Before leaving for Rome I packed, re-packed, cleaned, re-cleaned, wrote seven alternative itineraries, stayed awake until dawn, at which point I sprang out of bed, burst into tears and asked John get me an espresso while I re-packed again.
It’s an intimidating prospect, appreciating such a loaded spectacle. How can anyone prepare to see it properly? It’s a temple containing more temples, an ancient communal brain, a twilight mirage, a smoking crater full of molten gold, a catacomb where the dead seem ready to wake any moment, an enormity crushed to its essential mass like a neutron star, a book as full of footnotes. The name ‘Rome’ reverberates like the harmonics of its church bells—Augustus, Ovid, St. Peter, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Fellini, Loren…names and images so familiar and at the same time remote in their mysterious perfection.
Our hotel is near the central train station and there is everything you’d expect to find in a tourist-heavy area: touts, expensive bad restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, beggars, police cars, dazed tourists, glamorous transvestites, large groups of students in a holiday mood. But the city is not in the least cowed by this crush. The buildings are so big, and there are so many of them that no tourist crowd can dwarf them. One block away is Santa Maria Maggiore, whose bulk and bells seem to fill the sky with reassuring serenity.
When we first arrived, I was primed to see everything as art, and the city resembled a baroque fresco—the celestial blue sky, the ornate clouds, bright-green ring-necked parrots flitting in palm trees, even the furry black mould in the metro looked like ornamentation. African girls lay sleeping like nymphs in the shade of Italian pines, young lovers stood entwined like Eros and Psyche, fruit in street-stalls shone as waxily as a Reubens still-life.
Christina, our guide at the Villa Borghese gallery, told us that in Caravaggio’s paintings, light always suggests the presence of God. The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, for example, has the saint bathed in light at the moment the angel comes calling. In The Taking of Christ, the Roman soldiers are almost enveloped in darkness—their armor is black, their faces clouded in shadow, but Christ’s face is bright, lighting Judas’ face as if by a reflection. The idea stayed with me on an evening walk so that trivial details, in my Roman delirium, acquired significance. A small white feather fell at my feet, a young man exhaled vapour so his head became a silhouette in a halo by the evening sun, a baby gave a silent scream of delight as her grandfather placed her in a sunny spot on a palace lawn. Even allowing for the inevitable ‘honeymoon stage’ of touring a new city, Rome seemed to possess some intangible magic. This is something about the city that is well captured in the film La Grande Bellezza .
I keep looking for signs of the ‘real Rome’—what’s it like to actually live here? Searching in vain for a new camera battery, I ended up in a tiny electronics shop and chatted with charming woman about ninety years old. As her son went to check in the back, she handed me a fan explaining it was her ‘air conditioner’ and sympathized with my sore feet, saying “Roma is all—” she finished the sentence with her hands, motioning the sharp ascents and descents of its hills. She remembered when everyone printed out their photos—she doesn’t like to remember it now. I wondered at her composure and kindness in putting a stranger at ease in a foreign language and yet at the same time maintaining utter impersonality. There was something regal about her.
Groups of local men gather at bars and on corners grasping each other’s elbows, leaning in close—murmuring conspiracies. At dinner an elderly waiter in a black vest took notes with a shaking hand. Carabinieri on scooters whistled at traffic to make way for sleek black cars containing men only half-veiled by tinted windows–you could glimpse the tailored elegance of their cuffs, the wafer-thin cellphones, the breath of Power.
“Pietà,” Rafaella (our guide at St. Peter’s Basilica) explains, “is neither pity nor mercy but the feeling between a parent and a child, which involves mutual love and respect.” It is a quality you see not only in Michaelangelo’s masterpiece but also in the father who spontaneously kisses his son’s cheek on the escalator, the mother supervising her daughters as they bike with high seriousness through the grounds of the Borghese villa.
The guards at St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Sistine Chapel have a Cerberus-like pride in their charge that, too, seems characteristic of those who were born here or who have chosen to make it home. The guard in the chapel—a cattle corral, standing room only—regularly boomed out ‘SILENZIO…SILENCE’ with solemn conviction, a voice that might belong to Dis as he rebukes the ranks of the damned. Curiously, though, this works on everyone but the locals. An Italian hippie next to me blithely chatted away on her cellphone. Two matrons behind me discussed what they would make for lunch. With God himself looking down!! (But rules are for tourists, not us!)
After a three-hour tour through the Vatican museums and another hour’s walk, John and I were so tired that we wanted nothing but sleep. The German teenagers inhabiting the rest of the third floor of Hotel Acropoli had other ideas, however, and emitted the strangest noises—monkey-like squawks, incessant door knocking, guffaws, shouting, choral renditions of the Star Wars theme, bursts of rap. This went on until midnight.
Aside from being a genius, John has a set of lungs worthy of Cicero (that’s one thing it pays to remember—those Roman orators were performers—breath control, projection, musicality, stamina…). In a voice that seemed to come from the bowels of the Earth, shaking the walls, massaging the organs, he boomed ‘QUIET!’ The effect was immediate. Everything ceased, all sound except for something that sounded like a brief, terrified scrambling for cover. Nothing. Beautiful, Michaelangelo-worthy silenzio.