Go Thou To Rome

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

Rome: a reading list

Are you interested in Rome? Do you like to read? Presumably the answer is “yes” to both questions, given that you’re reading my Rome blog…

This is not a definitive list, just a personal selection of some of the books I’ve read (or want to read) that are set in Rome, or about Rome.

 

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The Aeneid – Virgil (29-19 BC)

Where it all began. I remember hating the Aeneid when I first started studying it at school (in translation, for A-level Classical Civilisation), but it grew on me. Feeling sorry for Dido was the way in. Anyone with an interest in Rome really has to read it, at least for an appreciation of the epic story behind the city’s foundation. It may be fiction, but knowing the Aeneid helps you to understand Rome and the Romans – their sense of importance and belief in ancestry.

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La romana – Alberto Moravia (1947)

A dark, somewhat depressing novel about a prostitute in fascist Rome. I read it several years ago and don’t remember it very well, apart from the fact that the characterisation was good, and it was an interesting depiction of working class life in Rome.

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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – Tennessee Williams (1950)

The story of a American actress who lives a lonely, aimless life in Rome, coming to terms with the end of her career and her aging, as she drifts into an affair with a younger man. The film with Vivien Leigh is better known than the novella, but it’s well worth a read, and interesting to compare with Williams’ plays.

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La Storia – Elsa Morante (1974)

A family saga set in San Lorenzo during and after the Second World War, regarded as a modern classic. Elsa Morante was from Rome (there’s a plaque for her in Testaccio) and she was married to Alberto Moravia. I’ve wanted to read this for ages, but it remains on my TBR pile because my Italian is not quite there yet. I’ve read books in Italian, but 500+ pages is a challenge. I’ll get there one day.

Artemisia – Alexandra Lapierre (2001)

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A Christmas present in my TBR pile. Apparently this is one of at least two novels about Artemisia Gentileschi (the other is The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more, as Gentileschi is the ideal subject for a book – a talented artist who overcame trauma and scandal to forge a remarkable career across Europe. She grew up in Rome – the scene of the infamous rape and subsequent trial – and returned to the city later in her career, after a period in Florence.

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Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006)

I think I discovered this gem of a novel entirely by chance, picking it off the shelves in a bookshop. A day in the life of a young, pregnant German woman who walks through Rome in 1943, contemplating the return of her husband. It’s the perfect book for someone who knows Rome well, as you can visualise her exact route, through the streets of Prati, over the Tiber to Piazza del Popolo. The novel takes the form of a single sentence, which sounds daunting, but it works surprisingly well.

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Five Quarters – Rachel Roddy (2015)

It’s more than a cookbook – it’s the story of a Roman neighbourhood. Rachel has lived in Testaccio for years and writes beautifully about daily life in the neighbourhood, in the market, piazzas, restaurants and courtyards. The recipes – for Roman dishes from pasta to polpette – often come with a glimpse of local life, just like her Guardian column. The photos are gorgeous too, and make me homesick for Testaccio.

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Midnight in the Piazza – Tiffany Parks (2018)

Another one from the TBR pile – an art history mystery by local author Tiffany Parks, one half of The Bittersweet Life podcast. In children’s book Midnight in the Piazza, 13 year old Beatrice witnesses the theft of one of the turtles of the Fontana delle Tartarughe from her bedroom window, and gets drawn into the mysteries of the aristocratic Mattei family. A book for art lovers and anyone who is fascinated by the Jewish Ghetto, in particular the atmospheric Piazza Mattei and Palazzo Mattei di Giove.

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Agrippina – Emma Southon (2018)

I’m reading this unusual biography right now and thoroughly enjoying it. Agrippina was the sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. She was, and continues to be, defined by her relationships with powerful men, but she was also a fascinating character in her own right. Emma Southon puts together the pieces of the puzzle to assemble a portrait of the Roman empress, from her birth in Cologne to her death (by execution) in southern Italy. As you would expect, Rome is where lots of the action takes place. Memorable scenes so far include the 13 year old Agrippina’s wedding day on the Via Sacra and New Year’s Day in the year 38 AD, when a slave entered the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill carrying a puppy and a knife, made some terrible predictions, then killed the puppy, then himself. I’m expecting many more memorable scenes before Agrippina meets her violent end…

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In Exile – Alexandra Turney (2019)

My book! This is what a NetGalley reviewer said: “Turney deals with the absolutely riveting question “What would happen if Dionysus were re-born in a 20th century Rome where no one believed in him?” in a Tartt-esque novel that is well-written, fast-paced and engrossing; a read ideal to start the new year off.” You can request the e-book from NetGalley, pre-order from various places, or buy it when it comes out on 24 January. Read it now so you can be smug about discovering me early on. (Please, someone – discover me. I want readers!)

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I’m aware that this list is lacking in pre-20th century literature, Italian authors and non-fiction. The Culture Trip and An American in Rome have good alternative lists. If you have any recommendations, please comment – I’m always looking for new books to read.

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Moments from the Metamorphoses – Ovid at the Scuderie del Quirinale

I was a teenager the last time I read (and adored) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the characters and stories still so feel so familiar. Walking around the Scuderie del Quirinale, at the exhibition of artworks inspired by Ovid (Ovidio. Amori, miti e altre storie), it was like bumping into old friends. “Ah, it’s Icarus again …Marsyas challenging Apollo to a competition on the lyre, we all know how that ends….a distressed woman and a cow, must be Zeus and Europa.”

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(‘The Abduction of Europa’, Antonio Caracci)

I know Ovid because I’ve read Ovid, but I know him best through art. If you start looking, the myths of the Metamorphoses are everywhere – countless paintings, frescoes and sculptures in churches, museums and galleries, returning obsessively to certain moments.

Daphne turns into a tree to escape Apollo:

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(‘Apollo and Daphne’, Bernini)

Zeus turns into an eagle to abduct Ganymede:

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(‘The Rape of Ganymede’, Damiano Mazza)

The massacre of Niobe’s children by Apollo (and in some versions, Artemis):

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(‘The Punishment of Niobe’ by Tobias Verhaect)

Most art inspired by mythology seems to be focused on a moment of suffering – death, mourning, rape, abduction. The crucial, dramatic moment of the story is almost always a terrible one, and yet generations of artists (and gallery-goers) delight in them.

There’s just something morbidly fascinating about these moments – often a fateful encounter between god and mortal. They’re turning points – the lives of Daphne, Ganymede, Niobe and Europa will never be the same again.

I like the amorality of these stories. There are a few exceptions, such as the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, or the myth of Marsyas and Apollo, which have a clear moral message – a warning against arrogance or hubris. But for the most part there’s no message, no lesson. What I love about mythology, and the Metamorphoses in particular, is the acceptance of things as they are, without judgement. Beautiful things happen. Terrible things happen. Life is random. People live and then transform. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (‘Everything changes. Nothing perishes.’)

One of my favourite myths is the story of Ariadne. After helping Theseus to defeat the Minotaur, she’s abandoned on the island of Naxos. There are lots of paintings and sculptures depicting either the sleeping Ariadne (unaware that she’s been abandoned), or showing the moment that she wakes up alone on the beach and weeps for Theseus.

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(Head of sleeping Ariadne)

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(‘Ariadne in Naxos’, Evelyn de Morgan)

I understand why these moments are popular artistic subjects – beautiful sleeping woman, beautiful sad woman.

