Letter from Italy

06 December 2007
Article
The Roman Empire has lessons to teach even to humble tourists. For some, the instruction is how to frame a shot of a friend or loved one posed against ancient stone structures, without simultaneously recording the guides who recite “facts” in several languages. One woman wearing a badge that made her official casually referred to Roman emperor Vespasian as “the one who forced Jewish prisoners to begin work on construction of the Coliseum in 72 AD.” This behavior should have clashed with the sensibility required to construct such architecture and the precision required to build the exquisitely designed arches. It is hard to understand how persons with the levels of understanding and qualities of mind needed to build this multi-tiered amphitheater did not recoil at the very notion of forced labor -- no less feeding men to hungry lions to amuse the emperor and up to 50,000 other spectators. Sea-going slaves rowed the immense marble and stone pillars across an often unfriendly Adriatic Sea. Once in Rome, skilled architects and craftsmen mobilized tens of thousands of members of vanquished nations to lay bricks and sculpt the magnificent façade of the arena. Likewise, the arches, columns and designs that went into building the Roman Forum (ruins next to the Coliseum), where citizens met and discussed the affairs of the nation and carried out rituals, show a degree of democratic organization that should not have logically coexisted with slavery -- just as our own scientific and technological achievements do not coincide with slaughtering 4 million people in Vietnam. God only knows how many in Iraq! The contemporary Nero, George W. Bush, plays video golf instead of the violin while Iraq burns. He shrugs off scientific warnings about global warming and recites platitudes while encouraging more autos and trucks to ride the highways. He has also allowed the dollar to weaken so that multinational corporations can export more products made from hydrocarbons -- their advertisers have conditioned the “buying public” to need. Scientists chart the human genome and explore outer space, but no appreciable advances in reason as applied to human behavior appear -- except on paper, as laws are written to curtail the abominable activities of previous wars. Almost eight centuries ago the Magna Carta established rights for the non ruling people. In 2001, the U.S. President annulled habeas corpus, thus deleting 800 plus years of history. Like Roman emperors, Bush justified the extension of his power, including the use of torture, by referring to national security (exigencies of state), the war on terror (Communism, Islam, heretics etc…) and other empty phrases that quickly take on the authority of God’s word: something one cannot question, no matter how preposterous it sounds. Millions each day go through rituals devised by the TSA (Thousands Standing Around, said my grandson) as if these “security” procedures will stop a carefully planned attack. Italian socialist and ‘green’ friends shake their heads in disapproval over the U.S. electorate’s choice. Yet, in the same time period, Italians elected Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, who appears on TV as the equivalent of a comic actor impersonating Mussolini. Defending himself against charges that under his reign (ended in 2006) the mass media he personally owns had improper communication with the state-owned TV and radio, Berlusconi dismissed the accusations as “ridiculous.” As he moved his hands and arms symmetrically -- he could have been demonstrating the body language of an arch-type anal personality to a psychology class -- he argued that the collaboration was “only natural,” hardly evidence that he was trying to control the media. This Italian combination of William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch and Benito Mussolini should comfort liberal Americans who thought their fellow citizens were especially deranged for voting for George W. Bush. Perhaps they could take some solace in the fact that the more developed -- taste the food if you doubt it -- Italians voted for a similar political mountebank into office to direct their government. “He represents success,” says a retired Italian labor official. “That’s what obviously attracted the majority of Italians.” She referred to Berlusconi’s ability to make tens of millions of dollars in business -- unlike Bush, who possesses no visible virtues, not even a green thumb. Italy’s revived imperial pretensions -- after the fall of the Roman Empire -- rudely ended with the downfall of Mussolini in 1944. His ventures into Ethiopia in the 1930s, however, paled before the exploits of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled hunks of the world for over a millennium. The Vatican, which remains as a lot more than a vestige of that empire, has been home to Popes since the late 14th Century. Inside this vast and elaborate complex of buildings and cathedrals, a formidable museum displays the wealth acquired (stolen) like floors made from tiles taken from private homes and re-laid as floors in the Vatican, artifacts, sculptures, pillars, from many parts of the world over many centuries. At the end of the long museum tour one finds the piece de resistance: the Sistine Chapel. In 1508, Julius II contracted -- ordered -- Michelangelo, the young painter and architect, to represent graphically on the ceiling the essence of the Catholic magic. Indeed, all around Rome and other Italian cities, geniuses have displayed their talents for the purpose of perpetuating the myths of the virgin birth and the other fantastic stories that form the very foundation of Christianity. By the end of his life Michelangelo put his talents to memorializing Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the one surviving statue at Il Campodoglio (The Capitol). Everywhere one walks in Rome one sees evidence of the creativity of past centuries, somewhat reduced now by the commercialism alongside -- a billboard advertising a fancy watch overlooks the Trevi Fountain -- the noise and smell of the robust auto and motorbike traffic that pervades everything, even the magnificence of Bernini’s 17th Century obelisks. Five hours northeast of Rome, the train arrives at the car-less, water surrounded city of Venice. For the dwindling number of residents (lack of jobs other than tourism), the hydrocarbons that feed the causes of global warming present a clear and very present danger. If the oceans rise, Venice will be among the first of its victims. Instead of motorized land vehicles, Venetians move around on the vaporetti, the small ferries that take them and the tourists around the city and to its off-shore islands. Like the residents of Rome, however, the Venetians too are drenched in a history of empire --- meaning wars. In the early Fifth Century AD, the Visigoths invaded Italy, which meant that the fleeing population sought refuge on the Venetian islands. By the mid 6th Century the Byzantine Empire encompassed Italy and some of the pointy arched architecture, the friezes and mosaics show the influence of the Moors who also invaded Italy in the 6th Century. Modern Venice, however, has suffered a steady depopulation since the end of World War II. A city once numbering almost 200,000 residents now counts less than a third of that amount as people left to find jobs on the mainland. Tourists pour in, however, to take $100 gondola rides and view the magnificent San Marco Basilica and the Palazzo Ducale. Senegalese men stand around the Piazza -- as they do near tourist attractions in Rome -- selling women’s handbags. Immigrant groups carve out their niches: some Vietnamese weave, Bangladeshis sell toys and Italian customs’ boats patrol the waters around Venice to try to prevent more of them from coming, less fervently than U.S. border patrols guard the Mexican border. Italy does share a similar anti-immigrant fervor as the economy backslides. A short train ride takes one to Padua, where Shakespeare’s shrew allegedly got tamed. The ubiquitous African handbag peddlers display their wares there as well. Among the passersby on the street are North Africans, South Asians and even Latin Americans -- members of Europe’s new working class. Like in most of Europe and the United States, Italy has reserved the lowest scale jobs for these now unwelcome immigrants. Ah, the glories of globalization. But even Bush’s neo con advisers, who try not to learn, should absorb obvious lessons for their “new Rome,” as they call the U.S. empire. Old Rome’s imperial leaders expanded militarily, stretching their economic resources. They also offered citizens amusement rather than consulting them on policy. Indeed, one of the ruins is supposedly the very spot where Caesar was assassinated. This is not a suggestion! Now tourists get amused by looking at ancient times and going “wow.” Hard to learn difficult lessons on a full -- and very amused -- tummy.