January 11th, 2009

Nothing Mortal Is Enduring

Flowers of various species fill the air with a delicate scent. Butterflies flutter from one bright flower to another. Little green speckled lizards with narrow brown tails crawl along the stone walls. The sea roars. In a nearby niche is a bust of Francesco Petrarch, in yellowed marble, his nose broken off. A clumsy forgery, of course. It is not ancient, it was commissioned by the millionaire owner of the spa, and made in his likeness.

Lying in the sun, my eyes closed, I lazily dream: This is, of course, Scheria. Described by Homer in 900 BC. The luxuriant garden plot of the palace of Nausicaa’s father, Alcinoüs, King of Phaeacia. Within this grove fountains flow. And I have here arrived, after long toil, and from a country far remote. A spacious garden, fenced all around. Four acres measuring complete here grows luxuriant many a lofty tree. Pomegranate, pear, apple, fig, and unctuous olive smooth. Eucalyptus, pine, cypress. Palm. Cactus, spined and unspined, tall and short. Flow’rs of all hues smile—luminous bougainvillaea, hibiscus, oleander, geranium, broom, daisy and rose and jasmine. All arranged with neatest art judicious, and amid the lovely scene fountains welling forth. Such are the ample blessings by the Gods bestow’d.

The Phaeacians of Scheria sailed the world in ships. Nausithoos, founder of their city, and Nausicaa, the princess, are nautical names. On this beach, then, a goodly temple of Poseidon, furnished with heavy stones deep bedded in the earth.

The ancient Greeks spoke of Typhoeus, son of Gaea and Tartarus, a dreadful monster with a hundred dragons’ heads. In the battles between the Gods and the Titans, Typhoeus was cast by Zeus into the Bay of Naples and chained to the bottom of the sea. Enraged, he rose up, spewed forth flaming rocks and molten lava, thus forming the mountain and the steep rocky coasts and this very beach. But Typhoeus turned to stone, and he wept hot tears in endless streams—which flow now as these healing thermal springs.

The ancient Greeks saw the universe in human terms. Thus all the anthropomorphism, even in architecture. A pillar, for instance. Its capital was the head, and the section joining it to the pedestal was a neck, and the whole pillar was either male or female.

Petrarch’s Letter to Posterity: “My youth was gone before I realized it,” he says. “I was carried away by the strength of manhood; but a riper age brought me to my senses and taught me by experience the truth I had long before read in books, that youth and pleasure are vanity—nay, that the Author of all ages and times permits us miserable mortals, puffed up with emptiness, thus to wander about, until finally, coming to a tardy consciousness of our sins, we shall learn to know ourselves…But alas! Nothing mortal is enduring, and there is nothing sweet that does not presently end in bitterness.”