In Rome the struggle between civilisation and barbarism is such a long-standing fixture that it has taken on the atmosphere of a local derby. Perhaps it takes an outsider to point out that after two and a half thousand years, it is no better than a draw.
The truth is it was always a contest more imagined than real. While the Vandals were breathing fire outside the city walls, many of the most enthusiastic barbarians were tucking into the grappa in sumptuous palazzi inside. Rome may have been the centre of the civilised world but to the visiting Visigoth, it has always been strangely familiar.
The last time I was in Rome, years ago, there was more than a touch of the barbarian about me — long-haired, threadbare and hungry for culture. I stayed in gloomy hotels near the railway station where most rooms were rented by the hour. The doors closed with padlocks and the washing facilities were a cold water basin three flights up. But fortune had smiled upon this barbarian, and I now found myself in a fine room in the former Palazzo Fonesca, which enjoys a new life as an upmarket hotel. While I struggled with cocktail umbrellas in the piano bar, porters bore my baggage heavenward.
Rome is that most fascinating creature, a great city reduced to a provincial backwater. Once the ruler of the world, it struggles these days to govern Italy. Power may have decamped elsewhere but the spectacle remains. Rome is a theatre where history struts its stuff, ogled by tourists, embraced by romantics. At every turn the past rises up with an irresistible glamour.
But it is not just the great monuments, the civilised face of Rome, that have survived. Ovid would recognise la dolce vita, the pleasures of contemporary Roman life. Fellini has called it the most perfect city in the world because it refuses to judge people. This is the indulgent and barbarous character of Rome that makes it so welcoming to visitors keen, in the words of the Italian writer Luigi Barzani, to take a holiday from their own national virtues. Romans have a genius for ignoring the constraints and the expectations of their own civilisation.
Eager to do as the Romans do, I decided to rent a scooter. The scooter is to Rome what the horse was to Dodge City; it is difficult to cut much of a figure in the more chic kind of saloon without having one tied up outside. The hire arrangements were disturbingly simple — no one bothered to check if I was road worthy — and I was soon let loose on the city in tenuous command of a yellow Vespa. Sounding like a sewing machine on steroids the scooter tore up the Via Nazionale more or less of its own accord while I followed as best I could. My transformation was abrupt. Suddenly I was no longer a spectator. I was part of the city.
Roman traffic owes much to the traditions of the chariot race. Anyone who has seen Ben Hur will be familiar with the techniques for dealing with other drivers. Dodging through the cars on the Via del Corso, carving up vans, buzzing pedestrians, charging the wrong way up one-way streets, I began to feel I was getting under the skin of Rome. Judging by the blaring horns and one fingered salutes that followed me around, the Roman drivers obviously agreed.
Emboldened, I set off to visit the home of one of the chief barbarian threats to the ancient empire, the emperor Nero. Enroute I became trapped in the vortex of traffic known as Piazza Venezia. Whirling round and round the square like a demented bumble bee, I had plenty of time to examine the extraordinary Vittoriale, a ghastly white confection known to Romans as the Wedding Cake. It was built to honour the first king of a united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele whose statue sports a moustache over three metres long. His reign never really lived up to his facial hair.
Struggling to get to an outside lane, I enjoyed repeated views of the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia from which another great barbarian, Mussolini, made his hysterical addresses. Benito was a provincial journalist who got tired of writing up the police reports and decided to try his hand at creating a new Roman Empire. He probably wouldn’t have got beyond spear carrier in the old empire. With jutting chin and hands planted on his hips, Il Duce made petulance a political gesture. He could pout for Italy. Despite his alliance with the efficient Germans, his war record was patchy. Defeat however had its consolations. It allowed him great scope for his tantrums.
Like Mussolini, Nero was really in the wrong line of work. He would have been far happier in a chorus line. He spent his days composing third-rate poems, practising his harp and taking singing lessons while leaving the empire in charge of others. His banquets were the talk of the town. Tacitus described one held on a barge on a lake. The rowers were all perverts, he noted, arranged according to age and sexual skills. The shores were lined with brothels of aristocratic women. It wasn’t all fun and games however. Guests were obliged to listen to Nero performing his own musical compositions.