But the best, most dramatic moment of the story is this:

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(‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, Titian)

This is the moment when Ariadne meets Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine, and his entourage. The moment when she meets her future husband, and realises her life is about to be transformed:

Here’s an extract from one of my novels, where two characters look at a painting of the Annunciation during a visit to the Accademia in Venice and then discuss Bacchus and Ariadne:

“Look at this,” she said.
The angel Gabriel had swept into a palace of marble, an elegant building of columns and archways. To the right, the Virgin Mary regarded her visitor with an expression of mild curiosity.
“Mary always looks so serene, doesn’t she?” said Hyacinth. “But it must have been a frightful shock.”
“That’s what I always thought. When I was younger I was so enthralled by these Annunciation paintings, staring at them for ages in the Gallery. My sisters had to drag me away.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s the most dramatic, life-changing moment, and there’s always this space between the angel and Mary, as though there has to be this divine distance and he can’t come too close. I find it fascinating. I dreamt of the same thing happening to me.”
“You never struck me as the type that craved divine visitations.”
“Of course. It seems like the most strange and beautiful thing in the world, especially when you’re twelve years old and you think your life is going to stay the same forever. I wanted to be someone special, to have my life changed in an instant by an angel coming into my bedroom in a blaze of glory. I know it sounds absurd, so you can laugh if you like.”
“No, I think I understand what you mean.”
“I’ve always loved the paintings which show the second when someone’s life changes. Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ is another one – the moment when she’s rescued, and she sees her new life coming towards her, Bacchus leaping from his chariot beneath that perfect sky.”

The character’s feelings about Bacchus and Ariadne are my own. The painting, which I first discovered through an art book I had as a child, and then through repeated visits to the National Gallery in London, is also one of the sources of my fascination with Dionysus/Bacchus.

So many paintings focus on a divine encounter. Not just mythological art, but also all the scenes from the Bible. The moment when a mortal captures the attention of a god, for better or worse, or when an ordinary person finds themselves in the presence of Christ or a saint or an angel.

Which scene from my novel, In Exile, would I choose to be represented in a painting? The first moment that the teenage girl meets the melancholy, exiled god of wine in a backstreet of the Jewish Ghetto, and mistakes him for a homeless man? Dionysus’s unsettling appearance at a sleepover, and the first taste of divine wine? A scene from one of the later bacchanals near the Appian Way, when they realise there’s no going back? It’s a pity it’s too late to commission Titian…

As much as I love these freeze frames – the scenes that make me think of the beauty and frustration of stillness in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – I always want to know what comes next. What about the rest of the story? I suppose that’s why I write novels instead of creating art (well, there’s also the fact that I can’t even draw a decent stick figure…). Maybe that’s also the reason why of all the mythological paintings, it’s Bacchus and Ariadne that captivates me the most. Somehow it feels like more than a moment, hinting at the rest of the story – leaving Naxos to begin a new life as a goddess, wife of Dionysus. In myth it’s considered the end of the story, but it’s actually a beginning. A life on the verge of transformation, and a glimpse of a new world.

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I originally intended to write a proper review of the exhibition, but I got sidetracked…I do recommend Ovidio, which is at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 20 January. I liked the way it was organised, beginning with an introduction to Ovid and his life and times (the age of Augustus), and then guiding you through the myths. Even if you choose not to use the audioguide, the myths are explained (in well-translated English, for once!) for each section, which has several artworks depicting a character or scene from the story. Some of the artworks are not the best or most famous interpretations of the myth, but there’s still a good selection of paintings and sculptures, including some beautiful frescoes from Pompeii and a striking, lesser-known Venus by Botticelli.

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As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.

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Italian weddings: a beginner’s guide

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“There are going to be more than 250 guests at the wedding,” I told my student. “250!”

“In Calabria,” he said, “you sometimes get 600 guests. At one there were 1,200. They had to book multiple restaurants.”

Italian weddings are a big deal. The day might last for more than 12 hours, the guest count reach hundreds, the total cost tens of thousands euros.

I recently had my introduction to the Big Italian Wedding. Lorenzo (Valeriano’s friend) and Celia recently got married in Puglia, and Valentina (Valeriano’s sister) and Alessio in Cassino. A quick summary of of the days:

Lorenzo and Celia – 3pm – traditional Catholic ceremony (with some parts translated into English for the benefit of the bride’s guests) at a church near Monopoli, a quick aperitivo outside the church, then a drive to Castello Marchione for the reception. Another, fancier aperitivo, then buffet style antipasti, then a multiple course formal dinner. After dinner there was the wedding cake, then drinks, dancing, and ice cream and a chocolate fountain for anyone who wasn’t stuffed. The night was over by about 3am.

Valentina and Alessio – 9am – a kind of breakfast aperitivo at the flat (Valentina’s father’s home), then on to the church at 11am for a traditional ceremony. We then drove to the restaurant Il Vernacolo, located just outside of Cassino, where lunch began with buffet style antipasti outside, then continued inside for about 7 hours, with a live band and dancing. Then outside for the wedding cake, fruit and more dessert, fireworks, drinks and cigars. As family of the bride, we were some of the last to leave at around midnight.

Both the weddings were a lot of fun for the guests, but the brides and grooms clearly enjoyed themselves too, and the length of the events meant that we got to see a lot of each other, compared to shorter weddings where the couple spend so much time being photographed that they hardly get to talk to their guests. It was wonderful to be a part of their big day, and to see them looking so happy (and the brides looking so beautiful).

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(Valentina and her father leaving home on the morning of the wedding)

I have limited experience of weddings in general, so it’s hard for me to make big proclamations about differences between British weddings and Italian weddings. Every wedding is different, after all. But a few things worth noting…

Gifts

Italian weddings pay for themselves. These days, guests are generally expected to bring a busta (envelope) with cash or a cheque to the wedding, or make the transfer beforehand, rather than giving a present. My understanding is that the minimum you can give is about 100 euros (any less and you’re not even covering the cost of your presence), and that the fancier the wedding, the more you should give. I heard of a wedding where a relative of the groom gave a burnt 50 note (don’t ask me why), which obviously didn’t go down well.

The benefit of this system is that the bride and groom can actually stand to make a profit. Even if you have to fork out 30,000 beforehand, depending on the generosity of your guests, you can expect to have several thousands of euros leftover at the end.

Food

The food isn’t that important at British weddings. It’s on the list, but probably somewhere below alcohol and the floral arrangements. At Italian weddings, however, the food is everything.

I’m not going to lie. As much as I love the food here, the prospect of a meal lasting 6-7 hours filled me with dread. I can’t eat that much! Who can eat that much? But is it rude not to eat everything? Am I going to collapse in a carbohydrate-induced coma a few hours into the meal?

The quantity (and quality) of food didn’t disappoint. Both weddings had an incredible array of antipasti, including fancy canapès, oysters, mussels, insalata di mare, mozzarella, meat, fritti…I had to remind myself not to keep going back for more, as this was just the beginning.

This was the menu at Valentina and Alessio’s wedding:

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Believe it or not, it is possible to eat everything – to have some of all the dishes, at least, even if you don’t finish your plate. The food is spread out over such a long period that you never feel unpleasantly stuffed.

Then there’s this tip from a source who shall remain anonymous. If you want to make the most of the wedding meal and eat everything (it’s all delicious, after all), don’t go to the toilet the morning of the wedding. Then, halfway through the meal, head to the bathroom and, er, make room. That way you can go back to the table and enjoy your secondo secondo with gusto.

(Needless to say, no one touches the bread)

Music

Both the weddings I went to had a live band, and one had an X Factor star, Santino Cardamone. There were a few English language songs, but mostly Italian classics like Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano and Un Emozione da Poco. There was also one of my favourites, Gianna Nannini’s America, which got all the relatives dancing and singing along, despite the inappropriate lyrics.

