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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Margery Wolf 1933-2017

Margery Wolf
1933-2017
Via Damaso Cerquetti, Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017—
WHILE THE CHRISTIAN world rejoices in the resurrection of its redeemer this Easter morning, word comes in the e-mail of the death of yet another friend. It was no surprise; we'd seen it coming, Lindsey and I, for a few months. But it is saddening; we cherished this woman, and we extend our sympathy to the husband, friend and lover she leaves behind, a man I know pretty well from having spent a month with him on the trail in the French Alps.

During that month he telephoned Margery every day, missing the call only when there was no Internet. His conversations were long and private. I'm sure they were exchanging their news of the day: after many years together they were still in many ways like newlyweds.

Margery has an Internet presence, because she early in her careeer wrote a book that seems to be immortal, The House of Lim: a Study of a Chinese Farm Family (1968). I haven't re-read the book for a few years now, but I recall it as being, like all good books, a succinct portrait of its author as well as of its subject: clear, orderly, direct, not humorless, at times just a little arch. (I'll reread it first time I get a chance.)

Margery and I loved to tease one another. On Chinese opera, for example, which she was not fond of and I was, when in the mood. What do you know about China, she would ask pointedly: and what do you know of opera, I'd reply, with equal justification. And there we would let it lie, as we knew and respected one another's boundaries.

In her last years Margery was plagued by shortness of breath, and I think one of the last great efforts she made against this was the walking trip she and Mac, Lindsey and I took on various walking routes in the Netherlands. She was contemptuous of sheep, having spent too many years among them in her rural youth, and we were walking delicately through sheep pastures. Sheep, like many other apparently uncritical beings, amused her, but annoyed her too. She was a woman who knew there were facts, and despised those who twisted them, or hid them.

I find, just now, writing this, online, the fascinating Who’s Afraid of Margery Wolf: Tributes and Perspectives on Anthropology, Feminism and Writing Ethnography, a series of papers delivered in her honor on the occasion of her retirement from teaching, concluded by her own graceful response to them. Among her responses is an anecdote about having been given false history by a Chinese peasant she was interviewing:

…she told me that her brigade didn’t have very good stories to tell foreigners but the government had sent an exhibit around the year before explaining all about landlords and how mean they were, so they used those stories. Her comment was apt. “What does it matter whether it happened to me or to some other woman just like me? It happened somewhere and it was wrong.”
I knew Margery as a woman who enjoyed herself, who bantered, who dined and drank well, but who also always looked for the way to get things right, because in the end it does matter. And in her last years, like many of us, she was struggling with the concept of metafiction, of narrative — and especially historical or even biographical narrative — that necessarily, in order to be written, has to turn its back on dogmatic loyalty to the separation of fiction from "non-fiction."

Alas, this kept her from leaving us with a memoir — at least as far as I know. Perhaps there's one, or the notes toward one, squirreled away somewhere on a hard drive. As usual, a friend leaves forever, and leaves me pondering the questions I might have asked.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rome, 5: St. Cecilia

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 15, 2017—
SHE IS OF COURSE the patron saint of music and I’ve always been fond of that idea. I’m not sure I’d have acted as she did: it took courage, she must have known the dangers involved, and anyway I myself feel it both a little bit immoral and in general quite useless to try to convince other people to change their religions. I certainly think it wrong for a government, or a society, to do that, let alone to punish recalcitrance in the matter. Religion may be a social attitude, as I wrote the other day, but it must be motivated by individual devotion.

She’s the patron saint of music, as I recall — I’m writing from memory — because she sang and played the organ. Of course the organ was quite different in those days. For one thing, it was powered by water: which, when it runs through a pipe, sucks air in its wake, the more air pressure the greater the water speed. Cecilia’s house was close to the Tiber and pretty well-equipped for that sort of thing. It had a steam room, too.

Unclear to me: was it originally her house, or her husband’s? Maybe they were cousins? Okay: now I resort to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Cecilia) to help memory. In any case she was a member of the Christian cult, but her parents wanted her to marry a non-Christian nobleman, Valerian. She sang to herself during the ceremony, and told him on the wedding bed that she had vowed virginity: an angel watching over her would punish him if he violated her, but would love him if he respected her.

He asked to see the angel, perhaps a little skeptical, and she told him to go out to the third milestone on the Via Appia where the Pope would baptize him, and then he’d see the angel. (I get this version from Wikipedia.