As the morning rush hour subsided I managed to escape the stranglehold of Piazza Venezia’s traffic, and soared down the Via dei Fori Imperiali past the bleached bones of the old Forum to the Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden House. Recently reopened after years of restoration, the palaces and gardens were an ancient Versailles, once covering over 200 acres. They were equipped with all the latest Roman fads like fretted ivory ceilings, water slides, walls inlaid with mother of pearl and of course a revolving dining hall. The art collection, gathered from across the empire, and including the famous Dying Gaul from Pergamon, made the Domus Aurea the Getty Museum of its day. All that remains in situ are fragments of the frescoes of the aptly-named Fabullus. He was an inspiration to generations of artists who were lowered on ropes into the ruins to examine his paintings. Raphael and Givoanni da Udine both modelled their decorations of the open galleries of the Vatican in the early 16th century on Fabullus’ work.
Though the ruins may not do justice to the once-palatial interiors, they do capture some echo of Nero’s psychological state — labyrinthine and macabre. Beneath the bare barrel vaults, the windowless chambers are as ghoulish and forbidding as a dungeon. Water drips, voices echo, groups of visitors hustle after one another, not wishing to be left behind. Nero seemed to have been imprisoned by his own violent rages. He arranged to have his mother beaten to death and his young wife knifed in her bath. He took care of his mistress himself, kicking her to death when she was pregnant. Eventually, wearing a full bridal veil, he married a sailor named Pythagoras.
Back on the Vespa, I whirled past the Circus Maximus, sideswiping several Fiats, and headed out the Via Appia to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano where a young archaeologist led me into the underground passageways.
‘Built in the Turd Century,’ she said brusquely. ‘The rock is very tender, easy for digging.’
In the long corridors burial niches were stacked up the walls like filing cabinets. Death was big business in ancient Rome, and the sale of graves was a profitable enterprise. Location was everything, and the presence of martyrs in a catacomb sent real estate values soaring. These catacombs not only held St. Sebastian but also, it is believed, the bodies of both Peter and Paul, at least long enough to attract a flood of buyers eager to get into a good neighbourhood. The saints had been martyred in persecutions launched by our friend Nero, keen to distract a restless populace from his political difficulties and his wretched musicals.
‘The tombs were not a hiding place for Christians,’ the archaeologist insisted. ‘The gasses from the decomposition of the bawdies made them uninhabitable.’
The bawdies may have disappeared but their status in hierarchical Rome has survived them. The wealthy middle classes created little tomb houses complete with pedimented doorways, mosaic floors, low benches and wine-filled amphora should anyone drop in for a drink. The poor made do with their narrow niches. Having blown their life’s savings on the cost of the plot, presumably there was nothing left for decorating.
Everywhere was the graffiti of the early Christians: fish, anchors, and doves, the symbol of ‘laff and piss’, the guide said.
Via Appia was where many Romans headed when it came time to ‘rest in piss’; it was a great address for a grave. Lined with cypresses and pines the old road runs into the Campagna between the high walls of villas and pastures of sheep, straight as a drawn line towards the Alban Hills. It is closed to vehicles, but I ignored the signs. It is a Roman tradition that scooters are immune to regulations, and Vespas are as common on the old road as butterflies.
Few places are so evocative of the ancient world. The basalt cobblestones are worn with ruts where chariots passed two millennia ago. Tombs and overgrown mausoleums and bits of ruined temples clutter the verges. Beyond the fourth milestone I passed the Tomb of Seneca, the great moralist who committed suicide on the orders of that man Nero again. Some of the names sound suspiciously like music hall turns. Sixtus Pompeus the Righteous was probably a good man to avoid at a dinner party. The tomb of Hilarius Fuscus is adorned with the portrait busts of five relatives as dour as clowns.
Beyond the Tomb of the Festoons, on the far reaches of the Appia, prostitutes begin to appear among the ruins. In the chill of a spring evening some had lit beacon fires. If many of them appear, silhouetted against the flames, like grotesque pastiches of femininity, it is because they are. The most successful, I’m told, are transvestites, usually from Brazil. Romans are seduced by appearances. It is not so much what things are, as what they appear to be.
Bernini understood this. Rome is a baroque city. Flamboyant, elaborate, cynical, it is a place where metaphor is preferred to directness, where style rivals substance, and where appearance is paramount. It is no surprise that all the great architects and artists of the Baroque Age were also scenic designers. The baroque is a world of theatrical effect. Bernini has filled Rome with baroque masterpieces.
