I reached up and parted the glass windows that opened into my room at the San Carlos Hotel, turned the latch on the tall, green, wooden shutters, and pushed them toward the world outside. As I rested my arms on the window ledge and looked into the street below, I felt the early morning sun warm my face with the golden glow that seems to engulf this place – known as the Eternal City.
Remembering the confusion of schedules that had complicated this trip, I asked myself, Now that you’re finally here, how can you possibly leave? The answer to my question was as clear as the morning: You may leave this city, but this city will never leave you. I had come to Rome for the art and in only three days had discovered a way of life that would forever influence my own.
In the span of one weekend, with a consistent but leisurely pace, I had seen more of the typical sights than I thought time would have allowed and enough of what the city has to offer to know I must return. Of course, I visited the Vatican Museums and marveled at the Sistine Chapel, but I had not anticipated my absolute amazement at the room-after-room of intricately designed mosaic floors, ancient armillary spheres, and sumptuous, enormous tapestries. Yesterday, I crossed the Tiber River over the statue-punctuated Sant’Angelo Bridge and last night dined on an elegantly prepared gourmet meal served with unpretentious informality in Testavere, the “SoHo” of Rome. In the past weekend, I climbed the Spanish Steps, stood under the open oculus of the Pantheon, viewed the city’s copious domes from a rooftop garden, and wandered in and out of architectural masterpieces. I gazed in wonder at Trajan’s magnificent victory column with its hundreds of marble figures spiraling around an impossibly tall exterior and was reminded of countless civilizations conquered and assimilated by imperial forces in a history marked with brutality as well as beauty. I strolled through time as I viewed Egyptian obelisks, Greek statues, Romanesque churches, and Renaissance paintings.
Yet, for all its grandeur, Rome is a city that does not overwhelm. There are no towering skyscrapers, no endless highways crisscrossing above and below each other, no blinking neon signs interrupting the night’s blackness. The buildings, adorned with flowers and vines, are washed in soothing colors of coral, gold, grey, and ivory. The inviting intimacy of narrow roads, paved in copper-colored cobblestones, simultaneously contrasts and co-exists with the vast openness and brilliant whiteness of marble piazzas, ever filled with crowds and often encircling magnificent fountains still fed with water carried on ancient aqueducts.
My visit has been full of art and history, but today, as each day had been, there would be more – there would be Rome. As I continued watching from my window, I heard shopkeepers throughout the city lifting garage-like doors that sealed facades at night to reveal narrow jewelry and leather stores, trendy dress shops displaying an astonishingly eclectic array of the latest fashions, and colorful gelato stands offering my new favorite flavor, nocciola (hazelnut). Further along the cobblestone street below – the Via delle Carrozze – the caffè was setting out tables and chairs. Soon I would be sitting there, participating in my recently acquired morning ritual: enjoying the mild temperature and a strong cup of cappuccino. But for now, I was absorbing the ambiance of awakening Rome.
Congregated in tidy, albeit haphazard, rows, at one end of the antiquated street stands a cluster of scooters, several of which had noisily passed under my window during the night carrying animated riders whose conversations, laughter, and even song had risen and filtered between the shutters’ slats to fill my room with snatches of life and half-heard words. At the opposite end, the road curves, seeming to pull the buildings on either side toward one another, creating an image with a perspective view reminiscent of those first seen in Renaissance pictures.
I thought again of the paintings by Perugino (c. 1445-1523) and his famed pupil Raphael (1483-1520) and how these two men had changed the art world forever. I also thought of Michelangelo (1475-1564) designing the quadrangle of the Capitoline Museums and realized that, despite his celebrated significance, even he was in awe of the Roman Forum, which was already in ruin when he viewed it. I considered his namesake Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610), who was undoubtedly influenced by this history and, like other visitors to the city, contributed his own, indelible imprint to further influence future generations. Caravaggio’s great Baroque works can be found throughout Rome, in such places as the charming Galleria Borghese, but I had viewed three of his most well known paintings – depicting the life and martyrdom of St. Matthew – hanging in the Church of St. Luigi dei Francesi. At the end of the left aisle, near the alter, Matthew, dressed in clothing contemporaneous with Caravaggio, sits bathed in the raking shaft of light that so marks this artist’s style. It is the quintessence of Rome that, like so many of the city’s treasures, these masterpieces are visible in a public place. Here, they can be viewed by tourists and parishioners alike, as they have been for hundreds of years, embedded in a contextual setting as the artists intended – not merely marking their talent on an apathetic museum wall.
Other great cities have world-class museums housing art treasures and historic artifacts, and certainly Rome boasts as many or more than most. But in addition, Rome, itself, is a treasure, its very essence inextricably entwined with art and history to the extent that the city now experiences an almost symbiotic relationship with antiquity. The past is omnipresent. The Roman Forum stretches out in ruined righteousness beside a modern highway, barely distracting daily commuters. That same highway leads on to the architectural splendor of the Colosseum, which is as casually referenced by city dwellers as the local trattorias.
The ubiquitous history of centuries permeates this city – not weighing it down, but energizing it with the possibilities of greatness and the incorporation of that greatness (or at least its possibility) into everyday existence. The people, open and friendly, seem to have absorbed this heritage; they wear it not as a badge but as a countenance. With no need to flaunt their legacy or prove their potential, they go about their lives, taking time to enjoy their world to its fullest, welcoming others into it, and embracing the present as well as the past.
As I close the wooden shutters, I feel ready to embrace my own present and to follow it into my future with all its possibilities. When I was first contemplating this trip, I had asked a friend to describe what he liked most about Rome. I was puzzled by his answer. I thought he would mention the ancient catacombs, St. Peter’s Basilica, Trevi Fountain, or perhaps even the fantastic food. But after just three days I now understand what he meant when he said, “The best thing about being in Rome is – being in Rome.”