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Dolce Vita, Dolce Rome
by Charles N. Barnard

Rome is layers and layers of stuff. That's the way it seems to me—layers of stone, layers of time—Archaeological Time and Personal Time, all mixed. Rome time and my time.

I first went to what some call the Holy City as a kid in the Thirties. (I am old, which is an okay thing to be when you are in old Rome.) Family diaries attest that I rolled a hoop in the Pincio Gardens, got scared in the catacombs and thought Mussolini (orating on his balcony in Piazza Venezia) was to be cheered wildly. But I wasn't a traveler then. Kids don't travel; kids get dragged along.

After that, came the Depression, Roosevelt, World War II and college—no more Rome for a while—but some kid-memories survived: of the Colosseum, for one; big and disappointing, I thought; no lions.

Rome, in all its layers, doesn't care what visitors (or even today's Italians) think of it. Rome's history defies revisionists: from the pagan settlement on a big river; to neighbor and rival of the puzzling Etruscans; then home of the Roman Republic and Julius Caesar; seat of a rise-and-fall Empire; Christianity's martyred battleground; citadel of the Papacy; capital of a unified Italian nation; an absolute-must stop on the 1920's Grand Tours; birthplace of Fascism; the Eternal City (therefore spared bombing in World War II); the La Dolce Vita hot spot of post-war Europe.

I picked up with Rome again during that '50's/'60's time-layer, the Fellini Age. Still not a traveler, I came as a working-press bloke: to ride high-speed Italian trains; to assess a new stadium for the 1960 Olympics; to test-drive Lancias; to discover Campari; to interview post-war-successful Italians; to sit in Via Veneto cafés and wonder if I might spot Fellini or Marcello. . . a Big Apple to be bitten into as a snack. Rome is. . . well, a Big Lasagna, a layer-upon-layer feast, rich and filling. Twenty six centuries of history. Monuments everywhere. Museums. Ruins. Churches. Tombs. Excavations. And the names of more painters and architects and sculptors than one will ever be able to keep straight: Bernini. . . Boromini. . . Barberini. . . Raphael. . . Caravaggio. . . Tintoretto. . . Michelangelo. . . .

Now, finally, at the end of the 90's, I decide to try and do Rome right, to be a true traveler/tourist at last and to write what I see and feel. I have collected all the guide books—and a friend at National Geographic has given me a list of a dozen places marked with stars—the "must-sees," the biggies. I won't put it off any longer. Rome will be around forever, but I will not.

About that Colosseum. I read: "It is Rome's symbol, a huge engineering and architectural masterpiece built in the First Century. Here gladiators dueled to the cheers or boos of 87,000 spectators. At various times it served as a fortress, a gunpowder factory, and for bullfights. . . "

There is probably no other structure in the world better recognized by more people who have never seen it. Yeah, sure, that's it, the Colosseum. . . yawn. . . the picture was on my pencil-box as a child. . . . It is popular because, unlike the Forum or some other layer-digs in Rome, its form and function are familiar and obvious: it's a stadium, nothing to figure out. It is also one of the few historic monuments in Rome which may be entered without buying a pricey ticket, just don't go on a Wednesday afternoon which is when it is closed—so I walked all around the outer circumference, looking up at the curiously pockmarked exterior, seeing it now as if for the first time. Was this riddled wreck hit by an artillery barrage? No, but the Colosseum was looted for centuries, books say; deconstructed, used as a convenient marble quarry. Later, much later, efforts were made to fix up what was left. There are still concerns that the outer walls may topple.

The first thing tour guides advise their clients about the Colosseum these days is that the teams of Gypsy pickpockets which infest Rome do their biggest business here: Beware! The sprawling structure with many deserted corners and corridors is also the city's largest and most odiferous urinal—notwithstanding there are police everywhere. (They must all be blind.) Animal lovers will also discover that the Colosseum is one of the best places in Rome to meet the gatarre, those dedicated and slightly dotty Italian women who have taken it upon themselves to love and feed the hundreds of stray cats which make their homes in all the kitty-littered chambers of antiquity. Still no lions, though.

There are two Romes—at least two, the Rome of historic monuments and the city of contemporary life, of colorful, costumed street theatre. It does not escape observation that many women of this world style-capital are beautifully turned out; they become part of a visitor's sightseeing. On cool mornings in November, they wrap themselves with great panache in soft, dark capes and tote backpacks in lieu of pocketbooks and wear the shortest miniskirts in Europe, even while piloting their perky Vespa motorbikes.

