So just what can a person learn from sailing across an ocean solo, reuniting with a soulmate, spending a summer cruising the Mediterranean, wintering his boat in Italy, and then traveling across Europe for three months? Surprisingly, quite a lot.
Rhett, Sunny and I got back to the US on New Year’s Eve and since then have been heads down on wedding planning (coming up on February 4), and catching up on routine medical appointments and the million little things we’ve let slip over the past 6 months. Simultaneously we’ve both been trying to process everything we’ve seen and learned in our travels. As I try to make some sense of it, and search for connections, trends and patterns, I’m reminded of Mark Twain.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.Mark Twain
Speaking of Twain’s time, one interesting connection is that since we’ve been back in Florida (and to keep some kind of intellectual pursuit in our lives) we’ve started rewatching Ken Burns’s The Civil War. When I had originally seen it in the early-90s, Colleen and I were newly married and our kids were nothing but glimmers in our eyes. At the time (at least to me) the idea of a physically divided United States seemed like a quaint historical snapshot never to be repeated. Now, with better perspective and as I rewatch this magnificent documentary in 2023, I hear the rhyme between a physically divided America and virtually divided one.
Any self-respecting European cathedral took longer to build than our country has been in existence. Seeing the artifactual evidence of the Roman Republic devolving into the Roman Empire and then falling into disarray, and the machinations of French and English governments, brings our US political turmoil into better focus. (For anyone counting, in the 19th century France had seven regimes: First French Republic, First French Empire, Bourbon Restoration, July Monarchy, Second Republic, Second Empire, and Third Republic.)
History and travel books are full of dry facts, figures, and dates. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great reference—I just don’t need to regurgitate them here. In that spirit, I thought I’d focus my attempt at sense-making on a handful of particularly tasty tidbits that stood out to me. Warning: It’s the offbeat, head scratchers that tend to capture my attention and imagination, and make me want to learn more—I hope they do the same for you.
It appears to me that the Roman emperors kept three things paramount: bread, circuses, and logistics. The satirical poet Juvenal coined the term “bread and circuses” (“circus” from circuit, the closed track of a chariot race or—more broadly—any good public spectacle). One emperor’s tutor wrote of the previous Emperor Trajan, “He understood that the Roman people are kept in line by two things beyond all else: the corn dole and entertainments.” Since Roman politicians didn’t have the virtual circuses of today’s social media platforms, they had to rely on the real thing. To that end, what could be better than building a 50,000-seat stadium in which to throw the Christians to the lions? Of course an event at the Colosseum was only possible with a vast range of logistics.
There’s the boring and banal: How do you keep a good-sized college football stadium full of partying Romans cool under the summer in 70 AD? Easy, you build a retractable cloth umbrella that can shade the entire Colosseum. To this day, nobody is quite sure what it looked like or how it worked. We just know it existed.
Now that we’ve covered the crowd logistics, we can get to the fun stuff: the stagecraft of the Colosseum. Favorite shows were gladiators fighting each other and exotic animals, and reenactments of successful military quests (including flooding the Colosseum for mock sea battles). The question is: How do you get large and dangerous animals, and staged armies to suddenly “appear” in what is essentially a theater-in-the-round? Simple, underneath the “stage” you build a maze of corridors and holding cells for animals, actors, prized gladiators, and doomed prisoners. (What happens to that warren of tunnels during a sea battle reenactment? I have no idea.)
As a quick side note related to today’s situation of the rich getting richer, while the Colosseum is truly “colossal,” it’s capacity of about 50,000 would only hold about 5% of Rome’s then-likely population of 1 million. The logical assumption is that the “entertainments” were a rather upmarket pastime for those with the time and money to attend.
Speaking of logistics, while most large Roman and Greek columns are comprised of multiple, shorter, stacked cylinders—the 16 massive columns in the portico of Rome’s Pantheon are each a single piece of granite. Egyptian granite to boot! Imagine the enslaved labor, and organizational, engineering and maritime expertise required to quarry a single 40-foot, 55-ton column in Egypt, get it to the Nile and float it to the mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean, sail and row it 1,200 miles to the mouth of the Tiber river, use the tides to float it another 15 miles upriver to Rome, roll it on logs to the under-construction Pantheon, and erect it using nothing but manual labor, ropes and pulleys. Now that you’re “finished” with that task, repeat the process another 15 times. Amazing.
While those columns are impressive, the real “eighth wonder of the world” in this picture above is Rhett is wearing sensible shoes…and allowing herself to be photographed in them.
