There's a power struggle going on across Europe these days. A few cities are competing against each other to see who shall emerge as the great twenty-first-century European metropolis. Will it be London? Paris? Berlin? Zurich? Maybe Brussels, center of the young union? They all strive to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally. But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn't compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed, exuding an air like: Hey--do whatever you want, but I'm still Rome. I am inspired by the regal self- assurance of this town, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing that she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.
I take myself on a six-hour walk through town today. This is easy to do, especially if you stop frequently to fuel up on espresso and pastries. I start at my apartment door, then wander through the cosmopolitan shopping center that is my neighborhood. (Though I wouldn't exactly call this a neighborhood, not in the traditional sense. I mean, if it is a neighborhood, then my neighbors are those just-plain-regular-folk with names like the Valentinos, the Guccis and the Armanis.) This has always been an upscale district. Rubens, Tennyson, Stendhal, Balzac, Liszt, Wagner, Thackeray, Byron, Keats--they all stayed here. I live in what they used to call "The English Ghetto," where all the posh aristocrats rested on their European grand tours. One London touring club was actually called "The Society of Dilettanti"--imagine advertising that you're a dilettante! Oh, the glorious shamelessness of it . . .
I walk over to the Piazza del Popolo, with its grand arch, carved by Bernini in honor of the historic visit of Queen Christina of Sweden (who was really one of history's neutron bombs. Here's how my Swedish friend Sofie describes the great queen: "She could ride, she could hunt, she was a scholar, she became a Catholic and it was a huge scandal. Some say she was a man, but at least she was probably a lesbian. She dressed in pants, she went on archaeological excavations, she collected art and she refused to leave an heir"). Next to the arch is a church where you can walk in for free and see two paintings by Caravaggio depicting the martyrdom of Saint Peter and the conversion of Saint Paul (so overcome by grace that he has fallen to the ground in holy rapture; not even his horse can believe it). Those Caravaggio paintings always make me feel weepy and overwhelmed, but I cheer myself up by moving to the other side of the church and enjoying a fresco which features the happiest, goofiest, giggliest little baby Jesus in all of Rome.
I start walking south again. I pass the Palazzo Borghese, a building that has known many famous tenants, including Pauline, Napoleon's scandalous sister, who kept untold numbers of lovers there. She also liked to use her maids as footstools. (One always hopes that one has read this sentence wrong in one's Companion Guide to Rome, but, no--it is accurate. Pauline also liked to be carried to her bath, we are told, by "a giant Negro.") Then I stroll along the banks of the great, swampy, rural-looking Tiber, all the way down to the Tiber Island, which is one of my favorite quiet places in Rome. This island has always been associated with healing. A Temple of Aesculapius was built there after a plague in 291 BC; in the Middle Ages a hospital was constructed there by a group of monks called the Fatebene-fratelli (which can groovily be translated as "The Do-Good Brothers"); and there is a hospital on the island even to this day.
I cross over the river to Trastevere--the neighborhood that claims to be inhabited by the truest Romans, the workers, the guys who have, over the centuries, built all the monuments on the other side of the Tiber. I eat my lunch in a quiet trattoria here, and I linger over my food and wine for many hours because nobody in Trastevere is ever going to stop you from lingering over your meal if that's what you would like to do. I order an assortment of bruschette, some spaghetti cacio e pepe (that simple Roman specialty of pasta served with cheese and pepper) and then a small roast chicken, which I end up sharing with the stray dog who has been watching me eat my lunch the way only a stray dog can. Then I walk back over the bridge, through the old Jewish ghetto, a sorely tearful place that survived for centuries until it was emptied by the Nazis. I head back north, past the
Piazza Navona with its mammoth fountain honoring the four great rivers of Planet Earth (proudly, if not totally accurately, including the sluggish Tiber in that list). Then I go have a look at the Pantheon. I try to look at the Pantheon every chance I get, since I am here in Rome after all, and an old proverb says that anyone who goes to Rome without seeing the Pantheon "goes and comes back an ass."
On my way back home I take a little detour and stop at the address in Rome I find most strangely affecting--the Augusteum. This big, round, ruined pile of brick started life as a glorious mausoleum, built by Octavian Augustus to house his remains and the remains of his family for all of eternity. It must have been impossible for the emperor to have imagined at the time that Rome would ever be anything but a mighty Augustus- worshipping empire. How could he possibly have foreseen the collapse of the realm? Or known that, with all the aqueducts destroyed by barbarians and with the great roads left in ruin, the city would empty of citizens, and it would take almost twenty centuries before Rome ever recovered the population she had boasted during her height of glory? Augustus's mausoleum fell to ruins and thieves during the Dark Ages. Somebody stole the emperor's ashes--no telling who. By the twelfth century, though, the monument had been renovated into a fortress for the powerful Colonna family, to protect them from assaults by various warring princes. Then the Augusteum was transformed somehow into a vineyard, then a Renaissance garden, then a bullring (we're in the eighteenth century now), then a fireworks depository, then a concert hall. In the 1930s, Mussolini seized the property and restored it down to its classical foundations, so that it could someday be the final resting place for his remains. (Again, it must have been impossible back then to imagine that Rome could ever be anything but a Mussolini-worshipping empire.) Of course, Mussolini's fascist dream did not last, nor did he get the imperial burial he'd anticipated.
Today the Augusteum is one of the quietest and loneliest places in Rome, buried deep in the ground. The city has grown up around it over the centuries. (One inch a year is the general rule of thumb for the accumulation of time's debris.) Traffic above the monument spins in a hectic circle, and nobody ever goes down there--from what I can tell--except to use the place as a public bathroom. But the building still exists, holding its Roman ground with dignity, waiting for its next incarnation.
I find the endurance of the Augusteum so reassuring, that this structure has had such an erratic career, yet always adjusted to the particular wildness of the times. To me, the Augusteum is like a person who's led a totally crazy life--who maybe started out as a housewife, then unexpectedly became a widow, then took up fan-dancing to make money, ended up somehow as the first female dentist in outer space, and then tried her hand at national politics--yet who has managed to hold an intact sense of herself throughout every upheaval.
I look at the Augusteum, and I think that perhaps my life has not actually been so chaotic,
after all. It is merely this world that is chaotic, bringing changes to us all that nobody could have anticipated. The Augusteum warns me not to get attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may once have intended to serve. Yesterday I might have been a glorious monument to somebody, true enough--but tomorrow I could be a fireworks depository. Even in the Eternal City, says the silent Augusteum, one must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation.