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

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.

In the emperor Hadrian's Pantheon, thousands of tourists gape and gasp every day at the vast circular space, and at a glimpse of sky through the opening in the roof overhead. In Roman churches masses are celebrated (to congregations of no more than a dozen or two except in St. Peter's Basilica) with tourists sauntering at the periphery, guide-books clenched. The museums have been altered since I first saw the city. In postwar Rome they were shabby repositories of art for the uplift of the soul. Today many have taken on the look of gift-boxes, renovated by architects, archaeologists, and curators for the instruction of more architects, archaeologists, and curators.

The Rome that its three million inhabitants live in vibrates with a degree of life that no mere monument can produce. Romagnoli's narrative awoke me to my memories of that Rome, the loud, fragrant streets, the guitarists and accordionists and flower-sellers in the old city, the traffic and the sexuality, the liquid grace of its living fountains, the taste of its robust food, the sardonic humor of its shopkeepers and idlers. His book evokes the Rome that lives, the kernel rather than the husk. He furnishes descriptions of Rome's governance and bureaucracy, its intricate laws (and all their exceptions and violations), and its role as a national capital and as an independent city that houses both the government of Italy and the headquarters of a world religion; taking into account the city's 2,700-year history, he leads a tour of a number of the old districts of Rome and delivers vivid word portraits of numerous living Romans, especially those in the old neighborhoods of Trastevere and the Ghetto, where Jews have lived since Jews and Christians became different from one another.

His Roman friends tell you how the city is cleaned, how its services are paid for, how and where Romans eat (and discuss food, the Romans' favorite subject of conversation). Romagnoli, who knew better, once had the bad luck to get sick in Rome, and includes a cheerful but unencouraging chapter telling why that is a very inconvenient thing to do. He and his friends even tell you what will happen to your remains if you die in Rome; they inquire also into the religious practices of ordinary Romans. And Romagnoli has the wit and ingenuity to look into the understory of Rome's most visible miracles: the water, the fountains, the pine trees of Rome, interviewing the technicians and curators who keep them all clear, clean, and healthy. Here is the voice of the official who supervises the fountains: "The business of the coins could seem like an innocent, symbolic gesture, but it can make physical and chemical problems for the fountain. Some people get really enthusiastic and pitch the coins so hard that they hit the statuary. I once participated in a restoration there [Fontana di Trevi] and got hit on the head by a coin, and I tell you, it really hurt. When the coins hit the marble they nick it and make it more susceptible to decay. Chemically, some of the coins' alloys react with the water, and that too can cause problems. Copper oxidizes and makes ugly stains. We found that some Japanese coins have a high nickel component, which is even more damaging than copper ... especially the ones with a hole in the middle that act like an electric battery, producing acid." The wonder of a book by a truly eloquent and discerning traveler is that it can lend you an additional set of senses and open your eyes and ears to the life around you—can deepen your sense of place, and can companion you as you walk through the streets and smell the air. When you next set out for Rome, take Romagnoli with you.