Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rome, 13: The toy boat

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 26, 2017—
Via Damaso Cerquetti, Rome, April 25, 2017— PROPRIETY AND THE APPROPRIATE pace of intended decay-repair-replacement-and-ultimate-concession of Self, too. I arrived here three weeks ago, weak and unwell and out of sorts, intending to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death.

The other day, strolling through the Pamphilj garden, we stopped to watch a grandfather (one assumes) winding up the screw on a home-made boat he’d made (one further assumes) for his little grandson. The boat was cobbled together out of scraps of wood: a slab whittled to a point at the bow, some kind of lattice-work set on the stern, a couple of blocks for the cabin. The screw was four oversize blades snipped out of an olive-oil can, I imagine; it was driven by a rubber band, the other end hooked over a bent nail under the bow.

The little boy stood by patiently while the old man slowly and methodically wound the blades. When the rubber band was tightly wound, holding the blades lest they turn too soon, he put the boat in the pool of the fountain. Was it the Fountain of Venus? I think so. The boat powered away a meter or so, then drifted to a stop; the little boy pulled it to him with a string that had been attached with forethought to the prow. The entire performance was carried on in silent concentration. Perhaps this was the boat’s maiden voyage. Neither of the actors showed any emotion at the proceedings. I might have been disappointed, as either grandfather or little boy, with the apparent failure — the word’s too strong — of the voyage. They seemed completely untroubled. The boat seemed to be a third actor, with power and flaws of its own. I think in its pathos, in its ingenuity and enterprise, and in its care for symbolic representation of the parts of a real ship — a tugboat, say — the little boat was a work of art.

Grandfather knew this, and little boy knew this. The boat was a transaction between them; its performance a loving dance of entropy warning both, no doubt without their conscious awareness, of the running down of things, but also the optimism of the making of things. And then simply physically, and to the eye, the little boat made me think, as so much does, of the painters Gordon Cook and Philip Guston, whose view of — or, some would say, interpretations of — external reality are so individual, so clearly charged with deeply known meaning which can only be represented, realistically, as unknowable by anyone else. The things other people make, whether physical objects like toy boats or paintings or fugitive things like songs and dances, if they have any significance at all, are full of meaning to the people who make them, aware of it or not, but rarely the same meaning to us, even if we think we know much of the history or tradition behind them. So a toy boat in its pathos and its physicality brings me closer, in contemplation, to a Mozart piano concerto.

What does grandfather know? What does he believe, in what does he have faith? To what extent does he want this little boy to share any of this? I ask this because, after all, I’ve been here with fourteen-year-old, hardly a little boy, a boy wide-eyed and fiercely observant most of the time on this first trip to Europe, a boy still to young to appreciate the stronf flavors of anchovies (think of the sea, his ten-year-older cousin wisely says), a boy caught, unknowingly I think, in the sadness of the farewell to childhood.

I stroll and catch the random observation and dwell on it at absurd length and, if I’m not too lazy, write about it at even more ridiculous length, in order to find out what I know, what I believe, whether I have any faith. On the way to this of course I sometimes talk; each day seems to have its focus.

Yesterday, for example, it was units of measurement, begun with a discussion about the metric system, the paucity of hecto- given the frequency of centi-, the way the French determined the length of the meter with their straight line from Normandy, I think it was, to Barcelona; and from there to the unit of measurement of dogs (a wire-haired terrier equals six, possibly eight chihuahuas), of trams and buses, of waits for trams and buses.

Always, apparently, contemplations of turbulence: You’re obsessed with Tahiti and turbulence, he observes, though I’m not aware of having spoken more than once, and that just now, about Polynesia. The toy boat brought Turbulence to mind, of course, but not Tahiti; so he must be wrong about obsession. Yet this observation of his, to him, is an observation of fact, whereas I think of it only as a mistaken impression. The mistaken impression of a grandfather’s interests is less eventful than the erroneous interpretation of the course of history. I’ve taken some care not to discuss, with him, the perhaps deliberate and certainly tireless attribution, by Christians, of their willful destruction by the early Roman empire, and I’ve certainly not gone into the symbology of those innocent lambs in church facades and frescos. (This must already have been the fruit of urbanization: no one involved in the actual husbandry of sheep would think of them as symbols of innocence and purity.)

The facts of Rome are the ruins of its past, the turbulence of what Gertrude Stein would call its continuous present, the uncertainty of its future. These are facts to me and I believe I know them. I infer from their evidence motivation and futility on the part of Roman actors: emperors and popes, gardeners and stonecutters, poets and architects. I believe I’m often right about that, too, though I can’t give you any tangible proof. I think, and some will find this sad, which I’ll dismiss as sentimentality, that I lack faith. Faith seems to me to be allegiance to a concept denied by every present evidence. I think it wrong to insist on it, and certainly wrong to insist on others accepting ours, if we have any.

I believe in Beauty, generosity and gratitude, and the ineffable love of family, and I’m grateful to our nature that those beliefs seem to be built in to the human sensibility. I don’t see any reason to strive for more, or to listen to anyone arguing a moral position that requires more.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Rome, 12: Parva. sed apta mihi

In the Coppedè
Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 25, 2017—
ON THE OTHER HAND, if you are going to build palaces, why not build them with taste and thoughtfulness?

