Tag Archives: arendt

Ancient Ruins and a Week-and-a-Half-Long Food Coma: Reflections on Italy

I went to Italy for vacation, which is a thing that people apparently do to “relax” and “enjoy themselves.” I am unfamiliar with these concepts, but I figured I would give it a try, as per this video

While I have plenty of thoughts on pasta in Italy (it’s amazing), sandwiches in Italy (they’re amazing), and pizza in Italy (it’s fine), what was most notable about Italy — and Rome especially — was the overlapping histories from ancient to the present. The Colosseum makes a great photo-op, the various Fora are impressive, and my side trip to Ostia Antica, the ancient port city accessible by train, was fascinating; it was, however, a poor choice to explore all of these ruins—which almost by definition have no roofs—in the blistering 100 degree heat of the Italian summer. I guess this is why they wore togas. (I did not pack a toga.)

But it is not just that Rome has this incredible history; rather, you can feel in the streets how each successive source of political and cultural power wanted to lay claim to the inheritance of this tradition. The act of turning the Pantheon — literally, “of all the gods” — into a Christian church (only one supreme being, last time I checked) is one example of this. So too is how many of the key churches and other important political buildings preserve the remnants of ancient Roman columns as part of their facade to show the direct connection between themselves and the tradition of Rome itself. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Mussolini’s fascist regime, which undertook major physical alterations of a city whose center otherwise feels somewhat unchanged from earlier eras. Mussolini bulldozed a wide lane between the center of his government and the Coliseum so that he could see the structure directly from his office. Mussolini’s government was not just a response to the crisis of modernity in the early 20th century; rather, it claimed to be the inheritor of the great history of Rome.

I took a brief pit stop at EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), a business district that was the model for Mussolini’s vision of a new, Fascist Italy. The district features extra-wide roads; imposing, sprawling structures that overwhelm a normal human scale; and plenty of monuments and manicured parks. It feels empty and cold, even in the 100 degree heat. It also feels imposing and hostile, showing the power of massive architecture and efficiency over the potential for narrow, complex, and unplanned human interaction.

At the heart of EUR is the Palace of Italian Civilization, better known as the Square Colosseum. Perched at the top of a hill and towering over everything around it, the gleaming white building features Colosseum-like arches covering the outside of a cubic tower. It is a modern building, yet it is designed to invoke all the power of ancient civilization. (Ironically, it now houses the headquarters of luxury fashion brand Fendi.) Not only do the arches mimic those of the Coliseum, the building is ringed by Romanesque statues invoking the virtues of the Italian people, as well as horse-riding statues at each corner featuring Castor and Pollux of Greek and Roman mythological fame. The virtues of the contemporary Italian population, the building suggests, are features of Italian Civilization that date back to its unique founding. Embracing the claims to this civilization and its founding gave Mussolini the authority to root his political power in tradition.

The power of civilization and history brings to life the writings of Hannah Arendt, who focused on the experience of Rome as the key example to highlight the importance of authority — or its lack thereof — in the modern world. Rome, she argues, shows how political authority throughout history has always sought to tie itself to some kind of historical or civilizational “founding.” The Roman vision of political authority lay entirely in the past, she says, “in the foundation of Rome and the greatness of ancestors.” Arendt writes:

The authority of the living was always derivative, depending upon the auctores imperil Romani conditoresque, as Pliny puts it, upon the authority of the founders, who no longer were among the living. Authority, in contradistinction to power (potestas), had its roots in the past, but this past was no less present in the actual life of the city than the power and strength of the living.

Those who lay claim to authority did so on the basis that they were inheritors of the past, of the founding, of something external to which they alone could appeal. Authority begets obedience without resorting to pure and unmitigated force and is essential for effective rule.

The pervasiveness of Christianity, too, she argues, follows the same script. If the innumerable churches that dot every street corner of Rome — and the fact that nearly all of the major works of art for 1000 years in Europe are “Madonna with Child” (or “Madonna with Child featuring John the Baptist”) — show that the power and authority of Rome passed down into the hands of the Church, the Church, too, attempted to stake a claim to inheritance of the Roman founding. This stood out to me in how the churches, sculptures, and art intertwined themselves with ancient civilizational symbols (not only Roman but also Egyptian; see the hieroglyphics on statues in downtown Rome, for example). Arendt argues that this is part of the continuity:

The extraordinary strength and endurance of this Roman spirit or the extraordinary reliability of the founding principle for the creation of bodies politic were subjected to a decisive test and proved themselves conspicuously after the decline of the Roman Empire, when Rome’s political and spiritual heritage passed to the Christian Church. Confronted with this very real mundane task, the Church became so “Roman” and adapted itself so thoroughly to Roman thinking in matters of politics that it made the death and resurrection of Christ the cornerstone of a new foundation, erecting on it a new human institution of tremendous durability. 

In a city like Rome, where the lineage of history is so palpable, the power of continuity is unmissable. Even when new political orders are founded on rejections of the past, they still try to absorb the existing authority of the past while superseding it. This was what was so fascinating about Rome: from the pagan, pantheistic Roman Empire to the hyper-religious medieval Church to the Fascist rise and fall, every successive generation overlaid their authority on that of their predecessors. This was especially true in physical space, where they tried to situate themselves on the same ground as the prior regimes, and in the symbolic art and architecture, with direct references to sucking up the power of the past. Walking through the streets, it is not possible to easily separate between the ancient, the medieval, and the modern, for they all overlap and lay claim to each other. 

The power of the authority of inheritance is not limited to ancient Rome. Because I spend a lot of my time thinking about China, I cannot help but make reference to a similar phenomenon further East: Mao’s decision to put the heart of the Communist government in Beijing. As the writer Simon Leys pointed out (and which I wrote about here), Mao explicitly chose to put a massive monument in the center of Tiananmen Square, right at the heart of the line of power from the gates of the ancient city. 

The point of this decision was to appropriate the power and authority of the imperial space, thus connecting the authority of Mao’s government to the millennia of imperial rule. Leys writes, not concealing his frustration with the decision to ruin Beijing in the process: 

The brutal silliness of the Monument to the Heroes of the People, which disrupts and annihilates the energy-field of the old imperial space by trying to appropriate it, epitomizes, alas, the manner in which the Maoist regime has used Peking: it has chosen the old capital in order to give its power a foundation of prestige; in taking over this city, it has destroyed it.

So, too, the contemporary Chinese leadership has put extra effort into drawing a direct connection between the history of Chinese civilization and their own claims to power. The CCP claims to be the inheritor of Chineseness, not only through occupying the physical space of Beijing but through attempts to connect the philosophy of the Party with the ideas and history of Chinese tradition. Just as successive waves of Italian political leaders tied the virtues and authority of ancient Rome to their own rule, contemporary Chinese leaders are attempting to do something similar to bolster their authority — which, Arendt says, is central to understanding politics in any era because it “gives the world the permanence and durability which human beings need precisely because they are mortals.”

Let me finish by saying one more thing: the pasta in Italy is amazing. What are we doing wrong in America? Perhaps our pasta lacks some kind of foundational myth. Or we just overcook it.