In a bleak midwinter almost twenty years ago I decided that I should spend the coming summer in Rome. I had an illusion of familiarity with the City based on films and books -- the betoga-ed ancients, the Borgias with their daggers and their poison cups, the Popes riding herd on their unruly artists and scientists, Mussolini on his balcony, the earthy, impoverished denizens of post-war Italian Realism and the beautiful, distracted creatures in Fellini’s films, all swarming together in the picture I carried in my mind of the Eternal City -- though I had never actually been there.
So I went to the books. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote, “The state of affairs in Rome beggars description. You can find there a buying and selling, a bartering and bargaining, a lying and trickery, robbery and stealing, pomp, procuration, knavery and all sorts of stratagems to bring God into contempt, until it would be impossible for the Antichrist to govern more wickedly”. Closer to our own time and sensibilities, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that he remembered Rome “chiefly as the place where Zelda and I had an appalling squabble.” Whichever Rome I found would be just fine with me.
I probably ought say at this point that -- as with other of my posts -- I am extracting material from the journal I kept during my trip. But unlike my earlier trips, this one had no well-considered purpose. I was not going to attend a revolution or see a rain forest or look for a tomb or to visit numinous places or search out universal idioms in pre-contact art. I was not even going consciously to self-romanticize, though of course I would find that quite impossible to avoid.
When I had been in Oaxaca earlier that year and mentioned to the Condessa that I might go to Rome she said that she would arrange for me to meet a famous film director whose movies I had admired, but as I was anything but a film buff I could not imagine what I would say to him, other than perhaps reveal that I had confused some of his work with that of one of his famous competitors and that it would be a waste of both our times for me to bother him, so I didn’t follow up on her kind offer. (And I had by this time come to realize that the Condessa, a strong-willed woman, also had a tendency to leave a trail of burning bridges behind her, so I could not be completely confident in what sort of reception her introduction might bring me.)
And so I arrived in the Eternal City without a traveling companion to talk sense to me, with no Roman interlocutor or cicerone to explain what I was seeing, and what I would likely find there would be no more than might be expected of a middle aged lawyer who had read spottily, if enthusiastically, in classics and history and religion, adrift and on his own in what he believes to be the most interesting city in the world, even if he sometimes doesn’t like what he finds there. The result is not unlike that of a medieval pilgrim visiting a distant holy place, who is both inspired and sometimes appalled by what he encounters in the holy city that he has heard of all his life.
My overnight flight from New York brought me bright, fresh and slightly disoriented into Rome’s Fiumicino airport, but I followed the guidebook directions and took a train to Ostiense, then the underground to Cavour and walked two blocks to my hotel, where I went to sleep for a day and a half. My room at the hotel was cell-like, and the bathroom so narrow that I had to enter sideways, but it had a pleasant generic view of Rome and a breeze through an open window. At one point I heard through the haze of sleep a crowd cheering, and imagined that it was the North Italy Fresco Championship, with two muralisti pittore faced off over a vast expanse of wet plaster, crowds cheering as the Sienese favorite lays out great swaths of color, with muscular gods and lusty goddesses, rugged shepherds and compliant shepherdesses. Of course, it was probably only a soccer game.
Eventually I wandered out into the hot Italian afternoon. A sign across the street from the hotel informed me that this was a zone of armed vigilance. I had no idea what that meant, but I chose to find it reassuring.
On my walk I saw my first Roman cat, large and orange, asleep on a ledge. The Roman cats are an ancient race, having come from Egypt, probably following the mice in the earliest grain shipments. They have had in the City a history parallel to the caesars and popes which I am confident is just as interesting, though perhaps without the art and literature and wars. They are all, I am sure, Borgias at heart, with a stiletto concealed beneath their fur doublet. I have read that there are perhaps 300,000 free-range cats at large in the city, living in the ruins and fed by doting “cat ladies”. It has been argued that the medieval practice of burning cats as familiars of witches may have allowed vermin to multiply and increased the severity of the plague. If this is true, there would seem a certain justice to it.
While Rome, like most cities, has a modern urban sprawl, the old city is small and compact, a jumble of buildings close together on short streets going in all directions, warrens of little lanes nested between thoroughfares. There is no point in describing the city, as people have been doing so for twenty seven hundred years and it would probably be impossible for me to say anything new about it. Another reason is that it turned out to be surprising easy to be negative, for what has been touted as the glory of Rome can equally be criticized as vulgarity, as the Dallas of Italy. In other parts of the country they claim that the Roman insignia SPQR stands for Sono Porci Questio Romani -- “what pigs those Romans are”.
Another reason for not writing about the modern city -- and I might as well introduce the idea now as it will make more sense of what follows -- is that I really didn’t come here to see Rome as it was today. I was time-traveling again, looking for the place that I had read about in old books. The modern Italians with their Vespas and cell phones were just so much overburden, to be ignored as I went looking the fabulous city of my imagination.
(to be continued . . .)