NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

#24—Truth and Beauty

Last Monday, I took a guided tour through the Colosseum,

and I am going to fill you in on the real truth about the ancient emperors and the whole thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing as I learned it from the guide, Valentina. In short, what you learned from Russell Crowe in "Gladiator" and Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus" is not entirely true. But before getting into the nitty-gritty of this, two things must be said:

First, don't ask me what that damned cord is and why the heck didn't move two feet to my left before asking that nice young Chinese man to snap my photo.
And second, it must be said that a young dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian woman, say Valentina, who speaks English with a serious Italian accent and some grammatical errors is without a doubt the most sensual presence on earth. Whereas, a small gray-haired woman, say me, who speaks Italian with a serious American accent and some grammatical errors gets an E for Effort. No one said life would be fair...but does it have to be this unfair?

On the other hand, who, other than those who don't pay attention or don't care, would say life is fair. Certainly not poor John Keats...whoa!, what's England's famed poet doing in a blog about Rome? In fact, the other day I went to the Keats—Shelley Museum that stands right next to the Spanish Steps. Here's why Keats is remembered in Rome: In 1820, after a year when his writing flourished, the young Keats tried to save money by buying a cheap outer seat on a long cold and damp coach ride through the English countryside. Immediately afterward, he developed the first signs of the TB that would take his life at age 25. He had thought getting away from the English winters to the mild Italian climate might save him. But no, he died in his apartment—Piazza di Spagna #26, right next to the Spanish the Keats / Shelley Museum.

It's odd to think that John Keats actually had an address. We're used to meeting him in our high-school texts, as in Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Well, no, that's not all ye need to know. Ye need to know that if you go to this museum without your passport for ID, you're going to have to walk back nearly 2 miles to your apartment to get the damned thing. Why in the name of heaven and poetry do you need a passport for admittance to see the room where John Keats died? It's actually quite macabre. The bed on which he died is there, along with the original fireplace and the original ceiling (except for the smoke detector and sprinker) and the chandelier. Beside the Italian walnut bed is his death mask. Is there a terrorist list of those who might toccare the silk cover on the bed when there is a very large sign telling everyone non toccare.

Keats is buried in Rome in the non Catholic cemetery under the fabulous epitaph: "His name was writ in water." Oscar Wilde proclaimed the gravesite to be the holiest place in Rome.

To be honest, it wasn't my kind of museum: four small and dark rooms lined with books you couldn't touch and glass-covered cases with letters and manuscripts from 19th century literary luminaries who either had terrible penmanship or wrote so small that reading them would have surely led to a serious headache.

However, there was a great documentary video about the second round of Romantic poets: Keats, Shelley, and Byron. I enjoyed observing the contrast between the staid voice of the British woman narrating the facts of their lives and the passion with with the three lived and wrote against conformity and political and intellectual decadence. My personal fave of the three Romantics was Shelley. You gotta love these lines upon feeling all the autumnal currents ever present in your life: from "Ode to the West Wind": Oh lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud...I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed...."

If you ask me, and no one at the museum did, that Romantic passion is very Italian. The video, however, was presented with an academic highly British attention to fact that was impressively informative and, well, presented with a reserved and precise diction that was the antithesis of the nonconformist lives being described.

Those three Romantics lived with passion driven by freedom and love of nature. Tragically, they all died young.
Not long after Keats succumbed to TB, Shelley drowned while sailing in a storm. The fiery Lord Byron took a more political stance in his poetry and in a magazine called "The Liberal. However, he was driven from England by contemptuous criticism and, like Keats, caught a chill in a carriage ride and died. Why are poets not appreciated in their lifetimes? I guess they're safer when dead.

The staid tone of this very British museum was a fascinating contrast to the Italian temperament bubbling eternally about it. First, no admittance without a passport. And then, I believe it's without exaggeration that I tell you I have never received more specific instructions on any process than from the young British woman who, after checking my passport and graciously receiving my 5 euro entrance fee, gave me the directions into the room with the video. Now, we were standing in a tiny room with a curtain off to the right of the cash register, about six feet away I'd say. With three of us buying tickets, it was hard to move about. You could hear the video playing behind the curtain. Any idiot would have guessed what was happening and would have known what to do. Step through the curtain to watch the video; follow the arrows up the only stairs to Keats' apartment. Yet the instructions were detailed to the point of being redundant.

