And now, after a couple of days, one of the items that has lodged in my mind is this sarcophagus (pictured alongside) in the Etruscan Museum of the lovely Villa Giulia. It is thought to be from the late sixth century BC, so its craftsman was working two and a half millennia ago. It's in terracotta, and two-thirds life size, the Sarcofago degli Sposi. A husband and wife are envisaged (perhaps in their after-life), she with elegant gestures pouring oil onto his hands, he with one arm fondly across her shoulder. Their elongated and stylised faces both look directly at the viewer, with slightly self-conscious smiles, frozen in time like an ancient selfie. They share their comfortable sofa in a scene of casual domestic intimacy. She is probably relating some small anecdote, while he listens, amused but proud of her, and in a minute she will turn her head to him for confirmation of what she has just told you. The work speaks of fondness and trust and equality, the very basis of what we talk about when we talk about love.
I realised that this is a recurring motif. The art of, for example, ancient Egypt is similarly full of such details. In the National Gallery at Cairo there is a small statue of a pharaoh, I think of the Middle Kingdom, maybe a thousand years older again than the Etruscan piece. The King is seated beside his wife (the figures are of equal size) in the stiff formality of representations of that period. But the expressions on the two faces are not stern or even particularly regal. Instead there is the same slightly bemused smile, with which they share their pride in each other. His arm reaches coyly around her waist. The gesture says - aren't we lucky to have found each other.
In 1376 Richard, Earl of Arundel, died; his wife Eleanor predeceased him by four years. They are memorialised in Chichester Cathedral, where they lie side by side, he in his armour while his ungauntleted hand reaches across to hold hers. The monument was made famous by Philip Larkin in An Arundel Tomb. The poem turns upon this simple gesture, which leads to the last line that everyone remembers - what will survive of us is love. But in the power of this line, it is forgotten that this climax is almost a repudiation of what has gone before, seven verses of the poet's cynicism about love and memory; the figures, he says, are a lie, the sculptor's grace to the couple's supine stationary voyage, the stone fidelity they hardly meant. Larkin admitted elsewhere that he had found the the memorial affecting: yet by the time the poem was complete the famous last line was qualified as an almost instinct, almost true; he thinks his initial feeling was sentimental, and so he diminished it before it was even delivered.
Larkin was notoriously guarded, unlucky or unhappy in his various conflicted affairs. He resisted marriage. But he could not have known Richard or Eleanor. It is only his assumption that the couple's tenderness is a lie, or that the stone fidelity was hardly meant. Many of us, in our different ways, have been more fortunate, and that is why the ideals in these memorials can speak to us across the centuries.