Friday, February 21, 2014

Roman Summer (3)

Because everything was new to me I walked almost everywhere.  I dawdled, reading the signs in shop windows.  I smelled the air coming out of open doors and even up from the sewer.  (Having gone to all the trouble to come there, I was not going to miss anything.  If I had had a list of things not to miss, the Great Sewer of Tarquinius Priscus would have been on it.)  By midday it was hot, but I had learned in Rio that heat is a matter of attitude, of how I held my body: no striding about with Teutonic purposefulness, but a languid stroll and in a day or so I would be completely comfortable in a white linen suit and Borsolino Panama, a bella figura.  I considered draping my coat across my shoulders, cape-like, but felt that would be too much and might even be illegal for non-Italians.
As I walked around the City I picked up scraps of printed ephemera to get a feel for the culture and to paste in my journal.  I stopped frequently to sit on park benches or at outdoor tables and write about what I had just seen, even if I knew as I was doing it that it was completely unimportant.  I drew in my sketchbook and skimmed discarded newspapers.  Looking at a map of the City, I am amazed how much I walked.  My trail across Rome looks like one of those plots you get when you put a GPS on a wandering moggy.  But everything was new and interesting to me and I was  --  and still am  --  very easy to amuse.

I settled into simple routine.  I would leave my apartment fairly early and dawdle over a caffè americano and pastry at the restaurant  downstairs and form some idea of what I wanted to do that day, then take a bus to Piazza del Populi and from there begin my wanderings around the old part of the City.  Bus service around the city was cheap and clean and efficient and, save when I was moving in or moving out with luggage, I never used a taxi.  The busses were sometimes crowded and there were pickpockets, but that was just part of the Roman experience.
When I am out on foot during the day I eat little.  Perhaps a small toasted sandwich or only nibble on a Maria.  I ate as much to balance the coffee or whatever I had drunk as from any hunger, and may not eat again until I was back home in the evening.  Eventually I fell into the habit of going to the evening service at St. Peter’s, which was usually being said by a visiting foreign priest basking in his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say Mass at St. Peter’s, and then walk back though the darkening streets of the old City to have supper in an island of light at some outdoor cafe before I took a bus back to my apartment where I went to bed tired and contented.  It was a very good life. 

Before I left home I had told friends that mail could be sent to me in Rome in care of American Express, which even then was an old-fashioned arrangement, but then I was usually trying to time travel.  The American Express office was on the Piazza d’Espagna at the foot of the Spanish Steps, which was a fine place to lounge over coffee while writing in my journal or ostentatiously reading my mail.  Composing letters is part of my writing process: I first write in my journal, then extract from the journal to put together my letters and, eventually, draw on both of these for whatever I will eventually do with what I have written, as I am doing now.  Nowadays I realize that sending letters by post may seem as affected and archaic as sealing my envelopes with wax and dispatching them by runner with a cleft stick.  Nonetheless, the very obsoleteness of the process gave me pleasure. 
As for actually sending mail, I had been warned off the Italian Post Office and early on had crossed the river to Vatican City to use their post office for my out-going letters.  As an independent state the Vatican maintains its own Post, whose mail took about half the time to reach California as did that of the Italian Post, which was widely said to be the second worst in Europe.  Knowledgable travelers assure me that a letter mailed from a rural post office in Bhutan will reach home before a letter entrusted to the Italian mails.  The worst postal service in Europe was in Albania where, until recently, letter-writers were shot.  One still remembers those grainy, black-and-white newsreels of Albanians crossing the Adriatic in their pathetic little boats to mail their letters from Italy.

Some years back, when I first thought about going to Italy, I read a book by Luigi Barzini called The Italians, which supplied me with a satisfying set of potted opinions about Italy and the Italians without the bother of ever actually going there or meeting any of them.  At the time I knew nothing about Barzini and never saw anything else by him, but a few months ago I remembered the book and googled Barzini and found the story.

