Reflections on Rome

Rome during rain storm

Coming into the city by train, the first thing that impresses you is the graffiti; just how bad it is and just how prevalent it is. Nothing is spared its insidious crawl across the city. I even saw some black spray scribbling on a moving white van. I don’t know if there is some traditional folk art or history of graffiti in the culture of Rome but frankly, it looks crap.

I can only assume the authorities are too lazy or corrupt to do anything about it. And it’s easy to see why, despite its problems, the tourists continue to come to see Rome in their millions, as indeed we had.

The first visit was the Colosseum. As we had a Roma Pass we dodged the huge line of people waiting to buy a ticket. I recommend the Roma Pass.

This was the beginning of June and half way through the morning as we circled the corridors of the Colosseum my daughter was already complaining about the temperature – she was too cold! Heavy rain had persisted for hours and a leaden sky showed no sign of abating. Although we had waterproofs with us we had not anticipated the cold and we had to retire early to the gift shop just to warm our daughter up. As for the Colosseum itself, it was the sheer size of it which impressed me. There is a line from Gladiator, a Ridley Scott film, where a prisoner sees the Colosseum for the first time and asks incredulously, “Men built this?”

If I thought that was big, the Basilica of St. Peter’s had a surprise in store. Everything was vast at that place including the queue, and this was off season! Actually, the queue, which snaked around the square provided an opportunity to study some human behaviour. You could see evolution in progress here.

The first thing to remember in this situation is that information for the majority of the people there is incomplete; what are the rules? People can see a queue so they join it but tour groups seem to have some kind of ‘access all areas’ type pass. Also an individual may be holding a position for a group of friends or relatives so when you see them joining the queue further up the line, is that legitimate queue jumping?

In an environment like this lots of sub species can flourish. The vast majority of people were docile and compliant and uncomplainingly queued. By the time we were in the middle of the queue I saw a middle aged couple surreptitiously wander close to the queue and pretend to take pictures of the church. As they paused and feigned interest in their snaps they carefully inveigled themselves into the queue by slowly keeping pace with it. Once they had deemed they had not been discovered they visibly relaxed and silently congratulated themselves on cheating everyone else. Or so they thought.

They had not allowed for the brazen raptor species. These were people who simply walked to the front of the queue and joined it, their utter confidence acting as a natural defence against any possible protest from the people just behind them. I even saw a white haired, energetic old woman, clearly an employee of the church, attempt to police the queue and confront this particular couple who had headed straight to the front with suitable hand gestures which pointed to the end of the line and the forcibly spoken word “Avanti!” but to no avail. This shameless couple refused to comply and simply dodged round her outstretched arms to continue their ruthless march to the front. The rules were clear now, the line we were in had no special exemptions or privileges. I felt compelled to show solidarity with the white haired woman and physically challenge the predator couple. This would have cowed them I am sure as this type of animal relies on the bemused acquiescence of the majority. Any dissent signals possible danger and harm. As much as I was keen to conduct this experiment, I had to consider the consequences of ‘unexpected scientific results’ and possible embarrassment to my family. I therefore made myself feel better by imagining yelling “You’ll go to hell!” in Latin at the queue jumpers.

The queuing was worth it though. Again, the sheer scale of the church was awesome and every square foot of its surface area was covered with the most ornate decoration you can imagine. I suppose their prize possession is  Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pieta, but seeing it was a waste of time. I’m afraid I don’t buy into the, ‘I’ve seen the original, even though you can only get within fifteen feet of it and It is hidden behind a sheet of bullet proof glass and poor lighting which means you see more of it in a decent photograph in any book about the church‘ philosophy.

But Pieta was only one of many works of art in this massive space. The billions of man hours involved in the creation of this artefact was mind boggling. This is a deliberate ploy on the part of the church of course, it needs to validate its superstitious ideas with impressive displays of wealth and power.