Another side note on the Pantheon is that the only reason it’s in such good condition is that in the early days of Christianity it was converted from a temple of all the gods (pan=all, theos=gods) to a temple to one god and became the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs. If you look carefully in the previous picture of Rhett with the sensible footwear, you’ll see a Christian cross after-the-fact mounted on the co-opted Roman obelisk. (Lest you think I’m talking down on Christianity, don’t despair. The Romans got the idea of obelisks from the Egyptians. Do you sense Twain-ish rhyme here?)
Sadly, most other Roman temples fell into disrepair with the fall of the Empire (when the whole polytheistic thing was no longer in style) and were looted and used for building materials.
The history and riches of Vatican City in Rome were amazing. The Vatican Museum reportedly owns 70,000 works of art but only has the space to display about 20,000 of them (compare that with the roughly 35,000 works of art in the Louvre’s collection). How a religion founded by a barefoot carpenter on the premise of the meek inheriting the earth has that much wealth is both beyond me and beyond the scope of this post. With that said, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was truly amazing (no photos allowed though so I downloaded some from the internet). The chapel’s ceiling is a “fresco” (painted on fresh plaster) and I found it fascinating that Michelangelo never considered himself a painter (he was a sculptor), and before he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel he had, at best, limited experience with frescos and fresco techniques—talk about on the job training! Urban legend has it that Michelangelo was so emotionally and physically beaten down by the four-year process that he painted his self-portrait in the Last Judgement scene on the ceiling—as a person skinned alive.
After Rome, we made stops in Siena, San Gimignano, Livorno, Pisa, Lucca, and Milan before we were off to Paris…
Once we settled in Paris and oriented ourselves one of our first day-trips was a rainy journey to Versailles, about 10 miles outside of Paris. To paraphrase our favorite travel writer Rick Steves, to visit Versailles is to understand the inevitability of the French Revolution. While the Louvre (the previous palace of the French monarchs) in downtown Paris is huge, it wasn’t grand enough for Louis XIV who converted Versailles from his boyhood hunting lodge in the country to the seat of government of the first modern, centralized state. While the excesses of Versailles are clear today (and it’s easy to see how a home remodel that cost half of France’s gross national product for a year would have infuriated those subsisting on stale bread and foul water), there was some method to the Sun King’s madness. He used Versailles to consolidate France’s previously scattered ministries and compelled French royals to live “on campus” where he could keep a close eye on them.
About a hundred years and two Louis’es later, under the reign of Louis XVI, the monarchy was crumbling and (as a Tangled Up in Blue Bob Dylan might say) “revolution was in the air”. Rather than address the situation head on, the bookish Louis XVI and his Austrian queen retreated from public life into the idyllic gardens of Versailles. Marie-Antoinette so missed her bucolic childhood in Austria she had constructed a full-sized theater and an agrarian hamlet where she and her friends could act-out plays and “work the land.” (I’m sure their theater guests politely clapped for every performance regardless of the thespians’ quality, and the peasants who kept the make-believe farm running also took care of the dirty work.) The whole scene and retreat from reality reminded me of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
Full honesty (and proving how little I paid attention in my high school history class), on our travels I learned that there were two Napoleons who were emperors of France—who knew? Napoleon I (Napoleon Bonaparte) ruled in the early 1800s, and his lesser-known nephew Napoleon III was both the first President of France (1848-1852) and, as Emperor, the last Monarch (1852-1870). Back to better known Bonaparte, his tomb directly under the gold dome of the Les Invalides Church in Paris is immense. Having recently been immersed in Rome, the parallels between Bonaparte’s tomb, crypt, and surrounding statuary and proclamations of his accomplishments with those of the Roman emperors were unmistakeable (even for me).
While the above picture gives a hint at the scale of his tomb. The video at this link does a much better job. (While you are watching the video, note how few people are visiting the tomb—we’ll circle back to that thought later.)
While the red porphyry-stone tomb is impressive, consider that within it is an oak coffin, an ebony coffin, two lead coffins, a mahogany coffin, a tinplate coffin, and then…drumroll please…The Emperor Bonaparte. Also interestingly, Bonaparte died in exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena in 1821. Not until 1840 was his body exhumed and moved here.
Speaking of Rome, when Napoleon Bonaparte was to be crowned Emperor of France, he invited Pope Pius VII to Paris to do the honors in Notre-Dame (clearly, no conflict of interest there). However, at the last minute, the temperamental Bonaparte decided that only he was worthy of crowning himself so he took the crown and performed a self-coronation (on the painting that commentates the event, the look on Pope Pius’s face is priceless: “I wonder if I can still get on the next flight back to Rome?”). In addition, the Gothic interior of Notre-Dame wasn’t good enough for Napoleon so he had a stage-set erected in the church complete with Greek columns and Roman arches to solidify is position as emperor of a new Rome.
While on the subject of Notre-Dame, unfortunately the cathedral is closed due to the devastating 2019 fire. (Prime Minister Macron’s goal is to have it reopened in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.) Even with all the construction barricades surrounding the cathedral, we could see the 28 Kings of Judah a third of the way up the facade and—as you might guess—there’s a funny story about these kings.
Although the Kings of Judah ruled in Jerusalem and before Christ, during the French Revolution (1789-1799) this gaggle of biblical kings were mistaken for French kings by the and angry, revolutionary mob (who were also pissed-off about the oppressive Catholic hierarchy). The church was stormed and the stone heads of the kings were lopped off in effigy (perhaps with some kind of masonic guillotine?). The headless kings remained that way for decades until new heads were fabricated. While that’s all kind of interesting, what’s even better is that in the melee of the revolution, a local schoolteacher living near Notre-Dame quietly collected the heads and buried them in his backyard for safekeeping. In 1977, almost 200 years later, the heads were accidentally unearthed and are now displayed in the Paris’s Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages.
Paris’s Palace Garnier opera house was built under the auspices of the aforementioned Napoleon III (nephew of Bonaparte) and our tour of it was lead by a humorous Dutch guide. In her introductory remarks, she talked about the two Napoleons and—for clarity—distinguished between them by either simultaneously saying “Napoleon” (in her Dutch-English accent) and tracing the outline of a giant bicorne hat (the two-cornered military hat favored by Bonaparte), or by saying “Napoleon” and twisting her thumbs and forefingers on either side of her nose as if she were adjusting a waxed Dali-style mustache (one of Napoleon III’s signature traits).
For modern musical audiences, the opera house is famous as the setting for the Phantom of the Opera (although “Phantom” would never be performed in the opera house since it’s a musical and not an opera). Yes, the famous loge cinq (box #5) is kept vacant and reserved for the ghost of the theater. What’s not as well known is that the opera house is actually built over an underground lake that inspired the boat scene from the musical.
As I was pondering the two Napoleons and if any government can be trusted, I visited the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the eastern outskirts of Paris. Ironically, the cemetery’s namesake was a priest whose papal assignment was to listen to Louis XIV’s confessions (apparently a full time job). The cemetery—in addition to being the burial place of notables like Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Jacques-Louis David (who painted Napoleon Bonaparte’s aforementioned coronation), and Jim Morrison—was the last stand of the Paris Commune. In 1870 the reign of Napoleon III was ended by Prussia’s invasion of France. With the exception of Paris, the country quickly collapsed and surrendered to the Prussians. The “official” French government evacuated Paris, fled to Versailles, and started collaborating with their invaders. Meanwhile, Parisians formed a revolutionary, oppositional socialist government dubbed the Paris Commune. Through the bitter winter of 1870-71 the Paris Commune held fast while the Prussians and the turncoat French Government laid siege to the then-walled city. As the weather broke in the spring of 1871, the Versailles government sent French troops to Paris. The federal troops breached the west wall of the city and tens of thousands of Parisians and army troops died in a week of street fighting. Reminiscent of our Alamo, the remaining resisters retreated within the walls of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery before surrendering. At dawn on May 28, 1871, those 147 French citizens who were also the last remaining members of the Paris Commune were lined up and summarily shot by French soldiers and buried in a mass grave.
Now that I’m back at home and watching The Civil War documentary and the brutality of Americans killing Americans at scale, I’m instantaneously transported back to the tragedy of the Paris Commune. I hear the Twain-rhyme ringing in my head.
While we’re still strolling through the peaceful paths of Pere Lachase, there’s a great story about one of the first residents of the cemetery, the great comic playwright and actor Molière (1622-1673)…
On February 17, 1673, an aging Molière went on stage in the title role of his latest comedy, The Imaginary Invalid. Though sick, he insisted he had to go on…. His role was of a hypochondriac who coughs to get sympathy. The deathly ill Molière effectively faked coughing fits, which soon turned into real convulsions. The unaware crowd roared with laughter while his fellow players fretted in the wings.
In the next scene, Molière’s character becomes a doctor in a mock swearing-in ceremony. The ultimate trouper, Molière finished his final line—“Juro” (“I accept”)—and collapsed while coughing blood. The audience laughed hysterically. He died shortly thereafter.
