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Is Rome still "The Eternal City"?

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Rome . September 10. 2012

"I hate Barocco!

 I hate Scirocco!

 I hate Rome!".

So went a  little doggerel, very popular in Italy five or six decades ago. It was repeated, "ad nauseam" by young, heavily brilliantined, Roman boys who  thus  hoped to demonstrate their cosmopolitan nature, while, of course,   their vey parochialism was being revealed by their belief  that  they were being inscrutably clever.

There are, in fact, moments when, in the more "modern" part of Rome -- i.e. the so called "Roma Barocca" of the Popes, of Borromini, Bernini, Michelangelo and of other such gigantic  figures --  that grandiose, yet wonderfully harmonious stile can appear oppressive, especially, perhaps, in the days of the hot, humid African wind called "Scirocco".

 A short walk away is an older, perhaps even more captivating part of the City,  where the Pantheon rests, perfectly at  ease in spite of its great age, in that Fifteenth and Sixteenth century Rome  which is in many ways more enchanting, albeit less spectacular.

It is, however, precisely   the "newer" part of Rome, the reign of the "Barocco", which brings home the fact that this, indeed, has always been and still is the "Eternal City". The appellation of "Roma Caput Mundi" was applicable for many centuries after the Roman Empire had formally ceased to exist and even after the end of the Holy Roman Empire (1805). Being the "World's Capital" for  over twenty five centuries could not fail to leave its mark, and this  has attracted the cream of the world's  political and cultural life  through the ages, particularly in the course of the past  five hundred years or so, down to the present day.

It is enough to spend some time at the Caffè Greco (often patronized by Hans Christian Andersen), at the beginning of Via Condotti, and to reflect that, within a radius of about a quarter of a mile there lies more history -- visible, living history -- than most other cities can offer in their entirety.

Keats lived in nearby Piazza di Spagna, while further up the erroneously labelled "Spanish Steps"  lies Villa Medici, site of the French Academy since 1803,  where Hector Berlioz received the greatest disappointment of his life by not being awarded the coveted "Prix de Rome".

In the other direction, on the Via del Corso, is the apartment where Goethe spent some years of his life, and following this, which for centuries was Rome's principal avenue, a very short walk leads to the incredibly beautiful Piazza del Popolo in which, through the  main gateway to Rome, the Porta del Popolo,  many made their triumphal entry, as conquerors, liberators or guests. Among these -- as we are reminded by an inscription on the main gateway  -  was Queen Christina of Sweden,  a Catholic convert  in self imposed exile, who  was to spend the last thirty years of her  life in Rome, a popular and  equivocal figure, being at the same time a self-avowed  lesbian  and carrying on a long, tempestuous and very public affair with one of  Rome's most prominent Cardinals..

At the other end of the avenue lies the Capitoline hill, the seat of Imperial power, ,from which Gibbon viewed  the ruins of the  Forum,  getting the inspiration to write one of the most beautiful and readable history  books ever written, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".

The rivalry between the sculptors and architects Bernini and Borromini (who hailed from Switzerland) is visible throughout, and the source of stories, some true,  others well-invented, still told with relish by those who love the city. Their works still constitute some of the most beautiful sites the city has to offer, from Piazza Navona to the majestic colonnade adorning the  access to St. Peter's basilica.

Almost every street name in Rome evokes a slice of ancient, medieval, Renaissance or modern history: one of the main shopping avenues is named after Cola di Rienzo, a man of humble origins, whose meteoric rise to fame and leadership in the fourteenth century, seemed destined, for a while, to change the history of the entire Italian peninsula. He called himself a "Tribune" and  had  huge popular support, only to be finally  unseated and killed by those very masses who had hailed him as a saviour.

One intriguing aspect of Rome  lies in the "intimate" or "cosy" nature of its beauty. There are few of the impressive vistas offered by Paris or London, nor does one find the unique, contagious, intellectual ferment typical of Berlin.  Yet one feels that this has long been the world's capital, or one of the world's capitals,  and its beauty lies in stupendous corners,  narrow streets, ancient ruins, the fountains and of course the enormous number of Churches and monuments.

Also the Romans, in spite of  the vast number  of new generations, appear to have retained their intriguing combination of placid indolence and fiery temperament. It is not difficult to imagine them chasing a Pope into exile,  murdering a tyrant, assassinating the Emperor's emissaries, only to return to the warmth of the family to enjoy a steaming plate of "maccheroni  al cacio e pepe", washed down with copious draughts of the white, deceptively light  "vino dei Castelli".

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).

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Carlo, thank you so much for reminding us of the b... by Paul from Potomac on Thursday, Sep 20, 2012 at 1:46:50 PM