Looking For Silk But Finding Elephants – On The Silk Road, Exhibition, Palazzo Delle Esposizioni, Rome

It’s not that I am not grateful for the elephant, but don’t you have something smaller?’ There is no record of Marco Polo ever having uttered those words to the great Kublai Khan, however if the illustration from this medieval French manuscript is to be believed (which it almost certainly is not), it must have been an awkward moment when he received his parting gifts.

I'll Never Get That Elephant Home

I’ll Never Get That Elephant Home

Perhaps it was therefore a more rational mind that subsequently thanks to these issues of logistics gave birth to the myth that, rather than elephants, Marco Polo brought back the altogether more practical, spaghetti from the East.

An exhibition in Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Sulla Via Della Seta (On The Silk Road) sets out to rectify these and other myths surrounding this once vital trade artery. Spaghetti, or dry pasta at least, almost certainly came from the Middle East, not China and calling it “The Silk Road” is to focus solely on one of the hundreds of goods that were traded along what was in fact not even a ‘road’ but much more accurately, a web of trade routes stretching from Venice in the West to Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in the East. Indeed were you to ask a 13th Century Tour Guide (they had them then too) to lead you along the Silk Road, you would have received a blank stare; the term was only coined in the 19th Century by German scholar Ferdinand Von Richthofen.

Sulla Via Della Seta, Palazzo Delle Esposizioni, Roma

Sulla Via Della Seta, Palazzo Delle Esposizioni, Roma

Last year I visited the remains of Kharakoram, founded in the 13th Century by Chingis Khan which for three decades flourished as the Mongol capital of The Silk Road before his grandson Kublai Khan moved it to Beijing. It was here in 1275 Marco Polo met the Great Khan. Today I am travelling to Venice, where I have rented an apartment for the next three weeks. I am 5600 miles West of Beijing and last year when, ‘suddenly the train seemed to be on water, the thin spit of land seemed to disappear from view and we were in the back waters of Venice, calm and blue, reflecting a light I fell in love with then and there; the first time I believe I fell in love with anything in my life‘ H.S Bharbra. I remember my first arrival, also by train, nineteen years ago. That very first glimpse was truly love at first sight for me.

Leaving Land Behind, Venice By Train

Leaving Land Behind, Venice By Train

As I duck down the little alley that leads left out of the station, avoiding the crowds, it is with a romantic notion that ahead lies my own personal Silk Road. The exhibition in Rome, visited the day prior to departure, teaches that not only goods, (spices, clothes, oils, jewels) made their way back and forth along these arteries stretching thousands of miles, but also ideas, people and even religions. The epitome of ‘every journey starts with the first step’ might be that which began when 629 AD when Chinese monk snook past city guards and headed West. Ten thousand miles and seventeen years later, travelling largely on foot Xuanzang, still a fugitive as he had left China without permission, returned and is now (somewhat simplistically) credited as the monk who ‘brought Buddhism to China’.


A Long Way To Walk With A Library On Your Back...

A Long Way To Walk With A Library On Your Back…

I decide to walk to my “Pensione” for the next two nights. It in itself a journey through the narrow calle of the Santa Croce Sestiere, alleys that are likely find me more lost than in any of the large capitals I work. There must be fifty bridges between here and my destination and on my back are three quarters of my possessions, in my pocket a third of my finances. I probably should be a little more concerned than I am. I come bearing roughly a months rent and promise of work. As new beginnings go, they don’t come much more ‘beginning’ than this. Were this any other city on earth I would be. Concerned that is. But Venice was and still to me feels the place that launched a thousand dreams.

Goethe talks of Venetians as having an ‘instinctive existence’ and for me coming here, it is as if the senses take over, almost as if this is place where things can only go well. A sort of go with the flow, it will all be ok. The Greek philosopher Epicurus was two years younger than I am now when he laid out his emphasis on sensual pleasure; ‘Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life’.

Well, This is Reassuring...

Well, This is Reassuring…

Though he argues for a process of reaching happiness through a Socretean thought process, rather than perhaps Venetian lassiez faire, the conclusion is similar; happiness does not depend on money. To someone for whom that has always been a necessary belief and now more than ever, thanks to spending most of my adult life with very little, De Botton provides a helpful graph.

What?! No Spaghetti?

What?! No Spaghetti?

For the thousands of merchants, guides, soldiers, chancers and even jugglers who set off along The Silk Road, or better ‘Routes’, as long as 2000 years ago, this early ‘globalisation’ marked new beginnings, gambling all on the outcome of one perilous voyage. Later this lagoon launched the galleys that sailed the crusading knights off on their beginnings. There is an air of inevitability therefore, or I like to believe there is, in me starting off yet again, but this time in Venice. Where better? In this city of the World’s first casino, where in 2003 the famous Opera House, the Fenice (Phoenix) for the second time rose from the flames the Silk Road stretches out in front of me as it has done for centuries.

Every Journey Begins With A First Step...

Every Journey Begins With A First Step…

Sulla Via Della Seta, in the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni in Rome, was inspirational to me. An exhibition the existence of which I was unaware, but to which I seemed destined to be drawn. These words are typed only yards from the former home of Marco Polo. His 17 years on the road, I have now exceeded in terms of time and even number of countries visited. Granted I might have one or two elephants fewer to show for it, but as the exhibition shows, knowledge was ‘traded’ alongside the finest luxuries. Knowledge from my time in The East taught me last year, the year of the dragon should have been ‘mine’. It didn’t play out that way. But the Silk Road can begin in the calle in front of my door and there is comfort in the words of De Botton; ‘one must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to turn our tears into knowledge’.

 Sulla Via Della Seta is on at Rome’s Palazzo Delle Esposizioni until 10th March 2013

~ by 2ndcupoftea on February 28, 2013.

2 Responses to “Looking For Silk But Finding Elephants – On The Silk Road, Exhibition, Palazzo Delle Esposizioni, Rome”

  1. Oh no. Hope you are okay. Send an e-mail. Alex

  2. Ciao Alex. Been better – tough few months, but it’s onwards and upwards surely?! Will email you and of course; thanks for the read 😉

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