When we find ourselves in times of trouble, we could do worse than plunge into The Academy of Western Civilization.
So let me take you down on a stroll around the ultimate theo-geopolitical space: the Eternal City, a.k.a. Caput Mundi (“wonder of the world”).
In Adonais, Shelley urged “Go thou to Rome” and “from the world’s bitter wind / seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb”. What better refuge than Rome’s ruins, stressing loud and clear that fragmentation and mortality are mere illusion, and reality is enduring unity outside time.
Since Petrarch arrived from Avignon in 1341 to sing its praises, Rome in the Western mind has represented the ultimate threshold, the ultimate shrine. It’s still easy to picture Freud at the Forum comparing the vertical sequence of Roman ruins to the layers of memory in our psyche. Or Fellini in La Dolce Vita also interpreting Roman life as a vertical sequence, cinematically playing with images from different historical eras.
The mythical origins of Rome point to a resurgence of Troy vanquished by the Greeks. The foundation – and development – of Rome involves Mars as the father of Romulus and Remus, and Venus giving birth to the “gens Julia” of which Caesar sprang up. Greek-Latin antiquity is a formidable theo-geopolitical space. Vanquished in Troy, Mars and Venus got their revenge in Rome.
An empire lasting five centuries could not but still be imprinted in the Western psyche. It’s a pleasure to revisit Suetonius describing how Augustus embellished Rome for the glory of the empire. Or Lucretius, two centuries after Epicurus, presenting the world as issued from a flux of matter and composed by the congregation of every atom in the universe.
Our collective psyche is familiar with what happened after the reign of Marcus Aurelius; the Germans to the west and the Parthians to the east threatened the borders of the empire. And then, having invented all the founding models of our civilization, the Urbs Romae fell to the barbarians in 476 A.D.
Map of the Roman Empire and neighboring states during the reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41 AD).
Zola correctly identified the beginning of the decadence with Constantine, the “apostate” that in 313 A.D. installed Christianity as the state religion, bypassing the ancient gods of Rome and creating in the east a second capital, Constantinople. That’s the kind of narrative one will never hear from a Vatican official.
Those “bewitched stones”
At the Sistine chapel – the Holy Altar of Western civilization – where compressed multitudes of largely Chinese tourists are forced to observe the imperative “Silence!” every single minute, it’s enlightening to remember how Lorenzo The Magnificent played hardball politics to impose Florentine masters – from Botticelli to Michelangelo – to replace painters from Umbria (such as Perugino), not to mention advance the family interests over the papal throne; after Lorenzo’s death in 1492, there were two Medici popes – Leon X and Clement VII.
The ultimate aesthetic illumination at the Vatican remains the Raphael rooms, mostly The School of Athens, dominated by Plato and Aristotle (with top guest stars Diogenes, Heraclitus and Archimedes); a subtle harmony paying homage to pagan antiquity – the heart of the Italian Renaissance co-opted by the seat of Christendom.
The Enlightenment coexisted with an aesthetic free-for-all. Pauline, the voluptuous princess Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, ended up sculpted by Canova as a semi-naked Venus. The Apollo Belvedere – the most famous sculpted body of all time – was revisited by Canova as a pop celebrity (Napoleon) posing as a Roman god posing as a Greek god.
Stendhal raved at the Colosseum, “the most beautiful vestige of the Roman people”. From a room in front of the Pantheon – the Olympus of the empire – it’s still possible to imagine the days when Rome commanded and a faithful universe obeyed. Rome was strove to be embodiment of what was just.
When Europe was the center of the world, Rome was the center of Europe. Goethe actually called it “the center of the center”; “The entire history of the world is linked up with this city.”
That was still an era of certainty – after centuries when the temples of ancient Rome were regarded as no more than piles of stones accumulated by Providence to be rebuilt as churches.