The Italian word for "apartment house" or "apartment building" is, amusingly I think, palazzo: we have been occupying a palace of our own these last three weeks. I've described it and its environs and won't repeat here, other than to note that for the most part these palazzi, built within the last fifty years, are handsome in a plain way: internally for their ease of maintenance and care for light and silence; outside for their uniformity, relieved by their siting on curved streets, or straight but short ones, and, again, their openness to light and sky.

Yesterday, though, we strolled through a part of town I particularly like to show new visitors to Rome, the Coppedé district. Done only a little less successfully this quarter might be annoying, little more than Hollywood stage-set. But the architectural detail, the scale, the siting, the play among styles, shapes, and sizes, and the landscaping — all this makes a splendid example of comfortable, tasteful, bourgeois communal residence.

You take the tram to the piazza Buenos Aires, either the number 19 from the Piazza Risorgimento, near the Vatican, or the tram 3 from Trastevere. At the Piazza you'll find Santa Maria Addolorata, a remarkable church built between 1910 and 1930 in a fanciful, part historicist and part modern style that foretells the pleasures to come in the Coppedé district beyond. You're attracted to the church first for its siting: it's set at a forty-five degree angle to the Viale Regina Margherita, between its sober yet pleasing bell-tower and a cluster of trees.

The facade is decorated with a truly beautiful mosaic in gold and blue, responding to the one (just now undergoing restoration, so unfortunately behind veiling) so many miles away across the Tiber on Santa Maria di Trastevere. If you know the two churches you can almost see and hear them conversing about Byzantine mosaicists, sheep, and faith, as if the bustle of the Via Veneto and the Spanish Steps were utterly inconsequential. I supposer it's politically incorrect, in art-history terms, to equate the two mosaics, but I'll set them side by side anyway. Maybe art critics shook their heads at the Byzantine artists when they were working in Trastevere, finding their work garish and modern and not at all appropriate let alone to their taste.

Santa Maria Addolorata: facade

For all the drama and exuberant color of this mosaic there's something domestic and modest about the building itself. It was constructed by the Argentine community in Rome (hence the Piazza Buenos Aires, and perhaps hence the delay in its completion, for financial reasons), and — perhaps only because one knows this — the architectural style seems to have something modified-Iberian about it. Inside, though, historicism takes over: there are nods to the early style of San Giorgio in Velabro.

The baldacchino is neoclassical, reminiscent of Greek temples, supported on granite columns, but behind it a striking mosaic in the apse portrays the Deposition beneath a cross whose curved arms, following the curve of the wall, seem ready to embrace the viewer. And an even more striking mosaic of Mary in her glory, at a side chapel, is nearly blinding in its use of gold: Salvador Dali would have been envious in the way this depiction seems to translate Mary into pure light and energy.

Walk from the church up the Via Tagliamento a short block to come to a monumental gate formed by fantastic buildings arching to one another across the Via Dora (Hello there, Piemonte!), and you enter the magic world of Coppedè. Ahead is an enormous fountain clearly thinking of the Fountain of the Rivers in the Piazza Navona. It's clearly temporary; no one will ever steal its statues to put in a museum, or burn for lime, because they're concrete with plaster skin, peeling here and there. That's what historicism is all about: accelerated ruination. In his fascinating book The Memory of the Modern Matt Matsuda writes about this:

As History accelerates, the "lieux de mémoire" are designated sites which defy time's destroyer, the places of commemoration where memory anchors the past… my subjects are… histories of accelerated memory, subjected to the dramatic rhythms of an age.
(Elsewhere he writes, I think, something like "cultures accelerate themselves to death".)

In the Coppedè
Now there's no denying there's some wishfulness and some nostalgia going on here, particularly when you consider Coppedè began designing this district just before the outbreak of the First World War, and built it through that war and the buildup of Italian fascism. But it seems to me his vision has the redeeming qualities of optimism and pleasure. I look at these buildings, designed as residences in the first place, with, I'm sure, servants' quarters, and I think of Moravia's novel Gli indiffernti, which portrays the nature of a private and social life made too complacent by excess money and a paucity of things-to-do-with-one's-self.

On the other hand, as I keep saying. On the other hand, there's a relatively smaller building bearing the delightful inscription

PARVA, SED APTA MIHI, SED NULLI OBNOXIA
which turns out, with a little Googling, to bave been the device Ariosto inscribed on his own "last house" in Ferrara:
Small, but suits me, and no one can
and here it gets difficult:
take advantage of it, [since] it's decorous, and bought with my own money.
(The part beginning with [since] may continue around the corner of the building: I wasn't able to tell, from the street.)

Ariosto! Who would have thought he'd turn up here — but why not? These buildings now house foundation offices and embassies, many of the latter representing African nations. So Coppedè, in his architectural and city-planning design, links the emerging African nationalism of our time to the sprezzatura of the Florentine renaissance.

I think, given the maddening increase in world population, and its increasing urbanization, and the need to achieve a sustainable and equable economy, not to mention the need to address climate change and to eliminate warfare, the only hope for the future is a kind of socialized technocracy. If it comes, I hope there are places for Coppedès, and for tramlines too, and for the possibility of pleasurable strolls, on foot or with slow wheeled assistance. Propriety and the appropriate pace of intended decay-repair-and-replacement is what should be foremost in civic agendas.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rome, 11: Palaces and storerooms

Via Damaso Cerquetti, Rome, April 22, 2017—
I THINK IT BETTER to plant gardens than build palaces, as I’ve written here before, because the ruins of gardens regrow, whereas the ruins of palaces continue to crumble away. And gardens are, as I’ve also tried to suggest, a collaboration with nature, while palaces seem to be testaments to short-term victories over her.

