Friday, February 17, 2012
Punto e Basta
I'm about to sally forth from the lobby into my last night in Rome. Some small event in the adjacent salon is either gearing up or dispersing; ladies in red chat with silver-haired gentlemen, glasses in hand, draped in that effortless Old World style that cannot be learned in less than a hundred generations.
I am right where I want to be, both weighted and freed by the knowledge that in the morning I must leave. One last indulgence, like the bijou you pick on instinct from the dessert plate hoping very much you won't be disappointed. This city, or this golden pile of cities stretching back to prehistory, is the Platonic ideal of dessert plates -- it is a place and time in life when disappointment is not possible.
The early summer air outside the heavy bronze doors is light, suspended by the glow of the Colosseum down the street slope. I'm a ghost, and cannot affect, change, add to, or subtract from anything here. All the work has been done; the tides of time and the millions who had a name, or did not, leave me their best. But only for a little longer. When the gods deign to be generous, you're well advised not to be greedy.
Tonight I feel free to get lost in the Subura, the oldest and most disreputable area of ancient Rome, under me about ten or twenty feet. It would of course be an accident, and I would not know it, but I want to be on the spot where Gaius Caesar was born to the exceptional Aurelia in a tenement. Unless long ago swept to the northern home of the Goths or the silken court of the Celestial Emperor in the east, the air I breathe might well be that which animated that mother and son.
I round a corner and am on the Via dei Serpenti, thinking it a good start, the serpent being such a powerful symbol of the earth to the ancestors of the first nameless tribe to build their huts on these strong hills. A few blocks along, the lights and sounds of two piazzas grace the night with perfect music. In the lyrics, the speech, I hear no English, French or German; even a short distance from the main corso visitors like me have not found their way. I glance but am not regarded.
I turn east and turn again. Slicing through the city not all that far away, the broad busy boulevards with grand names sparkle like backlit champagne, but these streets are lit by the half-moon and a few streetlamps only. Vicolos, alleys, begin and end in angles that would confound any geometer.
There are no two maps of Venice that agree, and I am doubting that even if I had one of the Subura now it would be of any use. But ahead, some light spills from an open ground-floor door, and I believe someone's there. Romans aren't the least apprehensive of strangers, and I'd like to say,
"Buonasera!" The old fellow beat me to it. He may have been hoping, with everyone seemingly asleep or away, for a little company too.
I returned the greeting, gave my name (I felt some confidence in my casual Italian, less in my verb conjugation ) and praised the lovely night.
"I am Ermarco, and glad to make your acquaintance. Nine million stranieri come to Roma yearly, and I rarely meet even one. I love the quiet, but enough! Tell me, if you will, where you are from and what -- I must admit my curiosity along with my poor manners -- brings you here?"
I spared the poor fellow most of an explanation of years of preparation, internet searches and study of books and maps in order to penetrate and know just a few parts of the city in some kind of depth.
"But," I joked, "it's like sending myself to hunt bear in the Urals with a .22 revolver. It's exciting, but I am not prepared."
"Ha!" He grasped my arm, but lightly.
"Please come inside. Have you eaten? You could benefit from a rest, I think."
"I would, thank you, but I couldn't impose" (I wasn't sure I had the right word). I did, however, smell something irresistible and decided immediately to give in to the least persuasion.
"I eat alone far too many days; I insist! Friends and family eat together, do they not? The only difference is the amount of shouting! Ha!" He gestured for me to get off my feet and turned into a pantry-sized room.
I slid, gratefully, onto one of the two chairs hugging the round wood table, my fingers making cirlces on the surface (how old?) and I surveyed, without focusing, the uneven walls filled with pictures, books and a calendar. Ermarco set a slightly dusty half-full bottle on the table with one hand while he removed the cork with the other.
As I looked up to acknowledge this undeserved but very welcome gift, with evident pride he announced, "Rocca di Mondragone! From the fields where the ancients made the bellisima Falerian. Why must the best be lost? But - ha! - this one is not bad."
