Italy Journals - Part I

9/12 – Rome

The flight in was one of cramped, tingle leg quarters, delirium drug-dreams, on and off dozes.

When we arrive in Rome I am zombiefied, bewildered by our castrati-voiced driver, the clean modern sweeps of Leonardo DaVinci airport. Customs might as well not exist, the bored goatee agent nonchalantly stamping passports.

I doze on the drive into the historical district. Shiver-eyed glaze. Glimpses of buzzsaw Vespa gangs, Gucci coattails billowing. Food stands in the red-brown sidewalk, punch metal street signs. The aesthetic in the working poor districts is more Mexico, less redneck USA – no gaudy billboards, but plenty of rundown gas stations sprouting corner markets like organic growths.

The bed and breakfast is nestled deep in a historic residence, through a courtyard of piled timbers and palm leaves, flowered trees. The elevator may have been one of DaVinci’s contraptions, encased in a grate metal tube, manual doors, rising with an oiled quickness. The door key is equally cryptic, an archaic exaggeration of ridges and teeth.

Once inside, the decor is a blend of antique bed stands and Ikea flatpack, sprinkled over with a colorful arrangement of tchotskis and kitsch. Definitely homey, compared to the neutered bland of corporate hotels. I nap for a few hours.

The friendly young hostess gives us the rundown, house rules and procedures, rough schedule of breakfast, circles on the tourist maps for emphasis. Armed with knowledge and a street map, we set out into the streets.

There’s a rhythm to travel, a confidence that has to gel both internally and between members of the party. We’ve yet to don that garb, and we bumble about in the market, unsure whether to pull up a chair at the cafe, packed already with chain smoking youths, huddled over Peronis and a deck of cards.

We settle on squares of greasy Focaccia and gelato cones, slowly shuffling towards the Vatican.

Steph remarks early on the apparent smallness of the city, so used we are to Manhattan. Admittedly, it does feel a bit cramped; cut back an order of magnitude from New York. Most of the maze-like intersections lack any sort of traffic light, so there is an organic interplay between vehicles and foot traffic, the former deterring the latter with roaring momentous streams, and vice-versa.

So we check off the obligatory sights (or at least the rough stone facades) – Vatican, St. Peters, Pantheon, Castle San Angelo, the Roman Forum and Coliseum. We smile down at crumbling pillars and a den of nesting cats, the absurdity of it – once the center of politics and law of the greatest empire, now merely an elaborate litter box. What will our future selves think of our towered steel and glass, both grander and flimsier than walls of stone?

But more than monuments, my fond memories of Rome are of those cobblestone passageways, the labyrinthine warren without any logic in design. One crooked corner may lead to the rough cut entryway of some forgotten basilica, another to an ivy covered ristorante, still another portcullis archway into an aristocratic villa, leather shoed and suited driver leaning against the obligatory Mercedes, flinging cigarettes.

As the sun sets into a teeth-like bed of monuments, spires and pillars, we wander back to the Trevi fountain in search of dinner.

We end up in an alleyway ristorante, cozy oil-lanterns and Mario-mustachioed waiter. Rickety wooden tables, cheap prix-fix menu. It’s wine and pasta.

An American couple sits next to us. We strike up an amiable conversation over the din of footfalls, noisy vespas beyond. They’re on their honeymoon. We offer congratulations; numbers are exchanged. They order a clone of my own meal selection. Cross-table chat of wedding reception bills, real estate, employments, European travel, college football. It’s a mundane dialog, friendly, something out of a backyard barbeque.

Do we travel to find the truly new, that outside ourselves? Or do we merely seek out that which we already are?

On the way home, we wander lost for a few minutes through the back street labyrinth. Marvel at the immense pillars of the Pantheon, strike some Samsonite poses. Then we break out into the open air, a stretch of bridge over the Tiber. In the dark, the sluggish algae-choked water is invisible. Instead it is a black mirror, reflecting the arched supports of San Angelo’s statue-lined bridge, St. Peter’s Dome beyond, lights of grey blue and bronze.


We awaken to the cacophony of construction, blinding illumination through the cracked wooden shutters. The room is actually cool. Steph pulls on a sweater, we lazily arise, chat with our host over cereal, tea, toast.

Cries of strange-voiced gulls fill the air as I lay in bed, watching a brown feather dream catcher slowly turn in the morning light.

