This summer I fulfilled a life-long dream; I went to Italy. Ah, Italia! You beauty! You land of history, food, and culture. Let me drown in you!
In preparation for our trip I did some research. As it quickly turned out we were set to go during the height of the tourist season – the very busiest month in fact – as well as during the midst of summer which translates to 40-degree days (120 for the nonconformists) and only the mildest respite in the shade.
No matter – what is a little sweat in exchange for a sun-bathed journey through the land of living history? (Incidentally I did the math. There is an exact exchange rate for water intake cost. The intake formula is 30ml/kg on a normal day. Increased to 60ml/kg on a hot day spent walking around Rome or Florence. For me that works out to four-and-a-half liters a day. A 500ml bottle of water anywhere near a tourist hot spot costs at least 1 Euro. Ergo I am drinking 9 Euros of water a day at the minimum and most of that collects on my forehead in beaded form.)
So it was hot and busy but no matter how large the crowd, it is not going to make a building like the Vatican, the Colosseum, or the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral any less dominant a feature that cast long shadows over all who gather before them. We would not be thwarted. That is to say we spent not a single moment in line anywhere; you don’t have to enter the Colosseum to appreciate the fact that even the husk that now remains – resigned to a life as a photo magnet and tourist turnstile – was built XX centuries ago by people whose understanding of personal hygiene and sanitation was in its infancy but whose understanding of architecture and aesthetics transcend out modern patience and fiscal ambition.
Similarly, you need not see a single painting hanging in a church or museum to realize the profound effect the Renaissance had on Italy, Italians, and Italian life; the evidence is all around you.
Even so, Rome is a broken city. The name rings with echoes of a fallen Empire. The mere word ‘Roma’ – once thunderous – is now empty, spoken casually, so long ago its associative glory that it is impossible to imagine how it once was. Oh, how I tried.
I tried as I touched the brittle, broken, pock-marked marble of the Rome that no longer exists. I tried as I walked the length of the Circus Maximus and gazed upon the nothing that was once not merely something but something extraordinary. I tried again when I stood upon the remnants of the fortress walls of San Gimignano overlooking the famed rolling hills of Tuscany, bathed in the golden light of the summer sun, with cicada chirping contently in the hot, arid air laced with lavender. I tried and I tried but I could not conjure the Rome of antiquity. I could not imagine the people who walked here before Italy was Italy, before the republic became an Empire, and before the Empire converted to Christianity. I could not differentiate between ruins merely a thousand years old and those some two-and-a-half thousand years old. The fact that any of these buildings remain at all – some having stood where they stand even today – almost ten times as long as the United States have existed as a nation, is nothing short of joyous.
It is upon the rubble of these humble beginnings that the Rome we can see today was built – a city spanning the long ages of antiquity – with each successive generation building upon the legacy of the last in a truly literal sense. The archeological excavations exposed to the casual passer by bear no resemblance to a city of white marble such as we imagine it in fiction and film. Bricks are heaped haphazardly upon one another, caked with mortar, weather-worn and formless. Upon these time-ravaged foundations stand recognizable walls, with other bricks, which in turn give way in places to the work of yet younger generations, as archways and sculptures still protrude from the rubble.
Yet Rome – ROMA CAPUT MUNDI – does yet remain. It is here, broken, yes, but defiant of its long years of decline, degradation, and abuse. Its words, its deeds, its monuments, and even its people exist in much of the Western world, changed but similar, in some form or another. We heed rules of law that first found favor on the floor of the ancient Roman Senate. We walk upon streets whose very use was pioneered and mastered long before there were air-conditioned cars and Google maps to guide us along them. We eat food and drink wine in Rome, doing – as we are fond of saying – as the Romans do.
Every building not labeled a historical monument or important cultural property has been re-purposed. Ancient ruins are concert spaces, old churches are museums, castle battlements are tourist walkways, and the towers souvenir shops. Even if you Photoshopped them all out, what remained would look nothing like the city once did when it yet was the center of the known world, nor would it necessarily be better. Less cluttered perhaps. Less distastefully commercial, certainly, but better, no. The Italians – modern Romans – enjoy the privilege of living in a country strewn with history. They have added to this delicious food, and lucked out with the weather as well. These things combined make for a $130 billion a year tourist industry – the fifth highest in the world. That means a colossal service industry replete with an army of waiters, bar tenders, taxi drivers, and junk peddlers. These people – on the surface – don’t give two shits about the fact that Rome was Rome before the invention of every convenience they now take for granted. To them the colosseum is just an obstruction to drive around, and the ruins of the Empire – and the Republic before it – not but places full of tourists to be avoided when possible and to be crossed, when necessary, as quickly as possible. How much different then would it be if we, collectively, set our minds to restoring those structures of ancient Rome that remain to their former glory. Let us have a functional colosseum, restored right down to the sand of the arena and the flags in the rafters. Let us have a Circus Maximus that seats 250,000 people – as it once did – in the place now merely market on tourist maps as such. Let’s have roman baths – the termae Romanus – and soak in the sun as well as the water while the business of modern Rome passes us by. Is that not better? Is that not a sound investment in a country that makes shoes, cars, wine, and pizza but otherwise depends on tourism to survive? We can’t all have Bruno Males and Armani suits. We can’t all drive Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis, but we can all enjoy cappuchinos, pizza, and the Colosseum as it once was: epic.