It all proved true, but someone complained about this forced conversion of Valerian (and his brother Tiburtius, and a soldier named Maximus who was apparently part of Valerian’s menage), and the authorities showed up at Cecilia's Trastevere home to seize them all. Cecilia was apparently saved for last and executed in her house. Some say she was struck on the neck three times with a sword but lived on for three days, steaming to death in her own sauna, singing on.

She was buried in a vault in a catacomb out on the Via Appia -- I’ve been in it. The tourist guide pointed out the ledge where here sarcophagus had lain — of course it's empty now, but the setting is dramatic in the extreme. A teen-aged girl in the crowd fainted dead away and had to be carried out into the fresh air.

It's thought that Cecilia and the rest of her household died about 230 CE, under the Emperor Alexander Severus. (Others say she died about fifty years earlier in Sicily, which ruins the whole story. Christianity was of course famously repressed in the Roman Empire of the time, along with Judaism. I wonder if it wasn't considered an aberrant version of Judaism. Their were many other influences on the new religion: Mithraism particularly. What set followers of Judaism and Christianity apart was the followers themselves; they deliberately went against the tides, and even — the Christians at least — made every attempt to convert others to their beliefs. (There will be a disquisition, later, on the words belief, faith, knowledge. You can't do everything in one blog post.)

I can't quite get hold of the institutionalized idea of "pagan" religion in Rome. (Greece either, for that matter.) I can understand the idea of cults — Pythagoreans, say, who liked to gather at sunrise to greet the rising sun; worshippers of Mithra who gathered on the contrary underground to practise their elaborate rituals (rather like the Masonic business portrayed in Mozart and Schikeneder's Zauberflöte), These groups were social, but small, quasi-private clubs.

It’s my impression Christianity was disapproved to the point of persecution because of its own refusal to countenance the existence of other religions. It seems to me the “pagan” cults centered on the various gods were largely a matter of personal negotiations (for good weather, easy childbirth, plentiful crops, military victory, whatever), with occasional larger public celebrations at temples devoted to the major gods. I don’t think the idea of their intervention for a happy afterlife had occurred to many.

These various pagan cults and concepts, as I believe, were mutually tolerant: what was not tolerated was any cult threatening the State — or its youth. Hence the trial of Socrates, centuries before. Hence the persecution of Christianity, which displaced loyalty to the State and its established norms — in spite of the famous injunction to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s — with something else, perhaps not fully comprehended at the time, but allied, I think, with the evolving fact of Self within Society.

Christians had a hard time of it three hundred years, give or take. Wikipedia again:

This persecution lasted until Constantine I, along with Licinius, legalized Christianity in 313. It was not until Theodosius I in the later 4th century that Christianity would become the State church of the Roman Empire. Between these two events Julian II temporarily restored the traditional Roman religion and established broad religious tolerance renewing Pagan and Christian hostilities.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Estimates of Christians killed for religious reasons before the year 313 vary greatly, depending on the scholar quoted, from a high of almost 1,000,000 to a low of 100,000.

(These numbers might be set against current casualty reports concerning the Syrian war, and refugees from there and Africa, in a considerably shorter length of time.)

After Constantine legalized Christianity (and more or less criminalized other religions) a church was built on top of Ceclia's house, or the ruins of her house, or the site of her house. I am always interested in the general rise of ground level in cities over the centuries. Rome at the time of the Empire seemed to have been about six feet lower than it is now. We visited a church yesterday, Santa Maria in Monticelli: the monticelli, “little mountains,” were apparently garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years.

Once permitted, the Christian church evolved its own administration, with chief executive popes succeeding Saint Peter, and occasional Councils arguing and estabishing theological procedure and texts and their interpretations. And through the next few centuries Christianity gradually took on the role of persecutor:

The Edict of Milan of 313 finally legalized Christianity, with it gaining governmental privileges and a degree of official approval under Constantine, who granted privileges such as tax exemptions to Christian clergy. In the period of 313 to 391, both paganism and Christianity were legal religions, with their respective adherents vying for power in the Roman Empire. This period of transition is also known as the Constantinian shift. In 380, Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. Paganism was tolerated for another 12 years, until 392, when Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting all pagan worship. Pagan religions from this point were increasingly persecuted, a process which lasted throughout the 5th century. The closing of the Neoplatonic Academy by decree of Justinian I in 529 marks a conventional end point of both classical paganism and Late Antiquity, after which most of its scholars fled to more tolerant Sassanid Persia.

