Wednesday’s Child: Letter from Rome
To Rome, where at lunchtime, during the first, centripetal course, men of all ages can be seen coming up for air with the metronomic precision of Olympic swimmers; to Rome, who rules the roost when it comes to middle-aged government clerks in dark suits licking ice-cream cones in broad daylight; to Rome, where Al Moro – despite the recent passing of the founder’s son, Franco Romagnoli, “principe dei ristoratori romani,” at 85 and now in the capable hands of his grandson – remains the gold standard of unbridled, orgiastic, fiddle-while-she-burns restoration.
It is true that France, with 2 hours 11 minutes spent chowing down on le pain quotidien, is ahead of Italy by 6 minutes, but this is probably due to the crypto-Protestant frugality of our northernmost provinces. Greece, in case the gentle reader hungers for more official statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is third on this list with 2 hours 4 minutes, just one minute behind Italy, followed by 2 hours 2 minutes in Spain. Savage places like Germany and China, at 1 hour 36 minutes each, are followed by outright monsters like Norway and Estonia, where people spend just over an hour on the day’s repast. The leader of all the devilry is of course the United States, which is clocked at an average of one hour and one minute. In short, in this whole sad sublunary world, only in France, Italy, Greece, and Spain do people spend more than two hours a day in prandial concourse.
If such desolation has befallen the food of love, what of music? What of painting, of literature? Archeologists have identified 158 thermopolia, or restaurant bars, in Pompeii, and, judging by the tourist throng, the paintings in that ruined city are to this day the envy of the Germans and the Chinese, to say nothing of the Norwegians and the Estonians. A full ten percent of the workforce in the United States are engaged in some kind of restaurant activity, but the America of Emerson, of Twain, of Edison and the Wright Brothers was an America of oyster houses and victualing establishments, restorators and eating rooms where people lingered – as surely they did at the dinner table in their homes – not the America of fast gluten-free food and even faster alcohol-free beer.
Speaking of restoration, readers may remember my recent post lauding Art Watch. By sheer coincidence, while I was in Rome, a visiting American magnate invited me to a private view of the Sistine Chapel, where that evening the capella’s heavenly choir was recording for Deutsche Grammophon. The restoration of the Chapel in the 1980’s and 90’s, heavily sponsored by a Japanese television company and much applauded in the American press, has been described by Michael Daley as a crime without parallel, “the single greatest restoration calamity of the twentieth century,” a kind of Katyn Murders in the forest of the Renaissance. Daley once quoted a Vatican Museums director saying at the time that “initial tests” had “brought forward such colours that we were both scared and excited.”
It was one of the scariest things I had ever seen, my horror enhanced, I admit, by the stark contrast with the immortal and unrestored Palestrina on the lips of that heavenly choir of theirs. The chemically enhanced colors, unnatural and burlesque in their fairground, Liberace-in-Vegas, casino gaudiness, seemed to scream for gluten- and alcohol-free approbation of the new generation of politically correct pilgrims and punters.
To me, they also pleaded for some kind of pity. Was it pity for nations that do not linger at table?