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The Palatine Hill , The Roman Forum , Circus Maximus
Theater of Marcellus , Ostia Antica , The Pantheon Hadrian's Tomb , Hadrian's Villa , The Colosseum
Elizabeth Bowen , Georgina Masson , Ovid , Jane Alison Marguerite Yourcenar , Christopher Woodward
The melancholy of the antique world seems to me more profound than that of the moderns, all of whom more or less imply that beyond the dark void lies immortality. But for the ancients that “black hole” is infinity itself; their dreams loom and vanish against a background of immutable ebony. No crying out, no convulsions—nothing but the fixity of the pensive gaze. . . .
Elizabeth Bowen grew up in Dublin, Bowen's Court in County Cork, and London. A prolific novelist—The Last September, The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart—who wrote in air-raid shelters during the blitz, she traveled the world. When she arrived in Rome, commissioned to write the city's portrait, she confessed a “monstrous” ignorance and confusion as she tried to find her way around. But getting lost was never a waste of time. “Among Rome's splendours is its unexpectedness. . . . If one cannot enjoy this, one enjoys nothing.” Eventually, she walked the city into her head, as she put it, and “kept it there.” The elegant proof is A Time in Rome, excerpted here, one of the most popular books ever written about the city she called “my darling, my darling, my darling,” when the time came to say good-bye.
From A Time in Rome
THE PALATINE hill
People I met in Rome legitimately wanted to know what I was doing.—Writing something?—Not while I was here.—No, really?—Pity to stay indoors.—Sightseeing, simply?—Partly.—Ah, gathering background for a novel to be set in Rome!—No.—No? look at Henry James.—Yes.—Then a travel book: where was I going next?—I was staying here.—Then, something in the way of a gay guide-book?—I was afraid I should be no help to anyone else.—Then it would have to be a book of impressions: but why Rome?—What was the matter with Rome?—It was not Greece.—I supposed not.—Did I, for instance, for an instant imagine that Rome was old?—It was not too old.—Not too old for what?—Me.—Then I did not care for antiquity?—Not in the abstract.—What did I see in Rome, then?—Beginning of today.—That made today long!—Today is being a long day.
But what did I like about Rome?—It was substantial.—And?—Agreeable.—Once, or now?—Altogether.—Agreeable was hardly the word for history.—Then there must be something in spite of that.—Well, I should not find I got far with the ancient Romans.—No?—No, they would not appeal to me.—Why not, specially?—They were unimaginative.—They were, were they?—Yes, most antipathetic.—I was not looking for friends.
I must look out, or Rome would ruin my style.
Oh, yes! Attempts to write about Rome made writers rhetorical, platitudinous, abstract, ornate, theoretical, polysyllabic, pompous, furious.
Had this been so in all cases?
Language seldom fails quietly, it fails noisily.
So went several conversations, or interrogatories. Curiosity in Rome is a form of courtesy. The questions were disconcerting in being too much to the point, to the point too soon. I was never ready for them; accordingly I may well have sounded recalcitrant, “clever,” or plain stupid. I had nothing to hide, but also little to show. I could not say what I intended doing, for that was not yet known to myself; at the most I had a notion or suspicion, such as one might form with regard to somebody else if one were to watch their movements hourly, closely. Shyness, involved in any affair of feeling, made me unforthcoming; also I never shook off my fear of presumption in having “designs” on Rome, of whatever kind. The idea of putting Rome into a novel not only did not attract me, it shocked me—background, for heaven's sake! The thing was a major character, out of scale with any fictitious cast. . . .
Troubling as it was to be asked questions, it led to my putting them to myself. Omnivorous drifting cannot go on for ever; one cannot continue to take in everything for the sake of nothing. Each conversation left me with racing thoughts; after each, my rapid excited monologue, in beat with my excited solitary walking, took up again—and from a point further on. Often it took the character of an argument. I had noted, it had been borne in on me, that my loverlike ambiguous taste for Rome roused opposition; I seemed to be called upon to defend it. Rome in some roundabout way was not quite approved of. Deprecation—that was the attitude, on the whole. Naturally, that hardened me in my course. What my course was, I should discover from where it took me.
