As for many other people, my work has been cancelled for the foreseeable future and it is really time to reunite with my family so I visited my mother in Sicily and then I flew to Seattle where I will be spending the rest of the summer. I will return as soon as the situation improves and will continue writing in the meantime.
Before leaving I said arrivederci to my beloved Rome.
I have always been an enthusiast of rituals and traditions with family and friends: endlessly repeated gestures and expressions to which I entrust the deep pleasure of having known and loved them for so long. I think of my mom who prepares Sicilian caponata for me every time I visit and reassures me I will find it, on the plate I know, with the exact flavor that only hers has (the picture on the right shows the initial source my New Yorker mom used but then she created her own version with eggplant, celery, olives, capers, tomatoes, onion, and balsamic vinegar instead of sugar and regular wine vinegar, basil and oregano);
my brother and I share exhausted jokes that maybe weren’t even funny the first time but have had us in stitches for decades; my partner and I take the same picture every time we see each other after months apart. I am anchored to Life by these things, by their reliable sameness and I value this more now, when very little seems recognizable and certain. The Ancient Romans lived to the rhythm of rituals that were crystalized to the point of obsession. A priest who sneezed or skipped a word during an invocation to the gods had to start all over again, and maybe for the first time, in this crisis, I understand that need for something stable and familiar to hold onto.
Every time I leave Rome for a long time I take a walk to say goodbye as if I were leaving a family member. With my loved ones far away and a profession that mostly implies spending half a day of very meaningful, warm human connections with travelers I seldom see again, greetings and farewells are a big part of my life, and I have come to experience them as rituals too, and feel they frame experiences with a lovely solemnity and definition I long for.
I invite my friend Giovanna to come with me on my Arrivederci Roma walk, and we decide for the early morning to avoid the heat but also to catch it as it wakes up, calm and a little slow but bearing the hope and possibility of a new day.
We walk without a specific plan, we simply go where our Roman instincts take us, and whisper to each other “che città!” – what a city! – as we let ourselves go to what author Eleanor Clark so perfectly defined the “toomuchness of everything” of Rome, that cumulative beauty that seems so overwhelming at first but just requires an intellectual surrender to it, a willingness to indulge in the basic pleasure of being alive and able to see and observe. It’s the way everything and its opposite coexist, the way the magnificence and glory of the distant past are softened by the wear and tear of time, how the ever-present shadow of grit and decline only make it more real, believable and poignant. We catch endless elements that are only apparently incongruous and too humble: a pot of basil and a tiny cactus on the windowsill of a splendid Renaissance palazzo with traces of fresco paintings that ignite the imagination as to what the city may have looked like 500 years ago, but that also has a bicycle parked against it.
Giovanna and I know this is exactly what makes this so endearingly Roman: the faded frescoes and the bicycle combined, the basil that will be used to flavor a tomato sauce or a caprese salad and the elegant white stone window frame: past and present, the splendid and the delightfully mundane.
The Italian art historian Tomaso Montanari rightly says that art in Italy is like “mele vive” – living apples – still attached to the tree they were born on, as opposed to being in meravigliosi surgelatori – marvelous freezers, museums. The key word for me, and I know I repeat this constantly, is LIVING, the idea that art needs to be part of our daily landscape and experience of the world.
I say goodbye to the sunlight reflecting brightly off the worn gray cobblestones, to the balconies, doorways and windows covered in miniature jungles, to delightful shop window displays, the gurgling of fountains, the swallows darting through the summer sky above us.
But then I know where I must head to, and ask Giovanna “Andiamo al Pantheon?”- Shall we go to the Pantheon? Sì.
The Pantheon is where I can finally take leave, where I feel the poignancy of Roman farewells most acutely. I prepare for the familiar melancholia of separation, for the tribute of respect and wonder I feel it always deserves. It has to be here, and I know I am not alone in my special connection to this architectural marvel. As with the Colosseum, I love how it is woven in the fabric of the city. It sits in the very heart of the area of Rome that was never abandoned and so I can say to my friends “meet me at the Pantheon” as people have said to their friends for the past 1900 years.
A pagan temple to all the gods turned into a church dedicated to Mary and all the Martyrs, the Pantheon doesn’t present the challenge of the Colosseum’s ambiguity, and its incredible state of conservation doesn’t require leaps and somersaults of the imagination to see what is no longer there. I make an exception for the ground level I stand on and allow my mind to reverse it to see it as it was in the past. The Ancient Romans would have come upon the Pantheon all of sudden, when entering a piazza (quite different from today’s but offering a comparable “surprise” effect), yet the ground level was lower and the building stood on a podium with steps leading to it at the front. Centuries of silt and debris from floods of the river Tiber caused the ground level to rise around it, swallowing the elevation and giving it its present “sunken” appearance that leads us down to it and not up.
I look at the granite columns in the majesty of their 40 feet height and weight of 60 tons. I create a film in my mind that follows them from when they were still stone mass in the quarry in Egypt, being roughed out and transported over 60 miles to the river Nile, down to the coast, across the Mediterranean, up the river Tiber, and finally dragged and set up on this site, all achieved without machinery. I think of all the people involved and go back to how the poet T.S. Eliot said that having a historical sense means that we can perceive the presence of the past.
I say goodbye to Rome here as a way of saying goodbye not only to the beauty of its space, its art and buildings, but to the people who walked through it before me. I cross the worn marble threshold, its lovely swirls of greenish grey and pink, and feel their company. I see Michelangelo, dismounting his horse on one of his many visits of contemplation, walking next to me as I enter. I imagine the almost regal funerary procession for the young Raphael in April 1520 when the whole city mourned him and one hundred painters bearing torches accompanied him here, to the resting place he had requested as a testament to his passion for Ancient Rome. I imagine being here in the early 1900s, when Italian emigrants to Argentina donated splendid wooden planks to pave the square outside the building and kept them well-greased so the Italian kings buried inside could rest peacefully without the noise of carriages passing by. A marble plaque above one of the cafes recalls this touching tribute although -alas! – the grease on the sloping surface caused several people to slip and fall, and on their request the wood paving was removed.
The interior is quiet and empty; there is the now customary roped-off path.
Giovanna and I look up from the magnificent colored marble of the floor and walls to the naked concrete of the dome, a feat of engineering and sheer brilliance we never tire of marveling at. We find the spotlight of sunshine that makes the Pantheon a sundial, and imagine how many times it has revolved around this space, how many generations have come through here and stood where we are standing now, and were captivated as we are now. We feel we can reach out to them and hold their hand across time and space, yet again, as Rome invites us to do at every step, at every instant.
The goodbye gift I receive as I take leave this time is a heightened sense of community through place. My lockdown in Rome has made me more aware of my attachment to my country and my fellow Italians through the heartbreak of loss caused by this pandemic. We grieved for people we did not know personally but with whom we shared a history and an identity, and hoped collective grief could provide comfort to their families and strengthen our resolve to get through this together, as a community. That in turn led me to empathize with the rest of the world, and to feel a sense of common destiny and profound human connection. Rome is a crossroads and a bridge for humans of every era and place. I listen more closely to the Latin poet Horace who 2000 years ago wrote: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am a human being and nothing human is alien to me.
I will take that with me this time. Arrivederci Roma.
ALL WILL BE WELL
My intention is to continue writing about my Roman wanderings and thoughts from Seattle. If you have any requests please write to me at email@example.com