Springtime in Rome

A good, very long day in Rome.

We started the morning by walking over toward St. Peter’s Square for a better view of St. Peter’s than the behind-the-dome afternoon sun affords. We weren’t disappointed, thanks to continuing wonderful weather:

As it got toward noon, we met up with Bobby Schindler along the Conciliazione, who had just arrived from the airport. I hailed an Uber for Bobby and me to travel to the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum for a meeting with Fr. Gonzalo Miranda, the dean of the school of bioethics. It sits about 20 minutes southwest of Rome’s downtown. We toured the campus facilities and had a fruitful meeting. It’s considered a “bridge day” (between two Holy Days) so classes were not in session.

After dropping Bobby off near Piazza del Risorgimento, I walked toward Piazza Navona where my mother ended up after errands and leisure. We met at the Fontana dei Fiume and walked a block or so to lunch at La Cantina Romana, a little hole-in-the-wall place that ended up being perfect for lunch, followed by espresso and limoncello.

We walked along much of the rest of the afternoon, starting by peeking into the nearby Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace and slowing making our way back toward Armony Suites. The winding streets of Rome encourage similarly discursive conversation that I’ll remember as long as I live. As we reached the Tiber, we descended a staircase and walked along the slightly elevated river walk.

After freshening up and reconnecting with Luca, the proprietor at Armony Suites, we decided on his recommendation for supper at Ragno D’Oro a short walk away on Via Silla, a few blocks north of Piazza del Risorgimento. Our meal was a good one, in this packed little spot, though service managed to be both more frantic and a bit slower than would seem possible. After tiramisu, I texted Bobby and we walked about four blocks south to Taverna Angelica where he, his family, and our pilgrimage group of eight or so were enjoying post-supper sambuca.

Tomorrow morning my mother leaves, and I’ll check into the Hotel della Conciliazione.

Tiber, crystalline-emerald green

We had intended to head to Florence today, but I woke up feeling somewhere between groggy and potentially sick, so reluctantly canceled that in order to sleep more. I tend to think those decisions are almost always wrong in retrospect, and I really regret not making it to Florence today, but this slower Sunday in Rome turned out to be great, too.

I’m low energy at the moment, so I’m sharing lots of photos and moments from the past two days. First, here’s a scene from the Ponte Sant’Angelo walking bridge with a beautiful view of St. Peter’s toward sunset as we walked back toward our Armony Suites room this evening:

Let’s start with yesterday (before/after mass at the Pantheon) when we visited Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and Trinita dei Monti, the magnificent 16th century Church of Saint Louis of the French—home to Caravaggio’s life changing Calling of Saint Matthew—and Piazza Navona, among others:

And now, scenes and photos from today, including along our walk to St. Peter’s Square along Via della Conciliazione and other moments. We finished off the day today with what turned out to be an incredible meal at Tucci Ristoranti in Piazza Navona across from Sant’Agnese in Agone and Fontana dei Fiumi.

The Tiber was practically crystalline-emerald green today.

Pantheon mass

Earlier today, we were enjoying the fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I searched for nearby places for a Sunday vigil mass. The Pantheon, or Sancta Maria ad Martyres, stood out as the best option, so we walked over for 5pm mass.

It turned out to be a very special, memorable experience; certainly the most remarkable place I’ve ever celebrated mass. A line of at least 200 visitors stretched well into the piazza on our arrival. I went to the head to a security guard just as a family was allowed in on condition that they were only there for mass and not tourist reasons, and confirmed that they would stay for the whole mass. We were able to get in the same way. On entering a few minutes before mass began, the entire interior was empty except for maybe the 100 or so already seated in the moveable pews. As mass began, the “international character” of the Pantheon’s mass was evident: one reading in Italian, one in English, etc. A few more joined us as mass began, totaling probably no more than 150 people.

The chanting of the Kyrie Eleison was incredible; graceful and sacramental and heartfelt. Our priest had an incredible voice, and in this way the entire liturgy felt like it was sung as a melody of praise. Incense rose over the course of the mass more than a hundred feet to the Roman dome, occasion for remembering prayers worthy of God’s ear as much as an occasion for marveling at the Roman temple built to “all the gods” being for centuries and millennia now a place of worship for the God of revelation.