The 1907 Peking-to-Paris auto race was won by the Italian car driven by Prince Scipioni Borghesi  --  How is that for a way to begin a story?   Have I not said that the world was more interesting in those days?  --  and the Prince was accompanied by the journalist Luigi Barzini.
Barzini, 1874-1947, had been sent as a foreign correspondent to Qing Dynasty China where he covered the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and was embedded with the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).  After accompanying Prince Borghesi on the Peking-to-Paris auto race, he was in WWI a correspondent with the Italian Army.  After the War he became an active supporter of Mussolini. He covered the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Russia and served in the Fascist government during WWII; when Italy went over to the Allies, Barzini remained with Mussolini in the Italian Social Republic.  He died destitute in Rome in 1947.  But if one has lived richly, what does it matter if one dies poor?  What need have the deceased for money?
It sounded like an interesting life though it did not actually sound like the fellow who wrote my book, who turned out to be his son, Luigi Barzini, Jr.

Barzini, Jr., 1908-84, was also a journalist, though he had a less colorful career.  No doubt through his father’s Fascist contacts he ghostwrote Mussolini’s Autobiography, though he personally favored the flashier circle around Count Ciano, Mussolini's playboy son-in-law.  He attended Columbia University and worked in New York City, eventually returning to Italy in 1930.  As Asian correspondent for Corriere della Sera he went to China and was on board the Yangtze Patrol gunboat USS Panay on Dec., 11, 1937, when it was shelled and sunk by the Japanese; he was wounded and witnessed the Rape of Nanking.
Back in Italy, he was arrested by the Fascists on charges that he had given information to the enemy and made disparaging remarks about Mussolini and was under forced-residence in a small village until the liberation of Rome.  A strong anti-Communist, he was active in center-right politics after the War.  He lived on a small farm near Rome and died of cancer in 1984.
Were I of a novelistic bent I would explore the relationship betwixt father and son.  Senior seems a man of action  --  to whom an attraction to Mussolini seems utterly appropriate  --  while Junior is less so.  Senior would have had the Panay Incident for breakfast, while being blown out of the water by the Japanese might well have been traumatic for Junior.  Senior was attracted to the dynamic  Il Duce and Junior to the unserious Count Ciano.  Senior remained loyal to Mussolini until the end while one suspects Junior might have been saying "the Fascists? who were they?" One imagines some degree of estrangement during the war, but the father nonetheless using his influence to protect his son.
I am sure there are yet people around who know the particulars, at least those of a certain age.

When I was in the airport in New York on my way to Rome I got into a conversation with a well-educated young Italian lady.  I mentioned Barzini's book and asked if what he had said about the Italians were still accurate.  She said that she was unfamiliar with the book, but if it were true when he wrote it then it would still be true, as nothing had changed in Italy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Roman Summer (2)

My hotel was on a short, narrow street on the Esquiline Hill, perhaps a hundred yards from the grand old church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  On the walls around the hotel I saw some Arabic graffiti, though I saw no Arabs about.  And while I  could not read the Arabic, I could read the Italian graffiti and there seemed to be quite a bit of hard-line communist sentiment:  “Death to the Property Holders,”  and so forth.  Here, at the end of the 20th Century, such blood-thirsty leftism seemed as quaint as a “Viva il Duce.”  There was also a movie theatre, though it was oddly vague about what films it was showing, so I supposed it to be a porno house.  Later in the evening, I met some friendly young women and some fellows who most likely dealt in recreational pharmaceuticals.  There were quite a number of young people about who appeared in need of adult supervision.

   I know that in a hot climate I should get up early, but morning sleep is so sweet.  Which meant I didn’t get downstairs until the dining room was closed, so I wandered out to a sidewalk table for coffee and a roll, watched over by the enniched saints across the street on the outer wall of the venerable Santa Maria Maggiore, where pigeons feed on crumbs and tourists feed on culture. 