The week before Valentina and Alessio’s wedding there was the serenata; traditionally this involves the groom serenading the bride outside her home, but this serenata was a huge garden party at Alessio’s family’s house in the country, and the focus was definitely more on the food than the music. But there was some music and dancing, and karaoke to the usual Italian repertoire, including Franco Califano’s Tutto il resto e’ noia, which seems even more inappropriate than “America”, yet is inexplicably popular as a wedding song. I mean, it’s a great song, but it’s literally about love being boring and disappointing:

La prima sera devi dimostrare
che al mondo solo tu sai far l’amore
si, d’accordo ma poi.
Tutto il resto è noia

(The first evening you have to show
that in the world only you know how to make love
yes, okay, but then
all the rest is boredom)

Is its wedding popularity ironic? Italians don’t really do irony. Not like the British, anyway. The British are definitely better at both irony and drinking to excess. Which brings us on to…

Alcohol

I drank a lot at both weddings, but somehow I didn’t really get drunk. Very few guests got truly drunk. Why? The length of the day, I suppose – it’s hard to get drunk when the drinking is staggered over 12 hours, and you’re eating pretty much every hour. Also, getting off-your-face drunk in British style is frowned upon in Italy. It’s not that people don’t get drunk – they do – but it’s less acceptable to be visibly, embarrassingly drunk. Especially for women – I’ve never seen an Italian woman drunk in the way that British women get drunk.

At the Cassino wedding some of the younger male guests were drinking heavily, but they managed to keep it together. Some of them were about to throw up when they caught sight of Valeriano (brother of the bride) and restrained themselves.

People also got drunk at the serenata but behaved themselves, with the exception of one guy, who apparently poured a bowl of spaghetti over his head. I don’t know if that was alcohol related though, or if that’s just what he does at parties.

Clothes

Everyone I saw was wearing typical formal clothes –  nothing different from what you would see at weddings in other countries. The British (and American?) rule that you can’t wear black at weddings certainly isn’t the case here, as I saw quite a few women in black dresses, including the groom’s mother. That’s about the only difference. Oh, and no hats/fascinators.

Confetti

Confetti is not what you think it is. In English, “confetti” is the bits of paper you throw at weddings, or blast from cannons at concerts. In Italian, “confetti” are sweets you give to your guests at weddings or christenings, usually made with almonds. The English “confetti” is the Italian “coriandoli”. The Italian “confetti” has no exact translation in English, because they don’t exist.

It’s a bit like the whole chip confusion (British chips are American French fries, American chips are British crisps).

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Etiquette

It’s fine to leave the table during the meal, and go off for a wander/phone call/nap. It’s fine to pop out of the church during the service if you’re bored or need some air or a cigarette, apparently. It’s not fine to be on Whatsapp while the bride and groom are exchanging rings (what’s wrong with you?)

I may have made a few blunders. On the morning of Valentina and Alessio’s wedding people kept saying auguri to me, and I was unsure whether this was just because I was sort of family (no one said auguri at the other wedding), and if I was supposed to say it back. I was also awkward during conversations with elderly relatives because I knew I should be using the formal lei instead of tu and I’m just not used to it.

My worst faux pas, however, was with a nun. It didn’t happen at the wedding, but when we met at Fiumicino while awaiting the arrival of some other family members, who were flying in for the wedding. I was introduced to the nun, who’s related to Valeriano somehow, and she seemed enchanted with me, stroking my arm and calling me a capolavoro. Later she was complaining about how much work she had to do at the convent, and I asked innocently, “Ah, che tipo di lavoro?” She looked flustered and then made some more vague references to the amount of work, and the fact she was in charge of the convent, so, you know…

Apparently I wasn’t supposed to ask what work she did, but merely express sympathy when she complained. The exact nature of the work of senior nuns in Rome remains a mystery…

To conclude, my advice for stranieri who find themselves invited to a Big Italian Wedding:

  • Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
  • Be prepared for lots of small talk in Italian
  • Also lots of cheek kissing. I lost count of the cheeks I kissed
  • Wear comfortable shoes, or at least bring a change of shoes
  • Eat everything and start your diet tomorrow
  • Drink but don’t embarrass yourself
  • Be generous with your gift
  • You can eat the confetti
  • Don’t ask nuns what they do

Canzone #9 “A nuje ce piace magna'” by Renzo Arbore (1998)

 

Italians will dispute some stereotypes – “We don’t gesticulate all the time”; “We don’t all live with our parents”, “There’s more to Italy than pizza, pasta, mandolino, Mafia…”

But this song confirms the food stereotype. “A nuje ce piace magna'” (“We like to eat” in Neapolitan dialect) is basically a menu, and it’s not even a parody or a joke song. It’s a dedication to the diverse cuisine of Italy, which needs no translation:

l’orecchiette alla barese
tortellini alla bolognese
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna’
saltimbocca alla romana
melanzane alla parmigiana
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna
cotoletta alla milanesa
e porceddu alla nuorese
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna’
con il fegato alla veneziana
i cannoli alla siciliana
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna’

If you were ever in doubt that Italians like to eat, just take a listen. The fact that it doesn’t sound completely ridiculous (at least to Italian ears) says something about the value of food in Italian culture.

An equivalent for England would be something like this:

Yorkshire pudding
Chicken korma
We like to eat
PG Tips
Fish and chips
We like to eat
Marmite on toast
Sunday roast
We like to eat

Not very convincing, is it? The British don’t really like to eat. Not like the Italians. When Renzo Arbore sings “bucatini alla matriciana“, I imagine Italians abroad shedding a tear.

Until you’ve lived in Italy, I don’t think you can really understand just how integral food is to daily life. Italians don’t just eat, they talk about eating all the time. Eavesdrop on a random conversation in the street, and I promise you, most of the time it’ll be food related. Sharing recipe tips, discussing what they had for lunch or dinner, debating the merits of different types of tomato. It’s completely normal and, at times, a little bit boring if I’m honest. Can we talk about something else for a change?

But then, I’m guilty of talking about food too. I remember a conversation with my parents, after I’d been living in Rome for about a year. I started telling them about a wonderful dinner I’d had the night before, describing the dishes in detail. “Why are you telling us this?” they asked, confused. Though they’re too polite to say it, what they meant was, “We don’t care.”

Compare that to a conversation with Alessio (my soon-to-be-sort-of-brother-in-law). When I saw him for the first time after my trip to Ischia this summer, the very first question was “What did you eat?” And so I told him about the amazing caprese, the pasta with cozze e zucchine, the fresh figs, and he was genuinely interested in a way that very few British people would be.

For Italians, food isn’t just food. It’s one of the great pleasures of life. It’s culture. It’s love. Valeriano rarely gives me the smaller portion of pasta, even though I’m trying to lose weight, but that’s amore.

P.S.

I haven’t said much about Renzo Arbore, because I don’t know all that much about him, other than the fact that he’s Neapolitan and a fan of food. But if you enjoyed “A nuje ce piace magna'”, I recommend his better-known song Cocorito, an ode to a lost parrot.

A Caravaggio tour with a visit to an art restoration lab

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Caravaggio wasn’t Roman, but he spent many of the defining years of his life and career in the Eternal City. It was in Rome that he found patrons and painted some of his most famous works (Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Judith Beheading Holofernes, The Calling of St Matthew). It was also in Rome that he befriended prostitutes (sometimes using them as his models), was accused of sodomy, got arrested near Piazza Navona for carrying a sword without a permit, threw a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter, and finally killed a man during a fight. After 16 years in Rome, Caravaggio was forced to flee to Naples, and then Malta, while Pope Paul V gave him a death sentence in absentia.

