Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Testaccio blackout

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I’m walking home after work at around 9.30pm when I bump into my flatmate, Tom, on Via Marmorata. He’s standing in the street, looking slightly confused.

“What are you doing?

“I’m looking for a shop that sells candles. But nothing’s open at this time…”

It turns out that there’s been a power cut. Not just our flat, or our building, but the whole block. Part of me is excited – I’ve never experienced a proper power cut before – but I’m also disappointed that my cooking plans have been thwarted.

As we climb four flights of stairs in the dark, we pass our neighbour, the Actor (his motorino was the only one to survive the Motorino Inferno of 2016), and exchange greetings. I ask Tom if he’s talked to any of our other neighbours about the blackout. He hasn’t. But there’s nothing to say, really – we just have to wait it out.

Stumbling around in the flat, guided by the light of our phones, we find a few candles – a couple of scented candles from my room, and some dusty tealight candles in a kitchen drawer. I think of that episode from Friends where there’s a power cut, and their improbably spacious flat is filled with an improbable quantity of candles. Who has that many candles? It’s another example of their unrealistic luck and privilege – gigantic apartments, successful careers, a coffee shop sofa that’s always reserved for them, and 50 candles in storage.

Determined to cook, I light the scented candles in the kitchen and begin preparing something simple – spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and chili). I step out on the balcony and see all the darkened windows of the neighbouring buildings – it’s slightly eerie, how it’s all pitch black. Then I hear the familiar miaow of the neighbours’ cat, Gedeone. This chubby Siamese is a regular visitor to our flat. In fact, I don’t think he understands that he doesn’t live here, as he seems to view it as an extension of his own home. Whenever he sees one of us on the balcony he wails, demanding to be let in.

I open the front door and Gedeone runs in, rubbing himself against my legs. He has a habit of walking between your legs as you try to walk, which is particularly perilous when you’re cooking in a candlelit kitchen. An accident waiting to happen. I shoo him away from the candles and the frying pan and get back to cooking. By this point the mixed smells of the candles (red berry and cinnamon, spiced apple) is overpowering, and slightly off-putting. When you’re eating pasta, you want to smell the pasta, not choke on the aroma of scented candles.

After dinner I go to my room and wonder how to pass the time. No electricity means no internet, no light to read, no hot water for a shower. My laptop is fully charged, my phone at around 50%. As sources of light, they’re not much good, but in this moment they seem like the last, fading remnants of civilisation.

From my bedroom window I can see the street lights, the windows of the enoteca illuminated. The blackout is only affecting my small corner of Testaccio – a dark island surrounded by street lights and bright windows. It’s dark here, but it’s only temporary, and elsewhere there’s still plenty of light.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like in Ancient Rome. Back when night really meant darkness, when there were only candles and torches. Instead of brightly illuminated rooms, the occasional patch of flickering light.

21st century Rome may be much brighter than Ancient Rome, but there’s at least one place that would have been brighter in the past. After dark, the monumental ruins on the Palatine Hill practically disappear. Unlike the illuminated columns and archways of the Roman Forum, there are no lights here – just a vast, shadowy outline against the night sky. What would it have been like 2,000 years ago, when it was home to the emperors? I imagine rows of torches, banquet halls blazing, candles burning late into the night in the frescoed study of Augustus.

There are no lights now. Go to Via dei Cerchi – the street that divides Circo Massimo from the Palatine  – late at night. The street is lined by lamps, but on either side you’re surrounded by the dark remains of Ancient Rome. It’s like walking down a brightly lit pier, in the middle of a black sea.

Back in Testaccio, peering at the dim screen of my computer, I become aware of the hall light miraculously turning on. The blackout is over. While I’m relieved to have electricity again, in a strange way, I enjoyed the blackout. A few hours of darkness puts things in perspective.

Time to stock up on candles…

Canzone #6: “Albachiara” by Vasco Rossi (1979)

I have no idea how to explain Vasco Rossi.

I think he’s one of those phenomenons that can only really be understood if you’re Italian. Perhaps. He’s the Italian equivalent of certain kinds of British humour (Withnail & I, for example, or The League of Gentlemen). If you’re not British, you probably won’t get it, so you probably won’t like it. All right, Vasco Rossi is a singer-songwriter, not comedy, and music is supposed to more universal than comedy, but that’s the best analogy I can think of. To an outsider, he looks a bit like a wild-eyed, middle-aged mechanic having a go at karaoke. In other words, if you don’t understand Italian, you may not understand his appeal. It took me a while to properly appreciate him – his talent as a songwriter, his importance as the “rebel” of Italian popular music.

I like Vasco Rossi, but I don’t like Vasco Rossi like the Italians like Vasco Rossi. Italians love Vasco Rossi. Especially Italian men of a certain age. But he has plenty of female fans too. Valeriano once gave me a mix CD of Vasco Rossi songs – all of them were about women. Songs like “Silvia” and “Jenny e’ pazza”. Some of them are love songs, while others are more like portraits – scenes in the life of a teenage girl, or reflections on a woman’s nervous breakdown.

