On Being Spoilt for Time in Rome

In California, it’s a big deal if a place has been around for thirty years. We look at each other and say, “oh, it’s so charmingly old school! It’s been here since the 80s!”

And heavens, if it’s been around since the 1930s, it’s an institution! Did you know that this court yard was used to film a scene in “Casablanca?”

The east coast gets to be a little snobbier, scoffing at us and showing us places that Gilded Age Barons used to frequent, or George Washington once slept.

But let’s face it, no U.S. city has anything on Rome, a city with thousands of years of civilization and opulence under its belt. This is the civilization that set a standard for grandiosity whose aesthetic is still followed today. It’s style continues to be loved by those who wish to show wealth and power; a visual language that can be see not just in the carefully maintained Renaissance palaces and churches of Rome, but whose origins date back to the days of the ancient empire. Need to make something look expensive? Use columns, gilding, marble floors, statues, frescoes, wood paneling, elaborate lighting fixtures, and stained glass.

You know who also had all that? Julius Caesar.

Here in the new world, I like to call this “The Cheesecake Factory School of Design”, since every “Cheesecake Factory” I’ve been to, uses this aesthetic. I suppose it’s so that people can feel like they’re in for a more luxurious experience than say, a “Chili’s” or a “Chevy’s”, onion rings are more luxurious when experienced surrounded by wood paneling and marble floors.

Time collapses histories, and a human lifetime is but a blink. When in Rome, this sense of the fleeting nature of time is constantly and subtly reinforced. A building that was around “only” two hundred years” seems recent. Renaissance works, so vibrantly and casually displayed in a public fountain without security, feel as if they were created only a generation before, instead of the sixteenth century.

And ancient ruins, with their crumbling, yet easily discernible foundations and still standing columns, perhaps their time was only the more recent 1800s, the time of great grandfathers, instead of two thousand years ago.

In San Francisco, the remains of the Sutro Baths are in far worse shape than the Colosseum, and the baths were standing and functional during the last turn of the century.

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Without the aid of carbon dating, or intimate knowledge of building materials of each era, which one seems older? Wouldn’t they seem contemporary to each another? While I tend not to like the modern aesthetic of opulence, finding it insincere in its mimicry of the old world, I’m realizing that the old world itself, mimicked the ancient one, using many of the same markers.

If an alien race came to earth, thousands of years from now, they will come across artifacts from an old “Cheesecake Factory” or perhaps one of those shopping malls that try to mimic old Roman squares, such as the Glendale Galleria, or the Grove LA.

And from their vantage point, the Renaissance and our present won’t be that distant. So they might posit that the Romans made their way across the ocean and settled in LA, deciding to create a variant of what existed.

Because it’s the same idea, right? Create an area of shops and habitation, surrounding a statue or some work of art. And people will come, stroll, purchase some items, perhaps see some entertainment, eat, and go home. It’s odd and comforting to think that we haven’t changed all that much as a species.

Except for that watching people get killed as a sport thing.

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