The thing about Rome in late springtime is, it’s just about perfect. It is the world’s garden, if you will: bathed in the light of a Sun that has yet to saturate the earth with its heat; gently caressed with cool breezes morning, noon, and night; and, improved by art that delights in the sunshine and shares its delight with brilliant cheer, provides not only shelter but glorious welcome.
Rainstorms are intense and spectacular, but rarely too destructively violent – the hailstorms of Summer’s dog days in the city can be so – and quickly pass.
So, it is weird and eerie – I choose my words with scientific exactness – to be about a town that is still mostly empty and largely closed, sharing streets with people who gingerly and carefully step where they would have blasted through almost à la newyorkese only a few months ago, or else held up traffic on a leisurely stroll at rush hour, careless of the rest of the world.
Rome and Romans are capable of great, energetic bursts of activity, but mostly the city and her citizens rather prefer to observe the old Augustan maxim: festina lente.
Bustle is fine, but it is for show: one must be seen to be about business – the more apparently urgent the better – but one must eschew the temptation actually to accomplish anything. For that, quiet diligence and patience stretching over generations are the things, and there is little of that in supply.
I thought of this feature of urban life and temperament when I had the chance to go through the city for the first time since the strictest of the coronavirus lockdown measures lifted, and felt the uncanny disruption of her natural rhythms, almost as though something in the air itself – still blessedly fresh and clean for want of polluting motor traffic – had nonetheless snapped and given way to some insensible agent of malaise.
Rome is out of sorts.
The city, if you will, seems out of sync with herself, and it is unclear to me yet, whether this is a momentary confusion as she emerges from lethargy, or perhaps a symptomatic manifestation of a more profound and serious complaint – less like a moment’s morning grogginess or dizziness than it is to a misstep revealing the onset of dementia or sclerosis – for which there may be treatment, but no perfect cure.
The neighborhood children were out playing, though, and that was a sight to see: the boys from across the street on their bicycles, my daughter skipping rope, older children taking air and talking – or texting – on their cellphones, smaller children going to and from the neighborhood square, accompanied by adults or older siblings.
There wasn’t mush stopping and talking, though, no gathering together to share the news of the day or talk of the weather – del più e del meno, as the Romans say – and the bar that sits just off the square and serves the denizens of the quarter is not yet trading, though the owner was making ready to open up shop.
All the children were wearing masks. None of them seemed to mind too much. Most of them seemed hardly to notice. Parents desultorily kept watch from windows.