Working from Rome: New beginnings

August 2021

Covid lockdowns were for many miserable affairs of endurance. But for me, a childless office worker, they were not without some significant benefits. In truth, they were (at least at first) a relief, a welcome respite. The utter drudgery of commuting, of delayed and cancelled trains and heaving buses, was indefinitely postponed. In their place came that queen of all commodities, time. That we all seemed to be in a simulacrum of real life was disturbing, but selfishly, I was enjoying my new serenity.

Admittedly, one often felt unease at just how strange life had become (particularly the manner in which the utter novelty of confinement to the home, and spurning the company of loved ones, was so rapidly normalised). But for the most part, I don’t think it is stretching credulity to acknowledge that a great many white-collar workers were very comfortable indeed, perhaps at times (whisper it) even bored.

As lockdowns and tiers and zones and social distancing retreated and reappeared, and 2020 slid gloomily into 2021, I brooded on the fact that, though I relished not having to go into the office, lockdowns represented time that I would never be able to recover. And so to accommodate for this depressing reality, I conjured an idea of working in Italy, one month abroad, one month at home, on a rolling basis.

When the government’s restrictions began to ease, I put my proposal to my employers and they, to my surprise, accepted it. After signing the paperwork, and agreeing to let them know where I was when I was over there, in early August I flew to Rome.

Castel Sant’Angelo on a sultry summer evening

My host was Grazia, a genial retiree with an artistic bent. Her apartment, crammed with books, was near the Vatican but, being directly behind it, was sufficiently distant enough to repel the tourists. Her English was as robust as my Italian (i.e., almost absent) and so we communicated chiefly through text messages. When we did come across each other, she would musically exclaim “Tutto bene?” to which I nod “sì, sì!”. This little routine was usually interspersed with my miming how my day had been, combined with facial expressions not unlike comic and dramatic masks for extra emphasis. I must have looked quite the sophisticate.

Grazia lived directly opposite a metro stop, about five floors up in an apartment block on a busy street. The metro station, Cipro, was tired and dirty, like most in Rome, and like all buildings designed at the cutting edge, had aged badly. Its forecourt doubled as the local headquarters of a particularly bellicose squadron of pigeons, their belligerence aptly demonstrated in their refusal to flap out of the way of approaching footfall. Just to make plain that this was their turf, and that I was trespassing upon it, they were in the habit of defecating on every object animate or otherwise within the vicinity. The small patches of grass nearby were yellow and parched, amplifying the station’s arid and condemned aspect, something abetted by the half a dozen poor homeless souls who bunkered down their each night (it’s astonishing just how many rough sleepers there are in and around the Vatican).

Saint Peter’s Basilica

That said, I could, in my delightful studio room adjoining Grazia’s apartment, stake a claim to authenticity. This, I thought, is being a traveller: living with the locals, avoiding the beaten track and observing that which was usually overlooked. I’d read enough Paul Theroux to feel guilty about enjoying myself abroad. Not for me delicious carbonara at overpriced restaurants in Piazza Navona. No, I’d be getting my hands dirty with real people, documenting their struggles. There was a problem, however. Deep down, I wanted to do that which everyone who comes to Rome wants to do, which is to the see the sights, enjoy the food and luxuriate in la dolce vita. How to square this with my unswerving commitment to gritty urban realism? In the end, I couldn’t, and so I reconciled myself to the idea that I would become a proper traveller and documentarian at some future indefinite date.

What was I here to do? The thought struck me as I settled into my new surroundings. I’d longed to return to Italy, and now, on a quiet Tuesday night during my first week, I realised that my plans, though diligently researched, were quite odd. I wanted to go to every gallery, every museum and every church. I had the notion, which I haven’t quite shaken off, that I had to see everything; no piazza or palazzo was too obscure or insignificant. I’m glad of this strange obsession, for I’ve seen some beautiful things which are unfairly disregarded, but it did make me pause for thought. I knew more about Rome and its history than any other city on earth. Was I here just to check off a list? The thought made me uncomfortable. I am not a practising Christian, so why the slavish devotion to Roman churches? For their architectural and aesthetic splendour, sure. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was something else. What was I doing here, alone? I felt a mysterious but powerful connection to the city, but was I nothing more than a extremely well informed tourist? I concluded that the obvious answer was ‘yes’ and accepted that there is nothing very much wrong with that.

Every evening at five, after snapping shut my laptop, I could be spied marching across the street to the metro, on my way to the centro storico (eventually, after many further trips to Italy, I learned to slow down and walk at a pace familiar to Europeans. At this stage, I was still firmly rooted in the hearty and determined tread of the British). As museums and galleries close early evening, and churches hold mass at dusk, I had scant time to waste. Thus I would usually arrive at one of Rome’s famous baroque churches at six o’clock looking as if I’d been chased there, red-faced and sweating profusely.

Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus, National Roman Museum, Palazzo Altemps

It was always the churches I went to first. Since first visiting Italy in 2015, I’d nurtured a fascination with its basilicas and monasteries and convents. By my last count, I’ve crossed the doors of around 55 churches in Rome itself, including the seven traditional pilgrim churches. That they are richly endowed with art is part of my reason for loving them so. But it is also their history, invariably complex, violent and intriguing, that has kept me captivated.

Each is like a book, the chapters of which have many authors stretching back, in some cases, well over a thousand years. No student of history could fail to be completely smitten with churches like San Clemente, with its subterranean levels spanning two millennia, or Santa Maria in Cosmedin, today situated in, and propped up by, the Roman temple within which it was erected.

I took a particular delight in their variety – the spherical Santa Costanza, in which Constantine’s daughter was entombed, decorated with ancient mosaic on its barrel vault; San Benedetto in Piscinula, a tiny, fragile construction, like a tottering old ship, with its cracked Cosmati pavement; Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, haughty and indomitable atop the Capitoline; San Giorgio in Velabro, stripped of its baroque flummeries in an austere, almost Protestant fashion; and Santa Maria in Trastevere, its façade a combination of different styles, host to all the modifications and embellishments of the centuries (home, also, to a stunning mosaic cycle by Pietro Cavallini).

These churches represent an unbroken link to the past and have somehow survived mostly intact, many defaced, despoiled and restored, it is true, but possessed of that special charm and grandeur of ageless waiting that time bestows on a place. It was also likely that at some point on a visit, one would be greeted by an Old Master: Caravaggio at San Luigi dei Francesi, at Sant’Agostino, Raphael; at San Pietro in Vincoli, there was Michelangelo’s Moses, and in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini’s marble paean to eroticism, the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Under the Sun’s unblinking scrutiny, I embarked upon my solitary pilgrimage, happy.

Santa Maria in Trastevere, the heart of the district

Well, for the most part. I had heard it said that prolonged time spent alone is unhealthy, but that month I discovered it through experience. How easy it was to become anti-social was mildly alarming. I realised later that that which I endured the elderly must suffer everyday: invisibility. When I approached the threshold of a restaurant, waiters looked through me; walking along the street, I had constantly to step into the road to swerve lovestruck couples. This bred resentment astonishingly quickly, and I became passive aggressive, refusing to shift an inch. Overcompensating, I’d arrive at cafes like Vince McMahon. I abandoned this play-acting eventually as I recognised my own absurdity, and decided instead to embrace the benefits of my new anonymity.

And there certainly were positives to going unnoticed. On one ferociously hot Saturday morning, I awoke around ten with a hangover that could floor a uni rugby team. I must have finished that bottle of Chianti. Rousing myself, I discovered that I had overnight lay on and crushed my new glasses. When I held them up they looked like they had been violently twisted in a fit of pique, like some tortured spider’s legs. Determined not to waste the day and feeling very sorry for myself, I felt my way gingerly to the metro and took a long journey to San Paolo Fuori la Mura, by legend built on the site of Paul’s tomb. The church was reached by a long walk on foot from the station. I was almost weeping with relief when I crawled into the shade of its portico. Inside, in a chapel by the altar, was the most lifelike statue I had ever seen, a wooden carving of Paul. I couldn’t take my eyes of it. Now I knew why Protestants had done all that icon smashing; it really did in some way seem to be alive. I sat patiently and waited for it to blink, before deciding that it was probably time to go and have a long lie down.

Statue of St Paul at San Paolo Fuori la Mura

When I wasn’t in a church, I was in a gallery or museum. I was spoilt for choice here, and took in most of what Rome had to offer, but the work that stays with me the most was not in fact in Rome but in Naples (a birthday excursion). In Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ at Capodimonte, the dumb fury of the figure grasping Christ’s hair is difficult to forget; but there was sensuality at Capodimonte, too, in Titian’s Danaë, as well as some exquisite cartoons by Raphael and Michelangelo. The museum, a former Bourbon palace perched on a hill top overlooking Naples, was an idyll of still calm in a chaotic city.

I took the opportunity whilst in Naples to visit Procida, the lesser-known island cousin of its more salubrious neighbours Ischia and Capri. Procida is small but colourful, the buildings lining the main port a melange of stark yellows and subtle peaches. Its natural beauty has seen many movies filmed here, but it is an unpretentious and modest place, an island of maritime workers. Those on the ferry who had boarded on foot were tourists, but the cars and vans and bikes in the hold belonged to the islanders, who disembarked rapidly, with cargo to deliver, letters to post and appointments to meet. On the return journey to Naples, the setting Sun cast a dramatic orange glow, lending a melodramatic air to our departure, as if we were leaving friends and family for some undiscovered shore.

