Houses and museums

Imagine you inherit a Renaissance palazzo. You have two options: to live there or to transform it into a museum. You could sell it of course, but that would just be daft.

If you decide to live in the newly purchased palazzo, you will inevitably make changes to it. You will probably try, if you have a strong artistic and historical sense, to preserve as much as possible. But it will change, which means that it will keep growing, breathing and beating with a living heart. It will be as though history didn’t stop. History never stops, in fact, does it?

On the other hand, you may decide not to live in it but to turn it into a museum. It is a noble thought. You’re making it available to the public, you’re opening it not just to your family and friends, but to everyone else who wants to honour it with a visit.

To inhabit or to museify, two approaches to how we handle the inheritance of the past. It applies not only to real estate, but to language, literature, the whole endowment of history. Each generation is heir and claimant to the heritage of previous generations.

And each age is faced with the choice between continuing to live with the past and into its home or turning it into a magnificient museum. The medieval West, for example, chose to inhabit the classical past, not without transforming it, often beyond recognition. The generations of the Renaissance, on the other hand, were quick to turn the ages of ancient Greece and Rome into the most radiant museums ever built. The medievals set their houses among the ruins, the moderns cleared the ruins and arranged them into glorious art galleries and archeological parks. The medievals thrust Latin into a host of living languages, while the moderns recovered the purity of Cicero’s idiom and Thucydides’ historical mastery.

Our own age is partial to museums. We presume to build our houses on rocks where the roots of the past cannot grow. As we stroll through the cleared ruins of history, we refuse history the role of magistra vitae, the teacher of life as Cicero defined it, to inform the blueprints of our abodes.

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