Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I've never loved Rome, the city where I was born. I had only the vaguest impressions until I visited it several times about seven years ago, and decided it wasn't for me. Its will to impress, to take one's breath away, seemed clumsy and overbearing; the churches, with precious objects heaped up alla rinfusa, seemed more like treasure chambers than churches. It lacked the delicacy of Medieval and Renaissance cities, like Venice, Florence, or Bologna; it lacked the humane, sturdy cheerfulness of those last two, and the splendid melancholy of the first; in fact I couldn't read any expression in it beyond, "Bow down to my wealth and power." The ruins were impressive and sobering, but entirely discontinuous with the modern city; they stick up suddenly, like skeleton fingers from an unsuspected grave.

That has all changed. I know what I was thinking, which buildings I was looking at, but I see other things too now. Partly because I know more. (You can be perfectly ignorant and still fall in love with Venice, but not Rome.) Partly because I've been taking public transportation. (Last time I hung on for dear life behind my friend & host, a daring motorcyclist.) But for another reason too. I went to dinner at the Cortesi (who told me the dove story) following Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Lots of pompous, heavy, boring buildings. "Take via del Governo Vecchio on your way home," they suggested. It runs parallel to Corso Vittorio Emanuele (which might as well be called "via del Governo Nuovo"), and it's another world — narrow, winding, quiet and mysterious but (because of all the cafés and restaurants) lively at the same time, the buildings full of leering, laughing, weeping stone faces; glowing lanterns shedding irregular light on the street signs, which have always looked like grave stones to me. (cp. the street signs in Florence — cheerful blue and white ceramic, like Delft.)

And so behind most square, flat, regular things in Rome I think there's something winding, irregular, round and deep. The ruins, once no doubt the most regular, imposing things in the world, embody this doubleness, but many other things do too.

There's a curved street with a curved apartment building on the concave side of the curve; the reason for the building's unusual shape is that it's built on the old Teatro di Pompeo; a colonnade extended several hundred meters from the theater to the civic complex of Largo Argentina, and the Cortesi say that in their building's basement there are the stumps of some of these columns. Those blocks are now a warren of little streets, and I like to think of the columns still marching (furtim) from basement to basement to their old destination, the site of Caesar's assassination. (I would say "like a ground-bass," but that sounds too much like a pun.)

There are other things: Rome is much more appealing at night — at least in this season — than during the day. And there's the good nature, the energy, and (in some neighborhoods at least), the vigorous informality. I can even say that sometimes, in certain lights, the heavy buildings remind me not so much of power, arrogance, and a ton of bricks, as of a big, clumsy, shaggy dog, eager to please and to make its presence known. It steps on a lot of toes, but means no harm.

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