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In yesterday’s museums, few visitors knew or cared whether an emperor’s polished marble likeness or the graceful body of a goddess had once been goods for barter in some tomb robber’s grimy hoard. Now the end of colonial empires and the fevered growth of nationalism favor returning looted art to its place of origin. A Still, at the British Museum, you can still see, along with the Parthenon marbles, the magnificent Egyptian antiquities carted off by the son of a Paduan barber–one Giovanni Battista Belzoni.
Belzoni was an enterprising lad who dodged Napoleon’s draft by emigrating to England. Lacking both English and a profession, he found work as the strong man in a circus. Soon he won the heart of an intrepid Englishwoman, who may or may not have been a tightrope walker. She contrived somehow to set him up as an engineer, and before long he was invited by a travelling pasha to design a hydraulic system on the Nile.
When that project failed (fault of a lazy work crew, said Belzoni), he quickly shifted to the antiquities trade. Eventually he was able to dig up and haul off such trophies as Ramses the Great, with “Belzoni” chiseled naively near its large left foot.
I happened upon Belzoni during research in the old British Library, on the rich topic of Looted Art. How I enjoyed those months of bootless delving, the untidy piles of book request slips at my desk in the dimly-lit inner Reading Room, my notes filled with vivid and shocking details. Themes did emerge–Looted Art and Nationalism/Colonialism/Imperialism, but it seemed to me, then and now, that Belzoni’s story was a natural for a Sondheim opera.
I did meet a musicologist at the American Academy in Rome, who knew Sondheim well. This was immediately following 9/11. Military helicopters were circling in the blue September sky over the Janiculum Hill, and armed guards patrolled the American Embassy across the street. When we weren’t watching the sky and the street, we were all glued to CNN on our computers. Nothing would ever be the same again, we all agreed. Hardly the moment to float a frivolous opera project. Eventually the Academy fellows went back to their painting, their research, and their complaints about the Academy’s food. Although nothing in fact ever was the same again.
Still, Egyptian obelisks continue to adorn eight Roman piazzas. Venice still has its looted lions and horses, Florence an obelisk or two as well as a trove of mummies, and museums throughout the world hold treasures of other lands. Why did the Islamic State prefer to destroy rather than flaunt the captive architecture of pre-Islamic eras? Marketing of antiquities is said to be more profitable than oil sales.
While mourning Isis destruction in Palmyra, Mosul, and Nimrud, it’s hard to ignore the West’s own robust tradition of iconoclasm. This extended from biblical idol-bashing to the Crusades, the Reformation, and the French Revolution. In 16th-century Geneva and in Basel, Calvinist mobs destroyed every Catholic image they could find, from stained glass windows to statues of virgins and saints and holy medals.
And as we recoiled from the barbarous Isis beheadings, historical memory slid over an estimated 16,000 guillotined by French revolutionaries, not to mention the millions annihilated in the Holocaust. Note that enlightened France continued execution by guillotine until 1981. Their bloody revolution did occasion a French diaspora, mainly of the aristocrats. Irish emigration, almost entirely of the poor, followed in the mid-19th century.
Among the masses fleeing southern and eastern Europe before the First World War were my grandparents. Born in Moravian villages (then Austrian) they travelled to California via Galveston,Texas. My grandfather, a strapping redheaded farm boy, good with horses, had served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry until the end of his term. It was in August 1914 as it happened, and he knew to immediately book passage to America. My grandmother, who had found work as a seamstress in Vienna, eventually followed him to California. There was no pot of gold for them in California, but they never returned to their villages.
Shortly before the Soviet Union fell apart, I went with my mother to then-Czechoslovakia. After a tense border crossing from Vienna, we pored over a large paper map and in a single day located both villages. In Mohelno we found a large war memorial and a few ancestors in the graveyard, including the the annoying uncle who had travelled more than once to visit them in Santa Cruz, California. Just outside the village were mysterious windowless towers that turned out to be a nuclear power station.
Near my grandfather’s village, Rohy, an old man hoeing by the main road pointed out the Pozar place. “Yes,”he said, in German, “that Alois Pozar (my grandfather’s eldest brother) was a hard man.” A large building near the village church still had “Pozar” over the door. Later I learned that “Pozar” meant “fire,” and the imposing structure would have been the firehouse rather than my ancestral manse.
Scant decades after my grandparents left for California, there was the crucial migration, from Europe in the 1930s, of the Jews. Many of these, in the academy and the art world especially, became our respected elders and/or the parents of many of our friends. Once, at a dinner party where table talk had turned to Israel, we realized that as gentiles, we were not as free to condemn Israeli expansionism as the others. America, founded by immigrants, didn’t welcome Jews until after the Holocaust, just as we aren’t welcoming most refugees from the Middle East now–even fewer under the new administration.
Regarding much earlier migrants, genetic research on the 5,200 year-old remains of a woman farmer found in Ireland, suggest DNA from the Middle East. Agriculture thrived there long before and after the Irish potato famine. But we don’t need ironies as much as we need peace settlements.
The good news from the Middle East is that American ally Saudi Arabia decapitated only 27 people in 2020, an 87 percent reduction from the previous year…probably because the pandemic limited the audience for this instructive public event.