Sunday, May 26, 2013

Anticipating Rome By Reading Book After Book

I sleep surrounded by evermore books, piled on the floor by my CPAP machine, stacked under a window, listing on the bedside chest, leaning in all four window sills. Most are old and somewhat worn books, recently purchased on-line from used book stores, many first published decades ago. Each one has an interesting take on Rome and Romans or Venice and Venetians, Florence and the Medicis, the Vatican and the infamy of Popes, shopping, eating and exploring.
'Desiring Italy, Women Writers Celebrate the Passions of a Country and Culture' (1997) includes stories and essays by Edith Wharton, Mary McCarthy, George Eliot, Muriel Spark, Margaret Fuller and Eleanor Clark. Who knew about Eleanor Clark (Click here to read her NYT obit), wife of Robert Penn Warren and intellectual writer enamored of Italy? The excerpt on Roman fountains reprinted in 'Desiring Italy' from her 1953 'Rome and a Villa' was so sensuous and beautifully detailed that I had to read the entire book. It arrived while ES and I were travelling back from Santa Fe. Earlier this morning, I picked it off my bedside chest and ES and spent over an hour enjoying the first chapter titled 'The Campidoglio' (the Capitol). 
Clark's writing is enchanting. Her words contain rich visual imagery and imaginative and intuitive observations. Again and again, she reiterates, always using different examples, the effect of seeing, or not seeing, the thousands of layers of the past in today's Rome.
I read aloud to ES with that hoarse morning voice of mine, stopping often to comment on a particular phrase or a very long sentence that described a piazza or building so beautifully that I had to pull out our copy of Eye Witness Travel ROME to examine maps and photos of the Campidolglio, the better to see the precise location of a colossal hand statue or the three staircases that lead upwards to the Piazza del Campidoglio and the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. That third staircase lies between the larger staircases, described by Clark as 'covered by an arbor and absurdly steep...with an air of being useful and significant, as if there were no other way of getting up the hill.'
Will I take the time or have the inclination to climb all three staircases?
Clark writes, 'It is the center (the Campidoglio), the starting point - a very real center in various ways, and you can get your bearings from there, as you would climb the tallest tree to look over a thick dangerous landscape.'
'...It is too much.  It is a place, beneath all its obvious racket, of whispers and secrets, so various and insidious that to be open to them can be the beginning of madness, and in fact it does induce several kinds of aberration in foreigners.  One you can detect behind those chilling phrases "It's not in my field," "It's not in my period," which are heard here more than in any other city.  In every academy and rooming house there are one or two of these tragic-wreaks, alcoholics of the single object: the numismatist, the fontomanicac, the expert of neo-classic doorknobs...the man who tried to know the name of everything in the Forum; they are drawn, fatally, from all over the world, or turned into this after they came, and many would rather die than be dislodged. But they are no worse off than most of the foreign visitors these days.'
'They swirl in herds through the Vatican Museums, around the Colosseum - you would not think, as Dante said, that there could be so many; or sit in bars for two weeks 'getting the feel of the place....'
'The city has its own language in time, its own vocabulary for the eyes, for which nothing else was any preparation; no other place was so difficult, performed under the show action of your eyes such transitions.  So the ordinary traveler runs off in relief to Florence, to the single statement, the single moment of time, the charming unity of somewhat prisonlike architecture, and is aware later of having retained from his whizz tour of Rome some stirring round the heart; those images, huge, often grotesque, were what he had been looking for, only it would have taken so long....'
'The rest is an expansion in time, such as you experience also in the petrified forests of America, only here it is more intimate and so more dangerous, like slow journeying downwards through water.  There is a peculiar power in stones, you know it even from a little stone picked up on the seashore, with the ancient imprint of a starfish on it. It may happen to you to sit by a Roman fountain and find the starfish Nero crawling on your skin...Rome is everybody's memory, as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago, the thing now is to find a way into it.'
Clark continues, '...the entrance to Rome is no longer a matter of geography.  It is a place secret, sensuous, oblique, a poem and to be known as a poem; a vast untidiness peopled with characters and symbols so profound they join the imagery of your own dreams, whose grandeur also is of dreams, never of statements or avenues; from which the hurrying determined mind takes nothing but its own agenda, while the fearful logic and synthesis that were there escape like a lion from the zoo.'
Toward the end of her first chapter, Clark writes, 'But the Campidoglio is at least in the middle.  It is also were the most things happened over the longest time, and can give you the most solid example of that four-dimensional art form that goes by the name of the Eternal or even the Holy City.'
SO, you've just read words that captured me and gave me an entire new take on Rome. I am thrilled to be travelling there. Hope to be a total sponge. I read again and again that folks who go to Rome - such as the fellows at the American Academy - often cannot do their work while there. Instead they wander. The work comes much later. ES says this was true for him back in 1983 when first he saw and felt Rome and its environs. He painted. But didn't really.