Contrast this with instructions by Italians. "To the left," may be absolutely correct but without taking into account that after one goes left, one will be faced with five or six choices of diagonal streets going off in every direction. As I went upstairs after watching the video, ticket in hand, rather than pocket, as per instructions, I thought that Byron would have ignored the order of things and gone upstairs first just to be ornery.

Now the orientation video was superb, don't get me wrong, but also academic in the manner of a scholarly thesis. Even the tragic descriptions of the deaths of these three great English poets were fine tuned to the last detail. "Now I will go to sleep," said Byron, and he did, among all the historical dates of carriage rides, meetings with friends, and other ho hums. And yet, the passion with which this museum was founded and has been maintained for a hundred years is profound.

On my second walk back to the apartment, I began to think:
The temperaments of the Italians and British could not be different. But the passion for beauty and truth in any language is forever linked.
People may disagree on what beauty is. And the search for truth is confounding in any language. But the passion with which those who wish to preserve beauty and seek truth is an unbroken bond shared now and forever by all lovers and seekers.

And there was something else...when Italian speakers read the poems of the Romantics, it was lovely, but not so lovely to me as when English speakers read them. It's been tempting while here to wish I were Italian. At my age, perhaps at any age, I could never have become a native speaker. But as I heard my native language of English spoken beautifully, I was reminded that British and American English can be beautiful. Although I do recall a conversation with two young men on a train from London to Salisbury. They asked what I did for a living, and I said I taught American literature. Oh, one said, "I didn't know you had any."
That was back in 1985, and I'd been trying to think of a comeback ever since. Finally, on the way to the airport for this trip, Pete came up with, "Oh, yes, we've improved on yours." Well, I guess satisfaction 28 years late is still satisfaction.

So why aren't we in America prouder of our language?
Why have our schools allowed children over the last three decades to become so lax in their language? My grandfather went only to the sixth grade, but when he went to Washington to work during WWII, he wrote many letters back home about the war effort. They are exquisite in their description, and beautifully and correctly crafted.

Is texting such an obsession that the lost of conversation will become so lost that we forget it exists. A statistic in Harper's magazine back in 1990 pointed out that teenagers averaged 30 seconds of meaningful conversation with their parents per day.

Has the elimination of the arts and respect for the humanities in our schools diminished our capacity as a people to understand our history and creative spirit...or even to articulate it except in bumper-sticker phrases such as "We're #1."
#1 at what? Look at what we've voted into Washington where language is used to insult, avoid, confuse, and manipulate truth.
What is beautiful to us as a people?

A friend mentioned the other day in an email that I've perhaps been a bit too hard on photographers. I haven't meant that. I have also taken lot of pictures that I will enjoy for the rest of my life. What I've meant is that in these hurried times, too many people appear to be living through their digital appendages. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the finger on the button or touch screen.

Yet, I can't help wondering what we humans are going to do to ourselves and our planet if we don't take the time to experience and reflect on what has been made universal through the thousands of years of human experience.
Yesterday, I went to see Michelangelo's Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli. The church opened at 3 p.m. A crush of people pushed through the door and rushed to the the church where standing jammed in front of Moses, the snapped pictures and were gone before 3:10. A few of us lingered on.

Now, you can view Moses from two sides...naturally, one would think that the best angle is frontal. But I found that standing on the side offered a different, possibly even a more direct look at Moses' face. I didn't find him the terrible purveyor of Old Testament commandments all the books had led me to expect. What I saw was the face of Michelangelo's David grown older and even wiser in his understanding of the gigantic task before him with all of its implications and hazards. He knew that despite his mighty strength, the effort would depend more on inner fortitude.

Another friend emailed me to point out that while Caravaggio may have been a master artist, he was a disreputable character, leaving death and destruction in his wake. In fact, in an earlier post, I mentioned that it's thought that Caravaggio ground added the chemical from fireflies to his paint to achieve that luminous effect. Does being a great painter give one the license to squish probably millions of fireflies to death?

Stay tuned for more musings on truth, beauty, Valentina, thumbs up, thumbs down...and thumbs sideways in the Colosseum.

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