Lay Christians took advantage of these new anti-pagan laws by destroying and plundering the temples [14] Theologians and prominent ecclesiastics soon followed. One such example is St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. When Gratian became Roman emperor in 375, Ambrose, who was one of his closest educators, persuaded him to further suppress paganism. The emperor, on Ambrose's advice, confiscated the property of the pagan temples; seized the properties of the Vestal Virgins and pagan priests, and removed the statue of the Goddess of Victory from the Roman Senate.[15]

When Gratian delegated the government of the eastern half of the Roman Empire to Theodosius the Great in 379, the situation became worse for the Pagans. Theodosius prohibited all forms of Pagan worship and allowed the temples to be robbed, plundered, and ruthlessly destroyed by monks and other enterprising Christians and participated in actions by Christians against major pagan sites. Pagans openly voiced their resentment in historical works, such as the writings of Eunapius and Olympiodorus; some writers blamed the Christian hegemony for the 410 Sack of Rome. Christians destroyed almost all such political literature and threatened to cut off the hands of any copyist who dared to make new copies of the offending writings.

In the year 416, under Theodosius II, a law was passed to ban Pagans from public employment.[citation needed] All this was done to coerce Pagans to convert to Christianity.

Let’s stop here for the present; I’m out of breath. I’ll post later on Cecilia and her marvelous likeness.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Rome 4: The apartment

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 11, 2017—
LET ME DESCRIBE our apartment, found at Airbnb. It is one of four on the sixth floor of our wing of our eight-storey building. I imagine the others are all similar or identical.

The lift brings you to a landing also served by the staircase, daylit by windows. The front door, heavy and securely locked, opens into a very small entry with a curtained coat-closet to the right: to the left is the pullman-style kitchen, ahead you step directly into the salon, let's call it.

Turn to the left as you step into the salon, which is perhaps ten by fourteen feet, roomy enough for an armchair, a sofa with an extension, an antique cabinet full of stemware and bottles of spirits, and a side table-desk with a lamp, and you see one of the two doors leading to the narrow balcony. Between it and the other door to the left there's a round dining table easily seating six.

The wall separating salon and kitchen has, salon side, shelves for books, DVDs, CDs, and a niche for a huge TV; kitchen side it provides room for a good-sized refrigerator-freezer, cabinets, a counter, microwave and the like. Opposite that is counter space, the sink, dishwasher, more cabinets, and five-burner range. The kitchen is small: two people can work simultaneously (especially we two) only with difficulty. But it is ample.

All the walls and ceilings are painted white; the apartment is luminous, thanks to the two large glass doors, whose white draperies suffuse the light. Opposite them a small window looks out onto the lightwell: on its sill, the owner has set pots of red-flowering succulents resulting in a still life that always enchants me. Continuing past these rooms: to the right, another curtained closet I haven't found need or use for. To the left, our bedroom, queen-size bed, desk, closets with drawers behind floor-to-ceiling walls filling one wall; window looking to the southwest, like the balcony windows.

Again, everything is white. The bed is extremely comfortable (a good thing: I've slept fourteen hours at a stretch a couple of times!). Like most Italian windows these are provided with let-down steel shutters, manually operated with heavy canvas tapes, effectively darkening and silencing the room at night.

The second bedroom is much the same but furnished with stacked single beds — bunk beds.

There are two bathrooms: ours has tub and hand-held shower which I use mounted on its wall hanger, toilet and bidet, and basin. The other lacks bidet and tub but boasts a fine good-sized shower.

The apartment is quiet. The Bosch refrigerator makes very little noise. Somewhere a clock is ticking — oh, wait, that's the toaster-oven. Every morning the upstairs neighbor runs a manual carpet sweeper over the floor; that's all we hear from her. Our street, as I've mentioned, has parking herringbone style on both sides, but I've rarely seen anyone driving on the street. There are two supermarkets across our street, as I've also noted; but I've never seen or heard them being supplied. They must be supplied by small trucks: there's no way a tractor-trailer rig could get to them.

