Rome: Through the ruins of Statism, Liberty Shines

We arrived in Rome Fiumicino airport some time after midnight, several hours later than we should have. Strike action by Italian airport personnel had forced our airline to cancel all its afternoon flights. Thankfully, it seamlessly placed us another flight leaving from Heathrow in the evening. But this untimely bout of legalised extortion in Italy had chopped half a day off of our holiday and denied us the benefits of our more expensive and much more convenient flight from the airport on our side of town. Collective bargaining is one thing, but collective pointing of government guns at your employer in the name of the ‘public good’ is quite another. It’s insulting and socially destructive. The hallmarks of socialism.

Things got worse when we realised that we couldn’t now get the train from the airport into the centre of Rome because the State run transport system doesn’t run through the night – or even until one or two in the morning. Of course it doesn’t. That would be dangerously close to meeting its customers’ needs. We had two options. Either wait until six in the morning for the next train or pay someone to drive us to our hotel. The former was the much cheaper option, but the latter was the more preferable one for two tired people who just wanted to climb into a comfy hotel bed.

Outside, licensed taxi drivers leant nonchalantly against their official white cabs and seemed disinterested in our business. They gave sideways glances to the gaggle of ‘illegal’ taxis parked on the other side of them who seemed much more interested in us. An ‘illegal’ approached me and gestured in a welcoming manner towards a very smart-looking car. A price was agreed and within minutes we found ourselves sinking into the luxurious back seats of a Chrysler. A smartly dressed man with broad features and considerable sideburns drove us to our hotel with an urgency that made one feel important.

The following day I would notice hand-made signs taped to posts at road crossings saying “Don’t take an illegal taxi. Take a white regular taxi.” They may just as well have declared “freedom is evil.”

We got tantalising glimpses of Rome’s treasures shrouded in the dark of night as we bounced along its cobbled streets. And I mean bounced. Even the Chrysler’s suspension couldn’t entirely mitigate the awful state of the roads. I winced for the poor guy’s car. Some roads felt more like dirt tracks, which is astonishing given that we were in the capital city of one of the world’s largest economies. I was suddenly very aware of the enormous difference in quality between the privately owned car I was in and the publicly owned roads it was driving on. The former was smooth, powerful and comfortable. The latter looked and felt like they hadn’t much changed since the days of ancient Rome. Charming though that may be, practical it is not. The distinct lack of tarmac suggested to me that there was probably some law or other against resurfacing Roman roads in the city centre. I wouldn’t bet against it. The general state of disrepair of the roads suggests that road maintenance was not high on the list of priorities of Italy’s current crop of politicians – or should I say, looters. Yes, I should.

Even though we were arriving at an ungodly hour we were afforded a very pleasant greeting by the person working the night shift at the hotel. Our hotel, unlike the State-run transport system, was ready and able to serve us with a smile at any hour. Sensing our desire for sleep he gave us the concise version of the welcoming speech and handed us our room key without delay. This created a great first impression with me. I do love promptness and attentiveness. Two things you rarely get from government workers, usually because their wages depend upon something other than creating value for you.

Around the corner from our hotel was a couple of simple but nice restaurants. A fat man named Mario was the proprietor of one of them. Here’s a tip. Always trust an obese Italian man’s word on food. He listed the day’s specials like he was telling me about his loved ones. I’m not a food lover, but I loved that. We had a good time with Mario, although I think he was a little disappointed, or maybe just baffled, by my not having a ‘main’. You see, to me, the whole bowl of delicious pasta with mushrooms that I ate was a main. But, apparently, to Mario and no doubt the whole of Italy, that was just a starter. At this point I had a flashback to when the parents of an Italian friend of mine cooked us all a meal. It consisted of at least twice as much food as I would normally intake at any one sitting. (It was also, I should add, twice as nice). Anyway, like any good restaurateur, Mario recognised that I was contented and graciously accepted my pathetic, by Italian standards, gastronomic capacity. Upon realising that a meat main was simply beyond me he gave a couple of mints with the cheque. Perfecto mundo.

Tucked somewhere around the back of our hotel was a chic looking ice cream place, which we stumbled upon one day. It seemed to have a good reputation because it always had locals in it. This place opened at eleven in the morning and stayed open until midnight. Ice cream, or “gelato”, is a serious business in Italy. In Britain, it’s mostly something a machine spits out for you when you’re at the seaside. With a flake stuck in it. But in Italy it’s a cacophony of flavours lovingly caressed into a cone. With any number of delights on top. Ice cream seems to be to Italians what the kebab is to Brits. That which you eat after drinking alcohol. It is healthier, I guess, and at least you don’t have that lingering fear that you might in fact be eating a cat or a dog. It was the passion, smartness and professionalism of this place that really struck me. The cushioned benches they placed outside for patrons was a lovely touch. They even let you try before you buy and the array of flavours they had was quite remarkable.

