Humbling to see what history has forgotten

The Middle Ages

October 21, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

I recently returned from a trip to Italy, where I attended the wedding of the daughter of a dear friend and where I pondered, among other things, the meaning of old.

It was not just the age of the things I was seeing that struck me, it was the way places once steeped with meaning and reverence had deteriorated to the point of near obscurity.

For a baby boomer, the evidence of such forgetfulness is not comforting. What and who matters enough to be remembered?

After his colleagues in the Roman senate rose up and assassinated him for his ambition in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was cremated, as per the custom of the times.

But when an eagle - a Roman symbol of divinity - appeared over the funeral pyre, the Romans concluded that they had just dispatched a god and went about making amends by building Caesar a temple, where his ashes were placed.

All these thousands of years later, that temple is just a pile of broken rocks in what once was the Roman Forum, identifiable only through the wonders of archaeology.

Still, each year on the Ides of March, reverent Romans wearing togas come to the supposed site of Caesar's temple and sing songs of praise. They place flowers on what they believe is the altar that once held his remains. There is no sign of an urn.

It is hard to imagine such ambiguity about the grave of John F. Kennedy.

Across town in Rome is the Pantheon, a temple built in 125 A.D. to honor all the gods and nearly perfectly preserved to this day because it was converted to a Christian church before it could suffer any vandalism.

The coffered, concrete dome of the Pantheon, and the Great Eye open to the sky, is an engineering marvel. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture.

But during the Middle Ages, all sorts of myths arose to explain its perfection because the Romans of that time could not remember how such a marvelous dome was constructed. In fact, they still don't remember who built it.

Can you imagine collectively forgetting the engineering and artistic techniques that were used to create the winged walls of the Gehry Opera House in Los Angeles, or the genius behind it?

Can you imagine the evaporation of such knowledge?

While in Italy, I also visited the ancient town of L'Aquila, and walked on streets and past houses that date to the 13th century, so old that they make my historic town of Annapolis seem like nothing more than a tired suburban subdivision.

We baby boomers are regularly tattooed with the sin of narcissism - nothing mattered until we arrived and nothing will be the same when we are gone. But the Roman Coliseum or the Sistine Chapel will cure you of that conceit.

After seeing such magnificent creations, it is hard to imagine that the life and times of a soccer mom will amount to a hill of beans when the future arrives.

Our country is still in its infancy compared to the cities of Europe, and we have made a study of the art of preservation, so there is hope our monuments and our writings will survive when the time we are living in now is considered "antiquity." Perhaps the great temples we have erected to our founding fathers will crumble only on the movie screen, under assault from computer-generated aliens.

But still, it is humbling to realize that no one can say for sure where the great Julius Caesar's remains lie, or to realize that a chunk of engineering knowhow was simply forgotten for a couple of hundred years and the genius who created it will probably never get credit.

President Bush likes to comfort his colleagues when they are under siege by saying that historians will have the final word and, in any case, everybody in the room will be dead when they do.

It makes you wonder if he's been to Rome.

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