Return to Rome

The hardest city to know, and probably also the hardest to know again after a lapse of years, Rome in the last two and a half decades might seem to have had the single aim of making its lovers “all untrue.” It takes a while to remember, or care if you do remember, that that is in character; it would never have been called eternal otherwise.

The big generic changes that hit you are those shared with all the technological world, only cities and countries have their own ways of adjusting or failing to; and there are special circumstances. Venice empties; Rome bulges. The key words for the differences since 1950 are automobile, air travel, TV, overpopulation, pollution, and runaway capitalism; throw in some thirty-six governments since World War II and a burst of national prosperity from the early Fifties for some twenty years, putting many millions of native-owned cars on the streets and roads around, and you have a degree of speed, noise, chicanery, and confusion that can make one nostalgic for an old-time sack or barbarian invasion.

This is a sack from within. From without too, of course. Tourist buses stream in endlessly over or under the Alps, elephants unopposed; outlying churches of great age shudder under air traffic bringing and taking mainly tourists all day every day. These transients, legitimately or not, to be served or preyed upon, are the big industry; Rome, with its furious rise in population from the poor South, still has no other basic industries except government and, most scandalously in late years, building. To house all those people of whom one in ten may have a useful job. Most must scrounge or die. There is a proliferation of middlemen and purse-snatchers; the beggars, about the same in numbers, are now almost all women with doped children. Years ago such children were often awake. Drugs are of course easier to get than ever before, and that a number of young Americans have been involved in the trade there is by now an old story, but stories get old very fast these days; that was far from a common sight or topic in 1950.

Another trade sometimes with links to drugs, making and selling knick-knacks and lousy art and junk jewelry, has changed the character of Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps except in the very middle of the night, and of Trastevere at all hours. Not that these young foreigners, of dropout cut, nothing like the indigenous street vendors, are all as bad by any means as most of their wares; of course not; they couldn’t be. The only public nuisance most of them seem to commit is to make it all look rather monotonous and dreary—one mood that never used to belong in Rome.

The actual, not only psychological, air is murky too, from car exhausts; on many days you can’t see Monte Cavo from the Janiculum. The buildings in the center are pitifully dirty from the same cause, most of the public parks unkempt from a different one; and as elsewhere in the world, crime, no longer mainly of passion, and mental illness are way up. Bank robberies and suicides have become common events, not to mention the new kinds of political violence, bombings and kidnapings, around the country, on which old-time Sicilian banditry has some bearing but TV has more.

An overcrowded bus in Rome is still more fun than most places but not often the party it used to be; part of the populace has become too genteel for that, from affluence, and many people are on edge, even though the natives have some mysterious genius for getting across a street alive and can even carry on a conversation in the process. True, they quite often get hit, adults and children, but they know the language, based on the screaming brake, and at the wheels of their own cars will be as speed-crazy as the rest. For a great many of these drivers a good bicycle would have been a luxury in 1950. Galloping inflation makes for nerve strain too; every purchase is a load of worry, even more than in most other countries. Oddly enough, the almost daily political parades and demonstrations, PCI (communists) or MSI, are at about the same pitch as in 1948, only far more effective in creating traffic jams.

Can Rome stand it, withstand it? survive in any recognizable way such a combination of forces?—of which rapacity by industrialists, tolerated when not encouraged by government, is far from the least.

Absurd questions. Look at what it has withstood before, over what length of time. Yes, but it was always changing, after each push and crisis a different Rome emerged, often with little respect for any previous one. It was the idea of Rome that survived everything, so the ticklish point right now must be the place and power of the idea. Of the idea of Rome in particular; of ideas in general. First Empire, then Church held the particular idea together for its considerable number of centuries, and although the latter can still put on a splendid show and will probably do so for at least a few more Holy Years and twenty-five times that many Easters, it is scarcely the spiritual force or world drawing-card it was as late as 1950.

