Historians have a superpower. We can resurrect the dead like nobody’s business. My fellow Italians, however, are exceedingly superstitious about even setting foot in a cemetery. The alarmed contorting of a friend’s face when I told him I spent the day taking pictures of the monuments at Certosa in Bologna, and the indubitable belief that you can unjinx a drive past a graveyard by grabbing your genitals, only scratch (sorry, that was too easy) the surface of the depth of the misgivings.
Superstition reigns supreme, but I’m proof that wandering around them doesn’t bring you to the other side any faster. Please don’t tell anyone that I’m still kicking, as I’m afraid it will ruin my fun. Cemeteries are my tranquil respite of choice in a chaotic urban jungle. This search for historically minded inspiration became a beloved habit that helped me stay sane living in the cemetery belt of Queens, New York during plague times.
Santayana’s Very Catchy Catch Phrase
I left a lot in New York, but not my cemetery habit. It’s my job to converse with the dead. The occupational hazard of being a historian because we are always looking in the rearview mirror. Want to know why? Ask my students. I do. Every semester, on the first day of class, I ask them what the value of studying history is for non-history majors. Every semester George Santayana rings like a bell. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Sharp, and rather brilliant. It is so often said that it has become a cliché, but one that is not quite accurate. Historical episodes never happen the same way twice otherwise the study of history would be a total snooze fest and you probably would have never bothered with to be here reading this. If you don’t know Santayana, you are not alone. None of my students have ever mentioned Santayana by name. He is a warning not to say anything too catchy or you get lost in the shadow cast by your own aphorism. Since we are being honest, I had no idea one of America’s most influential thinkers of the 20th century died in Rome in 1952.
Never Forget, to Look Both Ways
Santayana arrived on my radar after a chance encounter with a historical plaque. I was missing Queens overwhelmingly on 9/11. The only monument in Rome I could find to commemorate the day is little-known, but sandwiched between giants. Porta Capena–historically the southeastern entrance to Rome through the imperial Servian Walls–is close to both the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. There are two ancient Roman columns placed to look like twin towers in a dirty and dusty median. Getting to it is far more likely to kill you than visiting a cemetery. It requires running a gauntlet across the dispirit symphony of Roman traffic in which crosswalks are an invitation for motorists to speed up and aim for you. Swearing like a good New Yorker and tossing hand gestures like a good Italian, I made It to the median to see a small plaque with Santayana’s wisdom placed between the twin pillars. I was the lone pedestrian on that hot afternoon of September 11, 2022. There were no fresh wreaths or flowers in sight. Had others forgotten an event that defined a generation despite Santayana’s prophetic warning?
A Fallen Academic
I left determined to connect to Santayana. The long walk to Santayana’s grave from the main entrance of the monumental cemetery of Verano (near Rome’s Tiburtina Station), gave me time to reflect on his life. It was also long enough for more than one black cat to cross my path. The bus driver running the cemetery loop pulled over his empty bus to both light up a cigarette and ask with an element of concern if I needed help. I startled two landscapers who were surprised to see a living soul.
Santayana spent his childhood in Spain, before living for 40 years in Boston which included being educated at Harvard and teaching philosophy there. He eagerly returned to Europe after quitting academia in his 40’s due to burnout. It seems that his students, including T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost, adored him, and that he routinely refused, like a boss, to attend faculty meetings. A spirit animal for wayward academics, he set off to pursue his passion for a life of the mind. He never returned to the States, but had the chronological misfortune of spending both world wars in Europe. He was a man with interesting dualities. His last years were spent in the care of nuns in Rome, but he asked to be buried in unconsecrated ground. In Rome, that is no easy task. The Spanish Consulate stepped in to construct a monument- a pantheon for Spaniards of interest who died in Rome. Brutalist architecture isn’t inviting, but the concrete and metal make for a rational design that Santayana certainly would have approved of.
From here to eternity?
The shadows across the concrete slab began to get long, and that ever-lurking fear that they might close the gate early made the cemetery seemed even larger despite my hurried pace. Verano has been hallowed ground for 20 centuries, but it’s got plenty of room. You only rent your place in an Italian cemetery. You might get 30 years before being moved to a communal grave so that your real estate can be freed up for the next person. Unless you are aristocracy or famous. In that case, you get to stay. Santayana won’t need to worry about being evicted. His legacy is modest, but his ideas are still influential in the same academia that he grew quickly tired of. Avoiding a communal grave seems a pragmatic reason to shoot for the stars. I can’t even handle the sea of humanity on the bus at rush hour.
Historical memory is the kiln that forges legacy otherwise we will forget. Sometimes the most interesting bits are not the flashiest bits and that’s what Christory offers. Fueled by an insatiable curiosity, humor, and the fundamental belief that history, done right, is absolutely fabulous. Let’s wander and see what we find on the dusty medians of history.
Want to know more about Santayana who had strong opinions that would push pretty much anyone’s buttons, including Bertrand Russel who called him a “cold fish” in an obituary? Check out this Christory podcast.