I think “Albachiara” was the first song I heard by Vasco Rossi, and it’s still my favourite. An anthemic tribute to a girl chiara come l’alba, fresca come l’aria (“clear like the dawn, fresh like the air”). Self-conscious, shy, studious. Day-dreamer. Masturbator. “Albachiara”was apparently inspired by a teenage girl Vasco often used to see in the street. When the song became a success and she found out that she was “Albachiara”, she was more embarrassed than pleased…

E quando guardi con quegli occhi grandi
forse un po’ troppo sinceri, sinceri
si vede quello che pensi,
quello che sogni….

Qualche volta fai pensieri strani
con una mano, una mano, ti sfiori,
tu sola dentro la stanza
e tutto il mondo fuori

Artemisia Gentileschi at Palazzo Braschi

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(self-portrait of Gentileschi as a lute player)

When I was a child, I had a Dorling Kindersley book about great artists and paintings. The painting took up most of the two-page spread, and was surrounded by little annotations, pointing out details and symbols, and providing historical context or biographical information. That book was my introduction to art – the book that made me fall in love with Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and sparked my interest in Artemisia Gentileschi.

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One of the paintings was Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, painted when Gentileschi was only 17 yeas old. Susanna sits by the water, naked, turning away in disgust from the two clothed men who ogle her, whispering to each other. Although I was too young to understand exactly what was going on – the lechery, the threat of sexual violence – something about the painting grabbed my attention. I’d already realised that nudity was everywhere in old paintings – nudity for nudity’s sake – but here it had a point. It made sense, given that Susanna had just been bathing, and it added to the sense of discomfort and vulnerability. And then there was her expression – the look of anguish on her face. It was a painting that told a story, a painting with emotions. At the age of 9 or 10, that was all I really wanted from art.

When I grew older, I read more about Artemisia Gentileschi, and became fascinated by her life as well as her art. There weren’t many successful female artists in the early 16th century – she was a respected painter, and the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti in Florence.

She was also a rape victim. At the age of 19 she was raped by a friend of her father’s, Agostino Tassi. Over the course of a seven month trial, Gentileschi was subjected to humiliating medical examinations and tortured with thumbscrews. It emerged that Tassi was not only guilty of the rape, but had also been planning to murder his wife, and was having an affair with his sister-in-law. Although he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, he never served the time. Tassi was also a painter, but history has remembered him as a rapist first, artist second.

The rape has, in a way, also defined Gentileschi and her career ever since. It’s impossible to look at the gory Judith Slaying Holofernes (painted just a year afterwards) without seeing it as a kind of revenge fantasy.

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(For more about this painting and Gentileschi’s life, read my blog post here).

For the last few months, this image has been plastered all over the walls and bus stops of Rome. I’d seen Judith Slaying Holofernes up close at the Uffizi, but I’d never seen any other works by Gentileschi in real life before, so I was excited by the prospect of an exhibition dedicated to her.

Valeriano and I went together one Saturday afternoon, queuing for 45 minutes. Although we grumbled about the queue, I suppose it’s a good sign that so many people are interested in her…

The exhibition at Palazzo Braschi was larger than I’d expected, taking up several rooms. The name of the exhibition is actually Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo (“Artemisia Gentileschi and her time“), and I’d say the exhibition is roughly a 50/50 split between works by Gentileschi, and works by contemporary artists who painted similar themes, with a similar style. The result is that it can feel a little repetitive at times – a succession of penitent Mary Magdalanes, pensive Cleopatras and bloody heads.

It’s definitely not for the squeamish. In addition to all the versions of Judith and Holofernes, there’s also Gentileschi’s painting of Jael and Sisera. Sisera was an army commander mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, who was killed by Jael. She hammered a tent peg into his head with such force that the peg went through the other side, pinning his head to the ground.

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Thank god she decided to paint the “before”, and not the “after”.

There are also a couple of extremely gory paintings (not by Gentileschi) portraying the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest, lost, and was skinned alive as punishment. I’ve never understood why it’s such a popular topic in art – in sculpture as well as painting. Who wants to look at a work of art depicting someone being flayed? It suggests something of a sadomasochistic streak in the artistic tastes of our ancestors. The 17th century equivalent of the Saw films, perhaps.

If you’re in the mood for some caravaggesque drama, I recommend a visit to Palazzo Braschi. It’s a unique opportunity to see several paintings by Gentileschi displayed together, and to explore the darker side of Baroque art.

By the time we walked out into Piazza Navona, we were quite happy to have a break from all the weeping, flaying and decapitating, but we both came out with a renewed interest and appreciation of Gentileschi – a prodigal talent who created a career for herself against the odds.

The Gentileschi exhibition runs until 7 May 2017 at Palazzo Braschi, Piazza Navona.

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Before the Befana

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The Befana arrives on the night of 5 January – an old, witch-like woman who travels across Italy on a broomstick, filling childrens’ socks with sweets and presents if they’ve been good, or coal if they’ve been bad.

Befana and the Epiphany are celebrated across Italy, but there some regional variations. I spent the holiday in Cassino with Valeriano’s family, and was confused when I heard them talking about “pasquetta”.

“But isn’t pasquetta Easter Monday?” I asked

“In Cassino we celebrate Pasquetta Epifania – pasquetta on the evening before the Befana. Tonight we’ll see if we can find the band.”

