One way to learn patience is to travel by train from Naples to Palermo. The train is excruciatingly slow, and the traveler seldom has a soul to complain to, but the journey is ideal for basking in the picturesque countryside. It was here that Caravaggio, fleeing the Roman carabinieri after assaulting a man, sought refuge, and here he created some of the most haunting painting of the 16th century. 

Some of the most acclaimed writers of our own age live in this region, including john Fleming, Hugh Honour, Shirley Hazzard, Aubrey Merren, Ann Corneliseh, and Gore Vidal. Traveling in these parts of the Campania and Lucania, Goethe marveled at the ruins, the idyllic setting, and the gloriously warm sun that illuminated just about everything. In thoroughly romantic fashion, he reportedly declared, “It’s so beautiful that I could die today.” The statement may be apocryphal, but the Italians defend any lovely line with the phrase ben trovato

The spirit of the region could be felt at Paestum and the Doric Revival, an outstanding exhibition that made its only American stop from February through March of 1986 in New York City’s National Academy of Design. Recovering a long forgotten achievement of the 18th century—the rediscovery of the Greek heritage—the exhibition covered more than architecture. The exhibition made a visitor think of Thomas Jefferson and fostered speculations on just how this brilliant American planned Monticello. In this show we find a picture by Rembrandt Peale of Jefferson’s secretary, William Short, with the Doric temples of Faestum in the background, painted in 1806, two years after Napoleon’s coronation. The visitor to Monticello should scrutinize Jefferson’s study carefully. Scattered around among the bookshelves are small sculptures of Napoleon, indicating a private fascination of the third President of the Unit ed States. 

This show, brilliantly curated by Joselita Raspi Serra, professor at the University of Salerno, evokes the sort of memories that compel one to revisit Magna Grecia on foot. Instead of rushing around; we might remember a verse by an anonymous 17th-century British poet: “What is this life so full of care / That we have not a moment to sit and stare.” Staring at the exhibition made the urge to see the actual ruins at Paestum overwhelming. 

Indeed, the exhibits helped viewers to journey back in time, to garner the pleasures of Paestum, through 180 paintings, architectural models, water colors, drawings, prints, and books from private and public collections in Europe and the United States. Through the use of such displays, the curator steered clear of both pedantry and block-buster commercialism. Walking through the display one might think of Diderot, who—for all his faults—helped provoke profound changes in Western society and art through his commitment to rational thought, united with noble aesthetic ideals. What fascinated me on repeated visits to the exhibit was an unrelated fact, but one that kept nagging me. During the 18th century, the Asian civilizations experienced a catharsis which had little to do with trade and eventual colonization. Subsequently, most of the Asian civilizations simply lost that touch which had been a source of marvel to the West in earlier times. The key to understanding this ascent of the West in nearly all fields is that Westerners are taught to reason.

This ability to reason, to challenge, to think independently is the spark that ignites the human brain. Sadly, the Asian psyche is daunted by both discreet and overt forms of autocratic ways of living. Until such an exhibition focused on Asia and the West in the 18th century is conceived-and perhaps it may be a highly controversial show, given the hypersensitivity of many peoples these days-we can turn to Karl August Wittfogel’s book, Oriental Despotism.

On the other hand, Menen’s Cities in the Sand provides us with an account of Roman cities in the eastern Mediterranean-Leptis Magna, Timgad, Palmyra, and Petra. Generally, such descriptions of the fall of Roman civilization do not provoke Italians today. Yet again, the portrayal of the Asian psyche, seen en masse, suggests an inability for critical thinking. Since the mid-18th century, the striking differences between Asia and the West have only grown.

While such cross-cultural issues cannot easily be resolved, the Paestum show was alive with ideas to spark viewers’ speculation, for which Professor Serra and the National Academy of Design both merit praise. Under the stewardship of its new director, john Dobkin, the National Academy has become a magnet for attracting some of the finest exhibitions in recent years.

Paestum thrived under Augustus and Tiberius. The aridity of Lucania today makes it difficult to imagine this ancient Greek city’s earlier agricultural and horticultural greatness. Latin poets cited the “twice blooming roses of Paestum.” Its name derived from Poseidon, once its patron god. But it was the Doric temples dedicated to Ceres and Neptune, simple and splendid, reminding one of the bleached bones of antiquity,” that created a great stir around 1750.

The Paestum exhibition, arranged with a logic that would have pleased the ancients, offered three different perspectives on this magnificent city: the discovery of Paestum and its subsequent excavation; views of Paestum; and the widespread influence of the Greek site and the architecture it inspired.

