Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Rome |
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Postcard from Rome

British Airways were justifiably proud of getting your correspondent to Rome only three hours behind schedule. After all, Heathrow had been in the grip of those freak snow conditions which traditionally leave Britain stunned with surprise.

In England, British Rail loudspeakers have been smugly announcing prolonged delays due to locomotives coming into contact with inexplicable meteorological phenomena, such as heaps of water lying around in frozen form. Airport officials were equally flabbergasted to discover more of the same stuff falling out of the sky. But now my staunch Trident was leaving all that behind. In a dark but clear midnight, Rome lay below. Those strings of lights were roads all leading to the same place.

All my previous visits to the Eternal City had been done on the cheap. In those days I was still travelling on the weird escape routes frequented by students. Some of the students turned out to be eighty-year old Calabrian peasant ladies carrying string bags full of onions. The charter aircraft belonged to semi-scheduled airlines whose pilots wore black eyepatches and First World War medals. Their point of arrival was Ciampino, Rome’s no. 2 airport — an inglorious military establishment ringed with flat-tyred DC-4s and Convair 240s too obsolete for anything except fire drill.

I used to put up in the kind of cold-water pensione on the Via del Corso where the original rooms had been partitioned not only vertically but horizontally as well, so that the spiral staircase beside your bed led up to a bare ceiling. You had to apply in writing to take a bath. Lunch was half a plate of pasta on the other side of the Tiber. Dinner was the other half.

A lot of water has gone over the viaduct since then, and this time I was a bona fide traveller. Even at one o’clock in the morning Leonardo da Vinci airport, tastefully done out in fluted chromium, was a treat for the eyes. My hotel was in Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the very top of the Spanish Steps. The décor was strictly veneers and cut glass, but it was heavily tricked out with the Medici coat of arms and the bath came ready equipped not just with a plug, but a dinky sachet of foam-producing green goo. My waiting readers were subsiding in luxury. Could I justify their confidence? What can you say about so old a city in so short a space? I sank cravenly into the foam.

Sleep allayed my fears, but they came back in the morning. I appeared on the Spanish Steps just in time to be greeted by the cold weather, which had been racing down Europe during the night. Rome suddenly froze up solid. The Triton, forever blowing his conch in the Piazza Barberini, abruptly became festooned with icicles. As unashamedly ostentatious as ever, the wealthier Roman women shopping in the Via Condotti instantly adopted a uniform — mink and boots. In a bar a little fat lady who looked like a bale of furs reached up to spoon the cream from her glass of hot chocolate higher than her head. For once nobody was in any danger of being kidnapped. Cold weather meant plenty of snow in the mountain resorts. The terrorists were all away skiing.

With only a few days at my disposal I decided to leave most of my usual haunts unvisited, apart from a quick trip to St Peter’s to see how well the Michelangelo pieta had been repaired. Since I had last seen this masterpiece it had been attacked by a hammer-wielding Australian of Hungarian origins. Perhaps he was trying to effect improvements. Anyway, he had given the Madonna a nose-job. The nose was now back on and the whole statue, I was glad to see, had been separated from its adoring public by a glass wall. Taking it for granted that none of my compatriots had been flicking ink darts at the Sistine ceiling, I headed out by car to the Catacombs.

Out on the old Appian Way it was as cold as Caligula’s heart. Sleet drenched the roadside ruins. Like a leftover from La Strada, a lone whore solicited business from passing cars. A couple of millennia ago the cars would have been chariots but she would have looked roughly the same. Hilarius Fuscus has a tomb out there somewhere. Apart from his name he is of no historical interest, but with a name like Hilarius Fuscus how interesting do you have to be? The Catacombs, however, were mainly for the nameless. In the Catacombs of Domitilla, for example, more than 100,000 people were buried, but only seventy of them came down to modern times with any identity beyond that conferred by the heap of powder their bones turned into when touched by air.

A German monk took me down into the ground. ‘Zer soil is called tufa. Volcanig. Easy for tunnels. Mind zer head.’ In this one set of catacombs there are eleven miles of tunnels, one network under another. The two top levels have electric light throughout. ‘Mine apologies for zer electric light. Mit candles is more eery. Zis way.’ People had been filed away down here by the generation. Some of the frescos remain intelligible. You can see the style changing through time: suddenly a Byzantine Christ tells you that the Empire of the West is in decline. The sign of the fish is everywhere. ‘You also see zer sign of zer turdle dove. Symbol of luff and piss.’

