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Two Old Guys on a Train to Naples

You get to a certain point in life and you want to indulge yourself, but for an academic, sheer indulgence is a luxury that provokes guilt.

So when I was invited to a conference in Rome I figured I can indulge while not feeling guilty. I could spend five days at the conference,  spend a bit of time in Florence without feeling too much guilt. Seeing the Masaccios’ in Brancacci chapel or standing beneath the crucifix by Giotto at the Santa Maria Novella Florence becomes everything it was meant to be. Standing in front of Michelangelo’s and Galileo’s tomb in Santa Croce or visiting the Medici Chapel makes history concrete. Walking around the Duomo, leads you to marvel, not simply about Brunelleschi’s genius but the ingenuity of 15th century craftsmen.

Then from an organizational perspective there are the Medicis. Good or bad, Machivellian or not, the Medici have to be considered by anyone who studies leadership. The Medici’s, from Cosimo to Lorenzo, were leaders of not simply ideas, but leaders who executed, leaders who leveraged their political strength to make a aesthetic statements. The tradition of patronage, in many ways, begins with the Medici family and leads you to wonder what role today’s corporate leaders should play in today’s high-art society.

I have no nostalgia for old cities. I live in a reality with a Dickens’ stench up my nostrils. I’m one of these people who wonders how bad the sewage must have smelled in pre-20th century cities, but, that said, Florence is Florence.

After Florence we spent a few days in the conference in Rome, marveled at the Sistine Chapel, stood in awe in Raphael’s Room, and were left a bit perplexed at the Colosseum. When my son asked me, “why was the Colosseum built?” it occurred to me what had really happened there. It was a killing field with bleachers.

While having dinner at a small establishment in Rome in the Piazza del Popolo neighborhood I proceeded to get locked into a closest size bathroom when the handle fell off into my hand. Having somewhat claustrophobic tendencies I did quite nicely. After 20 minutes of pounding I was finally heard by someone on the way to the wine cellar. Not only did I not get a discount on dinner, but I felt, as I often do in restaurants,  a bit of resentment when I didn’t order a bottle of wine.

It was Holy Thursday and we sat on the deck among the lemon trees in our guest house in Sorrento, we could hear the clarinets and the accordions as the locals carried a statue of the Virgin from church to church looking for the resurrected Christ. Two days before, I took a break from the conference to have a Seder with a Chabad group and a Jewish congregation of Libyan expatriates.

On the train from Naples to Rome I sat opposite an Italian gentlemen in his 80s who looked at me and said, “Deutsche?”

I replied, “No, American.” He smiled a bit and flicked his hand from his forehead in understanding. A warm response. Interesting, in this day and age. Being very bright he quickly understood that my mastery of foreign languages was second only to my mastery of bowling and began to speak to my wife who used her Spanish to make herself understood in Italian.

As they were chatting here and there  a thought came to my mind. Having been born in 1946, whenever I go to Europe I still have a bit of the echoes of my father and his generation in WWII.

“Ask him how far we are from Mount Cassino.” I asked my wife.  He heard me say it and then the most remarkable thing I’ve seen in years happened–his eyes filled with tears.

“That’s why I love Americans. After the battle, they rebuilt the Church.” he said.

He proceeded to talk about Gregory Peck , Kathrine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, David Nevin, Grace Kelly, Three Coins in a Fountain, and his daughters trip to Niagara Falls and it was 1951 all over again. When my 14 year old asked me to tell him the story of Mount Cassino–Florence, Rome, and American history came together.

The conference was a wonderful and intimate event that gave me the opportunity to hear some young European scholars speak to some issues I really value. Rome, Florence, and the art, seemed as it always does to me–a bit distant from NYC, from home. It felt as if  I was visiting a great-great-aunt in her Victorian dinning room marveling at her furniture, but having no connection. And then, suddenly, feeling the connection.

I was indulging, but certainty not feeling any guilt.



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