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.