LVOV AS ROME
I am walking in Lvov , following the person of Zbigniew Herbert. Although the city is situated on the watershed of waters between the basins of the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, for a Polish poet it was first of all over…. the Mediterranean Sea. For it was an inseparable part of a big Mediterranean culture.
In the Junior High School no VIII named Kazimierz the Great (today in this building there is the Ukrainian Catholic University), Herbert’s teacher of Latin was Grzegorz Jasilkowski, killed in 1939, who used to draw his students a plan of Forum Romanum. When after years the poet visited Rome, he found the antique place without a problem. As he said: ‘The fact that I felt confused among stones, is thanks to my professor of Latin. I remember him with gratitude’.
When after some years Hebert was speaking about his feelings concerning invasion of the Red Army to Lvov, he said: ‘it was the end of my Rome’. In his poem he compared those who brought the destruction to his world, those raiders of nothingness to Longobards, conquering new spaces and shouting ‘their long nothing, nothing, nothing’.
The parallel between Lvov and the Eternal City was justified because the town on Poltva was built also by architects from the Italian Peninsula. The most famous one of them was Piotr the Roman who lived in Lvov on the turn of XVI and XVII centuries. It was him who gave a unique character to the landscape of the city centre, building such buildings as the Wołowski Orthodox Church, Black House at the Market or churches and monasteries of the Bernardine or St. Clare nuns. His work was also the famous chapel of Kampian in the Latin cathedral.
Comparing Lvov to Rome, however, concerned not architecture itself, but rather the common civilization identity. For the whole mature career Herbert will always be a Poet of the City – the city understood as polis, that is, a community of citizens. In the opinion of Herbert’s biographer Jacek Łukasiewicz, Lvov did not change for him into a subject of sentimental nostalgia, but changed into an universal myth. This myth of the city, created from Lvov’s experience, will often appear in poems of the poet, for example, in ‘A report of the besieged city’:
‘ and if the City collapses, and one will be saved, he will carry the City on roads of exile/ he will be the City’.
Herbert shows that people, not stones, are carriers of civilization. In the Middle Age, when there were strikes on universities and professors and students used to leave city’s walls, it was said that ‘the university was leaving the city’. Because the university was not only buildings or lecture halls, but a master with his students who are looking for the truth together. In the same way one can carry Rome in his heart – even in the middle barbarity.