Chapter 17 – Vignette
‘Unevenly buried’: A personal topography of Rome
Cynthia Troup lived in Palermo and Florence for several periods during her childhood and school years. In 1995 she received an inaugural Australian Foundation for Studies in Italy award, which made possible the commencement of historical research in Rome. Her publications include scholarly articles in Italian Studies – several on the cult of Santa Francesca Romana – as well as essays and interviews in the fields of contemporary art and music. As a founding member of the arts company Aphids, Troup also writes for performance. She has taught at Monash University and The University of Melbourne, and has held writer’s residencies at Queen’s College Tower Studio (Melbourne, 2003), at Les Bains: Connective (Brussels, 2004), and at Bundanon (Southern NSW, 2007).
In 1955 Carlo Levi wrote a jubilant essay for La Nuova Stampa about the ‘festival’ or feast of the Epiphany in Rome. Setting the scene for his evocation of Piazza Navona on that occasion, he reminded his readers in Turin of ‘the age-old agrarian nature of [Rome] – a city of shepherds buried beneath a city of soldiers, in turn buried beneath a city of lawyers, buried beneath a city of priests, buried beneath a city of artisans and shopkeepers, buried beneath a city of bureaucrats, buried, in its turn, under who can say what other city’ (Levi 2005, 28).1
Levi’s mid century depiction of Rome’s hard-wearing, rural quality accords with my mother’s memories of her Roman holiday at that time. I can say that, 40 years later, in 1995 when Lamberto Dini was briefly prime minister of Italy, I found Rome to be a city of all those former inhabitants, still there or unevenly buried, and a city of myriad immigrants and refugees. On most ordinary days I moved past bus drivers, security guards, porters and library clerks, and my destination would have me mingle with tourists and travellers, tourists and pilgrims, monks and nuns, more tourists, students, scholars and artists. Meanwhile, already in conscientious anticipation of the Jubilee year, Rome was being excavated, restored, and reconstructed as a city of more tourists and pilgrims, priests and nuns. Nostalgic neglect was becoming unthinkable; the city government of Rome had commissioned its first website. Disenchantment was the tone for any talk of Italian politics, but some enthusiasm was acceptable for municipal affairs, and for the Greens Party mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli.
Perhaps a self-conscious attention to history as part of today’s lived, architectural landscape characterises all Italian cities and towns. Of course in Rome the spectacular emphasis on archaeological layers can threaten to defeat the effort to interrogate the past – can burden any attempt with melancholy. Yet the same observable layers might fire the historical imagination so intensely that it feels able to become only swifter and sharper in its powers. By Rome’s wealth of celebrated evidence of the past, I became more than ever sensitised to history as a palimpsest, and more than ever acutely aware of the erasure and overwriting of this palimpsest as dynamic processes at once deliberate and accidental. Living in Rome as a scholar undoubtedly helped to affirm – and complicate – my vocation as a historian. I was hardly the first to feel this – amongst others, Edward Gibbon famously did so – yet to me this sensation came still as a revelation.
In 1995 I was 26 years old. I was returning to Italy, but this time to live in Rome. Since childhood my sisters and I had spoken Italian: at our Catholic primary school in Melbourne we had been part of Miss Tossi’s Saturday Italian class. Now an adult, I had certainly travelled alone before, and yet it was in Rome that I first rented on my own account, and resided by myself. For four months my experience of living in that city for the purposes of scholarly research was heightened by this new experience of solitude and self-reliance. I remember the absolute fascination of realising, at a particular moment, that in Rome I knew no-one. I knew of people; wasn’t isolated. In the months before my departure, I had carefully created a notebook for listing useful contacts: all kinds of good people had been recommended to me. Even so, I didn’t exist to any of them, when – after the flurry and exertion of finding somewhere to live; of locating the closest market, supermarket, laundrette and photocopy shop; of working out the surrounding bus routes and landmarks – at that slowed-down instant and inside Via San Calepodio 36, suddenly I noticed my solitude. There was no dramatic consequence. It was as though noticing from afar. Then I had an impression of hearing more through the ground-floor walls of my apartment block: ambulances and cars, children, televisions, the scraping of plates. This leafy, hillside suburb of Monteverde seemed a little less contained.