As well as the biographical connection with Rome, many of Caravaggio’s works are still on display in the city – in churches (Santa Maria del Popolo, San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agostino) and galleries (Galleria Borghese, Galleria Doria Pamphili, Palazzo Barberini). There’s also a Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums (The Entombment) that most people miss in their haste to get to the Sistine Chapel.

I love Caravaggio – the drama, the subversiveness – and I love Rome, so a Caravaggio tour in Rome was always going to be relevant to my interests. But, even better, this tour also involved a visit to an art restoration lab, and meeting the restorers who have helped to preserve Caravaggio’s paintings. More on that later…

I joined the Restoring Caravaggio tour with Roma Experience, starting in Piazza del Popolo with a visit to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. I’ve been fascinated by this church ever since I found out the legend of its origins, involving Nero’s tomb and a walnut tree haunted by demons, and it’s also home to two paintings by Caravaggio – The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus.

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Apparently a church official wasn’t happy that the horse took up so much of the picture, and had this conversation with Caravaggio:

“Why have you put a horse in the middle, and St Paul on the ground?”

“Because!”

“Is the horse God?”

“No, but he stands in God’s light!”

We walked through the streets of Caravaggio’s old neighbourhood, past Via di Pallacorda, scene of the murder (pallacorda was an early form of tennis), to Sant’Agostino and one of my very favourite Caravaggio paintings.

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Madonna dei Pellegrini (also known as Madonna di Loreto) caused a scandal when it first went on display. To the modern eye it might not look that extreme, but compare it with older, more traditional portrayals of the Virgin Mary and you’ll see the difference. This is a very earthly Mary in a humble, every day setting – a far cry from the ethereal Marys floating in clouds, who hardly seem to have bodies at all. But it wasn’t just the slight suggestion of cleavage that made Caravaggio’s Mary controversial. She was standing in a doorway. A doorway! But what’s so controversial about a doorway, you might ask? Well, at the time the figure of a woman standing in a doorway in the street was associated with a prostitute. A coincidence, you might think. But then there’s the yellow shawl (also associated with prostitutes), Sant’Agostino’s congregation (the Augustinians were more liberal, and prostitutes often attended services), the fact that the model for Mary was most likely a prostitute…It’s not a coincidence.

Even though I’m not remotely religious, I really enjoy religious art. Angels, saints, ugly baby Jesuses, all of that. But I especially enjoy Caravaggio’s subversive blend of religious art – how he brought God into the streets of the city, narrowing the gap between ordinary people and the divine. In the Madonna del Pellegrini the pilgrims are peasants with dirty feet, just a few feet away from a Virgin Mary who suddenly doesn’t seem quite so virginal after all. To suggest that Madonna and Whore inhabit the same world – even the same woman – was pretty radical for Catholic Rome in 1606.

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A short walk away from Sant’Agostino, in a ground floor laboratory that was once a stable, a small team of art restorers work on 17th century paintings by Caravaggio and his contemporaries. They even restored Madonna dei Pellegrini in what is known as a restauro aperto (open restoration), working on the painting in the church, in full view of the public. When they’re not on site in churches or galleries, they’re based in their laboratory, which resembles a kind of hospital for paintings – discoloured canvases wait their turn, while restorations-in-progress are marked with white lines to highlight the “before and after”.

We met Valeria and Daniela, the experienced restorers who run the laboratory, and Arianna, who gave us a tour and explained how restoration works. As you might expect, it’s highly specialised work, and the most difficult part (which only the most experienced restorers are allowed to do) is cleaning paintings. It’s painstaking process, removing old layers of yellowed varnish bit by bit. It has to be done slowly, as some mistakes can’t be undone, and finding the right mix of chemicals is crucial.

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On our tour we watched a restorer at work, and gained appreciation for just how slow, careful and precise they have to be. For someone like me – impatient with shaky hands – it would be impossible. We also learned all about different materials and chemicals, and how the approach to restoration depends on the canvas, the age of the painting, and many other factors. I was curious to know why the laboratory also had some contemporary paintings on the walls – surely a painting created in the 20th century couldn’t be in need of restoration? But it turns out that a lot of modern artwork doesn’t endure in the same way as older paintings. Modern artists are more experimental with their materials, and after just a few decades the artworks can become discoloured.

After the tour, over a couple of glasses of prosecco, we discussed the restoration work on the Sistine Chapel and the anti-restoration argument – there is a small but vocal minority that believes paintings shouldn’t be restored. The artist Richard Serrin was particularly critical: “The [so-called] Glorious Restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes has destroyed them forever. What we say now cannot bring them back to life. We can only speak out to document the accountability of the Vatican restorers so that it does not pass unrecognized.”

Part of me understands some of the anti-restoration objections. We can never completely understand the artist’s intentions, and even the most careful, experienced restorer can never return the painting to its exact original state. To some extent, it will always be a subjective interpretation.

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But if you don’t restore paintings, what’s the alternative? Let the colours fade, let the paint flake away, until the masterpiece is a yellow shadow of its former self? The anti-restoration argument also strikes me as somewhat selfish. A damaged Caravaggio painting might still be considered “OK” for now, but if we don’t restore it, what will it look like in 200 years? It’s the same for the Sistine Chapel. Shouldn’t future generations be given the opportunity to appreciate the restored frescoes – imperfect though they may be – instead of having to squint at the dirty, time-darkened figures and console themselves with the thought that “At least it’s more authentic”?

After a visit to the restoration lab, I know which side I’m on, and I have a new appreciation for the art/science/magic of restoration. Caravaggio is famed for his use of chiaroscuro, but you need the contrast between the light and dark to fully appreciate it. And thanks to Valeria and Daniela, the Madonna dei Pellegrini is in the light once more.

Note: I was a guest of Roma Experience, and the restoration pictures are from their website.

 

Sant’Angelo, Ischia

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I blame Instagram for my island envy. Sardinia, Sicily, Ponza, Capri, Ischia. Endless photos of sunsets, beaches, boats. The rest of the world was sipping cocktails on terraces with a seaview while I was enduring the British heatwave in sweltering classrooms and trying to convince my teenage students that Frankenstein was interesting. I was teaching on my 27th birthday, and when I asked my students to guess how old I was, they all answered “35”. I finished summer school feeling exhausted and old.

But at the end of it all, in the last days of August, I finally got my holiday – a few days in Sant’Angelo, Ischia. My friend Tara (also a writer – check out her novel Social Creature) had invited a random mix of friends to come and join her in her mother’s villa, which sits high on the hill overlooking the sea. Quite how high, I underestimated.

I took the regionale train from Rome to Naples – a leisurely three hours to save money – and spent a day wandering along the Lungomare, eating pizza, and exploring the backstreets, finally calling it a night when I got jumped on by an over-friendly pitbull called Nikita. I stayed in an Airbnb near the port – a cavernous apartment decorated entirely in 1970s style, complete with unsettling patterned wallpaper and creepy vintage toys. The vibe it gave off was part brothel, part 1970s Neapolitan vampire lair, and although the owner presumably lived there, and often seemed to be lurking in the shadows, the place had a curiously unlived-in quality. Still, it was comfortable enough, and conveniently close to the port.

The next morning I got the boat to Ischia (Forio), then a taxi to Sant’Angelo. At this point I managed to get hopelessly, deliriously lost. In my confusion I was following two sets of directions (one to the villa, one to the bar where Tara was waiting), not realising that they were nowhere near each other. It didn’t help that I had the wrong address for the villa. Conflicting instructions from Google Maps and street signs confused me even further.

