Politics & Prose June 2002

A Living, Breathing Eternal City

A Living, Breathing Eternal City

A new book on Rome will help travelers there experience the city that Romans know
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A Thousand Bells at Noon

A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman's Guide to the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City
by G. Franco Romagnoli
Steerforth Press
255 pages, $25

I've visited Rome about once every ten years, each time with fascination and love; but the Eternal City keeps changing before my very eyes. I remember it from the summer of 1949 as a vast, dusty, empty enclave, peopled by shabby war-worn buildings and studded with crumbling monuments. My friend and I could find no affordable hotel but a flea bag on the Corso; and as the night wore on it became apparent from the sounds along the corridor that the other guests were enjoying the house services a lot more than sleep. In 1960 my first wife and I, on a delayed honeymoon, were amazed by the music of Easter bells and by the radiance of the city's towers in the spring light. In 1971-2 we spent a whole year living there, in a terraced apartment happily located just behind the Piazza Navona, at a time when even more Americans than usual were flocking to the city, attracted by a powerful dollar. We walked our children, aged eleven and eight, to a school bus that transported them to an American school on the outskirts, and I worked every day on a book, while my wife educated herself in architectural history, armed with copies of Georgina Masson's exemplary Companion Guide to Rome and Eleanor Clark's classic Rome and a Villa. We came to feel we knew every American in town, and a fair number of others, including music students, wine appreciators, a papal count and countess, assorted Irish poets, and the curator of the house in Piazza di Spagna where John Keats had died. Every day we could eat cheaply in a trattoria; every night I could stroll to a nearby theatre to see movies in a dozen languages for 50 cents, or hear a chamber-music concert for a dollar or two. Our children played among the fountains, snacked on gelati, and assembled an impressive collection of fascist-propaganda leaflets whenever a demonstration was staged in the Piazza Navona, preferred turf of the Right.

As I visited Rome again in 1983, and again in 1999, the city came closer to fulfilling its glory as a world capital. The traffic thickened, the statues required preservationist attention, the number of tourists (and cameras) increased and the prices rose. Funds from around the world were solicited to keep the imperial arches from dissolving in the fuming hydrocarbons breathed out by Vespas and Fiats. Tour guides began to wave little nationalistic pennants to keep the Swedes from getting mixed up with the Belgians; and as the twentieth century drew to a close the Church and the City alike bent every effort to spruce up for a vast millennial jubilee.

By the time I made my sixth pilgrimage to Rome, in May 2002, nearly all the jubilee results were in. Every monument from St. Peter's Basilica to the Baths of Diocletian had been scoured and primped. The jubilant pilgrims had gone home. The economic miracles of the 1990s had transformed Rome from the gritty reality of Rossellini's great 1945 film, Open City, into a shining kingdom, half ecclesiastical, half worldly, like Oz. A few of the spiffy new features (e.g. a huge musical auditorium, designed by Renzo Piano, promised repeatedly since Mussolini's time, or a millennial church—another church in Rome?—planned by the American architect Richard Meier) had fallen prey to the optimism of contractors and builders and were still struggling to catch up, two years late, with everyone's ambitions.

This was a city rather harder to look at and understand, faster and more glittery, than the Romes I had known. It was also different from those earlier Romes described in the writings of Stendhal, Montaigne, Augustus Hare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Luigi Barzini, and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. Fortunately, just before I left home I had been alerted to a brand-new book by an old friend, G. Franco Romagnoli, entitled A Thousand Bells at Noon: a Roman's Guide to the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City. I had known Franco for years in Boston, not only as a cookbook author, television actor, and restaurateur (with his first wife, the late Margaret Romagnoli), but also as a photographer and cinematographer. In addition to having the luck to be born in Rome, he had an early training there as an engineer. This distinguishes him in nearly every respect from all the classic authors who had opined on the Eternal City. Written in highly entertaining English but with a faint Italian accent, A Thousand Bells explains not only why Rome feels different from other cities, but (here the engineer's training came in) how it works—when it does. On this visit, thanks to the book, I was experiencing the Rome Romans know.

This ancient and powerful city has left a thousand husks behind it, husks out of which the kernel has long since been eaten. Think of all those ruined forums, temples, marketplaces. Take, for example, the Domus Aurea. Here is a vast underground ruin built by the Emperor Nero in the first century A. D., and buried near the Colosseum under the baths of Trajan for almost nineteen centuries Five hundred years ago people began to find traces of its existence, and looters began to burrow in and steal urns, paintings, and statuary. Renaissance painters crept into the underground vaults and came away with refreshed visual ideas. Not until relatively lately did a small army of trained archaeologists come into service to excavate and unearth Nero's hundreds of buried rooms, vast spaces with fifty feet between floor and ceiling. Guided tours today take you through many of the chilly cavernous spaces, while warmly muffled technicians on scaffolds brush, scrape, and rinse the still-emerging paintings and mosaics of imperial Rome from the crevices.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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