On the banks of the Tiber
Last night I joined the crowds on the banks of the Tiber to see Triumphs and Laments, William Kentridge’s 500 metre artwork that covers the walls between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. It was officially opened to the public on 21 April (Rome’s birthday) with a free concert, which was repeated last night. Romans gathered on the bridges and along the Lungotevere to watch the parade of figures in brightly coloured cloaks, singing and carrying puppets that cast massive shadows. The walls of the Tiber became a backdrop, while the long path running along the waterfront was a stage. Music boomed and echoed along the river – a kind of tribal opera, sometimes a dirge, sometimes a triumphant chant pierced by shrieks and the blasts of trumpets – while tiny bats whirled above the water.
I think I would find it very difficult to write an objective review, to judge whether it was “good” art or “good” music. As a spectacle, I loved it. There was something exhilarating about the sheer scale of it – the length of the stage, the volume of the music – and the fact that it was taking place in the neglected heart of the city.
Rome feels strangely disconnected from its river. The Thames is a busy, working river that plays an integral role in the daily life of London, and parts of the Seine seem quite lively, particularly in the summer, but the Tiber often seems almost dead. I associate it with death – the corpses of executed criminals being thrown into the river in Roman times; the woman who drowned and was found in the water near Ponte Sublicio; the severed foot with the tattoo that read “Ogni giorno è buono per morire“.
The Tiber is so far below street level that it hardly seems to belong to the city at all. Long stretches are overgrown and damaged by regular flooding, and it’s usually only joggers and cyclists who make a habit of using the path by the river. Then there are the homeless, who take shelter under the bridges, as this Guardian photo gallery shows.
Last year I wrote a novel set in Rome, In Exile, where the Tiber makes an occasional appearance:
But as she waited for a bus that would probably never come, staring at a cloudless blue sky and rocking back and forth on her feet, she was taken by a random impulse to go to the river. She found herself longing for the sight of green water, the raging torrent that suddenly calmed and became almost motionless.
She could not look at the river without imagining the thousands of bodies that had plunged into it over the centuries. The water had always had a curious, deadly stillness in certain parts. There were no boats and the branches of the trees were filled with rags and tattered plastic, the remnants of winter floods. The river was so far below, so quiet, that at times it hardly seemed part of the city at all. It was merely a ghostly, pale green stream drifting towards the sea.
Concrete paths ran alongside the water’s edge, but they were mostly deserted, apart from the occasional cyclist and the homeless. The river was not a place to linger. Grace gazed at the water, tranquil and shipless as always, and then looked along the length of the riverbank. There were no pedestrians, only a solitary sleeper basking in the softening rays of the late afternoon. Shielding her eyes from the sun, Grace stared at the man and tried to decide if the resemblance was just wishful thinking.
Against her better judgement, she descended the stone steps and left the shade of the trees and the noise of the traffic behind her. She kept her eyes fixed on the figure below, afraid that if she blinked, he would vanish. Of course she would not talk to him; she only wanted to see.
He was dressed in a loose white shirt and trousers, face tilted up towards the sun. As she crept towards him she became convinced that it was the same man, and she felt a shiver of fear despite the heat. Thank God he was asleep, and she could walk past without ever seeing –
The Tiber isn’t always lonely. In the summer, white tents pop up all along the riverbank – temporary bars, restaurants and shops taking advantage of the river breeze during the heat of August. I missed out last year, and the year before, as I had summer jobs in London, but this year I’ll be experiencing my first Roman summer, and hopefully spending more time by the Tiber. And with organisations like Tevereterno working to revitalise the neglected waterfront through maintenance work and art projects, perhaps the Tiber will eventually be reclaimed by Rome.