Is Rome known as a friendly city? Probably it’s too illustrious and categorically self-assured to seek such a reputation. Yet I don’t recall an occasion when I was afraid of lingering alone in centro – the historic centre – or in Trastevere, or before the gleaming solemnity of the view from Piazza Garibaldi. Overall, I didn’t feel my anonymity, foreignness, or impermanent residence in Rome to be shameful. At least in its breadth and density, the old centre of the city can protect as well as tolerate these matters of status. And amidst a crowd – surrounded by smart ladies in glossy fur coats, milling about the courtyard of some proud palace after an evening concert; or turning from the bus stop into the flashy, fragrant clatter of a gran caffè on a weekday morning; or, indeed, on a clear night near one of the fountains in Piazza Navona, when groups in the restaurants are becoming boisterous, and the racks of watercolours have been left unattended, and the cards of the tarot readers are turning fast – anonymity can be felt as a delight in being alive in a setting of such imperturbable grandeur. There, paradoxically, as so well elaborated by Levi, being unknown and without company can give a sense of connectedness to all the fury, sound and motion of human life.
If this feeling can be had anywhere, I became susceptible to it in Rome. I indulged in becoming susceptible: at the bookseller Feltrinelli in Largo Argentina, opposite the bus interchange and four Republican temples, Oxford paperbacks cost 8,000 lire. I began Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, eating market cherries still warm from their box in the sun.
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My research in Rome was focused on the fifteenth-century cult of a female Roman saint. I was introduced to Saint Frances of Rome, or Santa Francesca Romana, in Melbourne, by Ian Robertson in his sedate brown office at Melbourne University. And in Melbourne, perhaps understandably, my intellectual enthusiasm for this subject was sometimes modified by doubts about its demonstrable relevance to – well, to the sound and motion of my decidedly secular Australian life.
These doubts about relevance were superseded in Rome by continual anxieties about the distinction, for my academic purposes, between the substance of the contemporary cult and the proper materials for historical research. I see these days that in Rome I experienced almost immediately an obscure ‘crisis of contact’ with my subject. The enduring and obvious socio-religious prestige of Santa Francesca intimidated me terribly; I inferred that it was dangerous to ask questions about such an iconic figure and heritage, out aloud, as it were, in a female foreigner’s accent. A reverent pilgrimage to the Saint’s holy shrine and convent was hardly the journey planned, but often this was assumed to be the premise, or the proper premise, of my inquiry. How to avoid giving an impression of polite respect which could not be confused with one of devotion? I lacked the sophistication; the requisite sense of humour, too. Predictably I wanted to avoid giving offence, and desired to please.
So in Rome my first formal efforts as a cultural historian were fraught with a kind of secret torment: they were made especially wary and hesitant by the inmost question ‘what do you believe?’ – a dogmatic variant of the existential ‘who are you anyway?’ Now I can name these misgivings, but then I believed that my investigation should be something confinable to the thinking, analytical mind. This ‘crisis of contact’ might be traced to the week of my arrival in Rome, and my initial visit to the Basilica di Santa Francesca Romana ‘al foro’ – ‘beside the forum’. By name, by site, and by the array of memorials within, this basilica presents as yet another Rome in microcosm: every vista and every surface emphasises some unique, unbroken association with the cities of pagan goddesses, emperors, apostles and popes; miraculous madonnas; noble families; cardinal patrons and protectors; great mosaicists, sculptors, painters and architects; clergy, blessed holy figures and saints. Early on a Thursday morning in May I descended into the nineteenth-century crypt, where Santa Francesca’s white-veiled skeleton lies displayed in a casket of copper and glass. I was unprepared for the chilly magnificence of this arrangement – for the ugly, immersive complexity of the whole church interior. In its silent grandeur I found no resonance with my study so far.