Clark writes (remember this book was published in the early 1950s), 'There are painters again now too, lots of them, mostly Americans, and writers. For a whole generation, practically speaking since 1914, Rome had ceased to exist for them; foreign scholars could sometimes stand the dictatorship, or profit from it, but for artists it was not inviting, not a good idea, there is the case of Ezra Pound, who remains one of the most interesting examples of mental risk in our time. Then suddenly the gates were open again and they came flocking back in love and gratitude and pent-up need of this above all cities and it was all brand new, as if it had never been heard of before, but it is not like a hundred years ago nor even like the beginning of this (20th) century....'
'Rome, being one continuity, requires wholeness, and instills it; we bring to it...in art something like a splintered windshield; so we are both enthralled and for a long time in nearly mortal conflict with it...
'The city has its own language in time, its own vocabulary for the eye, for which nothing else was any preparation....'
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All this is just from the first chapter of Eleanor Clark's book. But there are so many other books I've been dipping into. Late last night I finished Erik Amfitheatrof's 'The Enchanted Ground, Americans in Italy, 1760-1980,' a fascinating read that begins with early travels across the treacherous Atlantic. He writes that 'Even when the sea remained unterrible, crossing the ocean in a sailing ship was in itself a kinetic physical experience.'
Margaret Fuller, who spent years in Italy as a roving correspondent for Horace Greeley's Tribune, was a spinster who had a passionate love affair with an aristocrat, birthed his son, later married him, witnessed Garabaldi's first fight for a Roman Republic, worked in a hospital tending the wounded, all the while writing an account of the history of this shortlived Roman Republic. In 1850, she and her husband and son sailed home for America. The voyage ended tragically when the ship drove hard into a sandbar off Fire Island.
Amfitheatrof writes, "Margaret stood with her baby Nino and husband Ossoli on the deck, spray sweeping over them. The life boats were swamped. Margaret handed Nino to the steward and was herself washed overboard. Her body and that of Marquis Ossoli were never found. The steward was washed ashore, drowned, with the still-warm but lifeless little body of Nino in his arms. The pages of Margaret's 'History of the Roman Republic' were lost in the Atlantic.'
Amfitheatrof writes about Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, describes the reasons that Americans so loved to visit Rome where they were feted by the English speaking aristocracy and where marriage to American girls was sought (as in England) because their money propped up great estates and lavish living. He tells of the founding of the American Academy in Rome which was enthusiastically discussed in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. Architect Charles Follen McKim (Stanford White's partner) pursued the notion of an American academy in Rome where architects might 'remint' the temples of Rome and the palaces of Florence for statuesque public buildings in the expanding cities of the United States. Donors to the project included J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Walters, William Vanderbilt, Henry Frick and Harvard.
Amfitheatrof's tome continues through two World Wars, the reign of Mussolini and on into the post war economic resurgence of Italy in the 1950s and 60s when Milanese aristocrats saw American aid as the way to industrialization and replenishment of their personal fortunes. Rome became a movie capitol for both Hollywood and Italian films. Think Ben Hur, Cleopatra and Fellini's La Dolce Vida.
The good life faltered as the Italian government weakened and 'the Dulles brothers and other bleak establishment figures, thin-lipped men of wealth and power, as much at home on Wall Street as Washington, adopted a narrower view of the Atlantic Alliance, construed to defend free enterprise principally and freedom only as a consequence."
Does this last note sound at all familiar, given today's events? The author writes, "The American failure to value freedom above free enterprise hit Italy particularly hard. A country emerging from fascism, historically disoriented, an unstable democracy confused by its autocratic clerical traditions - Italy was the weak link in the Western alliance...one could argue that America, which had liberated the peninsula in the 1940s together with its democratic allies, had never fully realized the precious responsibility attendant on that deed and had, like Dante's protagonist, at least temporarily lost its way in the dark wood of contemporary history.'
'The Enchanted Ground' ends on these notes:
'Italy does not intrinsically belong to one side or the other.  It is universal. Cities like Rome, Florence, Siena, Spoleto, and Venice belong to the world at large...its stupendous legacy from the past was to be studied, and valued, and ultimately preserved because it belonged to all mankind.'
'Meanwhile living in Italy, or even visiting Italy, will undoubtedly continue to be an adventure for Americans. Poet John Peck, arriving in Rome with his family to start a year's residence at the academy, said, "I'm just getting a sense of the ground. What buildings and what stones! I have a feeling it's going to be very important for me, but in what way I can't predict." To be struck by the lived-in antiquity of Italy is natural, and for anyone coming from across the Atlantic it is a powerful discovery.  The human and the the timeless are mixed together in a way that produces a kind of beauty that is sharply different from the beauty of America.'
I am reminded that when my daughter Caroline returned from a short sojourn in Italy, she commented on Rome's strange and magical juxtaposition of young women wearing colorful stiletto heels passing by the Colosseum and Vatican on the back of Vespas. She was mesmerized by this mesh of distant past and present.
I will be too.

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