“Ostia’s famous for lots of things.”
widely attributed to Roger B. Ulrich, Ph.D.
This was gonna be one of those days that started off just right and then got rained into oblivion. Assembling in front of the Pyramide train station, we proud, quick-witted and good-looking students of archaeology prepared for a ghostlike quiz on the reigns of Roman emperors. Ghostlike, because the prospect of spitting up names and succession dates was made a matter of certain fact by a menacing email we’d gotten earlier in the week from Katelyn, our formidable TA, but which had yet to be pounce upon us. Pop quizzes, much like death, are always lurking just around the corner of every waking second.
Despite the conditions, moods were up. The enlivening hustle and bustle of the early morning Italian commute is always sufficient to shoot our spirits into ecstasy. That, and the consumption of half a dozen lukewarm cappuccinos and espresso chocolates.
We got on the train, bound for ancient Ostia. Things were a little cramped, though our broad smiles seemed to take up more room than our rears. A man played wistfully on an accordion and shook a paper cup of change in our faces, which Brett was happy to fill to its brim with something like 68 euro cents. Lucas noted, quite poignantly, that the accordion's tune and tones had precisely the quality of what you’d expect to hear in the opening scene of an American B movie set in Italy. This FSP has been a consistent adventure in the many tiers of hyperreality.
A good day begins in a necropolis. A great day also ends in one. At its outset, this was looking like it would be at least a good day. The familiar backdrop of tombs in ruins, cypress trees and moist brambles hearkened back to distant days and wanton hours spent exploring in Norchia, Cerveteri and Hierapolis. Our intrepid professor, Roger B. Ulrich, Ph.D. stopped us before a tomb, but surprisingly directed our attention to the leaves of a nearby trees, whose branch he had clutched in his expert fist.
“Does anyone know what this is?”
“Ah,” I thought. “here’s a man who knows his flora as well as his fora.”
“Nobody? No? These are bay leaves. Does anyone know what you do with bay leaves?”
I knew the Beatles used to smoke bay leaves in cemeteries when they were teenagers. Perhaps it was in such a cemetery that they first spied the ELEANOR RIGBY headstone, on which they based their famous song. Art, like archaeology, has a quasi-magical way of bringing the dead back to life.
“You use bay leaves for cooking. I like to take these home” (rapidly stuffing a few hundred leaves into his OR & MI satchel) “and use them in food I make for my friends. Then I tell them their food is flavored with bay leaves from a necropolis in ancient Ostia! How neat is that?” (May the reader be gently-yet-firmly reminded that all quotations are, by nature, approximate. In some cases, they’re highly embellished.)
Well, I agreed it was pretty darn neat. But it gave rise to a secondary thought which swiftly became primary: not only does art give new life to the dead, and archaeology too, but so does food. After all, a simplistic chemical analysis will tell you that the trees growing in a cemetery are just the reconstituted material of the corpses therein. The cadaver is extracted from its coffin and made to stand upright again above the soil in the form of a bush or vine. When you eat the vine, the tree or its leaves, that very same material is reconstituted as….you. Dionysus was worshipped as a savior and giver of new life as he occupied the same religious and social space as other early mystery cults, one of which became Christianity. Perhaps Roger. B. Ulrich, Ph.D. will one day be worshipped in this way.
Roger Ulrich, Ph.D. also took care to point out the extravagant use of brickwork in the tombs. Lucas, just barely below his breath, uttered disparaging remarks in the direction of this particular material. “It all seems like it’s just a cheap knock-off of Rome. Were they just lazy?” Lucas, the eternal gentleman and emperor of style, could not believe that such radical changes in the people’s preferences for decoration could occur. How could anyone like uncovered brick?
As we entered the city proper, one of the first stops was the site of a grain warehouse. This inspired “Hip, Hip, Horrea!” one of many songs in the upcoming musical, based on the FSP and starring Katelyn Burgess as Katelyn Burgess, written and scored by Teddy Henderson and Aaron Pellowski.
Another important visit took us to a Mithraeum, the underground chamber of an imperial soldier cult imported from the east. Initiates would stand beneath a grate over which a bull was slaughtered, and let the beast’s blood pour down over them.And you thought your pledge term was hard.
All over the ancient city were installations of modern sculptures. Most were highly abstract and made out of “interesting” materials. One was a magnificent blotch of iron squiggles with a hornets nest inside of it. We’ve seen such shows in multiple places on our FSP, including, prominently, the Naples museum. What an effect these displays have, the great works of antiquity nested cheek-to-jowl with their contemporary analogs? Once effect is that it makes me furious. It’s ugly, it’s irreverent, and worst of all it’s hideously arrogant. Who are these fancy-free, “creative” people who think their work is fit to rub shoulders with the best of the centuries? They either have an overabundance of love for themselves or a deficiency of love for antiquity, or both. It also crucifies the whole atmospheric effect that’s supposed to obtain in environments like these. How can I envision the Roman world in the spaces real Romans occupied when there’s a gargantuan heap of over-crafted garbage smack-dab in the middle of the museum? I like to repeat the immortal words of my favorite author, Evelyn Waugh, which he included all throughout his private correspondences and which reflected his ironclad, pre-Raphaelite sensibilities: Death to Picasso.
One of our last stops was at an abandoned workshop where stacks of olumns lay, unfluted. These were the last columns to be shipped into Ostia, and there they were in jumbled piles, undisturbed through the ages. To anyone with a brain, these columns were reminiscent of the bodies at Pompeii. Unlike those bodies, however, these columns were not horrifying reminders of human mortality. In their lasts few gasps of thought, what were they thinking? Of family? Of God? Arby’s?
Allow me to close with three remarks. First, death to Picasso. Second, a despairing sonnet about the body casts at Pompeii:
all that unextraordinary death
made unextraordinary by the glass
immaculate before unuttered breath
inhuman human forms of open dusted mass
with limbs made mangled in the ancient storm
of mud made measureless in measured heat
suspends unscreaming all the tragic form
suspended, drowned in minutes incomplete
so curious that you, you passing eye
who, eying all the eyes that ages ate
who, forgetting how each cry recalls each cry
did not take this silent crier for a mate
you, who soon forgot his nameless fame
forgot to see yourself, so soon, the same.
Finally, to balance out the somber mood, a fun fact. The nearest Arby’s in the entire world is actually located in Turkey! (There aren’t any in Europe.)
Photos courtesy of Jin:
Waiting for the morning lecture to begin.
Impressive brick work.
Speculation, smiles, and smirking.
Frolicking in the Forum.
It's Eman! And some opus reticulatum.
The Birth of Venus. Well, the ancient version.