So after strolling the Roseto and the Orange-Tree Park we returned to the Forum. The previous day we’d strolled above it, on the Capitoline, where four hundred years ago the Farnese family had built a palace and a garden, the bones of which remain. It is now by and large an empty plateau atop the hill, if indeed it is a hill and not a pile of layers of ruined palaces. But it is pleasant, even on a cold and windy day, to stroll the site, and look out over the domes and rooftops of Rome, which thankfully has not allowed any high-rise building within view. Thanks to the wind blowing down from the Alps we could easily see the hills to the north, a number of miles distant. Miles are like decades and add up to centuries.

That afternoon we looked down on the Forum, which is much more cluttered than I recall it from a dozen years ago. I’m not sure why I think this. It seems to me short squared column-bases made of brick have been set about to show the outlines of long-vanished buildings. This afternoon we strolled the Forum itself — after the Roseto and Santa Sabina my feet. and knees protested further climbs up stairsteps; by the end of the day we’d covered seven miles on foot. And yes, on closer inspection, the Forum is more cluttered, but with helpful panels telling you in Italian and English what it is you think you’re looking at. Or, in the case of many visitors, photographing with your telephone and selfie-stick.

By the time we got to the Forum it was late in the afternoon, approaching that magic hour when the sun begins to accentuate the reds and the strong contrast of longer shadows accentuate the architecture, bringing the flutings of columns and the edges of reliefs into greater — well, relief. And, miracle of miracles, there are few visitors. You can take a photograph of this ruined temple or that without a single visitor in the frame.

After our first visit to Europe, over forty years ago, on showing slides we’t taken to a visitor (one did that in those days), he asked But are there no people in Europe? Only buildings and landscapes? And I explained that I didn’t like to photograph people, it seemed intrusive, a violation of selfhood. Now of course there’s no such compunction: everyone is photographing everybody, deliberately or per caso, accidentally. Now my reason for avoiding people in settings like this is that they too strongly temporize the picture: costume, hairstyle, telephone, backpack all scream PRESENT, when what I want to record, for my own later contemplation, is CONTINUITY.

For to me the value of the ruins of temples and palaces is their testimony to the process of time. I wrote at the outset of these letters that I was here to contemplate my feelings about religion, and to see friends and relations, and to eat and drink and walk and think. I arrived a bit of a ruin myself, thanks to the helpfulness of modern medicine, but I’m pretty well recovered from that: still, I contemplate the inevitable ruination.

One fellow after another has built here a palace, or an arch, or a fancy column, or a temple, dedicated largely to his own glory, and another fellow has come along and used the result as a quarry to build something bigger or better or more glorious. Some of these fellows of course were geniuses and I am glad for their work: Hadrian, Michelangelo. Some had the public good in mind as well as their own gloire : Trajan. The result is all the same.

Today we went out to Ostia Antica, the archaeological preserve preserving, archaeologically, what’s left of old Ostia, the seaport supplying Rome, whose own port was of course a river port on the Tiber. Ostia Antica is quite an amazing place. You can rent a little recorded tourguidee who discusses numbered stops, or you can ignore him. You can climb to the top tier of seats of a four-thousand seat theater, sit, and wonder what the backdrop must have been when it was there, with its statues of gods and, probably, donors.

You wander freely the narrow streets between residences, taverns, and storerooms. This was a working city, not a fashionable weekend retreat like Herculaneum; most of the rooms are small. You can only wonder what it may have looked like when its superstructure was still in place, for it was mostly made of wood, and all of it is long since gone.

You can kneel down and brush sand away from the edge of a patch of mosaic floor, laid down two thousand years ago, and expose more of it; and when you stand back up again, and walk on, you notice the ground is strewn with little cubes of white stone which must once have been parts of similar mosaic or terrazzo floors.

Poor Italy! Preserving, interpreting, ignoring these ruins, these and many others — Italic, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, even medieval — must be a constant headache. The archaeologists have to decide where to dig, and how far down. The government, I suppose, has to decide when to protect, when to recognize the futility of any thought of perfect control. And of course these historical records are an important tourist attraction; Christian or not, one goes to Rome to savor and contemplate all this history.

These days there are useful virtual reconstructions, guidebooks whose illustrations are overlays in which photographs of the present, with automobiles and backpacks, lift up to reveal artists’ imaginings of Rome As It Was, pristine and white-marbled. (Some of these concede that the statues were painted when they were new.) One day perhaps archaeology, marketing, and software engineering will be able to make virtual reality of what is now fields of fragments numbered, gathered in tubs, laid out on shelves or on fields, method and order promising the possibility of finally knowing what must have been, perhaps in order to be able to suggest what might one day be.

Many years ago I was asked what I wanted to accomplish before dying. The question was asked seriously, in the context of a conversation meant to ease, somehow, some of the vexing problems that seemed so overwhelming at the moment, and so inconsequential as I look back. I want to have an idea of what it all means, I answered, aware of the insolence of the ambition but incapable of denying it. I think that is what energizes all the sciences, but particularly that of archaeology.

