Letter from Rome: January 3, 2020

This year, after two decades of living in Rome, I’m going to try to pay a little more attention to the history of the city, unfolding as it always is, right here.

View of Rome, Italy (Joshua Newton | Unsplash.com)

We drove our firstborn to the airport today. On the way out, he remarked the countryside through which the highway cut. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t evoke the Shire,” he said. He wasn’t wrong. Even in January, there’s a good bit of green on the land between Rome and the Tyrrhenian Sea, and there are stretches to the north that roll like the hills that Peter Jackson gave to us, for and against our imagination.

On the run into town for an ice skating jaunt, we waited for the #664 bus on the Appia Nuova, which runs roughly parallel to the Appia Antica (from Rome to Brindisi, by way of Taranto). We were about as far out as one can get, while still remaining inside the present-day city limits, and on the other side of the road rose the Villa dei Quntilli, a sprawling country estate that dates from the middle of the 2nd century AD and boasted in its day its own hot baths and its own aqueduct. The site is an open-air museum now.

The last time I was there, the gift shop had one of Mary Beard’s books translated in Italian, and I bought it for my wife. €5 will get you in for the whole day, and a map, to boot. You’ll need it. The first time I visited, I didn’t realize you had to pay. The entrance was open to the street, and unguarded. I walked right in, and nobody stopped me.

That was a few years back, when I moved into the neighborhood. I’d been by the site hundreds of times over the two decades since I moved to Rome, but hadn’t ever noticed it was open before. The last time I was there, there was a fellow making sure I’d paid my fare. So, don’t think I’m giving any hints about how to get out of the ticket price. Truth is, it’s worth four times what they ask.

We took the metro – the subway, or the underground train – from Largo dei Colli Albani to Ottaviano, and then caught the #32 bus three stops to the old ATAC depot, which had been converted into a temporary Christmas market and fair. The subway run cut through nearly 2800 years of history, and let us out within sight of the late colonnade Bernini designed to embrace St. Peter’s Square, but that day, we were going the other way, through the fin de siècle Prati quarter and up the Viale Angelico where it skirts Piazzale Clodio.

Appia (Antica and Nuova), Quintilli, Colli Albani (the Alban Hills), Ottaviano, Clodio (Publius Clodius Pulcher): the names of a hundred other heroes — martial, political, literary, spiritual — of Rome — republican and imperial, medieval, renaissance and modern — preserved in the streets that crisscross each other in a semi-labyrinthine semblance of a grid in the “new” city ward we traversed that day; the fact we were going to skate on artisanal (what turned out to be synthetic) ice, in an abandoned and repurposed bus depot, up the street and around the bend from St. Peter’s Basilica and the walled city that stands for the popes.

It really should be overwhelming every time, but it isn’t — not when you’re living in it — and that’s what I noticed, this time: I noticed myself not noticing.

It isn’t the first time I’ve noticed myself not noticing, and it won’t be the last, I’m sure. I had a good excuse this time, in my nine-year-old daughter and my teen-aged son, for not noticing. Life just keeps happening, and there it was, happening for my children before my eyes, in history’s very own city — the city of their birth — as they enjoyed each other and made me really happy while they were at it, in the present. It’s not that they were oblivious to our surroundings. It’s not that I was oblivious to our surroundings. It’s just that this is where we live.

We notice the trash built up and the streets unswept — this summer, the stench was unbearable — and the dozens of buses that burst into flames last year did not go unnoticed or unremarked, either. There was a traffic light at a crossing we use on a major thoroughfare – the Appia Nuova — that was out of service for what seemed like several months, and I thought of writing to our city council member about it on several occasions. The roads are cratered and crumbling, and not just in the poor neighborhoods.

This summer (or two summers ago? Last summer I was stateside), the pine needles in our neighborhood square sat uncollected and desiccated until some of them caught fire. We collected water from the fountain and doused them ourselves. Things have been bad for a while, with only a few signs of things getting better here and there, and plenty apparently getting worse. There is a nonchalance, a devil-may-care attitude among the Romans, who are inveterate complainers and also supremely confident that life will go on and the city endure.

There have been plenty of rough patches before: the Gauls sacked the city in the early 4th century BC, after defeating a hastily mustered Roman army at Allia, a dozen miles north of the city: an event so traumatic it still lives deep in the civic memory. Others sacked the city at least a half dozen times again. I used to live a few hundred yards from the Porta Latina — the Latin Gate — which a Norman army perhaps tried to breach in 1084, on their way to relieve Pope Gregory VII from a siege put in place by an army under the nominal command of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Gregory called for aid, and got it from a Norman who had set up shop in Apulia, Robert Guiscard. The Romans were sick and tired of being put upon, while Robert’s soldiers weren’t going to leave without some loot. So, history happened.

The Latin Gate is also the place where legend has it St. John the Evangelist received a divine reprieve from death by immersion in a vat of boiling oil. These days, the Rosminian fathers keep the basilica on the spot, which is one of the Lenten station churches. It was lovely to walk on that stretch of a Sunday, or when it would be closed to traffic. In the park across the road, named after the Scipio family, I played with my children when they were small. On a weekday, motor traffic would be bumper-to-bumper by 7:15am, and wouldn’t break until late morning.

Returning to my son’s observation: the difference is that Tolkien’s quiet Shire enjoyed some protection from the round of history (though it was threatened and invaded and eventually scoured too), while Rome rises, presently, from the rubble of its own ruin. In 2020, I’m going to try to pay a little more attention to the history — that of it as is tucked into the nooks and crannies of this place, and what of it is happening before me, and behind me — unfolding as it always is, right here.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

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