What is it that makes Rome Rome? History? The light? The
piazzas? The churches? The people who live here? The tourists? Of course, all
of these play their part in creating the fabric that is Rome. But when I was
checking some facts in Georgina Masson’s The Companion Guide to Rome, published in 1965, my attention was drawn to what
she wrote about the sound of church bells:
‘Although we are now, in summer,
seeing this part of our itinerary in the early afternoon, during the rest of
the year, or if we have time to return later, we should see it in the evening.
This is the classic hour for a stroll on the Pincio, aptly described by Miss
Thackeray in the last century as then appearing in a “fashionable halo of
sunset and pink parasols”; when all the church bells are ringing for the Ave
Maria. Incidentally for non-Roman Catholics, the frequent pealing of Roman
church bells may require some explanation. Light sleepers may well be awakened
by their ringing for early Masses at 7 a.m.; these continue at intervals
through the morning till midday, when they ring again for the Angelus.
Comparative silence then reigns among church bells–though monastery ones may
toll in the interval–until evening and the Ave Maria; to be followed, one hour
after darkness, by the last peals announcing the final service of Un’ Ora di
Notte (the first hour of the night).’
I was certainly surprised to read this, for I have barely
been aware of church bells since living in Rome these last months. Occasionally
I’ve heard the bells of San Paolo opposite, but only when walking near the bell
tower at the far end of the basilica from the college. It seems that at some
point between 1965 and the present a decision was taken to limit the tolling of
the bells. The noise that I’m aware of in Rome is from the variety of traffic:
the growl and rumble of the buses, the steady hum or thrash of cars, the snarl
of motorbikes, the screech of tyres and the not infrequent clunk of collisions.
Yesterday afternoon, rather later than intended, I caught
the metro to the Piazza del Popolo; a wonderful open space, centred by an
obelisk, at the top of the Via del Corso. Originally developed, in 1538 (and
redesigned in 1823), to provide a sense of grandeur to the entry into Rome through
the nearby gates, the Porta del Popolo.
In the Piazza workmen were toiling to erect the scaffolding
for what I took to be a pop/rock concert, but I continued up the steps on to
the heights of the Pincio. From the terraced gardens at the top there is a
wonderful sight of Roman rooftops and skyline; the domes of the bigger churches
emerging in glory above the ochre jumble.
The gardens were alive with families strolling, many of the
children in fancy dress, perhaps for carnivale, as Lent is approaching, teenagers
mooching or skylarking about, carousels (though no pink parasols) and that
golden late afternoon Roman light.
I had planned to walk across the city to the Gianicolo
terraces on the skyline opposite but time was against me, and so I restricted
my afternoon’s stroll in the holiday atmosphere to following the edge the hill
and down the Spanish steps, carried with the crowds down the Prada and Gucci
infested Via dei Condotti – the Roman version of Bond Street. Twenty minutes or
so later at the Piazza Farnese I had to wriggle my way through a dense crowd
listening to speakers at a political rally backing proposals for the
establishing of what we in the UK call, living wills, concerning any future
medical treatment which we would rather not have ‘done’ to us. I was very
impressed with the intense and serious concentration of the people listening.
This was my first encounter with the ‘left wing’ in Italy. I would have stayed
to listen myself if my Italian was up to the task.