On Finding Archipelagos of Beauty in the Eternal City
Marco Lodoli's Vagabond Impressions of Rome
What follows is a set of vignettes, or “islands,” from the recently published book Islands—New Islands (Fontanella Press, 2019), where they appear alongside archival photos from the American Academy in Rome. Written in Italian by Marco Lodoli, they were first published serially in the newspaper La Repubblica, then collected in Isole and Nuove Isole (Einaudi, 2010 and 2014) with the subtitle “A Vagabond Guide to Rome.” Lodoli’s aim is “to point out islands of beauty and poetry in Rome: a piazza, a tree, a painting, a bar on the periphery, a side street.” Written by a Roman for Romans, these islands urge all readers to see their surroundings with new eyes. The archipelago presented here describes August in Rome, the bellybutton of the world, Capuchin monks and cappuccini, and how to stay afloat.
There will be a bilingual reading and presentation of Islands—New Islands by the book’s translator, Hope Campbell Gustafson, and the publisher, Nina Moog, at Rizzoli Bookstore in New York City on November 21st at 6 pm.
Every so often the same foreign friend shows up unexpectedly in Rome to pay us a visit. “Hey, ciao, I’m here! What are we doing tonight? Where will you going to take me?” Let’s be frank—it’s like a slap in the face. This friend has already seen almost everything in the city—the Colosseum, Saint Peter’s, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, but also the Aventine and San Clemente, even the catacombs, the Foro Italico, and Quartiere Coppedè, no less, where we brought him last time.
He’s insatiable. He insists on bringing at least one new memory home with him, something unique, a glimpse, a hidden corner, an unforgettable postcard. “So,caro amico, what will you treat me to this time?” We feel obliged to not let him down, to try and pull yet another rabbit out of the hat. We set all of our commitments aside and, porca miseria, we begin flipping through the pages of our memory book in search of something wonderful that won’t take up too much time. Hopefully we’ll get away with just an aperitivo, a chat and a snack in a magical place, and a “see you again in ten years.” No museums, no ruins. But where, where?
The friend calls back to set the meeting time and place. “So let’s meet…let’s meet at….” Yes, that’s it—Largo dei Librari, on Via dei Giubbonari, is just the place. It’s shape is a perfect wedge. It looks like the stage of a theater, with the little church of Santa Barbara embedded like a gem between the houses in the back. It’s a miniature baroque Rome, the size for matchbox cars, a concentration of calm and confusion, of geometry and lively disorder. High up, next to the small façade of the church, there’s a heart-wrenching window that the bohème writers would have loved. It looks like the “finestra a un passo dal cielo blu”as Gino Paoli put it, singing about his old garret and its closeness to the blue sky.
But Rome isn’t only art and inspiration. In that same piazza there’s a little old restaurant famous for its fried cod fillets, which, paired with a glass of crisp white wine, slide happily down your throat. At seven o’clock in the evening all is in perfect harmony—the little church, the cod, the wine, the free-flowing conversation. The friend enjoys this enchanting moment, swearing on his children he has never been this happy, swearing he’ll come back to Rome next month.
The Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, Saint Peter’s dome, the Sistine Chapel, the Fountain of the Four Rivers: impressive works capable of representing the power of a city that for many is still caput mundi. But thankfully there are also works of art that recount, in just as convincing a way, the fragility, the effort, the daily struggle for survival: for example, the Barcaccia in Piazza di Spagna, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and realized between 1626 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, the father of the great Gian Lorenzo.
Every time I stop to observe it, I feel like I’ve found myself in front of the symbol of our inadequacy and our will to resist no matter what. It’s not a galleon that cuts through the ocean in full sail, it’s not even the ship that sets out towards treasure island—it’s simply a barge that’s full of holes, that seems to be on the verge of sinking into the calm cobblestone sea at any moment, a hundred meters from an invisible shore.
Pietro Bernini was forced to place it below the level of the piazza so that the Acqua Vergine spring could feed it, and he designed it to be a longboat perpetually threatened by shipwreck, with the sea already on board and the bow and stern identical, almost to indicate confusion over direction. Two spouts spit out all they can, and the Barcaccia never empties, it’s always on the brink of sinking—and yet it doesn’t sink, it doesn’t tip, it doesn’t abandon us.We Romans have always been quite sure about the precise location where God placed the point of a compass to design the world.
In times like these, times of serious crisis, the fountain in Piazza di Spagna is a good illustration of our condition. We feel like we’re in deep water, we don’t know where to go, what to do, we only try as hard as we can to stay afloat while waiting for the storm to pass. They should have put the outline of the Barcaccia on some coin, to remind us—if ever there was a need—how hard life is, now and perhaps always, and how we must not lose courage. If the Barcaccia has continued navigating without moving for almost four centuries, we can too, in spite of bad weather and water in the hold.
I’ve always thought of Via Veneto like a calm river flowing uphill: its source is the little Fontana delle Api, on the corner of Piazza Barberini, its mouth is the delta of Porta Pinciana, there where the road splits between the arches. Close to the start, under the sycamores growing on its banks, there’s the very gloomy church of the Immaculate Conception, better known as the church of the Cappuccini.