Although I’m generally keen to experience local traditions, initially I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea of staying out late for pasquetta. It was absolutely freezing – gelido – and I was quite tempted to stay inside, curled up on the sofa. But in the end Valeriano convinced me to come out, to join his friends for a drink and a search for the pasquetta band.

At midnight we were roaming the streets of Cassino, shivering. The cold in Cassino is particularly unpleasant; you can feel it in your bones. We weren’t exactly sure where the band was, but as the streets were more or less deserted, we thought we should be able to hear them even from a distance. But we saw them before we heard them – a large group of cloaked figures gliding past the end of the street – and rushed off in pursuit.

The pasquetta band wear long, purplish cloaks that look black in the dark, emblazoned with a picture of the Befana. Every year, on the afternoon of 5 January, they gather in Cassino and walk the streets until late at night. Every few blocks the brass band stops outside a palazzo and plays a song, sung by the band and a few hangers-on. Traditionally, the residents of the palazzo come out into the street and give the band leftover food and drink from the festive season, giving them fuel for their long, cold march through the city. The band then continues on its way, and the same routine is repeated again and again throughout the night.

The video above – pasquetta in 2011 – gives you some idea, though the crowd is significantly bigger than the pasquetta I experienced. Perhaps it was filmed earlier in the evening, in a more central part of town.

As we followed the band throughout the empty streets of Cassino, I was struck by the futile, even slightly melancholy nature of the tradition. I’d been told that traditionally, the band was given food and drink, but for the time that we followed, we didn’t see anyone come out of their homes. No food, no drink. I think everyone could have done with a drink. The band plodded on, stopping every few minutes to play the same, repetitive song to a rapidly dwindling audience. The first time I heard the song, it seemed pleasant, rousing. But after half an hour in the freezing cold, it had become almost mournful.

Partly because I kept pestering him with questions he couldn’t answer, Valeriano started chatting with a member of the band. He asked him a question about the origins of the tradition, and why they were doing it. The band member didn’t really answer the question, but responded with a vague reflection, and a comment on how the band had once covered Cassino in its entirety. Now the town was bigger, they stuck to the centre.

Even those born and bred and Cassino  – even those who actively take part in the tradition – don’t seem to know how it began, or why people do it. It’s tradition for tradition’s sake.

Perhaps the answer lies in the one thing that we do know. The tradition pre-dates the Second World War. The war that destroyed large parts of the town and its surroundings. Walking through the town today, it’s hard to find a trace of anything pre-1950. Given the devastation caused by the war, it’s not surprising that people cling to one of the few old things that remains. It may not have an obvious purpose, and it may not be particularly enjoyable for those who participate, but at least it’s something that’s survived.

At 1:30am the band was still going strong. There weren’t many people watching now, though a few residents had decided to pursue the band in the warmth and comfort of their cars, driving through the town at a snail’s pace. Following in a car seemed absurd, but following on foot was starting to become an ordeal. Frozen to the bone, Valeriano and I went home.

When I woke up late the next morning, I found that the Befana had visited (in the form of Valeriano’s father) – a sock stuffed with Kinder chocolate hung from my door. I hope that all members of the pasquetta band also got rewarded, in some way or another. After their long walk through the freezing streets, they certainly deserved to indulge on the 6th…

Capodanno

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I don’t care about New Year’s. I think it’s overrated, and am still traumatised by the memory of my one attempt to “go out” in London on New Year’s Eve (fireworks hidden behind buildings; cold; drizzle; horrible drunken crowds; a never-ending queue to get home). I’m quite happy not to do anything at all for New Year’s – to stay in, stay warm.

I told Valeriano that this year, we’d be together no matter what. If he had to work, I’d join him. He works as “welcome staff” for a holiday apartment rental company in Rome, doing check-ins and check-outs at various apartments across the city, and holidays are a busy time of the year. He was working all day yesterday – and all night – and I agreed to join him in the evening. Besides, it’s not like we were really missing out on anything special. The annual New Year’s concert at Circo Massimo had been cancelled (sponsors pulled out due to the usual political scandals) and our friends were scattered all over the place. We would celebrate together, somehow, in our own way.

*

8pm. Valeriano picks me up at home. I stick a bottle of Prosecco in my handbag, grab my helmet, and jump on the back of his borrowed motorino, ready for an evening of rushing around Rome. If we’re lucky, we’ll be finished by midnight. If we’re really lucky, we may even have time for dinner.

First, an apartment in Trastevere. While waiting for the guests to arrive, Valeriano debates whether to whizz over to another apartment near Ottaviano (the Vatican) – the location of the next check-in- just so he can turn on the heating before the guests there, so they won’t complain about the apartment being too cold to stay in and flounce off. Apparently that happens a lot. But going from Trastevere to Ottaviano just to turn on a radiator, and then returning to Trastevere, and then going back to Ottaviano to welcome the guests (Russians), seems like a cazzata, even though I can understand his reasoning, and his reluctance to upset the Russians. I convince him to wait for the Spanish arrivals in Trastevere.