I think the palaces, let alone the humble warehouses in the port, will never be rebuilt in actuality. Much of the marble was stripped to decorate the great building spree of the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque period following. Heads were broken off statues for some reason, I’ve never quite understood why, perhaps because the entire statue would have been too heavy to carry off quickly. Headless statues were often consigned to the lime-kilns to be reduced to cement.

My point in this rambling meditation is that palaces seem to me to be conceived and built beyond the angle of repose, the point of sustainability, far beyond. Their construction and maintenance employ many people who might otherwise have nothing to do, but at the expense of resources, including previous palaces. And I wonder if the Christian church, and perhaps governmental administration, don’t court the same folly as ultimately destroys palaces.

Gardens seem to me to represent the same urge, but within the angle of repose, the point of sustainability. I would rather clip hedges than chip stones.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Rome, 10: Gardens

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 22, 2017—
I THINK IT BETTER to build gardens than palaces. Especially public gardens, or at least gardens accessible to the public. As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, parks and gardens stand as the last link between humanity and nature, and you can’t escape the fact that nature is what governs much of human activity.

Gardens are controlled, as much human activity must be: but one of the pleasures of strolling in a garden is contemplating the degree to which that control is achieved, how the site chosen, the architecture of the garden, the selection of its plants, and the continuing maintenance influence its state. Not its success: it seems to me all gardens are successful, even ruined ones, on their terms; because it seems to me necessary to grant nature her terms and “values” equally to those of ours. Perhaps more.

Yesterday was opening day of Rome’s Roseto Comunale, the rose garden above the Circo Massimo, at its western end. We’d walked by it a few days earlier, to find the gates closed and workers busy inside: yesterday the iron gates stood open, at least to the larger garden, and there were no workers to be seen other than those still busy in the smaller one, on the north side of the Via di Valle Murcia.

The southern, larger garden is on a gentle hillside, not terraced, divided into large symmetrical beds, separating the roses by type: shrub, hybrid tea, David Austin, my favorite old roses pre-hybridization. Around the garden on the uphill side an arbor draws the semicircular border of this quite large garden, for climbing roses. The paths are paved under the arbor and on the stairs leading down from it into the beds; otherwise they’re gravel.

A day after this visit I read that the paths were deliberately laid out in a shape representing the menorah, because this hillside was once the Jewish cemetery, when Jews were confined to the Roman ghetto. I don’t remember where they moved the bodies to, or why; it was a long time ago, and a long time before the making of the Roseto, in 1950, I think. I suppose if I’d known this, and if I were Jewish, my contemplation of the garden would have taken a different course. I like it that the symbolization is subtle, there for those who want it, not at all obvious for those to whom it makes no difference.

Even before discovering the garden plan, and before approaching individual rosebushes — easy to do, as they’re set widely apart and still small in this early Roman spring — I was interested in the lawn the bushes are set on. “Lawn” is perhaps not quite the word. The hillside is essentially a grassy field which was apparently mown quite recently, and long grasses lie on the beds — clearly not all the mown grass; much of it must have been removed; but enough remains to show how tall the grass had been allowed to grow.

I suppose it’s there as a partial mulch. If I lived in this city I’d be back here every couple of weeks to see not only the evolution of the bloom but also the management of the grass. There are recessed sprinkler heads here and there, and my companion noticed some mildew already present here and there: but this north-facing, very open site is exposed to wind, and I imagine discreet sprinkling works well, the water quickly evaporating from the leaves.

The roses! Already most of the bushes are in bloom; you can smell this garden a city block away, downwind. (Not that there really are city blocks in this part of town.) I didn’t make any noes, and I’m not about to tell you what’s included specifically: but there are hundreds of varieties here, set out , as grows apparent only slowly, in straight lines within the curve-boundaried beds.

As you can tell I like roses but not enough to memorize names and pedigrees — though the history of rose culture is an interesting one, and intersects, of course, with most other branches of human history. I don’t even carry in my mind the names of the roses Lindsey has planted on Eastside Road: there must be over thirty of them by now. Like her, I tend to favor the scented roses, and for years roses were bred not for scent but for showiness, sacrificing, it seems to me, their essential quality in favor of brash color, size, and length of bloom. There’s a metaphor here; I needn’t belabor it.

Not far from the Roseto, still on the Aventine hill, stands the church (or is it a basilica? I’m always confused about this) of Santa Sabina, a fine, austere, serious building just overhauled, and successfully so, for last year’s Catholic Jubilee Year. And next to it is the Giardino degli Aranci, as the Romans call their Parco Savello — the garden of the orange trees. Like the Roseto it’s a fine place to get away from the hum of the city: a flat half-acre, more or less, very symmetrical, of clipped weeds, I would say, and bitter-orange trees, with high walls on three sides and a marvelous viewing platform on the north.

A folding chair, a guitar-stand, and an amplifier and loudspeaker stood near the center of the park when we visited. Mercifully they were unattended. I think music, especially amplified music, is out of place in these gardens, unless a concert has specifically been planned. I prefer the sounds of the breeze in the trees and the occasional bird, though the gulls and magpies populating these gardens rarely sing, and that’s good too, you can hardly call their vocalisms song.

Many years ago I was present at the premiere of Douglas Leedy’s Exhibition Music, written specifically to be performed in a garden, on the occasion f the twentieth anniversary, I think it was, of the founding of the United Nations. Instrumentalists and singers were stationed at various places within a fairly extensive garden looking out over San Francisco Bay toward the site of the Charter’s signing. They played and sang quietly, each for himself, not coordinated in any but the most basic way, each expressing an individual musical comment within a context of mutual harmony. Guests strolled the garden, discovering this detail or that, lingering at moments of their own pleasure or interest, in a musical and horticultural metaphor of international cooperation.