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Also, Sant’Angelo is steep. Really, really steep. There are no cars, as they wouldn’t fit on the tiny paths that wind up the hill. Trying to drag a suitcase up a hill under the intense heat of midday in August, wearing sandals with no grip, not knowing where on earth I was or where I was supposed to be, was not one of my more enjoyable holiday moments.

Anyway, I made it in the end, and Sant’Angelo turned out to be lovely when experienced in the right way (in sensible shoes, in the shade, without a suitcase, with at least a vague sense of geography). The town was originally a fishing village, and it has a sleepy, laid-back feel. Everyone potters around at a relaxed pace (it’s impossible to rush uphill anyway) or travels on golf carts, and most of the tourists seem to be older couples or families. It’s all very charming and unpretentious, and once you’ve recovered from the trauma of your arrival, it’s the perfect place to unwind.

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I allowed myself a total break from work – as well as working at a summer school, I’d been busy editing my novel for the last few weeks – and enjoyed a lazy few days lying on the beach, swimming, getting painted with mud (more on that later), and getting to know the other guests over countless bottles of prosecco. The careers of Tara’s group included: writer, model, burlesque performer, and university lecturer and director of Oxford chapel. I was one of the only non-New Yorkers. There were some entertaining conversations…

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One evening we had dinner in Eugenio’s garden. You couldn’t call it a restaurant, and I doubt you’ll find Eugenio on TripAdvisor. Tara befriended him the previous summer when she accidentally trespassed on his land, and one night he cooked for us – generous vegetable antipasti, gnocchi, pasta al pomodoro, rabbit (an Ischian speciality), more vegetables, two types of dessert (rum baba’ and mimosa cake), washed down with white wine. Brian (the only Englishman) was scolded by Fabrizio (the only Italian, Eugenio aside) for using cutlery to eat his rabbit, which turned into a minor cultural war and extended metaphor, while Eugenio appeared and disappeared at random intervals, sometimes singing, and his dog and cat ran under the table. Somewhere far below was some kind of concert, blasting lounge music across the island. I heard a lot of terrible music during my stay in Sant’Angelo, including trashy party versions of Lucio Battisti.

However, the food made up for the music. Pasta with mussels, courgette and pecorino by the beach, and the amazing caprese with a twist (layers of anchovies and swordfish between the mozzarella tower):

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Another highlight was the spa day. Since Roman times, Ischia has been famous for its thermal baths, and Sant’Angelo is a short boat ride away from one of the best-known, Cavascura. One day we took the taxi boat to the beach, then walked down a path through a kind of rocky gorge to reach the baths of Cavascura. In the end, only Laura and I decided to brave the spa treatment, while the others headed back to the beach or went to drink prosecco, most likely.

For 30, this is what you get:

  • A shower
  • Approximately 15 seconds in a sauna cave, saying “oh god, it’s too hot”, shrieking when you lose your footing in the dark and fall into some kind of hole filled with hot water, and then quickly escaping
  • The spa man asks you, surprised, if you’re sure that you’ve spent enough time in the sauna, to which the answer is a very assertive “SI
  • The unique experience of standing outside and being painted in cold mud from head to toe. If you make small talk with the spa man while he sticks a paintbrush between your thighs, at least it distracts you from the awkwardness of knowing that you’re in full view of the other spa-goers
  • Once you’ve been painted you stand in the sun and wait for the mud to dry, until you resemble one of those green plastic soldiers, and you feel so at one with the Ancient Romanness of the whole situation that you could be an extra in Fellini’s Satyricon. Then the spa man says “sei un elefante“, which means it’s time for a shower
  • A cold shower to get the mud off
  • And finally an unknowable length of time soaking in an Ancient Roman thermal bath, relaxing, wondering what time it is, relaxing, wondering how you’re supposed to know when you’re done if there are no clocks, relaxing, wondering if it’s dangerous to stay in such hot water for a long time, relaxing, deciding it’s better not to risk it and getting out of the bath

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Overall, an experience as enjoyable as it is surreal. The fact that it all takes place outside, beneath rocky cliffs covered with cactuses, makes it easier to pretend that you’re an Ancient Roman, doing as the Romans did. You can round off the experience with a sublime spremuta (freshly squeezed orange juice), and then book yourself in for extra treatments like massages. But after my spa experience I was ready for lunch at a nearby restaurant – bruschetta, insalata di mare, white wine with peaches, fresh figs from the garden – before we headed back along the beach, stopping off for a swim along the way.

Plan: work more to work less next summer, and spend more time swimming in the sea/eating pasta and drinking wine on beautiful terraces/overcoming my Englishness to take part in ancient spa treatments

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Torpignattara restaurants: no ties allowed

One of the advantages of changing neighbourhoods is that it forces you to try new restaurants. Living in Testaccio, a neighbourhood full of excellent restaurants, made me pretty unadventurous. But like Testaccio, Torpignattara is also known for its Roman cuisine, and a couple (Betto e Mary and Bonelli) are famous among Romans. If you don’t live nearby, it’s worth taking a trip on the trenino to check them out.

For the full Roman experience – no-frills, boisterous and meaty – these restaurants won’t disappoint. Remember, when it comes to edible parts of an animal and volume levels, there are no limits, so if you want to fit in, order the intestines and shout at your dining companions.

Betto e Mary

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Restaurant: Betto e Mary is famous in Torpignattara and beyond. It’s very Roman, and very meaty. Come here to indulge your love of horse meat and oxtail, but don’t wear a tie. There’s even a sign with a picture of a man in a tie that says “io non posso entrare”. The atmosphere is casual and a little chaotic, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in character.

Menu: Meat, meat and more meat. There’s no written menu, and when the waiter comes to your table to recite the menu at you, it can be a little overwhelming. In addition to the usual Roman dishes – carbonara, amatriciana, coda alla vaccinara etc – there are a few options with horse, even frog. Always wanted to try bull testicles? Now’s your chance.

When the couple at the next table (two inches away) heard me say that I was vegetariana they burst into laughter, as if a vegetarian at Betto e Mary was the most hilarious joke they could think of. If, like me, you don’t eat meat, you’re limited to the cacio e pepe (buono but not exceptional) and the vegetable side dishes like fried cauliflower (delicious) and red pepper with pine nuts. House wine is just about drinkable.

Service: Friendly and informal. Waiters sit at the table with you when they take your order.

Price: Around €25 per person – maybe not as cheap as you’d expect, for this kind of restaurant, but reasonable. The signora at the till shouts “MAAAANCIA” when you tip.

Osteria Bonelli

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Restaurant: Bonelli is at the eastern edge of Torpignattara, near the aqueduct park. It’s famous – not only is it a local favourite, but it also attracts people from across Rome, and even the occasional adventurous tourist. There’s a picture of the actor who played il Libanese in Romanzo Criminale, so top marks for romanità.

The restaurant is a typical, unpretentious osteria with tables close together. It’s comfortable enough though, and not too chaotic. Of course, if you find yourself sitting next to a large, noisy Roman family (likely) it can be a bit deafening.

Booking in advance is essential.

Menu: The menu is written on a few portable blackboards, which pose a tripping hazard to the waiters. Typical primi: tonnarelli alla gricia, gnocchi all’amatricinia, fettuccine burro, alici e fiori di zucca. Typical secondi: all the usual Roman meat dishes like polpette, abbacchio, fegato. The menu is seasonal and changes daily. Everything I’ve eaten there has been delicious, and according to Valeriano, the tonnarelli alla gricia was the best he’d ever had That’s high praise indeed from an Italian.

Service: Friendly and efficient.

