Lockdown is a time of wishes and longings that naturally arrange themselves in mental lists, offering unexpected self-portraits and new, often tender insights into people we know well. Here in Italy, but it must be happening everywhere, we have all been compiling and comparing lists of the first things we will do when it is safe again. Some things I know I must wait longer for: half-hour hugs with all my loved ones and Southern Italian-style kisses: at least five or six, loud, enthusiastic pecks on the cheek in rapid succession, my family’s favorite greeting. Others are coming up sooner, cappuccino “al banco”, at the cafe’ counter (Deliverance is at hand!),and thin crust Roman pizza sitting down in a pizzeria with a friend or two, served with the inevitably blunt knife to saw at it ineffectively while anxiously watching the mozzarella congeal into little gummy patches – never thought I would miss that!
Yet the first thing I wanted do is already possible: walking. I spent hours and hours pacing on my terrace listening to podcasts and lectures on the ancient Romans while aching for the city streets, parks and people. I especially missed the Villa Borghese and I finally went there with my childhood friend and colleague, Lara. One of Rome’s many urban polmoni verdi – ‘green lungs’, it expands over 148 acres, which make it larger than Vatican City, and maps clearly reveal that it is shaped like a heart. In the 17th century the Villa was the private countryside property of the aristocratic Borghese family but is now in the city center, public, and much loved by Romans of all generations.
It contains the trees that inspired the first movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre for our summers in the city where the Bard’s plays are performed in italiano and, among many others, my favorite museum in the world: the Galleria Borghese.
As I walk and chat with Lara, we both find ourselves pausing every few steps, going quiet, as if we need to listen more carefully for something, and I experience another, more poignant reunion. I know why I am here, why these elegant avenues, the delightful small fountains, the reassuring sameness of the evergreens have been calling to me. The Villa Borghese contains my entire Roman life. It’s all here: the weekend afternoons of my childhood, riding bikes with my brother Giorgio, the need to ride past our mother at regular intervals, I see her so clearly reading on a bench, looking up and smiling at us each time. Giorgio is in New York now, my mother is in Sicily but they are here, the park is holding them close for me.
Then I am a little older and my mom takes me to the Galleria Borghese. I see us standing in front of Bernini’s marble statue of Pluto and Persephone, the shock of the god’s hand pressing into the impossibly pliable flesh of the terrified girl’s thigh, that moment like a seed planted without me knowing what was to come, when I was studying to become an English teacher. Lara and I walk over there, just to see it, to be reassured by its presence. It is closed now but will be open when you read this, one of the best signs of hope I can think of right now. I stand here quietly: 25 years of guiding, of sharing Rome and its enchantments become alive and present and there is only one word to define it all – love. I look at this familiar white building, sealed off and silent, and it almost starts to pulse. All the moments I have spent here wording my wonder to travelers, inviting them, maybe even forcing them to connect with the here and the now, everything is alive in my mind. I see them too, all the people I met here: their faces, the sudden change in their expressions, the special brightness in their eyes I always wait for, the smiles that mark the transition from education to experience, from duty to pure joy. Once again, I find hope: Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian are just behind those walls waiting for us, with us. We will be back.
We leave the park after sighing contentedly at the view of the city from the Pincian Hill, wander by the Spanish Steps, still and empty like a dreamscape, and our mood starts changing. As we walk to Trevi Fountain the well-being and comfort the park gave us recede, that all too familiar sense of disconnect, of life thrown off the rails, surfaces again. The first thing we notice is the sound. I always tell travelers Trevi is a celebration of beauty and an experience of the senses, you hear the water before you see the fountain, but normally we have to strain, the crowds make it hard to catch. Now it’s distinct, loud, it has the force and rush of a waterfall, and there are only three people here. It’s in full sun, completely on display, the border of the basin finally visible, an elegant uninterrupted white line, the pleasing proportions of the steps leading down to it, the strange swimming pool-like pale green of the water against the clear bottom. Normally it appears like this, unmarked by the glinting metallic dots of the coins and the thousands of wishes to return, just for a few very brief moments when it gets cleaned and the coins are collected once a week. I thought this is what I wanted, after all these years of crowds, to recover something that felt lost. I don’t, or I don’t anymore. I know the crowds had become excessive, I was as upset as everyone else. The vision of the perfect, bare beauty of Trevi Fountain is powerful but ultimately dissatisfying. I didn’t feel this when I looked at the Borghese Gallery from the outside, this is different. Rome’s beauty is distinct because a lot of its art is not behind ropes and glass partitions in museums, but outside. Its fountains, piazzas, the facades of its palazzi are meant to be seen, to be part of our everyday lives, they include us, imply us even: we are part of Trevi, as much as the carved stone and the water. I understand more deeply that it is not just us who await Rome’s embrace, she awaits our embrace as well, but she has the patience and the wisdom of all of her centuries on her side. She is telling us this moment will pass and we will reunite, and I trust her, she knows.
Next time I write, the lockdown will have lifted and we will be cautiously, responsibly trying out a new normal with many new behaviors that must be learned and respected. I still won’t be giving tours for some time but we can explore different things and make plans for the future while we wait.