21 Mar

Holy shit, I’m in Italy!

Or have I just invented a time machine? I’m not so sure. But no, it can’t be that — there are cars here, and they’re seemingly trying to run me and my family over every chance they get. I’m not taking it personally though; by the looks of it they’re after everybody with equal indiscretion. Here comes one now.

Mama mia, they’re tiny ones at least, just like the streets. Absolutely perfect streets. You wouldn’t believe cars could even fit on them, let alone make their way between the crush of people. I love it. But then again, Rome is a city seemingly custom built to blow my mind. No surprises there. We’re talking about a place well over 2000 years old — the foundation of the culture I’m apparently the most obsessed with. There’s not even close to an equivalent in the United States. It makes you redefine your idea of antiquity. And every single thing, both piccolo and grande, puts me more and more inside the state of some ecstatic, frenzied dream. I’m trying to stay cool about it. I’m trying to handle it the way I do on the nicest day of the year, and just let it all come, rather than try to dwell on every moment. Dwelling on every moment here would make my head explode.

We’re staying on the Via Liguria, off of the old fashionable district of the Via Veneto, and by Roman standards this is a pretty modern neighborhood, mainly developed after the unification of Italy in 1861. We’re nearby the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, both built at a time when New York City was mainly farmland. And that’s the thing: the oldest buildings you’ll find in NYC are 17th century farmhouses. The equivalent Late Renaissance and Baroque period buildings and churches here in Rome are already ancient looking enough to my American eyes. And that’s just scratching the surface! Then we take a walk (countless walks) around the Centro Storico, with its narrow cobble-stoned streets and Renaissance plazzos and piazzas, or else medieval Trastevere, the old Jewish quarter with its even narrower alleys and turns that defy any type of mapping. This is around the point where I start losing it.

And that’s all disregarding the actual Roman ruins themselves — principally the Colosseum and the Forum. The Palatine Hill, where the Emperor and the wealthy and powerful used to live was a particular treat — amazing views, ample sunshine on the orange trees, and walks through the foundations of endless rooms of former palaces. As always I’m drawn to the idea of transitions. At what point did each of these buildings fall? When were they each finally, in turn, left uninhabited? Did the people living there know it was all over? I have images of cattle grazing amongst the ruins, tended by peasants gazing vacantly up at the columns, accepting it all unthinkingly as their birthright. I guess it’s our birthright too. I try to basically take it in the same way, or as I said, I think I would go crazy. The same goes for thinking on something like the early Christians martyred in the Colosseum, thrown to the lions, back when Christianity was a tiny sect, a cult with underground worship and catacombs, slowly spreading in appeal to the downtrodden of an Empire where over half the population might have been slaves. Ah well, Christianity got its revenge. Which reminds me, I haven’t even mentioned the Vatican and all the treasures that lie there. After all, it’s Christianity that made Rome the Eternal City: relevent for all these years after the fall of the Empire. Without that as its source of power, Rome might be one giant ruin today, instead of being very much alive, as each passing car you run away from will remind you.

So all right, it’s not all completely different than the States. They’ve got Sam Axelrod out here too, of “Sammy’s Got the Bar Back.” And he’s pretty much the same as in America, good for drinking wine with in front of the Pantheon at least. There’s no shortage of press about the Pantheon, but let me tell you, it’s all deserved. This is the most intact of any of the Roman buildings. It’s a temple to all the gods, completed in its current form sometime around A.D. 120. The mathematical and aesthetic perfection of the dome is amazing, making it basically the most important building in art history. Or so the say.  I think Sammy was digging it at least. He said it reminded him of his song for next week, which I think is something fairly new school, like Puccini.

(Originally posted Mar. 19th, 2009 on


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