I am an aspiring lawyer who is pursuing dual bachelor degrees in Political Science and International Relations from Florida International University. During the Grand Tour Redux, I thoroughly enjoyed and was likewise fascinated by the masterpieces we saw and the cultures we interacted with – so much so that I am definitely taking courses in art history and appreciation in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the fine arts. Nevertheless, I felt drawn to analyzing most – but not all – of my experiences in the grand tour via a political lense. Some of the approaches to the cities are definitely a result of this perspective – the rest are simply observations and reflection on general life as I saw it through my indescribable perspective.
Ultimately, this project allows me to reflect on the past and connect it to the present, which is what I will attempt to do by drawing parallels as well as distinctions between the places we saw and the United States today.
From lamp posts and trash cans to ornate buildings, paintings, and sculptures – SPQR adorns it all. Senātus Populusque Rōmānus is an eerie reminder of what once was the greatest empire known to man and no longer is.
From greatness to downfall. Nothing makes this contrast from greatness to mediocrity than the Roman forum. From it, power exuded, the vast region that Romans amassed over years of war was ruled from this single spot. Crammed between the Capitoline and Palatine hills were the most powerful men of antiquity. The exuberant palace atop the Palatine hill, the myriad of temples all adorned with the finest marble to worship all gods, the imposing basilica of Maxentius, the Senate all were forgotten suddenly after the collapse of the Roman empire. So forgotten that the only reason we know about it today is because it was deemed so unimportant that cows were allowed to graze there, atop the dirt that covered it all.
One cannot ignore the resemblance that the United States bears to Roma. Their history is practically the same: both rebelled against the monarchy and established a radical form of government hoping to never be ruled by an individual with unlimited power. Slowly both expanded their territories by brute force – either conquering, decimating people or driving them off their land. Similarly, the executive gradually grew more powerful and its power had fewer checks in what it could do. Culturally they are also very similar. Roma was the melting pot of Europe with citizens from all over as well as their respective religions, foods, and unique perspectives. The United States is likewise home to people from all over the globe, a country of immigrants as its very own founders migrated from Europe to seek greater freedoms; this all results in a myriad of languages, ethnicities, and most importantly perspectives to be present in it. They even share the way they project their power: always leading with soft power while having the military to back any action. If one simply described Roma and the United States they could often be mistaken for one another.
The main difference between the United States and the Roman Empire is that the former has only been around for around 250 years, a mere fourth of what the empire lasted. Another notable difference is that they have existed in very different time periods: Roma in antiquity and the United States in the age of interconnectivity and globalization.
This all leaves one to wonder, will Washington D.C. be nothing more than a cow pasture in 800 years?
This is a question that has been debated by nearly every historian, and there seems to be no clear consensus. Most scholars agree, however, that the study of history aids us in predicting outcomes of similar situations as well as to avoid negative ones. The case of the United States is precisely that one with regards to Roma. The Roman Empire fell because of a couple of factors agreed upon by scholars; namely overextension and wealth disparity. Looking at the United States today one may fear for the same outcome given that the upper class keeps getting wealthier whereas the middle class is disappearing or merging with the lower class which has not improved in decades. Another sign of worry is the overextension of military and diplomatic envoys all over the world. With the rise of China and the United States endlessly trying to counter it they are attempting to have a say in every country’s foreign policies while keeping stable relations as well – something that is impossibly difficult if not impossible.
These two factors are dangerously similar to those that were seen in ancient Roma, so is history going to repeat itself? I fear it might unless some drastic measures are taken to rectify what was explained above. The United States has enjoyed the hegemony for quite some time and though it may pain it and its politicians, they may have to learn to live in a world that does not bend at their will – literally like every other nation in the world. With regards to the wealth inequality, laws and policies can be pursued that will focus on the people rather than on the businesses. Greater safety nets, higher minimum wages, more apt unions, higher taxes on the uber-wealthy, these are all measures that can be done to slowly raise the lower classes without irreparably damaging the upper ones. Otherwise the United States may not last half as long as Roma.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo DaVinci, Dante Alighieri, Donatello, Filippo Brunelleschi, Giotto… all masters of their craft, all changed the world, all Florentines. One wonders what was in the water that made all of these people so brilliant? There were artists from all over the world, why were these so much better than the rest? Why are these the masters?
There are a myriad of reasons that explain this. Some may argue that they were simply better genetically suited at whatever is required to be an artist. That may explain one or two of them, but certainly not all. Others will more accurately argue that it was their environment that allowed them to truly explore what they needed to in order to be great artists – this may explain it better. Firenze was the perfect place for artists: the Medici, the political motives driving art, the sexual freedom, the lack of religious restrictions – it all combined to make Firenze the birthplace of the Renaissance.
This all makes one ponder upon a couple of things: for once, how many artists could have been great that never were, simply because they were not in the right environment? Secondly, and most importantly, it allows one to think about social restrictions and their effect on people.
States must regulate private conduct to the degree that it affects others and government, but when is that regulation too much? Until relatively recently in the United States contraceptives in the marital bedroom were banned, is that too much restriction? Is restricting a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term something that should be restricted? These questions and many more were the ones that passed through my head as I experienced Firenze. I was astonished by this utopia – a society in which people were free to do as they wished free from social constraints, free from over-restriction.
