Monday, November 19, 2012

Tourists at the Colliseum

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Rome.

Most tourists are reasonably sensible people, but the loopy ones are beautiful to behold and a joy forever.  I present for your delectation two parties overheard outside the coliseum:

Party A stepped out of the Metro, into the glare of the sunlight reflected off the bulk of the marble, and spake thusly, in west coast American accents:
“Whoooah, that is HEAVY.  Dude, it’s like…. all made of STONE, man.  Did they, like, lock people up in there or something?  Man, what kind of religion WERE those people? WHOOOOOAHH.”

Party B was a woman and her increasingly exasperated husband, picking their way across the rutted travertine cobbles around the base of the Arch of Constantine:
“I assure you, darling, that ‘back then’ these cobblestones WERE quite smooth!”
“Are you SURE?”  The wife asked suspiciously. “They were REALLY old-time people back then.  How do you KNOW that they knew how to build a proper road?”
“….But…. They built the Coliseum!  The forum!  The Palatine Hill!”  The husband was almost crying with frustration.  “They’re right there! You can see THEM!   I THINK they knew how to build a little road!”
From his wife’s expression, she was not convinced.

Passing ahead of the dear darlings, we walked into the bowl of the coliseum and hitched rides with English and Spanish language-tours and learned a lot that we didn't need to know about the inventive cruelty of Roman Theatrical Impresarios.
If any of it is actually true.  One hears rumors.  And quite a few militantly revisionist historians.

Sure, the old lady isn’t looking her best, but she’s been through an awful lot – almost two thousand years of spectacle, earthquake and fire, her outer layers being quarried away to build baroque rome – the splendid miracle of her is that after all that time and tribulation she still packs on hell of a punch. 

Mr Tabubil couldn’t have given a toss about the torrid historical horrors – he was just plain THRILLED by the building.
“We’ve seen enough churches – it’s time for some history! History that just happens to be built really big and buttressed.  I like engineering, okay?"

At the end of the afternoon we walked from the Coliseum into town, past the monument to Vittorio Emanuele, the first king of the United Italy.
The Vittorio Emanuele monument is an enormous construction, and to many reputable and critical eyes, a double sin against both history and good taste.  But I liked it. 
Erected (and that’s the only word – take it as you will) in 1911, the great big THING is a semi-circular Corinthian colonnade, with an enormous winged goddess driving chariots along the roof at each end.  The colonnade sits on four or five tiered pediments of white marble - carrara marble, not the humble workaday travertine with which the ancient Italians built Rome! 
There are even a couple of eternal flames burning in braziers out before the front gate.

It is very Victorian –if a couple of decades too late for the appellation: grandiose, cheerfully pretentious, and historically revisionist.  It is vast and majestic and it glitters in the sun.  It is what Ancient Rome SHOULD have looked like.  It is Gladiator, and Ben Hur and Spartacus and the Arch of Constantine and the Baths of Caracalla and the Coliseum when it was new.
It is utterly... utterly... satisfactory, as a symbol of an Italy reunited, after a thousand and a half years of tumultuous division.

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