Shopping together on Via Sistina one afternoon, four chic young women display such mini-minis that even Romans take notice. God forgive me at my age, but I believe I followed these classic Latin beauties for two blocks beyond my destination—and was thereby led into a colorful, brightly-lighted candy store where hundreds of big glass jars of assorted bon-bons glistened like jewels and the four laughing girls used small toy shovels to serve themselves and the air was scented with childhood. It was then and there I realized that Fellini may be gone, but his Sweet Life lives on in Rome—and in me.

Piazza Navona always gets many stars in the guides. I read: "Perpetual fun-fare. . . elliptical shape based on a circo built by Emperor Domitian. . . 86 AD. . . had stone seats all around. . . chariot races. . . jousts and games. . . could be flooded for mock sea battles. . . now a Baroque showplace with fountains by Bernini. . . ."

Most famous is the Fountain of the Rivers. Four god-like marble figures representing the Ganges, Nile, Danube and Plata oversee great spilling, splashing torrents which seem to hypnotize tourists. Early each day, a civil servant in rubber boots enters the fountain with brush and pail to scrub green algae from the toothy maws of stone sea serpents and make certain all the rivers are flowing smoothly.

Navona is a tourist magnet—for lunch or dinner at several popular but overpriced restaurants around its perimeter, for gelato anytime, for listening to street minstrels and musicians or watching artists sketch and paint—perhaps even in "un mondo fantastico della Transilvania Neo Surrealismo. . ." (which is crazy, abstract palette knife strokes in alkyd). The fountains are softly lighted at night, the sidewalk cafés are busy most months of the year—and, with hardly any luck at all, a visitor might be in Navona when some Italian tenor is murdering O Solo Mio for tips—or when a happy, noisy, labor demonstration fills the long, narrow "square" with hundreds of chanting strikers carrying a sky full of red banners and not a few bottles of red wine.

The lira, in all its thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of sums is a giddy currency that takes getting used to. For example, a recent Chinese-restaurant war in town. It started with sidewalk signs proclaiming, "Touristico Lunch, 10,000L" (under $7). These were soon matched by competitors' price slashes—to 9,900L, even to 9,800L—massive reductions of 7 to 14 cents! (For multiculturalists, Karaoke is included.)

I work on my list of "must-sees" in no particular order. On my way here and there I pass by the tourist-favored Spanish Steps many times in many days—a glacier of whitish stone flowing from Trinita dei Monti church at the top to Piazza di Spagna below. Regarded closely, the well-worn travertine from which the steps (and much of the rest of Rome) are made seems a pudding of layers and pockets, irregular and unpredictable in texture, much more interesting than mere pound-cake marble.

I read my guides: "137 steps. . . shouldn't be called Spanish. . . built in 1721. . . financed by a French ambassador. . . decorated with azaleas in Spring. . . a mob scene. . . watch your pocketbook. . . ."

From the top, the Steps provide a skyline view of Rome which will be photo-inducing at sunset: a gilded, Holy City-panorama of domes and spires. But whether to best-appreciate the grand sweep of the Steps by descending or ascending is moot. Either way, they are an amphitheatre. Going down, you may feel like a theatre-goer looking at a stage below. Looking up from the piazza and its flower stalls and fountain, you can feel like a performer facing an audience.

Bit parts are played all over this stage by artists, entertainers, con men and even tourists—watercolorists (trite, pallid renderings of the steps), musicians (playing tinny tunes on tiny, toy pianos), craftsmen (have your name engraved on a grain of rice), portrait artists (smudgy charcoal or pastels), lovers (hugging, rubbing), padded beggars (pretending to be pregnant).

At the fountain in the center of the Piazza. . . (Guide facts: "Fontana della Barcaccia, the Fountain of the Worthless Boat. . . 1629. . . Bernini. . . ") there is usually a circle of young travelers sitting around the edge, waiting for something to happen, anything to happen—for why would it not happen here? The poet Keats lived and died in the house next door, American Express and McDonalds are just around the corner, Via Condotti, the most expensive shopping street starts here (and may attract a celebrity or two at any hour) and young Japanese tourists keep the for-hire horse carriages clip-clopping through the scene all day. The flower stall, under a canvas umbrella, sells lilies, snapdragons, roses. The water in the "Old barge" fountain is a clean, clear, bluish lens; it flows from seven spouts. A young woman twists her long hair back in a deft motion and leans to drink from one of them. (Water in all of Rome's fountains is potable.)

