Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I made the decision to come to Italy on the fly, the same way that I generally decide where to go nowadays. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Only after arriving in Rome did I remember that it was twenty years ago, almost exactly, that I first came to Italy. Not only that, but it was the first time that traveled without my family and hence, in that sense, actually traveled.
Italy bowled me over then. I was a high school student then, and I had come to Italy to represent New Zealand at that year’s International Physics Olympiad. The competition itself was held in Padua, but we made our obligatory stops in Rome and Venice and played tourists. How could we resist, five teenagers from New Zealand, the land of majestic landscapes but rather less culture?
I was probably the most enthusiastic of the lot. Fresh from my courses in classical studies and art history, I wanted to see every temple and church and painting and sculpture that I had learned about in class. Sistine Chapel: check. Colosseum: check. The Roman Forum: check. Michelangelo’s “Pieta”: check. Raphael’s “School of Athens”: check. The Laocoon: check. Ara Pacis: check. In Venice I went looking for as many Titian and Tintoretto paintings as I could find.
The overall impact was a bit like what Anthony Bourdain said about visiting Tokyo for the first time: What now? What do I do now? What do I have to say for myself now that I have seen that? Now that I have experienced that?
Still I missed out on a great deal. The next time I returned to Italy would be ten years later, which is to say ten years ago. This time I made sure to get to Florence to catch up with such works as Michelangelo’s “David.” Apparently I’m inadvertently returning to this country that E. M. Forster called the most beautiful in the world at least in every year that ends with a nine.
For good reason, Italy used to feature as the climax of “the Grand Tour” of young British aristocrats coming to Continental Europe to get cultured, something that Forster himself wrote about in such works as A Room with a View. I suppose this was the beginning of my grand tour, which — though I was not always aware of this — has never ended.
Indeed, Italy looms large in my personal history of intellectual development. It wasn’t just this first, shocking visit in 1999. It wasn’t just all that I learned about ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy in my classes.
My high school used to give out prize money to students who come first in each of our classes. The catch was that we could only spend the money on books at the bookstore of the local university. Toward to end of my high school career, after I learned to speak English, I would have abundant funds to spend at the bookstore. The same year that I visited Italy for the first time, I bought with my prize money, among other books, an Oxford translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and made it my bedtime reading. I have never ceased learning from the poet laureate of Florence since then.
Even now, I’m reading Eric Auerbach’s work of literary criticism Mimesis, and his chapter on the Inferno brings fresh perspective on what made Dante, Dante.
And now I’m back in Italy, elegiacally pondering all the years that have passed by since I first set foot here. It feels like what T. S. Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."