I took some brief shots outside the Pantheon, then inside immediately at the conclusion of the mass and then shortly afterwards once tourists were allowed back in:

Background from the Sancta Maria ad Martyres site:

The Pantheon has represented the greatest expression of the glory of Rome for more than two thousand years. The story of the Pantheon is inseparably tied to the Eternal City. and been its image through the centuries. Built by Agrippa between 25 and 27 BC the Pantheon was a temple dedicated to the twelve Gods and to the living Sovran. Traditionally it is believed that the present building is result of the radical reconstruction by Hadrian between 118 and 125 AD.

It is the only ancient Roman building that has remained practically intact through the centuries. In 608 Pope Boniface IV had the remains of many martyrs removed from the Christian catacombs and placed in the Pantheon. Thereafter the temple was officially converted to Christianity and named Saint Maria ad Martyres.

It does rain in the Pantheon through the dome’s skylight. I wondered about this while inside, and looked it up later. I didn’t notice this at the time, but the floor is designed at a slight angle that allows drainage through subtle grates.

Arrival in Rome

We’ve arrived in Rome.

I’m traveling with my mother today through Tuesday morning, May 1st. We were here together in 2000, and it’s a gift to be here with her again a lifetime later.

We caught separate flights, her from Philadelphia and me from Newark with a layover in Charlotte, but both our flights arrived at a bit past 9am Rome time. Caught Trenitalia’s Leonardo Express from the airport to Termini, and then an Uber to Armony Suites where we’re staying until she heads out and my Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network-related work/pilgrimage starts. I found Armony Suites on Priceline. It’s a great hotel-style suite of rooms on the second floor of a sturdy old Roman building, roughly ten minutes north of Castel Sant’Angelo, ten minutes east of the Vatican, or ten minutes west of the Tiber by foot. Luca, its proprietor, is an excellent and gracious host.

We were checked in by noon, and after a brief nap to recharge we headed out in the late afternoon and walked over to Piazza del Popolo, had a meal nearby, and enjoyed a walk through Villa Borghese and taking in the sunset:

As it got toward 9pm, we walked over toward Piazza del Risorgimento for out 9-11pm reservation at the Vatican Museums, finishing with the Sistine Chapel. I had vague memories of touring these exhibitions 18 years ago, but this was a much more vivid experience if only for the addition of John Paul the Great-related artwork. Before we headed in, we stepped out onto the patio and took in this view:

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Afterwards we got a late-night gelato at Old Bridge Gelateria on the walk back through Piazza del Risorgimento, and called it a night. It’s very much springtime here, and we were fortunate to have a beautiful first day here.

To Rome

A few scenes from today and yesterday: the changing view from my office window as the new Comcast tower tops out and Logan Circle and the Ben Franklin Parkway begin to liven up with spring; a shot of 30th Street Station, where I caught a train to Newark, and scenes from Newark Liberty Airport where and finally Charlotte Douglas Airport where I’m writing this:

I’ll be leaving in a few minutes on a connecting flight to Rome, where I’ll spent the next week on a trip that’s part personal/family, and part work/pilgrimage. As much as possible, I’ll share scenes/experiences along the way. I’ll be spending most of the time in Rome, and two days or so in San Giovanni Rotondo near the Adriatic Coast.

I’ve only been to Italy once before, for a visit to Rome, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast in 2000 during the Jubilee Year. It was a wonderful trip for a young teenager, and all the most special because I spent so much of it alongside my grandmother. It’ll be great to be back.

Literary societies

I recently came across Lawrence Biemiller’s March 1997 profile of two Lancaster, Pennsylvania college literary societies. Biemiller’s piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I’m excerpting some of it below.

In the 19th century, many American colleges brilliantly combined the humanities (liberal arts) with the mechanical-industrial (servile arts) to create a new form of education meant to be accessible to any young person—not only the elite that the Ivy League institutions had long catered to. What’s less well known is the extent to which young people themselves often led the way in creating, shaping, and really breathing life into this new model. Biemiller’s piece tells some of that story as it related to Franklin & Marshall College:

Generations of Students Learned Oratory and Debate in 2 Literary Societies

Lancaster, PA. In the Goethean Literary Society’s first formal debate, in June of 1835, students argued the question, “Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?” The debate took place in York, Pa., at what was then called the High School of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The society’s minutes record that the question “was decided in favor of the negative both as to the merits of the arguments and those of the question.” Afterward the members chose a topic for the following week’s discussion: “Has not the civilization of mankind been as much affected by the influence of the fair Sex as by any other cause whatever?”

