Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Roma and the value of preservation? - Rome et le prix de l'Histoire?

Roberto was more than generous in welcoming me into the apartment he and Ellen had finished remodeling just before the end of the year holidays. All the more so since the day I arrived his sister was taken to the ER, and she succumbed the next day. Despite all the emotional and administrative stresses that this dumped on him, Roberto made time to show me amazing restaurants and sites, and taste fine Roman cuisine and Italian wines - to the point that last night, he, myself, and his son Alex who'd flown in from New York, overdid it far beyond the capacities of our digestive tracks... Still, the night and today's discomfort have no comparison to the violent spasm that overtook me suddenly Monday morning and kept me seriously incapacitated for over 24 hours. But Life goes on as it does after each spasm thus far.

Piazza di San Pietro, Vatican - note the beautiful wedge shaped building right of the dome

Every time I walk Rome I am in complete ecstasy over the quality of the work performed by humans two millennia ago. Yesterday Roberto led us inside the Pantheon and explained that the dome, possibly the largest antique dome in the world stretching 120 feet in diameter, "undressed" with extremely geometric and regular alveoli to lighten the load, is made of an ancient form of concrete that shows no indication of ageing despite its two thousand years of age!

More modern but no less impressive is the large section that was rebuilt of the gigantic Coloseum, allegedly with original bricks. And if we are to get modern, the high-tech systems put in place to retain some of the antique structures while the Metro is being expanded are wildly impressive - to the point in fact that one cannot be any less curious about the costs of preservation, and at what point one decides to preserve or let age. I wonder what Boston politicians and officials from the Mass. Bay Transit Authority (which doesnt even manage to properly maintain our badly ailing subway system) would think were they to visit such sites of modern work.
Emilia, long time friend and former Boston University Physicist now turned politician (currently Vice Mayor of Rome) also took time for a drink and gave me a quick (albeit frightening) tour of the city by night on her motorino (scooter). Her description of Rome's politics had many reminiscences with those of Cambridge, with money pouring into campaign funds from large interest groups. But more than that, a recent major shake-up has left the city without a Mayor "impeached" by the vague equivalent of the City Council, which was in turn forced to resign because of the marginally legal manner in which they had proceeded to overthrow the American-trained former surgeon.

A street ends on a cliff being excavated
Influenced by such a political climate, and timing with the year of the Jubilee, the streets of Rome are littered and filthy, and a disproportionate number of magnificent buildings are tarped as if awaiting the completion of renovation works that may never come through, or at the very least are extremely unlikely to be completed by the end of the Jubileum. I had never found so much direct similarity with the dysfunctional aspects of Rio de Janeiro. But then again, Southern Brazil has been heavily colonized by Italians.

Chaotic politics stand all the more in contrast with the survival of so many delicate and gigantic ruins of ancient civilization, and in Rome they are everywhere. I remember stopping in a bar twenty or so years ago, along a small piazza paved with cobblestones, just as a utility crew was setting out to dig up a clogged pipe. By the time I'd finished my coffee (leisurely, all'italiana i.e. close to an hour), the area had been cordoned off by the "archaeological preservation authority" because just below the paving stones, the crew had encountered some unexpected relics. Everywhere one looks, every place one digs, there are objects among the oldest of human civilization.

Sections of columns unearthed lie in a park
But the question I asked earlier remains in my mind: at what point does one decide that something is worth preserving? Is it not presumptuous for humans to do everything in our power to preserve ancient objects, in fact I extend that to species of plants and animals? We have developed faster than any species preceding us, at least as far as we know. We've also managed to do irreversible "damage" (I believe) to the natural environment in a record short time. And yet our knowledge base is infinitesimal on the time scale of natural history. We often say that "resistance to change" is a serious shortcoming. But as we aim to preserve "everything" the way we have known it in just three or four short generations, are we not doing exactly that? 

A huge concrete base and a high-tech retaining system
(almost as large as the section being preserved...)
We are selfish for wanting to slow climate change because we fear the consequences that it will have on us. We want to save dolphins, seals, Canadian Geese, deer, wolves, and bears in areas where we find them unthreatening or because they are "cute", all anthropocentric judgments. Yet just like us, they are part of Nature in its largest sense, and just like every Natural Thing, their existence is finite in time. I have at least two friends who plan to live well over 100 years of age and still be in good health, thanks to advances in some very high tech processes involving biomechatronics and other disciplines that I don't even remember the names of, but even they are finite.

Columns were patched up over
the centuries; notice they rest on brickwork
As I meditate next to titanic columns of granite mixed with other material, presumably to patch them up over the last two thousand years, I cannot help but to feel very thankful for living both of my lives, yet presumptuous for thinking that any of my acts, or the sum of those of all of humankind, could somehow change the fact that our species is doomed just as are all species, and for hesitating to trust that Nature (or God?) "knows Its way" in Time.

With this I am taking in more deep breaths of Air, of Life, and I wish for humanity to find a humble harmony in its finiteness.

An ocra and a white facade contrast
Street view

The Foro seen from above and looking
towards Palazo Venezia

Palazzo Venezia towering above the Foro

Le Tevere (entre les arbres) et la vieille ville de Rome domine par le Palazo Venezia (blanc)

J'arrivai a Rome le jour meme ou la soeur de Roberto etait emmenee aux urgences, ou elle decedat 36 heures plus tard. Malgre le choc et le stress, Roberto fut un hote sans egal, tout comme il s'etait efforce de l'etre 20 ans plus tot lors de ma premiere visite, le jour ou son pere venait de deceder. Alex, son fils, nous rejoint de New York et nous passames six jours au cours desquels Roberto nous fit malgre tout decouvrir une fois de plus les plus beaux lieux de cette ville aussi antique qu'elle est magique. Nous mangeames copieusement et nous delectames de nectar des Dieux en maintes occasions, ponctuees regulierement par des cappucinos que je ne me souvenais pas avoir autant savoure. Je fus victime d'un nouveau spasme d'une forte violence, bien que pas tout a fait autant que le dernier en Bretagne, mais a quoi bon y penser, pensons plutot aux cappuccini!