After breakfast we wander over to Vatican City in the morning buzz. The line wraps around the slanted brown walls, dull brick fortress. A little black-clad Italian lady catches Stephanie’s attention.

“Tour, would you like, top of line, we wait. Only twenty euro. Go now!”

Rubes we are, the sell works, and we’re jogging uphill past the yellow tape line, under it, through the revolving doors. A two hour line in two minutes. The price – fifty euro, calmly procured by a blonde American girl, either a grad student in the classics or simply a wannabe local. Debatable whether that kind of fee is warranted, but she’s a good guide, mixing history and colloquial anecdote – how the petty pride and prejudices of past popes led to such eternal (or at least long-lived) grandeur. Censorship of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s lack of personal hygiene, intense dedication to his craft, epic ego.

Vatican and its contents are well known, most of it review for me. But I remember seeing a few new pieces. For one – a Greek remnant, headless and limbless torso, crunched in a half-sit-up, rippling abs. Michelangelo looked at it for four hours, marveling, weeping.

What source of eternal narcissism drives the obsession with the human form? How could it could power thousands of years of art? We’re merely hairless apes, how can we compare with the lines of the horse, the wolf, the stag, the bull?

And yet, I could see something in that crunched block of stony muscle. The body was middle-aged, not the youth of Apollo with fine lines, supple slim biceps. An older athlete, a bear of a man. There was nothing homoerotic about it – simply appreciation for the apex of form.

The Roman Emperor, Nero, constructed a bathtub of purple Porphyry marble. The size of a large hot tub, he filled it with food and gorged himself. Food orgies. The stone is worth $17,000 per cubic inch now.

Then the church itself, Peter’s Basilica. I’d seen it before, so the raw awe wasn’t there. But I could breathe in the sheer size of it, dwarfed by the molded, eternal stone. On absolute terms, we live in a time of great power – science, technology, economics. And yet nothing of the grandeur of St. Peter’s could be built today, perhaps even by the largest governments. The sheer cost of the materials is uncountable today. And yet at the time of Empire (be it Roman or Catholic), it was par for the course.

It brings into question the purpose of art, the combination of skill and expense to produce beauty. Does that kind of extravagant production still exist? Or have we cut art down to the fleshless core, the skeleton of form? Save a few exceptions, that which we call art, that which can move us, comes from singular artist, or small teams, working on modest budgets. Have we forced the drive of art into too strict a capitalism? Without powerful elite on the crux of new forms, who can provide for innovation? Despite the open culture we live, are we actually harboring an artistically impoverished world?

After a late afternoon nap, take the Metro to Spanish Steps to meet with friends from last night – Melissa and Darrel.

Settled down at a cozy corner Ristorante with a cheap-ish menu, ivy growing up the tent poles. Split a bottle of Chianti, chat about Vatican City, plans for the next day, grunt details. All as prelude for life back in the states. Steph starts in on the celebrity sighting anecdotes. By the desert course – the food perfectly fine if not especially memorable – we’re onto bottle # 3, and the housewife next to us “can’t help but overhear our conversation.” California, middle-class, long vacation they couldn’t take right out of college. She’s considerably drunk, can’t keep her eyes open, can’t shut up about her kid.

“He’s brilliant. Took 290 credits in for years at UCLA, gonna go to Columbia. He’s toured in Burma. Oh, he’s so selfless. So altruistic. We keep telling him, go for the PhD, the JD. That’s how you can rake in the money. And it’s not just money, its power, in the States. Those little letters. But he’s brilliant. 290 credits, going to Columbia…Oh and my husband’s father, rags to riches. Never had the chance to tour Europe when he was young. His father a drunk, mother a whore, trailer park. He became a doctor. Real rags to riches…” I nod with boredom, hearing their real-estate woes, their ongoing lawsuits, their lust for money and power and anecdotes.

Another two bottles between the six of us, the restaurant closing, perturbed waiters tapping their feet, their watches, packing up the collapsible tables and chairs around us. Finally we finish up, relatively cheap bill (I’ve spent far more for less in Manhattan). We bid farewell to the sad, drunk Californian couple, she barely walking in a straight line. It’s almost comical, and we share a chuckle with Melissa and Darrel.

That’s the American Dream. Carve out enough wealth that you can travel to foreign lands and brag about it to other Americans. There was nothing spiritual about their journey, nothing transcendental. It was pure consumption, materialistic, hedonistic. That was the saddest thing.

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