Rome and the decline of the West: rich assortment of ills
Since Petrarch arrived from Avignon in 1341 to sing its praises, Rome in the Western mind has represented the ultimate threshold, the ultimate shrine
Italy will hold a general election on March 4. For the West, that’s quite momentous; voters deciding who rules in Rome will not only affect the third-largest economy in the eurozone but the full euro spectrum.
Italy’s debt is 130% of gross domestic product – the second-highest in the eurozone after Greece. Non-performing bank loans in Italy are the stuff of legend. The economy will grow by only 1.3% in 2018 – nearly half the European Union average (2.1%).
Polls show that voters are so angry there’s a strong possibility of an anti-euro coalition taking power.
The political landscape reveals an unsavory triad. The center-left includes the Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi – the Italian Tony Blair. Then there’s the largely discredited Five Star movement. And finally the center-right, with former prime minister Silvio “Bunga Bunga” 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 the 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 how to escape the trap of low growth and high unemployment.
This assortment of ills may look like Rome once again offering a living metaphor for the decline of the West. Alternatively, it might also offer a promise of renewal. In search of answers, I looked back in time and set off to the Forum for a walking conversation with the ruins of Rome.
A theo-geopolitical space
In Adonais, Percy Bysshe 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 the eternal city – whose ruins proclaim 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. The Academy of Western Civilization. Eternal City. Caput Mundi (“Wonder of the World”).
It’s still possible to picture Sigmund Freud at the Forum comparing the vertical sequence of Roman ruins to the layers of memory in our psyche. Or Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita interpreting Roman life as a vertical sequence, cinematically mixing images from different historical periods.
The mythical origins of Rome lie in the city-state of Troy, bloodily 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” from 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 remain 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.
But after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Germans to the west and 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 AD 476.
Emile Zola correctly identified the beginning of the decadence with Constantine, the “apostate” who in AD 313 installed Christianity as the state religion, bypassing the ancient gods of Rome and creating in the east a second capital under his name, Constantinople. (Naturally, this is not a narrative one will ever hear from a Vatican official.)
Those ‘bewitched stones’
At the Sistine Chapel – the Holy Altar of Western civilization – a compressed multitude of largely Chinese tourists is 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, two popes were Medicis – Leon X and Clement VII.
And then there’s the esthetic illumination of the Raphael rooms, mostly the School of Athens, dominated by Plato and Aristotle (with top guest stars Diogenes, Heraclitus and Archimedes); the subtle harmony, the homage to pagan antiquity at the heart of the Italian Renaissance.
The Enlightenment co-existed with an aesthetic free-for-all. Pauline, the voluptuous principessa Borghese, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, ended up sculptured by Antonio Canova as a semi-naked Venus. The Apollo Belvedere – the most famous sculptured 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 my room in front of the Pantheon – the Olympus of the empire – it’s still possible to revive the days when Rome commanded and the universe obeyed; when the universe was faithful and Rome was just.
When Europe was the center of the world, Rome was the center of Europe. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe actually called it “the center of the center” – “The entire history of the world is linked up with this city.”
That was still the era of certainty – after centuries when the temples of ancient Rome were regarded as piles of stones accumulated by Providence to be rebuilt as churches.
Jean-Paul Sartre – passionate for Italy – visited the church of the Capuchins in 1951, where he found “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 but the word would endure. We are fortunate that (some) Roman ruins have survived in essence because Renaissance humanists, following Petrarch’s lead, admired not only the embedded history but also the unrivaled standard of architectural beauty.
But Roman majesty was reduced to a pastoral picturesque scenario, with cattle and goats grazing in the Forum. Henry James, in 1870, described the Palatine as a ”confused and crumbling garden.” However Shelley, lost in a Roman wilderness, was adamant: Time is not devouring, but transfiguring – and benign.
The glow in those Chinese eyes
Without Western civilization there could be no modernity. Without the Renaissance there could be no civilization. And 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 W B Yeats prophesied in The Second Coming in 1919, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
A century later, anarchy remains a specter terrifying Western lands. Rome, exiled from the center, is at best a gloriously decadent periphery.
But then Rome found ways to turn the tide upside down, embodying – along with Milan, Turin, Florence or Bologna – an integral, holistic approach to life that is the essence of unrivaled Italian soft power; a 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 adapt every manifestation of beauty to postmodern, practical requirements.
The eyes roving in ecstasy of rows and rows of Chinese discovering Rome tell us a lovely New Silk Road parable. They see Rome and Italy – not unlike China could be – as a living museum representing the perfect synthesis between conservation of history and modernization, a living, breathing exercise on how to build a post-industrial society that respects many aspects of an ancient mode of life.
The politics suck, of course, but no civilization is perfect.