Otherwise my creeping panic might be traced to the following Wednesday, when I was received at the Congregation of Oblates founded by Santa Francesca at the Tor de’ Specchi. The main street-side walls of the monastery extend more than half a block down Via Teatro di Marcello, as it curves south from the Campidoglio and Piazza d’Aracoeli. Months before, la Madre, Paola Vecchi the Mother Superior, had replied to my letter of enquiry from Melbourne with a few lines handwritten on a tissue-thin page. Our appointment was for three o’clock in the afternoon, and she was waiting for me, as indicated by the nun who acted as porter, across a wide, bright courtyard, through glazed doors, and up two flights of marble stairs. I wore a plain dress, and tiptoed. The stairwell smelled of floor wax and washed cement.
Back then I described Madre Paola’s appearance as that of ‘a fairytale nun’; the skin of her hands and cheeks was pink and soft. Seated opposite her in a dim, first-floor parlour, I breathed an air more rarefied than I had ever experienced before, while our interview took the form of an extremely courteous catechism. Madre Paola nodded gently as I spoke. I mentioned the archive of the Tor de’ Specchi, as had my letter. Madre Paola suggested that the Vatican Library was rich in materials ‘with which to begin’. She was, and remained, utterly inscrutable. Nevertheless I had grasped at once that in the Tor de’ Specchi all time and space were strenuously charged with the presence and example of the foundress. Social and cultural history were of interest as a complement to faith. And what did I believe?
After so many months of Latin reading lessons, paleography and preliminary study I was hardly unprepared intellectually for these encounters. However, I hadn’t anticipated their personal impact, and sensory, theatrical effect. A reaction to the ideological atmosphere of the basilica and the Tor de’ Specchi collided and then colluded with my lack of self-confidence. Apparently all of those cities, still there or unevenly buried, had been converted to a perfect faith in Santa Francesca. Rome challenged me positively to define the nature of my passion for the discipline that had held my scholarly attention, and sustained my curiosity, since at least my undergraduate years. Circumstances demanded as well that I learn to allow space for the role of personality, feelings – intuitions – in this practice of history.
In September Ian Robertson arrived in Rome to pursue his own research until the next February. He’d booked a serviced flat in Vicolo Moroni, around the corner from the Ponte Sisto. He would stroll – or so he had planned – across the fifteenth-century bridge to shop in the Campo dei Fiori, but the Ponte Sisto was under restoration. I vividly remember him from that period, walking from his so-called Residence in Trastevere to the Vatican in the early morning, strikingly dignified in his long, dark overcoat. It was Ian’s habit to categorise himself as a ‘Catholic agnostic’. Amongst friends and former students he enjoyed rehearsing this half-ironic, complex, fastidious self-description, which was, I think, a way of positively defining his ethos as a historian of Renaissance Italy, popes and civic governments. On excursions together, say, to San Giovanni in Laterano, or to the Sancta Sanctorum, he impressed me as careful to avoid pre-empting the experience with words, despite his erudition. Crowds or no crowds, in the vicinity of Rome’s historical topography and faced with any memorial or mythified place, Ian’s response was a combination of pleasure and downright awe. Re-reading Levi’s essay on the Epiphany, somehow, the writer’s willingness to be disarmed by observation reminds me of Ian in Rome.
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From 1992, the Rome of librarians and library clerks was collaboratively re-oriented towards the virtual centre of the Unione Romana Biblioteche Scientifiche (URBS) online catalogue. Nowadays this database involves some 15 libraries, notably those of national academies and universities; it provides links to the online catalogues of nine further libraries, including that of the Vatican. Irreducible in its fabric, however, the Rome of librarians and library clerks persists as a massive, sprawling, sumptuous domain; haphazard, well-disguised – a city of exclusive citadels, almost. Its geography and protocols required that I develop my physical stamina for the shifting, miscellaneous business of research, as much as my mental stamina.
