Tag: Rome

New Year’s reading: Gill

Monday, 1 January, 2018 0 Comments

It’s time to spend some time with the books that were the presents of Christmas past and we’re starting with The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from the famously generous and well-read Noel Donnelly of Dublin via Leitrim.

A.A. Gill was a journalist who died of cancer in London on the morning of 10 December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29. He followed an Alcoholics Anonymous “12-step plan” to recovery and, in tribute to the fellowship, began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. However, he continued to smoke some 60 cigarettes a day until the age of 48.

Gill was notorious for his brilliant, sometimes bitter, invariably witty and always humane observations on food, television and life in general. Here’s a snippet from a column titled “Sex and the City”, which was published in The Sunday Times in January 2009. The scene is a Sex and the City bus tour around New York City:

“We crawl into the Meatpacking District. Our conspiratorial and cosily gossipy stand-up tour guide tells us that this is where the girls did a lot of their shopping, and that it’s a sort of secret place only really savvy New Yorkers know about. She reels off a list of shops and what each character bought in them. We’re chucked off for 20-mintute retail reruns. I hide in Diane von Furstenberg’s changing room. And just in case you’re from Alaska, the Meatpacking District is New York’s secret like the Vatican is Rome’s.

We’re taken to the Magnolia Bakery, where queues of weirdly excited and messianic women wait impatiently to eat the teeth-meltingly sweet, infantile cupcakes like a votive Communion promising a blessed afterwork life of copious, cool sex, witty friendships, miraculously available taxis, Manolos, Cosmos, and happy-ending aphorisms. We don’t have to line up. Our cakes come with the ticket. Massive trays of cupcakes appear and are offered to us in a tramp’s pissoir alley on slimy benches beside a children’s recreational park. Feeding cake to yearningly single women beside a playground with happy West Village moms and their gilded tots was an act of sadistic patronage. We guiltily stuff our faces, begging the refined calories to transport us into closer connection with the fabled story arc.”

A.A. Gill had the gift, no doubt, and the best of his writing is an ideal gift.

A. A. Gill


All our Saints’ Day

Wednesday, 1 November, 2017 0 Comments

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
— Saint Francis

Our saints

Note: All Saints’ Day was initiated by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs on 13 May 609 AD. Boniface IV also established All Souls’ Day, which follows All Saints. The choice of the day may have been intended to co-opt the “Feast of Lemuria,” which the Religio Romana used to placate the restless spirits of the dead. The Christian holy day was established on 1 November in the mid-eighth century by Pope Gregory III as a day dedicated to the saints and their relics.


The daily wisdom of Google

Thursday, 26 October, 2017 0 Comments

Back in 1,400 BC, the Oracle of Delphi was the most important shrine in ancient Greece. Built around a sacred spring, it was considered to be the omphalos (the centre of the world) and people came from all over Greece and beyond to have their questions answered by the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo. Her cryptic answers could determine the course of everything from when a farmer planted crops, to when an empire declared war. Today, Google has replaced Delphi as the omphalos and people from all over Greece and beyond can have their questions answered by the algorithm. Example:

Google oracle

History: For centuries, scholars congregated at Delphi, and it became a focal point for intellectual inquiry as well as a meeting place where rivals could negotiate. The party ended, as it were, in the 4th century AD when a newly Christian Rome proscribed the prophesying. Then, on 4 September 1998, Google was founded in California.


Two Corants for Lyra Viol by Alfonso

Saturday, 1 July, 2017 0 Comments

On the face of it, a blog entry with the title “Two Corants for Lyra Viol by Alfonso” has a touch of the perplexing about it. What’s a “corant”, and why two of them? And then there’s the “lyra viol”. Not just a viol, mind you, but a lyra viol. Topping if all of, we have “Alfonso”. If people had to pick an Alfonso, most would opt for Alfonso Cuarón, the film director, whose works include Children of Men and Gravity. In this case, however, we’re talking about Alfonso Fontanelli (1557 – 1622).

Alfonso Fontanelli was an Italian composer, diplomat and courtier. He was one of the earliest composers in the seconda pratica style during the transition to the Baroque era but his career was interrupted in November 1601, when he discovered that his wife had been having an affair. He murdered her lover, but spared her life, unlike his musical acquaintance Gesualdo who, in similar circumstances murdered both his wife and her lover. As punishment for the crime, Alfonso was stripped of all his possessions. Still, he found refuge in the opulent Roman household of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este, and was thus saved from indignity. Alfonso Fontanelli became a priest in 1621, and died in early 1622 from an insect bite while in the Oratorio della Chiesa.

The lyra viol is a small bass viol, used primarily in the 17th century, while a corant was a type of dance popular in the late Renaissance and Baroque era.