As I've written, we're in Monteverde, the city of apartment towers (none higher than eight or nine storeys) immediately to the south of and contiguous to Trastevere. Heading north along the river you'll walk through Trastevere, similarly residential-small commercial but several centuries older; than past a big jail; then through Vatican City; then into Prati. Monteverde is essentially built on the slopes of the Janiculum hill; its apartment buildings mostly all-alike but set pleasingly on the terrain and designed around central lightwells.

Prati's buildings are more individuated, it seems to me, and there is greater distinction between purely residntial areas and those with shops, many of them upscale, on the ground floor of he residences. I am very fond of the design of these buildings, which make me think of the old cartoon strip Jiggs and Maggie. In Prati, too, there are more trees, though our oval Piazza Dunant has its fine Roman pines, and the boulevard leading up the Gianicolo its redbuds and sycamores.

We have been spending too much time in this apartment, because this has been an unusually difficult recovery from flight day for me, because of a medical intervention I unwisely accepted the day before flight, leaving me sore, tired, weak, and frankly more confused than usual. Gradually things are resolving; as you see I write fairly coherently again, and there's time left for further explorations…

Monday, April 10, 2017

Rome 3: Things as they are

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 10, 2017—

THE REDBUDS AND CHERRY TREES are in bloom; the sycamores in full but early foliage, that pale green so full of optimism and freshness. The weather has been calm and sunny for the most part, the occasional thunderstorm lasting only a few minutes, and that in the evening when we have been at home. And yet…

I think too often and continuously of Horace:

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
   arboribusque comae

(All the snow vanished now, and the grasses back in the meadow
   foliage caps every tree)
And then, fourteen-year-old asks me if I believe in God, and I ask in what sense, and he says well not old-man-with-a-beard type God, but some single principle that is behind and governing everything, maybe a waveform or something like that. Interesting. As I think I've written before, I went to a religious college for my first year, and History of Religion was a required course that freshman semester. According to our textbook, religion is "the serious and social attitude toward that which controls one's destiny." I quote from memory; I don't recall the author; the italics are certainly mine.

I accepted that definition for a long time (I had no choice at first); it seemed generously broad and could be bent to cover many cultures. I don't recall what the author thought of the concept of God, or gods; clearly it or he or they would be the controllers of destiny.

I may have written before about a Filipino physicist I met twenty years ago in Provence, who said everything could be explained by turbulence. He was annoyed that he hadn't been awarded the Nobel prize for his theory, which he'd published here and there in the (I suppose) correct quarterlies. I'm not sure I understood his concept, though he explained it clearly and at length. All examples of turbulence are essentially similar, whether in air, water, or even light. I asked about social turbulence: Yes, that too. It's the one principle governing all motion.

I'm no physicist, and he may well be right, but it seemed to me his examples were more description of things as they are than explanation of why they are that way. A certain turn of mind sees things as they are. (Gertrude Stein used that phrase, things as they are, as the title of an early novel.) Another type of mind tries to explain why things are as they are; others try to change the way things are which runs into trouble because things are so interconnected. Another type of mind throws up his hands, strange image that, and hopes for the best, and counts on things being better in the sweet bye and bye.

So you have inventors of explanations of where it all came from. You have moralists telling you how you should deal with it. You have visionaries telling you where it's all going. Over time it all gets institrutionalized, or it doesn't; someone (or a committee) writes things down; time goes by and commentaries and translators have their way with it.

Wars are fought, believe it or not, over these fancies; sometimes the wars last for centuries and ultimately bring down civilizations. There are ancillary motives: profit, of course, or slaves, or land, or gold. But it seems very often the means of engaging the populace, who are needed after all to do the actual killing and dying, is to appeal to their religion, their "set of values," the thing they think — isn't it obvious? — controls their destiny.


THE OTHER DAY we took the tram 8 down to Trastevere for a gelato and so on. Another unpleasant incident: waiting for the tram, I noticed a guy who looked a little shady, whose glance shifted from one waiting passenger to another, who slumped against the guard-fence, who was dressed badly with many pockets. As discreetly as possible I moved away from him, thinking him a possible pickpocket, not that some pickpockets don't dress well and hold themselves nicely.

A young couple eyed him just as morosely, and when we all got on the tram the young man confronted him: I don't like the way you look. This was said quietly but firmly: I heard it, the guy's girl friend certainly heard it (she looked at him appreciatively), the shady guy heard it. I don't like yours, either, he said, and then something else I couldn't understand.

