On my first visit to Rome, just off the plane, I spent an hour taking pictures of the Coliseum. I walked the Roman Forum in awe that my feet were treading the very same ground that Caesar had walked, and stood inside the Senate building where he met his death; I imagined the screams, the blood, the import of that moment, and I could not shrug off the feeling that somehow even the ground held memories of both. I stood under the Triumphal Arches of Septimius Severus, Titus, and Augustus and – because the iron fences had not yet been erected – touched the marble that I imagined had been touched by hundreds of thousands of people in the years since they were new and glittery in the sun. This entire area was just as I had always imagined it would be – serene despite the crowds, quiet and respectful, as it should be.
Soon, I left the Forum area, determined to see Piazza Navona, a place that had existed as a beacon in my mind for years. I set off through the streets. It was close, according to the map. My anticipation grew. Any moment, I’d be there where I’d see fountains by Bernini… a church that holds the bones of a 4th century saint… an Egyptian obelisk from even more ancient Egypt… echoes of chariot races and boat exhibitions… the Pamphili palace…. In essence it was, in my mind, as much hallowed ground as the Roman Forum. I got closer – just around the next building and I’d be surrounded by another space filled with past glories….
Perhaps it was because I had by then been up for more than 24 hours. Perhaps it was because I had forgotten to eat and so was likely quite low in blood sugar. Or perhaps it was that finally reality hit. In any case, this was the revelatory moment:
I rounded the corner and was assaulted by noise, then chaotic movement. I felt outrage first, then fear, and then a sinking sensation akin to betrayal. Children ran and screamed, chasing balloons and bubbles. They climbed on benches and iron fences erected to keep people off the statues, and they shrieked as they ducked away from parents who, in truth, seemed more interested in taking photos or looking at the hundreds of street vendors’ products. My heart sank even more as I walked in a terrible haze across the cobbled street onto the main open piazza and through the lines of oil paints, water colors, photographs, caricatures, trinkets, cheap souvenirs. What right did they have to be there? Why did the city allow this – a flea market in an ancient site? And what of the restaurants lining the edges of the piazza with chairs and canopies that extended almost halfway into the streets on all sides? Tourists sat and talked loudly in a variety of languages. They ate and took photos and laughed at each other. Waiters accosted me, everyone, telling us why their place was better than all the others. People on bicycles wove through the masses, ringing their bells, stopping and starting to miss the people who couldn’t seem to pay attention to anything other than their own wonder.
Everything was too loud, too noisy, too colorful. Too disrespectful.
I ate a breakfast bar, dejected, ready to return to my hotel, and then slowly – perhaps nutrition hitting my bloodstream? – had what I have come to believe is one of the most important realizations a traveler to Rome must have, one that certainly seems to go without saying. Except I hadn’t known it until that moment.
Rome is a living city. It is not frozen in time, to be viewed and marveled at. It is ancient, yes, and it is also modern. It is filled with first century buildings and original tile, and 21st century people living lives that involve smart phones and Manolo Blahnik shoes and plastic bubble guns. In any given skyline of the Centro Storico (Historical Center) one can see 2000 or more years of churches, temples, spires and sculpture. And at any given time a visitor can move from the present to the past in an easy couple of steps.
For most of its life Rome has been what it is today: a city upon which people from all corners of the globe have descended; a city that merges its history with its present, almost seamlessly creating a site of wonder and grit; a city filled with the ghosts of the past and the realities of the present; a city in which flea markets have peppered the piazzas for centuries and generations of people have bartered for a trinket, a souvenir, a picture; a city in which present-day artists chose as their subjects the intrusions of its past. It is loud and dirty, and filled with glittery marble and crumbling walls. And finally, it is a city in which screaming children become the voice of the future.
Humbled, I found my way back to my hotel that day, slept for 10 hours, and the next morning I entered the Rome that is, instead of the Rome I was expecting. And it is, as it will be a hundred years from now, more than can be dreamt of.