At hub-like Piazza Venezia I watch the policeman directing traffic from his podium. Several streams of automobiles, city busses, scooters, trucks, ambulances, food vendor carts, military vehicles, tour busses, anything-on-wheels converge here, all in bad temper. The officer controls them like a symphony conductor, turning now to hush the brasses, nodding next to summon the thunder of tympani. Is there some school where these men are taught these classic, liquid hand movements, I wonder? The precise swinging of arms? Even the almost imperceptible turns and sways of body which say, You may go now. . . no, this way. . . come closer to me. . . now hold right there. . . .

They wear white helmets similar to the London bobbies', white gloves with gauntlets, well-tailored navy blue uniforms. There is command and power in their stance. They hold a line of waiting cars with a stare, like a baseball pitcher holding a runner on base with a quick, don't-you-dare look. Then, authority established, this Roman vigili (vigilant one) makes the impatiently awaited gesture, hand cupped, gloved fingers up, beckoning inward: Come to me now, all you tired, you poor, you huddled masses yearning to get home. . . .

It is a posturing ballet, full of pride, dignity and threat—full of Rome.

Via Vittorio Veneto, the notorious "Vee-vee," was Rome's hot street of the Sixties. If you went to Rome then, you boasted that your hotel was "right on Veneto. . . right within sight of the Aurelian wall. . . right where Lex Barker slugged Marcello at dawn in front of the Grand Hotel Excelsior. . . ." (a scene in La Dolce Vita).

It was a silly, decadent, unreal, flashbulb-popping show in those days, the sidewalk tables of Café de Paris overflowing, waiters and captains playing power games about who would be seated where, the paparazzi, playing themselves in this drama, prowling frantically with their cameras. Vee-vee was a street that came a-glitter every night for the exploitation of tourists looking for the myth of Dolce Vita—and paying outrageous prices to think they were finding it.

Well, the hotels are still there, and the best news kiosks in Rome, and the Aurelian wall, and indeed the sidewalk cafés (which charge $17 for a hamburger) but the power is gone, the moment is passed, a pulsating scene has turned into a quiet, tree-lined avenue where the waiters yawn after 8 p.m., some buildings are vacant and the American Embassy is heavily guarded. Cafe de Paris still calls itself "Il café della dolce vita, 1956," but even on a weekend evening, its liveliest group of patrons may be a bunch of 8-year-olds on a birthday-party outing with four mommies. My small, 50-room hotel, a turn-of-the-century brothel, now enjoys respectability in the shade of Veneto's tall plane trees.

There can still be moments. One night I watch sound trucks and cameras and blinding TV lights setting up on the Vee-vee, cables snaking along in the street, police directing traffic, curious crowds gathering. For a half hour it seems like the old days—the hot glare, vapors rising from the lights, gangs of wisecracking young technicians, a couple of pampered actors having their hair sprayed.

Then suddenly the kliegs go down and there is a murmur of disappointment. A delay? A cancellation? "The director doesn't like what he sees," the crowd is told.

"Who cares?" comes a rude shout from the crowd. "It was only a shampoo commercial!. . ." [Laughter.] ". . .everyone knows Fellini is dead!"

Much is made of the Pantheon. Rome's only perfectly preserved building from antiquity. Rebuilt by Hadrian in 125 AD. High as it is wide. Massive dome with a 200-foot hole in the top. The Eye of God, that opening has been called, the only source of light within. First a pagan temple, later a Christian church, now the burial place of the artist, Raphael, and two Italian kings. (Details, details in the guide books, more than I need to know.)

Doubters could look at this massive building and be full of doubt—that it could be as old as they say; that it wasn't perhaps destroyed and rebuilt; that it could have escaped the fate of everything else that is the same age in Rome. How come? Because it was a church from about 600 AD on, they say. Amazing. Pantheon looks almost new within its hemispherical interior.

There is a spot in the near-perfect marble floor where one can stand directly below the "oculus" above. In storms, rain falls here and then drains away in all directions because the floor is almost imperceptibly domed at the center. This slight crest may be more sensed than seen; I feel it under my feet; it makes me imagine I am a cosmic giant standing on the curvature of Earth.

