- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

FLORENCE. — The Italian word for easy-chair is “poltrona.” Apparently, it has the same derivation as the English word “poltroon”, meaning somebody (presumably a man) who is cowardly, lazy, and less than entirely trustworthy. One definition uses the words “mean-spirited wretch.”

Etymology can be fun. The Florence city hall was built in the late 1200s. In the olden times, in front of it stood a wooden stage used by orators to address anybody who cared to listen — sort of like London’s Hyde Park Corner. Around the stage there was a railing which orators could lean on, called the “ringhiera.” It’s the origin of our word “harangue.” In 1343, according to the chronicles, an orator so stirred up the crowd that it turned on somebody and ate him. In 1478, the leaders of the Pazzi conspiracy to murder the heads of the Medici family were hanged from the windows of the town hall, just above the ringhiera. A few feet away from where the stage was, a brass plaque in the pavement marks the exact spot where Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola was burned at the stake in 1498.

Throughout Europe, we have reminders of the ferocious past. Many cities have buildings that once were decorated with the detached heads of people who had somehow offended the powers that once were. The Tower of London was once as notorious as Abu Ghraib. Now it is best known for housing the queen’s collection of baubles. In Paris, the Conciergerie was once known for the torture chamber in the dungeon of the Tour Bonbec. Now it is a popular site for concerts. In Florence, the Bargello still presents the grim face of a medieval jail on the outside. Inside, it has perhaps the world’s most sublime sculpture collection.

We also have reminders of the poltroons — huge palaces, fabulous furnishings, wonderful works of art. Few remain in private hands. In Florence, the original Medici palace now houses the local offices of the central government — and a small museum — while their later domicile, the much larger Pitti Palace, houses a whole slew of great museums. In nearby Siena, the Chigi family made so much money they were known for holding immense dinner parties at their palace on the banks of the Tiber in Rome, where everybody was served on solid gold dishes, with solid gold knives, forks, etc. After each course, waiters ostentatiously threw all that into the river. (Of course the Chigi had nets on the bottom of the river to recover the loot after the guests had gone home.) Now the superb Chigi palace in Siena houses a wonderful music school.

There are other, less obvious reminders. Here is the record of the menu at a 14th-century wedding feast in Milan, according to reports at the time — echoed in “The Squire’s Tale,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was there: The guests were served crabs with whole suckling pig, hare with pike, a whole calf with trout, beef and capon in garlic and vinegar sauce, peacocks with cabbage, beef with sturgeon, and cheese with eel pie. Yum. And everything was gilded with a paste of egg, saffron, flour and gold leaf, because it was believed that eating and drinking gold was good for your health. No wonder the groom died shortly thereafter.

As Dante said, “New people and sudden profits produce pride and excess.”

Europe is much gentler than it used to be, and there also are somewhat fewer poltroons. There is far more equal distribution of wealth in Western Europe than in the United States. Chief executive officers of large companies earn a much lower multiple of the wages of the rank and file than their opposite numbers in the United States. A recent report says it is much easier now to achieve the “American dream” — starting with nothing and making it big — in France than it is in America.

These thoughts are prompted by a couple of recent news stories out of the U.S. that have made headlines around the world. One was the publication Sept. 22 of Forbes Magazine’s latest list of the richest 400 Americans, all of whom, for the first time, are worth at least $1 billion. The magazine noted that during the last two years, Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas gambling tycoon has been “earning” a million dollars an hour. Over the same period, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google, have each made $13 million daily.

The second story concerned congressional approval Sept. 28 of legislation on interrogation and trials of detainees suspected of “terrorist” activities. Much attention had been paid to the public demands of Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and other Republicans that the bill had to incorporate the ban on torture in the Geneva Convention.

However, in the final version, Congress authorized the Bush administration to define interrogation “techniques,” which, at the very least, opens the door to official U.S. government defiance of international law on torture.

These two developments help reinforce the growing concern around the world that America is dominated by roughnecks and poltroons.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels.

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