That’s the kind of music I’d like in my garden, but only on occasion.

The formal symmetry of this Orange-Tree Garden, and the scent of the orange blossoms, inescapably brought the orange groves in the Andalucian mezquitas, but this park owes its origin, apparently, to St. Boniface — though he is said to have brought the original tree, true enough, from Spain; the first orange tree to grow in Rome. And the tree was of course reputedly miraculous and never-dying; and in truth when work was done recently a 15th-century coin (or was it 14th?) was found in its roots. That doesn’t prove anything, of course, for the right price I could buy an imperial Roman coin to plant with the next fruit tree I plant at home, and maybe I should, just to confound someone decades hence, as I’ve already buried a valuable hand-forged Sardinian knife from Pattadà in concrete poured into a fencepost hole, though that was not intentional.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rome, 9: The Colosseum

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 20, 2017——
I AM HAPPY to report that the Colosseum is much changed. Well, not the building itself, of course, though every time I see it I think more brickwork and reinforcing new concrete has been added. Nor do I recall those huge blocks of white stone stacked up on what you might call its rim, on the north side, which look as if they’d be easily dislodged in a serious earthquake.

What’s changed, beyond the thorough cleaning it’s been given — it gleams as white as Cestius’s Pyramid now, as white as, well, a toilet — what’s changed is the whole experience of visiting it. I guess I was last there ten years or so ago. In those days, as I recall, you wandered around in the Forum and the Colosseum freely, without paying; you shared the Forum with a few other tourists and some archaeology and history buffs, but it wasn’t terribly crowded. But of course that was in November, I think, or maybe January.

Now it’s all being marketed, and successfully, and I must say rather well. Although there are a few people offering you tours, the phony gladiators who used to strut around waiting to be photographed with your kids or wife in funny poses are all gone. A couple of military vehicles are parked on the road leading downhill from the Piazza del Colosseo, and you are screened (and so are your bags, and the contents of your pockets) on entering, there’s not a lot of obvious security presence.

But there are nice new bookstores, and an elevator, and fairly extensive panels in Italian and English describing this thing and that. I had the feeling the place is less romantic, less a ruin even, and more an archaeological and historical artifact. We were there early in the day, a little bast opening time (8:30), and had bought tickets online: I showed the e-mailed receipt on my iPhone, and we were whisked through security scan and on our way.

It was biting cold. Windy, too. The wind’s been blowing down from the Alps these last couple of days, bringing dust and headaches. We toughed it out, though, strolling the available levels, never making a complete circuit, stopping in a bookstore to warm ourselves up.

At one point on the second level, I think, there’s a fine installation of “Images of the Colosseum” — perhaps a changing exhibit, I don’t know, certainly one well worth seeing, even studying. There are early depictions on coins, architectural analyses from the Renaissance, romantic paintings and drawings from the 18th and 19th centuries, even 20th-century drawings and photographs offering revisions of the building. One envisions a huge cubical hotel rising from within the Colosseum — a project not likely to be achieved, but who knows, these days.

There is an amazing three-dimensional model of the Colosseum, scaled at 1:60, made of wood, bone, and lead, several hundred years ago, made not ass it was now, or at the time the model was made, but as it must have been when it was new in 833 — excuse me: that’s the Roman calendar: 80 CE we call it. (Now: I’m still more familiar with 80 A.D.) The detail on this scale model is unbelievable; it makes one ache to see a full restoration of the building.

That would be impossible, of course. Virtually all the travertine and marble once sheathing the building are long gone, stripped not only for the stone but also for the bronze fittings that held the veneer to the (let’s face it) rather crude Roman concrete and tufa blocks making up the thing. The Colosseum is made of concrete and sand, I read somewhere: brick and rubble, too. It took nearly ten years to build, and much of the material must have come from Nero’s vast palace which had overlooked the lake he’d had built on the site, formerly an unhealthy swampy area infested, he must have felt, with the wretched hovels and shops of commoners.

Leafing through the Internet I happened on a fascinating description of the behind-the-scenes operations of the Colosseum in Smithsonian Magazine , and looking down into the exposed sub-floor archaeological digs it was fairly easy to imagine the operation of elevators, cages, and ramps necessary to the elaborate productions for which this monumental thing was built. It’s often been said the purpose was civic (therefore national) pride, reinforcement of militaristic and stoic values, celebration of the new lands continually being brought under Roman subjugation. Wild animals were brought from North Africa, Dacia, and elsewhere.

Criminals were made to fight one another to the death, as is well known, but there were lapses in the general cruelty. One emperor, having caught a jeweler passing off inferior stuff to his wife, sentenced him to one of these hunts: but when the caged animal was released in front of the quivering cheat, instead of a lion or leopard he was confronted with an angry chicken. The crowds laughed; the emperor let the poor fellow off, with a warning.

We spent a couple of hours in the Colosseum, then strolled over to the Forum. Surprise: the line at the entrance was a good fifty yards long and not moving at all. I remembered another entrance, down the Via di San Gregorio, that leads up into the Palatine hill, and there was no line at all. We spent another couple of hours there, strolling, looking down on the Colosseum and the Forum, now quite full of tourists with their guidebooks and acoustical guides and even, I think, iPhone apps explaining things.