The Spanish arrive, the check-in goes smoothly, and we speed towards Ottaviano to await the Russians. The booking has been made by a Russian woman, so Valeriano thinks she may be a prostitute – many of the Russian guests are. But when she arrives she turns out to be an economist, accompanied by her husband. The Russian Economist speaks charmingly stilted Italian and is delighted with the Christmas decorations in the courtyard, though disconcerted by the fact that two of the light bulbs in the living room are broken. She wants someone to fix it the next day, but there’s not much chance of someone rushing over to replace a couple of light bulbs on New Year’s Day.

As Valeriano and I are leaving the building the Russian Economist rushes after us. What about the wi-fi? Valeriano goes back to the apartment to track down the modem and wi-fi password, and discovers that there is no wi-fi in the apartment. The Russian Economist is distressed – she and her husband are there for a week and want to communicate with family. She starts to cry. It’s one of those awkward situations where there’s nothing Valeriano can do, except apologise for something that isn’t his fault. We leave.

It’s cold on the motorino. Really cold. The streets are strangely empty; everyone must be inside, drinking or dining. We speed along the deserted Lungotevere, watching the blue lights from the bridges criss-cross over the night sky, beaming from the angels of Ponte Sant’Angelo. These blue spotlights are the only sign we see of Rome’s public New Year’s celebrations, and they’re not particularly festive. They’re a little sinister, actually, as though they’re sweeping the sky in search of enemy planes.

Now we’re hunting for the apartment on Via dell’Orso (near Piazza Navona), the final check-in. Valeriano has been given conflicting information about the location of the apartment, and it takes 15 minutes of phone calls, dashing up and down stairs, and inspecting doors before we finally locate it. “We must look like thieves,” says Valeriano.

It turns out to be the apartment we’d dismissed before, because it didn’t look real. It’s hidden away on the ground floor of the palazzo, and looks more like a storage room or a place to leave the rubbish. It’s hardly inviting, and hard to believe that it’s the entrance to a holiday apartment.

Valeriano unlocks the door. Five seconds of an ominous beeping, and a glimpse of unmade beds. Then the burglar alarm goes off.

After the initial shock wears off, we stand outside the apartment, beside the bags of rubbish and the old bicycle, the alarm incessant and deafening, and wonder what to do.

By this point, Valeriano – who has been working 12 hour days for six days straight – is understandably fed up. As he phones various colleagues and bosses, all of whom are at New Years’ parties, I can see the repressed “vaffanculo” written across his face.

Over the next half hour we wander up and down Via dell’Orso, trying to get through to someone at his company to find out what to do. It’s 10pm. The Argentinian guests are arriving in half an hour and the apartment they’ve booked is unusable, because it’s essentially a dirty shed of an apartment with an alarm that can’t be switched off. What to do?

We make the most of the “break” to have dinner – a panino and some pizza from a forno that’s miraculously open. As we eat standing in the street, Valeriano is given his orders – “Go to the office, get the keys for an apartment in Trastevere, and take the guests there instead”.

So it’s back on the motorino, back across the river. Park the bike. Go to the office. Pick up the keys. Get back on the bike. Back to Via dell’Orso.

The Argentinians aren’t answering their phone. That means we have to wait for them on Via dell’Orso, outside the unusable apartment, just so we can tell them, “Sorry, you’re not staying here”. While waiting for the Argentinians I try to keep our spirits up by making Valeriano buy me a light-up pink tiara from an Indian street vendor (not exactly a bargain at 5). We dance in the street to keep warm.

The Argentinians arrive, suitcases in tow. They’re two young women, and they look tired. They got here using public transport, not a taxi. They’re understandably upset when Valeriano breaks the news.

“But we chose this apartment especially for the location! We wanted to celebrate New Year’s in the centre of Rome! Where’s Trastevere?”

I try to convince them of the advantages of Trastevere (“lovely neighbourhood, very lively, really not far out at all”) while Valeriano tries to hail a taxi. After wandering the streets in search of a taxi, we finally find one that’s free, and send the girls off to Trastevere. We walk back to the motorino, and then we’re on the road again.

The new apartment is in a quiet part of Trastevere, towards the Gianicolo. It’s not exactly party central. The girls arrive a few minutes after us. Valeriano says he’ll cover the taxi fare. “14.50,” says the driver. One of the girls peers at the metre. “But it says 14.20!” The driver rolls his eyes and goes on a very Roman rant at Valeriano about the girls’ stinginess. “I could have charged them 1 for the suitcases and I didn’t, and now they complain about 30 cents…” He’s right to be indignant, given that it’s 11pm on New Year’s Eve. Valeriano gives him 20 and tells him to keep the change.

The apartment – thank god – is pleasant and clean. The girls seem happy, even though they have no idea where they are. After check-in the four of us leave together. I put on my tiara. I had taken it off when the girls arrived at Via dell’Orso, as it somehow seemed in bad taste to be wearing a tacky light-up tiara in the company of irate guests. But now it’s 11.30pm, work is over at last, everyone’s happy(ish) and it’s New Year’s Eve.

After dropping off the Argentinians at a restaurant, Valeriano and I find ourselves a table outside a bar, snuggled up by one of the heaters.