When we arrived back at the surface the good friar’s next party was alighting from its coach — a couple of hundred Japanese, all of them with cameras round their necks. Some of the cameras had tripods attached. I had been lucky to get what amounted to a private view. Nor were there many tourists at the newest of the Catacombs, the Fosse Ardeatine. The people buried here all died at once, on March 24, 1944. For the whole story you have to go to Anzio, about thirty-five miles down the coast.

Anzio is a small town built around a port. A few hundred yards from the port there are some ruined foundations on a low cliff. Standing in the ruins, you can look along the beaches. The Allied forces came ashore here in January 1944. The landing was unopposed but it took a long time to develop a beach-head. Italy was already out of the war but the Germans were not: far from it. Kesselring counterattacked with horrific violence. The whole area became an enormous battlefield. The flat littoral terrain was ideal for the German armour. Right over your head, the Ju88s came bombing and strafing. The Allied forces were stymied for months.

In Rome, the Italian resistance fighters grew tired of waiting. They ambushed an SS detachment in the Via Rasella, just down from the gates of the Palazzo Barberini, killing thirty-two men. Hitler ordered reprisals at the rate of ten to one. The SS, enthusiastically exceeding requirements, trucked 335 people out to the Fosse Ardeatine and shot them all.

But back to those ruins at Anzio. I am still standing in them, a bedraggled figure washed by the rain. They are the ruins of Nero’s seaside villa. And back in time beyond Nero, on that low hill behind the town, Cicero had the country house of whose amenities he boasted in his letters to Atticus. In those days Anzio was called Antium. Further back than that, Coriolanus went into exile here. And even further back, at about the time the city of Rome was being founded — the year zero ab urbe condita — Antium was one of the main hangouts of the dreaded Volsci.

The Volsci feature on almost every page in the early books of Livy. The Romans were still confined to an area about the size of Hampstead and whenever they ventured outside their seven hills they had the Volsci breathing garlic down their necks. Eventually, through discipline, the Romans prevailed. That was Livy’s message to his contemporary readers: remember your origins.

Everything and everywhere in and around Rome is saturated with time. If you look too long, you will be hypnotised. I went out to Lago Albano in the Alban Hills. The lake is in a giant crater. High on the rim is a town called Marino, where Sophia Loren owns a house. The Pope’s summer residence is somewhere up there too. But take a close look at that sheltered lake. Imagine it in tumult. In Imperial times it was called Lacus Albanus and mock naval battles were held on it. That would have been my job in those days: writing reviews of mock naval battles. ‘Once again Hilarius Fuscus made mincemeat of the opposition…’

Until recently, Sophia Loren faced serious charges with regard to the national currency. She was accused of trying to export some of her money. Almost everybody who owns any has been doing the same, but Sophia is supposed to be a woman of the people. Even the Press has turned against her. Her latest film has been greeted with massed raspberries. I went to see it. The critics were right.

The movie is directed by Lina Wertmueller and is crisply entitled Fatto di sangue tra due uomini per causa di una vedova: si sospettano moventi politici. This may be loosely rendered as ‘A matter of honour between two men because of a widow: political motives are suspected.’ My translation loses something of the original’s flaccidity. Ms Wertmueller has an international reputation but her idea of a joke reveals her to be a humourless scold. The movie is all about hard times in Sicily. Apart from Sophia, it is a disaster. Sophia, playing a passionate charcoal-burner, looks better than ever and acts a storm. It is ridiculous that so life-giving an individual should be made a scapegoat.

The same thought occurred to me when I attended a Rome Opera production of Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi. Romeo and Juliet both sang magnificently. The settings were a reminder of how a lot can be made out of little — Covent Garden please copy. The audience in the stalls consisted mainly of the Roman bourgeoisie. They behaved like pigs. A man near me recited the whole plot to his deaf wife while she ate chocolate which had apparently been wrapped in dead leaves. The stalls were empty before the curtain calls were half over. But the gallery went crazy with gratitude.