Bringing it all together now: The Irish viola de gamba player, Liam Byrne, is part of the Icelandic collective Bedroom Community and he features with violist Nadia Sirota on Tessellatum, their upcoming album and film. That’s all a long way from the Renaissance world of Alfonso Fontanelli, but everything’s connected.


Pope John Paul II: Rome, April 2005

Friday, 7 April, 2017 0 Comments

Tutto il mondo a San Pietro. That’s the way it was in Rome in early April 2005 as we joined the crowds intending to pay their respects to the saint-to-be, Pope John Paul II, who was lying in state at St. Peter’s Basilica. From that memorable day, here are our notes of a pilgrim’s (sometimes grim) progress in the Eternal City.

10:23 a.m. The sun is in the sky. A fortifying breakfast has been consumed. The major prints have been read. It is almost time to get in line. But let’s have one more espresso before the work begins.

The TV in the corner of the bar here on the corner of Largo Branaccio is showing a huge throng of people filling the Via della Conciliazione, which leads from the Tiber to St. Peter’s Square. The influx has to be seen to be believed and the numbers are almost alarming. More than a million pilgrims are expected to view the body of Pope John Paul II today and the television reporter is saying that 18,000 people an hour are moving through the basilica and past the body.

I suppose one conclusion we draw from all this is that the 1960’s are finally over. Remember? “God is dead!” The pope is, but he’s still acting out the central Christian belief that redemption is there to be sought. Anyway, here goes. Time to enter pilgrim territory.

Would it have been better to have risen at dawn yesterday, instead of dawdling over breakfast? Too late now for retrospect. What follows is the chronicle of a day in the life of a pilgrim in Rome.

11.20 a.m. There’s a shuttle bus service operating from the main station, Termini, to the Tiber. Seems to be free as well. At least no one stamping tickets. Unfortunately, the bus driver decides to call a one-man strike at the Palazzo Venezia and we have to foot it from there.

12.20 p.m. The line is forming south of Ponte Sant’Angelo. The imposing dome of St. Peter’s is visible in the distance. Something about the size of the crowd and the enormous speed with which it is swelling says that getting there may not pan out as expected.

1.20 p.m. Standstill. In the battle for popularity in Poland’s mobile phone market, it is even-Steven between Nokia and Siemens. This observation is based on a quick survey of surrounding pilgrims. The phones are as varied as their owners — big, small, simple, sophisticated. Poland has come a long way and it’s not surprising that its people have stormed Rome to give thanks to the man who gave them back their identity.

2.20 p.m. Along with the Poles, the other major national group represented here is the Italians. They’ve planned for a long day if the variety and amount of sandwiches is anything to go by. My neighbour, Carlo from Salerno, is eating a lovely looking one made with delicate brown bread and filled with sausage and spinach. Panic begins to set in here. What if I miscalculated on the food front? What if this takes eight hours instead of the expected five?

3.20 p.m. Headgear is a must. The sun is beating down, which is better than rain, of course, but not so charming if you cannot move. Another must is a book. Mine is Despair by Vladimir Nabokov. An odd choice, I agree, but the selection in the train station book shop was bizarre. In the English books section it was Nabokov or Michael Moore. “I can readily imagine what Pushkin might have said to his trembling paraphrasts,” Nabokov writes. A new word for the vocabulary, that, paraphrasts.

4.20 p.m. We make it onto the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel. What’s it now? Four hours? And we’ve covered a distance that would take a slow walker five minutes on a normal day. Except this is a day when more than a million pilgrims are trying to get to see a hero. People still very cheerful, though. City workers are supplying us with bottle of water and the gesture is appreciated.

5.20 p.m. Ah, ha! Oh, oh! Now we can see why progress has been so slow. On the other side of the Tiber, to our left, a huge river of people is pressing forward. What’s it going to be like when we merge with them? Chat to Julia Baker, an English pilgrim. Charles and Camilla. What we’re seeing today suggests to her that the Church of England will fold its tent when William ascends the throne. It’s not a spiritual experience anymore and that’s what people hunger for. The fact that Charles is here means that he knows the game is up, she says.

6.20 p.m. We take the bridge! But a wave of worry ripples through the crowd. Italian authorities are sending out text messages telling people not to join the lines. Apparently, they are worried that it will get out of control. Lots of excited conversation. We are determined to press on, however. There can be no turning back now we tell ourselves.

7.20 p.m. Helen and George are from just outside Seattle. Not exactly young, either, but they seem to be coping well. They get alarmed when we look back at the mass of people we have left behind on the bridge. What if? The only consolation of being stuck on the corner of Borgo S. Spirito and Via S. Pio X is the architecture. Alarm! No more food left.

8.20 p.m. If only we could get onto the Via della Conciliazione. We could then see St. Peter’s. What we can see, though, is a huge screen showing scenes from inside the basilica with people filing past the body. The picture quality is stunning. Wonder what the screen resolution is?