With apology to those first-century builders whose work is so enduring, the interior of the Pantheon usually suffers from gloomy, railroad station-like light—making it a pleasure to emerge into the sunny Piazza della Rotonda that faces the entrance. This lovely square has the inevitable fountain at its center (the obelisk was liberated from the Temple of Isis in Egypt, my homework tells me) and several restaurants on three sides. At lunchtime, the fountain is a perch for pizza-eating tourists, sitting knees-up, strands of mozzarella stretching and snapping in the sun. Pigeons scramble for scraps; motorscooters make the birds clatter away. Cats from the Pantheon's subterranean foundations slink by. The scent of oregano drifts from kitchens. A musician plays Neopolitan tunes on an accordion, earning tips from sidewalk diners. A tourist couple in a carriage ride so close to my table they can look down appraisingly at my lunch.

Between the Pantheon and Navona and on to the big bend in the Tiber is a wonderful labyrinth of ancient alleys and by-ways that contradict the idea that all of Rome is a traffic jam. Not so. By far the largest part of Rome is an almost medieval city, carved up by quiet and shady pathways. There are no sidewalks along these narrow routes, but all the passages are named and, with the help of a good map, I usually know where I am. "Traffic" on these black-cobbled non-streets is seldom more than delivery vehicles and scooters.

The particular charm of Rome's back alleys is that around almost any corner one may encounter the most unexpected views and astonishing sights, the kind of picture that many times makes me stop and stare: at a small beauty of a square, a startling facade, a street market abloom with flowers and fruits, a furniture maker lacquering a beautiful reproduction chair in the street, a church dome caught in the sun, an orange-sherbet wall with green ivy climbing upon it, an antiques shop of surpassing elegance—or an intersection jammed with those happy demonstrators, all carrying their red banners.

But a visitor must deal with the main thoroughfares, too—and getting to the other side of the street against Rome's hell-bent traffic requires that certain skills and attitudes be learned, even at "protected" (zebra-striped) crossings. My observation: there is no such thing as protection; he who hesitates will get hit; he who stops will be killed; he who has the nerves to keep right on crossing, looking neither right nor left, will probably make it to the other side. Above all, do not lose face as a pedoni (pedestrian) by running! Never! You may by this strategy escape being hit, but it will be at the expense of contempt by all Romans who witness your lapse of dignity.

Can't put it off, it's time for the Forum. I have been stealing apprehensive looks into this ancient quarry from several vantage points on its perimeter, but now I must buy a ticket and enter. Diaries from my childhood visits record that it was possible in those days to just stroll in and out of an uncrowded Forum at will, no gates, no admission charge, nothing to stop this six-year-old from picking up a collection of first-century mosaic bits, black and white—with which to play checkers. Entry into the Forum now costs an inflated sum—and, alas, no more mosaic bits for souvenirs.

Text-for-today: "The Forum was the political, religious and commercial center of republican Rome. Built over centuries, the structures (now mostly incomplete) include. . . blah, blah, blah."

Mostly incomplete for sure!. . . but guide-book in hand, I dutifully begin a puzzle-it-out tour, finding (I think) the Clivus Capitolinus, the Tabularium, the Portico of the di Consentes, the temple of Vaspasian, the Mamertine Prison. A wiggly blue line on a map leads me along ancient pavements and grassy paths between these ruins and a wonderful story unfolds in the guide book. It is very exciting, for example, to read, on the map, "Caligula's Palace." Sadly, when this "palace" is located and turns out to be just a pile of brick emerging from weeds, excitement wanes. "Some-assembly-required," applies to the Forum—but many of the pieces seem to be missing!

All the same, it is quiet and pleasant in this old boulder field, a respite from the turmoil of the big city. The voices of guides sound very far away as they lecture their clients; the racket of Rome's traffic is a mere background buzz. I sit on a broken column for a while and try to imagine two thousand years, two thousand layers of time.

Where, oh where else but in Rome, are such marvelously equipped sightseeing busses to be found? One must be loathe to ever step down into the street from the security of these pleasure palaces on wheels! Many companies compete in this business, all boasting in bold advertising blurbs their latest conveniences and creature comforts: "Air conditioning. . . snack-bar. . . all languages. . . stereo-at-every-seat. . . fridge-bar. . . toilets. . . video. . . Red Cross. . . hi-fi sets. . . telephones. . . VCR. . . ice cubes. . . ." (What? No fax?)

For the aged and infirm who may not wish to dismount at, say, the Colosseum, a Colosseum video will be provided at their seat. Travel is broadening, they say—no doubt from sitting long in such wonderful busses.

The day I decided to visit the catacombs, I must have misread my map. San Callisto didn't look very distant, only to the bottom edge of the paper, surely I could walk that far. Just pass the Colosseum, then go down the street to the Circus Maximus, turn left and pass the Baths of Caracalla, then a pleasant stroll through a woodsy park to a street that seemed to have no name. After that, it would be a straight shot to Porta San Sebastiano, no? Can't get lost. And then onto the Old Appian Way, yes?

