Romans ‘have always been quite sure about the precise location where God placed the point of a compass to design the world’, says Marco Lodoli (Islands-New Islands, tr. H. Campbell Gustafson, Fontanella Press, 2019). It is the tiny stage in the middle of Piazza Venezia from where a traffic policeman, ‘a very poor symbol of all mysterious authority, made his strange gestures, tried to bring order to chaos, and, in exchange, got insults and obscenities’.
All roads lead to Rome, they say, and for millennia, people have come and gone: popes and pilgrims, slaves and newly minted citizens, nobles, martyrs, Grand Tour aesthetes, soldiers, writers, artists. Stendhal Syndrome nowadays, though, is not so much an affliction caused by great beauty as a sense of betrayal. The eternal city is in a permanent state of flux: the traffic island at the centre of the world has been dismantled, leaving Rome to its habitual anarchy.
It is a city of paradoxes. A writer from abroad may find ‘freedom and joy’ in ‘living and walking every day through Rome, and feeling so at home and alive there’ (The New Yorker, 8 February 2021). Yet 12% of the population – from more than a hundred different countries at the last count, many of whom were born here – still struggle to be considered Italians.
Meanwhile, other more exotic populations have come to stay and won’t be leaving anytime soon: the trees screech with brilliant green parakeets; millions of starlings draw dramatic pictures in the sky, abandoning their migration paths of old; wild pigs delve into the piles of uncollected rubbish; and giant seagulls reign supreme, feasting on the smorgasbord of waste, devouring unwary pigeons and even – once caught on camera midflight – a newly released dove during the Pope’s Angelus.
By Clarissa Botsford
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