You’ve probably heard the story of Maria Montessori’s first school. On the ground floor of a tenement in San Lorenzo, then the worst slum in Rome, she created her first Children’s House. Her children, dwelling in darkness and destitution, entered a new environment with a new form of care. They centered themselves, became superbly literate, earned confidence, and thrived.
Like many Montessorians, when I went to Rome a few years ago, I visited this school. It’s still operating, still in San Lorenzo, and San Lorenzo is still not in great shape. It’s no longer in the state of crushing poverty and squalor described by Montessori, but the graffiti, litter, and urban decay are still a sharp contrast to the splendor of the core of Rome.
Montessori worked in the squalor, but it’s also worth pausing on the fact that she surely experienced the splendor as well. Rome is a cosmopolitan city, brimming over with a visible history of artistic genius and human ingenuity. Amongst its many, many marvels is the Trevi Fountain.
Located in the heart of Rome, it marks the terminal point of one of the original aqueducts that brought drinking water to Rome as early as the 1st century BC. The Aqua Virgo’s workings varied with the long history of Rome, but, at its peak, it brought the city 26 million gallons of pure water on a daily basis. Per capita, and combined with the rest of the aqueduct system, this is not an order of magnitude off from the capacity of the water systems that supply modern cities.
The Trevi Fountain is an Enlightenment construction, a retroactive celebration of that tremendous, longstanding achievement. Its theme is “the taming of the waters”; deities of the sea ride hippocamps above fountainheads, exercising a confident control over the lifegiving abundance of flowing fresh water.
That lifegiving abundance is the deeper theme. The inscription above the fountain reads—
COPIA ET SALUBRITATE
—copiousness and salubrity—abundance and health.
It’s my favorite monument in the world, and I think of it often. And I’ve been returning to it in my thoughts this holiday season, in 2021.
This is now the second consecutive holiday season where we’re grappling with a pandemic. Everyone reading this will have experienced first-hand the struggles undertaken by schools and families to continue to provide the best possible support and care for children during a very tough two years.
Despite that—or because of that—this holiday season, for me, is a time to celebrate the ideals of abundance and health.
Whatever your forms of celebration—be they gifts shared with loved ones, lights to shine in the seasonal darkness, or just a time of quiet reflection and togetherness with family—they are in some way partaking in the human achievement of abundance and health. The capacity to meet the onset of winter with time off and shared joy is not something to be taken for granted. It is a triumph. It is something for which to be grateful and of which to be proud: in human life, there is no respite that isn’t earned. The winter holidays are a light lit in darkness, a warm smile in the cold. They are a taming of the waters.
In the midst of a taxing pandemic, we are still striving for health—and we’re getting there. That journey is enabled and buffered by the buildup of lifetimes of abundance, of wealth, of knowledge, of confidence, of love. The holidays are a chance to frame and experience this journey as a reservoir of emotional abundance. They are a time to give and to receive, and in so doing, to remember and share our ideals in the intimate form of family traditions.
Montessori’s first Casa was a beacon in the night. But it wasn’t lonely. It’s not an accident that it grew at the outskirts of a veritable 2,000-year-old garden of such beacons. It is by basking in the light of what we’ve already built for ourselves that we find strength to build anew.
Happy holidays, copia et salubritate,
Executive Director, Montessorium