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“Anxious, work-obsessed, overly disciplined Italians and happy-go-lucky, carefree Germans…”

February 12th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

At the bathhouse in Baden, Poggio was amazed by what he saw: “Old women as well as younger ones,” he wrote to a friend in Florence, “going naked into the water before the eyes of men and displaying their private parts and their buttocks to the onlookers.” There was a sort of lattice between the men’s and women’s baths, but the separation was minimal: there were, he observed, “many low windows, through which the bathers can drink together and talk and see both ways and touch each other as is their usual custom.”  Poggio refused to enter the baths himself, not, he insisted, from any undue modesty but because “it seemed to me ridiculous that a man from Italy, ignorant of their language, should sit in the water with a lot of women, completely speechless.” But he watched from the gallery that ran above the baths and described what he saw with the amazement that someone from Saudi Arabia might bring to an account of the beach scene at Nice.

There were, he observed, bathing suits of some sort, but they concealed very little: “The men wear nothing but a leather apron, and the women put on linen shifts down to their knees, so cut on either side that they leave uncovered neck, bosom, arms, and shoulders.” What would cause a crisis in Poggio’s Italy and perhaps trigger violence seemed simply to be taken for granted in Baden: “Men watched their wives being handled by strangers and were not disturbed by it; they paid no attention and took it all in the best possible spirit.” They would have been at home in Plato’s Republic, he laughed, “where all property was held in common.”  The rituals of social life at Baden seemed dreamlike to Poggio, as if they were conjuring up the vanished world of Jove and Danae. In some of the pools, there was singing and dancing, and some of the girls—“good looking and well-born and in manner and form like a goddess”—floated on the water while the music was playing: “They draw their clothes slightly behind them, floating along the top of the water, until you might think they were winged Venuses.” When men gaze down at them, Poggio explains, the girls have a custom to ask playfully for something. The men throw down pennies, especially to the prettiest, along with wreaths of flowers, and the girls catch them sometimes in their hands, sometimes in their clothes, which they spread wider. “I often threw pennies and garlands,” Poggio confessed.      Confident, easy in themselves, and contented, these are people “for whom life is based on fun, who come together here so that they may enjoy the things for which they hunger.” There are almost a thousand of them at the baths, many drinking heavily, Poggio wrote, and yet there is no quarreling, bickering, or cursing. In the simple, playfully unselfconscious behavior before him, Poggio felt he was witnessing forms of pleasures and contentment that his culture had lost.

We are terrified of future catastrophes and are thrown into a continuous state of misery and anxiety, and for fear of becoming miserable, we never cease to be so, always panting for riches and never giving our souls or our bodies a moment’s peace. But those who are content with little live day by day and treat any day like a feast day.  He is describing the scenes at the baths, he tells his friend, “so that you may understand from a few examples what a great center of the Epicurean way of thinking this is.”  With his contrasting vision of anxious, work-obsessed, overly disciplined Italians and happy-go-lucky, carefree Germans, Poggio believed he glimpsed for a moment the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. He knew perfectly well that this pursuit ran counter to Christian orthodoxy. But in Baden it was as if he found himself on the threshold of a mental world in which Christian rules no longer applied.

From "The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

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