18 April, 2011

Nothing Old Here, Old Sport

In October of 1994, I delivered an invited keynote address at the Abbey of San Clemente a Casauria at a celebration of the 100th anniversary of its dedication as a National Monument. I was Presidente Onorario, Centro Studi Casauriensi - Honorary President of the Center for Casaurian Studies. Although I had to speak through an interpreter, it was quite an honor to be asked. I took the opportunity to muse a bit about how Americans see the value of old things.

A few moments ago I watched a news story about the mansion (Land's End, 1902) that was an inspiration for one of the greatest of American novels, The Great Gatsby. It's being torn down. Isn't that our way? We rarely seek to preserve the past - finding it so much easier to tear down and build anew even when restoration is possible.

Anyway ... the news story reminded me of the speech, and a brief, edited excerpt follows.

On Being Old in America

In America, there is very little which is old. We do have things we like to think of as old, but they are not - at least by Italian standards. It is certainly easy to find things which have survived a century. In my home, we have furniture and glassware that are over 100 years old. Even my grandmother who died only recently would today be 100.

To find something 200 years old in America is more difficult, but there are public buildings, churches, and even homes which have survived. The nation itself is just over two centuries old. We're young, but the real problem is that America is a country that likes to reinvent itself every so often. Things are not built to last, not anymore anyway. What did last is often torn down and rebuilt in the image of the latest fashion, and things tend to be too easily replaced.

Old things are important, however, because the nation’s people unite when they celebrate a shared sense of history. I fear that America is becoming so diverse that the shared sense of history is being lost. There is a special strength that comes from diversity, but a people must also have some common celebrations. I salute you for celebrating your past. It too is a source of strength.

To find something 300 years old in America is most difficult. There are only a few buildings in the whole country. To find something over 500 years old - like where we are today - is exceedingly difficult. And to find some things over 1100 years old - as are parts of this abbey - is almost impossible. There are some Indian burial mounds made of earth as well as the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi or other structures made of dried adobe clay in the low desert of the Great Basin in the southwest of America, but they represent a culture different than that which most Americans celebrate.

Structures 2000 years old - like the Roman elements under this altar where I stand today - simply do not exist, although the Hopewell people of what is now Ohio in Eastern America constructed massive earthworks as ritual and community centers. They are of that same era.

I say these things so you will understand why I, as do many Americans, value things which are truly old. We don’t have them. There is something about the “test of time” that is a powerful force - both physical and emotional. It says that the people looked forward to the future and cared about the future.

To see antiquities and to study them should be a treasured experience. Just to be in San Clemente is, for me, a moving experience, and to be invited to speak here is, indeed, an honor. I am proud to be a part of this ceremony.

My remarks were delivered from the altar's
chancel at the far end in the image above.

The Value of What We Do

There is much for us to share, but what we share most is a love and an understanding of the value of history, of the arts, of the sciences, and of the humanities.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, is my favorite American. A better student than I, he was a man who could speak Italian and several other languages, and he was a man who gave his home an Italian name, Montecello. His design for it and its construction just over two centuries ago were significantly influenced by his studies of Italian and Roman architecture.

Among Mr. Jefferson’s many profound accomplishments is the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819. That is where I went to university, and in that hallowed place we refer to him as Mr. - as if he were still alive. When Mr. Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend, Benjamin Rush, about his new university, he offered that “here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor are we afraid to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

When he wrote that, Mr. Jefferson understood the value of scholarship, and he would surely have understood the value of what we and the Center for Casaurian Studies do today.

Ovid, a neighbor of Castiglione a Casauria, wrote in Ex Ponto that we should “note too that a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel” When he wrote that, he too understood the value of what we do and say today.

Cicero knew that value also when he wrote in De Oratorio that:
          History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time,
          It illuminates reality,
          It vitalizes memory,
          It provides guidance in daily life,
          And it brings us tidings from antiquity.

Those historical tidings are simply wonderful and should be treasured. As I stand here before you and contemplate the architectural space around us, the elegant beauty of the Abbey of San Clemente a Casauria is inspiring. It is easy to understand why Pier Luigi Calore fell in love with her, and I salute him for his dedication to her restoration and preservation.

In closing, please allow me to say in Italiano - grazie, Pier Luigi Calore. E grazie, amici miei. Aspetto giá il nuovo ritorno.

I shall always feel that we Americans need to pay more attention to history and to take better care to preserve and restore our heritage - especially our architecture. Once destroyed, it cannot be recovered.

In spite of what Disney's incredible magic and his Imagineers might lead us to believe, plastic will never inspire as does wood. Faux rock should be a faux pas, but I fear that is our future - synthetic and plastic and happy about it.