Yes. . . but Rome is bigger than it looks and a few map-inches turned out to be several miles. . . and you could get killed on the street-with-no-name which turns out to be a narrow, no-sidewalks, practice racetrack for Italian Grand Prix drivers. . . and the only sign I saw in an hour of walking pointed straight ahead and said "Naples." It was then I began to wonder if any old catacombs was going to be worth this.

It was—and this time the kid wasn't scared.

Homework: "Catacombs. . . underground Christian cemeteries. . . deep galleries carved from soft volcanic stone. . . hundreds of thousands of graves. . . including Popes and martyrs. . . Second to Fourth Centuries, then abandoned until 16th Century. . . ."

It isn't like the Forum where you can just go wandering around. Guided, one-language tours only. And many posted rules. No photos. No smoking. No leaving the group. And no interrupting the guide with questions.

Okay, down we go. The corridors are narrow, uneven, cool, dimly lighted. The color of everything is a tufa-brown, even the light from the guide's flashlight, which needs new batteries. For those expecting skeletons, there are none on the tourist routes. Some well-preserved wall paintings, many Christian inscriptions incised in brick and marble. A maze of passages in which groups speaking different languages may meet head on—only to be switched out of each other's way like trains shunted onto sidings. Forty-five minutes. Tip the guide.

Once back in the fresh air, I felt as if I had just been on a mouse-tour of a giant underground cheese with many voids and holes.

There are several catacombs under different managements in the area. I had seen one, had I seen them all? Maybe. I caught a public bus back to the city.

In the middle of a huge traffic jam near the Tiber, a tiny Cinquecentro Fiat is stopped in mid-roadway with its hood up, its engine silent and its driver, a pretty young woman, standing helplessly midst a sea of epithets and anger. A Rome police officer in an impeccably pressed uniform, white gloves and designer sunglasses (with mirrored hexagonal lenses) approaches in a John-Gotti stroll. He holds a cigarette in one hand, salutes the young woman with the other, then takes a cursory look at the expired engine. A hundred horns sound a furious chorus. The cop engages in a smiling interview with the car's driver. She smiles back. He takes off his sunglasses. She lights a cigarette. He takes a note pad from his breast pocket and writes with a pen. The traffic jam may now extend from Trastevere to the Vatican. The cop closes the car's hood, taking care of his clean gloves.

Driver and police officer seem to be getting along nicely. Two exasperated truck drivers volunteer to push the Fiat into a parking place. Cop nods, okay, fine, do that. He continues interview with driver. The stream of cars begins to move around them. . .

Trevi fountain may be the most popular tourist site in Rome, every day, at almost any hour. The head count at the Vatican may be greater, but Trevi is always a happy circus of people, a too-big fountain squeezed into a too-small public square. Book facts: "85 feet high, 65 feet wide. . . central figure is the sea-god, Neptune. . . the work of sculptor, Nicolo Salvi. . . basin holds coins thrown by those who wish to return one day to Rome. . . ."

Yes, but there must be some other reason for these crowds, for the souvenir vendors, for the fruit stands, for the postcard salesmen, for the endless parades of tour groups following their leaders' flags. Almost everyone wants to toss a coin into the water, of course, but that could not be the only reason for such a mob scene. Turn your back to the fountain and throw the coin over your left shoulder. . . or is it the right?. . . no matter, you'll return. . . you'll see! The coins freckle the bottom of the basin (and the city gladly sweeps up the contributions).

Is it the theatricality that brings so many people? Like many other tourist sites in Rome, Trevi is a stage. The giant figures and prancing horses and tumbling, noisy waters are a performance, and the audience surrounds the show in a semi-circle which has an orchestra level, a mezzanine and a balcony.

Never mind the coins or Agrippa or Pope Clement, my bet is that Trevi's fame is really Federico Fellini's legacy—the fountain is a pop icon born of La Dolce Vita, the very place where Anita Ekberg waded about in her long, black gown while a perplexed Marcello sat on a stone bench holding the glass of milk (for the white kitten, remember?) Tour guides still point out where these two cavorted three decades ago. Right there. . . take my picture there. . . where she was. . . .

I love this fountain for my own nostalgic, romantic reasons—and I never fail to toss a coin over my left shoulder and wish that it will not be for the last time.

