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A Lesson of September 11

To the memory of Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist killed in Iraq on August 20, 2004

1.

On August 18, 2003, at the torrid end of the hottest summer in Italian history, the Italian critic Francesco Alberoni wrote on the front page of Corriere della Sera:

People today talk about health and food. They don’t read essays anymore that state problems they have to think about. Now we don’t think about the great thinkers. We no longer want to understand the process that produces our behavior, individual or social; we want formulas. Philosophers exist to answer questions. If no one asks anymore, they fall silent.*

Three months later, in mid-November, a loaded oil truck crashed into the Italian carabinieri station in Nasiriya, Iraq, smashing a way through for the car bomb that followed close behind it. Nineteen Italians and six Iraqis diedin the blast, and many others were wounded. Afterward Italians were no longer restricting their talk to health, food, TV, and the corruption of Silvio Berlusconi and his henchmen. They were asking the questions that Alberoni thought they would never ask again, most of which begin with “Why?”—questions of life and its eternal partner, death, which always intrude upon the party sooner or later. When they do, we suddenly rediscover the consolations of philosophy, art, literature, all the things that may look superfluous until normality veers off its safe, secure trajectory.

Horace said so somewhat playfully in a poem about spring, Odes IV.2, where he invokes melting snows and gentle breezes, ships being drawn down to the water’s edge, graceful nymphs dancing. Suddenly, abruptly, the announcement of pale death bursts on the scene in an explosion of p‘s and heavy vowels: “Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turris” (“Pale death pounds impartial the pauper’s door and kings’ towers”). Horace then addresses the friend he calls O lucky Sestius—O beate Sesti—to say that the short span of life forbids us to harbor long hopes. “Night,” he writes, “already presses down, the shades of the dead, the narrow home of Pluto”:

O beate Sesti, summa vitae brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam,

  Iam te premet nox fabulaeque manes, et domus exilis Plutonia.

And that’s it. Watch out, Sestius, it won’t last forever.

The rebirth of spring, in the hands of Horace, already carries a shiver of winter, just as in a sketch by the Monty Python troupe when the Grim Reaper crashes a tony cocktail party after the salmon mousse turns toxic. “Oh do come in,” coos the hostess to the scythe-wielding guest, “make yourself at home.” She could almost be Emily Dickinson graciously conceding: “Because I could not stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me.” As if death were always so polite, so kind, so welcome!

In Nasiriya, and then in Istanbul, and in Baghdad, and many other places on our tortured planet, death has been no respecter of persons. Nor did the painter who frescoed the walls of Pisa’s medieval cemetery, the Campo Santo, in the years after the Black Death find it any more considerate. He showed the plague’s skeletal horsemen sweeping down on an aristocratic picnic, and they still do, even though an Allied bomber strafed the pure white marble and frescoed interior of the Campo Santo in 1944 and turned it into Dante’s Inferno. Time and again, the people we call upon to face the unfaceable are the artists, the poets, the novelists, the philosophers whose work may otherwise seem so impractical, so detached from the real business of life; the people who produce what for lack of a better word we today call culture.

The person who may have said it most concisely of all was Horace’s friend Vergil, the supreme poet of the early Roman Empire, in whose epic, the Aeneid, the hero looks at a painting of the sack of Troy and says about it simply: “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” (“There are tears in things and mortality moves the mind”). As the fictitious painting touches the fictitious hero Aeneas, so the real Vergil touches us with the seething passions and somber duty of his twelve-part epic. And because that poem ends with a shocking eruption of brutality, when Aeneas kills the prisoner Turnus as he begs for his life, it may be that this single line about the “tears in things” in some sense summarizes the Aeneid‘s whole tragic point. In his focus and his ruthless concision Vergil is a true heir to his model, Homer, who likewise, as my former colleague Herman Sinaiko used to say, “looks life in the face and doesn’t blink.” There are times when their unflinching vision is as close to understanding as we poor forkéd creatures can hope to get. They offer us no solutions, but they do offer us company, and the beautiful order of their poetry, to stand against the armies of a disorder that Vergil and Homer, at least, knew at first hand.

I took up my present job at the American Academy in Rome in September of 2001, stopping in New York on the way to Rome for a meeting scheduled for the morning of the 11th. I finally arrived in Rome nearly two weeks later, on a plane that flew out of Newark over the smoking crater on the end of Manhattan. With that vision in mind, and endless CNN images of planes ripping through steel, I spent the rest of that uncannily beautiful fall making an almost daily trek down the slopes of the Janiculum Hill to the Vatican Library. We all knew that the Vatican ranked high on al-Qaeda’s list of targets, but reckoned that they were more likely to take aim at the dome of St. Peter’s than the library’s warren of stacks and reading rooms, especially because a falling plane would take out a Koran or two among the other treasures.

