Today we focused on the titanic clash of nation-states and religious identities. We began the morning at the Spanish Steps and traveled on to the Pantheon, originally a temple built for all the Roman gods but now a beautiful Christian church honoring Mary and the Christian martyrs.
We took an enjoyable diversion to Trevi Fountain before proceeding to the Victor Emmanuel Memorial, constructed in the late 19th century to honor the formation of the Republic of Italy in 1861 and Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy.
This awe-inspiring monument is easy to see from multiple vantage points. In 2007, the installation of a monument-topping observation deck provided spectacular, 360-degree views of Rome. During World War II, the Allies nicknamed it “the wedding cake” for its appearance and ubiquitous nature. Stories abound of its usefulness in bombing runs, where coordinates of Allied targets were built off its location. Today, it holds the museum for Italian unification and provides a natural entry point to the ruins of the ancient city.
The ancient city is remarkable. I have never seen ruins this large, this old and this intact. We walked through the entire site, stood next to the statue of Julius Caesar just beyond the Senate Building where he was assassinated, saw the presumed site of the prison that held Peter and Paul, and climbed the Coliseum steps to try to make sense of this vast arena of entertainment and moral decline.
We ended our visit by touring the traveling exhibit honoring Constantine and his signing of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., the official action that legalized Christianity, permitted religious toleration and laid the foundation for the emergence of the Christian cultural heritage that awakened, grew and prospered in Europe and remains a standard of excellence today.
Our activities today suggest so many themes. The martyrdom of the early Christians idealized in the lives and memorials of St. Peter and St. Paul. The rise of nationalism. The rise to preeminence of the Roman Empire, its eventual decline and its inevitable, uneven history since national unification in 1861. The personalities of great leaders and their various fates: Constantine handing over the kingdom to his sons, Julius Caesar suffering the brutal betrayal of the traitors, Brutus and Cassius, immortalized by Dante where they spend eternity in hell with Judas Iscariot.
Treachery. Betrayal. Assassination. Animosity to the thoughts and lives of others. All play a part in Rome’s history—and all of human history. Peaceful succession is so rare that we hail it as a sign of strength and greatness. Of course, the Ottomans handled threats by killing their opposition before they could coalesce. Some believe Caesar trusted too much and spent too little time overseeing the affairs of Rome. Of course, Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom for their faith.
The rise of the global economy has not removed national identities but it has made them less important. Access to markets and to employment in leading markets seems most significant right now. Individuals and companies that can adapt quickly and react nimbly to new opportunities are spearheading the emerging wealth. There is still a vast and growing need for well-run states. Some parts of Italy work well while others seem broken beyond repair. I want to think more about what has to happen within companies to succeed and what has to exist in the surrounding culture and context for businesses to flourish. I don’t know the right balance of policy and regulation, but I know we’ve overrun it and Italy has as well.
There is strength in having a great history but encumbrance as well. The burden seems to be winning.
There is also a remarkable clash of religious beliefs and mores that makes me wonder about the capacity of great societies to adjust to ever-growing expressions of diversity.
Europe generally has an uneven history of immigration and adjustment. America, as an immigrant nation, expects itself to do much better, and we’re facing a new challenge to our beliefs about immigration. I hope we can at least consider some of the guiding thoughts of James Madison, who argues persuasively in “The Federalist Papers” that American democracy is unique and the journey to citizenship should be clear but managed to ensure a healthy understanding and commitment to our founding ideals.
Entering church after church with the most elegant expressions of homage to God is exhilarating. Leaving these same sites only to encounter some of the most debilitated and crippled street people I’ve seen raises questions about Christian charity in the shadow of so much accumulated wealth. It isn’t a thought I have only in Europe or outside great cathedrals. It also occurs to me when I walk down State Street in Santa Barbara and wonder why we can’t make headway with our own homeless population.
We’re nearing the end of our fantastic, two-week study trip. Our travel companions have varied in age and experience, and all have been able and enjoyable companions on the way. One of my favorites has been 2013 graduate D.J. Stout. One of those larger-than-life personalities, she brings life, love and energy wherever she goes. She’s a magnate for people, and she always makes the circle bigger to include those being left out.
When you get her in a serious conversation, she offers great insight on Westmont, life, being a math major, and the recognition that all that glitters is not gold and all that appears golden may not glitter. I’ll write about some of our other travel companions before I finish this series of blogs. It’s been a great trip.
Tomorrow we head to Florence for our free day. I love this city. The birthplace of the Renaissance, the Medici family, El Duomo, Michelangelo’s home, Dante’s home but not his resting place. What a glorious history. The city truly inspires me. More yet to come.
Until then, blessings and good night,
Gayle D. Beebe