For the last few days, crisscrossing the cobblestones of the Eternal City, looking at the locals scurrying past (guiltily?); the other tourists prowling for a meal; tour leaders flagging forward their weary charges, I’ve been wondering about the Fall of Rome, the Fall of Eurozone; the Fall of Contemporary capitalism. I’ve been wondering about art, about history, about gelati.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc* pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
– from The Fall of Rome, W.H. Auden
(*Fisc = Treasury)
Italy is past the point of no return, if you believe in investment banks (“At this point, it seems Italy is now mathematically beyond the point of no return”). Which means, because of contagion, all Eurozone will succumb, according to the MD of the IMF (” ‘lost decade’ of economic growth thanks to a eurozone sovereign-debt crisis”). Thus, “The Treasury and Bank of England are making contingency plans for an “economic Armageddon”.
We walked past the Italian parliament at about 5pm today (pictured above) — getting lost looking for a particular flavour of gelato; I could picture the shop, but not the street. There were groups of journos and tv folk, hanging about, speaking into camera, waiting for Godot, euro, hero. But where was my shop? My cone, my cono? (Specifically: Baba al rum, and Noce.)
But wait, there is less
And my favourite liberal pessimist, Paul Krugman, is beginning to believe in the end of the Euro. Such an event would cascade onto an already weak US which then inevitably triggers the next Great Depression.
But wait, not quite all economists therefore think the dominoes must fall (there’s always one, isn’t there?). Writing in the Daily Beast, Zachary Karabell wonders: “But does it? I mean, does it really?”
I’m going to cut his version short — but do have a read. He writes: “Let’s just take some basic math: blah, bla, bla . . . blah, bla, blah — the extra expense of financing Italian debt is a grand total of 1 percent of overall Italian output.” (Itals mine.) He proves, in banker’s math, that the nighness of the end is exaggerated. That is to say, one economist can convincingly prove another economist wrong.
(Right: a high relief from the National Etruscan Museum, Rome. A scene of gods fighting men. The lower two figures show one biting into the brain of the other.)
But what caught my eye, held my thought, is this beautiful passage at the end of Karabell’s article:
“We are now in a period of adjusting to the reality of ever-present risk that the financial world, connected globally and electronically without circuit breakers, might fail. One day it is Greece, today it is Italy, and tomorrow it may be France or the United States—or Iran. We will over time learn to treat those risks with greater equanimity. For now, we at least need to stop and realize that Italy is a rich and vibrant society; a land of immense beauty and culture, with a fair number of viable and supremely successful industries. But it is not the hinge of global prosperity; it matters, but not that much.” (Itals mine.)
What a thing for an economist to write! “…is a rich and vibrant society; a land of immense beauty and culture”. Yes, economics matter, and politics is a fact of living and dying. But how easy to forget what it’s all for. Okay, let us ask: ‘What is it all for?’ That is what we are here to answer. And I feel certain our life’s purpose is not to ensure the everlastingness of the consensual construct of the Euro. Money is a tool (hey, that’s funny; and was it Larkin who wrote, “Money is sad”?) — yes, no?
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
– ibid, Auden
So, earlier today, we were poking our way though the Villa Giulia, home of the wonderful Etruscan Museum (the splendid building includes a Nyphaeum — which is more or less what it sounds like). The collection of exhibits is phenomenal, and many of the pieces are mind-blowing/expanding. The sheer beauty and sophistication of the work. But also, the rehearsals and recognitions of perenial human traits — as Dooley Wilson sang in Casablanca: “It’s still the same old story, the fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.”
Above is the famous, fabulous Euphronios krater at the Museum. It is celebrated as the greatest extant piece by the greatest pottery painter we know of, Euphronios, a legendary Greek artist of the 6th century BC.
The scene depicted is from Homer’s Illiad: “Hermes directing Sleep and Death as they transport Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, to Lycia for burial.” The krater is in superb condition and the line work is exquisite, there is no other word for it. And once we get past the sublime artistry we also begin the absorb its deep pathos. In a city rich with images of a fallen figure cradled by mourners — with Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ (and Hans Memling’s version) this compact painting is not diminished.
Part of its power lies in its illustration of ancient themes, or rather, the ancientness of its theme — the fall of a beloved hero in battle. It’s a great and grave reminder that the verities are perpetual, unnegotiable: death and loss and love.
(Above right: small bronze figurines depicting soldiers bearing a fallen companion, 500 BC. It may as well be a scene from Afghanistan today.)
Rome is also the city that John Keats died in 1821 at the age of 25. (Pictured, his death mask.) Not as well-regarded then as now, he managed that rare feat of leaving us a few strings of words that seem always timely, always quotable:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”
He died in a small room in his apartment next to the busiest of destinations in Rome today, the Spanish Steps. In contrast, his memorial house/museum must rate as one of the quietest and least visited of tourist sites. From his Ode on a Grecian Urn (the “Thou” in the second line is the urn):
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
What are we living for, what are we trying to make? Perhaps this: “a rich and vibrant society; a land of immense beauty and culture”. Which would also be a world where the search for an excellent gelato may be understood as more than mere frivolity; what brings pleasure and joy to the senses is good, is a thing of beauty.