The Tree Among the Ruins

Marble Pluteo of  Emperor Trajan distributing food (2nd century A.D.)
11 "   x  17 "
Artists sketchbook

 

Those rumors were scary. The rumors that circulated in my college about the freshman oral exam at the end of the year.   
    
They said, in fact, that one particular senior female student – with thick glasses and a perplexed, fugitive air about her – had never passed her examination. She’d gone mad, run out of the room cackling and screaming the moment she heard her assigned seminar question! Her two philosophy teachers, or tutors, as they are called at this school – St. John’s College, famous for its Great Books curriculum in the classics—were stunned. Every time I saw this rather sullen, ungainly senior girl, I could hear her professors asking her.

“So, Miss So and So, why do you think that Oedipus put out his 
eyes?”
 
Not too many students nowadays have to pass such oral interrogations in their studies, or much less read the classics. Few freshmen today look at any Greek text, tragedy or otherwise, or would even understand what could have led those two seminar leaders to torment a st.johnnie with such a question in the first place. Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, after all, was written in the remote 5th century B.C.

Remote and harmless indeed.

So harmless that one uncle of mine, God rest his Caribbean soul, warned me before I entered St. John’s to study the classics: “You know many of the Greek philosophers were homosexuals.” He went on, “In our town, Hector Such and Such went crazy reading Plato and Aristotle!”

Anyway, I know that when my own St. John’s philosophy seminar examination day rolled around in late April that year 1971, my worse student fears, grown huge by the stories of the Oedipus student-gone-mad, were confirmed. When I walked into the old classroom and took my seat, my two tutors let me have it -- I can still see their look of smug philosophical condescendence!

“Well then, Mr. Peralta, what do you think is more true, History or Poetry?”

“Hmmm,” I swallowed extra hard, cleared my freshman throat, and remembered my uncle. Nothing, not-a-thing, came out! Unlike the girl of the legends, I did not screech or run out of the room. I was simply and terribly speechless.

Alas, I eventually babbled my way through the exam process and somehow managed to pass all four years of the college’s curriculum.  But it has taken me years to simply understand my now-old exam 
question and to realize how important it was. You can run, as they say, but you can’t hide!

Anyway, I recall how my two St. John’s tutors tried to prod an answer out of me: “Think back on our readings from antiquity.”  There was silence. I could hear the spring bees buzzing around outside in the Maryland campus bushes. “What kind of book would you read if you wanted to learn the truth about a certain war, a history like those of Herodotus or Plutarch or the poetic accounts of Homer or Shakespeare?”

Yes, I too wanted to run, but it wouldn’t be until  . . . 39 years later, and to Rome to be exact, when I came here on work and decided to stay in this city! Well, the historical fact is that I was brought here peacefully by the University of Miami/School of Architecture to teach a graduate level drawing class. But I have no doubts that most human events, no matter how neatly their sequences seem tofollow a historical path, are often, too often, the flotsam of those deeper waters and undercurrents that perhaps my good uncle was warning me about.

The subject of poetry. Or at least of legends and rumors that can make some of life’s “exams” unforgettable.

In my case, for example, I am certain one of the undercurrents comes from a short-lived, and thank-God-mad love affair (years ago) with a pair of philosophical and impossible Italian-American eyes deeper than a sea – but I am getting ahead of myself. First let me go back to the topic of history and university teaching appointments, and to something I heard a present-day American college student innocently ask in the Roman Forum here the other day. There we were, a class of future architects and their two professors, surrounded by  History (with a capital H, yes) in the form of headless statuary, reconstructed temple fronts, or other archaeological assemblages. We had just come from the Curia, where my colleague had talked about democratic government and  how the senators who gathered there would sometimes express their ideas with anything but courtesy and insult each other if need be. But now we were standing near the Temple of Julius Caesar and the same professor told the 13 architecture students summarily Caesar’s murder and the end of the Republic. “Imagine the audacity,” I think he said more or less, “of building such a large temple to one man. Well, they built this temple to one man – Rome’s first self-proclaimed emperor, shortly after he was put to death.”

He was talking to the students, I thought with satisfaction, about overgrown pride – or to use a great college exam word --  hubris!

There was in the group, I recall, silence. And then a handsome, blond-haired poster boy of an American student, fixing his own blue eyes on a central area of the Forum site not far from the Curia, blurted out: “But what is that tree doing there?”

What a showstopper. An anticlimactic non-sequitur if I ever heard one, to my colleague’s learned comments about the Temple of the Divo Giulio, as he is called in Italian, Julius the Divine.  But the student was right, what in either historical or poetical fact was that fig doing there in the Forum, next to a grape vine and an olive? I am sure that few persons, foreign or otherwise, see that tree, much less
ask about it, when they walk past the area of the Forum. And this took me back to my own college years: looking for the philosophical life and wondering whether it is worth living.

By the way, some guide books of ROME -- not of life – mention the tree of the blue-eyed student as a modern descendant of the fabled Ficus ruminalis in ancient accounts about the foundation of the City. But, for some reason I refrained from giving the class a kneejerk explanation about the she-wolf and the twins, Romulus and Remus, who were found under the same kind of tree way long ago. I thought instead, later, about the sharp-sighted spontaneity of the question and of such curiosity itself as an archaeological site for a conversation on the origins of Rome, maybe even about the birth of poetry, life, and history. Subjects literally too delicate to touch or handle during a walking-tour class of the city.

Meanwhile, writing in 75 A,D., about 2,000 years before my freshman oral examination question had made me stop to think about the truth of things or school subjects whose very names I took for granted, the historian Plutarch wrote the following phrase to describe Julius Caesar’s assassination:  “For it is reported, that he had three and twenty wounds upon his body, and various of the conspirators did hurt themselves, striking one body with so many blows.”  It is sobering not only to visualize, thanks to the exacting historical text, the twenty-three wounds inflicted on the one body,  but to feel that these same blows could in some way “strike” back the murderers themselves. Though the phrase in Plutarch seems 
simple and straightforward, it suggests a deeper level of meaning usually more proper for the poet to explore! I even think the same level or undercurrent of history – poetic history -- “struck” the wide-eyed and bright American architecture student when he pointed the group to the tree in the Forum. Perhaps the student suddenly felt in the space the same type of emotional – or poetic -- displacement we hear in Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar, when Marc Antony delivers his famous funeral oration from the podium we can still see today in the archaeological site: “Bear with me,” he laments dumbfounded. “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me.”

I would tell my student, great architecture can be designed from such unexpected finds. That fig tree has deep roots.