9.20 p.m. Where would we be without our mobile phones? Fingers flying. Messages pouring in from Ireland, England, Germany and Italy. “Did you hear that Saul Bellow died yesterday? “U will get to heaven for this!” “Was JP a footie fan?” “4-2. Blues better.” The Chelsea-Bayern Munich Champions League game has enough goals to keep us alert.

10.20 p.m. Now, we’re getting places. Surging along the Via della Conciliazione we are and up ahead, bathed in light, is the world’s most impressive church. Big screens line the way and thousands are joining in the prayers that pour forth. Along the bottom of the picture, the crawler says “live from the Basilica” and we can see George W. Bush, Laura Bush, George Bush Snr., Bill Clinton and Condi Rice kneeling beside the body, deep in prayer. Jeers go up from the Michael Moore faction but one pilgrim applauds and earns stares. No one challenges him, though.

11.20 p.m. We are in the square! It’s a sea of flags and pennants and emblems borne aloft, mostly Polish, red and white. The imagery is ancient, as if a mighty host of yore was assembling for an encounter that would remake history. Impossible not to be overwhelmed by it all.

12.20 a.m. “Attention! The Basilica will be closed for cleaning between 2 am and 5 pm.” The announcement booming out across the square in Italian, English, French, German, Polish and Spanish fills us with dread. The crowd control has been impressive up to this but it’s not going to be easy to deal with these people if they are locked out within sight of the Grail, to use a Dan Brownism. We are packed against each other now, tired, hungry and thirsty and kept awake and alive by forces beyond our powers.

1.20 a.m. “The Basilica doors will be closing in thirty minutes!” Sprits are high, however. We are certain that our bloc is going to make it. We look back and see thousands upon thousands who won’t be with us. The poor things. How will they endure until 5 am? Where will they get the energy to complete the mission? Pity for them is mixed with satisfaction for our own good fortune. Human vanity and weakness are constant.

1.50 a.m. We enter the Basilica. Too exhausted to appreciate its wonders: The frescoed hallways, the Pieta. Up ahead a blaze of light.

2.10 a.m. Face to face, at last. “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Hamlet (II, ii, 115-117).

Tranquil, he is, despite the bursts of flashes from all kinds of photographic devices. This is how the new pilgrim gathers relics. No piece of the robe, no sliver of bone. A digital image.

Saint John Paul II

Mission accomplished. Time for a quick prayer. No candle to light but the Vatican offers pen and paper where one can list ones wishes for the world and hope that they will be granted. And then we’re out into the morning. Suddenly, one is aware of how sore the feet are and what it is like not to have peed in 15 hours. Time to find a bar, lots are open. Coffee, cognac, a cigarette to round it off. Text a few people, even though they are in bed. No point in sleeping. The need for it seems to have disappeared.


The Christian conundrum

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017 0 Comments

Early Christianity expanded rapidly through Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy. Because it had no linguistic, cultural, ethnic or territorial centre, it spread to towns, cities and communities that differed widely from one another. The rulers of Rome had seen nothing like it and were confounded by this new and challenging ideology. The British classicist Mary Beard discusses how the Romans viewed the conundrum of Christianity in her excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Snippet:

“First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. SPQR All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

Is past prologue? Could a faith-based or technology-driven belief system challenge the fundamentals of our world? Note: The phrase “What’s past is prologue” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. In contemporary usage, the phrase stands for the idea that history sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.


Ausonius and Attusia and Valentinian

Tuesday, 14 February, 2017 0 Comments

Decimus Magnus Ausonius was the most famous poet of his time and Emperor Valentinian I summoned him to Rome to teach his son Gratian. He spent the years between 365 and 388 there and then returned to his native Bordeaux. In this epigram for his wife, Attusia, he pictures them still youthful in their old age. It is a haunting vision of a couple fully in love ageing together… and it’s entirely imaginary because Attusia died when she was 28. Forty years later, Ausonius wrote Ad Uxorem (To His Wife).

To His Wife

Love, let us live as we have lived, nor lose
The little names that were the first night’s grace,
And never come the day that sees us old,
I still your lad, and you my little lass.
Let me be older than old Nestor’s years,
And you the Sibyl, if we heed it not.
What should we know, we two, of ripe old age?
We’ll have its richness, and the years forgot.

Translation from the Latin by Helen Waddell (1889 – 1965)

Ad Uxorem

Uxor, vivamus quod viximus et teneamus
nomina quae primo sumpsimus in thalamo;
nec ferat ulla dies, ut commutemur in aevo,
quin tibi sim iuvenis tuque puella mihi.
Nestore sim quamvis provectior aemulaque annis
vincas Cumanam tu quoque Deiphoben,
nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus,
scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet.

