I felt I was in a painting by Renoir. He created the sublime by capturing joyous and festive moments depicting people in the midst of nature’s beauty. Kaitzer, the girls and I were spending a Sunday afternoon visiting our friends Tony and Andrea Assaf at the Villa Serenella, an 18th century monastery in the hills outside of Rome.
We sat on an old slate patio overlooking 15 acres of olive, fruit and pine trees, and at gardens adorned with fountains and statuary images of saints. The Villa Serenella, now the Collegio of San Isaia (The College of Saint Isaiah) is owned by the Antonine order of the Maronites.
It was la dolce vita, the sweet life. We were served mostaccioli rigati, ridged pasta that Italians call “little mustaches.” They were drenched in pesto, olive oil and Pecorino Romano. Olives, assorted meats and breads for dipping adorned the table. I thought of an Italian Proverb, “A tavola non si invecchia,” (at the table one doesn’t get old).
We lingered and spoke of philosophy and theology and pondered the principles of Russell Kirk, Andrea’s father. He was a political theorist, moralist and social critic who influenced 20th-century American conservatism. His belief in the importance of an enduring moral order and the mystery of human existence created lofty thoughts that reverberated throughout the gardens.
Tony, the director the Rome Semester for Saint Thomas Moore College, spoke of the importance of a classical education whereby knowledge is derived from the Great Books and from an understanding of the enduring values essential to the advancement of society. I couldn’t help think of Kirk’s contention that the mystery and beauty of the world, along with a transcendent moral order, enhances existence.
Throughout our conversations, a pungent odor permeated the villa. It was distinctive and aromatic, and if I could touch it, it would feel like silk. It was olive oil, the slithery golden liquid that Homer called “The gift from the gods.” Tony brought me to the source, a barrel in the kitchen filled with yellow gold. The oil was harvested from the trees at the villa and pressed into extra-virgin. The smell of the olive oil was intoxicating; I was driven to explore this fascination.
Thinking of Kirk’s principles, my senses were heightened and I began to notice the sublime. The early mythologists were pioneers in classical thought. They created an entire literature that led others down the path of beauty. Kirk’s message is clear: to explore the mystery of the world, to leave no stone uncovered in our quest to satiate our innate curiosity and to walk the path of beauty.
Olive oil, although simplistic in its innate form, has a rather complex mythology. Neolithic people harvested olives as early as the 8th millennium BC. Olive oil has been more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean; it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder and the fountain of great wealth and power. It’s fascinating to think that the olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are more than 2,000 years old.
Olive oil is sacred; it was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece. It fueled the sacred lamps of temples and the “eternal flame” of the original Olympic Games. Victors in these games were crowned with olive leaves. Over the years, the olive has been the symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, power and pureness. The shepherds of biblical times anointed their sheep with oil to keep flies and insects away. This practice became symbolic as a means of bringing peace to another.
It was a simple afternoon at the Villa Serenella: beautiful skies and Roman landscapes, lofty conversations, an abundant table, friendship and family. When we embrace the gifts from the gods our senses become a tingling palate and everything is noticed.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com.