So began an extraordinary run of debates and orations that continued on three different campuses for more than a hundred years, from Andrew Jackson’s Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower’s. Along with its twin sister, the Diagnothian Literary Society, the Goethean Society prospered as the “high school” moved to Mercersburg and changed its name to Marshall College. At weekly meetings the societies’ members delivered speeches and poems and argued the issues of the day, from whether women should hold public office and whether the Roman Catholic Church was “an enemy to liberty” to whether man “is the creator of his own destiny.”

Both societies assembled libraries and built Greek-revival meeting halls. There they met for hours each Saturday morning, mixing parliamentary procedure with splashes of ritual and secrecy and with floods of declamation. In January and February of 1842, for example, the Goetheans addressed a range of issues. “Would it be beneficial for the United States to admit Texas to the Union?” “Is England justified in carrying on war against China?” “Would it promote the interests of the United States to elect Henry Clay, President?” The minutes for February 23 add a contemporary-sounding note: “A Resolution was offered by Geo. L. Staley, prohibiting the chewing of Tobacco in Society on the ground of its disrespect and insult to the dignity of Society.” The resolution failed, but “Mr. Brewer then moved a vote of censure to Mr. Staley for presuming to offer such a resolution.” It, too, failed, and the members moved on to choosing the next question for debate: “Would it be beneficial for the Northern and Southern States, if they were peaceably disunited?”

The two societies continued to thrive after Marshall merged with Franklin College in 1853. The new institution, Franklin and Marshall, commissioned a Gothic-revival building with a soaring tower here in Lancaster; the literary societies put up matching halls, one on either side. The halls had first-floor rooms for the societies’ libraries—larger than the college’s—and also rooms for their “cabinets,” or museums. Upstairs were the spacious meeting rooms, frescoed by local artists. The college’s curriculum was then centered on classical texts, history, and mathematics, but the societies offered students opportunities to practice writing and public speaking and to consider subjects from politics to the nature of mankind.

In those years orators and debaters were judged more on composition and delivery than on content. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Diagnothian who attended the college in the 1850s, reported in his diary on speeches at the society’s programs: “…5th Oration, J. B. Tredwell on ‘The Dawn of a New Era.’ This was nicely written and nicely spoken. Jim is a pleasant speaker but has not enough animation. 6th Oration, ‘Christian Martyrdom,’ by J. M. Mickly. This was a first rate speech and although he did well last year, he has made quite an improvement. His production gave evidence of thought…” Douglas’s own oration that day—May 28, 1858—was titled “Tombs of the Illustrious Dead,” and it was well received. “I never saw such an abundance of bouquets,” he wrote. “I got 12, and Mr. Tredwell even more. They came in showers.”

The few orations that survive are more interesting as samples of 19th-century writing than because they offer insights into their authors’ lives; even the poems are almost entirely impersonal. The topics are general and often grand: “Marriage,” “Justice,” “The Past Character and Recent Prospects of Pennsylvanians.” The prose is confident. …

The Goetheans, whose records are more complete, elected and received acceptance letters from John James Audubon, James Buchanan, Samuel T. Clemens, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington Irving, Thomas Mann, Jean Sibelius, and Daniel Webster, among others. …

The museum curator noted the acquisition of a tortoise shell, a bottled snake, a rock from “a cave in Minnesota territory,” and “a specimen of peacock coal, beautifully colored.” The curator added that Professor Agassiz, as yet, has given us no information concerning the gar-fishes he borrowed from us several years ago.” The corresponding secretary, the curator added, had written to the professor “in a style not to be mistaken.”

The literary societies at F&M outlived most, remaining active into the 1950s. Like societies at Davidson College and Princeton University, they left behind handsome halls that still carry their names, perhaps reminding current students of the charge with Edmund Eck opened an oration titled “Who Are College Students?” It begins beautifully: “We are the embryo of stars, in the process of development, which are to illuminate the dark world when those before us have disappeared.”

This caught my attention because of Penn State’s experience with the Washington and Cresson Literary Societies. These were forerunners of both Penn State’s fraternity and sorority systems, and Penn State’s library, and much like Franklin & Marshall’s societies these provided the basis for bringing many young people together to form a critical and “unplanned” part of their collegiate experience.

We’re better people when we’re there

Gracy Olmstead writes:

In his latest book The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry talks about the intuitive aspects of agrarianism: that there are many things agrarians do and uphold not for specific scientific reasons, but because they know in their bones that it’s “best.”