Naturally, long before Madre Paola’s bidding, I had intended to avail myself of the Vatican Library and Archive, unfathomable as they are. For this I would catch the number 115 bus in Monteverde, which pitches down the Passeggiata del Gianicolo to Santo Spirito in Sassia. I sought out other materials in the library of the Libera Università Maria Santissima Assunta, located between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo; in the library of the École Française de Rome, unsuspected below the famous entablature of the Farnese Palace; in the hagiographical collections of the Vallicelliana (Rome’s first public library), and in the Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo at Piazza dell’Orologio – both beside the Chiesa Nuova, and part of the baroque convent so well-known to music history. For the detail of its card catalogue I often had recourse to the Biblioteca dell’Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte, also hidden away behind the carved doors of Palazzo Venezia. I recall the Biblioteca di Storia della Medicina as a poky grey room off the Viale dell’Università, north-east of the main railway station, where, improbably, I came upon a cache of articles on the healing miracles of Santa Francesca. The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale is in the same area: its monotonous austerity cannot be overestimated. Nor can the serenity of the American Academy library, with its several floors of open stacks. The American Academy was within walking distance of my apartment, uphill towards the crest of the Gianicolo.
Not all of these institutions belonged or belong to the URBS network. Day to day, each diligently preserves the singular conceit of its origins; each reading room is superintended to preserve its own degree of purposeful silence. Mostly I gained admission after some alarmingly slow administrative procedure, potentially a morning’s work. I’ve kept the assorted tessere d’ammissione – documents of admission – that resulted from this work: a dozen or so cardboard cards, hand-typed, stamped and signed. Tiny staples attach passport-sized photos of me at 26. Anecdotally these tessere could signify patience, or intellectual energy, yet I see their creases and frayed corners in terms of the body; its own diligence and exertions – the relentless legwork connoted by my city of libraries.
In part by triumphalist design, Rome’s renowned thoroughfares and landmarks – and the distances between them – can be brutal in their monumentality. Unsurprisingly, there were those days when my trip to some place of research proved fruitless, arduous, exhausting. I won’t forget traipsing down Via del Corso one hot July afternoon, having decided to avoid the sweaty crush of the bus. I tripped on the footpath, a stumble really, but instead of regaining my balance, I crawled to the kerb, and sat there, hunched over with my feet in the gutter, sobbing like a child – oh, about the ancient grime of ‘Civilisation’; all the swarming pedestrians and hurtling traffic of the world; the smoke and sirens beating the interminable length of the street!
The dreary, pinching headaches that I suffered were surely due to traffic pollution. Pollution and other environmental issues were especially topical since Mayor Rutelli had been promising no less than an ‘ecological renaissance’ for Rome, beginning in 1992. But the luck of my address, my neighbourhood, gave me a place of genuine respite: in Monteverde, behind the American Academy, sprawls the largest public park in Rome, the Villa Doria Pamphilj, or Belrespiro (a name meaning, more or less, ‘breathe well’). Inside this park, with its lake, and grassland, and handsome rows of umbrella pines, all the built and populous Romes can recede from the lungs and mind.
Inside this park, between sunrise and sunset, it seems possible to rediscover the agrarian Rome that Levi perceived in Piazza Navona on the feast of the Epiphany. As it happens, when he wrote his essay ‘The solitude of Rome’ the grounds of Villa Doria Pamphilj were not open to the public. I would roam these grounds during 1995 to become aware again that ‘the machine-made sounds of the city’ could still willingly ‘give way’, in certain flourishing corners, ‘to the cries of animals and the rustling of leaves’ that Levi was so alive to.2 Pounded as well by birds’ wings, soccer balls, joggers on the gravel paths, the light, fresh air of Belrespiro will absorb and disperse everything; every ordinary or less ordinary reverberation.
1 Titled ‘La solitudine di Roma’, the essay was published in La Nuova Stampa on 8 January 1955.
2 See Levi (2005, 27): ‘Indeed we might say that festivals, at least the major festivals, in Rome, are resonant and atmospheric and are celebrated by noise and in the air. They are, in the final analysis, country festivals and so, suddenly, and all at once, the city returns to what it was before the dawn of history: countryside and forest; and the machine-made sounds of the city give way to the cries of animals and the rustling of leaves’.
Levi, Carlo. 2005. ‘The solitude of Rome’, in Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita, translated by Shugaar, Anthony. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.