Piazzetta Nilo, Naples
The Naiade docking in Procida

Back in Rome, I continued my pursuit of its treasures. In the Capitoline museum, I toured the top floor gallery, crammed with Madonnas embracing Christ Childs and saccharine Magdalenes. I wondered what impact this sacral indoctrination was having on me. Art, surely, has a moralising, or at the very least an instructive, quality. One might expect, in other words, to leave the gallery a more enlightened person than when one entered.

Yet I begged leave to doubt it. The twentieth century showed us that high culture does not necessarily confer a civilising effect. So what was the purpose of my own exploring? Again, I found it hard to shake off the thought that I was merely ticking off a list. We rightly feel contempt for those who, when in a gallery, elbow their way before a painting so that they can take a picture, before disappearing, head buried in their device, only seconds later. The idea is to merely document having seen something; the actual seeing is secondary. The feeling grew during my stay that I was doing the same thing, not through taking photographs, but by applying all my neat little ticks in my notebook.

It led me to question my own drive in seeking out Rome’s artistic patrimony. If art possesses any value beyond its visual appeal, it must be the delivery of some message, or wisdom. And as with all wisdom, it can only be gained though experience and contemplation (the love and admiration comes later). This is not always easy. Much art involves teasing out the meaning, and appreciation and understanding is acquired only by gentle, patient steps. I didn’t quite know why I took such pleasure in studying works of art, or what effect it had on my character. I just knew that I wanted to keep doing it.

I brushed off these thoughts by making my way to the Capuchin crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, famous for its elaborate and macabre display of the skeletal remains of its former friars. Here, death and decay leave no room for cerebral musings. The Marquis de Sade, that old unshockable, claimed after his tour of the crypt that he had “never seen anything more striking”. This rather dull description is valid in as far as the crypt does give you a jolt. Whatever it is, it is not boring. And certainly, if you are looking to dwell the vanity of our temporal hopes and dreams, there is no better suited place. But the overwhelming feeling the crypt inspired was one of forlorn pity. Somewhere to avoid if you’re feeling a bit mentally delicate.

Capuchin crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini

My month in Italy was nearly up. Having long-ago adopted AS Roma as my Italian team of choice, aided in my decision by Grazie Roma, the sentimental club anthem sung by Antonello Venditti, I decided to cap off the month by visiting the Stadio Olimpico for the opening game of Roma’s league campaign against Fiorentina.

The Olimpico is a no-thrills venue. An enormous, shallow bowl with little in the way of comfort (I would have been disappointed had it been otherwise), it is home both to Roma and their hated rivals Lazio. The stadium is the centrepiece of the Foro Italico (formerly Foro Mussolini), a vast athletic park north of the Tiber. Adorned with pavement mosaics and marble white statuary, the park was built in the Fascist period in a bid to showcase the virility of the New Rome (and in an attempt to win the right to host the 1940 Olympics, after witnessing the success of Berlin four years earlier). This was ancient Rome as pastiche, and true to form, there at the park’s entrance was a monument to Il Duce himself, a massive obelisk with his name inscribed on its shaft.

Surrounded by tall steel fences and imposing gates, it felt as if I was entering a high security prison, a notion which having to show my ID on three separate occasions did nothing to dispel. These measures, combined with everybody having to show proof of their vaccination, led to a bottleneck outside the ticket booth half an hour before kick-off. The crowd grew good humouredly impatient. The only time I had seen an entrance to a football stadium like this, with fences, walls and fans tightly hemmed in, was in grainy security footage of the Hillsborough disaster.

The game ended in a 3-1 victory to Roma, but like my experience of attending football matches at home, it was the fans, the atmosphere, the singing and the build up to the match responsible for most of the excitement. I have no idea if smoking was permitted, but smoke people did. Drinking in one’s seat – completely banned in Britain, for obvious reasons – was also possible, though very few took it up, and if they did, they had only one or two. I remain impressed and always surprised by Italians’ restraint.

Roma fans were separated from the Fiorentina supporters by a plexiglass barrier (another element alien to English football), and most were focused on the game. But there was a hardcore dozen or so on the Roma side who, ignoring the match, derived all of their pleasure from the diverse and ingenious ways in which they could express their loathing for their Florentine brothers and sisters. This was occasionally amusing, but I was reminded, watching the contorted faces and the unremitting vulgarity, why football’s bad rep is sometimes deserved. It was neither banter nor jesting, but delighting in ugliness. You have never read a book – my involuntary thought, as I watched one repeat offender, eyes bulging and face flushed, drunkenly thrust his groin back and forth towards the Fiorentina supporters in some Dionysian frenzy.

It was a fittingly profane end to a city saturated in the sacred. I would be back in October. First, though, I needed some new glasses.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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