Looking in Rome for characters other than the city, I began by heading for those magnified by history, favourably or not. I began with the Emperors. These appeared to divide themselves, with regard to Rome, into makers and unmakers; a division which held good, looking further back, with outstanding figures of the Republic. Was it less true of millions who had blown away on the dust—can any person live and have no effect? Negativity, if there be any, is a form of destruction. Simply, to be a Somebody (that is, of position) involves more: it may not matter more but it counts for more. No wonder drama took for its figures kings, made the court the prototype of society; and no wonder history has learned from drama—persons not dramatizable are not recorded; they do not go for nothing but must appear to . . . Then again in Rome there had been the host of those represented by portrait busts, now in museums, labelled “unknown,” or by just-legible names on outlying tombs—the sufficiently affluent and perhaps respectable. Below them, gradations of anonymity (with here or there a case of talent or scandal) down to mass-level. The Roman masses, I got the impression, simmered, sometimes just off boiling-point, placated by free entertainment, brutalizing in nature, and free corn. . . .
One of the merits of the Palatine, as a start, was its demarcation by individuals. There was no such thing as an “average” Roman emperor.
On the Forum side, the built-up Hill of the Caesars looks like a giant derelict hotel: a honeycomb of arches of keyhole narrow-ness, cavernous windows, gloomy vaulted apartments, ramps and galleries. The overhangingness and the staringness are unnerving. Sense of place and of a further dimension begins on the plateau at the top—or rather plateaux, for the levels are many. Here and there, also, grasslands tumble and spill downhill. Up-and-down winding walks and wooded hollows contrast with pavements splintered but formal. The Palatine as I found it in February seems still to be under the spell of mild late autumn. Birds utter solitary unmating notes; dusk emanates, any time of day, from humid underground corridors and successions of cavities without echoes. Now, out of season, there are few visitors; the custodians, wrapped in greatcoats and their own thoughts, interfere with nothing that is not forced upon their notice. Willing to act as guides, they are content not to. Out of their view, undeterred, one may penetrate past tangles of rusted wire into slippery understructures half-choked by rubble, or out on to heights barred by warnings: pericoloso. On the time-shorn Palatine, little rises above one: one assesses height, rather, by looking down, into the far-below vacant world of excavated series of halls of pleasure. The hill seems so riddled hollow, one asks oneself why it does not collapse. It seems most itself at an early springtime six o'clock in the evening, when to its atmosphere of evaporated pomp and residual danger is added one's risk of being locked in. How far it would be an ordeal to be there alone for a night, I was never certain: the draughty dark would be troubled by crepitations from the iron sheeting over the diggings, or the desiccated rustle of wintry ilexes; but the Palatine has not soul enough to be haunted. However, I was not put to the test. Veteran residents of Rome walk their dogs on the Palatine around sunset, and their calculation of time, down to the last possible of the darkening seconds, is infallible. They are the clocks to watch; when at last they turn to the gates, one is wise to follow.
The Palatine has a peculiar daylight, in which its shabby subtle colours appear. Here and there the black in the heaving pavements is more blotted out than the salmon pinks. And daylight is to be recommended for the taking of one particular way up, not generally used and I think rewarding. You can ascend, from the Forum, either by the Clivus Palatinus (the former Imperial route, still paved, now flanked by a convent wall and shady and naive as a country lane) or by letting the steps at the back of the Atrium of the Vestal Virgins conduct you into the upward zigzag of ramps and vaultings. But try, too, keeping round the base of the hill, at the Capitoline end, along under the wall of the Via di San Teodoro—past the butt end of the church, small locked gardeners' sheds and compost heaps of last year's scythed weeds and grass. This brings you out over the Circo Massimo. Here, where it looks across at the Aventine, over the trough of the circus, the Palatine is unkempt and steep, and across the face of the slope there run many dog-paths. Thin thornbushes, which flower sparsely and early, clutch at the soil between bosses of glossy serrated leaves—the architectural acanthus, more familiar to many when cut in stone. Foothold on any of the dog-paths is worth maintaining: you are taken along under the whole immense rampart-like frontage: porches launched into air, windows wide as gates. Finally comes the Septimus Severus structure's two-floored arcade and plum-coloured inner darkness—the lower passage, resembling some eerie subway of a moribund London railway station, must be followed: this has become your way from the outside into the inside of the Palatine. The sky once more, at the top, is like that of heaven.
Excerpted from The Smiles of Rome by Edited by Susan Cahill Excerpted by permission.
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