Over our four days in Rome we walked what felt like every inch of the city centre. The thought of some delicious ice cream is what kept our tired legs moving in the sapping heat as we returned to our hotel each day. To us, walking is the best way to explore a city, although it became apparent that Rome is often not a place for pedestrians. Roads buzzing with cars cross-hatch the entire city and pavements are often squeezed to comical size in order to allow more traffic to flow. People jams are as common as traffic jams. Those on two legs are often second class citizens to those on two or four wheels. Now and then, though, a piazza will open out ahead of you and the horn tooting and engine growling swiftly fades away. Suddenly, you’re in a place primarily for people. A place where cars are incongruous and unwelcome. You don’t have to have eyes in the back of your head here. There’s little sound too apart from, perhaps, the gentle gush of a fountain or the trickle of a water tap. It’s cool. The beads of sweat on your forehead start to dry, and your body and mind start to relax. Until, that is, you notice a couple of armed men in uniforms loitering on the other side. If anything’s going to spoil the tranquillity of a moment in Rome, then it is the Carabinieri or the Polizia di Stato. They seem to be very adept at this.  They return all glances with a “what are you looking at?” expression. Well, actually, I was just wondering what it is about this particularly charming and tranquil environment that requires the presence of a man with a semi automatic weapon? On several occasions we passed armed men in army fatigues stationed outside nondescript buildings that gave no clue as to why they were there. Seemingly inexplicable State police presence is a feature of any visit to Italy’s capital.

On our last day we had a few hours before we had to go to the airport and so we wandered. As we approached a small junction a cavalcade of black limousines humming with self-importance stopped us in our tracks. It erupted in a wail of annoyed sirens and horn toots as it was slowed almost to a halt by impertinent traffic. Peering menacingly out of every side of a four by four that tailed the procession was a swat team wearing balaclavas and armed with semi automatic machine guns. No facial features, just eyes. The ice-cold gaze of trained killers pierced right through my soul as cleanly as I imagined their bullets would through my body. They were assessing whether I was a potential threat or not. For half a second I was instinctively tempted to take a photograph in order to capture this extraordinary moment, but the look given to me by the armed man sitting in the opened tailgate of the black range rover convinced me otherwise. I felt sure that if I had raised my camera he would have raised his gun. A woman crossed between the cars as they stopped momentarily, which drew an angry gesture from a driver in a dark suit. How dare she. We stood at the curb until this tinted windowed convoy turned the corner and the sirens faded. As we crossed the road we tried to figure out what it was that we had just witnessed. I later found out that the president of Tunisia had been on an official visit to Rome that day. That meant, of course, that the world had to stop. I wondered whether this supposed society of contract wasn’t in fact a society of class.

The State police forces maintain a strong presence in the city centre. You can’t wander far in Rome without encountering a State enforcer, which is a pity because it slightly sours what is otherwise a delightful experience. It’s hard to get completely lost in the moment when there’s a sociopath nearby brandishing a large weapon who has the air of a man who believes he has the right to use deadly force against anyone. As is always the case the State imposes itself upon society. It is the guy nobody likes who comes to your dinner party uninvited and proceeds to spoil the atmosphere.

The mighty ruins of ancient Rome and the wondrous architecture, sculpture and artwork contained within the walls of the city within a city, the Vatican, are what draw so many people to Rome today. But the modern Rome that has developed around it all seems to be in a malaise. It has a neglected and tatty appearance, which is most unbecoming of the capital city of a country with the eighth largest economy in the world. There’s something sad about it. Numerous graffiti strewn and generally run-down buildings surround the strangely dignified ruins of ancient Rome and the proud beauty of Vatican city. There’s signs of short-termism almost everywhere you look; bags taped over signs that point to stores no longer in business; sand poured into areas of loose cobbles on roads and pavements; scaffolding holding up ancient walls and arches. Problems fixed for the moment, but with no apparent thought to the long-term. The sickly complexion of modern Rome tells of a heavy dose of socialism. As economist Milton Friedman once remarked: “When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and nobody has a direct interest in maintaining or improving its condition.” This certainly appears to be the case in Rome today.

When you visit Rome you’re supposed to marvel at the collective might once possessed by the Roman empire. Indeed, statues of emperors, green and blackened with time, still demand every visitor’s reverence and obedience with their powerful poses. But, for all the pomp and majesty of the Roman empire and its long line of emperors the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things to gaze upon in Rome are actually the work of one supremely brilliant man.