“I think that agrarianism had, and where it survives it still has, a sort of summary existence as a feeling—an instinct, an excitement, a passion, a tenderness—for the living earth and its creatures,” he writes in his introduction.

Chuck Marohn highlighted this same intuitive genius in ancient urban planning during his most recent podcast for Strong Towns. As a history lover and engineer, Marohn has observed patterns in urban planning that have been passed down through millennia, patterns that built a deep logic and beauty into the places they sculpted. “Human habitat is pretty ordinary,” he notes. “We need certain things, and those’ll be within a certain distance of each other. Buildings will be arranged in certain ways and will have certain attributes, because it makes places safer, and it makes places more social. It has all this ‘spooky wisdom’ built into it.”

“Spooky wisdom” is the term Marohn employs: “the idea in quantum mechanics, at least as it’s developed today, is that we know these things work—but we really don’t know why.” “We write equations out of our understanding of quantum mechanics,” he explains, “we can test those equations, they test out true—so clearly we’re onto something—but we don’t know why it works. … And what I’m suggesting is that the more I have studied and looked at human development patterns pre-modernity, the more I just find spooky wisdom. Things that work, and I can’t really explain or understand why.”

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why. This is the essence of culture: the layers of belief and precedent, ritual and intuition that guide societal life and practice. As Maurice Telleen once put it, “A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis.”

A great deal of the 20th century was an attempt to shape a new sort of civilization with our new technologies. Going from steam to electrification to automobiles to flight to atomic energy brought incredible transformations, but our ability to live differently on a human level (that is, on the level of our homes and neighborhoods and communities) hasn’t turned out to be as malleable as many of our economic and technological conventions.

There’s a reason that people in New York intuitively sought to protect the West Village (and pay incredible premiums to live there), and why the attempts at “urban renewal” that replaced West Village-esque neighborhoods with drab apartment blocks have been largely rejected. It’s not just the aesthetics of places like the West Village that make them beautiful, but it’s the whole way of life that those neighborhoods make possible that makes life worth living there.

Greenwich Village may once have been host to New York’s avant garde, but its longevity and conservation are testaments to the best sort of conservative spirit in every heart that says something like, “Yes, this place feels right.”

Culture as ‘legitimate naming’

Mark Regnerus’s “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” is worth reading for its raw data alone. But Regnerus offers plenty of analysis of the data surrounding relationships, marriage, and commitment that is illuminating. Here’s a bit that particularly stood out to me:

Almost all of us take birth control for granted, and almost all of us alive today never inhabitated a world before it. How did it change things? Giddens asserts that its uptake has, among other things, fostered the idea of sex as an “art form” and injected that into the heart of the conjugal relationship, which then made the achievement of reciprocal sexual pleasure a key element in whether the relationship is sustained or dissolved. The cultivation of sexual skills, the capacity of giving and receiving sexual satisfaction, on the part of both sexes, has become organized reflexively via a multitude of sources of sexual information, advice, and training.

Sarah could be a case study. Despite all the sex and relationships she has had, she has never pursued pregnancy or become pregnant. The prospect of mutual sexual pleasure animates her dating life, even first dates. Sexual interest, or its absence, commonly dictates what happens next, even though her ideal relationship, she claims, would develop and mature before sex, not because of it. And all of these comparatively new achievements, Giddons asserts, have been sealed in language: how we talk about sex and relationships. And that is significant.

Once there is a new terminology for understanding sexuality, [then] ideas, concepts, and theories couched in these terms seep into social life itself and help reorder it.

What he means is that when we name something in the social world, unlike in the natural world, we are not only mentally mapping it, but we are also providing the idea with a reality that then allows it to act back upon us and the wider social world, altering how we then must subsequently navigate it. Thus, the world after something has been named is not as malleable as it was before it. To identify something socially is to give it life and power, not just a name.

It has been occurring for decades in the study of sexuality, Giddens holds. The Kinsey reports, like others following on, aims to analyze what was going on in a particular region of social activity, as all social research seeks to do. Yet as they disclosed,, they also influenced, initiating cycles of debate, reinvestigation and further debate. These debates became part of a wide public domain, but also served to alter lay views of sexual actions and involvements themselves. No doubt the scientific caste of such investigations helps neutralize moral uneasiness about the propriety of particular sexual practices. Sociologist James Davison Hunter asserts similarly when he defines culture as the power of “legitimate naming.” That is, to classify something in the social world is to penetrate the imagination, to alter our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, and to shift the perception of everyday reality.