Sitting there in the shade I fell into a conversation with an Aussie couple.  They were of the opinion that in Italy the hot drinks weren’t hot enough and the cold drinks weren’t cold enough, and no one has any change, which I was to learn to be pretty much the case.  They also assured me that Roman traffic, though bad, was not the threat to pedestrians we might have been led to believe: that drivers will make a reasonable effort not to hit you, but you must do your part.

 I knew from my reading of the 19th-Century travelers that the only proper way to take up residence in Rome was to rent a moldering palazzo, so I scooped up an armload of newspapers and began checking the moldering palazzo section of the classifieds.  But alas, no one answers their phone and when I search out their office no one is there, but then I am in Italy and realize that they may do business differently here, so I wander off to a sidewalk cafe for a coffee, if it is early in the day, or an aperitif, if it is later.  The world works and it is merely a matter of my figuring how to adapt to it.

Since I was staying practically next door to Santa Maria Maggiore, whose name was familiar though I knew nothing else about it, I thought I ought go inside and take a look around.  This being Rome, I should probably get used to looking at churches, so I sat for a while in the grand old basilica gleaming with beautiful images from ages past, and a great round window above the entrance to the nave done in a distressingly 1950’s idiom, the sort of obnoxious modern art that protestant churches are usually cursed with, though the art in Catholic churches today can be as bad as that of the protestants.  Even the Orthodox seem confused when they depart from their traditional iconography.  This is not a good time for religious art.  Even bad Victorian art looks better than what I have seen of the new stuff.  Modern saints all look like well-meaning liberals.  They have no fire in them.  The blood of the martyrs runs thin in their veins.  I am looking forward to see what the Vatican Museum has; there must be good religious art out there somewhere.

The nice people at the hotel told me that they had booked my room for a group that would be arriving in a few days, which was fine with me, as I wanted to move on and find the moldering palazzo of my imagination and, despite a suit of armor in the TV room, the hotel was not as romantic as I would have liked it.

In the course of wandering about in search of an estate agent, I found, not far from Piazza d’Spagna, the via Margutta, which had once been popular with artists and craftspeople and, though since gentrified, it still looked colorful enough, though I got the impression that it would not be cheap to live there.  Today’s aspiring artists (I don’t think the modern welfare state suffers them to starve anymore) can be found selling their work along the balustrade of the Spanish Steps.   Despite that fact that their work looked quite competent, the artists I saw there appeared not only unprosperous, but  --  worse yet  --  bored.

At length, by answering adds and asking people I found a furnished apartment in a quiet neighborhood off the Corso di Francia just north of the Tiber.  Not the moldering palazzo I might have wanted, but the furnishings could be imagined to have an old-fashioned elegance and, while my balcony had only a view of my neighbors’s balconies, they would prove quiet neighbors and the rental, while sounding life-threatening when expressed in Lire, was reasonable enough when converted to Dollars.

I had found my pied-à-terre for my Roman Summer.

One of the many virtues of the way I travel is that I am not really going anywhere. What can people be thinking about who come to Rome for six days, during which time they feel obligated to see a required selection of churches, tombs and monuments, send postcards to various people and get something blessed by the Pope for an elderly aunt, all the while avoiding pickpockets and intestinal problems?
I have my guide books and know in general what would be interesting to see, and if I wander past one of these places I drop in to look, but I do not feel as if I have an appointment that I will be charged for if I don’t show up.  This means that most of my time out of doors is spent wandering about the city, usually on some minor and ill-defined investigation  --  do the Knights of Malta really maintain their own post office?  --  and so I can be pleasantly amazed at what I actually do find, which needn’t be anyone’s tomb, but can be as interesting as the facade of an old house, with its worn masonry and dark windows set behind antique grillwork.  The streets and houses of the old section have character, more so it would appear than many of the people.  The old houses have dignity, and even on the hottest days present themselves elegantly.  Monuments often have an artificiality about them,  but houses were built for use, while at the same time built to project an image of their proprietors, an image of confidence, hauteur, pride, substance, taste...  Sitting in the shade on a park bench I sketched one of the houses that fronted on the intersection of two narrow streets and discovered that it was a crouching lion.