By Chris Wallace
It was surreal in Rome this week, strolling from one noble, crumbling ruin to another, knowing officials were working nearby in frantic efforts to stop debt-laden Italy turning the European economy into rubble.
Nor did it seem accidental that the emperor Nero – “Nerone” as he is to Romans – is the subject of a revisionist exhibition currently at the Colosseum. Really, there was more to Nero than fiddling while Rome burned, is the exhibition’s argument. Self-evidently true. But that could be like saying there’s more to Silvio Berlusconi than bunga bunga parties.
Historical turning points can occur amid conditions of incredible apparent normalcy. Rome caught fire 1,947 years ago this week and burned for five days, but it was business as usual in the rest of the Empire at the time.
We think back on the Great Depression as an event beginning with the October 1929 stock market crash but the reality was different. That first big stock plunge triggered some immediate financial devastation and personal tragedies – the suicide of bankrupted investors and so on – but for most people things were relatively normal for some time afterwards. The widespread impact of the Great Depression came with the deflationary spiral that started in 1931, many, many months after share prices first fell off a cliff in 1929.
Hovering invisibly above the holiday makers eating gelati under the beating Italian sun this week was the European debt crisis, Italy right at its heart. “(The) world economy now stands on the precipice,” Chris Giles wrote in the weekend Financial Times in a piece headlined “The abyss that awaits”. It was a big statement and the FT is not given to hyperbole.
It gave me pause. If debt-laden Italy couldn’t come up with a plausible fiscal plan to lighten the load, the knock-on effects would knock over the rest of the European economy the argument goes. And Prime Minister Berlusconi is responsible for coming up with the fiscal rectitude plan necessary to save Italy and therefore Europe. Berlusconi? The Berlusconi currently on trial for paying for sex with an underage nightclub dancer called Ruby, as well as for later phoning the Milanese police to get her sprung from the lockup where she was being held for attempted theft? Yes, that Berlusconi.
The example of Nero is telling. It was going to cost a fortune to rebuild smoking Rome, money that Rome didn’t have. Nero devalued the currency, literally, cutting the amount of silver in Roman coins. He extracted large tributes from the provinces to pay for Rome’s reconstruction, a heavy burden. Nevertheless, sandwiched in between the intrigue and excess, Nero got the job done. Too bad for those onto whom he deflected his consequential unpopularity: burning captured Christians in his garden at night to provide light is a Neronian touch to which Berlusconi hopefully won’t sink.
Elsewhere Rome provides material proof that even when the worst happens, decline doesn’t have to be inexorable. Skipping past Nero, the fall of the Roman Empire, through the Dark Ages and onto the Renaissance – how’s that for a fast forward – the Galleria Borghese shows how a culture can rise again. True, the collection founded by Cardinal Scipione was acquired by fair means and foul, but what art! The Caravaggio’s alone make the trip worthwhile.
Galleria Borghese has a thing or two to teach not only major cultural sites in Rome, but even the biggest of the big galleries like the Louvre in Paris. The queues for the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill in Rome were horrendous, the ticketing system primitive. The Louvre at least has an online ticket purchase option but that didn’t stop queues several hundred metres long of people who either didn’t know or weren’t in a position to buy them that way. And once inside the Louvre, the bunfight in front of the “Mona Lisa” was the worst gallery experience of my life. Appalling.
The Galleria Borghese, conversely, has a ceiling on the number of people allowed in the gallery at any one time, and the entrance fee covers a two hour visit only. You can book online. When you do, the number of tickets left for every two hour block is visible so one can time the purchase to avoid visitor peak hour. Civilised.
History is a funny thing. Even if Berlusconi saves the Italian economy, he’ll probably only ever be remembered for bunga bunga just as Nero is remembered for his fiddling. Fiddles didn’t even exist back then. It would’ve been a lyre. Except that was probably a lie put around by the anti-Neronians. The lesson: don’t ever miss the chance for gelati.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times 23 July, 2011