Thursday, June 20, 2013

When I wake up this morning and open the green shutters on my window overlooking Via dei Polacchi, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s my last day in Rome. With all of the delays and distractions that brought me to Italy nearly a week later than planned, my internal clock is off and I’m not ready to leave just yet.

After breakfast, I ramble around Campo de’ Fiori. The name means “field of flowers” and when the market is here, it really is. Clustered around the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk who was burned at the stake here in 1600, there are scores of umbrellas shading vendors from the sun. There are fruit and vegetable stands and dried pastas for sale, as well as bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And of course, there are flowers—big bunches of roses and chrysanthemums and daisies that burst with the vibrant colors of summer.

From here, I continue on to Piazza Navona, where there’s a jazz quartet playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” My levitating friends are back with their bright orange turbans and prayer beads, and there’s a street performer dressed like a headless man in a suit jacket and purple tie, waving to tourists as they stroll by, craning their heads in amusement.

I’m going to miss these walks. More than ever before this year, I’ve put schedules and itineraries aside. It was by necessity at first, but then—ever so gradually—by choice. It’s been nice to wake in the morning with little to do but wander as far as my feet will take me, and to embrace whatever the day, or the mood, or the moment, invites.

Originally, I had hoped to see a Brueghel exhibit titled “The Fascinating World of Flemish Art” at the Chiostro del Bramante, but it was set to close on June 2. I had scratched it from my list when the trip got postponed, so I’m surprised to see a poster this morning that’s been altered with a yellow banner reading PROROGATA, extended. Excited, I glance at my map and see that it’s just around the corner, to the west of Piazza Navona.

The Chiostro del Bramante is impressive in its own right, with graceful marble columns and porticos and arches, and the exhibition has been touted as the largest “devoted to the famous artistic dynasty ever to be held in Rome.” I buy a €12 ticket at the door and rove happily through the galleries, which include works by several members of the Brueghel family, including Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s “The Bird Trap” (1605), a sober winter scene with skaters gliding on a frozen river, and “Wedding Dance in the Open Air,” which overflows with carousing, ruddy-nosed peasants. There is also a series of intricate still lifes of butterflies, insects, and shells by Jan van Kessel, another descendent in a complex and talented family tree.

It’s one o’clock by the time I work my way back towards Piazza Venezia. Remembering the inspired view of the Roman Forum from the restaurant at the Capitoline Museum, I decide to go there for lunch, and wind up staying for much of the afternoon, exploring rooms I had somehow missed on my first visit back in 2008, including the Pinocoteca, where Caravaggio’s “The Fortune Teller” hangs, and the entirety of the Palazzo Nuovo and the Tabularium.

The sculptures I see are extraordinary. There is a naturalistic statue of a “Dying Galatian” that throbs with pain and human emotion, and another of Cupid and Psyche locked in a tender embrace. Then there are the rows of heads in the Sala degli Imperatori, or Hall of the Emperors, including the famous Fonseca Bust, with her mound of intricately carved curls piled high upon her head. There is such artistic wealth here that it’s hard to know where to look, or when to stop.

Outside on the Piazza del Campidoglio, it’s another blistering late afternoon, without a cloud in the sky to screen the sun. There are two people unloading cases of bottled water, though, and they’re handing them out for free. Whether the uniform they wear is from the city of Rome or from a corporate sponsor, I don’t know, but I’m exceedingly grateful for the refreshment.

I relax for a while in my air conditioned room at the Hotel Hosianum Palace, where my bags are already packed and stowed in the corner. Earlier in the day, I had liked the quiet streets near the Chiostro del Bramante, so later I head back to Piazza Navona and veer off onto Via di Tor Millina, to a little osteria and wine bar called Cybo for dinner. Loving as ever the languorous sound of Italian, I order the Brasato di vitella con carote glassate e purea di patate, or braised veal with glazed carrots and mashed potatoes, and while I wait for the entrée to arrive, I feel a cool vapor on my skin. I’ve seen fans on the patios of some restaurants in Rome, but here they have a complex system of hoses that work much like a mister in the vegetable aisle of a supermarket, and it feels absolutely wonderful! The veal is good, too, but it’s the gift of outdoor air conditioning on a hot summer’s night that I’ll remember best.

I walk back through the Jewish Ghetto one last time, following Via Giulia and a maze of smaller streets until I reach the Teatro Marcello, where there’s a choir singing in front of the ruins tonight. I stop to listen, and then continue on, back up the long stairs that lead to the Capitoline Hill, the lone statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and the piazza designed by Michelangelo. I’ve come to watch darkness fall over the Roman Forum, and when it does it feels like a soft shroud.

It will lift in the morning, and the Gladiators will be back posing for pictures with tourists holding water bottles and paper parasols to shield their faces from the sun, but I won’t be here when it does.

It’s time to move on, and I’m excited by what comes next.

When I first came to Italy in 2008, the impulse was to pose in front of the Coliseum and the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza San Marco, and say I WAS HERE. What does it mean to have returned time and again, through sheer will and force of habit, to the same cities, the same hotels, and many of the same museums and streets? I’ve been thinking a lot about that this time around.

Nelson Mandela once said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Perhaps he’s right, but nothing about a place truly remains unchanged, even in Italy where it often seems as though inertia reigns. There is always more to discover, and new faces to meet.

In standing here, looking out across the vast remnants of Roman history, it occurs to me that time is more like layers of debris. Some memories we bury, but there are those we excavate purely for the joy of seeing them again, all the while building new walls and windows at the surface through which to see the world anew.

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