When in Rome…

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One of the characteristics of the Renaissance in the West (at the risk of over-generalization) was a fascination with all things classical; that is, the Greco-Roman heritage of both West and East. As the West was reintroduced, to some extent, to this heritage, it would become a locus of art, literature and a host of other fields towards the closing of the Middle Ages. (as strained and artificial such a categorization may be…)

One wonder, however, if the humanists of the Renaissance would really have wanted to appropriate all of the classical heritage. Paeans to the glory of ancient Rome must be mitigated by the smell of the gutter. Or so says someone who lived in the thick of it- Juvenal by name. A satirist by trade, his description of life in Rome is no doubt accurate, for satire is best when it is true, and Juvenal was the best of the best when it came to such barbed words.

Most sick men here die from insomnia (of course their illness starts with food undigested, clogging the burning stomach)- for in any rented room rest is impossible. It costs money to sleep in Rome.

There is the root of sickness. The movement of heavy wagons through the narrow street, the oaths of stalled cattle drovers would break the sleep of a deaf man or a lazy walrus.

On a morning call the crowd gives way before the passage of a millionaire carried above their heads in a litter, reading the while he goes, or writing, or sleeping unseen; for a man becomes sleepy with closed windows and comfort. Yet he’ll arrive before us. We have to fight our way through a wave in front, and behind us we are pressed by a huge mob shoving our hips; an elbow hits us here and a pile there, now we are smashed by a beam, now biffed by a barrel.

Our legs are thick with mud, our feet are crushed by large ubiquitous shoes, a soldier’s hobnail rests on our toe…

Newly mended shirts are torn again. A fir tree flickers from the advancing dray, a following wagon carries a long pine: they swing and threaten the public. Suppose the axle should collapse, that axle carrying Ligurian stone, and pour a mountain out over the people- what would be left of the bodies? the arms and legs, the bones, where are they? The ordinary man’s simple corpse perishes like his soul. [1. Juvenal, Satires III, 232-248, 254ff. (from “The World of Rome” by Michael Grant)]

Of course, anyone familiar with city life can at once recognize that Juvenal’s Rome could be any large city. Replace litters with Hummers, wagons with SUV’s and the carts carrying Ligurian stone with 16 year olds texting while speeding in their parents’ Explorer, and Juvenal would be quite at home in the modern world.

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  • Proliferation of creative thought apparently does not call for a regiment of sleep (if the renaissance in Rome is any indicator). Perhaps the modern notion of requiring a full night of sleep to be fully functional is actually a hindrance to the potential of creativity. An interesting tie in with our modern condition. Are we more or less like our renaissance ancestors?

  • David- you may be right. However, I suppose one might want to qualify the creativity that was a part of the Renaissance. In regards to painting…sure. (although Giotto pretty much was the most creative one- everyone else essentially perfected his technique.) In regards to the intellectual life…eh, maybe not so much. In the last respect the modern world is in many ways like those of the Renaissance. 🙂

  • Perhaps it was the want of “perfecting Giotto” that was the catalyst in the creation of the “sleepless” artist. Who are driven to the city for work and for dedication to creative works, thus up all hours due to chaos and personal drive. Intellect on the other hand seems hard to come by and even harder to judge objectively. Although, I would tend to agree that we are much like our renaissance fathers in the respects you describe. I blame Justin Bieber. 😉

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Jason Watson

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