Suddenly, it’s midnight. Our drinks haven’t arrived yet, so I whip out the bottle of prosecco from my handbag, and we swig from the bottle, then kiss, then drink some more. Fireworks. Prosecco. Kisses. Contrary to all expectations, the night has turned into a conventionally enjoyable New Year’s Eve.

If living in Italy has taught me anything, it’s that often, the most beautiful moments are the ones you don’t plan…

 

Death of a motorino

Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom, a princess fell in love with a knight. She loved the knight and she loved his horse too. The knight went everywhere with his horse, which was old and a little slow. He’d had the horse for so many years that he loved it almost as if it were human. When the knight said “My love” or “How beautiful you are,” the princess often wasn’t sure if he was talking to her, or his beloved horse.

They travelled across the kingdom on horseback, to beautiful places the princess had never even heard of before. Whenever she was tired of walking, the knight would immediately help her to mount the horse, and they would gallop off into the night, all the way back to the palace.

They spent a blissful year together – the princess, the knight and his horse. The princess and the knight believed that the horse might somehow live forever, despite his old age. It didn’t matter if he was slow, or if he looked a little more tired and worn than the other horses. He was the knight’s horse – no other animal could compare.

Then, early one morning, the princess awoke and went for a walk in the palace gardens. Turning to the right, she caught a glimpse of what had once been the stables, and gasped. There was nothing left. She rushed towards the blackened ruins of the stables; what she saw was worse than anything she could have imagined. In the middle of the night, someone had set fire to the stables, and all that was left of the horses was their bones. Among the bones and the ashes were the remains of the knight’s horse, but there was so little left that she couldn’t tell one from another.

The princess wept.

*

The story is true, only the magical kingdom is Rome, the princess is me, the knight is Valeriano, and the horse is a motorino.

*

This is what I saw when I left the flat yesterday morning.

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That’s where Valeriano’s motorino was parked last night, I thought to myself. But none of those can be his, because he left for work early this morning and I haven’t heard anything.

I called, just to be sure. Valeriano told me that one of the skeletal wrecks in the street was indeed his motorino. He had already filed a police report, and was at work with a rental motorino provided by his company. He probably said some other things too, which I didn’t fully understand, as I was distracted by the awful sight of the motorbikes – so much more awful now that I knew one of them was his beloved bike – and started to get tearful.

People are sympathetic and understanding if you cry over the death of a relative, or a pet. Maybe if it had been my motorino, instead of Valeriano’s, my reaction would have been more understandable. But no one expects you to be in mourning for your boyfriend’s motorino.

“It’s only a motorino,” Valeriano said, trying to calm me down. “It’s not as though it’s a person.”

A motorino is not a person, but Valeriano often talked about it as if it were, greeting it with the same joyous exclamations that he uses when he sees me. “Eccolo! Bello, bellissimo!” The only difference is the gender.

He’d had it for so long that it was a teenager in human years (and a pensioner in motorino years). It was sgangherato (rickety, run-down) and slow to start, spluttering for a minute or so before it finally whirred back to life, but Valeriano always had faith that it would start eventually. It always did, taking us wherever we needed to go – for work, for pleasure. Narrow back streets of Trastevere, snobby streets near Piazza di Spagna, high above the Vatican on Via Piccolomini, the ancient cobbles of the Appian Way, rising above the ruins of the Terme di Caracalla, the far reaches of the Prenestina…

So many of my memories over the past year – the first year of my relationship with Valeriano – involve the motorino, so I think it’s natural to mourn a bit. Valeriano’s even forbidden me from looking in the brown envelope that contains the charred remains of his targa (number plate), in case it sets me off again…

We think that it was probably arson – random vandalism, or the act of a pyromaniac – as similar attacks have happened in this part of Rome. I hope the criminal is caught, but I’m not optimistic. In the meantime, Valeriano – whose insurance doesn’t cover arson, apparently – has to buy a new motorino. Possibly a secondhand Vespa from his mechanic in Torpignattara.

As for the old one, all we’ve got is the targa and the memories.

Il motorino piu’ bello del mondo, riposa in pace

(Il piromane piu’ stronzo di Roma, mortacci tua)

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10 reasons to watch Romanzo Criminale

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Yes, there’s more to Italian TV than semi-naked women, infantile game shows and politically incorrect ads!

If you live in Rome and hang out with Romans of a certain age, chances are, someone will make a reference to Romanzo Criminale, a hugely popular and critically acclaimed TV series that aired in 2008-2010. (There also a hugely popular and critically acclaimed film made in 2005, but as I haven’t seen that yet, let’s stick to the TV series).

The series follows the lives and, er, “careers” of a gang of criminals in 1970s Rome (based on the real life Banda della Magliana). The gang is lead by the thoroughly unlikable, thuggish il Libanese, who aims to become the most powerful criminal in Rome through the gang’s domination of the city’s heroin supply. The episodes are focused on internal politics and wars with rival criminals and gangs, and the tireless efforts of the police commissioner Scialoja to bring them to justice. There’s a bit of doomed romance, but mainly it’s just a lot drugs and violence and incomprehensible Roman dialect.

