The Watcher: Rome

Rome, December 1955

Florence is a Renaissance city, a misura d’uomo, of human dimension. But Italy is more than Florence and that is what I wanted to discover now.

Easier said than done. Rome was so much larger than I thought – so very large, even compared to New York. Strange, the smaller a city, the easier to find a place to stay. I walked from one pensione to another, and saw rooms and rooms, small pitiful rooms that no one loved, with hard stone floors and narrow beds and water-stained walls. Whether it was a furtive looking hotel or a private pensione, it seemed that the landlady, straight from a Victorian novel, was inevitably dressed in a questionable looking dressing gown and that her hair was still uncombed even though the clock had already struck noon or even four in the afternoon. I settled on a room where there was only one flight of stairs. In the courtyard, there was a moss-grown fountain and splashing water. How romantic! Yes, perhaps in July or August, but certainly not in December, and I woke up shivering under the blankets, the sound of the water making me feel even colder. In the afternoon, the poor tan walls shook as someone up above practiced dancing and the feeble electric light never quite managed to reach the book I was trying to read. It was much too cold to do anything but crawl into bed, for the sun seemed a stranger here where nothing but the cold air seeped through the walls from the courtyard.

So if I wanted some sun, I’d better get used to climbing steps. Even 116 steps, but once at the top, I was rewarded by a large room with a dark purposeful desk and the usual wardrobe. It was even near Piazza di Spagna, right in the heart of the city. Undaunted, a little stove in a corner sent its arm of stovepipe halfway round the walls. Sun. A balcony. Plants on the roof across the street. 

The signed pictures in the cold narrow hallway were of stage stars of the twenties for whom Signora Ada, as I was to call her, had made clothes. The good dishes with their floral patterns and gilt sat unused in the heavy carved buffet. Of course, there was a bathroom, equally cold, but if I wanted a bath I had to give 10 hours advance warning so that the water could be heated. I couldn’t help but think of New York, where one took a hot shower every day to wash the grime of the city away.

There were birds in the kitchen, and a dog named Eros. He was a love child, Signora Ada explained, therefore Eros. Her rather shapeless motherly figure seemed to be permanently enveloped in a heavy maroon sweater and a blue shawl. I wondered if she had more than one interchangeable outfit of this sort. With her strong features, she resembled a Roman matron, such as I had seen in the Museo Nazionale. But she was not from Rome, she pointed out. “The Romans have no heart, and my children are Roman. They have forgotten their mother,” she added bitterly. Yet when I read her from a letter that il Dottore had written describing Rome as an old procuress living on past splendors, she immediately switched to the defensive and decided she had to show me that Rome was not really so bad.

Ada Roma

From my room I occasionally heard the radio, and the voice of the Signora as she chided her help. I hoped they knew enough not to pay much attention to her, except to do their work. Occasionally she stayed in bed all morning – perhaps wine helped her forget her ungrateful children.

There was a fountain in this courtyard too, an old Roman sarcophagus. Strange to walk through the city and come upon these odd pieces of history – like things left behind when the preceding family moved out.

My fingers often turned white and became numb. It was after all the middle of December. I experimented to see if brandy or coffee could stimulate my circulation. Red spots appeared on my joints and the index finger of my right hand was so swollen I could hardly write. I asked the Signora about a doctor but she made light of it and said it was only chilblains and they were too common to spend money on a doctor for. All I needed was a pomade from the pharmacy.

Every night before going to bed I danced around the room to warm up. Sometimes in the afternoon, small pieces of wood were stuffed down the throat of the little stove, after which a handful of round pressed coke was added, on which it hopefully glowed a few hours before giving up. One evening, I was sitting on the long bench, as close as I could get to the heat, when the Signora came in with an egg in one hand and a small glass of brandy in the other. She set the glass down and pricked a hole in the egg, indicating that I was to suck out the inside. Too overcome by the process, I did as told, although I was not particularly fond of raw eggs. The Signora proudly told me that it was very fresh, having just been laid by the chickens on the roof, and that she thought I would like it. After swallowing the egg, I was handed the brandy. This will also make you warmer, after which she left, while, still puzzled, I went to bed.

One evening Signora Ada knocked on the door and beckoned me to follow her, leading me through the hall, through the storeroom with the extra bed on which the boy who sweeps and scrubs slept, to the outer balcony where a fire escape wound its way steeply up onto the roof. The chickens were asleep, the laundry had been taken in. What the Signora wanted me to see was the moon, a great friendly ball hanging over the dusky rooftops of Rome.

Overnight the courtyard opening onto the street had become a miniature forest of fir trees. Christmas had crept up on me unawares. Lovely small trees, carefully potted with an eye to the future when they would lose their fleeting sanctity and become simply ornaments for a balcony or garden. How much more Christian than simply cutting them down.