At least the entrance to the church was free, unlike St Paul’s in London whose policy of charging an entrance fee I have criticised before.

I was also reminded of the potent power of these superstitions even in today’s scientific age; the brass feet on a sculpture of St. Peter looked like pats of melted butter due to the countless number of hands touching them in supplication, I heard a black man admonish a loud voiced German tourist with a ‘shush!‘ because the German was not showing enough reverence in this holy place, the millions of people who come every year to worship, not just admire.

We didn’t bother with the Vatican, it was simply too much for one day. You can only be awed for so long.

Talking of being awed, the Borghese gallery is a jaw dropping experience. The paintings on the ceilings alone are worth the entrance fee although you could only appreciate them for five minutes at a time as the human neck is not meant to be in a horizontal position for long.

The big attraction however is the sculptures, particularly the Bernini masterpieces. Now these you can see, from 360 degrees, from one inch away, in bright daylight. How this man has turned stone into flesh and hair is genius. All of us were transfixed by his renditions; the indentations of fingers into flesh, the folds of skin, the filaments of hair streaming from a head. There is not much to choose between Michelangelo and Bernini, so forget Pieta and visit the Borghese gallery.

Unfortunately, the Italians like to spread their cultural wealth thinly. We wanted to find a National natural history museum or art gallery, of the kind they have in London and New York. All the good stuff in one place, kind of thing. Alas, they have a National this and that, a score of museums, in different places, like pieces in a giant jigsaw.

At least the Italians like children. Twice, in the space of three days, middle aged adults gave up their seats on a crowded Metro for our seven year old daughter. I don’t remember that happening in Paris or London.

Caricature of Ivor

On the Spanish steps we found a clutch of caricaturists (or should the plural be ‘an exaggeration of caricaturists‘?). Inevitably one of them invited me to sit for him. I explained I was a caricaturist myself and started to move on. To my surprise, he invited me to draw him. Somewhat taken aback I agreed and immediately regretted the decision when I sat down at his easel and saw his art materials. They were totally alien to me. He gave me a large sheet of paper and explained that he used a particular type. I wasn’t paying much attention to this as I tried to figure out how I was going to use his drawing materials. His main tool was a graphite pen that looked like a lipstick. This gave a sharp edge plus a large flat area to shade with. I did my initial sketch in light pencil then attempted to use the graphite lipstick. As with any new pieces of equipment you have to get used to them. As I was on holiday and had places to see and he needed to make a living I didn’t want to spend too much time on the drawing so it was mainly line work with a bit of cross hatching for shading. It was a good likeness of him though.

When I showed him the drawing he said I had drawn on the wrong side of the paper (which meant shading was difficult). He then wanted to draw me. I asked him to draw one of my children instead but he said he wanted to draw me specifically (you only insist on something like this when you think you can have some fun with a face). Within five minutes he had finished and demonstrated what could be done with a graphite lipstick and velvet coated paper when you know what you are doing. I tried to tip him but he insisted it was a gift, so thank you Sergio, it was good to meet you and if you ever come to England I will repay the compliment.

The food in Rome was generally good and inexpensive for a big city but strangely, we did not see a single olive during our stay. Plenty of olive oil but no olives – why?

Water fountain in Rome

The enduring memory I have of Rome though is the gift it has bequeathed to its citizens – water. No need to buy expensive bottled water in this city. Just fill up your old bottle with clean drinking water from one of the many fountains dotted throughout the city. Think of the plastic this saves. Think of the simple pleasure of being able to satisfy a fundamental bodily requirement such as thirst, in this large city. It was somehow an embodiment of ancient Rome, both extravagant and kind – bread and circus for its people, or rather, water and circus. It was incongruous at first seeing this precious resource, sparkling in the sunlight, pour onto the dirty streets of Rome. It was the same cognitive dissonance of seeing  filthy beggars still persisting amidst the extravagant wealth of a large Western city.

And we barely scratched the surface.

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