Romanzo Criminale is fantastic, utterly compelling TV. You should watch it. Here’s why:

1. It’s incredibly gripping. I’m not really one for binge-watching TV, but there was definitely a temptation with Romanzo Criminale. Although there’s something kind of predictable – even inevitable – about the pattern of violence and betrayal, you can’t wait to find out what happens next. Will the gang kill their rivals? Will Scialoja have that sad puppy dog look in his eyes after being rejected by Patrizia once again? Will Dandi continue to be an irredeemable stronzo? We all know what the answer is, but it’s addictive nonetheless.

2. It’s an education in the dialetto romanesco. 90% of the dialogue is in dialect so thick that even Italians from other parts of the country struggle to understand it.

Sample quote from Libanese, talking to the gang:

Allora, questa è l’ultima occasione, si nun v’a sentite, è mejo che ve pijate ‘a stecca vostra e ve n’annate. Perché se restate, c’avrete ‘n mese d’inferno, dovrete usa’ le mani e pesta’ parecchi piedi, guardavve le spalle e dormi’ co l’occhi aperti, ma alla fine nun basterà sta borsa pe’ tutti li soldi che ve resteranno. Allora, chi ce sta?

Rough translation (I think): “Right, this is your last chance. If you’re not going to listen, you might as well fuck off. If you’re with me, you’re going to have a month from hell, so get ready. You’ll always be looking behind your back and sleeping with your eyes open, but it’ll be worth it because at the end, we’ll have so much money that it won’t fit in this bag. So, who’s with me?”

I had to watch the series with subtitles (in Italian), because although I live in Rome and understand some dialect, I’m not fluent in it. Watching Romanzo Criminale improved my comprehension of the dialect and made me want to speak it myself, although I can’t really carry off phrases like “Che cazzo stai a di?” in a British accent.

3. You learn about (modern) Roman history. If you’re not Italian, you probably don’t know much about life and politics in Rome in the 1970s. Romanzo Criminale provides a fascinating insight into the world of 70s Rome, from crime to communism to fashion. Yes, it fictionalized, but the main characters are based on real people – Libanese is the Magliana gang leader Franco Giuseppucci, Freddo is Maurizio Abbatino – and it feels authentic. It also features real historical events, from the assassination of Aldo Moro to the Bologna bombing.

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4. Bufalo. Although he wasn’t one of my favourite characters to begin with, as he became increasingly deranged, I grew increasingly fond of him. Most of the other gang members have a softer or at least a lighter sight, whereas Bufalo is in “insane thug hell-bent on revenge” mode 24/7. He’s like a less romantic, more Roman Heathcliff.

I once saw the actor who plays Bufalo, Andrea Sartoretti, sitting on a bench in Piazza Testaccio. While I’m sure he’s perfectly pleasant in real life, he doesn’t seem like the most approachable of people, so I didn’t ask for an autograph.

5. The soundtrack. Che soundtrack! Romanzo Criminale introduced me to so many wonderful Italian songs, from Patty Pravo’s “Pazza idea” to Antonello Venditti’s “Lilly”. There are also songs by some of my favourite 80s bands, like OMD and the Psychedelic Furs, and even “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks in a 60s flashback scene.

The songs are great in themselves, but the use is spectacular – “Tutto il resto e’ noia” is the perfect choice for a wedding scene interspersed with the gang gunning down an enemy (spoiler alert).

6. The Total Eclipse of the Heart scene. Don’t click the link if you’re not up to season 2, as it’s a major spoiler. It’s a scene where a character steals the coffin of another character, set to Bonnie Tyler’s classic power ballad. Hilarious, pathetic and moving all at once.

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7. The locations. Most scenes in Romanzo Criminale are set in the suburbs of Rome – a world away from the centro storico and the neighbourhoods that tourists are familiar with. It’s actually quite refreshing to see another side of Rome, rather than the beautiful, glamorous world of La Dolce Vita.

There are a few scenes in more familiar locations. Giolitti in Testaccio (not to be confused with the famous gelateria) features a few times, and an important character gets killed in the picturesque surroundings of Piazza Mattei in the Ghetto. There’s also a early morning meeting in the ruins of Ostia Antica. I love the contrast between the bellezza of the centre and the grittiness of the suburbs, the gloomy bar in Magliana and Dandi’s palatial apartment in Via Giulia (2nd season).

8. It’s short and sweet. TV series that have 5+ seasons (ie: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad) can be off-putting for a first-time viewer. You might not want to commit yourself to plowing through 23402340 minutes of TV, and then there’s always the chance that it jumps the shark. Romanzo Criminale has just two seasons – 22 hour long episodes – and is consistently brilliant. If you need something to fill the gap after you’ve finished the series, there’s always the film, and the Neapolitan equivalent, Gomorrah, which are both on my to-watch list.

ROMANZO CRIMINALE, La Série

9. The eye candy. There are quite a few attractive people in Romanzo Criminale. Notable mentions include Scialoja, whose sexiness is compromised by his terrible moustache, and Dandi, whose sexiness is compromised by his terrible personality. My crush on Freddo kind of disappeared over the second season, as he becomes less likeable. Not that he was ever that likeable to begin, but when you compare him to the others…Anyway, then there’s the beautiful Patrizia – the prostitute who becomes Dandi’s reluctant lover. 10/10 for Patrizia.

