I visit an old friend, the wretched Laocoon, as he’s about to be dragged into the sea by giant serpents.
The statue was recovered in 1506 during the excavation of an ancient villa in Rome and they say that Michelangelo watched as it was unearthed. It had been described by the historian Pliny, who attributed the Greek original to the sculptors Polydorus, Agesander and Athenodoros. But this is a Roman copy made some three centuries later, just this side of the birth of Christ.
Laocoon was a priest of Poseidon who tried to warn his fellow Trojans not to accept the wooden horse from the besieging Greeks. ‘Come on, people, it has a suspicious looking door! It’s the classic Trojan horse!’ he may have said. Virgil, as was his way, attributes to him a more sophisticated and persuasive speech. It ends with the words ‘timeo danaos et dona ferentes’: I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts. But the Trojans wouldn’t listen, and for good measure Athena instructed Poseidon to quietly dispose of Laocoon and his two children. ‘Get in the sea,’ he may have said.
So you have the Greeks who plundered Troy and then the Romans who plundered the Greeks and took or more frequently copied their art (which is the same thing), then fifteen centuries later it’s found and it inspires Michelangelo, then three hundred years later again Napoleon comes and he takes it to the Louvre, to serve as the centre-piece of the treasure trove of a new empire. Now it’s back in Rome, at the Vatican Museums, along with things that never belonged there and some that did, but then there is no accounting for the origins of the wealth that produced the Renaissance. Literal blood might as well trickle out of these things, seeping through the cracks in the marble from where they stuck Laocoon’s missing arm back on.
But of course you don’t think about any of this when you visit Rome or Paris. Or maybe you do. Appropriation – of styles, of symbols, of actual things – is not just what imperialism but also what culture is about, and so these great cities are histories, both military and social. You know this and yet you don’t. You see this and yet you are seduced by that greatness, by the wealth of those nations of which they are monuments.
My eldest son and I visited Rome and Paris in quick succession, and how could you begin to compare them? One has the Seine, which has an island in it. The other has the Tiber, which has an island in it. Which is the Seine and which is the Tiber?
One has the Louvre, where you can see the Mona Lisa through another tourist’s camera.
Or a picture of Leonardo’s superior, mischievous John the Baptist, currently under restoration. (But it doesn’t matter, right? It’s not as if I visit every quarter century or anything.)
The other has the Vatican Museums, where you can take photos of Raphael’s School of Athens from an angle hitherto unavailable on the internet.
Or you can see the Sistine Chapel, but not take pictures. Or even talk. The chapel is always densely crowded and is patrolled by attendants whose job strikes me as a punishment worthy, if not of the Hell whose gates were painted by Michelangelo, at least of Purgatory. It consists in telling people off for talking. The scene goes like this. One or two of the attendants shout: ‘Silence!’ (In English, always.) We, the tourists, stop talking. Then after two, three minutes, some begin to chatter quietly. Encouraged, others do the same. A solidarity bordering on camaraderie is created. In another minute or two, we are all talking. Then one or two of the attendants shout: ‘Silence!’ and the clock is reset. It’s so precise and predictable that you could soft boil and egg by it. But what truly gets me, and turns the attendants’ job in my eyes into a torment, is that their tone is never officious: they sound genuinely angry, of the kind of anger that comes from moral outrage and shock. Listen to me: this thing that so surprises you has happened eight times in the last hour. We shall soon be replaced by a new group of humans who will behave in the exact same way as us. You need to come to terms with this.
At the Louvre, I look for one of my mother’s favourite pieces of art, the Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses. I take a bad picture of it so I will remember having seen it.
Did you know? Peter Boyle was chosen for the role of Frankenstein after his turn as Pope Pius XI in this bust a the Vatican Museums.
By night, Paris shines.
But then in Rome you can have una granita di caffè con panna (a coffee granita with cream), which Marcello Marchesi called ‘the most beautiful eleven-syllable line in Italian poetry’. Or the pizza al taglio from Roscioli.
Paris has this.
Rome has that.
Paris has the Sainte Chapelle, which made my church non-admiring son emit an audible gasp of awe.
Rome has San Clemente, the church built on an earlier church built on a pagan temple built on a Roman building built on an earlier Roman building, so you can go down at each level and the stairs are like a time machine.
Paris has the allegories of major French cities in Place de la Concorde. This is Nantes.
Rome has the balconies and terraces around Trastevere, that perhaps more than any other thing in the world make me wish I was a rich man.
Paris has Van Gogh.
Rome has Caravaggio, although you have to put 1 euro in the slot every five minutes or it goes dark.
Paris has the Tour Eiffel, which I think is very pretty so shut up.
Rome has this statue of Giordano Bruno, placed in the square where they burned him two hundred years earlier after cutting his tongue so he couldn't address the people. He stands in judgment.
And I could go on. But you see how pointless it is to compare? Paris has a Pantheon.
While Rome has the Pantheon, that most unlikely, uncanny of buildings, which survived two thousand years like no other, and in which the Renaissance is already encoded: a triangle, a square a circle. This picture isn’t mine.
This one is.
The Pantheon is my special place, the place I can forget that history exists and that any blood was shed to create such wonderful things, or that it’s even a church, now - for everyone still calls it the pantheon, the place of many gods. That impossible dome, the pure genius of that hole in the ceiling (the ‘oculus’). I could die there or simply forget who I am and disappear.
To sum up: it would be pointless to compare these two great cities although it’s Rome, obviously. Every time.