If travel writing was important anymore, I’d want to write about Italian keys and Italian locks, how complicated they are, or their tiny lifts, with those swing-in doors, installed in very old buildings. But maybe I should stick to the sunlight and the weather. After torrential rain, pounding the jumbled cobbles, the instant salesman swapped their street hawking umbrellas for sunglasses along the swirling brown Tiber, this Sunday. A river both low and remarkably unused. It’s only ten minutes walk from the Spanish Steps, and the traffic on the river consisted of Rome’s persistent seagulls, battling the current, as they try to push upstream, a murky brown stream that sweeps back, but is side tracked by the eye line into a pedestrian artery, running straight to St Peters. There I saw that great canopy over the central altar, like a Roman Emperor’s litter, and then, in the square, a man in a window, with a red banner below him – the Pope, Benedict XVI. He was blessing the crowd in several languages, to sudden applause, or tourists chatting, and smoking cigarettes, like the fake Roman Soldiers that line the forum. This Sunday it was the feast of the Sacred Family, and seeing a Pope in a window does give it all a human scale. St Peters is of course impressive, but it is really in the neighbouring Castelo St Angelo where you should start a trip to Rome.
Built on the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian, history and you rise through the literal layers of Roman time, up to the apartments of Pope Paul III, taken over by several other Papal incumbents. It isn’t as impressive or monumental as the works of the Baroque, but completely charming, and the delicacy of the frescoed ceilings, truly beginning the ‘Renaissance style’ and the recovery of Roman forms, is enchanting and totally human in scale. As intimate as the Papal bathrooms, or the tiny chapel. The colours and style are essentially Etruscan, reminding me of an Etruscan tomb I visited years ago, and it was the Etruscans who DH Lawrence so praised for their naturalness, vitality and life. There, Religious iconography meets a Classically Roman recovery of past lives, but great Angels in togas too, and on the terrace above you have the full sweep of Rome itself. It’s a little scandal the ‘authorities’ don’t make more of the map, pointing out the famous sights in front of you, but Romans are extremely blase about all their history. On your right, monolithic St Peter’s, built on the Trastevere, the ‘other side’ of the river, Rome’s rive gauche, runs in a straight line to the squat Pantheon, that original temple to the Dodecathon, the 12 Gods, that like the 12 hours of the day and night, dominated pagan faith. Inside, earlier in the day, the floor below the ever open ceiling was wet with rain and closed off by rope. Of course, the statues of Zeus, or the other exceedingly Human Gods, as fickle and dangerous as Man, have long been removed, in a building claimed as a church, but possibly built over a Mithraium, an underground cave to the mostly military cult of Mithras, the boy child born from a rock. Beyond that, the eye can just catch the walls of the Forum, among the jumble, but much in evidence is the fascistic monument to King Victor Emmanuel II. Then there are the palaces that housed the rival families who dominated the Renaissance and the Papacy – The Borhgese, a Roman equivalent of the French Bourgeouis, The Farnnese, The Medici, The Barberini and the Pamphili.
But back on the banks of the Tiber a great touristic passagio had started towards St Peters, among the ringing bells, the hawkers, and the street performers, motionless as statues, promising absolute stillness, until you drop a coin in their tin fountains. Rome currently swings between sharp cold, and the hope of very warm sunshine, but at Natale, despite any political shocks and private tragedies, the feel of the city is relaxed, informal and delightful. As for me, well, still no investment for Phoenix Ark Press, but a belief in the value of just writing, like a way of talking, without the prospect of money, or fame. A writer slightly lost, still hurt by his bizarre and inhuman American publishers, but alive and rather happy. Now trying to get to some Dragon! DCD