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After 2,000 years, 'carpe diem' still resonates in hometown of Horace

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VENOSA, Italy - Horace, the great Latin poet of ancient Rome, was confident of his literary legacy: "I have achieved a monument more lasting than bronze, and loftier than the pyramids of kings," he wrote in one of his celebrated odes.

His physical monument here is an impressive tribute — maybe a bit too impressive.

Erected in his birthplace of Venosa in 1898, the larger-than-life-size bronze depicts a tall, perfectly proportioned, toga-clad figure — despite the fact that Horace described himself as being short and stout.

On a recent day the statue was surrounded only by parked cars, not Horace admirers, in the centre of Horace Square (in Italian, Piazza Orazio Flacco), essentially a parking lot in Venosa's compact medieval quarter.

Students occasionally show up, take group pictures in front of the statue, and leave soon afterward, said Lina Grieco, 51, who works in a tobacco shop on the square.

"If there were some trees and benches in the piazza, people might want to stay a while," Grieco said wistfully.

Venosa, a hilltop city of 12,000 inhabitants in Italy's southern Basilicata region, makes much of its hometown hero, author of the enduring catchphrase "carpe diem" (or "seize the day"), who has been admired, imitated and much translated through the ages.

A road sign on the outskirts proclaims it "the city of Horace," and excerpts from his works — in Latin and Italian — are displayed on wall panels that are lit up after dark in the old quarter.

A hotel and a "liceo classico" high school, where teenagers study Latin and Greek, are named after him. There's also, perhaps inevitably, a Carpe Diem wine shop — which is less kitschy than it sounds, considering that Horace's lyrics often alluded to the pleasures of "smooth wine."

A short walk from the statue, past stately palazzi and along narrow streets where wrought-iron balconies are filled with overhanging red flowers, there is another Horace monument whose connection to the poet is, again, more imaginary that real.

Maria Minutiello, a guide at what a sign calls the "Casa di Orazio," or Horace's House, was quick to correct any misunderstanding.

"This is not really his house," said Minutiello, 47, before pointing out Roman-era brickwork and the recent addition of a wooden roof.

Over the centuries, Venosa's residents mistakenly believed that the simple circular structure, roughly 10 metres in diameter, had been Horace's home, Minutiello said. It was only about 40 years ago when experts determined that the building was in fact part of a private bath complex built in the first century AD.

Horace lived from 65 BC to 8 BC — hence, no possible connection.

But what about that misleading sign?

"For people in Venosa, it's not important if this is his house or not his house," she replied. "For 2,000 years we have always thought that this was Horace's house and now we need time to change this idea, I think."

The city was once an important Roman colony of more than 50,000 citizens, but all of its structures from that period — save the "Casa di Orazio" — were demolished, their stone blocks reused for other building projects during the Middle Ages. Some of those blocks can be seen embedded in walls in the old town, their fragmentary Latin inscriptions jumping out like mysteries from a distant past.

Compared with Venosa's other attractions — there are ancient Jewish catacombs, an archeological park, a partially constructed 12th-century Norman church and a 15th-century castle housing a museum of Roman and pre-Roman antiquities — the casa is a minor tourism draw, said Minutiello. It attracts students of Horace, past and present, who want to explore the city's links, however intangible or fanciful, with its most famous citizen, she indicated.

Yet in many Italian schools, little emphasis is placed on the country's Latin literary heritage. Indeed, it's possible to go through high school without reading a single word of Horace — even in Venosa.

That's a pity, said Virginia Rescigno, a 60-year-old English teacher at the liceo classico and firm believer in the value of Latin education.

"Latin teaches you a lot of things," said Rescigno. "It is rather difficult, of course, but you learn a lot about the civilization of the past and some values that are disappearing nowadays."

The school organizes an annual competition called Certamen Horatianum that draws about 200 students to Venosa from around the world to translate Horace from Latin. This year's 27th edition in May included cash prizes and lectures open to the public.

Even if many people in Venosa haven't read Horace, they're proud of him nonetheless, said Rescigno.

Asked whether he's still relevant in the 21st century AD, several residents in the old quarter responded with conviction: carpe diem reflects their way of life — not obsessing about work (like northern Italians, one man said) or what will come tomorrow; instead, taking time for simple pleasures today.

But Rescigno said the motto is commonly misunderstood.

"Carpe diem means to enjoy every moment of our lives, to enjoy life to its fullest. It does not mean to live as if there would be no future. I think there is a difference between these two ideas."

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