Ideas and our ability to articulate them can be more revolutionary than our animal instincts for brute force and bloodshed. With its Doric order, Paestum symbolized both egalitarian ideals and freedom. Once these architectural ideas spread in revolutionary France and America, the ornate and the ostentation of the Baroque and the Rococo styles were cast aside. In embracing the Doric revival, Ledoux and Flaxman led the 18th century towards the modern. Built in the 7th century B.C., neglected for centuries, Paestum was a must on the Grand Tour. Intelligently selected memorabilia, culled from diaries and letters from various travelers (including Lord North), help the visitor discern precisely what Paestum meant in the 18th century to curious Europeans and Americans. This section of the exhibition also contained drawings based on the measurements made by the French architect Souffiot, who was among the first to visit the site in 1757 and to urge a return to the ideal Greek proportions.

The discovery of Paestum posed a serious challenge to long-established architectural notions based on works from the 1st century B.C., written by the Roman engineer Vitruvius Pollio. Professor Serra’s rediscovery of Paestum forced a less serious rethinking of classical architecture by reminding visitors of how charged with color the ancient buildings were.

The second section of this intensely imaginative show was entitled Views of Paestum. As news of Paestum spread in the 18th century, an entirely new group of visitors were attracted to it. Somewhat like a photographic reporter ante litteram, these painter-travelers were captivated by Paestum, and they sought to capture its beauty. Gradually, engravings of Paestum’s classical image brought an increasing number of visitors on the Grand Tour. Filippo Morghen’s engravings of views, le ve dute of Paestum, inspired others Hackert, Hubert Robert, Cozens, Ducros, Kniep and Lusieri-to render romanticized and dramatic landscapes of this ancient city’s temples.

Among the original watercolors and oils shown at the National Academy of Design exhibition were many contrast ing styles and artistic temperaments. Constantin Hansen, a Danish painter, painted the three temples of Paestum overlooking the sea with a small lad playing his flute on the ruined temple, putting the viewer in a contemplative frame of mind. Even more beautiful were two gouaches, exquisitely executed by Hackert, of The English Garden at the Palace of Caserta and View of the Royal Hunting Grounds of Persano. Seeing both, a viewer can almost breathe the fresh air of the scenes depicted. Cozens, a British contemporary of Turner, created small watercolors that could easily be mistaken for a Doric site located in a remote comer of England. The clouds, the elements, the wetness, all these atmospheric effects Cozens introduced in his typically British paintings.

The Temple of Neptune painted from the inside of this Doric temple by Antonio Joli in 1759, was suffused with the light for which southern Italy is so renowned. Lost in the foreground were visitors, sketching aspects of this rural temple, with easels stretched out before them. Joli’s drawings of 1759 served for yet another series of popular engravings.

Neo-Doric Architecture, the concluding section of this Paestum show in New York City, surveyed the perva sive Paestum influence on late-18th and early-19th-century architecture. The impact of neo-Doric architecture throughout Europe and America was so stunning that the New York City show gave the most space to this section. While some names like Jefferson will stand out for casual viewers, in cluded in this third part were Ledoux, Boullee, Lequeu, Soane, Wilkins, Nash, Gilly, Weinbrenner, Schinkel, Hansen, Bovet, Quarenghi, Valadier, Antolini, Selva, Town, Davis, and Mills. Urban development itself came under the neo-Doric sway. This new order, revived from antiquity, symbolized simplicity and functionalism. Even Czarist Russia adhered to the neo-Doric ideals, as did Scandinavia and Hungary.

Of the three Greek orders in architecture, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, Paestum was completely Doric in spirit, at least in its temples. Paestum’s revival emphasized a sublime force, a species of heroism. Its architectural influence inspired garden pavilions, memorials, festive decorations, celebratory monuments and the “Walhalla.” Highly representative of this neo Doric phase in America were the works of Robert Mills, including his drawings for the Washington monument in Baltimore, where Washington was to appear on chariot. At the other end of the spectrum were Vala di er’ s 19th-century plans for Rome’s immensely popular Piazza del Popolo, also shown here.

Even the modern automobile has not escaped the influence of Paestum. During the Edwardian reign, prior to World War I, Charles Stewart Rolls and Sir Frederick Henry Royce created an automobile—the Rolls-Royce—that has since epitomized perfection on wheels. In all the subsequent changes of body styling, the grill of the Rolls-Royce never changed! It represents the facade of a Greek classical temple, no different from those located at Paestum.