Then he did something remarkable: he approached the young man very close, almost nose to nose, and drew back his upper lip, baring his teeth. Oh-oh, I thought, knives will be out at this rate. But then he turned and moved further down into the tram, leaving the young couple to bask in one another's virtue.

I suppose it is true of any city, but to me Rome especially is a theater, there's a performance going on all the time. I'm in a perpetual present when I'm here. At the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere there's often some kind of performance going on: this time it was a mime. He pulled a ten-year-old boy from the crowd and taught him to mimic a bull, index fingers raised alongside his temples to suggest horns. He had him rush a red cape he produced magically from somewhere.

The mime was an adroit toreador: three times he evaded the charge. The fourth time he held his red cape in front of a heavy cast-iron bollard: the boy charged, but the mime caught him up before the fatal collision. The audience loved it. Less successful, I thought: an attractive young woman was invited from the crowd and made to mimic the mime: extend arms, return them, lift them, drop them, and so on. She did all this perfectly. Then in the course of these calisthenics he introduced a new element, pulling up his shirt to reveal his nipples. She declined, of course, to general applause. We moved on.

Trastevere is crowded as usual but I like it; there are many languages and purposes and it's pleasant to sit in a café with a spritzer and contemplate it all. The Sunday "flea market" at Porta Portese is now mostly a succession of cheap underwear, shirts, shoes, belts, kitchen tools, DVDs, electronic accessories and the like; antiques — furniture, jewelry, clocks, old model railroads, strange old amateur paintings — are relegated to just a few spots on the periphery. Commercial junk has won this battle.

Globalism, Hamza says, meaning to explain the phenomenon, I think, but in fact describing it as it is. But it's a loop: China sends the junk, some invisible power distributes it, these vendors do their best to sell it, people grow to depend on it. Hamza bought a shirt. Fourteen-year-old bought a hat. Both seem like good purchases, the items worth the amount asked and given. Cash is what lubricates the daily transactions; stuff is what keeps the invisible powers busy between more dramatic events. I kept my hands on my phone and my wallet and there was no turbulence.


I CONTINUE TO FOLLOW, to the extent that I think about it at all, Epicurus. I do believe it was a big mistake for Rome finally to establish Christianity, fighting to require the few pagans left on the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire to convert, and preparing the way for the middle East and North Africa to establish Islam. Religion being a social attitude is one thing; using it as a governing principle, let alone forcing it on others, is quite another.

Epicurus warned about these matters:

First, believe that a god is a being in a state of bliss and immortal, according to the idea of gods commonly held by people. If you accept this, you cannot attribute to the gods anything that is contrary to immortality or that is inconsistent with a state of bliss. Rather, you will expect of them whatever sustains both their state of bliss and their immortality.

For truly there are gods, and belief in them is obvious. But they are not such as the crowd thinks, because most people do not keep steadfastly in mind the qualities attributable to gods. The truly impious person is not the one who rejects the gods worshipped by the crowd, but the one who thinks of the gods in the way the crowd does.

For the things most people say about the gods are not faithful to the attributes of gods. Instead, they are false presumptions, according to which the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good—all from the hands of the gods who, naturally, are assumed to always favor what the crowd believes are their own good qualities, taking delight in people like themselves and rejecting as damned whoever is not of their kind.

I often wish Julian the Aspostate had not led troops into Iraq, there to die in a useless war; I wish he'd stayed home and worked to extend the concepts Hadrian had in mind; I wish things had worked out differently. I suppose my religion is Romantic Hellenism; I'm interested in examining things as they are and perhaps discovering principles behind the immediate evidence and avoiding pain and respecting others.

Epicurus, and Stein, and common sense:

Growing has no connection with audience.
Audience has no connection with identity.
Identity has no connection with a universe.
A universe has no connection with human nature.
—Gertrude Stein: The Geographical History of America

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Rome, 2: Frustrations and fatigue

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 8, 2017—

FIVE DAYS we have been here with little done or seen. Little, I mean, of the things one intends to see or do. I have not been at the peak of my powers and my pace has adjusted accordingly, and the fourteen-year-old sleeps long and competentlly. So there’s not much to report.

We are in Monteverde, a quarter of eight-storey palazzi, condominiums. Our street is narrow, with cars parked alla spina on both sides; the traffic is one-way only; there are often double-parked cars or temporarily parked trucks. One walks in the street; it seems natural.

