When in Rome, do as the Romans do; and so I joined the Roman population which seemed to enjoy standing still in traffic jams in Fiats. I rented a Fiat, and joined the “fun”.
In Rome there were so many things to see! First there
was the Tiber, whose width we’re told in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar tried to swim when he experienced an epileptic fit. I expected a grand river, something like the Hudson under the George Washington Bridge. What a disappointment! It was little more than a ditch, seemingly not quite as wide as your average swimming pool. It may have been larger in Caesar’s time, but it was disappointing.
A grand moment came for me when I finally got to see the Laocoőn, possibly the world’s greatest sculpture, standing there, in the garden of the Vatican in its all its glory.
Laocoőn’s story had always had a special resonance for me. Laocoőn was one of the three seers of Greek mythology, the others being Cassandra and Tiresius, each of whom had the gift of being able to see into the future, but who were also cursed with not being believed by anyone. In Laocoőn’s case, he foresaw that the wooden horse dragged into Troy would be the disaster that destroyed his city and recommended that the horse be immediately set afire. As a matter of fact, he was the one who originated the warning, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!” In any case, the Trojans paid no attention to him or his warning, and either Athena or Apollo sent snakes out of the sea to punish him by killing him and his two sons. It is not clear whether he was punished for having struck the Wooden Horse with his spear, when Athena wanted Troy destroyed, or for having sex with his wife in a shrine holy to Apollo. The Laocoőn in the Vatican is a sculpture capturing in marble the dramatic moment when Laocoőn and his sons struggle against the great snake that is about to kill them. For me, this was often what it felt like to be a teacher working for the Board of Education of New York City. It wasn’t so much that the Board was incompetent, but that it was willfully destructive of the best school system in the country. I saw it very clearly. My colleagues saw it also. Our representative appealed to the city. There was nothing we could do about it. We just wanted to teach, but the gods did not want the system to survive, and we were helpless.
Inside the Vatican, there was also the Sistine Chapel, with its glorious ceiling, which at the time was quite faded and being restored. Still, I was struck by the thought of what early worshippers would have felt as they entered that room. Most people, until modern times, had never seen any paintings, and suddenly this room! It must have felt like entering heaven itself , a heaven alive with people, angels, and biblical characters they knew, a world almost as real as their own. What they probably would not have noticed is that at the center of it all sat God and his angels, in a space that looks suspiciously like a human brain.