Here was an opera company for any city to be proud of. Yet half of its members are in trouble with the police because of alleged corruption. While tourists maim and murder at will, the cops are chasing contraltos. It’s a clear case of fiddling while Rome burns.

In the Via Michelangelo Caetani a shrine of wreaths and photographs marks the spot where ex-Prime Minister Moro’s body was dumped midway between the respective headquarters of the Communists and the Christian Democrats. To the terrorists, Moro stood for compromise. It followed logically that his life was forfeit. Most of the terrorists are figli di papa — sons of daddy. If daddy spends most of his time making money, shooting him is a good way of getting his attention. Under the absolutism there is petulance.

There have been bodies in that street before. As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the Caetani fought the Colonna who fought the Orsini who fought the Caetani. Rienzo called himself tribune and reunited Rome for a few days. The great families used the Papacy to further their earthly ambitions. But ever since the fall of the old Empire the very idea of a renewed temporal hegemony had been an empty dream.

As Machiavelli bitterly noted, the Church, while not powerful enough to unite the country, was certainly powerful enough to make sure nobody else did. Machiavelli’s remarks on the topic remain pertinent today, even when the Christian Democrats are appalled at the prospect of a Pope who seems intent on discrediting the legislature over the matter of abortion. The last thing the country needs is any more dividing. Italy’s besetting weakness is government without authority. The result is not sweet anarchy but gun law.

You don’t have to go all the way out to the Alban Hills in order to look down on Rome and discover it to be a small place. All you have to do is climb the Aventine. What you can see from there is just about all there is. When Rome ceased to be the capital city of an international empire, it reverted to being a provincial town. Though it has been officially called so since 1870, it has never really become the capital of Italy — not in the way London is the capital of England or Paris of France. Rome produces little. For a long time it has been a consumers’ town. Even the Renaissance was produced in Florence and consumed in Rome. Bringing Michelangelo to Rome was like bringing Tolstoy to Hollywood.

Rome is a good place for madmen to dream of building empires. It is a bad place from which to govern Italy. Mussolini chose the first option, with the inevitable consequences. The most recent of Rome’s overlords, he left the fewest traces. Apart from the embarrassingly fine architecture of the EUR district out on the periphery, the city gives almost no indication that he ever lived. The Palazzo di Venezia is, of course, still there. You can pick out the balcony from which he shouted to the crowds and the window behind which he left a light burning at night to encourage the notion that the never slept. Wealthy ladies used to visit him there, but by all accounts his technique as a lover was long on preliminary chest-beating and short on follow-through. It seems that he just hurled them to the floor and passed over them in a shallow dive.

The reason that the Empire could never be restored was that the world grew out of it. The Roman Empire died of success. It was already dying when Scipio Africanus became the first Roman to take a bath as often as once a week. It was already dying when the legions in Sicily met their first Greeks and began learning the ways of cultivated leisure. Livy’s history is one long lament for the old Republic — a warning to Augustus that the tribe’s disciplined impulse was on the wane.

But Livy never saw that he himself was part of the problem. Nor did Tacitus at a later time. The city which had once been little more than a base camp had become a civilisation. It was changing at the centre. The decline was really a transformation. The Empire became the Church, which became other churches, which became the Enlightenment, which became the modern age. The centurions became the priests who became us. With the eyes history has given us, we can now see that to unite the world is no longer a sane aim. It has already become united, within the individual soul.

Meanwhile the city of Rome is left with nothing but its heritage. There is a lot to look after. Things get stolen, or just fall apart. In the Piazza Navona I found the Bernini fountains plump with ice, like overfilled tubs of lemon gelato. In a dark alley behind the piazza stands the little church of Santa Maria della Pace. On the outside walls are the usual political graffiti. Inside there are some sibyls by Raphael. The doors are open only between 7 and 8.30 in the morning, for Mass. Outside the portico when I arrived, the body of a man was being hauled out of an abandoned car and loaded into a grey plastic bag. He was a tramp who had frozen to death in the night. A policeman signed for the corpse. Dirt, litter and decay. Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino was here once.