Yet the pull of Rome persists, though weakened, for those who live there—Romans rich or poor, immigrants from elsewhere in Italy, the various large foreign colonies—and even for a rare spirit now and then among the tourists, who are now most conspicuously from Germany and Japan. Leaving out grounds of special interest, religious, scholarly, commercial, there can only be three causes: people, time, and what the Romantic poets called Beauty. They were referring to something very different from what we see now, but never mind, the word still applies, at enough spots and moments to make one forget the weariness, the fever, and the fret. And even forget that nearly everything one cares about is in a fairly small area, bounded more or less by the Aurelian walls, set no longer in romantic if on one side malarial countryside, but in a howling wilderness of new apartment complexes, dotted here and there with oases for the very rich.

That wilderness of instant slums, pushing out farther every day like some malign vegetation disguised in steel and stucco, would have broken Saint Jerome’s spirit in a night. Instant fortunes have been and are being made on them, of which the Vatican has reportedly raked in a good share, and they have made the word abusivo—illegal, against building regulations—one of the commonest in the language and edilizia, for the building industry, about the dirtiest. The section called Magliana, all fields until the middle Sixties, has been much written about, partly because among other abuses the buildings, housing upward of 40,000 people, are below the level of the Tiber and subject to floods, also because the Communist party has been particularly active in protests there; but Magliana seems to be no worse than others in matters of water, electricity, sewage, and shoddy engineering.

There are no fountains in this huge new Rome; no piazzas; few or no trees; minimal spaces between buildings; no benches for the old, or playgrounds for the young. In fairness to the builders or perhaps the municipal authorities, it seems that on one open strip in Magliana not used for the necessary open-air market an effort was made to do some planting, which was soon wrecked by some of the cattivi among the tenants themselves. How lucky if that were the worst; houses built in contempt for human life have got to be crime-breeders, working in favor of the bad ones who are always with us but who in vecchia Roma have never quite ruled the roost. Certain charms still operate there against evil; in those quarters, the rowdy, cheerful bluster is much as it was. Nowadays probably few of “the people”—however defined—could recite a sonnet or even a line by the great nineteenth-century poet G.G. Belli, who made himself their voice. But over and over you can be amazed, far more than a quarter-century ago because of the new kinds of dread in the world, by the pleasantness of children’s group games in a piazza at nightfall, and the tonic to the heart of those bells, that laughter.

That will be in a place closed to traffic or not conducive to much in the evening. The traffic prohibitions, such as they are, seem designed more as a boon to well-off shoppers, tourist or other, than for the well-being of the people. There are a few such streets, of fancy little shops, near the Piazza di Spagna, and very charming they are with their potted shrubberies, one even with what looks like several blocks’ worth of red carpet though it must really be plastic or something. One wishes the public gardens came in for as much consideration.

There have been some more serious measures of protection. When you think of the billboards that disfigure all the main highways of Italy you wouldn’t suppose there was any restraint on commercialism in the country at all, but there is some. The edilizia people, the developers, are for instance not putting up housing projects across the Forum and Palatine as they no doubt would if permitted. The ruins after all are essential to the idea of Rome, and that is even bigger business. Such places are not only preserved but elaborated; as at Hadrian’s Villa, excavations continue, little signs all over tell you roughly what’s what: Triclinium, House of Livia, etc.

The Rome subway, crazy project born of desperation, i.e., near-total congestion, has two spurs running; work on the rest, with attendant mess in Piazza Barberini and Piazza Esedra—both with dry fountains, the water pipes having been cut—is one of the big jokes around town, in the vein of Belli’s description of eternity: che dura sempre e nun finisce mai. The trouble is respect for ruins. When a new one is struck, which is all the time, they say the foremen try to hide it or get rid of it quickly, before the archaeological authorities can be told, but there are leaks, and again and again the subway defers to history. It is a battle between present and past, and what the nature of either is at this juncture the dry Triton and dolphin may know as well as anyone.

