ROME impressions of ............


 Visitors almost always arrive in Rome with a huge list of ‘must see’ attractions. Flocks of walkers, follow their flags, dragging heavy legs from fountain, to basilica, and on. It is unlikely that anything more than a slight understanding of the complex layers of this city can be gleaned this way, and for some, that may be enough.

Rome is distinctive however in so many ways. You will never need to spend time editing road signs; barriers; yellow lines or traffic detritus, which so despoil your photographs of other beautiful cities. The `Jeremy Clarkson School’ of Traffic management works remarkably well, passing huge volumes of indecently large cars, and clouds of Vespa’s quickly through, often narrow, chaotic central streets. ‘Free form’ haphazard parking is another ‘latin’ art-form, which operates with surprisingly little aggravation, and sometimes even displays ‘sprezzatura’ – an Italian word that defines a certain nonchalance, which makes difficult tasks seem effortless.

Likewise, ‘dead hands’ of cost consultants seem totally absent over the 2,000+ years of construction and ongoing adaptation, which has created this Eternal City. Why build one stair where bi-parting risers could add symmetry?  Huge floor to ceiling heights give gigantic, but beautifully proportioned, 3 or 4 storey palaces. Face to face they challenge each other across a Via clearly designed to allow only an Imperial Chariot and one horse to pass. Buildings for worship can, and do, go higher still. Casual exploration behind tall porticos is to be recommended. Everywhere in Rome, the visitor is rewarded with magnificent frescoes, sculptures, and design, each with provenance to match the world’s best museums.

Every inch counts in Rome. No space lies unused, or under-used. Wherever your gaze falls, there is tremendous evidence of human effort. Graffiti-ed shutters rise to reveal stunning bright high fashion display windows and stylish expensive shops. Leather, glass, or furniture work-benches spill out from packed stockrooms, while bistros and cafes daily colonise those parts of the streets, which lesser cities reserve only for traffic wardens. ‘Hole in the wall’ retailing throughout the centre, gives an impression that Rome blossoms as the day emerges towards its highlight –  ‘passegiatta’, that evening ritual where young Italians dress in style, and promenade to see and be seen.

The energetic bustle, which creates a busy market each weekday morning around the statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo dei Fiori, is matched by the efficient dismantling and barrowing back early each afternoon. This huge task eventually gives way to a ‘ballet’ performed by rotating petite cleansing vehicles, who quickly remove bulk waste, squish water, and restore the piazza for more sophisticated ‘al fresco’ evening uses.

The centre of Rome has few modern buildings. One notable exception however is the Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier. Evocative of his MACBA in Barcelona, Ara Pacis sits well on its prominent river-side site. The white travertine and glass gives a sparkling and airy Roman home for the rebuilt and restored Altar to Peace, dedicated to Augustus in 12 BC.

While contemporary architects show exemplary innovative skills in reuse and adaptation of historic buildings, it can be engrossing also to explore the extent of previous layers of architectural interventions.  The removal of gilded bronze roof tiles from the Pantheon in 663 AD, and later reuse of further melted bronze ceilings from the porch, by Bernini in 1634, may appeal to ‘green’ philosophy, but it also seems a bit like vandalism. Part of the Baths of Diocletian (dating from 298 AD ), were also reconfigured to form a basilica, S.Maria degli Angeli, in 1563 by Michelangelo; further works created a transept in 1749 to a design by Vanvitelli, but still the mighty groin vaulting gives some idea of the appearance of the original Baths in antiquity. Across the road, Piazza Della Repubblica, was formed by extensive rebuilding, in 1887, of two semi-circular palaces, over the previous Esedra. The ancient walls and floors are again visible through glass floors installed in 2006 for the new Exedra Hotel, along with an innovative roof top leisure pool facilities.

The Eternal City cannot stand still, and mercifully thus far, refuses to become a ‘theme park’ setting. Innovative modern design compliments, enlivens and re-invigorates genuine ‘world heritage sites’ but this requires ‘sprezzatura’ – do we have an equivalent sentiment in Gaelic or Scots?.                           (720 words)

© stuart campbell 2021