I’m in Rome, surrounded by young Catholics, and realizing of a sudden that it is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. He was born on 13 April 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia. He’d be 273 today.
Jefferson would have loved to see Rome, and Naples, and Pompeii, and Vicenza, and Herculaneum. But he turned back from Milan in the summer of 1787, after what he described as a tantalizing “peep into Elysium.” Nobody could blame him, at least historically, had he persevered in his travels and visited the heart of Roman civilization. I think of Jefferson when I sit across from the portico of the Pantheon. The Pantheon is to my mind one of the two or three greatest buildings on earth, and Jefferson chose it as the template for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. When I gaze at it, like a lover at his mistress (as the master put it), I think of Jefferson.
Yesterday, I visited the Tempietto, built by Bramante after 1502, the first great Renaissance building in Rome. I had never seen it. It’s not easy to get to. But when I gazed at it through the archway at the Spanish Academy on the Janiculum Hill, I felt that inrush of awe and bemusement and cultural pride that we only get a handful of times in life, when we come into contact with something (a book, a poem, a painting, a sculpture, a building, an Idea) that represents the supreme achievement of the human spirit.
I’ll return to the Tempietto every time I return to Rome for the rest of my life. But you can only read Hamlet for the first time once; and you can only hear Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for the first time once. You gain something every time you return to Joyce’s Ulysses or Milton’s Paradise Lost, but the wandering of the soul that happens when you first encounter something surpassingly beautiful and life-affirming can only happen one time. Sometimes I wish I had that hoojie that the Men in Black operatives carried around, obliterating the memory banks. Then I could read Anna Karenina for the first time now that I am old enough to give it what it deserves; or David Copperfield, or the Ode on a Grecian Urn.
Jefferson was prosaic enough to avoid this sense of melancholy–or if he felt it, he was too restrained to write about it. He would have measured the Tempietto, and made drawings on graph paper, and inquired about the marble, and schemed of how he could produce some physical homage to it with the materials and the workmanship available in the wilds of Virginia.
Jefferson wanted to believe that the world is beautiful, orderly, serene, and based on reason. To read a book in the Tempietto, on a hill not so much lower than Monticello, looking up from time to time to gaze at the teeming city of Rome below–that’s how Jefferson would have chosen to celebrate its genius.
Happy birthday, Mr. Jefferson.