The tinny clang of a church bell is the only sound to be heard, besides the occasional bird twittering and the distant roar of a motorcycle. We sit on our sundrenched terrace in utter calm. Where are we? Some beach-side idyll? Not a bit of it, we are slap bang in the centre of Rome…that renownedly crazy, noisy city. But if you are lucky enough to get above it all, (or in our case to have a friend and fellow-traveller who doggedly pursued Luciana through the labyrinthine processes of European booking to secure her apartment for six glorious days) you too might find yourself on one of the thousands of rooftop gardens patch-worked throughout the city.
All around us are the tips of spires and domes and towers. The washing machine doesn’t work, but who cares, the window next to it looks out to an ancient and beautiful church cupola. It’s the first of many contradictions to be found in Italy – the place where beauty holds sway and exerts its charm on everything. (Not sure how we made it through…the beauty police must have been on lunch.)
If you then saunter out into the Roman evening, prepare to fall in love.
The people move around at an elegant pace, in clothes that have been put together with careless care, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. The city breathes with them as they thread their ways through winding streets that suddenly open out to squares or wide corners on which might stand a large stone church or a green cloister, waiting with the patience of centuries for pilgrims to enter the cool interior.
Or maybe you will come upon a gracious café-fringed piazza with yet another of Bernini’s remarkable fountains to astonish you with its muscular beauty.
Eventually you will find yourself at the famous Spanish Steps that sweep down to a large cobbled square. It’s milling with people jostling cheerfully, in an atmosphere of such anticipation that the thrusting of roses at every juncture can be amiably refused.
The shops by this time are lit up: Dior, Versace, Dolce and Gabanna…displaying maybe one slender figure in a striking fall of fabric, and some other contrivance, such as a huge flower – window artworks that make the street a back-lit shining gallery of beautiful things.
Being surrounded by such beauty takes the breath, but also enables us to share a sense of pride that creatures of our own species have the vision, the audacity and the artistry to create such beautiful towering elegance. And the locals live amid it in such ease – something we will notice everywhere we go in Italy.
Apartments abut the surrounds of the colosseum and overlook the ancient forum.
In one window pink balloons and flowers announce the birth of a baby girl, telling us these are not just monuments to the dead, but a continuing history.
Next to the petunia-laden balcony of the house where Keats died, a young man leans out of a window smoking and staring at the crowds on the Spanish Steps, (Alone and palely loitering?) We can imagine that two hundred years ago, a young man at the same window might have turned his face to ask how that poor frail English lad is doing.
And what about that fine building with the gracious inner courtyard filled with early summer foliage? That’s the post office! This beauty is not to be admired from a distance, but to be lived in.
So much beauty makes it easy to forget the inequities that built organisations like the Roman Empire or the Catholic Church, and enabled them to acquire the wealth to commission these most awe-inspiring edifices.
Massive basilicas are filled with ornate gold and precious marbles and gemstones and covered with magnificent paintings and frescos.
The huge colosseum and capitol, forum and temples are of such scale and grandeur they force the viewer to look up in wonder and forget how many thousands of slaves have been subsumed into the demands of empire, whole lives lived only to serve the massive symbols of power.
And even today the splendid shining rows of shops, offering the world’s most beautiful and expensive attire, light up a huddled beggar on the street, or a group of vendors with their fake designer gear spread out on a sheet or hanging off their arms. But we are so caught up in the wonder of this great city that we brush the thoughts aside with the proffered roses. No different from big cities everywhere, but Italy casts a spell that enables us to ignore the ugly side of what might otherwise be just a tired and well-worn tourist trail.
The Vatican is a good place to start.
We are so overawed by that exquisite little city-state where are gathered the world’s most beautiful objects in the name of Christianity, that we might overlook the fact that it’s staffed by the grumpiest and least obliging group of people even invented. A bored little wave of the hand passes for a direction, and good luck getting a coffee, let alone a smile from the café staff, who must have passed out top of that class where they train parking inspectors and people on the end of the phone when you’re trying to get your internet/phone bill/tax return or pretty much anything else sorted. Not sure what happened to all that beauty, but it hasn’t yet entered the souls of the staff.
And the trains are fabulous – cheap, efficient and easy to find on the Trenitalia website. But if you haven’t mastered the electronic ticket machine, or if it’s broken, be prepared to queue for a long time at a bank of windows which reveal a couple of earnest workers dealing with the great unwashed, while three or four of their colleagues in the background chat, drink coke and walk around with bits of paper. Their main skill appears to be avoiding eye contact with the frantic folk outside, especially when the old lady near the front of the queue goes into paroxysms of despair as she watches her train pull out of the station. And don’t get stuck in the lift with a big pile of luggage and expect the fellow in uniform to care. His shrug of unconcern could be seen from Mount Vesuvius.
And as for stunning Cinque Terre…the cute little trains run so smoothly and it’s so picturesque you don’t notice being jostled and relieved of all your money.
And to add insult to injury be serenaded all the way out by a tuneless accordion player, who looks affronted that you didn’t drop some Euros into his hat. Sorry mate, no Euros left.
But do we care? Absolutely not. In Italy all is forgiven, because of the utter beauty of the place: the food,
the wine, the weather and the charm of everyone not in an official uniform. But most of all it’s because of the language. It’s impossible to say/do something ugly in Italian, as old Joe Green (that’s Giuseppe Verdi to you) can attest, because it’s all music. Even the most mundane of objects sounds alluring. Consegna dei Bagali…now, that’s a name I’d consider for my daughter. Never mind that she’d be mercilessly teased when someone realises it means Bag Drop. And on our way to Milan we encountered a Treno Sciopero…what a fine name for a boy. We don’t care that it means we were delayed for a day because it’s a Train Strike. Got something difficult to say? Do it in Italian: Togliere la spazzatura sounds so much more enticing than: take out the rubbish, and as for Abbiamo perso tutti i bagagli. Lost all my baggage have you? Well, never mind, I’m too busy listening to you say: Mi scusi ho appena rotto vento. That’s: Excuse me, I just farted. Actually that one will need no translation!
And if you have some lovely things to say, you’ll never hear them more sweetly sounded than when the Italian celebrant joined our daughter and her new hubby in santo matrimonio.
Posso presentare la sposa et lo sposi. Ciao!