How can one not feel like a little ant on the skin of a place as big as Rome? I hurried about it non-stop for as many hours as I could find in each day we were there, yet I feel like I have only scuttled along a few wrinkles. And wrinkles it has indeed, especially wrinkles in time. It feels like a place that is of the past, and the present, and the future, and even an already decaying future that is the past of yet another future, all at once. Spaghetti flyovers twist this way and that between buildings with the ochre and yellow skins like angular cheeses. These, themselves, crumble into the debris below, mingling with dirt, refuse, broken building parts, plastic, metal, coins and shattered vessels old, ancient, and beyond remembering. Then out of that strange compost scramble green things that twine their way up buildings, across electrical wires and out of gutters, some bear fruit, some are palms that look perpetually surprised to find themselves here; some are just opportunists. This is Rome, falling and rotting and sprouting and climbing, all at once. And full of people, like the plants, only animated, perhaps overwhelmingly animated.
I was glad I had come to Rome at last not by air but by road. The first shock of realizing I was here came when we crossed a big, broad, strongly flowing river. Indeed all those statues of the ‘four rivers of the world’ came to mind, with their heavily muscled, bearded, powerful looking river gods. Il Tever – I knew it was the Tiber the moment I saw it, what else could such a river have been in this narrow, rocky little country?
The feet of Tiber, Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona
Our route followed it across its floodplain, the motorway sketching a braid with the river, or perhaps a complex dance between a Hermes and a Mercury, gods of commerce, transport, communication: stepping across time, outside time, in a cosmic dance.
Then there were the hills, crowned with gleaming white tiara-towns, gazing across the plains, down into the navel of the world – Rome. All roads indeed lead to Rome… At least it seems so. Some of the first stories I read myself were of the gods and heroes of the Greeks and the Egyptians, all of whom were subsumed into Rome and Romanized. Then virtually every other story seems to sprout out from there in one way or another, every law, every theory, words, names, ideas. Arriving in Rome was like coming home. As place as familiar as it is rich with memories, but is it as sort of black hole, a gravitational force sucking all the world into a dark, powerful but in the end empty place?
Antonio Canova’s notorious statue of Pauline Borghese (Napoleon’s Sister) as Venus Victorious, Galleria Borghese
Piazza Navona, reflection of the Palazzo Pamphili
St Peter’s, Vatican
Visiting the Vatican was a strange experience, not really anticipated. Perhaps, on my impoverished little island at the end of the world there was nothing that could have prepared me for this. It’s not St Peter’s that disturbs in fact, despite it’s vastness, its golden ceilings, it’s x-ray scanners and cordons, rather it’s the Vatican’s Museums. For millennia all the world’s wealth has been brought here, and the riches I glimpse but a fragment of are astounding: long, long galleries of the art of antiquity, the gold and gemstone treasures of early Christians, the silver of South America. Art of the modern world, the old world, the new world. Paintings, fine craftworks, sacred objects, books, endless frescos, all the world mapped out and illuminated. The wealth of the church of so many of the worlds poorest… This is a disturbing place. What are the other worlds that lie within these walls, waiting for life?