Observations on Italy

As you drive to Tuscany from Rome, you pass through lush green hillsides and rich farmland. The hills vary from gently rolling to steep-cliffed formations that hearken back to volcanic activity, visible in the abrupt formations of rock that later submitted to the almost tropical growth that flourishes in the temperate climes. As you look either west or east as you take A1 northward, there are scenic hillside retreats dotted with Olive trees and vineyards, and fields of grain or grass… These fields are almost all surveyed by a villa or some larger dwelling placed at the top of a hill, looking down upon them protectively. In the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union held “good ground”, or defensive positions that were elevated above the infantry that would try to dislodge them. Historically, having such a position, above would-be attackers, provides tactical advantages and makes defenders stronger and less vulnerable. Everywhere you look in rural Italy, villas, churches, monasteries, and forts are built on ‘good ground’, providing a haven for those who worked the farms and vineyards surrounding them. As we toured Tuscany, we often remarked on the cities on the hills, the beautiful scenic villas overlooking their domains, and the old towers that dotted the volcanic landscape. Their presence spoke of protection and defensive strength.
In Rome, there is an ancient city Wall that rises majestically around its antique center, protecting the ruins of the Forum, the Colisseum, and the parthenon. It is a marvel of engineering and construction, using techniques that would be considered brilliant by today’s standards, much less those in use 2000 years ago. The wall seems to be about 5 stories high (actually 8-10 meters) and is 4-5 meters thick. There are several different sections of the wall, some dating back to 378 b.c., some built well into the Christian era. Walls were built to defend the city from hordes of marauders who roamed Europe in those days, pillaging and plundering all who lay in their voracious path.
One of my strongest impressions from having toured Tuscany and Rome is that man has been a violent, brutish, greedy animal. The people who lived there in bygone eras really, really needed to defend themselves. They were invaded enough to know that they needed to live, sleep, and work on ‘good ground’. Violence could come upon them at any time, and it was worth the amazing amount of cost and labor it took to build protective walls, and to live within or around defensive positions that may have been hard to build, or inconvenient to get water to, or even to get to at night, but which might just save their lives if they were suddenly attacked. The beautiful Tuscan countryside, with old towers and ancient steeples dotting the tops of rocky aeries or balanced along the cliffs, is actually a fortress style testimony to the historic greed and violence of man. For much of our history, men have simply taken what they want by using violence or the abuse of power, without really caring who might be harmed in the taking. One might hope that today, in such an advanced age of social evolution, men are beyond such things, that we are not capable of this kind of evil anymore… but it is entirely possible that the human heart has not changed all that much in 2000 years. The holocaust was only 68 years ago. There may be different ways to try to take things today (such as picking pockets in Rome, or sending bogus emails trying to get suckers to fall for a scam, or stealing someone’s identity online), but men are still greedy, and there is still violence. While our modern weaponry has made good ground less effective, and has rendered large walls somewhat obsolete, the beautiful scenes of Tuscan villas and churches set upon the hills remind us of a long history of greedy violence. I know, it’s definitely a “glass half-empty” kind of observation, but seeing so many towers and villas and forts and churches occupying ‘good ground’ made it difficult for me to see the lovely pastoral landscape without acknowledging the grittier reality behind it. There were some mean people in the world back in the day; and although methods have changed, and those villas and churches are now safe from imminent attack by marauding hordes, there are still mean, greedy people in the world today. Evil is not limited to to the past, and protection will not come from position. Until we begin some kind of construction within the human heart, all the forts and walls in Tuscany will not protect what we value most.