Snow seemed to be rare in Rome, but intermittently it rained. One could tell that it was Christmas by the gaily decorated shop windows and the strange anachronistic Santa Clauses smiling down on a bustling crowd. All the churches had their manger scenes, from the simplest one with only the leading actors, to those with a whole village of tiny figures, including the butcher, the baker, and the shoemaker. They reminded me of the toy trains that were the joy of fathers and their sons. Booths sprang up all around Piazza Navona. It ruined the Piazza, but after all piazzas are supposed to be used for something. In the center — shoved a little to one side by Bernini’s fountain with the colossal nudes and the stone palm tree and the lion lapping water — was a large manger scene, fenced off, patiently waiting to be allowed to take its place in the general activity. Booths selling hazelnut brittle sat side by side with stalls where festoons of plaster angels hovered over scores of Holy families, and games of chance and shooting galleries right next door vied for attention. At one end of the Piazza the music of a bagpipe and a flute wound through the crowd. Two shepherds moved slowly along, dignified in their traditional mountain garb — a long black jacket, a lamb vest, chaps of lambskin or shaggy goatskin, legs wound in white sheeting and broad leather thongs reaching up around the calf to keep the boat-shaped sandals on. The flute player was still a boy, dark and strong, playing a lively but melancholy melody. The bagpipes droned in the background, but they were the ones that set the pace. Children watched and seriously put 5 or 10 lire in the pouch the flutist carried. Finally the musicians stopped by the manger scene. The fence was pulled down and they took up their positions on either side, playing their pipes. After this, all the streets of Rome resounded with the notes of flute and bagpipes, a strange oriental music that had come down from the hills. A lilting music that one could almost dance to, but with an inherent sadness concealed somewhere in its song.

A postcard that had been sent to me in New York from Padua finally caught up with me. Roger, a fellow student at NYU, was studying at Padua and would spend Christmas with me here in Rome.

The Signora had said, “At midnight you must go to the Mercato Generale. All the fish that are to be served up in Rome on the 24th are on display and ladies in décolleté as well as working people will be there.”  Since the traditional Christmas Eve dinner was meatless, everyone had to have their fish. The popes even sent to the lake of Bolsena in Lazio for eel, or got around the problem by saying that ducks, since they lived on the water, were not meat.

So on the evening of the 23rd, Roger climbed the 116 steps and off we went at 11:30. I felt as if we are on a wild goose chase – or rather a fish chase. It was dark and moonless and very lonely. I could see only two, no three, people in the shadows of the huge flat buildings. But then it was not quite midnight. We were directed to a side gate, and slowly, slowly something did seem to be in the air. A small crowd soon turned into a mob. Fashionably late, the gates opened at 12:30. A surge and a squeeze forward, a concentration at the gates, and then a rapid flowing into the yards and up towards the main buildings. We seemed to be caught in a river of people and had to go where the current took us, through one hall after another. Boxes and piles of fish. Magnificent still lifes. Kites and baby sharks, small pink heads set like roses in a box, silvery fish shapes, a spot of bright blue, the white of the squids – and the tubs and boxes of wriggling slithery eels. Finally we were at an exit. There were almost as many people as fish. So far we had seen no décolleté. We tried to figure out why so many people came here at this time of night simply to look at fish, buy a portion of fried squid and shrimp, and start back home. To no avail.

The trams still ran after midnight. But the buses went to bed early. From the Coliseum we would have to go on foot. But it was so magnificent out I would have walked both ways, for in some manner the Coliseum was best at night. Rows and rows of arches, with lights shining through, fanning out in rays, fragmenting and making more mysterious this already unbelievable building. Surfaces lost their meaning, were only different depths of black. The whole seemed the fantastic construction of a nightmare, or of a dream, so beautifully captured by Piranesi in his etchings of Roman monuments and his “prisons”. It seemed a building constructed by an architect simply for the love of constructing and any idea of purpose had long since been lost in the wonderful madness of adding arch to arch. A single light moved through these arches. A tourist perhaps, with no time to spare, would at least be able to say he had seen the Coliseum when he returned home. Even if it was only by flashlight. We watched the lonely light weave its way around the outer walk and then hurried home through empty streets.

Christmas Eve. A gentle quiet evening. A toast in front of a tiny manger scene and some evergreen boughs, a traditional fish dinner with the Signora in Trastevere, and then to S. Maria Maggiore for midnight mass. We wriggled our way in near the center, through the crowd which packed the great church to the doors, listened to the music, looked at the brilliantly lit mosaics, and it was Christmas.