Sartre – passionate for Italy – visited the church of the Capuchins in 1951, where he finds “not God, but an infernal circle; the exploitation of the dead by Death”. He complained he had to breathe “4,000 Capuchins on my nostrils” and noted “when the popes stole the bronze of the Pantheon to assure the triumph of Christ over the pagans, it was the same rape of tombs”. If “antiquity lives in Rome”, it’s by “an odious and magic life, because it was prevented to die so it could be made a slave”.
Sartre raged on why we are fascinated by these “bewitched stones”; “Because they are human and inhuman – human because established by men, inhuman because preserved by the alcohol of Christian hate.”
When Ancient Rome was still living and breathing, Horace, Ovid and Propertius wrote that marble would perish and the word would endure. We are fortunate that (some) Roman ruins have survived essentially because Renaissance humanists, following Petrarch’s lead, admired not only the embedded history but also the unrivalled standard of architectural beauty.
Still, Rome kept marching on as a pastoral picturesque scenario, with cattle and goats grazing at the Forum. Henry James, in 1870, described the Palatine as a” confused and crumbling garden”. Shelley, lost in a Roman wilderness, was adamant; time is not devouring, but transfiguring – and benign.
The glow in those Chinese eyes
We have always believed that without Western civilization there could be no modernity. And without the Renaissance there could be no civilization. Crucially, without Rome there could never have been a Renaissance.
Modernity though was ruthless to Rome. No more heliocentric – and heavenly – life. No more Roman-centric terrestrial order. As Yeats prophesized in The Second Coming in 1919; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.
A century later, anarchy remains a specter terrifying Western lands. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West is a hundred years old already. Rome, exiled from the center, is at best a gloriously decadent periphery.
Italy will hold a general election on March 4. For the West, that’s quite momentous; voters deciding who rules in Rome not only affect the third largest economy in the eurozone but the full euro spectrum.
Italy’s debt is at 130 percent of GDP – the second highest in the eurozone after Greece. Non-performing bank loans are the stuff of legend. The economy will grow by only 1.3 percent in 2018 – nearly half of the EU average (2.1 percent). Polls show voters are so angry there’s a strong possibility of an anti-euro coalition taking power.
The political landscape reveals an unsavory triad. The discredited center-left includes the Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – the Italian Tony Blair.
There’s the Five Star movement – also discredited by its non-performances in power.
And finally the center-right, with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party as a partner to the viscerally anti-immigration Northern League. This is the alliance that stands a strong chance of winning. But still they would need to form a coalition to govern.
Both Five Star and Northern League want to hold a referendum on Italy’s membership in the euro in case member states cannot increase public spending. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is even spinning the possibility of a parallel currency. The whole debate in Rome revolves on the current, trademark Western malaise; how to escape the trap of low growth and high unemployment.
This assortment of ills may look like Rome once again offering a living, remixed metaphor for the Decline of the West. But that might also entail a promise of renewal. The search for answers is what led me to look back in time and set off to the Forum in a walking conversation with the ruins of Rome.
And then those Freudian layers of memory insidiously began to weave a parallel story. Rome after all had found ways to turn the tide upside down, embodying an integral, holistic approach to life that is the essence of unrivalled Italian soft power; an harmonious mix encompassing excellence of art, landscape, history, culture, elegance, food – a culture of “how to live” elaborated to minute perfection.
Flights of fantasy are mixed with a drive for quality. Respect for history – and those ruins – implies cultivating the great creators of the past. The conservation of tradition goes hand in hand with an eye to adapting every manifestation of Beauty to post-modern, practical requirements.
The eyes roving in ecstasy of rows and rows of Chinese pilgrims discovering Rome tell us a lovely New Silk Road parable. Post-modern Marco Polos in reverse, they see Rome and Italy as a possible version of the Chinese Dream; a living museum representing an exciting synthesis between conservation of history and modernization, a living, breathing exercise on how to build a post-industrial society that respects myriad aspects of an ancient mode of life. The politics suck, of course, but no civilization is perfect.