Consider the above-mentioned Triton, by Bernini, and Michelangelo’s Moses. In the early postwar years, Piazza Barberini was about as ugly with billboards, the most vulgar hotel edifice in town, and other money-motivated blight as it is now, yet it was still possible to think the Triton had a place and function there. It was a fragment of the long grace of memory, a small point of rest in the turmoil, for the soul’s health. No longer. The insult and brutality of its surroundings have killed it at last; perhaps just that many more cars, that much more dirt and noise; and perhaps the billboards, mostly movie ads, have really gotten twice as big—they must have, there couldn’t be any others that big in the world. There is a degree of mistreatment that art, like human flesh and spirit, can’t bear, and that degree has been passed here. The Triton, the whole fountain, should be moved at once to a decent place, but will not be because an important street and bus stop are named for it.

Moses is half dead too, from a different process. You used to approach it in quietness and it came on like thunder. For one thing, S. Pietro in Vincoli is curiously hard to find and get to. Now from the buses outside you’d think it was a ball game. The church steps and portico are so thick with vendors, of all the usual junk plus little Moseses, you can hardly get through, and at the railing in front of the cause of all this the crowds are four or five deep all year round, more at Easter, in a cacophony of guides. A nice game is letting your mind fool around with the various languages, it makes a kind of scrabble. You can’t do it any more in the Sistine Chapel, new regulation, the acoustics are so terrible nobody was seeing the ceiling.

If anybody is seeing Moses it’s a miracle. The whole uproar is for that one marble figure. Sometimes the guides go on a bit about the crypt, waiting for space at the railing or to give an impression of money’s worth to their weary charges, but the associations of the place are not visible, at least fifty churches in Rome are more beautiful or interesting. Yet it is on all the tours, five-day, three-day, maybe even one-day. The effect is of red ants on a martyr. You remember that Moses as “mighty” and very large, and can hardly believe it’s the same one, it looks so small and impotent.

Rome is strained, but not damned or utterly bereft by a long shot. You come on sudden brief mystifying quiet on a back street, where vines can breathe; on a profile you never noticed before or had forgotten, of one umbrella pine and two little double-decker bell towers seen across the Forum; on courtyards all a tumble of greenery and haphazard patchwork of steps, doorways, everything, hiding off the Via Margutta—mainly artists’ quarters as before, and yes, “picturesque,” as if we could afford to despise that; even on a public park kept by some special interest remarkably beautiful, as against the general neglect. One of those is the Villa Celimontana, apparently because the Italian Geographic Society has its headquarters there and does something about it. Lovely surprise; place of trees as fine as in any eighteenth-century engraving, and birds actually singing, even long views here and there through to a skyline strangely undisfigured; as strangely, it is a place cut off from noise, yet open to everybody and well frequented, with no sign of any damage done or a will to do any.

Aside from nightingales, a special case, songbirds never used to seem all that thrilling in the city, in the days when you could hear the fountains and hear yourself think; and perhaps there weren’t that many before, more than in most of the Italian countryside, where they were shot or trapped for food; the disappearance of so much open land nearby may have driven them into the green spaces left in the city, where they are safe and can multiply. One of the sweeter ironies of the contemporary scene. A big factor for pleasure on the Palatine too, where again you are surprised to find the long view, over the Tiber and the Janiculum, not yet ruined by giant boxes, the Hotel Hilton on Monte Mario being out of sight. The Palatine is Rome at one of its many bests, in both shady walks and sun-struck palace skeletons, and it is striking how often Italians strolling there will be saying, “Bello! Bello!“—a pleasant thing to hear, and they are right.

The word would be in order still even for Piazza del Popolo and Trinità dei Monti, in spite of their hell-bent traffic, but there is apt to be letdown around the corner. You have to brace yourself. The Oppio park, Nero’s Golden House notwithstanding, is dreary with weeds, rubbish, and disrepair, and people’s faces reflect the fact. Via Veneto, American Embassy notwithstanding, has stopped trying to look anything but tacky. The many acres of princely villa grounds within the city limits remain locked, unavailable to a public that more and more desperately needs them, or else become objects of cynical and exorbitant profiteering, as in current proceedings between the Torlonia family and the municipality over the Villa Albani: the big one out on the Via Nomentana, not the smaller estate by the same name, where the fine Winckelmann collection is still visible only by special permit, and the pavilion and grounds continue to serve when at all for private patrician amusements.

