by Seth Rogovoy
(April 20, 2018) – ROME FELT LIKE DISNEYLAND, or at least what I imagine what Disneyland must feel like, never having been. More precisely, perhaps, Rome felt like one of those places my parents took me to when I was a child: Frontier Town in upstate New York, or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a place which is a representation of a place. At times Rome felt more like Rome, the Adventure Park, rather than a real city — a movie set of Rome, perhaps, where after the filming had wrapped, it was now open to visitors, dozens, hundreds, thousands of them, moving around crowded alleyways and sidewalks in packs, like swarms of insects having eaten all the detritus at one location and running off in search of their next meal.
Rome was a near-impossible blend of ancient, classical, Renaissance, Baroque, and modern – although more 19th– and early-20thcentury modern than anything postwar, and almost nothing that we would label “contemporary,” certainly not when casually looking around, other than tiny cars and cell service and the utopian European currency instead of nationalist lira.
The Rome I saw – and enjoyed immensely during my week there – utterly fulfilled a cliché, if there is one, of Rome qua Rome, of la dolce vita, of the beauty and the spectacle of walking amongst ruins of successive civilizations, ancient and pre-modern history, with an economy seemingly geared almost in its entirety toward foreign tourists and/or residents and locals playing their roles in that dolce vita, where almost everyone was friendly and outgoing and helpful and generous and ready and eager to serve without a hint of subservience or cringing nor arrogance or resentment. If anyone was cursing us behind our backs, as ignorant, ugly Americans or as buffoonish, spoiled tourists, they surely did a great job of hiding it.
The riches of church art and history notwithstanding, the abundance of pre-modern architecture and pre-modern infrastructure – the narrow, winding, cobblestone alleyways opening upon small and large and colossal piazzas; the centuries-old stone footbridges across the Tiber – rubbing up against motor scooters and those mini-cars that can parallel park perpendicularly, the gelato shop on every street, the café and trattoria on at least every other, and the proliferation of school groups (mostly European) and crowds (at Trevi Fountain and Piazza d’Espagne and the Pantheon and on a few major shopping streets) just lent it all the more a sensation of “Rome World” rather than “Rome, Italy,” an adventure park where the adventure is being a visitor in this preposterous place of earthly and manmade beauty, the former center of the world, center of the universe, the seat of the greatest empire that ever ruled the world, now humbled by history but none the worse for it… Was this for real, or was this all programmed, like a Roman version of “WestWorld”?
Strolling up and around the Janiculum with its ridiculous views of the central city across the river. Stumbling upon Renaissance statues in nearly every plaza, a dramatic Bernini in Piazza Navona, just down the alley from where we stayed in Piazza Pasquino, which we viewed every day, multiple times a day, to see how it looked in the changing light of daytime and darkness (and illumination) of night, often surrounded by crowds but seemingly abandoned in a rare few moments. The grandiosity of the palace now housing the Galleria Borghese (making the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., look like an outhouse by comparison), the view up (and down) the Spanish Steps, unexpectedly coming upon ancient ruins and broken pillars in an alleyway or alongside a boulevard – Bob Dylan wasn’t being poetic he was being descriptive when he wrote, “The streets of Rome are filled with rubble / Ancient footprints are everywhere” – the simple perfection of a dish of cacio e pepeand how it will forever change your notion of “pasta” (in short, the stuff we call “pasta” here is to Italian spaghetti what Smucker’s jam is to ripe, fresh-picked strawberries), the visual glory of the Great Synagogue turned into sound by the resonant all-male choir, the independent shop-owners and curators of boutique items lovingly designed and crafted so that the essence of Rome is embedded within the object, the cool stone floor of the bedroom in our small hotel located in a tastefully redone 17th-century townhouse, the perfect climate (we caught a lucky break) that within a couple of days of our arrival transformed our flaky, chapped, Northeastern U.S. winter skin into the soft and supple Mediterranean kind …
Rome was surreal.