Lors de chaque visite a Rome, je retombe en extase devant l'histoire et les oeuvres gigantesques, mais aussi impressionantes d'ingenierie que les hommes construirent voici deux mille ans - et elles perdurent! Roberto nous entrainat dans le Pantheon dont le dome mesure 42 metres de diametre, est fabrique d'un amalgame genre ciment, et comporte des alveoles extraordinairement geometriques afin d'en alleger la structure. Tout ce qui resterat de notre periode dans deux millenaires sera sans doute des detritus!
Le Pantheon, un dome de 2000 ans
Pourtant, nous nous efforcons de preserver ces monuments; mais dans quel but? Presque un quart du perimetre du Colisee a ete somptueusement reconstruit, reutilisant des briques antiques, et le resultat est specatculaire. Non loin, la ou un jour s'arretera la ligne 7 du metro, une armature de haute technologie repose sur un enorme socle de ciment recent afin de retenir une section de mur de briques a peine plus grande, qui risquerait d'etre derangee par les vibrations du chantier. Mais a dix metres a peine, un autre mur semblable en age et caracteristiques n'est pas protege, et pourtant il est beaucoup plus grand et plus somptueux. Comment etablit-on une telle discrimination? Et surtout, comment justifie-t-on les couts ecologiques autant que financiers de ce genre d'initiative? De fait, ou que l'on regarde a Rome, on trouve des ruines antiques.

Sept niveaux!
Je me souviens etre entre dans un cafe voici vingt ans au moment ou trois employes municipaux commencaient a deterrer des paves afin d'acceder a une canalisation bouchee. Une heure plus tard, le temps d'un cappuccino a l'italienne (en fait, les italiens ne prennent JAMAIS de cappuccino autre qu'au petit dejeuner), tout le secteur aveait ete boucle par l'autorite de preservation archeologique car les ouvriers avaient deterre des fragments qui semblaient antiques.

C'est dans ce meme quartier que je retrouvai maintenant mon amie Emilia, ex physicienne de Boston, qui est maintenant Vice-Maire de Rome. Elle me decrivit avec humour les tergiversations politiques de la ville qui se trouve actuellement sans Maire ni Conseil Municipal suite a une dispute legale qui les fit tous renvoyer. Le mauvais fonctionnement de la politique en Italie est legendaire et semble faire paraitre nos procedures comme de l'horlogerie suisse. Ces recents developpements ont resulte dans un ramassage d'ordures tout a fait ad-hoc, et donc des rues remarquablement sales. De plus, comme c'est l'annee du Jubilee, quantite de fonds de toutes origines ont ete alloues pour la remise en etat de nombreux batiments historiques importants; or comme tout marche a l'Italiana, la plupart de ces monuments sont baches et couverts d'echaffaudages et le resteront sans doute bien au dela de l'Annus Jubileus. 

En bonne tradition italienne, Emilia me fit faire un tour de la ville by night sur son motorino (Vespa). Autant les jeux de lumiere dans les ruelles etait splendide, autant j'eus plus peur pour ma vie que dans maintes circonstances... "ils sont [vraiment] fous ces romains!"

Mais je ne peux m'empecher d'en revenir a ma question precedente: comment justifie-t-on de depenser des fortunes et des milliers de tonnes de carbonne (sur une base d'un cycle de vie) pour remettre en etat ou entretenir ces centaines de monuments? N'y a-t-il pas la-dedans une certaine presomption? Comme toute espece, l'humanite est vouee a disparaitre tot ou tard - d'ailleurs certains scientifiques disent que nous serons tres vraissemblablement parmis les especes ayant eu la plus courte duree, au rythme auquel nous nous auto-detruisons ainsi que l'environnement. Vouloir preserver a tout prix ce que nous avons connu semble presque pretentieux: d'une part il serait impossible de tout preserver de l'histoire; d'autre part, nous nous referons uniquement a nos connaissances, nos decouvertes, soit des choses fondamentalement humaines. Or l'humanite n'est qu'une infime fraction de l'Histoire et de la Nature. J'irais meme jusqu'a dire que nos efforts pour preserver certaines especes florales ou animales sont tout aussi pretentieuses, puisqu'elles prennent comme base nos connaissances. Qu'il s'agisse d'oies du Canada, de dauphins, de rhinoceros blancs, ou de pandas, peut-etre plus encore dans le cas de zoos, notre insistence pour leur preservation est une forme de fixation sur ce que nous avons connu dans notre toute petite periode d'existence terrestre. Or ne sommes-nous pas les premiers a critiquer ceux qui refusent le changement, c'est a dire l'evolution? J'en viens de plus en plus frequemment a penser que ceux qui prechent une vie sans restreinte n'ont pas plus tort que ceux qui veulent tout preserver. Malgre un ocean couvert de detritus et des millions d'animaux asphyxies par des sacs en polyethylene, la Nature continuera son chemin, et le seul a regretter ses propres degats sera l'homme.

Des colonnes rapiecees (ceintures de fer) et le Colisee avec la partie reconstruite a droite
Patched-up columns (iron belts on several) and the Coliseum with the newly rebuilt section to the right

En meditant devant d'immenses colonnes de granite rapiecees au fur des siecles, je remercie la vie de me permettre ces decouvertes en l'embrassant a plein poumons. Faites en de meme, ne ratez pas un souffle!


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