We were content to read the many panels, always in both Italian and English, and to stumble on the Farnese gardens, the roses coming into full bloom and scenting the air, and to sit on benches in the sun and ouot of the biting wind. It’s a melancholy business, of course, wandering among these testaments to impermanence, but the resurgence of weeds, and the beauty of gardens and pines, helps to put everything in perspective.

On the way down the Via de San Gregorio toward the Circus Maximus — and in truth toward a refreshing spritz at a sidewalk table — fourteen-year-old was accosted by a con man from Africa. I’m black, you’re white, he said, here’s a gift, and gave him some sort of bracelet. I was a little ahead of them and didn’t realize what was going on for a minute. He turned out to want ten euros for it, of course. I told the boy to leave it on a handy wall, knowing the guy was watching. Oh, you don’t want it, he said, Not good. We walked on, ignoring him. I hope he’s sentenced to a chicken.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Rome, 8: Cleaning lady

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 19, 2017—
THE CLEANING LADY arrived today. I thought she looked familiar somehow: about five foot four, sturdy, dark straight bobbed hair, a pleasant smile. She rang the doorbell at two o’clock, as we’d expected, stepped in introducing herself (Maria), stepped to the coat closet and extricated a house-dress smock I hadn’t noticed before, and set to.

I took a nap, so am not absolutely sure what she did. I slept on the living room couch until Lindsey woke me, then moved to our bedroom. For the first time in days the steel roll-down shutter was fully open, ditto the two leaves of the window. Sun streamed into the room; the air was fresh.

Of course we’d prepared for her. My backpack, which has lain open at the foot of the bed on my side, against the wall, was in the closet; my slippers ditto; my travel painting and photo and bandana on my pillow. I lay down on the bed to finish my map and was pleased to find the spot where I lie was warm. I thought for a moment that there must be an electric blanket, but I knew that wasn’t the case — we sleep on a sheet and under a duvet, like most Europeans these days. (Or nights, I suppose I should write.) It was simply that the sun had warmed that spot on the bed. Delightful.

After a bit I was fully awake and moved back into the liviing room, where she was finishing up. In two hours she had cleaned both bathrooms, the kitchen, mopped and swept the floors, and polished all the windows. She was still smiling.

We had a little conversation, in the course of which I learned that our palazzo (apartment building) is fifty or sixty years old; the ones across the street are new and have replaced a block of palazzi similar to ours; the apartments within our building differ considerably from one another; ours was substantially remodelled when the current owners moved in (interior walls done away with, new wood floor, new built-ins in the bedroom, new kitchen appliances); she cleans many of the apartments in this building.

She asked politely where we were from and we told her and I reciprocated. Sono da Romania, she said, I’m from Romania, not from Bucharest, from the mountains, and I saw why she looked familiar, she looked like so many of the women I’d seen in Brasov and Cluj and thereabouts when I was in Romania nearly thirty-five years ago. I told her I’d traveled in her country and that I thought it was very beautiful. Yes, she said, Italy is beautiful, but Romania is more beautiful, especially the mountains. I don’t like antiquities, she said, the Pantheon, the Colisseum. The Vatican is beautiful of course, it is the home of the Pope, but the rest, you see it once, you don’t have to see it again. But the mountains, and the forests…

I told her I’d always wanted to walk in her mountains and forests. You should, she said, the people will like you to come. Are there still bears and wolves, I wondered. Oh yes, more than ever, we used to kill them but we don’t do that any more so there are more and more of them. Horses, sheep, many sheep… she smiled, partly I think at her immodesty in sharing her nostalgia, partly in simple friendliness.

After she left I went down with fourteen-year-old to do some shopping and found another reason she’d looked familiar: she’s the concierge. As I think I’ve said before, this palazzo, like most, has a little office in the lobby for a concierge. There’s an outer glass door, a big one, which is always locked; there’s an inner one which is never locked; then you come to the lobby, and on your left is the concierge’s office. Perhaps she lives here: I don’t know.

I’ve only met one other Italian residential concierge, in Verona. He too was an immigrant, but from Nepal I think, or some such south central Asian country. Maria is Romanian, descended from the Dacians who were conquered by Emperor Trajan about 100 CE. Things were not so good when I was in Romania, a few years before the end of the Ceaucescu regime; poverty was extreme, and governmental spying and suppression quite extreme.

I suppose it’s better now. I met a Romanian a few years ago in Sicily; he walked into an apparently empty bar in which I was sitting, waiting while Lindsey did the laundry, and mistook me for the bartender, and ordered a coffee. He was very apologetic when I explained I was just resting while the bartender was off doing whatever he was doing, and we fell into a conversation. It’s terribly hard in Romania now, he said, that’s why I’m here in Sicily, looking for work, there’s no work in Romania. But it is so beautiful there…

Rome, 7: Man in the street

Via Damaso Cerquetti, Rome, April 19—
OSTENSIBLY THE PURPOSE of this trip is to introduce fourteen-year-old to Rome, its history and its wonders, but in fact he has primarily been exposed to the important skill of flåner, that elegant French word we use when we don’t want to admit to loafing. We seem to have intentions: getting a special loaf of bread, finding more English peas at the greengrocer. But we wind up strolling through the Non-Catholic Cemetery, or paying hommage once again to Fatamorgana.