Is it right for governments to control the lives of its people? Some may argue it is a necessary evil, whereas other zealously oppose it. I could only think of Orwell’s 1984 where the government controlled everything and people would grudgingly bear it. That would be one end of it, the other would be utter anarchy. Firenze is so special because it reached the perfect balance between freedom and restriction – it seems fitting that the Renaissance’s perfect balance was born here.
Though government and the restrictions that come along with it are necessary, they must certainly have a limit that allows enough civil liberties for society to function. What is this limit has been a hard-fought debate for nearly all of recorded human history. In the United States for instance, at first only land-owning white males had full rights, then it slowly expanded to the state it is in today. The same process happened with nearly every right Americans have – abortion, free speech, bear arms, and the list can go on. Even today there is no agreement on how much restrictions is too much. I personally think that liberties are extremely necessary and the only way to safeguard them is to have an efficient and unbiased judicial branch. If this is not followed and achieved soon we may face a notable reduction in our rights and liberties as Americans. The United States – and any government for that matter – should emulate Firenze in that aspect, allowing the people to have freedoms without burdening them – maybe that way we will see another phenomenon like the one of all the Florentine masters.
What happens when the world stands still? That is a question that poses a great deal of difficulty: for starters the laws of physics say it is impossible unless one travels at the speed of light – which is definitely not happening in the Cinque Terre – but somehow it seems as though in the Cinque Terre time stands still. It is no surprise then that those who went on the Grand Tour before me would go to the Cinque Terre to reflect on what they had experienced before continuing on – a way to be able to digest the amazement and astonishment they had for the masterpieces they just saw. We used the Cinque Terre in a similar manner, a way to allow us to reflect and truly realize how amazing what we had experienced was – in the span of three weeks we had seen works by all of the great masters and those who came after them, we had seen more of the world than most people see in a lifetime.
In Cinque Terre I also came to a realization, one that I think is important and will guide my life from now on. I realized that no matter how fast life moves, how busy one gets, or how overwhelming life becomes, one must find their Cinque Terre, their place to reflect and relax, their place where time stands still and they are happy.
The United States often prides itself on having Protestant work ethic and allowing its people to chase the American dream – this simply means that one works too much and is never truly happy with their life, always seeking to have more things and reach the unattainable goal of being happy.
Without somewhere like the Cinque Terre in everyone’s lives, the world continues being driven by stress and thoughtlessness, but with the Cinque Terre it all improves. As idealistic as it may sound, the world could be substantially better for all if people were able to devote some time reflecting and relaxing, be it in a room in their home, in a park nearby, or anywhere else that allows the individual to break with society’s fast pace and slow things down enough to reflect.
Do not misunderstand what I mean when I say that everything works slower in the Cinque Terre; everyone works as much if not more than Americans, it is the way they do it that makes their lives and those of all around them different. Unlike in the United States, in the Cinque Terre people genuinely smile and chat with one another, they enjoy their lives thoroughly and it must be at least partly because of the atmosphere in this place. I could not help but think of Albee’s Death of a Salesman – the retrace to make the most and fulfill the capitalist dream is not something that matters in the Cinque Terre, people are happy with whatever little or lot they have and they work to live, not the other way around.
I believe that they have it right, we in the United States have a skewed concept of this. Working is only a part of living, it is not however, life. This is an important concept that everyone should at least be aware of so that they can live a happier a fuller life, detached from material possessions.
Since 1648 people have no longer been able to be stateless, the place one is born is forever with them. We not only receive a first name and a family name but also a nationality. We all effectively belong to a country and some to two. But why does this exist? Does an agreed upon imaginary line truly make people different from one another?
Nationalism emerged shortly after nation states emerged, it resulted in people with a heightened sense of patriotism who were willing to do what was good and right for their nation – that in itself is a very subjective idea. Recently in the world we have seen a rise in nationalism. Whether it be in Europe, Asia, or in the Americas there is one thing in common: people are giving substantially larger importance to the imaginary lines of states. This is not the first time we have seen this happen and is likely not going to be the last. Napoleon was one of the early adopters of nationalism in order to enlist thousands of people into his army, claiming the greater purpose to help France. Some other famous adopters of this powerful movement who were able to harness it were Hitler, Mussolini, and recently Trump as well as many politicians alongside him. In Venezia it is possible to see early nationalism at work.
Venetians were and still are a proud people, they became the most powerful city in the world, and as such they were willing to defend their number one spot against all threats. This is eerily similar to the United States today.
Venetians stole, lied, and fought wars to improve Venezia. The main attraction in Venezia is proof of that: St. Mark’s body was stolen from Alexandria, taken to Rome and placed in the cathedral there. The cathedral itself is adorned with stolen horses from Venezia’s then ally Constantinople and with a myriad of columns and sculptures from all corners of the earth. For Venezia, Venetians would do anything. Today’s is rise in nationalism is worrisome because the different nationalities are vying for power and seeking what is best for their own country, other countries will be upset by it and conflict could ensue. Unlike Venetians who fell because their nationalism made them expand over their capacity into the mainland, citizens of today must be aware and reflect on their country’s actions – they must not be led astray by nationalism. It is our duty, one that is often neglected or clouded by nationalism, to know the good and bad things our countries do and to see issues from the multiple perspectives that are always involved. Doing this allows us to judge current and last issues from the least biased perspective. Ignorance is the worst thing that can happen to a society, and it is up to each of us to stop turning a blind eye on the questionable actions of our countries.