, but this continent is suffering from the lowest morale, its worst ego deficit, since the Cold War. It’s not just about money and jobs. It’s the disappointment, the sadness, the sense of loss.

It had all been going so well, one small improvement after another since the Berlin Wall came down. All of Europe’s collective institutions, its protocols and regulations were built on the interest of a rich, companionable comfort and conviviality. We honestly thought we’d cracked it, got an elegant mix of market and society, common sense and regulation, firmness and softness, back-scratching and nose-tapping. We could, after all, be both Italian and German, Danish and Hungarian, all at once, all together.

It doesn’t feel like that now. What it feels like is a big, bitter pity party. And don’t think we haven’t noticed the lack of sympathy out there in the other six continents. There is a buoyant schadenfreude. The world has spent enough centuries being lectured, patronized and mocked by Europe’s airs and graces, its effete manners and diplomatic etiquettes, its pontifications and cheese. A bit of fiscal pain couldn’t have happened to more deservingly smug people.

What to do? Europe needs to go and visit its galleries and museums, its theaters and concert halls. It needs to stand and look out over its skylines and down its avenues at the continent’s beggaring achievements, the fruit of the ebb and flow of inspiration that bound together this bit of the world long before the treaty of Rome, or NATO.

Rigor, Craft, Panache

These things are not just dead and gone; they’re not heirlooms or archaeology of a place that will never come again. Europe’s collective culture is its greatest asset, worth more than oil or gas. More than acres of black soil or forest, more than cheap labor and command economies, more than all the steepling graphs of mammon. Culture isn’t something that comes out of nothing, and it doesn’t vanish into nothing. It isn’t the icing or the dew. It isn’t decoration or a luxury. It’s the sedimentary laying-downs of generations of brilliance, of rigor, craft and panache. It is the intellectual mine that produces more things that more people the world over want and value.

The desire of developing economies and countries is for ideas and their fruits that are indigenously European, as they have been for 2,000 years. From the houses they’d like to live in, the furniture they want to sit on, the suits and frocks on their backs, the food on their table, the books on the shelves, the pictures on the walls, the music in their heads, the poetry in their hearts, the ideas in their computers, the future of their children.

The benchmark, the highpoints of civilization in any discipline you care to consider, comes from this fret of land between the Arctic and Africa, the Bosporus and the Atlantic. What the world aspires to is European -- its dolce vita, its craic, its gusto, its charm, its gemuetlichkeit and its sangfroid. This may all sound like awful hubris and saloon bar boasting, but Europe could do with a bit of pride at the moment. We’re spending such a lot of energy and worry looking down for what we’ve lost, we’ve forgotten to look up at what we have.

(A.A. Gill, the restaurant and TV critic of the Sunday Times of London, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: A.A. Gill in London at aagill1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.