The other day in front of the Spanish Steps — I wonder if fourteen-year-old has any visual memory of the place, overcrowded as usual with tourists — we were approached by a well-dressed man, in his sixties I would say, who wondered if he could be any help to us. Oh no, I said, I’m just looking for an interesting walking route to the Governo Vecchio. (We were planning to stop at the excellent Caffè Novecento.)

Oh, simple enough, he said in very good English with only a slight accent, but you can’t go straight there, you follow this street to the end, then turn to the left and look for it.

He was relatively tall for a Roman his age and quite slender.. I thought he was from the north. But you’re not a Roman, are you, I asked, pretending his knowledge of the streets suggested he was. No, he said, I’m from the Veneto; I work in glass, plates and that sort of thing. You’re from the States? My product is in Magnin, Nordstrom…

We confirmed that we were Californians, and, on his asking, that we were staying in Monteverde, near the Piazzale Dunant. Oh then you must try a restaurant there, he said, very local, the tourists don’t know about it, a very Roman place called C’Era Una Volta. We thanked him and went on our way, straight down the long street toward the Tiber, then left and eventually to the Caffè.

After we’d left him, though, and gone on a few meters, I turned to see what he might be doing. Standing on the corner, smiling gently, waiting for another conversation I suppose. Human street furniture. In Sicily a few years ago we found there are still those modest functionaries ready to carry a bag, or advise directions, or (most importantly) watch your parked car, for a coin or two. Of course we hadn’t offered our Spanish Steps guide anything, nor, I think, did he expect us to; he was simply a retired salesman enjoying the sun and looking for the kind of human contact that his career had offered him.

Yesterday on the Ponte Sisto we walked past a four-man band: standup bass, drummer, clarinet, vocalist. They were playing 1930s jazz, and they were pretty good. They were from Sabbioneta, the bass player said with a smile, as he plucked away, tonic and dominant. I dropped a euro in the cap lying on the pavement; there weren’t many others in it. At the other end of the bridge a more traditional musician, an old man with his accordion playing some Italian folksong, probably a commercial one from the 19th century, not Neapolitan I’m pretty sure. Another euro.

I’m struck by the general lack of panhandling and homelessness in the quarters we inhabit. Maybe it’s not yet warm enough; maybe the government has cracked down; I don’t know. There is a degree of incivility — youngsters will not give up seats on the trams and buses, for example; only a rare visitor will do that. The other day it was a couple of fortyish Bangadeshi men on the crowded train up to Pisa: we’d stood an hour on the train, glaring at youngsters sprawling in the seats, playing cards, listening to their music, applying make-up, studiously avoicing looking up at us. The Bangladesh were down at the other end of the car and had apparently been trying to catch our eye; finally we noticed; they smiled and stood and beckoned to us to come sit down.

Other Bangladeshi sell things: garlic, in the street markets, for example. I think the vendors at more or less permanent stalls on the sidewalk, selling cheap underwear, electrical accessories, shoes and socks, umbrellas and the like — I think they are more or less permanent residents. No doubt other more peripatetic street vendors — of sunglasses when it’s sunny, umbrellas when it rains (and how are they so quickly supplied the correct item?) — are refugees trying to make a few bucks to feed themselves and perhaps family back home. (I get this insight from a remarkable novel I read last month, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba, about African emigrants to Genoa.)

There’s an African refugee who stands at the gate to the supermarket across the street, politely waiting. Sometimes I drop a fifty-cent piece into his cap; mostly I don’t. He unfailingly smiles at me. I’ve noticed other people, presumably locals, follow exactly the same procedure. The other day we were at the famouos bakery Bonci to buy an Easter cake: it was crowded, and I waited outside. I struck up a conversation with a refugee who was from Senegal. He’d arrived in Lampedusa five years ago, he said, and had a wife and two kids. It was very difficult, he said.

When I finally got inside I bought a jar of white beans for him, but when we left the shop he was nowhere to be seen. I don’t know if I’d queered his operation by opening a conversation with him, whether he’d taken a break for lunch, whether he’d been driven away — I’ll never know.

Yesterday we stepped into the cloister at San Giovanni Battista dei Genovesi, on via Anicia in Trastevere. I wasn’t sure about it; there’s only an ordinary wooden door in the wall next to a brass plate of push-buttons like you see on every apartment building. You must ring for the porter, a DHL delivery man said — he happened to be there at the same time. The porter appeared, a very small man, rather serious, not particularly well dressed but not shabby.

May we see the cloister, I asked, and he silently waved us through the small doorway into one of the most tranquil spots we’ve found, a complete surprise. A small, square cloister surrounded by two-storey walls, with graceful, slender double columns; the garden rather lush and green, with palms — they say the first palm planted in Rome was planted here — and flowering trees, and a wellhead at the center which we were unfortunately not allowed to visit, as the garden was chained off, and could be admired only from the colonnades.

Nor were we allowed to photograph. The moment my companion lifted her iPhone the little man appeared: No foto. I don’t know where he’d been lurking. He appeared as if by magic a couple of times later; we were taking our time here, and he wanted to be sure we weren’t sneaking photos, I think. (The photo on this page is from Wikipedia.) I asked about the wellhead as we left, and slipped a euro into his palm: he had made no gesture to ask for it, but was quick to understand my intention.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rome, 6: Three tombs

Cestius's pyramid seen from the Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome
Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 18, 2017—
WELL, AS I WAS SAYING, after 392 CE, when Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting all pagan worship in the Roman Empire, Christianity began to have its way. In 529 Justinian I closed the Neoplatonic Academy; effectively ending classical paganism and closing the era of Late Antiquity. Most scholars left Rome for the more tolerant Persia.