Christmas Day itself was a gift to everyone. Sun and blue sky and gentle weather. But it was the evening that made it memorable. After a Christmas party at the American Academy, Roger and I started home after dark. We found the bus stop and waited. Pretty soon a sort of truck pulled over, covered with canvas in the back, a boy jumped off and called out: “Ecco, 75”. This was the number of the bus we wanted but was this a bus? Yes. So in we jumped, or rather climbed up the wooden retractable ladder, and hung on to the sides as best we could. We had to change buses and as we waited we watched the weird assortment of big and little buses, trucks and private cars pull up and announce that they were streetcars. Roger was practically certain it must be a strike when a couple standing nearby gave us an explanation. “No, it’s not a strike, this happens every Christmas Day. The transportation workers just go home and take a holiday.” Perfectly magnificent. The bus drivers wanted to celebrate Christmas too, so they just went home and various private and public groups like the Red Cross took over, using whatever vehicles they could lay their hands on. I tried to imagine this happening in New York and was so delighted I didn’t even mind walking the rest of the way in shoes that had not been meant for much walking and had been thoroughly over-walked already. For this was Rome and this was a Roman Christmas.

No one had told me, so it was pure chance that I discovered a concert at the Basilica of Maxentius. The basilica vaults with their coffering, a fantastic example of Roman concrete, had been there since around the fourth century AD. Concrete, without which the glory of Rome would have been quite a bit less glorious, or maybe just less permanent. One could do two things at a concert – listen to the music, or watch other people. All kinds of people. Groups of black-robed priests. Young ones with round flat hats and round beardless cheeks. Friars with beards and bare sandaled feet.

Couples arm in arm, alone with each other. Some stood off to one side, isolated in the aura of their concentration. Everyone was watched, was watching, part of the whole scene. And that included me. The ruins of the Roman Forum, with Caligula’s palace and the hill of the Palatinate, stretched out behind, forming one of the backdrops. The Coliseum lay over to one side and the medieval bell tower of San Sebastiano, an intruder yet somehow acceptable amid this older history, stood a bit closer. The music was quite in keeping with the surroundings – Strauss, Death and Transfiguration – fittingly romantic and powerful for these dramatic ruins which the ancient Romans would never have dreamed of preserving.

Two nuns entered, herding a swarm of small black-caped figures, little black triangles topped by round heads with big dark eyes, supported by naked white legs. They came in and stood by a brick wall. Every so often one of the little ones escaped and raced over to some invisible attraction. The taller sister was strikingly beautiful with a strong Roman face and great dark eyes. The other sister – round, with an air that should have been easy-going – only gave the impression of being stern. They finally gave up and left, surrounded by their entourage of clean little boys.

Another group, ranging from tall girls of 13 or 14 to small ones of 5 or 6, soon arrived to take their place. In this case the nun was a comfortable type. Her protégés all wore short dark coats and big berets. The tall girls stood and listened, talking quietly with the sister. The little ones – there were four – scattered, quietly at first, playing with each other. Their game gathered force and they began to wear out their shoes tracing strange and wonderful hieroglyphics in the pebbly gravel. The young ones gathered great handfuls of the larger stones, choosing according to some law of their own. They scuffled and laughed and the sister pretended not to hear them. A small group of fairly young priests smiled too, and no one minded very much that these children added their sounds to those of the orchestra. Before long it was time for them to leave. But before moving away, they carefully rubbed out the signs they had scratched in the ground.

Petrassi, Danza Guerriera, Tempo di Marcia. Strangely modern for what might be considered a popular concert. And then the lightness of Bellini for the ending, a lightness to which the actors could easily disperse and the noise of their going was part of the gaiety. The two policemen resting on their bicycles could now go back to work. The Franciscan friars could warm their cold noses in their beards as they wandered home.

As the light gradually faded, the Coliseum suddenly stood out bright against the darkening sky. A white church front was only a facade. The light continued to fade, but the Forum kept its brightness, ghostly and unreal, but this was Rome.

True, the last war was only one of many. But the ruins of Rome people came to see were the old ones, those of ancient Rome. Yet they too seem to have stopped crumbling. Was it legitimate still to call them ruins, held together by iron bands, bricks and cement, iron fences?  It seemed acceptable in the Forum. But in other places there was a perhaps unintended humor. As when a modern building had grown around a couple of battered brick arches and walls, being most careful to leave them open and exposed. Something like a pearl within an oyster, except that here the aesthetic effect was reversed. Or in the suburbs. New modern buildings, not particularly beautiful, but still modern, have sprouted up everywhere. In the middle, by the street, one small 20 x 20 foot area with a tumbling over-grown brick tower looked simply decrepit and unrespectable.

To be continued . . .

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