Ausonius (310 – 395)


Renzi, Machiavelli and the public platform

Monday, 5 December, 2016 0 Comments

Niccolò Machiavelli: “The demands of a free populace, too, are very seldom harmful to liberty, for they are due either to the populace being oppressed or to the suspicious that it is going to be oppressed and, should these impressions be false, a remedy is provided in the public platform on which some man of standing can get up, appeal to the crowd, and show that it is mistaken. And though, as Tully remarks, the populace may be ignorant, it is capable of grasping the truth and readily yields when a man, worthy of confidence, lays the truth before it.” Discourses on Livy (1517), Book 1, Ch. 4 (as translated by LJ Walker and B Crick)

Whither now, Italy, after Matteo Renzi, a man of standing, appealed to the crowd, only to see his proposed reforms rejected by the public platform? The most pressing matter is the country’s banks, which have bad debts of €286 billion on their books. The third largest institution, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs a €5 billion recapitalisation, urgently. Although the situation is alarming, the can is kicked further down the road. The reason is that if the debts were written off, junior bondholders would take a massive hit, and many of these are ordinary Italians who bought useless bank debt.

Thanks to Renzi’s referendum, borrowing costs are increasing, making it very expensive to get capital for Italy’s zombie banks, and now there’s a government without a mandate. The fear is that the instability of Italy may spread from Rome to Brussels and beyond. Quoting Cicero, Machiavelli noted that the populace may be ignorant, but it is capable of grasping the truth.

Italy


Enough whiskey for a Mississippi River of pain

Saturday, 15 October, 2016 0 Comments

“Ya got cigarettes?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say,
“I got cigarettes.”
“Matches?” she asks.
“Enough to burn Rome.”
“Whiskey?”
“Enough whiskey for a Mississippi River of pain.”
“You drunk?”
“Not yet.”

Charles Bukowski (1920 — 1994)

Galty whiskey


How to Win an Election with Cicero

Monday, 26 September, 2016 0 Comments

It is being reported that the television audience for tonight’s debate at Hofstra University in New York between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could top 100 million. At this point in the US presidential race, many voters will have made up their minds but there is always the chance that one of the candidates might say or do something tonight that could influence the media’s interpretation of the debate. And it is the media that will decide the “winner” and the “loser”.

Whatever the reading of the debate, however, the battle will continue tomorrow. With the polls suggesting that the outcome is too close to call, it’s all to campaign for, which means it’s time to consult Cicero.

In 64 BC, the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. He was 42 and successful, but he was not a member of the ruling elite, and that was a major disadvantage. Still, he had a trump card, so to speak: the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering,” which some historians believe was written by his brother Quintus. Regardless of the authorship, the writer knew his Roman politics, which sound remarkably familiar.

How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero was translated by Philip Freeman and published in 2012 by Princeton Press. Snippets:

  • Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favors, old connections, availability, and natural charm. But in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.
  • There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people. You can win uncommitted voters to your side by doing them even small favors. So much more so all those you have greatly helped, who must be made to understand that if they don’t support you now they will lose all public respect. But do go to them in person and let them know that if they back you in this election you will be in their debt.
  • You must have a wide variety of people around you on a daily basis. Voters will judge you on what sort of crowd you draw both in quality and numbers. The three types of followers are those who greet you at home, those who escort you down to the Forum, and those who accompany you wherever you go.
  • You desperately need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office. If you use flattery to corrupt a man there is no excuse for it, but if you apply ingratiation as a way to make political friends, it is acceptable. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.
  • Keep the doors of your house open, of course, but also open your face and expression, for these are the window to the soul. If you look closed and distracted when people talk with you, it won’t matter that your front gates are never locked. People not only want commitments from a candidate but they want them delivered in an engaged and generous manner.

Cicero famously defeated Catiline, but he made many enemies during that race for consul and both he and his brother, Quintus, were murdered two decades later during the strife that accompanied the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.

Cicero


Homo homini lupus

Sunday, 4 September, 2016 0 Comments

The Latin proverb Homo homini lupus, or in its complete form Homo homini lupus est, means “A man is a wolf to another man,” or more concisely: “Man is wolf to man.”

“What is a saint supposed to do, if not convert wolves?” asked Umberto Eco in How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, and when Pope Francis canonises Mother Teresa today in St Peter’s Square in Rome, he will be making a saint a woman who epitomises his desire for a Church dedicated to the poor and acting as a shelter for the weak who are at the mercy of homo lupus. Cormac McCarthy described the human wolf thus in The Crossing: “that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his clan and kin and rout them from their house. A god insatiable whom no ceding could appease nor any measure of blood.”

The company of wolves

“Wolves are not ruled by law. They are ruled by the alpha wolf’s policy. Individual wolves can do anything not prohibited by the alpha wolf. They can do anything they can get away with doing. To the wolf — breaking sheep law or the alpha wolf’s policy only becomes serious if caught.” The Wolf and the Sheep