THE PRESENT OF THE PAST
In the ancient agora in Athens a recreation of the Stoa of Attalos occupies the same ground where it stood in antiquity. Among excavated ruins, just off the route of the ancient Panathenaean procession up to the Acropolis, it was recreated down to the last details by archeologists from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in the 1950s. Inside is a small museum of objects retrieved from the local earth. There I saw the fragile skeleton of a child buried near this spot around 1000 BC, in the Protogeometric Age. Her grave is reassembled in a glass case: the flat stones that formed the edge of the tomb, her head now a half skull filled with packed dirt, the thin bones of her arms, pelvis, and legs still plausibly showing the shape, still the inner outline of a small girl. And little jugs for wine and oil, two bronze bracelets, a ring, the pins that fastened the garment she wore on her journey to the underworld. Those burial jars, the pin that once secured the vanished cloth: they spoke of a kind of grown-up dignity particular to her time and place.
How touching it was to see her small bones in that reconstructed context. It would be wrong to call her an object of art, but she seems to offer something more than scientific knowledge: the opportunity to feel simultaneously our transience on earth, the importance of being alive in our own moment, and the particularity of hers.
Thousand of miles to the west, at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, the intricate floor of a circular display space is composed of twenty-two concentric circles, four thousand triangular pieces of black or yellow marble, with a touch of rosso antico and green porphyry at the center. It’s a marvel of illusionistic paving. Like the Stoa of Attalos it was copied stone by stone from the original—this time the belvedere floor of a villa discovered a hundred feet underground in the course of excavations at Herculaneum, ancient city covered by lava in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that also obliterated Pompeii.
The villa’s excavation was carried out in 1750, on behalf of the King of Naples, and the workers were slaves, convicts in chains. The Guide to the Getty Villa adds parenthetically that their chains were removed so they wouldn’t damage the ancient mosaic floors. This eighteenth-century cruelty allowed the stones to be lifted out piece by piece and reassembled in the king’s museum at Portici, near Naples. Two centuries later, that floor was recreated piece by beautiful piece in Malibu, to satisfy the vanity of an American millionaire.
In his wonderful book The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille writes about the way the future (us) is always taking up its own concerns as it goes about honoring, preserving, and collecting the past. He writes about nature in Madagascar and oral poetry in Somaliland, about the vanished and the vanishing, and the resurrected. He writes about the Sphinx as a monument constantly undergoing change—from the organisms and animals inside it, from water moving through it. He writes about trying to save the Ganges from pollution while respecting its cultural position in India, and about the efforts of one American priest living in Rome to live spontaneously in the city’s present through the Latin language, to share the ancient tongue’s lovely conjunction with the place. And he asks if our efforts systematically to understand the past paradoxically makes it recede.
Stille allows his questions to remain open, as he gets close to those who live with them every day: an American scholar who spent weeks mapping the stones in the paws of the Sphinx; Somalia’s most beloved poet regretting his own literacy. An archeologist in Sicily hears in an inscription on ancient treasure taken from its ground “an ancient voice crying out at a moment of incredible difficulty, similar to what happened in Bosnia or Kosovo.” The meaning of the old things is not just in the past, but for the present.
This meaning is what I have been looking for in the places of the past, and in the museums of the present. One ravishing space now at the Getty Villa is its triclinium (which would have been the dining room). Part of a recent lavish renovation of the 1970s original, the room is decorated in marbles from Egypt, Tunisia, Sparta, and Turkey. It incorporates design elements from three different villas at Herculaneum. Resting on a bench there one’s eye falls on an almost sickening display of gorgeous luxury. It’s simultaneously an evocation of the past and a denial of the actual experience of visiting what’s left of that vanished world, with its flaking columns and unlit frescoes. Here in the imagined loveliness of Piso’s time, how distant we are from the delicacies Piso served there as the long first-century afternoons drifted into evening: flamingo tongues, ibex, and even field mice (fattened in little cages).
The past is a foreign country of ancient voices, slave labor, buried children, and field mouse stew. We stalk it like hunters immersed in a world of animals, at once predators and prey. It’s a dark cave into which we shine the flashlight of the present, exploring what it is to be human by feeling our way: recreating, reassembling our understanding of what is true. Rationality and pleasure together nose us into that dark space, trying to bring the past back from the underworld to speak to us. This reconstruction of Roman leisure on a California shore is missing the gravity of the child’s skeleton, that delicate memento mori among the fortuitous remains of urban life. Nevertheless its particular aesthetic reality creates a rich experience of immediacy, loss, and grandeur.
Displayed in another room at the Getty Villa is an eerily satisfying group of terra cotta figures, Orpheus and the Sirens, the work of an unknown Greek artist working in southern Italy. How incongruous perhaps this display of Greek and Roman antiquity by the Pacific shore, and how much I would not want it sent back to its proper context in Italy! I don’t think my compromised desire is incompatible with paying proper respect to the people and places where art flourished. The scientific desire to know them and thus enrich our perspective on our own shifting place in the continuum of time is only part of what has us digging in the old earth, and filling our museums.
Running side by side with human rapacity and exploitation is that marriage of skill and imagination we call art, without which we would indeed be the poorest of bare forked creatures. Art offers a way of being in the present--briefly unannexed to the dead, even while connected to the past and the future. Stille’s book is deeply engaged with how the past is constantly shifting, as its story is constructed. Yet I am still engaged in art’s shiftlessness.
Our human intelligence gives us the power to go back through history up the stream of time, said Robert Frost, but the point is not chiefly that you may go where you will,/ But in the rush of everything to waste,/ that you may have the power of standing still. Frost’s poem is called “The Master Speed” and that speed is indeed just the capacity for stillness, for self-abandonment in the moment, for being free of past and future, of narrative or progress, of time and death. Predators, slave-owners, mourners, and creators, we plunder and rebuild. Alongside the vanishing particularity of our graves we want the suddenly expansive moments of delight that free us from the brevity of our tales.
Patricia Vigderman is the author of a new essay collection, Possibility: Essays Against Despair (Sarabande Books) and The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner (Sarabande Books, 2007). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches at Kenyon College.