10. It makes you feel 100 times more tosto. You could be watching Romanzo Criminale tucked up in bed, wearing pink pyjamas, and by the end of the episode you’ll feel like a hardened criminal, ready to fill an infame with bullets from the back of a motorino before whizzing off with a suitcase full of cash.

It might be a good idea to watch an episode before heading out to take on a round of Italian bureaucracy, or battling your way through the crowds on the metro. If the characters of Romanzo Criminale can survive a couple of decades of drugs, guns, arrests and attempted murders, you can survive the queue at the Anagrafe or a journey on the B line at rush hour!

Romanzo Criminale is probably easy to find online, but I’m not sure about subtitles. Unless you’re familiar with Roman dialect, you’ll probably struggle, so look out for the DVD instead. It’s been released with English subtitles too and is available on Amazon.

Canzone #5: “Amandoti”by CCCP (1987)

Amarti m’affatica
Mi svuota dentro

(Loving you wears me out
It empties me)

“Amandoti” (“Loving you”) is a song by the Communist post-punk band CCCP. From what I’ve heard so far, it seems like CCCP mainly produced relentlessly bleak, nihilistic post-punk mixed with chamber music and the odd Middle Eastern influence thrown in for good measure. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t have much commercial success.

The cover version of “Amandoti” by Gianna Nannini is better known, and easier to listen to, if we’re honest. At least, it’s less inclined to make you want to self-harm.

But although I like Nannini’s version – one of the only decent songs I’ve ever heard on Radio Italia – the original has the edge. It’s dark, it’s dirgey. On a goth scale of 1-10, where 10= “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, “Amandoti” is probably a 9.

The singer, Giovanni Lindo Ferretti, is an interesting character. A former psychiatric nurse from Reggio-Emilia, Ferretti used to be a fervent communist. But after CCCP broke up he abandoned his communist beliefs, returned to the Catholic Church, and now votes for Lega Nord and breeds horses in his native village. He still performs live occasionally, probably in the crypts of churches in the mountains, in the middle of the night.

Returning to Rome from the Appian Way

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Once you start travelling down the Appian Way, it’s very difficult to turn back. A few miles down the road, the people begin to disappear, and the city feels like a distant memory. As you walk beneath the shade of the cypresses, passing medieval towers and fragments of Roman statues, you seem to be travelling through a strange, enchanted place that exists somewhere between city and country, past and present. You can enjoy the illusion of living in the past, walking in the footsteps of Roman soldiers and emperors, until you suddenly reach a break in the road, and have to wait at the intersection for the cars to pass before you can cross to the other side, continuing your journey on timewarped cobblestones.

The Appian Way once stretched from Rome to Brindisi, and was referred to as “the queen of long roads”. Built in 312 BC, it was originally intended for the transportation of military troops and supplies, running in a straight line until it hit the coast, and then snaking its way across the south of Italy. Although many sections of the road have disappeared or been interrupted, it’s possible to follow the road for the first 10 miles, beginning at Porta San Sebastiano in the southeast of Rome.

Trips along the Appian Way have become part of my weekend routine. On a Sunday morning I’ll often endure a tedious wait for the 118 bus, which has several stops along the beginning of the Appian Way. Then, more often than not, I’ll rent a bike and begin my ritualistic journey out of Rome, speeding past the shattered statues that watch over the ancient road.

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For me, the Appian Way is the most magical place in Rome, perhaps because it’s not only a place, but a journey in itself. The road is lined with intriguing sights – the Catacombs of San Callisto, the Tomb of Caecilia Metella, the Villa dei Quintili – but it’s impossible to visit the Appian Way and restrict yourself to a single destination. After exploring the dark tunnels of the catacombs or clambering over the ruins of a Roman villa, all it takes is a glance down the road, and you’re compelled to continue, to see what lies beyond the tunnel of trees.

The Villa dei Quintili is my landmark. When I see the huge brick tombs on my left and catch a glimpse of the ruins across the field, I know where I am, and how far I’ve come. I’ll never forget my first visit to the villa, when I stumbled across it by accident on a hot May morning. I bought my ticket at the gate, from an old man who seemed to be half asleep, and strode through the long grass until I reached the sprawling ruins.

The villa belonged to two brothers, until the emperor Commodus had them killed, and took the house for himself. Now the only indication of the villa’s former luxury is its size – the walls are enormous, and the ruins are scattered across a large meadow – but a visit to the villa is still an evocative experience. On my first visit I had the place to myself, and could hardly believe that I was walking on the original floor of a Roman dining room, where Commodus had once hosted his banquets. Despite its deteriorated state – or perhaps because of it – the Villa dei Quintili is one of the most atmospheric places I’ve ever been to. When I stand on the mosaic floor of a ruined room and watch a plane fly overhead, the villa seems to be the perfect symbol of the spirit of the Appian Way – a remnant of an ancient past that lingers uneasily on the threshold of present.

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Once, during a misguided attempt to reach the Appian Way from the Parco degli Acquedotti (Park of the Aqueducts), I got hopelessly lost. I had to climb under a barbed wire fence, and narrowly missed getting hit by a car on a busy road before I finally reached found the Appian Way. Relieved to finally know where I was, I began the long walk back towards the centre of Rome. After about half an hour I recognised the familiar ruins of the Villa dei Quintili on my left, instead of my right, which meant that I was walking in the wrong direction. When you’re tired and disorientated, there are few things more dispiriting than seeing ruins on the wrong side of the road.