Across the street we have a convenient supermarket, Tuo Dî, but I prefer a slightly smaller minisupermarket, Tigre, at the other end of the block: it has a good bakery for bread, a good cheese and sausage counter, an adequate selection of staples. There’s a fine greengrocer another block away. Other than this we have not explored the neighborhood.

We’ve taken long bus and tram rides, as the goal of this first week was to secure a visa to Algeria, and the consulate is completely across town from us, in the Borghese district. Let me tell you about my first visit, on Thursday: we took the Tram 3 from Trastevere station, easily getting seats since it’s one end of the line, and listened in some outrage to a man shouting at the woman seated across the aisle from me that she should be speaking Italian. She was talking to someone, as discreetly as can be done, on her telephone; I couldn’t make out the language; she looked Southeast Asian and seemed very nice. We are in Italy, this is Italy, we are Italians, we speak Italian, he shouted. She said something quietly in return, in Italian.

This only encouraged him to enlarge his tirade. Finally a woman standing near him told him he was behaving uncivilly, that one has a right to speak whatever language one wants. The tram was getting more crowded as it continued down its course. Other passengers, seated and standing, looked on uneasily. The man began to include her in his tirade, of course, once or twice standing up, pulling off his dark glasses, then replacing them and sitting back down.

You have no business shouting at this woman, another man said. He’d been standing nearby, briefcase in one hand, the other gripping a stanchion. She has done nothing to you, nothing at all. You set a very poor example of what an Italian man should be.

Dark-glasses stood back up to confront this new adversary. Don’t talk to me; don’t tell me what to do; that woman has no business here.

Racism, the woman with the telephone said, it’s nothing but racism, it’s as good an example of racism as you can see. The passengers around her, seated and standing, shifted in their seats uneasily. The standing woman continued her advice, quietly but firmly, like a mother explaining civility to her eight-year-old boy. The man in the dark glasses erupted from time to time, then dropped back into sullenness. The man with the briefcase spoke quietly to the quiet woman. The woman with the telephone, sitting across from me, apparently quite composed, continued her telephone conversation. Perhaps she was used to this.


At the end of our long tram ride we had a few blocks to walk, fortunately slightly downhill, then one of those monumental staircases to climb, and then we were confronted with a locked door: the consulate was closed. Twelve thirty. I couldn’t prevent H. from coming to pick us up with his car, but the traffic was dreadful. He dropped us off at Eataly where we had our midday meal at 2:00, the returned home via bus and tram, this time without incident.

Next day, though, yesterday, was much the same: I took a delightful bus ride, no politics or razzismo marring it, around the dial encircling Rome from eight o’clock, where we are, up through the Janiculum hill vistas, the pines, the statues, the sense of endless space, down to the Vatican at roughly eleven o’clock let’s say, through the bourgeois residence-and-shopping quarter Prati, much like ours but earlier and more engaging architecturally, across the Tiber once, twice, yet a third time and through the quarter of new museums and concert hall at twelve o’clock on the clock, then up diagonally through the Borghese district where I got off at Euclidio.

I walked a few blocks gently uphill in an area of distinctly upperclass residences and consulates, arriving at my destination in plenty of time. I was denied a visa, though. As an American resident, I must request the visa at a consulate in the US. For my convenience the People’s Democracy of Algeria has not one but two consulate in the US, one in Washington D.C., the other in New York City.

This consulate can give visas only to people who reside in Italy, and prove it with the official Italian permit of residency. Even though I do live in Italy three months every year, with my granddaughter -- I don’t, of course, but it’s a reasonable idea -- and, residing less than three months plus a day, don’t need a residence permit, nevertheless for this visa that doesn’t count: I must have an Italian passport, or an Italian proof of residency.

By now the discussion, in rapid Italian, French, and English, was wearing me out, and I stepped out into the welcome clear air. Rome is in a valley: the city’s low, on the riverbanks; the best air is higher, in the Janiculum and the Borghese. I had to send an email home to explain what had happened and what I might do next. But a guard challenged me: You must go to the waiting room. The air is bad there, I said. Have your finished with your business? Yes, I said, I just have to send a text. You have no business sitting there, he said, you must go back to the waiting room or go away.