Price: Very good value – perhaps one of the best value restaurants in Rome, considering the quality of the food. Eat all you want, and you’ll struggle to pay more than 20 per person. Also, they give you a real receipt! Not just an incomprehensible scrap of paper, but a real, fiscal receipt, which means they pay taxes. Bravi.

La Certosa

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Restaurant: Located just down the road from Betto e Mary, in the piazza dedicated to Ciro Principessa. I call it the “Amy Winehouse bar” because of the mural outside, but its official name is La Certosa, and in the evening it becomes a very informal trattoria, specialising in fish.

In the summer there are plastic tables outside in the piazza. When I say piazza, I actually mean “the middle of the road, next to parked cars”. A lot of the reviewers on TripAdvisor are clearly aghast at this unconventional and possibly illegal arrangement, but personally, I like it. You’re right at the heart of the most Roman neighbourhoods, enjoying the street life and the novelty of eating spaghetti alle vongole on the tarmac. If you want fine dining and luxury, look elsewhere, but you can’t deny that it’s got character.

Menu: Like Betto e Mary, there’s no written menu – the waiter will recite the menu of the day. It’s all fish and seafood – insalata di mare, alici fritti, spaghetti alle vongole, calamari, grigliata di pesce, frittura di pesce and so on. The quality is good. Not exceptional, but it’s got a nice casareccia feel to it, especially with the mismatched cutlery. House wine is quite nice.

Service: The general consensus is that that the service is bad – long waits, rude staff. One reviewer describes them as perecottari – literally “cooked pears”, meaning “so-called professionals who offer poor quality service”. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but on the evening we went there were no problems. The waitress was fine, and accompanied by her 6 year old son who followed behind with his notebook and pen, as if he were the one who took the orders.

Price: The other pros and cons are debatable and subjective, but the price…Dinner for 2 (antipasti, secondi, water, a half litre of house wine and amari) came to 64, which is a bit steep for an unpretentious restaurant in a working-class neighbourhood. A tourist might think it reasonable, but Romans know better.

To summarise: I would recommend all three to anyone looking for a memorable Roman meal, but the winner has to be Bonelli for quality and value.

Next on my “to-try” list is Bazar – a new Neapolitan-Kurdish restaurant on the Casilina.

Any other local recommendations?

The most “allucinanti” places in Rome

allucinante: crazy, mind-blowing, unbelievable, weird, shocking

In this post, I’m translating allucinante as “crazy/weird/bad to the point of unbelievable”.

Over the past few years I’ve written so many articles and blog posts focusing on the positive side of Rome – the must-see monuments, the most beautiful piazzas, the coolest neighbourhoods, the most breathtaking views – and I’m starting to feel the need to show the other side.

I love Rome. But there are certain places that can only really be summed up with allucinante. There’s no word in English that quite captures their awfulness.

Termini

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You haven’t truly experienced Rome until you’ve broken down in tears at Termini at least once.

The main train station of a capital city tends not to be the nicest place, but Termini is especially bad. I think it’s partly because it’s not just one of several main stations (compare to how things are spread out in London between Waterloo, King’s Cross, Liverpool Street etc). While there are other big train stations in Rome, Termini is the station. It’s the unavoidable hub where all commuters, tourists and undesirables are thrown together, and it’s a mess. A confused, sweaty mass of humanity.

Examples of how Termini is allucinante:

  • Some of the platforms are so far away. Including the train to Ciampino, which is just sadistic – making poor tourists run breathlessly down a never-ending platform with their heavy suitcases.
  • 90% of the toilets are always out of order, and the one that “works” is usually malfunctioning, leaking and flushing non-stop and spraying you as soon as you enter the cubicle. More of a fountain than a toilet, but it’s not exactly the Trevi.
  • Having to change from line A to line B (or vice versa) at rush hour. A moment of silence for the commuters who have to do this daily.
  • The bench at the bottom of the escalators near the main entrance, which is almost permanently occupied by a depressing assortment of people who most likely have nowhere else to go.
  • Random puddles of piss, vomit, and one time blood.
  • If you find someone’s tessera sanitaria (health card) on the floor and attempt to be helpful by handing it to a member of staff, they’ll mock you (“Ma di dove sei???“) and be of no help whatsoever. When you recount this story to an Italian, expecting some sympathy, they’ll shrug and say, “Lavati le mani. Dalla stazione Termini non si raccoglie nulla” (“Wash your hands. You don’t pick things up in Termini”)

And I haven’t even mentioned the horrors of Piazza dei Cinquecento (the bus terminal in front of the station) or Via Giolitti (the street running along the southern side of the station).

Piazza Vittorio Emanuele

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Valeriano wants to live in Piazza Vittorio. When I remind him of how allucinante Piazza Vittorio is, he clarifies: “Not literally in Piazza Vittorio. I mean the neighbourhood.” There’s a difference, you see. I have nothing against the neighbourhood, but the piazza scares me sometimes.

There are so many weird people in Piazza Vittorio. Drogati, fulminati, criminali. There’s always someone fighting or shouting, dragging seeping bags of rubbish along the marble floor beneath the arcade.

Piazza Vittorio should be beautiful. I believe it used to be. It’s certainly grand enough, with its palazzi, arcades and park. But over time it’s become very run-down indeed. Saving graces are the Gatsby Cafe, giving Piazza Vittorio some much needed class, the international food market and the Indian restaurants on the periphery of the piazza.

Finally, MAS deserves a special mention for being exceptionally allucinante. Good old MAS. It no longer exists, but while it was open it contributed a lot to the weirdness of Piazza Vittorio. A vast, cavernous department store stuck in a time warp, selling clothes from the 1980s in their original packaging and an assortment of cheap and hideous things. There were sinister mannequins, danger signs and a ceiling on the verge of fall collapse. MAS’s closure was long overdue, but I miss it nonetheless.

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Colle Oppio

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A dirty park where people eat cats (apparently) and a tourist was raped. It would be horrible anywhere, but what makes Colle Oppio particularly allucinante is that it’s literally next to the Colosseum. It seems unbelievable that a park in such a central, historic location of a capital city could be so horrible and run-down. A sad symbol of the ongoing crisis in Rome.

Porta Maggiore

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Porta Maggiore is perhaps the most allucinante of all the places on this list. Located to the east of Termini, it’s a huge traffic hub, with train lines, tram lines and roads going around and through a Roman ruin – the eastern gate of the 3rd century Aurelian walls. It’s also the location of an impressive funerary monument known as the Baker’s Tomb.

When I was writing blog posts for a tour company and running out of ideas for places to recommend, I once included Porta Maggiore in a list of unusual, “off the beaten path” tourist attractions. It is a place of historical interest, after all, and it was featured on a Mary Beard programme. My boss was horrified. “You can’t send tourists to Porta Maggiore!” At the time I tried to defend its inclusion but now, having spent more time there, I have to admit that he was right.

Porta Maggiore is chaos. Gypsies picnicking in the undergrowth, homeless people sleeping on benches, alcoholics throwing empty bottles of beer in the grass, people selling things that are laid out on the pavement. Yesterday there was a man walking around in those white slippers you get free from hotels. It’s dirty beyond belief – the grass around the archway is overflowing with rubbish that’s probably been there for a decade. The rats are gigantic.