Irony upon irony for the master of satire: Molière—a sick man whose doctors thought he was a hypochondriac—dies playing a well man who is a hypochondriac, succumbing onstage while the audience cheers.From the Rick Steves’ Paris guidebook
We die only once, and for such a long time.Molière
For a quick, lighter diversion, I noticed that—for some reason—NASA shirts in Europe seem to be a “thing.” Go figure. These are just the surreptitious and on-the-fly pictures I was able to get. I saw many many more that escaped my lens.
No trip to Paris would be complete without a climb up the Eiffel Tower. I was astounded to learn that the structure was never meant to be a permanent. Although its 18,000 iron beams held together by 2.5 million rivets took two years and two months to construct—and Gustave Eiffel brought the project in on time and under budget—the original plan was to dismantle the tower soon after the Paris World’s Fair of 1889. While many persnickety Parisians initially thought it a monstrosity, the structure eventually grew on people and the decision was made to keep it. As an engineer I’m amazed that something designed for short-term use looks to be in near-perfect condition 130 years later.
Although they practiced in different mediums, places, and times, the works of Beethoven (1770-1827) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) share a somewhat similar story arc. As both aged, their primary artistic sense declined—Beethoven’s hearing and Monet’s vision. Perhaps as a reaction to their diminished sensory inputs the scale of each artist’s work expanded to monumental proportions. Beethoven’s culminated in his epic Ninth Symphony and Monet’s in his Water Lilies murals which are housed in the Orangerie Museum in Paris. Although Monet finished nearly 300 works on the subject of water lilies, his final compositions occupy two specially designed rooms.
To picture the rooms, imagine a huge symbol of infinity (a figure-eight rotated 90 degrees) then lay that symbol on its side and expand it so that it can hold 300 linear feet of lilies, water, clouds, and willows—over 6 feet high. In the two side-by-side egg-shaped rooms (the two lobes of the infinity symbol) you’re surrounded by panoramas of the water lilies in Monet’s Giverny garden from first-light through twilight. The connection to the infinite is quite direct, Monet was very specific about the design for the rooms in which this work was to be displayed. He was striving for, “…the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” Thinking back to Rome and Michelangelo, this installation of Water Lilies is often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.”
I also found it interesting also that the advent of the camera and photography was a likely catalyst of the Impressionist movement. With rudimentary cameras in the late-1800s suddenly capturing far more detail than any Realist painter ever could, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, and others were free to explore the feelings that impressed them about the sunset, or picnic, or harbor, or…water lilies.
As I type away on this post in Florida and think back to our time in Europe, the daguerreotype images in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary provide a jarring juxtaposition to my peaceful memories of Impressionist scenes. Our US Civil War coincided with the rise of the Impressionist Movement and was one of the first wars to be extensively photographed.
Finally—back to Napoleon’s tomb—perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that after the Nazis overran Paris (in addition to visiting the Eiffel Tower), Hitler paid his respects to Napoleon. If Napoleon could whisper to Hitler, he might have said, “Whatever you do, don’t invade Russia. I went in with 600,000 troops and came back with 60,000. It didn’t end well for me and probably won’t for you.”
I’m often pessimistic on my long-term outlook for the world. Much of my outlook boils down to the inevitable collision course between the human drive for growth, and the reality of living inside of a closed system (the earth). With that said, my spirits were lifted when I compared the hordes of people lining up to see Water Lilies while Napoleon’s tomb was nearly empty.
When touring monumental Roman ruins back in Italy, a guide said “Romans didn’t fear death, they feared being forgotten.” While pondering his immense tomb, I could see Napoleon suffering the same phobia. It’s inspiring that we remember the humble artist far more (and far more fondly) than the conqueror.
I started on this post thinking it would be a one-shot deal—one post for all of our European travels. However, as I started pecking away it became clear that I’d need at least three editions to capture it all—likely one for the British Isles not including Belfast, and one dedicated to just Belfast (long story there). However, while my notes and thoughts on the British Isles are percolating, I’m thinking that my next chronological posts will be some inward facing therapy for me. Between returning to the US, leaving Hazel, preparing to get married, and my son Jack’s wedding a month later—I have a “few” changes in my life to work through.
On the subject of weddings, Rhett’s and mine is just two weeks away. We have a live-stream company selected to televise the ceremony. (Is “televise” still a word?) Please keep an eye out for a near-future post with the link and login details. In the meantime, please pencil in Saturday, February 4, between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. US Eastern Time and we look forward to you joining us!
Fair winds and following seas—even when not on the seas.
4 thoughts on “Now THAT’s Interesting (mainland Europe edition)”
Interesting and informative post.
Glad you had such a remarkable adventure and looking forward to hearing more. Congratulations on your wedding, we will talk…