Reimagining American Community

orvietoIt’s late this bright January afternoon as we head out of Rome to visit Orvieto, a little town half the distance to Florence. Four guys, no wives. My good friend the archdeacon Vsevolod Borzak is behind the wheel, and he’s averaging well over 100 mph to get us there before sundown.

Once outside of Rome, scattered site development abruptly ends, farmland and nature take over. We pass several mountaintop medieval towns, each well contained within its walls. No shopping malls, no leaking sprawl taking advantage of the fine, four-lane highway: just olive groves.

In Orvieto we take the slow-moving but romantic funiculare up into the city. A waiting bus, a two-minute ride, and voila; we find ourselves staring at the Cathedral of Orvieto.

I am completely taken aback by the sheer size of the building. A spectacular example of Italian northern gothic architecture, the cathedral’s enormous side walls are built of alternating layers of greenish-black basalt and white travertine. Vsevolod urges me to see the front façade before the sunlight completely fades. It’s stunning. The entire enormous façade is decorated with stone statues, marble bas-relief or brilliant multi-colored mosaics set off with gold leaf; and in the center glows an enormous rose window. Obviously this ‘small town’ was once an important city state.

Old Italian towns or cities, it occurs to me, are like Greek statues. The city itself, with its meandering streets and minor buildings, is the body; the cathedral is the head. Even when the head is missing, the remainder will still be perfectly human, and almost equally beautiful. This generalization certainly applies to Orvieto as well. These half-conscious reflections induce me to ask out loud, within hearing distance of Danilo, the architect: “Why, since WWII, has architecture been so bad?  I mean, not just in America, but almost everywhere …”

Danilo says that, first of all, we simply have no idea how to build something like this cathedral today, and even if we did it would be far too expensive. Fair enough, I reply, forget about the cathedral. What about the rest of the city? Any one of these buildings would be considered a rare gem today.

“It’s because we don’t value beauty that highly,” Danilo says. “We build whatever we can get away with at the least cost and in the least time.” Vsevolod and Mario object vehemently to this generalization until Danilo clarifies that he is talking about capitalism, not our own views. No one argues with that.

We head to one of Danilo’s favorite cafés, a thriving, cave-like spot with room for only a handful of tables.  As we order coffee, wine and snacks, I am overwhelmed by a sense of our good fortune to be in this particular place, to have this chance to talk about anything we like.

Almost as a joke, I suggest we try to decide collectively who has the best wife.  Since I find all our wives so completely admirable, I figure it is a safe question, but it is a question that might lead somewhere unexpected, and not trivial. Mario is the first to respond. “Best in which sense?” he asks. Everyone laughs. “No, no,” I reply. “I mean best in terms of character!”

In fact it is my re-reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that had got me thinking along these lines, about what it is in women (whether Anna or Kitty) that makes them potentially magical. I know that all of our wives have this quality in them, something from which many modern women, precisely in order to be modern, flee. But what is that quality? I don’t know. It gradually emerges, as the conversation becomes a bit more serious, that all of us see in our wives something vital that each of us lacks.

Then Mario makes another suggestion. What, he asks, if there existed one woman who combined what is best in all four of our wives?  Everyone laughs again. “She would no longer be a woman,” I say. “She would have to be worshipped, like a god!”

Later, Danilo and Vsevolod start talking about the tedium of merely pretty faces, such as one sees on magazine covers. After a year you would no longer notice their prettiness; you would get bored. Vsevolod contrasts such shallowness with the intelligent beauty of an actress like Elizabeth Shue (he and I high-five). Danilo, for his part, finds perfection in Scarlett Johansson.  The conversation has now come completely down to earth, though innocently enough. On the way back to Rome, Vsevolod again has to race, this time to get Danilo home (his wife, it turns out, had expected us an hour earlier). Despite the speeding, I fall asleep, quite content with our outing.

Today, as I think about our conversations and visit to Orvieto, it strikes me how well they illustrate Max Weber’s rather melancholy reflections on the modern world:

The fate of an epoch characterized by rationalization, intellectualization, most of all by the disenchantment of the world, led human beings to expel the most sublime and supreme values from public life. They found refuge either in the transcendent realm of mystical life or in the fraternity of direct and reciprocal relationships among isolated individuals. There is nothing fortuitous in the fact that the most eminent art of our time is intimate, not monumental …[1]

Here’s an explanation, scientifically expressed, as to why we no longer build beautiful buildings.  During this simple outing, briefly uniting a few “isolated individuals,” we were seeking beauty where it can still be found.

[1] From Science as a Vocation, cited in Pierre Manent, “The Return of Political Philosophy,” First Things, May 2000.

About the Author
Paul Grenier grew up in a working class northern California suburb. While his New England father was out building factories and shopping malls, his Austrian WWII refugee mother was instilling in him a love for Tolstoy. The result has been something of a split professional personality. Currently he does urban redevelopment work by day, and writes, translates or philosophizes with Russian friends by night. In the past he has worked as a simultaneous (Russian-English) interpreter and as a researcher and writer at a New York think tank. He has written for the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Godspy, and Second Spring, among other places (torture or city architecture being the most frequent topics). Paul enjoys re-reading Jane Austen and Harry Potter novels in Spanish. He gets a thrill from teaching teenagers at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a little gig he recently took on with the support of his wonderful wife and co-teacher, Svetlana. Despite his best efforts to be sociable, he often retreats into a (Platonic) cave and refuses to come out for tea.