Well, that at least was an easy choice, so I went away, and walked down one of those immense staircases, and took the bus home to rest up.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Arrival in Rome

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 4, 2017—
UNLESS DISTRACTED by something — a misguided sense of purpose, for example — stepping into an elevator usually brings poor Paolo and Francesca to mind. Not my son and granddaughter, but those unfortunate lovers consigned by Dante to an eternity of drifting up and down, up and down through the hot winds of Hell. As I recall the poet's idea was it was too difficult to decide which particular one of the seven floors of that unfortunate beyond to choose for their assignment. I'm not sure: I never have made my way through the infernal masterpiece. It seems an ingenious solution to a creative block and that is something I know something about.

After a long journey (by present-day standards) in far from the best of health we arrived at Rome's main airport on time from Oslo, flying three hours on what seemed to me a shabby 737 operated in the new bare-bones style by a cut-rate contractor to Norwegian Airlines, who had flown us competently from Oakland to Oslo. That first, longer leg — nine hours — had been delayed, however, by nearly three hours, partly because Passport Control had delayed the departure of passengers from the plane's previous flight Oslo-Oakland, apparently for lack of personnel to inspect their passports.

So while we managed to catch the Rome flight, having been whisked efficiently through passport control in Oslo, our bags were not so lucky, and we waited for them for an hour in vain, finally joining the group who, like us, had flown from Oakland via Oslo, and were filling out the forms for delivery of delayed baggage.

Hamza and Francesca waited patiently with a sainted Margherita pizza cooling in its cardboard box, then drove us to our home for the next three weeks. Four of us got into the elevator and it lurched happily upward, stopping six inches short of our sixth floor. The inner doors opened fine, but not the main doors on the sixth-floor landing. I pushed the button to go back down: nothing. I pushed every button but the alarm: nothing. Just as I was considering pushing that last button a face peered in through the windows providently set into both sets of doors.

Francesca's Italian is fluent and I was half dead from exhaustion and incredibly sore bones and muscles. She and the face, who might have been Dante, conducted a muffled conversation I followed with little comprehension or interest. It involved an iron thing outside our door and therefore accessible to us but not to him, some iron dinggetje, I know the Dutch word but not (yet) the Italian, fixed to the outside of the elevator car for just such emergencies. After some time we realized that not only did we have to nudge it, we had to push on the building's door at the same time. We climbed up out of the elevator car with our carry-ons and our pizza and welcomed release into a paradise of an apartment whose owners, grave with concern for us, explained everything about the place to Hamza and Francesca and my own poor beautiful and long-suffering Beatrice, while I sat stupidly, an old man suffering from ambition.


I AM HERE in Rome to contemplate my feelings about religion, and to see friends and relations, and to eat and drink and walk and think. Perhaps my own religion — and let's get this straight: in my opinion religion, whatever it is, must offer the choice of an individual address — my own religion perhaps centers on friends and relations, eating and drinking and walking and thinking. It's appropriate to come to Rome with this frame of mind. I was sorry to fly in, it's the worst way to travel, but time and the pocketbook decreed it. Had I walked into Rome I might have met someone to show me the way, but I don't have Peter's luck, or Dante's. No ghost of Christ, no evocation of Virgil. Hamza and Francesca will do for many things but I won't ask them to provide answers to meaning-of-life questions.

Yesterday was our first full day here and we did nothing but rest, explore the immediate area of our apartment in the Monteverde quarter, shop for dinner, and cook (see Eating Every Day). Well: We ate, drank, walked (not a lot), thought. And talked. Lovely technology: we could even have a long group video conversation with dear Grace in Portland on her birthday, which provided more relations to contemplate. I begin to think that the meaning of life is living it in the fullest, but I'll have more to say a little later.

A new day, clear and comfortable. Someone's at work outside with what sounds like a grinder, alternating at times with a power hammer of some kind. In Italian towns and cities you're always hearing the sounds of masonry at work. The earth is dug up elsewhere, ground into cement, made into bricks or blocks, sent to the cities, cemented together to make towering buildings. Rome was built on relatively boggy ground, unlike Paris whose underground is an extended basement from which limestone was quarried to build the six-storey overstructure. (I think I have that right.) But Rome has its catacombs and its towers, not very many tall ones of course, the curse of Babylon is still respected if only for esthetic reasons, and the architecture of Dante's poem, if not its substance, will be in my thoughts for a few days. I'll try not to let it obsess me. There's carbonara and gelato to attend to.