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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.