Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palatine perch facilitates time travel

If zip codes were used in ancient Rome, Palatine Hill is the one you wanted during those B.C. years. The twins purportedly were born there, and Romulus settled right there in the neighborhood after disposing of his brother Remus.

The legendary she-wolf-nursed founders of Rome gave the city its birthdate a while back. Rome celebrated turning 2,771 on April 21, 2018 – kind of a humbling experience after experiencing events heralding San Antonio’s Tricentennial this year.

Anyway, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) resided there, as did the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.). While Augustus’ abode was relatively humble, subsequent emperors erected more elaborate quarters.

The great fire of year 64 left fiddling Nero (37-68 A.D.) some major cleared real estate on the hill available for construction of his new palace, Domus Aurea, or the Golden House, so named because many of its walls were covered with gold leaf. Recent archaeological digs have revealed remnants of the emperor’s over-the-top revolving dining room.

That’s obviously an oversimplified, superficial glimpse of the history of Palatine Hill. But we were really in search of a way to sense some of Rome’s ancient past above the hoards swarming into the Coliseum below. The crowds thin out, and much of the spacious hilltop turns into almost a pastoral setting for contemplating the vestiges of ancient civilization.

Now let us, by a flight of the imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past – an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the later one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine….

Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, 1930

Analogies often distract me, and the above one does as well. Sorry, Dr. Freud, but you left me on the hilltop without traveling down your desired psychical paths.

Derailed, I flew off to pondering that Palatine Hill is indeed a place where phases of development from 2,000 years ago still exist in the midst of a city creeping toward 3,000,000 people. A peaceful place where your imagination easily can time-travel deep into multiple layers of the city’s past and then fast-forward to view today’s Rome spreading out all around you.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: When monuments stand as salt in the wounds

Photograph from “The Cold War Builds in the 1950s”

While Nikita Khrushchev declared it was time for the de-Stalinization of Russia in what became known as his “secret speech” to Congress in 1956, the revolt against Soviet control in Hungary in October of the same year probably was not what he had in mind.

On October 23, with great exuberance and much difficulty due to its substantial size, defiant students and workers managed to topple their most hated symbol of Soviet domination – a statue of Josef Stalin. Only his boots remained standing.

Independence was short-lived. Less than a month.

As the western powers stood by, Russian tanks plowed into Budapest, brutally crushing the rebellion. Thousands lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands fled the country.

Hungary did not reemerge as a republic until more than three decades later, on October 23, 1989. The last remaining Soviet tanks and troops rolled out of Hungary on June 19, 1991.

Hungarians found themselves with major monuments espousing communist ideals in their midst. Rather than toppling them; Hungary elected to remove them to a more remote location outside of downtown Budapest.

A design competition was held, with the concept of architect Akos Eleod winning. Forty-two statues from the Soviet era, like a hall of fame for Communist heroes, are now displayed in the dignified setting of Memento Park.

The monument museum is regarded as an educational tool for generations with no memories of pre-democratic Hungary.

Memento Park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this Park is about democracy. After all, only democracy can provide an opportunity to think freely about dictatorship.

Akos Eleod, architect of Memento Park

A replica of the fallen Stalin’s boots stands near the entrance of the park. Old black-and-white secret police training videos run continuously in one building.

A parked Trabant serves as a reminder of the lack of purchase choices and the scarcity of items during the Soviet rule. Hungarians able to save enough cash were offered one vehicle in one color, gray. The 26-horsepower Trabant, manufactured in East Germany, required half of its price as down payment with a delivery time of six to eight years. (So, how would a space-cadet such as myself ever find one’s gray Trabant among a street lined with parked gray Trabants?)

The move-all-the-statues-to-a-park solution in Budapest seems appropriate to ponder in light of issues in two different countries.

First, Poland:

Last month Poland updated its “de-communisation” legislation, banning “totalitarian” symbols, which would include Soviet propaganda monuments.

Now Russian foreign ministry officials have warned of “asymmetric measures” if Poland removes Soviet war monuments. Russia could refuse visas for Polish officials or downgrade trade relations….

The Red Army’s defeat of Nazi German forces on Polish soil in 1944-1945 remains a thorny issue in Russian-Polish relations. Many Poles viewed the Red Army as an occupation force, not as liberators, as the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact had carved up Poland between two dictatorships….

The (Russian foreign) ministry accused Poland of “Russophobia” and of “striving to belittle the USSR’s role as liberator.”

“Russia Warns Poland Not To Touch WW2 Memorials,” BBC News, July 31, 2017

And now in the United States with the issue of monuments to Confederate heroes. To many Americans these statues stand as symbols of an ongoing effort to whitewash over the painful period of slavery in this country. Recent clashes over monuments in Charlottesville resulted in tragedy.

In San Antonio, we are confronted with frightening images of heavily armed vigilantes, calling themselves the This is Texas Freedom Force, in our public parks and plazas to theoretically guard their leaders speaking against removal of a Confederate monument in Travis Park.

Senator Ted Cruz weighed in yesterday:

But I think that’s a decision each community needs to make as to how to appropriately acknowledge that history, how to commemorate that history, how to recognize that history.

Daily Post, Texas Monthly, August 18, 2017

How can the community freely debate when one side is threatening the other with arms?

Statuary issues also are surfacing in Austin, with several Confederate monuments, or as some refer to them as “monuments to states’ rights,” standing on Capitol grounds.

“The goal is to learn from history, all of our history, including events and times that many would like to forget,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a member of the State Preservation Board, whose duty is to preserve and maintain the Capitol complex. “Our goal should be to have a meaningful dialogue for future generations so those moments in our history are not repeated.”

“Confederate Icons Have Backing at State Capitol,” Allie Morris, San Antonio Express-News, August 18, 2017

The teaching moment is undermined by the prominent plaque bearing the words of “The Children of the Confederacy Creed:”

We therefore pledge ourselves… to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery)….

And, of course, Confederate Heroes Day remains an official state holiday in Texas, conveniently falling within less than a week as Martin Luther King Day.

August 19, 2017, Update: And Prague. “Empty pedestals can offer the same lessons,” Kevin Levin, The Atlantic, August 19, 2017

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Clouds of incense fill Church of the Patriarch

Swirling clouds of incense blurred the ceiling frescoes and dome of the Church of the Patriarch when we finally managed to coordinate our arrival as a mass ended. The church is associated with a seminary still active, and the monks residing there are known for their daily Gregorian chants, which we missed.

The church and cloisters were founded by San Juan de Ribera in the XVI century. Juan de Ribera was born in Seville in 1532 and educated in Salamanca. He became archbishop of Valencia, leading to his establishment of the Royal Seminary.

Today a large portion of the cloisters is filled with a rich collection of art, including work by Valencian-born Renaissance painter, Juan de Juanes  (1523-1579) (love that name).

One of my favorite things about the church and chapel is the juxtaposition of cheerful bright tilework with the serious religious frescoes, accented by a sprinkling of chubby cherubs. And, of course, Saint Anthony, the patron saint of our hometown, seems to follow us everywhere we travel.