But it’s unfair on Rome to let the weather get you down. In spring and summer the fountains ionise the air to the point that even the third-rate American writers who infest the city feel themselves brimming over with creative energy. Yet even then you can detect the weariness beneath the fervour. No less afraid of dying than anybody else, I still like the idea of what Lucretius describes as the reef of destruction to which all things must tend, spatio aetatis defessa vetusto — worn out by the ancient lapse of years. But I don’t want to see the reef every day.

The Spanish Steps were a cataract. Climbing them like an exhausted salmon, I passed the window of the room in which Keats coughed out the last hours of his short life with nothing to look at except a cemetery of time. No wonder he forgot his own vitality and declared that his name was writ in water. As he should have realised, the thing to do when you feel like that is to pack up and catch a plane to London. Which I did.

— February 11, 1979


Though never a staff member of the Observer, I always received from it the best benefits of a welcoming home. As a freelance journalist working on a rolling contract, I had to do without the security of participation in the paper’s pension scheme, but that was only a money matter, and the liberty was worth the price. Far more important was the editorial respect for careful writing. As always, the respect existed because the editors themselves knew how to compose a sentence. Donald Trelford, the successor to David Astor’s chair, could write a succinct, correct and yet easily speakable prose, and Terence Kilmartin was outstanding even among the literary editors of the time for his knowledge of how the language worked and his enjoyment of that same knowledge in others — he wielded a fierce blue pencil but it would never hurt your rhythm. At the Observer I felt free to try things out. I got too much credit, then and later, for inventing the post-modern television column. Maurice Richardson (otherwise the author of that unjustly forgotten comic classic The Exploits of Engelbrecht) had been there already, and the most I ever did was transfer to a new subject the same wide tonal range with which Penelope Gilliatt and John Coleman had been writing about cinema – and they themselves were writing in a tradition that had been brought to a high point by C. A. Lejeune and Paul Dehn.

The genre I really did do something to invent was the Postcard travel piece. There were precedents for it — A. J. Liebling could arrive on a wartime airstrip and generate a whole treatise on the state of the campaign in North Africa while being strafed by an Me 109 — but nobody had yet developed a workable matrix for reconciling general knowledge with the necessarily superficial experience of a flying visit in the jet age. Donald Trelford supported me in my conviction that first impressions were worth something: after all, there must be a mind to back them up, or they wouldn’t even have been received. The thing to do was to forget about writing the nuanced letter of a long-term resident or a slow traveller by camel, and send back the postcard of someone who was flying in and out in a few days, just like everybody else. On that basis, any background information I could get in — and especially the background information I took there with me — would count as a plus. Thus a format was born, which, I like to think, never became a formula, because every city gave a new impetus to the delicious task of squaring what had happened to it over centuries with what happened to me in the course of a week. Ten years later, when I transferred the idea to television, the week became two weeks or even three, and the combined periods of pre- and post-production stretched to months, but the principle was the same: dump your bags in the hotel room, get out there and let things happen.

Postcard from Rome is a typical example of the Postcard written for the page, unusual only in the depth of background information that demanded to be got in. Much of that I already had, which left me free to wander, rub up against the locals, and generally indulge in the benefits of spontaneous friction. The importance of this last point can’t be over-stressed. If a piece is nothing but a potted history lesson, it might as well be written at home. And even if you go there and put in the footwork like some latterday flâneur, you have to decide which kind of flâneur you want to be, Baudelaire or Borges. Baudelaire, when he roamed the suburbs of Paris, bumped into people. Borges roamed the suburbs of Buenos Aires in the deep night, with the specific intention of meeting as few people as possible: his city of moonlit ruined villas is as empty of human beings as a photograph by Atget. You also have to decide whether you want to be a Guide to Kulchur or something less specialized. Stefan Zweig, in his late, long but too-soon-over essay about Montaigne, said that Montaigne, on his visit to Rome, was a Goethe who had the great advantage of never having met Winckelmann. Zweig meant that Montaigne had not felt obliged to treat his visit as a roundup of the historic buildings and works of art. He felt free to meet people. One of them was the Pope, and several of them were prostitutes. The latter, in particular, taught him a great deal about Rome. Apparently they charged him a lot more for conversation than for their regular services, but if he had been working for the Observer he could have claimed that on expenses.