Magnificent Obsession

Imagine working on one thing for 35 years.

That’s how long it took Italo Gismondi to build a painstakingly realistic model of ancient Rome.  Commissioned by Mussolini to build the model in 1933, Gismondi used a number of ancient maps to create the model and kept adding to it for 35 years.  His finished product is considered to be scrupulously accurate and detailed — so much so that historians apparently use it to give them a better sense of the city as a whole.

5840455090_60b96c9dd9_oThe model reveals a Rome that was beautiful and sprawling, with a glimpse of what an amazing place it must have been when the Colosseum, the Forum, and the other buildings were intact and in use and buildings and people were packed together.  Those of us who have been lucky enough to visit Rome have seen these once-glorious buildings only in ruins and in isolation, without their neighboring buildings to give a complete picture of ancient Rome in full flower.  It must have been a bustling, extraordinary place.

Gismondi’s model depicts Rome as it was in the fourth century AD.  That time period shows Rome, the city, at its height, but was also a time when the Roman Empire was in decline.  Only 100 years later, in 476 AD, the last Roman emperor was toppled by barbarian invaders and the Dark Ages descended in the west.

The Gismondi model is on display at the Museum of Roman Civilization, in Rome.  I didn’t visit that museum on our trip to Italy years ago, but I hope to make it back to Italy one of these days, and when I do that museum will be a must-see stop.

April 3

In the grand scheme of things, April 3 is not a particularly significant date.  It’s not a deadline for tax filings, or the day on which battles were fought on which the future of the world depended, or significant wars ended, or important discoveries were made.

If you run an internet search on important events that happened on April 3, you’ll see there’s really not much of great consequence.  In fact, the list is pretty remarkable for its blandness, filled with events that are likely to provoke nothing but a shrug and a “so what?”  On April 3, 1043, for example, Edward the Confessor was crowned King of England.  On April 3, 1864, there was a “skirmish at Okolona, Arkansas.”  (Really?  A skirmish makes the list?)  On April 3, 1948, the first U.S. figure skating championships were held.  And April 3 has been a popular day for countries to conduct nuclear tests.

So, in the grand scheme of things, there’s not much that is remarkable about April 3.  But 33 years ago, on April 3, 1982, in a white-framed church in Vermilion, Ohio, Kish and I were married, so it’s an important date for us.  We don’t mind that not much of historical consequence happened on April 3 — it’s as if we get this special day all to ourselves.

When Churchill And Stalin Hit The Bottle

The BBC has an interesting story about a World War II summit meeting that tells us a bit about how the world has changed, and also, perhaps, about how it hasn’t.

The story took place in 1942, when Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting with Joseph Stalin, the dictator who led the Soviet Union.  The two countries were new allies, brought together by their common foe, Nazi Germany.

The initial meetings between the leaders didn’t exactly go smoothly.  Churchill requested another meeting, which began at 7 p.m.  At 1 a.m. an under-secretary of the British Foreign Office was invited to join the proceedings and found Stalin, Churchill, and Russian Foreign Secretary Molotov sitting around the shredded remains of a suckling pig on a table covered with countless bottles of liquor.  By that time Churchill was just drinking wine and complaining of a headache, and Stalin made the bureaucrat drink a concoction that was “pretty savage.”  The meeting continued until 3 a.m., when the Brits stumbled back to their rooms, packed, and headed to the airport.

The drinking party was unconventional — although not unusual for the Soviets, whose reputation for long, vodka-saturated banquets continued for decades — but it did the trick.  Churchill and Stalin established a personal connection that helped the allies steer their way to victory over the Axis powers.

It’s hard to imagine our modern political leaders having drinking bouts and making bleary-eyed policy decisions at 2 a.m. after guzzling countless shots of booze.  We obviously wouldn’t want them to do so.  But the importance of making a personal connection remains as true today as it was 70 years ago during the dark days of a global war.  Summit meetings still make sense because we want our leaders to be able to take the measure of each other and establish relationships that can stand the stress when times get tough.

The World’s Oldest Museum

The world is a very old place.  Human civilizations have been around for a long time, too — we just tend not to think about it unless something reminds us.

One reminder is the story of the world’s oldest museum, which was established in the city of Ur 2,500 years ago.  It was discovered in 1925, when an archaeologist was excavating a Babylonian palace and found some neatly arranged objects from many different times and places.  The archaeologist thought he might have discovered a museum, and he confirmed that conclusion when he uncovered the world’s oldest known label for a museum exhibit, in the form of a clay cylinder, pictured at right, with text written in three different languages.  The museum was established by a Princess named Ennigaldi, at a time when the Babylonians — whose civilization stretched back thousands of years — were obsessed with their past.

At first blush, it seems strange to think that people living in 500 B.C. would be interested in studying history — but there is no reason why they wouldn’t find the story of humanity as compelling as modern people do.  The story of the Babylonian museum reminds me of a passage I read in The Story of Civilization series of books by Will and Ariel Durant.  In the book about ancient Egypt, they quoted a passage from a world-weary Egyptian writer who lamented that the world was old and that everything worth writing had been written already.  His lament was written about 2500 years before Shakespeare.

Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.