The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, June 15, 2003
EMPIRES, AND THEIR OPPOSITE: Everyone should spend time in a country where they don't speak the language, if only to learn what it feels like to be retarded.

We've been in Italy for nearly a week now, dividing our time thus far between Rome and Florence. Rome, famously, is imperial. Florence is the reverse. One city is filled with the beautiful remnants of a not especially beautiful past: enormous, imposing monuments to the bloody empire Caesar started. The other has a history no less bloody, but it was bloodshed on a much more human scale: a tiny republic whose constant feuds and revolutions produced a cultural legacy arguably as notable as Ancient Rome's.

Do I sound like a guidebook? Maybe a little on the pompous side? Sorry -- I don't know the last time I went this long without writing anything. Leads to bad habits. To ridiculous overgeneralizations, owing less to my actual experiences here than to my distaste for empires and my memories of Kropotkin's perhaps overly generous analysis of the medieval free cities. But there is a real difference between those Roman ruins, so giant and awe-inspiring and unlovable, and these narrow Florentine streets. This is a place for localism, for craft, for loving or killing your neighbor, but not for empire. I quote Mary McCarthy's excellent The Stones of Florence: "The popolo minuto or working class of Florence, excluded from representation in the big middle-class guilds, was nevertheless highly developed politically. The people of Florence were, in fact, too articulate, politically, for government to be possible at all; the threat of direct democracy or piazza rule was always present, and no matter how short the period of elective office (sometimes six months), it generally seemed too long. Nearly every form of government was tried out in Florence." The spirit of ancient Rome, minus the talent for conquest, was present under Mussolini. Italy's more recent history -- regional and political splinters, constantly falling governments, lively and sometimes violent anti-authoritarian revolts -- owes more to Florence.

Not that Rome is all that imperial these days either. All cities include de facto autonomous zones, but only Rome recognizes two of them as sovereign nations. There is the Vatican and -- less famously, and even smaller -- there are the
Knights of Malta, whose two noncontiguous Rome buildings are a full-fledged independent country with stamps, a flag, and diplomatic relations. R. and I stopped at one of their properties a few days ago, persuaded one of the Knights to open the gates, then snapped each other's pictures. I think this was the smaller of the order's two territories, leading me to wonder whether the Knights at the other building regarded this one as the sticks, a poor country cousin to the real heart of their nation, and if young Knights in the smaller structure dream of moving to the bigger some day and making their way in the world.


posted by Jesse 6:06 PM
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