James Joyce hated Rome. For reasons that had much to do with him and little with the Eternal City. He was 24 years old, drifting with his new family, forced to work in an Italian bank, copying letters—up to 200 a day. “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.” he wrote to his brother.
Harsh. Yet a damnation that echoed in my ears, not only while revisiting the wonders of the Vatican Museum, its arching gilt hallways stretching to the horizon, but to other cities as well: to Florence, for instance, at the Uffizi, with its harem of Botticellis, and the Galleria dell'Accademia, Michelangelo's David a marvel undiminished by 500 years.
Wondrous. But also half a millennium old, nearly. Doesn't anybody in Italy do anything magnificent anymore? Besides Ferraris, I mean. Everything of value seemed either 500 years old or baked that morning.
As if to answer my question, as soon as we set foot in Venice, my 21-year-old, with the radar for the Happening Thing of the Moment the young innately possess, announced there was someplace he wanted to go. My wife and I tagged after him like a pair of pull toy ducks as he hurried through narrow alleys and across little bridges to the Palazzo Grassi to see the Damien Hirst show, "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable."
Hirst is a British artist. Going in, I knew exactly two things about his work: one, he created those huge glass boxes with sharks and cows suspended in formaldehyde; and two, a decade ago he crafted a diamond encrusted platinum skull that embodies the insanely inflated values of the contemporary art world....
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