In the domain of sexuality, fraught as it is with great moral valence, this can make all the difference. It’s why there is often poignance and bitter struggle over words and terms around sex, and the politics of using them or avoiding them.

… what is very unlikely is a return to the patterns witnessed prior to the sexual revolution.

I think the most fascinating conclusion that Regnerus draws from American relational/sexual practices is that marriage will diminish as a normative force. In other words, marriage is/will no longer be understood as the natural or obvious thing that young men and women do, and he concludes that it is already in the process of becoming a “minority practice” that is in the “throes of de-institutionalization.” It will come to be seen as simply one option among many in a socially and sexually pluralistic culture, and those who pursue it seriously are likely to decrease in number.

Great things, patiently built

Morgan Housel on “freakishly strong” foundations:

The earth used to be covered in ice. Practically all of it. Then it melted, refroze, again and again. Five times this happened in the last few billion years.

Scientists knew about ice age cycles long before they knew why they occurred. It confounded them. Then, a century ago, a Serbian scientist named Milutin Milankovic studied the earth’s position relative to the sun, and came up with the theory we now know is accurate: Our planet wobbles just enough to change how much solar radiation is let in, occasionally by enough to wreak havoc.

A few years later a Russian meteorologist named Wladimir Koppen ran with Milankovic’s work, dug a little deeper, and discovered a fascinating nuance.

The prevailing idea before Koppen was that ice ages occur when the earth’s tilt supercharges the wrath of cold winters. K0ppen showed that wasn’t the case. Instead, moderately cool summers are the culprit.

It begins when a summer never gets warm enough to melt the previous winter’s snow. The leftover ice base makes it easier for snow to accumulate the following winter, which increases the odds of snow sticking around in the following summer, which attracts even more accumulation the following winter. Perpetual snow reflects more of the sun’s rays, which exacerbates cooling, which brings more snowfall, and on and on.

You start with a thin layer of snow left over from a cool summer that no one pays much attention to, and after a few tens of thousands of years the entire earth is covered in miles-thick ice.

It’s an example of compounding in nature. And it shows what can be built off a freakishly small base.

Housel expands on this by highlighting Warren Buffet, specifically:

Buffett’s fortune isn’t due to just being a good investor, but being a good investor since he was literally a child. $80.7 billion of Warren Buffett’s $81 billion net worth was accumulated after his 50th birthday. … If, at age 30, Buffett was worth $24,000 instead of the $1 million he actually accumulated, and went on to earn the same returns, how much would he be worth today? $1.9 billion. … The punchline is that 97.6% of Buffett’s current success can be directly tied to the base he built in his teens and 20s.”

Housel offers other examples, ranging from consumer brands to the impact of 1940s Army engineers. The lesson is that compounding works in life and in reputation and in many measures of success—not just financial measures.

”Build a reputation through small, consistent acts. That’s where everything huge begins.”

Slower generational change

Another excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, this time on the friction between faster technology and the faster sense of change that it brings on the one hand, and the longer lifespans that the past century has brought and consequently the slower generational change that results:

Accelerating change has practically become a religious belief in Silicon Valley. It often begins to seem to us as though everything is speeding up along with the chips.

Broadly speaking, Moore’s law can be expected to accelerate progress in medicine because computers will accelerate the speeds of processes like genomics and drug discovery. That means healthy old age will continue to get healthier and last longer and that the “youthful” phase of life will also be extended. The two go together.

And that means generational shifts in culture and thought will happen less frequently. The baby boom isn’t over yet, and the 1960s still provide the dominant reference points in pop culture. This is in part, I believe, because of the phenomena of Retropolis and youthiness, but it is also because the boomers are not merely plentiful and alive but still vigorous and contributing to society. And that is because constantly improving medicine, public health, agriculture, and other fruits of technology have extended the average life span. People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one.

So Moore’s law makes “generational” cultural change slow down. But that is just the flip side of neoteny. While it is easy to think of neoteny as an emphasis on youthful qualities, which are in essence radical and experimental, when cultural neoteny is pushed to an extreme it implies conservatism, since each generation’s perspectives are preserved longer and made more influential as neoteny is extended. Thus, neoteny brings out contradictory qualities in culture.

“People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one.”