Porta Maggiore has essentially been abandoned. Everyone in Rome seems to accept that it’s filthy and chaotic, and there have been no efforts to improve it. It’s somewhere to pass through if you absolutely have to, that’s all. There was a recent story about an immigrant getting into a boxing match with a policeman, which would have been shocking if it had happened anywhere else in Rome. But you know, in Porta Maggiore…

The only way to enjoy Porta Maggiore is to pass through on the motorino at night. Speeding under the arches and admiring the monument when it’s all it lit up, you can appreciate the beauty. The contrast with the urban setting – the surrounding layers of roads, bridges and tram lines – makes it more atmospheric somehow. Having said that, it’s very much a place to pass through as quickly as possible. Enough time to enjoy a snapshot of Ancient Rome juxtaposed with the urban sprawl, then get out of there.

Carrefour, Via Filarete

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When I was trying to explain to Valeriano where to find the nice salmon in the Carrefour (our local supermarket), I ended up drawing him a diagram on Microsoft Paint. It was actually quite good, skillfully conveying the confusion of the Carrefour and the desperation of staff and shoppers alike, but unfortunately I didn’t think to save my abstract masterpiece.

The Carrefour is open 24 hours, has a security guard, and a collection of sad/bored/high people who gather around the plastic tables outside. There’s a sushi counter that no ever visits. A lot of the products don’t have the price on display. If you want to buy pine nuts, you have to ask for them at a special counter; I’m assuming because pine nuts are expensive, and they’re worried about pickpockets. There’s also the risk of being threatened with a syringe.

The people who work at the Carrefour mostly seem defeated by life. I would be too, if I had to hear “Cassa…numero…sette” on a loop for 8 hours a day, with conversation limited to…“Tessera? Busta?” Some of them have given up saying buongiorno, and quite frankly I don’t blame them.

Casellario Giudiziale, Piazzale Clodio

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I sometimes work in summer schools in the UK, which require me to do a criminal record check in Italy. I put it off for as long as possible, and then reluctantly get the bus to Piazzale Clodio.

What should be a relatively simple process is complicated by the fact that the office is really hard to find (even having been there multiple times, I still get lost), and inside, confusion reigns. For first-time visitors speaking little to no Italian, it’s especially overwhelming. Which desk? Which queue? Which form? You’re surrounded by people frantically moving from queue to queue, arguing with the staff and waving bits of paper around. A bell rings every time the door opens, and every time the number in the queue changes. It does your head in after a while.

Every year I meet my nemesis. The woman at the desk where you have to buy the stamps, who refused to let me buy the stamps. I knew that I had to buy the stamps there, because I couldn’t at the second desk. I argued with her, left stamp-less, then waited for a while and re-joined the queue. By the time I got to the front again, my nemesis had gone on her break and there was a new woman, who immediately gave me the stamps. It’s really a question of luck – who’s behind the desk?

The problem with the Casellario Giudiziale – and any kind of bureaucratic office in Rome – is that some of the people who work there are so bored, or so stupid, that they make everything ten times more complicated than it needs to be, wasting your time and theirs. If you betray any sign of confusion, hesitation, or not having perfect Italian, they use it as an excuse to say “No”. Then you’re back at square one.

See also: the post office, ASL, Anagrafe, Agenzia dell’entrate, and anywhere else involving bureaucracy and queues with numbered tickets.

Trevi Fountain

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You fight your way through the crowds, get prodded with selfie sticks and momentarily swallowed up by a tour group, catch a glimpse of that iconic, dazzling white monument, think “Wow!” and then “Great, I’ve seen it. Now I can go.”

The Trevi Fountain is beautiful. But visiting it during the day, and particularly during peak tourist season (March-October), is an ordeal. The piazza is relatively small, considering how many people are there to admire the fountain at any one time. There’s just not enough space. It’s kind of like Termini at rush hour, except at least at Termini everyone’s moving, trying to get somewhere. At the Trevi Fountain the crowd consists entirely of tired, distracted tourists, walking around in circles, bumping into each other as they try to take photos, and no one moves to let you get past. Just as you had to fight your way in, you’ll have to fight your way out.

Some crowds I’m fine with. Crowds at a concert, for example. I can even tolerate public transport crowds, as long there’s some air. But there’s something about the Trevi Fountain crowds that makes me feel all anxious and panicky.

Of course, the good thing about the Trevi Fountain is that you can easily avoid it. If you live and work in Rome, many of the other posti allucinanti are unavoidable.

Any other nominations?

Street life

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Sono abitudinaria. I don’t know why there’s no corresponding adjective in English, but essentially I’m a creature of habit. I like having a routine. When I lived in Testaccio I had various morning routines like having coffee at Linari or going for a walk in the Protestant Cemetery, and now that I live in Torpignattara I’m creating new routines. As much as I’d like to be spontaneous, I’m just…not. I’m happier with habits.

My new morning routine developed after I joined the local swimming pool. If you want to swim in a pool in Italy, by the way, you have to get a medical certificate from your doctor. Actually, first you have to go to a cardiologist to get an ECG, and then you have to make a second appointment with your doctor, who will check your blood pressure, ask you the usual questions about allergies and family medical history, then charge you 30 for a bit of a paper with her signature. Then, and only then, is it deemed safe for you to get in the pool.

The swimming pool is about a 15 minute walk from my flat – a stroll through the street life of Torpignattara.

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First I have a coffee. At the bar with the Amy Winehouse mural outside, which seems to be stuck in a timewarp. Or at the bar on the corner where there’s usually a group of old men having a lively conversation in dialect. Or at the posh bar on Via Alessi that symbolises the neighbourhood’s very gradual gentrification, where some confused tourists (what are they doing in Torpignattara?) attempt to order decaffeinated coffee (why would you?)

On Via di Torpignattara I like to read the walls. There’s hardly an inch of wall that isn’t covered with graffiti or posters. Marvin the budgie is smarrito (missing). Poor Marvin. Apparently a young man named Francesco Concari is a STUPRATORE INFAME (a villainous rapist). There are numerous posters featuring Caravaggio’s painting of David with the head of Goliath. FREEDOM BASQUE PRISONERS says another wall.

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The Nepali alimentari is overflowing with potatoes and onions every time I pass. They’re spilling out the door, cascading down the steps. Other foreign alimentari have vegetables I don’t know the names of in English or Italian. Like the green, cucumberish vegetable I see a Chinese woman eating in the street as she walks along, savouring it like an ice cream.

The alimentari is overflowing with potatoes, and the bins are overflowing with rubbish. Always. There’s usually some random furniture in the street too. Mostly mattresses, but sometimes a small cupboard, or a chair, or an oven. If you get impatient of waiting for it to be picked up, you can download the app for AMA (the rubbish collection service) and send them messages until, three weeks later, they take away the mattress. Victory!

There are so many bars on Via di Torpignattara, but I don’t go to any of them. I find them intimidating and slightly depressing. I suspect the empty “cocktail bar” is a front. And I can’t bring myself to have coffee at a bar where everything looks dirty and there are men drinking beer at 10 o’clock in the morning. Or the bar where the owner shrieks at customers who dare to move the plastic chairs even an inch over the invisible boundary on the pavement. “E se un vigile passa?” she says, as the men sheepishly shuffle back to their original positions. I’d have thought that an illegal chair would be the least of the police’s problems…

I pass the Pizzeria Pomo d’oro; a man sitting in a red plastic chair outside is wearing a “Hard Rock Torpignattara” t-shirt.

Then there’s the aqueduct. The Roman aqueduct that cuts through the heart of Torpignattara, creating the border for a park. It’s a surprisingly neat and well-maintained park, considering the disorder in the surrounding streets. The grass is cut, there are tidy little flower beds and cypresses and a separate park for the dogs.