I toured them by night. The traffic had gone home and the buildings looked magnificent under floodlights. I flew through the dark streets like a pin ball, ricocheting off Bernini: the Fontana dei Tritone in the Piazza Barberini, the Palazzo del Quirinale, the Palazzo Montecitorio, the wonderful fountains of the Piazza Navona where the stone figures representing the four great rivers of the world are as fluid as the arcs of water.
I passed up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele like one of the horses in the street races held in Bernini’s day during the Carnival; apparently they had boiling pitch inserted in their recta to ensure that extra burst of speed. Passing over the Ponte Sant’Angelo between Bernini’s stone angels I came to rest by his magnificent piazza in front of St Peter’s. At this late hour I found a row of parked cars, their occupants facing the long embracing arms of Bernini’s colonnade through steamed up windows, as if the Vatican City was some remote lover’s lane.
A lone American, emerging from between the columns, asked if I would take his photograph in front of the old basilica. For an instant his face, twice the size of St. Peter’s dome behind him, was brighter than the moon.
‘Why so late?’ I asked.
‘Only three days in Rome,’ he said. ‘Can’t stop.’
I watched him disappear in the direction of the river, a scuttling exhausted tourist, and decided it was time to give the sights a break. In Rome there is always too much to see, and it is easy to miss the city’s greatest pleasure: hanging out. No city is better at just living, and no city offers a more picturesque backdrop for doing so. Wandering the streets without agenda leaves more time to notice the Mediterranean sunlight melting across old stone, the sound of fountains, the smell of coffee and cooking, the Aleppo pines silhouetted above classical ruins, church bells tolling through the long hush of the afternoon siesta, the quickening pace of evening as the day hurries, via the passegiata, towards the flirtations of dinner and wine and conversation.
In Rome, whole days can be structured round the twin poles of lunch and dinner. The city retains that rare institution, the good local trattoria, family-run, inexpensive, unpretentious, frequented by everyone from builders to university professors.
In Trastevere I lunched in the Osteria Augusto, perched on the side of a tilting piazza, where the stout wooden tables spilled onto the cobblestones. The menu was a chat with the waitress. A half litre of red cost a pound. The penne all’arrabiatta, literally angry penne, was superb. The main courses were rabbit, tripe and straccetti alla rughetta, strips of beef fried with fresh rocket. In Prati I dined in the Osteria dell’Angelo where the staff comprised the local rugby team. The kitchen was a bit of scrum and when one of the waiters bore down on your table, all shoulders and no neck, it wasn’t always easy to keep one’s nerve. But the food was fabulous and came in portions that would have pleased Jonah Lomu.
But breakfast was the best meal of the day, taken in a small latteria off the Campo de’ Fiori where nothing had changed since 1950. The bar could have been a set from La Strada. A faded Madonna, illuminated by a ring of Christmas tree lights, hovered above posters of films that had been popular fifty years ago. Presiding over this time-warp was an plump aproned padrona. Her hair was in a bun and her face was softly maternal. A picture of her own mother, looking like her long lost twin, hung behind the bar. She brought a tray of warm brioches and a bowl of capuccione to the marble-topped table.
The other customers were chiefly stout men in the uniform of suspenders and woollen trousers. Grunting occasionally at one another in Roman dialect, they seemed to be protagonists in some long simmering feud. From time to time someone passing in the street outside spotted an acquaintance or relation among the customers and paused in the doorway to conduct shouted conversations with them. In a manner typical of Rome, private exchanges became public discourses.
La padrona sank into the chair opposite. Hers was not a Rome of spectacular monuments, of the rise and fall of civilisation, of the changing tides of the great historical canvas. She inhabited a more constant Rome, the Rome of this colourful rather barbarous neighbourhood with its rich cast of characters, all of whom at some point in the day passed through her bar. The only tides here were those of individual lives.
I was complaining, rather stupidly, of how much there was to see in Rome and how little time I had to see it.
‘Piano, piano,’ she said. Slowly, slowly.
Someone was shouting for a coffee. She hoisted herself to her feet again.
Per Roma, una vita non basta, she shrugged. For Rome, a lifetime is not enough.