Those land transactions, like others in different domains, get the connivance or better of a series of governments that, at least according to general gossip, make De Gaspari’s of the postwar years look like a model of public service and probity; and in fact he was not bad, just hung up on the Vatican. Failure to take flood control measures that would have spared the devastation of Florence and Venice by the floods of 1966 must have been a fault shared by several generations.

Baroque architecture seems to suffer unduly at the moment; the wear and tear, the physical darkening from grime seem harder on it than on other styles; perhaps its curves and curlicues, its particular grace and fling of fantasy require less threatening surroundings. By the same token, the fourth through ninth centuries are more in the foreground and appear greater than they looked before. The mosaics of those “dark” centuries are pouring with light these days and are, one is tempted to say “suddenly,” all over the place.

Some mosaics are eyes in a jungle, easy to miss, in Renaissance or baroque settings although usually on their pristine sites, but many are in the churches least transformed, and the same quirk of vision, if it is that, applies to the architecture. People commonly did go the long way around to bare medieval forms in Rome, no matter how receptive they might be to them somewhere else; the flamboyant, to use the word untechnically, was so much the main modern show there, it tended to make plainer geometry look dull. By and large that wonderful other Rome—with few exceptions, of church interiors only, and only those not basically renovated after the twelfth or thirteenth centuries—was for the older and wiser, the returning traveler or longtime inhabitant. That could be the whole story here. Or it could be that current malaise tips the scales that way, toward the structurally serene, the lack of hyperbole.

A good many such interiors were ruined in the nineteenth century, notably under Pius IX, if they hadn’t been before, e.g., S. Cecilia in Trastevere, where however the great display of earliest Christian times underneath has been much more fully exposed in recent years, and where the Cavallini frescoes can now be seen by the public two mornings a week for one hour. One of the finest early churches was locked for some years, for work that turns out to be well worth waiting for. That is S. Costanza, named for the sister of Saint Agnes whose church is in the same compound—off the main tourist map and altogether one of the pleasantest spots in the city.

A set of boccie courts, roofed but open-air, nestles under Sister Agnes’s wing; the saint’s powers haven’t extended to permitting any women to play, but then like all lady saints of her era she was of high birth and boccie, more than some other national versions of bowling, is a plebeian game. The men sound cheerful and so do the boys in an adjacent playground, part of some Catholic institution; vegetation thick and informal, with many blossoms. S. Costanza small and circular, originally a mausoleum, made into a church in the thirteenth century, stripped in the 1960s of latter-day accretions and thus turned back into one of the most exquisite buildings in Rome. Usually empty. Fourth-century wall mosaics unique among surviving Paleo-Christian works in that medium for their pagan birds, flowers, vineyard scenes, and general gaiety, and for their white ground.

Another church that is newly surprising is S. Maria in Domnica, by the entrance to the Celimontana garden and the little boat fountain of uncertain provenance called the Navicella. Involving, like so many architectural treasures, the name of Pope Pasquale I (early to middle ninth century). Like S. Agnese, it has three naves divided by ancient columns, in marvelous harmony of weight, line, proportion. Some Renaissance touches, portico, ceiling, rather good than bad—unlike the nineteenth-century overhaulings, they leave the medieval structure and its materials paramount, and give a cheerful sense of continuing life in the place, as against the reverence that kills. S. Clemente and S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura are more or less as they were, the first with more digging done in its fascinating subsoil, the latter with its superb job of post-World War II restoration more complete. The difference is in what one brings to them.

As with all Rome, it will seem at times that one has to bring too much, and take too much of a beating, to arrive at any rapport with anything. You get used to it—at a price, but still; you accommodate; you learn new psychological tricks. Nothing has been literally taken away, after all, as by Napoleon, or smashed, as so many times in the past. For the more intelligent among the very young, speaking of foreigners, no problem; they were raised in racket and never knew the city before. It is all wonderful—“Bello! Bello!“—and about the heart of the matter, if you can hang around long enough to get to it, they are right.