Monday, May 31, 2010

"New Romans" and IJSA video

"New Romans" - final thoughts on the city and culture of Rome

Rome may not be the center of the world anymore, but try telling that to the eight million tourists milling around the Vatican. For the number of people here and for the diversity of language and race, it’s easy to forget that all roads no longer lead to Rome. But the bustle of the city also begs the question: Has Rome been too commercialized? Or does it still retain some of the ancient magic that made it a cultural hub years ago? I think the answer is, “both.”

I believe it’s important for people to come here and see the artifacts and sites. It provokes a connection and sense of reverence regarding history that can only be gained in a hands-on way. It’s mind-boggling to picture a group of people more or less like me erecting hundred-foot-tall stone columns at their public forums, or the thousand arches of the Coliseum, not out of aesthetic ambition but for practical use. Just as I walk to the dining hall, the chapel, and the library each day without a thought, the ancient Romans worked, ate, worshiped, played and studied in these majestic structures every day. Imagining a population for whom these sights were ordinary offers a moving peek into history that we are fortunate to have.

Beyond even that, structures such as the crumbling Coliseum remind us that no earthly empire is everlasting, no matter how vast or powerful. I am reminded of the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which tells of a traveler who found the ruins of a huge statue. An inscription reads, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Ozymandias thought his kingdom would last forever. In the same way, people thought the Roman empire would never fall. Neither is with us anymore. It’s not hard to imagine tourists visiting the United States in a few millennia to see what’s left of the Pentagon or Mount Rushmore. It’s a sobering thought, but I think people need to grasp the transience of all we take for granted – not only so we can appreciate the good things we have, but also so we can learn to hold those things loosely, assigning greater value to the intangible qualities of culture.

Yet on the other hand, the commercialized aspect of the tourist scene is cringe-worthy, and it’s more than the pressing crowds that make me feel that way. It seems somehow wrong to “go see the Vatican,” a place that was built to be holy and honoring to God. It’s not a museum. It’s holy ground (or should be). At least the Pope still used it for his weekly message, and pilgrims still go there to worship. In this way, it is still being used for its original purpose.

On the other hand, I think the builders’ vision for other monuments has been lost. But we have progressed. Maybe it is too much to ask that a new culture in a new millennium cling to the values of a culture so old we can hardly understand it. To the ancient Romans, watching lions eat Christians was quality entertainment. It would turn our stomachs today. For us, it would be sick to reinstate gladiatorial fights in the Coliseum, yet I would argue it is a good thing to use that space as the public arena it was meant to be. There was a concert there shortly before I visited. Surely the designers did not intend for power chords to resonate through the stone arches, but at the same time, this use of the Coliseum holds true to a purpose the architects may not have intended, which is nonetheless as old as the structure itself: spectacle.

The real disrespect is the way vendors and con artists have turned the historical and religious sites into marketplaces and stages for robbery. Walking out of the Vatican, souvenir shop windows display tacky gold souvenirs plastered with the face of the Pope as if he were some flamboyant celebrity. It makes me think of the Bible story about Jesus overturning the tables in the sanctuary. It’s an even greater shame that portions of the city, including some of the most ancient sites, bear the artwork and tags of vandals.

All else aside, the fact that the new Rome reflects aspects of the greater global culture can hardly be pegged as a bad thing. Global culture values green space. One can see this in the city of Rome. As a matter of fact, the Italians have valued green space for centuries more than we have in America. In the center of the city you’ll find the gardens of the Borghese palace, a sprawling grassy space with paths for horseback riders and knolls for picnickers. Trees are scattered about and green and yellow birds fight scrawny brown squirrels for branch space. The gardens have been there for six hundred years, way before the rest of the world had even begun to create the pollution we are now desperate to counteract with our city parks and nature reservations. Rome does not just open a window on ancient cultures; it spotlights today’s in a manner that even the culturally semi-literate can comprehend as a good thing, in spite of what may have been lost in the sweep of time and tourism.

International Journalism Seminar, Assisi - May 2010