May 02, 2008

I just flew in from Rome, and boy is my liver tired. Given the turbulence you get in trans-Atlantic flights”€”this was only my third flight from Europe”€”a high-strung sanguine choleric like me needs some kind of chemical cocktail to keep him from panicking every time the Airbus goes Boeing-Boeing-Boeing. I used to take a leftover dental Vicodin and wash it down with a half dozen or so digestivi, but then I found out how addictive those little pills are, and anyway SwissAir went bankrupt, so no more Calvados and no more poire William. On to Xanax, British Airways and unlimited G&Ts. At least they have little TVs on the flight. 

Those tiny TVs are helpful to the nervous air traveler. On my first trip to Europe, as I shot back those little liqueurs made from Norman apples (Calvados) or William Pears grown with a bottle over the tree branch (poire), I saw for the first time that famous tear-jerker Angela’s Ashes“€”a memoir whose details have been disputed by all the eyewitnesses still living, who swear that “€œSure and Limerick was never so bad, and I don”€™t think the McCourt kids ever missed a meal.”€ But the movie version was moving, and reminded me of the stories of sodden hunger, bar brawls, and food lines I heard from my own mother’s childhood in Depression New York. (Apparently Irish alcoholics make no better parents in Manhattan than in Limerick. Go figure!) The film made me fully appreciate how glad I was of American class mobility, and I briefly considered applying for citizenship of SwissAir Business Class. But then 9/11 happened, and Everything Changed. For SwissAir, anyway, which went broke during the collapse in air travel that followed. I”€™m glad we attacked Afghanistan to avenge SwissAir “€”although the Swiss really should have joined in. They could have at least sent a couple dozen pikemen….

Speaking of Swiss Guards and halberds, it’s certainly bracing to come back to creaky, haunted New Hampshire after three months teaching in Rome. In the entire city of Nashua there are exactly five R.C. churches architecturally worthy of the name”€”and two of them have been closed down by the diocese (one is now part of an apartment complex; if this were Manhattan, the confessionals would go for $1200 per month). I”€™d pass at least five exquisite temples in Rome changing buses. It’s strange how the human mind can become accustomed to things. On my first trip to St. Peter’s Square, I felt like a Sufi dervish approaching the Qaaba during the Haj. By my fifth trip there”€”it was only a half-hour bus ride from the apartment where I was staying”€”the Basilica seemed like home, the parish where I could just drop in to go to confession, between a nice crusty porchetta and a trip to visit Largo Argentina”€”an ancient temple complex of broken pillars that’s now reserved for feral cats. Not the sort of thing one sees, for instance, in Dallas.

Is it possible to become jaded from too much Bernini and Borromini? Did I become blasé about how easy it was to drop by the Forum, or Michaelangelo’s piazza the Campidoglio? I hope I didn”€™t… that instead, I simply began to feel at home with these extraordinary works of man, most of them done in service to gods or to God. Ironically, the most trouble I took to see any artworks entailed a lengthy schlep to the other side of Rome (two buses, a tram, and a very long walk) to visit the Stadio Marmi built for Mussolini. Having seen these enormous marble statues cited in endless artbooks by Modernists who ranted about the “€œabsurdity”€ of Fascist-era art, I knew I”€™d have to devote an afternoon to seeing them.

And they weren”€™t half bad. The first attraction is the floor mosaics“€”aesthetically quite nice, even though they celebrate the Duce’s vicious conquest of Abyssinia; but then the Arch of Titus is beautiful too, although it depicts the Roman sack of Jerusalem. When you get to the statues that ring the stadium (still in use”€”the Italians waste nothing save time!), they provoke mixed emotions. Many of them really are beautiful in themselves, finely carved neo-classical depiction of various sports and divers Italian cities. Of course, there’s humor from time to time”€”for instance, the hulking form of a fascist hockey player, flanked by an equally menacing fascist tennis player. (I”€™ve always found tennis people a little… Fifth Column, haven”€™t you?) But overall, it was rather sad to think that these are among the last realistic statues to be carved in the 20th century”€”and to get them, we had to put up with one of the world’s most farcical regimes. Not one of the deadliest, to be sure”€”but I wouldn”€™t mention that to the innocent Albanians, Greeks, Ethiopians who suffered for the megalomania of a jumped-up journalist (think Rupert Murdoch), not to mention the Jews who had to hide in Pius XII’s wine cellars from the tender mercies of the SS. Or the boys from Siracusa who died in the snows of Russia in vain. A deeply ambivalent day, on which I cursed at once the Duce and the Bauhaus.


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