Its crypt is a place that makes the skin of even the most disenchanted and blowhard Roman crawl, even that of the teenager accustomed to sneering at the funhouses in any luna park or slasher movies, the ones where dead bodies stagger out of tombs and knock imperiously at the front door. There’s little to joke about here. To defend yourself from the horror, even the usual superstitious crotch grabbing isn’t enough—typical for a man passing in front of the Church of the Oration and Death on Via Giulia, where, carved into the marble, there’s a grisly little scene of a skeleton that warns: Odie mihi, cras tibi. Today it’s me who’s dead, but remember: tomorrow it’ll be you.
To handle a complete visit to the Capuchin crypt you must have nerves of steel. The bones of hundreds of dead people are arranged according to an artistic order which makes them even more frightful: there are frames made out of vertebrae, rosettes of tibias and femurs, decorations where mandibles and pelvis bones alternate—and in the midst of so many bones emerge the skeletal bodies still dressed in the Franciscan tunics of monks deceased centuries upon centuries ago. Some hold a skull in their hands, others are lying down, still others seem to be walking.
You’re tempted to say: it’s all fake, it’s a horrible special effect from Cinecittà, a carnevale trick. Unfortunately, though, it’s all real. Then we catapult ourselves outside, to suck up the gorgeous light on Via Veneto with every pore, to enjoy even the loudest traffic. Our dolce vita quivers out there, and it doesn’t matter that there aren’t American actresses and paparazzi anymore, it’s enough to walk in the sun, hum, and stop in one of those handsome cafés to enjoy a cappuccino with lots of foam.
What does the center of the world look like, where is it, and, above all, does our world really have a center? The ancient Greeks called it omphalos, as in ombelico, the navel, and they firmly believed that it was in Delphi, in the temple of god Apollo. For Homer, instead, it was the little island of Ogygia. For the Jews the center of everything is the stone in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Indians it’s the tree of Bodh Gaya, under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
The inhabitants of Foligno, such funny people, have forever maintained that the heart of the universe is the exact center of the central pool table of the central bar of their little city. In short, every community has its precise conviction about where to find the fixed hub around which the infinite rays of existence revolve; for each, that magic point is always close to home, it’s a familiar authority that protects and reassures.
We Romans also had half an idea about this, and yet we felt almost embarrassed to confess it because it was so mundane and infantile. We all knew that the center of the world was surely not the altar in Saint Peter’s, nor the imperial stone in the Colosseum, and not even the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo or the universal water of the Fountain of the Rivers in Piazza Navona. It was much much less, on the surface it was almost nothing, no scholar of cosmology ever paid any attention to that which we all knew to be the belly button of the cosmos, so we stayed silent, but could understand one other with just a glance.
We Romans have always been quite sure about the precise location where God placed the point of a compass to design the world. Come on, let’s confess without blushing. It was the very small platform of reinforced concrete upon which the pizzardone cop climbed to direct traffic in Piazza Venezia. The man in uniform—a very poor symbol of all mysterious authority— made his strange gestures from up there, tried to bring order to chaos, and, in exchange, got insults and obscenities. Yet we were pleased to know that, in the world where everything moves and changes, there was an immobile, eternal point. Now that a jackhammer has broken the platform to pieces, we feel even more lost.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
There is a solitude of space
a solitude of sea
a solitude of death – but these
society shall be
compared with that profounder site
that polar privacy
a soul admitted to itself –
finite infinity. *
The sublime American poet evidently saw something mysterious and decisive in the solitude of a heart that reflects on itself—we understand what that means. But infinitely greater, dear Emily, is the solitude of a human being in the infinite and desolate afternoons of August in Rome. It’s an abyss that’s even just scary to look at. Whoever is alone is a hundred times more alone in the static mugginess of this month without bounds, without habits, without even the usual bar open.
“What do you make of such a deserted Rome?,” a stranger clutching a small shopping bag asks me out of nowhere. “It’s beautiful,” I respond, and the man takes advantage of that crumb of connection to begin a story spanning dozens of years, made up of mourning, abandonment, people who leave and don’t return, people who disappear, friends who betray, and more hospitals, trains, cemeteries, layoffs, women who say farewell without pity, and then, one after the other, names, faces, characters go missing, seasons, years, days go missing.
Anyone would shudder to hear how the stage of life thinned out, leaving the man standing in front of me alone, alone in the center of an indifferent city, amid an August that sears every blade of grass. And now he’s looking at me as if I’m the only one here for him and there is no one else, as if only with me could he share the burdens of such a sad life. And I don’t know how to respond, what to do.
“Well, I’ll be seeing you,” he says and walks off courageously, like at the end of those Chaplin films, with the circle closing in on him until everything turns black.
* first printed in Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s collection, The Single Hound (Little, Brown, 1914).
Excerpted from Islands—New Islands: A Vagabond Guide to Rome by Marco Lodoli, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson. Copyright © 2019. Available from Fontanella Press
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