The glory of man is in his ruins

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Lake Jackson with the Grand Tetons behind. Photo: JH.

Friday, July 9, 2021. Yesterday was a very warm sunny weekday in New York. For more than a few it was the beginning of a long weekend out of town. Then about four in the afternoon it turned suddenly dark like very late afternoon, as if waiting for the storm to hit. By 5 it was coming down in torrents. By 6:30 it was mainly over, although still overcast. And cooler. We’ve had several days just like this: hot, muggy sunny and then sudden torrential rains cooling us off comfortably.

All aboard the Big Eagle.

Today is the second and final part of a Summer holiday that came my way as guest a number of years ago on a beautiful yacht cruising the Mediterranean in late July. These voyages (there would be two) were to me the greatest luxury that exists.

To be out there on the beautiful sea and often with view of the land along the shores conjuring up centuries of history and lives. On one voyage we stopped off to see Napoleon’s “house” on Elba from which he planned his ill-fated return to power. It’s the old world in the new world; one in the same.

On the voyage referred to in this memory, we had finished up our cruise, departing the boat in Naples (or Napoli) and being driven up to Rome. My great good fortune in this life has been the people I know and have known, particularly the friends often generous in sharing their lives. Rome was an example; a gift …

Friday, July 9, 2021. A trip to remember is the finale of our yachting adventure in the Mediterranean on another sunny and warm July.

In this dispatch we’d just come from Capri and Naples arriving in Rome in mid-afternoon. It was my first time in the Eternal City. I was all-eyes and agog at survivals of the ancient gods. The weather was warm although nothing compared to what we’ve been feeling in New York right now.

The Hotel Hassler.

All roads lead to Rome. Our last two days abroad were spent there. The Vatican. The Pantheon. The Villa Borghese. Roman/ Christian/ Renaissance/ Modern, all the epochs juxtaposed and converging. Always about money and power; nothing else. Artistry of course but the artists are clearly and most importantly, the messengers to the future of the past. When the Empire fell and the Church rose, it was more a game of substitution than the advancement of a philosophy.

We were put up at the Hassler, which is considered one of the best hotels in Rome. At the top of the Spanish Steps. It may have been busy but it didn’t seem to be bustling. I had a room on the second floor (the first in the hotel parlance) with a view of the vine-and-canopy covered back courtyard (and the Garden restaurant). It was serene with an occasional quiet voice of a staff member or a guest.

The fountain by Bernini the elder, at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

That night the same restaurant was “noisy” if I opened my window (which I did) — the voices of dozens of guests at dinner and drinks. I could hear a pianist in the lobby playing and singing (although the voice was not clear), the sounds echoing off the marble floors. They were sweet, intimate sounds, soothing, assuring mixed with the sounds of relaxed voices, foreign languages, laughter from individuals and sometimes a group. And the echoing strains of the grand piano in the background.

My room was larger than those I visited on the higher and more expensive floors with their views of the Spanish Steps and the city. Everything was pure, simple luxury. The mattress was hard, which I like. And the sheets were a fine cotton, which is always a pleasure. It is simpler, not as “decorated” as those on the floors above which had patterned wallcoverings and matching curtains, for example. My bathroom was more spacious (and completely adequate including bidet) and old fashioned (charming) while their bathrooms with a more modern finish, were less spacious.

Top: Looking up from the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Above: From atop the Spanish Steps, looking down towards the fountain by Bernini the elder. 7:00 AM.

I loved Rome. How could one not, at least under my circumstances. We dined at sunset at the restaurant at the top of the hotel as the city turned a rosy orange before our eyes and the lights began a-twinkling through. Like a perfect screen shot yet Real Life.

Much later that first day, close to midnight, I took a stroll with a friend who had been there many times and loves the city.

We stopped for a drink in a sidewalk café down some curving alley, intersecting with two other winding alleys and more impromptu looking cafes where it seemed as if tables and chairs had been set up on a street corner, all full. And the street was full of passing scooters and cars. Lots of young people going here and there in the balmy air and the narrow darkish pathways.

After our drink we walked over to the Pantheon. Built by Marcus Agrippa, nephew of Octavian, built as a temple to the gods. Nothing, no picture, can describe the actual experience of standing before this more than gargantuan yet elegant structure; elephantine power more than two millennia later.

One cannot even begin to comprehend its enormity and its impact on the psyche. I thought of all the slaves in Rome at that time; and their fearsome masters yet unvanquished and unaware of what Fate had in store.

Villa Borghese in the Borghese Gardens.

The following afternoon, a guide drove us through the city while providing a running commentary on what we were looking at. We went to the Borghese Gardens and the villa Borghese. Cardinal Borghese had created the villa, not for living, but for his collections. It was he who took the barely post-pubescent sculptor Bernini under his wing with the patronage to do the brilliant statuary/sculptures that he produced.

The cardinal, despite his title was more like acquisitive magnates of the 20th century, like Hearst or Frick, than like a holy man. Let alone Jesus. Borghese was fanatical. If there was something he wanted and he couldn’t buy it, he had it stolen. Thou Shalt Not… What? More like Morgan and/or any other rich man than like a man of God of the people.

The entrance to the Basilica.

The cardinal had the classic compulsive desire to possess more and to lord it over others. After the Empire fell, they took the gold doors of the Pantheon, melted them down and used them in the “tent,” the canopy that sits inside the basilica of Saint Peters. To the victor belongs, etc.

However. The people of Rome are so much more relaxed. Or so it seems. As if the Decline and Fall had mellowed the psyche of its inhabitants. The colors of their city are also soothing — the pastels. The reminders of the grim past — be they ancient church and/or state, are graceful in their antiquity. They harken dark thoughts and memories, or not, depending on what you wish to see. Just as it is in one’s life.

The Swiss guards keeping watch outside the side entrance of the Basilica.

We were scheduled to visit St. Peter’s, and one of guests on the Big Eagle had once seen it and was very excited just at the thought of seeing it again. “Wait till you see it!” he enthused several times.

Finally on the following day we were taken on a tour of the vast edifice under the great dome. It is of a magnitude that is the message incomparable to any ordinary man, and beaming, shining and casting the golden architecture and artisanship that envelopes the space. “What do you think?” he kept asking as I was overwhelmed taking it all in.

“What do I think?” I remember repeating… “I think they won! They got the gold!”

Everywhere we went, even standing outside the shops, watching, looking, was quenching my ever-thirsting curiosity. But the juxtaposition of the Ruins and the triumphal Vatican were the best and most stimulating to the imagination. The evidence of it all. The eternal human quest for power and/or wealth. Rome is proof of that, a thousand-fold.

Nevertheless, it all remains fascinating to behold, to experience, to conjure up, and to bask in. The glory of man is in his ruins, ultimately, according to Rome.

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