(Sort of) Life Imitates (So-called) Art

In the three-and-a-bit hours since the previous post, I’ve just finished watching The Godfather, Part Three, with a handful of friends — with a fine shot of Calvi hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in one of the final frames — and when I return to my computer I find that Giulio Andreotti has been convicted of murder. A certain debased variety of (sort of) life imitating (so-called) art…

J W von Goethe Presiding Over the Introduction to Rome of Paedophilia and Cunnilingus

The weblog was idle in September largely because I was encamped in Rome, in the very congenial surroundings of the British School at Rome, writing some of the final sections of my PhD manuscript. (The end is in sight!)

Which reminds me that I wanted to post an image of the Goethe monument, which stands in the Borghese Gardens about five minutes walk from the school. As Nick pointed out to me back in 1994, when we both happened to be in Rome at the same time, the proper title of the statue should be “J W von Goethe Presiding Over the Introduction to Rome of Paedophilia and Cunnilingus”, on the left and right respectively.

Nick wrote [3.10.2002]: Gosh, I must have had a filthy mind when I was younger. Thanks for reminding me.


Nick gave me a copy of Steven Runciman’s book, The Sicilian Vespers, several years ago. I only read it last week, however, during a visit to Sicily, only to find I found that the book didn’t in fact have a great deal to do with Sicily at all, which makes a brief appearance at the beginning and at the end. It was, however, immensely enjoyable, and I learned more about European diplomacy, c.1250-1282 than I ever thought I would care to know. And the final paragraphs of the book are superb:

The Sicilian men who poured, with knives drawn, through the streets of Palermo on that savage evening struck their blows for freedom and for honour. They could not know to what consequences it would lead them and with them the whole of Europe. Bloodshed is an evil thing and good seldom comes of it. But the blood shed on that evening not only rescued a gallant people from oppression. It altered fundamentally the history of Christendom.

The lesson was not entirely forgotten. More than three centuries later King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm that he could do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the King of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast at Milan”, he said, “and I will dine at Rome”. “Then”, replied the ambassador, “Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers”.

It is an excellent joke, and a very fine book.

Nick wrote [20.4.2002]: It is also *invaluable* as a “Who’s Who” to Dante’s Inferno. I’m surprised you didn’t mention this.

Images of the Week, #11

Three images from the streets of Rome yesterday morning, during the first General Strike in twenty years, thanks to Jo, who has the nifty gadget which can turn her Palm Pilot into a digital camera from time to time.

Here I am, sideburns clearly visible, helping to carry the “Giovani Comunisti” banner, which needed a hand, somewhere above the Spanish Steps.

My very favourite slogan, draped from the balustrade of the Borghese Gardens above the Piazza del Popolo.

The presiding spirits of the Piazza del Popolo supervise the gathering throng.

Stewart wrote [18.4.2002]: It just struck me (no pun intended) that you bear an uncanny resemblance in that photo to Ray Manzarek, keyboard player from The Doors.

Chris adds [19.4.2002]: Best banner on the demonstration: Movimento Soap-Operaio.

Nick writes [20.4.2002]: I *obviously* don’t have enough to do. People will make posters and T-shirts from this, in years to come:

Right-Wing Politicians Seek the Hobbit Vote

From Reuters (with thanks to Naunihal for passing this my way):

ROME (Reuters) – The rest of the world may see box office smash The Lord of the Rings as a mythical tale of hobbits and goblins but some young members of Italy’s far right hope to use the film to promote their political ideals.

“We want to use the event as an incredible volcano to help people understand our view of the world,” said Basilio Catanoso, youth wing leader of the far-right National Alliance party.

Right-wing thinkers and publishers, who introduced the Italian public to the fantasy classic in the 1970s, see the 1,000-page tome by Britain’s J.R.R. Tolkien as a celebration of their own values of physical strength, leadership and integrity.

The National Alliance youth wing is looking back to the 1970s when Italian rightists spun its own interpretation of Tolkien’s mythical world to bolster their image, already imbued with Celtic legends, knights and a cult of personal strength.

“There is a deep significance to this work. The Lord of the Rings is the battle between community and individuality,” Catanoso said.