Of course this won’t happen. It’s too expensive, it’s taboo, it’s all far too ambitious in a recession economy and a social culture that values a talentless camera whore like Kim Kardashian at $XX million but where you cannot name a single contemporary architect capable of designing a colosseum, or a sculptor who can produce a modern ‘David.’ So, I am sad to resign myself to the fact that we will likely have Transformers V: CGI warriors, another trillion dollar war, and a bank bail-out or two rather than the glory of Rome – in any form – as it once was.
Then again, we – as a people – are not worth it. In that sense Michael Bay and the talking heads on television know us better than we know ourselves. They pander to our collective average, which is depressingly low, amusing us with explosions, what nipple slipped out of what celebrity’s dress, and how the other side is trying to turn our country into a Marxist state. They will continue to feed us the intellectual and cultural equivalent of junk food because when they give us nice things, like the treasures of Rome, we cover them in graffiti, we festoon them with souvenir shops, and we treat them like a child treats a Christmas present; amusing for a week and then we move on to newer, shinier things.
(I am especially amused when hordes of Chinese tourists descend upon a souvenir shop and spend their money on “I love Italy” paraphernalia made in factories in Xianzheng.)
But, of course the real reason is cost. It would all cost too much. Who would pay? Governments never have enough money unless the banks need a few hundred billion… twice, or some country most people can’t point to on a map needs a healthy injection of freedom in the form of the 101st Airborne and all the toys the boys at the Pentagon keep handy for just such an occasion. Suggest spending tax money on these things and the conservatives scream bloody murder about irresponsible government spending and the liberals question whether restoring ancient monuments should take precedence over educating our children.
That leaves private funding – or the mother of all Kickstarters – which would work except then you run into who covers loss of revenue of having the Colosseum wrapped in rafters and off-limits to the aforementioned tourists for a few years. You also run into problems with advertising (read: self-aggrandizing) because as we see with modern stadiums, raising the money is one thing, but calling it the Coca-Cola/McDonalds/IGN Colosseum leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Rather than banners adorned with the laurel wreath and the eagle of the Empire – the letters ‘SPQR’ below – the banners will sport the golden arches, the letters will read ‘Enjoy Coke,’ and the alcoves where once statues stood will be filled with television screens showing you a non-stop assault on the senses in the form of advertising.
No, not privately either then. That leaves just one option: re-instating the Empire itself. We pick a guy (or girl) and dress him in a toga and give him a golden crown. Then we hand him the reigns to five million square kilometers of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East and all who live there as he sets about improving the lives of everyone involved, as his predecessors did.
You laugh, but the Empire (even the much shorter-lived Western half) lasted over half a millennia and gave us innumerable technological advances and quality of life improvements. What I am trying to say is that there is nothing as effective as cutting through bureaucratic red tape as disposing of the government that produces the tape. To return to my original premise: there is no need to imagine how things might have been if Ceasar could make it so again. By having one guy make every decision, we will soon discover the joys of expedited reform without such ideas having to pass the pork barrel buffet or the cronies of big business Americans call congressmen and senators.
Like in ancient Rome checks and balances would exist in the form of military coup d’état and/or assassination, whilst unemployment would be 0% as there is always work for slaves and gladiators. Best of all, the first round of fights to the death in our newly renovated Colosseum could be between the now redundant politicians. Better still, since these bouts would be open to the public, no matter who won in the arena the people would come out on top. Hail Ceasar!
So you see, we can have nice things, we just can’t have nice things and a democratic government. We can restore Rome to its former glory, but we can’t do that and fund 500,000 “peacekeeping” troops abroad. We can ban guns, smoking, and even Justin Bieber, but that means bypassing a few (indeed all) of the judicial system’s laws and political limitations of power. As such the job of Emperor would be one of both awesome power and unprecedented responsibility, but you’ll be pleased to know, I’d be happy to do it. Hail Ceasar!