Thursday, March 18, 2010


Back from Italy.

We started in Venice. A place like no other I've ever seen. Created after the fall of the Roman Empire, the town flourished for a thousand years as a republic while the rest of Europe went through the Middle Ages. It was easily one of Europe's largest towns, doing a roaring business sitting astride the lines of commerce between Europe and the East. It was a hard-nosed and stern place, not to say cruel, and it's goal was to be rich. The accidental discovery of America was partly the result of the search to find a way around Venice as the middle-man of trade with the East; it worked, though not in the way anyone foresaw, and Venice spent the 17th and 18th centuries magnificently living off its accumulated wealth. Napoleon ended it in the 1790s, and ever since it has been essentially a tourist attraction, no more.

For all its longevity, splendor and uniqueness, it's hard to think of anything of lasting value that it created, except for the city itself.

From Venice we went to Florence. Technically older than Venice by many centuries, Florence compressed its historical role into a few centuries, most famously the Fifteenth. Yet what a role it was: a small town that would fit easily into southern Manhattan took human history and diverted its direction. Not in one field - say, the ability to represent reality in art - but in many. The Florentines redirected literature, and art, and science, and philosophy, and the art of governing - and banking, too, though the bankers are a bit unpopular lately. They invented the Renaissance, those Florentines, and that lead to the Enlightenment, and to Capitalism, and Democracy, and Socialism, and Fascism, and Communism and Nazism... and if you think the present war between parts of the Islamic world and humankind isn't a direct result of the fact that some folks followed Florence and others didn't, well, I don't know why you come to this blog.

Yet today Florence is a mere tourist attraction. The Venetians still do pretty glass trinkets, and the Florentines are world leaders in leather and fashion - but that's proof of the matter: trinkets.

Maybe. We lack the perspective, you see, to know how this part of the story will work out. Are Venice and Florence (and Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Brussels) the vanguard of the benign, gentle affluent and peaceful period of history, in which everyone lives well and long, and rationality and good sense rule over irrationality and human nature? Perhaps. Many Europeans certainly think so. Some of us doubt it.

Jerusalem is one of the few places in the world that can look Florence in the eye as an equal. Lots of the art of Florence is about Jerusalem, after all. Jerusalem is of course vastly older - and these days, much younger. That explosion of creativity has a familiar air about it. I'm not saying that Jerusalem today is as crucial to Man's story as 15th century Florence. No. But the creative purposefulness, the eagerness and ability to innovate, the assumption that just because things are done the way they're done is itself justification to figure out a better way to do them, the community of people banging ideas off one another and jointly changing the paradigms: there's a spot of deja vu about it.

All of which is to say that I ought to blog less. Blogging is so intensely a matter of the moment, so irrelevant two days later, that it has to be a waste of time. I'm not saying I'll stop, but I ought to.


Anonymous said...

"Blogging is ... a waste of time"

??????? so all diaries ever written were a waste of time????
the difference of course being that you by blogging share yours or a version thereof in real time
maybe that's damaging or maybe that's enhancing the enterprise - I have no idea but vote for the latter -

Anonymous said...

from Constaninople through Mistra and Florence ran one of the major major roads that preserved ancient texts for us - maybe preserving isn't as noble as creating but I am grateful nonetheless

Avigdor said...

Good to have you back, Yaacov.

You might like to know that, in your absence, Fake Ibrahim was handled ;)

Who let the Jews out?!

Giles said...

"For all its longevity, splendor and uniqueness, it's hard to think of anything of lasting value that [Venice] created, except for the city itself."

Lots of music; Vivaldi was born and lived there all his life, as did Albinoni. Monteverdi also spent much of his life there, and you could make a good argument that Western art music's Baroque period was initiated by other (now much less-well-known) Venetian composers in the early 1600s.

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to put myself in the shoes of a lover of Jerusalem ...
visiting these once important Italian cities would remind me all the time of what might have been what had been destroyed what my city had suffered over and over and though I kind of bristle at Yaacov's slight for Albinoni and Donatello and Giotto and lots of other stuff I can understand how infuriating it must be that they and the rest of us Europeans were allowed to keep so much and not only our own creations but loot galore.
Tomorrow my copy of the Talmud will arrive and I guess that that will outclass the Decamerone easily ;)

AKUS said...

Yakov - two tips for your next visit to Italy.

Go to Siena and see a medieval town center less overrun by tourists than Florence - a little gem.

In Venice - go to the old Jewish Quarter - the site of the first ghetto. You can get a good meal at a kosher restaurant there.