Michelangelo lived from 1475 to 1564 and, in my view, has best claim to being the greatest creative force of all time. He was a sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer. He was architect of a large part of St Peter’s basilica in Rome as we see it today, including the spectacular central dome, which is the tallest in the world. Even though the dome is 448 feet high (136 meters) and has an internal diameter of 136 feet (43 meters), you cannot grasp the true scale of it gazing up from floor level because the rest of the basilica is in perfect proportion to it.  I mean, you understand that it’s big, but you don’t grasp how big because you’ve got nothing human sized to compare it to. It’s only when, through squinted eyes, you notice the tiny figures of people on the platform that runs around the inside of the dome that you comprehend how preposterously huge it is. Such is the distance between them and you that all you can distinguish about them, just barely, is what colour clothes they are wearing. It is only then that the enormity of it all, literally and figuratively, hits you.

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Of course, all the sculpture, mosaic and painting that adorns the dome must also be in proportion, so it too is on a much larger scale than you think – and is all the more impressive for it when you’re up in the dome itself. Michelangelo’s dome and basilica is so stupefyingly big (the technical term is “giant order”, which means columns that span two or more stories) and beautiful that it seems beyond the abilities of man. That it is not is, to me, the most amazing thing of all. Such was the architectural brilliance of Michelangelo’s dome that it influenced the design of many churches for centuries afterwards, including St Paul’s cathedral, another favourite of mine.

What I find fascinating about monumental constructions like St Peter’s is the human touches that you don’t notice. The little ‘tweaks’ that are sometimes necessary as a result of previous imperfections. Wikipedia notes an interesting example from St Peter’s:

“To the single bay of Michelangelo’s Greek Cross, Maderno added a further three bays. He made the dimensions slightly different from Michelangelo’s bay, thus defining where the two architectural works meet. Maderno also tilted the axis of the nave slightly. This was not by accident, as suggested by his critics. An ancient Egyptian obelisk had been erected in the square outside, but had not been quite aligned with Michelangelo’s building, so Maderno compensated, in order that it should, at least, align with the Basilica’s façade.”

In a corner of the basilica sits a sculpture by Michelangelo. It depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. It’s such a brilliant and captivating work of art that it didn’t even occur to me that the figures are very much out of proportion. Michelangelo managed to effortlessly overcome the considerable challenge of depicting the body of a fully grown man cradled full length in a woman’s lap. The sculpture is made of marble. A hard, sharp and pointed material that shatters and cracks. And yet, out of it Michelangelo produced flowing drapery, and the soft contours of a limp human being. He was just 25 years old when he produced this piece and it took less than two years. Remarkable.

Michelangelo’s most famous works are the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and his fresco on the altar wall, The Last Judgement. For various reasons, on my two previous visits to Rome I had not visited the chapel, but this time I did. We stood for something like 45 minutes in that room, trying to take it all in, as did hundreds of other people. My neck ached by the time we came out. The ceiling fresco stretches over 500 square meters of ceiling and contains over 300 figures. It took approximately four years to complete. Producing such a work of art on a canvas or flat vertical wall of that size would be remarkable enough, but to do it over the arches and angles of a flattened barrel vault ceiling is impossibly brilliant. Even more incredible is the fact that he did this whilst working on the Pope’s tomb (which was to include forty statues) and that it was a medium he “didn’t much like working in”.

According to the account of an acquaintance of Michelangelo’s, an architect who was resentful of Michelangelo’s commission for the Pope’s tomb convinced the Pope to commission him in a medium he was unfamiliar with in the vindictive hope that he would fail at the task – and suffer a hefty blow to his reputation. There may be no finer example in history of an act of spite backfiring more spectacular than this. Donato Bramante could never have dreamed that his act aimed at destroying Michelangelo would have entirely the opposite effect and would essentially create history’s most famous artist.

Michelangelo was, in many ways, the epitome of individuality. His works were the ultimate expression of individual talent, despite the subject matter often being the most familiar story in human history, because he consistently defied artistic convention. Which at that time was a brave thing to do. How artists depicted figures in biblical scenes was no trivial matter back then, but so brilliant was Michelangelo that refusing his work would have been foolish. The world adjusted to him; it was drawn into the gravitational pull of his genius. His unique brilliance created a new freedom for the countless artists who would follow in his wake. He liberated art. He restored, as one critic put it, “…light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness.” His works are the only thing preventing today’s Rome from being entirely enveloped by the darkness of statism. They may be slightly faded and damaged due to the passage of time, but they still sparkle whenever a beholder capable of recognising beauty gazes upon them. The Rome we experienced shined brightly and came to life every time we encountered free exchange, passion, and genius. The taxi driver, our hotel, Mario, the ice cream place, Michelangelo. But it barely breathed whenever and wherever the constricting grip of the State was apparent. For the sake of Mario et al, and in the spirit of the legendary Michelangelo, Rome must be set free to breathe again.

The man himself once said, “I saw the angel and carved until I set him free.” A vibrant, prosperous and dignified Rome is currently encased in the stone of socialist central planning. Only a new age of individual liberty as the highest political ideal can carve it free. And only productive and creative individuals engaging in free exchange have the correct tools to do so. Because the State doesn’t sculpt. It smashes.

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