Getting lost on a straight road which I’d travelled down countless times before was not one of my finest moments, but the Appian Way can be strangely disorientating. Once you go beyond the villa and reach the sixth or seventh mile, people seem to vanish, and you’re left alone with the birds and the sheep. The most famous monuments on the Appian Way, which attract the majority of visitors, are dotted along the first five miles of the road. When you reach the sixth mile there’s only a 12th century tower, and the tombs and mausoleums of the nameless dead.

In Venice there’s a tiny alleyway named Calle dei Morti ( “Street of the Dead”). It would be an even more appropriate name for the Appian Way, which was once lined with the crucified bodies of Spartacus’s army – 6,000 crosses from Rome to Capua. Even today, reminders of death are everywhere. The Catacombs of San Callisto stretch for miles, and although the popes and martyrs have been transferred elsewhere, they still hold the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Romans. The vast fortress of the Tomb of Caecilia Metella honours the daughter of a Roman nobleman. Other mausoleums are marked by plaques and fragmented faces, or sit beneath farmhouses, or are nothing more than small hills by the roadside – unmarked, unnoticed, forgotten.

Even after repeated journeys down the Appian Way – slow walks and ecstatic bike rides – I’ve never made it beyond the seventh mile. I could blame the heat, or lack of time, or my anxiety about missing the bus back to Rome, but the real reason is that I’m reluctant to travel too far, and risk spoiling the illusion. The map suggests that within a couple more miles, the road comes dangerously close to Ciampino airport, and then gets swallowed up by suburbia. The Appian Way of my imagination has more in common with Piranesi’s Baroque fantasy than reality. I feel compelled to explore, but I’m also compelled to turn back before I go too far, because my Appian Way is a road that never ends.

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Terremoto

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Growing up in England, I never thought about earthquakes. The closest I came to an earthquake was the simulator at the Natural History Museum in London – you walk into a replica of a Japanese supermarket, the floor shakes and the shelves collapse. Earthquakes seemed as unreal as the animatronic dinosaurs in the neighbouring rooms. They happened in other times, in other places.

When I grew up, I moved to Rome.

August

I woke up in the middle of the night feeling seasick . My bed was swinging backwards and forwards, and everything seemed to be shaking. My windows were open, and in my confused, half-asleep state, I reasoned that the cause must be some kind of wind. A strange, supernatural wind. Perhaps it was an omen. What if Valeriano had had an accident? What if he’d fallen off his motorino and the “wind” was a spiritual message?

The shaking stopped, and I went back to sleep. The next morning, I discovered that while I had been speculating about supernatural winds, my flatmate Tom had immediately realised that we were experiencing an earthquake, and started planning possible escape routes.

I spent the rest of the week reading the news, and getting tearful over the stories of the people who had died in towns like Amatrice and Pescara del Tronto. The fireman’s letter to the child he had been unable to save was one of the most heartbreaking things I’d ever read.

I donated some money to the Red Cross, and prayed that it would never happen again.

Wednesday 26 October

I was in the middle of teaching an English lesson when I started feeling dizzy. I thought it was all in my head until I heard my students talking amongst themselves – “terremoto”. Another earthquake? I wasn’t sure how to react, and was too confused to panic. The shaking was less violent this time, and stopped quickly. Should we leave the building anyway? My students shrugged. “It’s nothing, it happens all the time.” The lesson continued.

Downstairs, a colleague’s class was less laidback – the students immediately rushed out of the school.

Just under two hours later, there was another scossa (tremor), but I didn’t feel it, perhaps because I was in a car at the time, being driven home.

Sunday 30 October

I was woken up by the bed shaking. I immediately got out of bed, and saw that my friend from London (who was sleeping on the sofa bed in my room) had woken up too. The whole room seemed to be shaking from side to side, and there was the most horrible noise – as if the entire building was creaking, shifting.

As I live on the fourth floor, evacuating the building wasn’t really an option. I crawled under the desk and told my friend to do the same. We crouched there for a few seconds until we were sure the shaking had stopped. Then, still feeling shaky, we got back in bed, and tried to make the most of the rest of our Sunday lie-in.

On a conscious level, I’m not afraid of earthquakes. At least, I’m not afraid for Rome. Although we felt the effects and there was some minor damage – cracks in churches, walls and roads – nothing collapsed, and no one was injured. It’s the communities in smaller towns in Lazio, Umbria and Le Marche that I worry about. I can’t imagine what it must be like, living under constant stress and not knowing if you’ll ever be able to return to your home.

Nonetheless, the earthquake has had an unexpected physical and psychological toll. I’ve been sleeping badly, imagining that the bed was shaking, and experiencing occasional moments of dizziness. I’m not the only one.

There’s something quite unsettling about sleeping in a broken bed (broken for reasons unrelated to the earthquake), in a country that seems to be constantly shaking. I’m looking forward to the arrival of my new bed, and the terra settling down, so I can finally get a good night’s sleep…