He filled the glasses a little overfull, to my delight, and we lifted high a toast to the sweet life.
Then he rose and held up a finger, saying with no words: wait for it.
From the pantry, which I assumed must serve well but minimally as a kitchen since I could not see around the curtain, he returned with a bowl of exactly what I was looking for without knowing it --
If you set your scribe (already, I think like a Roman patrician) to list all the foods, just in the province of Lazio, that are each in order more memorable than the previous, well, the fellow would be old before his task was finished. And I would expect that this simple marinated vegetable salad in which the eggplant achieves its apotheosis would be, without argument, high on that list.
We lingered over it; all the time in the world was ours. The generous Ermanco had other bottles for us to explore and we neither abused nor neglected them.
Not having nearly the story to tell that I suspected he did, I asked my host, my friend, about his family and its roots here.
"The beginning, the tradition about our beginning, as I was told, was with a man from Greece who was a teacher; he had himself been a student at The Garden in Athens -- the school founded by the philosopher Epicurus."
I resisted a strong urge to interrupt and say, oh yes, I know of him, and Aristippus and how all their works would be lost if Lucretius...fortunately, wine can make you a little wiser before it makes you stupid.
"Even I am named after Hermarchus, who led the school after the death of Epicurus. We have, over twenty-two centuries, remained true to the principles of rational materialism. But no school, no teaching."
"Si, even before the Christians. The Stoics, the new Platonists, the state religion, they did not care for us much either. But it is one thing to deny you a place to teach and it is another to stone and burn you. Even the poet of our nation, Dante Alighieri, placed Epicurus as the first heretic encountered in his journey into the Hells. He would have been amused, I think, as no practicioner of religion, to be thought of as a heretic. Not logical, no?"
I sank back and leaned the chair against the wall, looking for support.
"As I understand it, the Epicurean subjects all things that come to the human mind -- ideas, passions, beliefs, suppositions, fears, revelations -- to verification against experience" (Italian vocabulary is failing me here, but I try). "But this infuriates people and authorities -- they love their superstitions."
"So we do not write new books, not only because it is dangerous or futile, either one; what has come down to us cannot be said any more clearly. With trusted friends, it is always a joy to discuss the ideas of living modestly, comparing abstractions with the observed laws of nature, and the way to tranquility of the mind..." Ermarco almost sighed as his voice trailed off.
I tried to lift the weight of centuries off the old fellow's shoulders a little.
"You have heard, no doubt, of the discovery at Ercolano -- the papyrus manuscripts?"
"Si si! It was always said that Philodemus had original Epicurus in his library, but all was of course lost with the explosion of Vesuvius. Then, in our lifetimes, some are found under many meters of lava ash! The work to restore even a little will take so much time, though...so much expense..."
We were silent for a while, and contemplated our hands.
I violated the quiet: "The ancient gods of Egypt, Persia and Rome died when people stopped believing in them, even though they were very powerful before. But, you know, the words, the ideas, of the old master, and his inspiration, Democritus, live on. Science is both powerful and humble -- it asks to be questioned. No gods can tolerate that."
"My ancestor brought the thought of Epicurus to this place from the home of philosophy. I have tried to understand it, and live it. And we have done that tonight, amico: the pleasures of friendship, of the table, of the open mind -- well, the gods, may they have peace, knew no better than these."
I am back home now. Tony Bennett left is heart in San Francisco, and I am sure you know where mine is. Will I ever see my friend again? I never asked his surname and he did not offer it. I searched old books and articles on the Rione Monti, as the modern Subura is known, and of course maps (internet and paper), and still have no idea where his home is or how I got there after wandering off the Via.
I only found my way back by going uphill on the Viminale until I saw the glow of the modern city. I remember, it struck me as I left the boulevard to its brief late-night rest and ascended the stairs to the silent bronze doors, that Rome and all Italy live, in many ways, the Epicurean life. It's hiding in plain sight.