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cuttlefish ink

Less than a kilometre away from where I write these words is San Giovanni in Laterano. Built in 314AD, it is the earliest surviving Christian basilica.

Two kilometres in the other direction, sits the biggest, baddest amphitheatre of them all, the Colosseum. Overlooking it is the Capitoline Hill, with its Michelangelo-designed piazza.

Not far away is where Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus 2053 years ago this week. Earlier this morning, I stood within waving distance of Benedict XVI as he greeted a large crowd in front of St Peter’s. I am in Rome.

Rome is inescapable, even for those who are not here. The city inhabits our clichés—all roads lead to Rome; when in Rome, do as the Romans.

And what I have found, in these few days of my visit, is that the city also functions as a prototype for what it means to be a city.

It does so for four interlinked reasons: its antiquity, its prominence as the centre of the known world’s largest empire, its medieval rebirth as the centre of the biggest religion in the world, and its remarkable present state of preservation.

For these four reasons, Rome dominated the imaginations of all those who came afterwards. The early organisation of the lands of central Europe under Charlemagne was styled the “Holy Roman Empire” (though it wasn’t any of those three things—not holy, not Roman, not even really an empire).

For the British in the nineteenth-century, territorial expansion and colonialism were modelled on ancient Rome; many of the world’s best scholars of Latin were based at Cambridge and Oxford.

If you walk the streets and buildings of old Lagos, or consider the monuments of New Delhi, what you see reflects Victorian British ideals. London was the pattern for many cities built in the British colonial period, and Rome—the Rome I still see when I stand on the roof of the modest house I’m staying in —is the pattern for London.

The streets retain their cobblestones; there is a profusion of arches and domes, both Roman inventions.

The experience of déjà vu here is perhaps more intense for those of us who practice the arts. Not only visual artists contended to win fame here—Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo—but countless writers did too.

Edward Gibbon came here in the late eighteenth-century and wrote, “I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. Several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.”

The result of his investigation was the massive book, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Byron, Keats and Shelley sought the city out and breathed its air, and gave birth to the Romantic movement in poetry.

Henry James, Goethe, Dickens: all arrived, and were humbled by what had gone before them. And it is the same now, for anyone who contemplates the idea that Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, set down his words here, that Virgil wrote the Aenied within these precincts, and Tacitus, Livy and Suetonius helped invent the writing of history within walking distance of each other.

But if there is a sense of lives lived here, and of vast vanished generations, if every circuit and road brings one face to face with a chastening ruin, it still doesn’t make the city into a sterile museum.

It is, on the contrary, an active cosmopolitan 21st century Italian metropolis, one whose passions are so well-known as to have become stereotypes: the wine, the beautiful women, the high fashion, the ubiquitous scooters, the fabulous food (I wholeheartedly recommend the tagliatelle with cuttlefish ink).

But, layered on that, are further modern complexities: graffiti, immigration, a sickening divide between rich and poor. There is a heavy military police presence in the centre of town, and the gypsies (or the Roma, as they are properly called) are evicted from the tourist districts on the slightest pretext.

On the trains and trams, one sees Indian nuns and Mexican priests; many of the newsstands are run by Bangladeshi men; a lot of the menial work is done by recent arrivals from Albania and the Balkans. Nigerians are here, too, in large numbers, as clergy, pilgrims, professionals, hustlers.

In the famous Feltrinelli bookshop on Via Orlando Vittorio Emanuele, I saw copies of “L’ibisco viola” and “Metà di un sole giallo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, books better known to us by their English titles.

The current prime-minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a power hungry thug, and he is almost universally despised; on a single wall it is possible to see a spray-painted “Heil Hitler!” right next to an angry “Berlusconi = Fascisti.”

Berlusconi controls most of the country’s media, and has had numerous laws altered to favour his ambitions. But, as a Salesian priest I met explained it to me, Italians are too busy living “la dolce vita” to worry their heads about politics.

On the metro, there is a television screen that runs adverts telling you what number to call if you have been the victim of racism. But I also had several Romans tell me, “All gypsies are thieves.”

Unifying all of this is the Roman light, which falls across the city, low and tangerine yellow, bathing everything from the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican, a light unlike any other, impossible to guess at until you actually experience it, a light falling across the Janiculum hill, with its magnificent views of the Palatine and the River Tiber, falling all the way to the stark, tuft-headed pines lining the Appian Way to the east.

An 84-year-old friend of mine, a vital, brilliant woman who organised an international theatre group for many decades in the city, told me a story of how she often drove the film director Federico Fellini around Rome. “He was impossible.

Stop here, he would say, and we would stop. Stop there, and we would stop.” For Fellini, Rome was endlessly fascinating, infinitely distracting.

And thus was it for Goethe as well, centuries earlier: “Wherever one goes, wherever one stops, landscapes of all varieties are disclosed: palaces and ruins, gardens and wastelands, distant or cluttered horizons, small houses, stables, triumphal arches and columns, meet in such close proximity that they could be set down in a single sheet.”

This sprawling seat of emperors and popes remains exactly as Goethe describes it, and I confess amazement at this series of decisive moments shimmering across an eternal city.

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