Letter from Rome

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Feb 242009

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
(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.

Ensiao na Morte [1]

 Posted by at 10:34 am  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Feb 222009

Garbatella [2]. Bereavement.  And what is the language using us for [3]. For something, A letter of condolence, which of course I have never sent you, No, I don't think so, But definitely for something, I was writing after a visit to Rome, four days in which we had walked through parts of the centre of the city, its suburbs, and even beyond (and some walking is also a mistake) [4].


It is dark, and in the silence,

And I have said before that metaphors are dangerous,

An axe-head is falling out of a clear blue sky.


Shattering glass, the sound,

That-is and that-is-not, Near to madness, as Aristotle said,

Of a vase which is already broken.


Kindness, kindness, blink and you might miss it,

There is the scorching heat when opposites are brought close,

Bathing in fire, and drinking together at an oasis of horror.


Chloë, In Memoriam. Garbatella, February 2009.

- – -


[1]  Ensiao na Morte (Portuguese) might be translated into English as Deathness or Dying. That would be on the basis that Ensiao Sobre a Ceguira (the novel by José Saramaga, published 1995) is called Blindness in its English translation, and Ensiao sobre Lucidez (published 2007, in which the story of the first book is continued), is called Seeing. Ensiao for Saramago means a story in which people don't have names, only roles such as the minister of justice, the doctor's wife, the policeman, and so on. The punctuation is also stripped to the bare minimum, commas and full stops only. So the possibility exists for forms to interweave, essay and work of fiction, poem and piece of research.

[2]  Collage2 The construction of La Garbatella district in Rome began in the 1920s on a hill close to the Via Ortense in the south of the city. Built for the migrant workers coming into the city, it was planned in blocks (lotto) along similar lines to the idea of the English garden city. Garbato means graceful or amiable with the ending suggestive of the feminine, and the buildings are beautiful, but the district has certainly not gone the way of Hampstead. Garbatella has kept its ‘outsider’ character, and sense of migrant worker roughness. Spray-can graffiti and anti-fascist slogans cover walls, football flags (AC Roma) hang from windows, gardens are overgrown, and many of the buildings are neglected, stucco falling off the walls and thick tufts of green grass filling the gutters so that the rain water floods down the walls to spoil the fine architectural features below.

[3]  W S Graham wrote a poem with this title (published in his Implements In Their Places collection, 1977). In fact, he wrote six poems in a series all beginning with the same line, ‘What is the language using us for?’. The title reminds us that even in our worst moments, in situations in which we have been completely abandoned, and all our attempts at communications have failed, lost for words, our poetic memory is intact and actively engaged using us for something.

[4]  In the beginning, and we don't have a clear methodology for walkingtalkingwriting or often know where we are heading, each district of the city we visit presents us with a series of overlapping perspectives. Perhaps we could be working inductively to join up the dots, creating Categories in what might be called ‘a hierarchy among equals’. Hierarchies 001 An important class of Category are those which are a mistake, as when ‘and some walking is also a mistake’ (and talking, and writing). For instance, one day in Rome my enthusiasm got the better of me and we went badly wrong as I attempted to lead a walk … to the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri … that ended in a Total Garage in the countryside off the Via Aurelia looking into the disbelieving eyes of the petrol attendant.


Letter from Rome

 Posted by at 4:40 pm  Anti-Gravity Surgery  Comments Off
Feb 152009

 As I sit down to transfer these scribbled notes on to the computer I see the full moon hanging over the Basilica San Paolo. The sight makes me catch my breath, a tremor where the diaphragm connects at the front of the ribs, and there's a tiny blast off to another reality, a germ of potential . . . but meanwhile back on the ground:

There's a strange lull following the last exam yesterday morning. Eight exams, eight days: a few hours of concentrated revision, a twelve minute oral exam, then immediately cast out that one before further ferocious revision, and so on. Oral exams, apparently a Roman tradition; they are now beginning to have the quality of a dream one has woken up from. Earlier this afternoon I had walked out to the:


Via Appia Antica 15.15

It's interesting how one's knowledge of a locality builds over a few months. As a group we visited the Catacombes di San Callisto during those first days of our induction. Whilst a coach had taken us there, we walked back – at least some us did – and for me it was a complete maze of twists and turns that made no sense.

Recently I have begun to explore the adjacent (to the college) area of Garbatella: a bit shabby, traditional, artisanal, working class – a proper locality where it's easy to imagine people are really local – born, grew up, worked and died. Two bits of graffiti I took note of: the first, YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE GARBATELLA – in English, hints of the sixties, counter-cultural, political. The second was a memorial to Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who died in '81 (if I remember rightly) in the Maze Prison.  Garbatella also has these wonderful oases of fading and beautiful housing, interesting and unique, mostly terracotta washed. There are narrow cobbled streets which cars keep out of apart from a few parked by people who live there, palm trees and those 'umbrella' pines. And, to keep to the thread of this narrative, a street name I noticed: Via della Sette Chiese.

Of course I eventually got round to looking it up on a map and discovered that this old and winding lane goes all the from the Basilica San Paolo out to the Catacombes di San Callisto (and other catacombes) and connects to the Via Appia Antica – a preserved stretch of old Roman road, complete with enormous cobblestones and history leaping out of the grass on either side. It's the place where people go for a stroll on Sunday afternoons.

And so here I am having an espresso and sitting out in the warm February sunshine and jotting these thoughts down before walking back.

Learning is all about joining the bits up! And whoever led the walk back in September did not follow the Via della Sette Chiese or only a couple of sections of it.