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I always see the same people on the benches. There’s the Indian man who’s always on the same bench with some plastic bags, sometimes with a bottle of Peroni. The only words I’ve heard him say were to a man on another bench – “Mamma mia, che dolore.” I’m not sure what pain he was referring to, but it might explain why he’s always sitting. Then there’s the old man in the white shirt and white baseball cap with the white chihuahua, who sits and watches the world go by.

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I cross the square where children play football and Muslims pray during Eid, go past the car repair shop with all the broken Smart cars, and then I’m at the pool.

The pool is for serious swimmers, who speed up and down with their goggles and flippers and hand-flippers (?) and nose plugs. I hope they don’t judge me for my awkward doggy paddle and goggle-less version of the front crawl (I’m sure they do).

A woman who’s been doing lengths stops suddenly and says to the instructor, “Posso farti una domanda?” “Si.” “Come prepari…?” She’s asking him how to prepare a pasta dish. I swear there’s not a moment of the day that Italians aren’t a) eating b) thinking about food or c) talking about food. Eavesdrop on any conversation in the street and there’s a 90% chance they’re talking about what they had for dinner last night.

I do a couple of lengths, and when I return to the shallow end of the pool it’s become a group conversation about how to make the dish. Still, when you’re a serious swimmer, capable of doing multiple lengths of butterfly stroke without pausing for breath, I suppose you burn enough calories to eat all the pasta you want. I’m not quite there yet, unfortunately.

The instructor – who sometimes takes pity on me and gives me tips on my technique – shakes my hand as I leave the pool and says “Hello”. He means “Goodbye”, but of course in Italian it’s the same – “Ciao” whether you’re coming or going.

In the changing room Thegiornalisti are on the radio. Their new single Felicita’ Puttana (literally: “Whore happiness”) is a guilty pleasure, and likely to become the tormentone of the summer, just as Riccione was the tormentone last summer. Both songs are so easy to parody, with cheesy videos and ridiculous lyrics (“Sotto il sole di Berlino/mangio mezzo panino) but god, they get stuck in your head.

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With “Felicita’ puttana” going round in my head on a loop, I head home the way I came, walking through the park in the sunshine with dangerously damp hair (living life on the edge).

On Via Alessi there’s an elderly signora trundling along with her shopping trolley. Suddenly she stops and exclaims: “‘sto cazzo di camion!” (“this fucking van!”) There’s a van parked on the pavement (there’s always a van parked on the pavement). There’s nothing like an old lady swearing at the top of her lungs to remind you that you’re not in England any more.

I haven’t been in England for a while. I’ve got my flat in Torpignattara, my job in Montesacro, my doctor and hairdresser in Testaccio. I’ve got a codice fiscale, a carta d’identita and a tessera sanitaria. I speak Italian to my Italian boyfriend, make cacio e pepe and zucchine alle scapece, never drink a cappuccino in the afternoon, successfully deal with bureaucracy…

But I walk through Torpignattara with wet hair.

“Go thou to Rome” said Shelley – so I went

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It’s strange to think, during the more mundane moments of my life in Rome – sitting on the trenino, or taking orders from the loudspeaker in the supermarket queue (“Cassa…numero…sette“), that if it weren’t for two long-dead Romantic poets, I probably wouldn’t be here at all.

Indirectly, in a myriad of ways, Keats and Shelley influenced my decision to come to Rome. It all started as a teenager, re-reading their poems obsessively, devouring every biographical detail, and even writing a Shelleyan novel (finished and then abandoned). Apart from the fact that I adored their poetry, I was also deeply inspired by their lives – how Keats turned his back on a career and devoted his short life to poetry; how Shelley rejected his country, wealth and social norms to pursue his ideals in Italy. They burned so brightly, creating such an astonishing body of work in the space of just a few years, and then they were gone – Keats from tuberculosis at 25, Shelley drowned at 29. Both were buried in Rome.

They were my heroes. When I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer at Keats House in Hampstead, it was a dream come true – giving guided tours, closing the shutters at the end of the day and imagining how Keats himself would have stood at those windows, watching Fanny Brawne in the garden. For many visitors, coming to Keats House was a kind of pilgrimage – a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to do it weekend after weekend.

Then, while at university, I found myself wondering what to do with the summer. On an impulse I wrote an email to Keats-Shelley House in Rome, asking if I could do some work experience in the museum. They said yes, and I began to plan a 3 week trip to Rome . This would be my poetic pilgrimage, a chance to pay my respects to Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery and to spend time in the building where Keats had spent his last months. On top of that, of course, there would be sightseeing and copious amounts of pizza and pasta. The only thing that prevented it from being a perfect holiday was that I would have to rough it in a shared hostel room and limit myself to a budget of 20 a day. It wouldn’t exactly be a luxury experience, but it would be an adventure.

Re-reading old blog posts from that time (September 2011) makes me nostalgic:

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Things I did today:

-Visited the Protestant Cemetery, found Shelley, Keats, Severn, Trelawny and Wilmouse. A kindred spirit had already put some little blue flowers there. I didn’t bring any flowers, as I couldn’t find anywhere selling them nearby, but I plan to go back on my own after Rachel’s left, so I don’t bore her with my dead poet love.

-Spent ages at the Baths of Caracalla, which are spectacular. Possibly one of the best things I’ve done so far. Shelley used to walk there all the time, and sit there writing poetry.

-Accidentally spilt water all over the 1890s edition of Shelley’s poetry that was in my bag, and started to get upset, but then stopped when I realised that there was something quite poetic about a Shelleyan day ending with his poetry being drowned. It’s only the cover of the book that’s damaged, thankfully – the inside is all right.

Other posts romanticise every aspect of working at Keats-Shelley House, from sitting in the the office in the attic and poring over Severn’s letters to wandering around barefoot in the library, cataloguing books and dusting shelves.

Those three weeks in Rome would define my life. I remember the exact moment I made the decision, sitting on a bench beneath the umbrella pines in Villa Borghese: “I want to live here”.

When I came back to England, I told everyone my new life plan: “Move to Rome and write novels”.

7 years later, I’ve been living in Rome for 5 years, my debut novel is due to be published, and I’m in the middle of writing another one. As Valeriano says, “If you say you’re going to do something, you do it”.

This sudden wallowing in nostalgia isn’t completely out of the blue. It was prompted by a return to Keats-Shelley House yesterday, for a poetry reading by the actor Julian Sands. One of those things you book impulsively without really thinking about it, and then the moment arrives and you suddenly realise how perfect it is, how you’d have been mad not to go.

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Julian Sands is best-known for his performance in A Room with a View, but he also played Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic, and is a long-time fan of Keats and Shelley. He reminisced about taking girls on dates to Keats House in Hampstead back when he was a drama student and, like me, he has fond memories of his first trips to Rome and visits to the graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery.

At Keats-Shelley House he read a selection of poems by both poets – poems that I know by heart, like “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Adonais” – and, I have to admit, it was moving. Aside from the fact that I find Keats and Shelley moving in themselves for so many reasons, it was a profound experience to sit in that room and reflect on changes in my life. At 15 I was studying “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” for GCSE English in a classroom in London, and at 26 I was listening to Julian Sands recite the poem I loved so much in Keats-Shelley House, Rome, the city I’d made my home.

Afterwards there was prosecco on the terrace. I had a brief chat with Julian Sands, as I wanted to thank him and try to articulate exactly what the reading had meant for me. How to say to a stranger, “This is one of those unexpectedly meaningful moments that make you reflect on your life – past, present and future – on who you are, on who you want to be, and your relationship with your idols…so thank you”?

I didn’t say that, exactly, but something like it. Then I finished my prosecco and left, passing through the hordes of tourists in Piazza di Spagna to get the metro, and resume my normal Roman life.

Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness…