Friday, February 09, 2018

Eternal Rome.

I have never visited Rome, a fact that sometimes surprises my friends. This will change sometime in the next three months or so, as I need to go to the Eternal City to do some archival research for my doctoral dissertation. In the meantime, I was struck by this piece just published in First Things, in which German novelist Martin Mosebach reminisces about his long relationship with Rome:
I was fifteen when I first saw Rome. One of my mother's sisters had invited me to stay with her; we lived in a little hotel near the Via Nomentana and we were on our feet from morning till evening because I wanted to see "everything." I came home convinced that I had actually seen "everything." It took a few more years before I began to realize that I would never be able to see "everything" in Rome, and would have to spend the rest of my life exploring it.

Having grown up in the western part of Germany after the war, in cities that had been destroyed and then drearily rebuilt, I arrived in Rome in 1966 to find a city that, it seemed, had yet to undergo the heartless ravages of modernization. I saw Pope Paul VI carried through the streets on the gilded platform, the sedia gestatoria that once bore the consuls of the Roman Republic; it swayed past me, borne aloft by eight sediarii clothed in red damask. The accompanying cardinals wore ermine mozzettas about their shoulders, their long red satin trains buttoned high, clinging in folds on their backs. At that time, the radical decisions that would break with the liturgical tradition had already been taken, but the old forms were still being observed, just as, seen from Earth, certain stars still twinkle although their light has already been extinguished.
Mosebach acknowledges that the timelessness he perceived in Rome in 1966 was partly illusory, as the city had already suffered "a series of savage modernizations" in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, as a young man he "experienced the city as a place where, after immense and violent depredations in past centuries, time now stood still." This was ultimately expressed not so much in Rome's architecture as it was in the way that Romans inhabited their city. As Mosebach observes, "The city was not seen from the point of view of tourism, of how it could be made pleasing to visitors. The ancient view was that a city should be a place of liberty, often to the point of anarchy — a place where many conflicting forces should be allowed to clash without restraint, and thereby achieve a non-managed cooperation that is different from state regulation." Returning twenty years after his first visit, Mosebach was pleased to find that "the cats went about scavenging, the pigeons were messing up the pavements, and the narrow, echoing streets amplified the whining of the traffic into a thunderous din." For the author, "the city groaned under the weight of its history — and for me it was a liberation from a Germany that was devastated by both war and reconstruction. Dwelling among those Roman walls, I was able to bridge the grievous historical discontinuity."

In the succeeding decades, Rome changed, following other European capitals in which "the priceless historical 'old city' is no longer the home of the indigenous folk who once inhabited it in their inimitable ways," but rather turned into a pedestrianized commercial district where "the shops no longer sell salad and potatoes but jeans and tourist paraphernalia," making the center of Rome "a single giant restaurant" catering to hordes of tourists. Mosebach mourns the loss of the idiosyncratic tokens of the Rome he once knew - "the confused old ladies who fed [cats] spaghetti and tomato sauce at street corners," and the Roman pigeons now "decimated by the seagulls who long ago colonized the city." Despite his disappointment at the changes that have taken place, Mosebach finds solace in the idea of 'eternal Rome':
Eternity is not merely a particularly long time but something qualitatively different from time; yet Rome was called "eternal" long before this genuinely incommensurable concept could have been put forward. In a poem (written during the reign of Augustus) that plumbs the deep recesses of the past, the elegiac Tibullus, a contemporary of Horace and Ovid, was the first to refer to Rome, the "urbs," as "eternal." He uses this appellation as a matter of course, as something universally acknowledged: "Not yet had Romulus formed the walls of the Eternal City." If we accept 753 b.c. as the year of the city’s legendary founding, when Tibullus called it "eternal," Rome was not even a thousand years old. When Romulus, in a land sparsely populated, circumscribed the first boundaries of his foundation, Babylon and Memphis had long existed without anyone thinking of calling them "eternal Babylon" and "eternal Memphis."


It would be pedantic to insist on a precise meaning for a word that has a certain intoxicating quality and seems to hint at the unimaginable. All the same, one might specify under what conditions the idea of eternity could meaningfully be linked with matters of transitory history. If human beings with their brief life span call something "eternal," they are setting their sights on something far beyond this span. We have not experienced the end of the world, but we have witnessed the collapse of particular worlds. Whenever a city or country is annihilated, whenever a civilization is extinguished — whether it is the Hittite Empire or a long-hidden Indian village in the Amazon jungle — when cultural continuity is violently broken, those who witness such catastrophes experience the end of a world. An impenetrable organism of religious, poetic, social, economic, and legal elements is torn apart — the world came to an end, in Carthage and Königsberg, Smyrna and Aquileia. Neither the western nor the eastern Roman Empire was spared this kind of annihilation of a world.

On the other hand, when a city has not only survived its own death — this does happen — but continues to exist, with values and aspirations intact, in the face of profound trauma, playing its recognizable role despite huge transformations, in a context that is markedly different from what it was, we can only be astonished at such a miracle, and call it "eternal." So we acknowledge it to be a great exception, a unique shattering of what, according to the laws of history, might be expected. In calling Rome "eternal," the Augustan poet may have been daring and presumptuous, but at the same time he may have been inspired. He said more, at that time, than he knew.
Mosebach goes on to consider how the understanding of Rome as the 'eternal city' remained even as the Roman Empire was collapsed and the Catholic Church rose in its place, with the erstwhile imperial capital becoming a universal symbol even as its political importance diminished:
It was the state's transformation into a civilized and religious ideal embracing entire nations that remained when the empire fell apart; it was this ideal that guaranteed the city’s global significance even as it lay in ruins. The ruler became the mother. The substance of the Roman Empire was trodden in a winepress, so to speak, and subjected to a process of fermentation — ultimately producing the priceless wine of the European nations. They all considered themselves to be Rome’s legitimate heirs; they jealously refused to acknowledge others' claims to this inheritance and so kept the idea of Rome alive. Rome lived on in its many daughters. First of all, of course, came the Roman Church with the pope, who took the place of the Roman emperor, claiming universal jurisdiction. Then, with the translatio imperii, came Germany, and France, the Church’s "eldest daughter" (whose king enjoyed imperial dignity), Spain with its worldwide Catholic realm, England with its empire, and the United States with its fragile Pax Americana. But the Orthodox Byzantines, too, regard themselves to this day as Romaioi, and the Russians speak of Moscow as the "Third Rome."

Rome, in comparison, seemed to be nothing more than a piece of history, turned to stone. The city never sank so low as at the end of the Papal States, when it became the capital of a newly united Italy. But just when it seemed doomed to be the capital of a mere province, the pope renewed his claim to worldwide authority and, when his European state was lost, created the basis for his influence in Asia, Africa, and the two Americas. The title "the eternal city" justified itself. Or do we really think that millions visit Rome every year just to view a corpse? No doubt many of them do not have much idea what they are looking for, but this only makes the incessant, ant-like flow of visitors even more mysterious. No place on earth, surely, could avoid being ruined by such an invasion, but we are inclined to believe that Rome is indestructible because it has such a dire history behind it.
Mosebach finds evidence of this varied history in the omnipresent spolia, fragments of ancient Roman masonry repurposed in the building of new structures over several millennia. "Shards, fragments, and split stones determine Rome's atmosphere," Mosebach writes. "To be really Roman, the nave of a church must have ten different kinds of pillars from long-forgotten pagan temples. Its altar, which is also the sarcophagus of a martyr, was once a bathtub of red porphyry that stood in the thermal baths of a palace." The same is true in all manner of Roman buildings, such that someone "who has become vividly aware of this unreflective incorporation of ancient ruins into the creation of later architecture can no longer take seriously any house that does not have such stone fragments in its walls, or any church that lacks a pillar or two from a pagan temple." In spite of all these changes and adaptations, Mosebach finds remarkable signs of continuity beyond the control of any architect or engineer:
In Rome, in the autumn, a miracle of nature can be observed, as beautiful as a sunset or a mighty waterfall: Clouds of starlings with their little black bodies take off in a daring attempt to darken the skies. They are a particularly impressive testimony to Roman continuity — even Pliny the Elder described them... They put on a kind of firework display, compacting together in thousands to make a dark sun, and then exploding in all directions like sky-borne chrysanthemums; they change into a swarm that wafts this way and that like waving flags; they form huge hearts, vast ellipses, as if their common aim is to present the world with an astonishing, perfect show of figure-flying. Then they change plan and allow themselves, from great height, to drop like rain onto the city roofs. A winged vanguard aims directly toward me and then, just in front of my window, shoots into the air again, only to return and repeat the game. They do this only to let me hear the most beautiful and delicate sound of all: the rustling of the tiny wings, like — what? Like the rustling of a taffeta petticoat or the gentle chatter of a stream over multicolored pebbles, or the bursting of soap bubbles. No, it is indescribable, and awakens in me a yearning to hear it anew, again and again.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.