We arrived in Rome for our third visit in mid August, and it was hot. Bloody hot. The city really swelters in the summer, something we kind of knew but had not really thought about too much. In any event Rob was escaping the worst of it, heading back to Adelaide to spend some time with his mother, and I was going to be left alone in the apartment (air-conditioned, fortunately) to work on my novel and generally settle in to the place.
This particular apartment was located in a corner of Rome that we didn’t know at all well, called Sallustiano, tucked up in the corner between the Porta Pia and the Borghese Gardens. Though I had picked it because it was in reasonably easy walking distance of the railway station – important because we planned to do a few side trips from Rome over the couple of months we were based there – it turned out to be a charming neighbourhood, to which we became quite attached. It’s a fairly prosperous area, the locale of various embassies and consulates, and most of the buildings are from the so-called Liberty era, that period after the unification of Italy when much of Rome was either built or rebuilt, lending it a pleasant uniformity. Not far away, we had access to one of the fine little markets that seem to be indispensable to Italian life, and dotted around us were all the shops and services anyone could possibly need, not to mention a plethora of excellent local restaurants. Apart from being fifteen minutes’ walk to the railway station, we had a ten minute saunter to the nearest Metro station, in about twelve minutes we could be in the Borghese Gardens, and in roughly the same time be on the Via Veneto, sipping an expensive cappuccino with all the Americans.
But probably the most striking feature of our newest Italian neighbourhood was the Aurelian Walls. These massive fortifications, which surrounded the ancient city of Rome from about 275 AD on are an extraordinary sight, 8 metres high (26 feet in old money), built of concrete faced with red bricks, and pierced with towers and gates – in the 4th century, there were 383 towers, 18 main gates, 5 postern gates, and no less than 116 latrines along their 19 kilometre length (thanks, Wikipedia!). Naturally most of the walls and gates have long gone, but there is a substantial section still standing that runs along most of the length of the Corso d’Italia, crumbling a little, and weed-infested, but still an awesome sight.
At the Borghese Gardens end, the Pincian Gate still stands, familiar to anyone who has walked up the Via Veneto; nearer us, though, is a gate that is more important in recent history. The Porta Pia was designed by Michelangelo at the behest of Pope Pius IV to replace another gate further south, which was to be closed. But it was on September 20th, 1870, that the last great drama of the Italian Risorgimento was played out, when the artillery of the revolutionary armies pounded a breach in the walls, through which they entered the city and forced the Pope to surrender the city – thus completing the reunification of Italy. And here is another little Roman curiosity: it was at this gate that Gino Lucetti, and antifascist activist, threw a bomb at a car carrying Benito Mussolini on September 11, 1926. Naturally, to no effect.
Traces of the Italian Dictator’s presence in Rome have, for the most part, been erased. There are a few brutalist fascist-era buildings still standing, and very occasionally one will see the fascisti symbol of an axe in a bundle of rods (the symbol of authority for the Roman lictors, the guards who protected the Roman Consul in Republican times) in odd places. And of course there is EUR, the suburb of Rome that the fascists laid out, and which contains that oddity, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, otherwise known as the ‘Modern Colosseum’. But not far from us there was another site associated with Mussolini, the Villa Torlonia, a grand villa and estate that was gifted to him and which served as his home for most of his reign as Dictator. We went there on a whim, but it turned out to be well worth our time. The main villa, where Mussolini actually lived, is a splendid affair in the neoclassical style, built around the end of the 19th century. It has permanent exhibitions as well as hosting temporary art shows. Elsewhere in the sadly rather unkempt gardens there is a fine theatre (closed for rehearsals when we were there, so we couldn’t look inside) and a more informal swiss-style chalet called the Casina delle Civette (House of the Little Owls), which is full of funny little nooks and crannies and beautiful stained glass.
Our other garden refuge was, naturally enough, the vast Borghese Gardens, which were literally on our doorstep. They soon became Rob’s preferred venue for his morning walk, and we frequently found ourselves drawn there for lunch at one of the little cafes that dot the park, or for a late afternoon stroll, once the heat of the day had subsided, usually ending up at the Terrazza del Pincio, with its fine view over the Piazza del Popolo. The park was also our route when we wanted to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, another Roman curiosity – it’s a very fine institution with an excellent collection of modern Italian art, but it’s not that well known to tourists, though the locals love it.
Having ‘done’ most of the city’s main sights on our previous visits, we didn’t on this occasion spend so much time in the centre, which was just as well, since it was absolutely heaving with tourists at this time if year. But there was one museum that we had always wanted to visit, but had not managed to get to – the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, located right on the Via del Corso, just a few feet from the Piazza Veneto, and therefore about as in the middle of the city as you can get. Behind the street facade is a sprawling palace built around a big central courtyard that is the home to an enormous collection of art works, by the greatest painters of the Renaissance and beyond, from Raphael to Caravaggio to Velasquez and José da Ribera. The latest generation of the Doria-Pamphilj family still live in the Palazzo: evidently, according to one of the guards that Robert talked to, it is not unusual for them to drop by and mingle with the museum’s visitors.
Let me finish this little tour of Roman curiosities back in Sallustiano. The suburb takes its name from the Gardens of Sallust, which one almost stumbles over when wandering around the streets. Originally they were landscaped pleasure gardens that occupied a large area between the Pincian and Quirinal hills, and they were owned by none other than Julius Caesar. After his death, they were acquired by the Roman historian Sallust (Gaius Sullustius Crispus to give him his full name) and developed by him using the wealth he had acquired as governor of Numidia. The gardens passed into the possession of the imperial family, and the emperor Nerva died there of a fever in 98 AD. Eventually, after the fall of Rome, the gardens fell into ruin, and the whole area gradually disappeared as the valley between the two hills was filled in, so that today all that can be seen is a series of ruins that are mostly below today’s street level. Still, they seem to be an appropriate metaphor for Rome, whose layers are seemingly endless, and whose surprises can appear from anywhere.
Next up: Roman Escapes!