Lay Christians took to destroying and plundering the temples, and theologians and ecclesiastics soon followed. The bishop of Milan, for example, later St. Ambrose, talked his student Gratian, who became emperor in 375, into confiscating the property of the pagan temples and removing the statue of the Goddess of Victory from the Senate. Churches began to be elevated on the rubble of plundered temples.

And houses, among them Cecilia's. And not all this plundering and architectural one-upmanship was mistaken: though much was lost, some things were preserve — the beautiful old circular Vestal temple, for example, and the Pantheon, both of which had Christian churches installed within. (As had the great Mezquita in Córdoba: but that's another story.)

We skip to the time of Charlemagne, who is recorded as having massacred 4500 rebel Saxon prisoners who had refused to convert to Christianity. Olaf I, who reigned from 995 to 1000, tried to convert Norway during the Viking age, torturing and executing those who refused to convert, but his conversion didn’t hold. The Balts, Slavs, and Finns were converted during the 12th and 13sth centuries,

in a series of uncoordinated military campaigns by various German and Scandinavian kingdoms, and later by the Teutonic Knights and other orders of warrior-monks. It involved the destruction of pagan polities, their subjection to their Christian conquerors, and frequently the wholesale resettlement of conquered areas and replacement of the original populations with German settlers, as in Old Prussia. Elsewhere, the local populations were subjected to an imported German overclass. Although revolts were frequent and pagan resistance often locally successful, the general technological superiority of the Crusaders, and their support by the Church and rulers throughout Christendom, eventually resulted in their victory in most cases - although Lithuania resisted successfully and only converted voluntarily in the 14th century.
The forced conversion of the Jews, and the defeat of Muslims, in late medieval Spain, is well known; and of course the conversion of all the inhabitants of the Americas. All this was done by the Catholic cult, but after Reformation various Protestant cults took their turn at resisting the social status quo and converting neighbors where they could.

My favorite example of all this is the Pilgrim Fathers of the 17th century, English “Dissenters” who left England where their own religious intolerance got them into trouble and settled in the more tolerant Holland, then left there because they wanted to continue to be separatists, did not want to become Dutch, so found backers who would fund a colony in the New World for them, where they could more readily continue to practice their religious intolerance. And so it continues, down to our own day, when the only use for religion seems to be to delineate nations and reduce populations.

I thought about all these things the other day while walking in the Protestant Cemetery, also called the English Cemetery, officially the Non-Catholic Cemetery, out by Cestius’s Pyramid. Gaius Cestius was a magistrate during the early days of the Roman Empire, before the birth of Christ, rich enough to have this pyramid built to serve as his tomb. It was not the only pyramid in Rome: the Egyptian motif was all the rage in the years following the defeat of Cleopatra. But it is the only one to survive:

a larger one—the "pyramid of Romulus" — of similar form but unknown origins stood between the Vatican and the Mausoleum of Hadrian but was dismantled in the 16th century by Pope Alexander VI and the marble was used for the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.
There are few more captivating places in Rome than the relatively tombstone-free northern part of the Protestant Cemetery, where the lawns spread underneath stone pines and you look out onto the Pyramid and the Ostiense gate in the old Roman wall.

Here is John Keats’s grave, but his name is not on his stone, which instead reads

This grave
contains all that was Mortal,
of a

YOUNG ENGLISH POET
Who,
on his Death Bed,
in the Bitterness of his Heart,
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,
Desired
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone


Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.

Feb 24th 1821.
Poor Keats: he had had a number of recent bad reviews, and died in sadness. For decades his grave was the object of pilgrimages by readers besotted by romantic lyric poetry, as ballet fans still hang shoes on the grave of Diaghilev, in Venice, but when we were there the other day it seemed rather neglected; Gramsci's grave is perhaps more to the present taste.

Cestius's pyramid-tomb survived not because Christianity claimed it but for more practical reasons: it was at the corner of the city wall, and its triangular shape made a fine defensive fortification. It has recently been cleaned and restored, thanks to funding from a Japanese businessman, and it looks great: I can't help thinking Caius Cestius would be pleased.

St. Cecilia: sculpture by Stefano Maderno, 1599
Photographed at the church of St. Cecilia, Trastevere,
by Richard Stracke
As for Cecilia, her body was laid in a tomb in the catacombs of St. Callistus, also outside the Roman walls — for centuries it was illegal for anyone to be buried within. At some time during the ninth century Pope Paschal I had the remains removed and reburied in her church, then undergoing reconstruction. Seven hundred years later, in 1599, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati had the remains exhumed for some reason, taking care to have a group of witnesses with him.

Among them was the young sculptor Stefano Maderno, who swore, with all the others, that the body was absolutely uncorrupted. He made drawings and no doubt took measurements, and — commissioned by the Cardinal — made the very beautiful, very moving sculpture, life-size, said to depict her body as it was found.

A stay in Rome always brings thoughts of fleeting permanence to mind, and of the only human attempts to memorialize. Sometimes, as in these three cases, it works, perhaps in spite of the original motivation. Mostly, I think, it does not. If not, as Gertrude Stein might have said, too bad.