But the tale can be seen supporting either end of the political spectrum. ”The destruction of the ring of power, the multiracial aspect — hobbits, elves, men and dwarfs united against evil are all leftist ideals,” said Francesco Alo’, editor of Italian film Web site www.caltanet.it.

Tolkien always denied any political intent in the book.

The story follows the struggle of a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood in the film, to destroy a ring of power which holds the key to the future of civilization.

The cult book evokes a fantasy world peopled by goblins, hobbits and elves.

“Only in Italy is The Lord of the Rings seen as right wing, no other country in the world has a similar reading of Tolkien,” said Valerio Evangelisti, an Italian fantasy writer.

In the 1970s, neo-fascist summer training centers nicknamed ”Hobbit Camps” were set up by the National Alliance’s predecessor, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The National Alliance split from the MSI in the mid-1990s. Its current leader, Gianfranco Fini, who is also deputy prime minister, has tried to give the party a new image.

The National Alliance has five ministers in the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But tradition still echoes in the party’s ranks.

National Alliance’s youth wing plans a campaign to boost membership, inviting students to “enter the fellowship,” an allusion to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the Tolkien trilogy.

The film opened on Friday in 700 cinemas in Italy. So far it has grossed more than $500 million worldwide.

I’ll stop posting tonight soon, I promise.

Very rarely do men know how to be altogether wicked or altogether good

From Machiavelli’s Discourses, I.27:

When Pope Julius II went to Bologna in 1505 to expel from that state the house of Bentivogli, which had held the princiapte of the city for a hundred years, he also wished – as one who had taken an oath against all the tyrants who seized towns of the church – to remove Giovampagolo Baglioni, tyrant of Perugia. Having arrived near Perugia, with this intent and decision known to everyone, he did not wait to enter that city with his army, which was guarding him, but entered it unarmed, notwithstanding that Giovampagolo was inside with many troops that he had gathered for defense of himself. So, carried along by that fury with which he governed all things, he put hiimself with a single guard in the hands of his enemey, whom he then led away with him, leaving a governor in the city who would render justice for the church. The rashness of the pope and the cowardice of Giovampagolo were noted by the prudent men who were with the pope, and they were unable to guess whence it came that he did not to his perpetual fame, crush his enemy at a stroke and enrich himself with booty, since with the pope were all the cardinals with all their delights. Nor could one believe that he had abstained either through goodness or through conscience that held him back; for into the breast of a villainous man, who was taking his sister for himself, who had killed his cousins and nephews so as to reign, no pious respect could descend. But it was concluded that it arose from men’s not knowing how to be honorably wicked or perfectly good; and when malice has greatness in itself or is generous in some part, they do not know how to enter into it.

So Giovampagolo, who did not mind being incestuous and a public parricide, did not know how – or, to say it better, did not dare, when he had just the opportunity for it – to engage in an enterprise in which everyone would have admired his spirit and that would have left an eternal memory of himself as being the first who had demonstrated to the prelates how little is to be esteemed whoever lives and reigns as they do; and he would have done a thing whose greatness would have surpassed all infamy, every danger, that could have proceeded from it.

From the translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov.

Domus Aurea

I was lucky enough to be in Rome at the weekend, and visited the “Domus Aurea”, Nero’s “Golden House”, which is carved out underneath the Caelian Hill. Suetonius has this marvellous description of what it was once like, from his life of Nero in The Twelve Caesars:

“His wastefulness showed most of all in the architectural projects. He built a palace, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he called ‘The Passageway’; and when it burned down soon afterwards, rebuilt it under the new name of ‘The Golden House’. The following details will give some notion of its size and magnificence. A huge statue of himself, 120 feet high, stood in the entrace hall; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands – where every variety of domestic and wild animals roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and nacre. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. The main dining-room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulphur water, was always on tap in the baths. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark: ‘Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!’.”

It would be lovely, if implausible, to think that this was what Nero’s tutor Seneca was thinking of, when he issued his famous injunction at the end of his treatise De Ira (On Anger) that we should learn to “cultivate our humanity” (colamus humanitatem).