Swans Commentary » swans.com December 13, 2010  



Perspectives: A Review of 2010


The Fall Of The House Of Pompeii


by Fabio De Propris







Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam. ("All roads lead to Rome.")


(Swans - December 13, 2010)   Some things are falling apart every minute, while others grow and get stronger. Such is life. Nonetheless there are crashes that produce a noise beyond compare. In Italy, 2010 was a bad year for Roman walls. Misfortune came in March to Emperor Nero's palace in Rome, called the Domus Aurea, (The Golden House), built over in 104 A.D. by Traianus (Trajan) but rediscovered in the Renaissance. The masterpiece lost an arch sixty square meters wide, luckily in an area that had been closed to visitors. The ever iconic Colosseum (Coliseum) that still stands nearby let fall several lethal chunks of mortar in April. Later, on November 6, one of the buildings of Pompeii, near Naples, the House of the Gladiators (Schola Armaturarum) fell to pieces.

The European economy and its political influence have been weaker this year than at any time since the beginning of the millennium. The woes of PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain), the piglet Ireland, and all the other animals of the farm are sadly evoked by the fall of the house in Pompeii, the most famous archaeological site of the Mediterranean area.

Renown all over the world, Pompeii welcomes some twenty-five million visitors each year. These tourists breathe, walk, do the touchy-feely, and sometimes steal a tessera or two (cube-shaped tiles from the mosaics), which have fallen on the ground. In other words Pompeii's immense popularity is one cause of its collapse. British writer Robert Harris, author of the historical novel Pompeii (2003), said in an interview published by an Italian newspaper ("Il dovere di tramandarla alle future generazioni," La Repubbica, November 8, 2010, p. 29) that he considers himself to some extent responsible. His great love for the site led him to write his novel, many of whose readers have probably become visitors, increasing the number of those who contribute to ruin the ruins. The story of oil is no different: its great success as fuel has doomed it to extinction. Who knows, maybe Mr. Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) felt sorry from time to time for his invaluable contribution to spreading the use of oil worldwide.

Oscar Wilde told us that each man kills the thing he loves. But sometimes inept bureaucracy pitches in to help. Mrs. Thatcher's doctrine of the efficiency of private enterprise and the sluggishness of public service has been taken on board by just about everyone in the West. Italy has followed suit and in the last two decades at Pompeii archaeologists and guardians paid by the state were replaced by the personnel of private agencies.

Although much public money was spent to pay for private services, they didn't turn out to be superior to public ones. Some public euros, moreover, ended in the pockets of shady middlemen whose interest in ancient Roman coins was nil. So the deterioration of Pompeii can be partly ascribed to privatization, the cure-all discovery that over the last thirty years has been solving problems with the effectiveness of a gun aimed at the cranium of a man with an aching head. A bullet in the brow will certainly end his headache.

A house falling all of a sudden is an image that led me back to an American classic, The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allen Poe.

The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves.

The Schola Armaturarum and the House of Usher must have almost looked alike.

Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.

In Pompeii perhaps a scrutinizing inspector did his duty. But administrators answered him that there was no money for repairs to be made just then. Modern private managers prefer to spend more money on advertising than on restoration. If you do something good, but no one knows it, it's as if you didn't do anything at all. That's an article of contemporary mass-media faith. There are those that go farther: they shout so loudly that they have done something good that it becomes irrelevant actually to do anything. In 2010 these articles of faith proved to be bad theology.

After reading all of Poe's story, a comparison comes to mind between Europe and householder Roderick Usher, a daydreamer with a cadaverous complexion whose "excessive nervous agitation" leads him to do nothing but wait for his death.

Another passage of the story -- the description of one of Usher's paintings -- astonished me even more, and opened a new perspective on the year 2010.

By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. [...] One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.

This masterful depiction reminded me of the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) subterranean laboratory between Switzerland and France. In March and November 2010, down there, in a huge ring-shaped particle accelerator (called LHC, Large Hadron Collider), built a hundred meters underground, the scientists eventually carried out long-planned experiments, which consisted in recreating the conditions immediately after the Big Bang. They made collide two beams (hadrons) of subatomic particles head-on at very high energy. Whatever the outcome of these experiments will be, perhaps the reconciliation of Einstein's theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics, or the discovery of still smaller subatomic particles, in "the interior of that immensely long [...] tunnel" called LHC, scientists are drawing the scenery of a new vision of matter and of the whole universe.

It could be that our Roderick Ushers, though unable to restore their ancestors' and sometimes their own buildings, will find, thanks to "phantasmagoric conceptions," a way to understand how to obtain energy without destroying the planet. Or that the new discoveries will deliver a "ghastly and inappropriate splendor" from matter (or antimatter) as a new weapon, in a fresh chapter of an old story begun with stones and axes.

Because of ineffective governance of the economy and finance, the European Community may follow the gloomy destiny of the House of the Gladiators. (Mr. Usher is too esoteric to delve into the dismal science.) The Italian government wants to save public money by cutting the funding of state universities. Students and researchers, at the end of November, protested in a sensational way: they climbed up on San Marco's church in Venice, on the famous leaning tower in Pisa, and on to the Colosseum in Rome.

In a year of constructions bound to tumble down and of a more and more unstable global equilibrium, Italian prime minister Berlusconi continued to concentrate more on his private cares and consolations than on his public duties. But, as the months passed, his beaming optimism several times gave way to bitter recrimination and mushy nostalgia. We can send off the year 2010 with Cole Porter's song Where is the life that late I led? from the musical Kiss me, Kate (1948):

Where is the life that late I lead?
Where is it now? Totally dead!
Where is the fun I used to find?
Where has it gone? Gone with the wind!
In dear Milano, where are you Momo?
Still selling those pictures of the Scriptures in the Duomo?
And sweet Lucretia, so young and gay,
What scandalous doings in the ruins of Pompeii?


The author thanks Peter Byrne for reviewing his English.


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Years in Review


Patterns which Connect


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Published December 13, 2010