Rome, like the poetry of Vergil, provided a strange solace. The city had seen it all before, several times over, enemies and barbarians knocking at the gates from Lars Porsenna’s Etruscans in 509 BC to the Gauls a century after, lured, it is said, by Etruscan wine and cowed by the dignity of the Roman senators. Rome had seen bloodbaths in the Forum before and after the dictatorship and death of Julius Caesar. The Visigothic invasion of AD 410, with furious fires that melted coins into the marble floor of the basilica Aemilia—still visible today—inspired Saint Augustine to write his City of God to explain, or try to explain, why such terrible things can happen.

The Normans came in 1054, fighting in the streets between the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum; a troop of German Landesknechte made two separate devastating raids in 1527; a French army allied with Pope Pius IX blasted its way through the Janiculum’s walls in 1849; and the Nazis seized the city in 1943. And yet for all that autumn of 2001, Rome sat gleaming in the sun, just as Central Park had basked that September in its golden Maxfield Parrish light under skies suddenly silent but for the military jets—or basked at least when the great pillar of smoke with its deathly smell turned away and drifted over Brooklyn.

But Rome and the Vatican Library provided more than their beauty and their eternity. On January 1, 1508, a rumpled academic from the university named Battista Casali gave a speech before Pope Julius II beneath the blue vault of the Sistine Chapel studded with gold stars—where in a few months Michelangelo would set up his scaffold to paint the ceiling we know today. Casali declared on that occasion that the greatest weapon against the Ottoman Turks, the era’s most aggressive superpower, was this same Vatican Library. He meant not only its copies of the Bible and the Church fathers, but also, and especially, its Greek and Latin classics, the works of Plato, Vergil, Plutarch, Horace, Sappho, Sophocles, Cicero, Aristotle, Vitruvius, the authors who exercised, instructed, and comforted the mind and soul. And despite the fact that Casali’s oration revolved around a clash between religions, he also meant the Arabic writers who had preserved Aristotle throughout the Middle Ages and invented algebra. Ottoman Turkey, as he well knew, was anything but a know-nothing Islamic state, and Islam in those days was no enemy of culture.

Casali found support for his position in what now might seem unlikely places. The Vatican Library’s most enthusiastic patron in 1508 was also the most important member of Casali’s audience: the Pope himself, Julius II, the Papa Terribile, the pope who sank as much money into the construction of St. Peter’s basilica, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Raphael’s frescoes as he did into his notorious military expeditions. And there is no question, five hundred years after Julius’s election in December 1503, about which investment, armies or art, has proven the shrewder.

One of Raphael’s paintings for Pope Julius took up a phrase from Casali’s 1508 oration and showed the Vatican Library as the School of Athens, with Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Socrates, Diogenes, Euclid, Ptolemy, and the Arab commentators congregating in the magnificent painted hall that once stood directly above the cupboards with their books. The School of Athens now stands above hordes of tourists.

German Landesknechte torched the book cupboards in 1527; Napoleon looted the Vatican Library in 1799 and carted much of it off to Paris. The barbarians at Rome’s gates have come in all shapes, sizes, and religions—or the lack of religion—but despite their efforts the Vatican Library abides, outfitted now with computers, a sleek new periodicals room, outlets for laptops at every desk, and a bomb shelter to protect the manuscripts against the next wave of Visigoths.

In September 2001, no one said that the best weapon against al-Qaeda was the New York Public Library. And yet Battista Casali’s point is as valid today as it was five hundred years ago. There is nothing more essential to us than what we carry in our minds. The Roman architect Vitruvius said so twice in his Ten Books on Architecture, and 1,500 years later, Pope Julius II was one of the readers who took note. In the preface to his Book Seven, Vitruvius declares that the most important possessions we have are the ones that can survive a shipwreck, and gives the example of a clever castaway washed up on the shore of Rhodes who, through his ingenuity, found friends, a job, wealth, and position in his new home. Abruptly, then Vitruvius says, “And so I thank my parents for giving me an education.”

True to these convictions, he begins his treatise on architecture by describing an educational curriculum for architects that includes drawing, mathematics, law, medicine, music, geometry, and astronomy among many other disciplines. He does not demand expertise, but he does demand competence, and his outline for an architect’s education circa 23 BC, passed on by manuscript after manuscript, generation after generation, remains one of the most passionate and influential briefs ever pleaded for the liberal arts. Vitruvius made his living at one point by outfitting catapults for Julius Caesar on the latter’s campaigns in Gaul. He therefore knew all the latest tricks of high technology, including the ancient Roman equivalent of weapons of mass destruction. The longest section of his treatise, the tenth of his Ten Books, is devoted to machines, the conveniences of peacetime, and the engines of war, on an escalating scale of technological sophistication. Yet at the climax of this military extravaganza, he tells the story of the siege of Rhodes, whose enemies, safely beyond shooting range, spend days assembling a huge siege tower, a multistoried platform on wheels, each level bristling with catapults, its snout a huge iron-capped battering ram.

  1. *

    Francesco Alberoni, “I filosofi tacciono perché la gente non ha più domande,” Corriere della Sera, August 18, 2003.

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