The first time I saw them, the mounted police, I thought they had come from a parade, that it was perhaps a holiday. There were two, in smart blue uniforms, red stripes on the pants, gleaming black boots, swords in chrome scabbards. They rode on very large gray-white horses and went slowly down the center of Via Condotti, the elegant, pedestrians-only shopping street. Alerted by the clatter of hoofs on pavement, the crowds parted with hardly a look, giving the big animals passage; up above, the two police were having an easy conversation, paying no attention to the people below. I watched their imperial progress up the street, late sun at their backs, two silhouetted figures sitting tall above the crowds. Later, I saw many more Carabinieri around Rome, always in pairs, always on the white horses.

They say there are two great honors for Italian families—that they may have a son who will become a priest—or a Carabinieri.

"The most famous of Rome's seven hills. . . ." The phrase caught my attention. (The seven-hills business had always puzzled me because this doesn't seem a hilly place, yet there they were on the maps, all with names.) The Capitoline hill is the smallest, yet most important they say, a place where I should try to envisage the monuments and temples that once faced the Forum from here. The hill, in the center of Rome, is reached by a long stairs and topped by a Michelangelo-designed square—the Campidoglio—formed by three facing buildings: a Senatorial Palace, still used by local government, and two palace-museums—wherein, one Sunday, I find three wonderful things.

A small bronze statue—the Spinario—depicts a young Greek boy removing a thorn from his foot. There is nothing heroic about the lad, but his pose and gesture are so lifelike, so human, that museumgoers circle the figure and circle again, unwilling to leave the affecting image behind. I thought, this kid is everyone's child.

Then: A giant figure of an ancient god reclines in front of a fountain at the New Palace entrance. He is called Marforio, wears a bemused expression, and was one of several statues credited, in the Middle Ages, with the ability to talk—specifically to make satirical comments about those in power. If Marforio had been a real person, Fellini would surely have cast him in a movie.

The third wonderful thing? The bronze she-wolf herself, suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, ancient symbol of Rome, a statue by an unknown Greek or Etruscan artist, perhaps 2500 years old, perhaps more. My first sight of the famous work is as if I have spotted a noted person on the street—There she is, I know her, what's-her-name. . . you know, the one in Rome, the one with the two kids, the wolf. . . .

Yes, but I learn something else today, too. Those kids were added to the statue hundreds of years later—and considering that, I take another hard look. Of course! Why didn't I sense it before? The twins may seem cherubic, but they are rendered as greedy, Renaissance brats compared to the wolf—which maintains a look of aloof dignity.

From a window in the museum, I look down on the square below. A Sunday wedding party is gathering in all its finery. The men and women stand on the black-white trapezoids of the Campidoglio's marble pavement like elegant chess pieces. Sound of their babble rises and falls as the murmurings from within a seashell. My imagination ignites. . . and the people below are now wearing togas and sandals. . . they must be waiting for Augustus. . . .

On certain days the Pope addresses the crowd which gathers in St. Peter's square (which is an oval). The Holy Father appears at a window in his private apartments, the second from the right on the top floor of the big, boxy Apostolic Palace. From any location below, this window seems very high and far away. Shortly before the Pope appears, a long, red, embroidered drapery is hung from the window and the French-style casements are swung open and only thin curtains are left to flutter, the last veil. At noon there are two strokes of a bell and the curtains part and the Pope appears, a small figure in white at the bottom edge of a too-large picture frame.

On this All Saint's Day, the patient crowd about half fills the sunny square—about 50,000 people, they say. Video cameras are raised all around; blinks from strobes bestow a contemporary form of applause. Children's shiny helium balloons escape and drift over the crowd—green dinosaurs, Mickey Mice.

When the Pope's amplified voice first projects from several speakers, pigeons are startled into flight. The small, motionless man in white speaks for several minutes. Every word is distinct and the crowd seems to listen. Then a Latin prayer is accompanied by the voices of an unseen chorus. All of this echoes richly across the great space.

When the Pope disappears from the window, bells in St. Peter's begin to ring, hammering at first, loudly celebrating, commoting among themselves, an arrhythmia, a clamorous argument in vibrating bronze. The Pope's curtains are drawn, the red drapery is pulled in, the windows closed. The spiritual emperor is departed, but the bells continue for a persistent time as the crowd drifts away in all directions. I allow the sound to descend on me—a joyous tirade against sin, I suppose it is, an exhortation for me to lead a better life.

I look at my watch and wonder: What does the Pope do next today? Pranzo (lunch), I suppose—at least, that's what I'm going to do. Everyone gets a little hungry around midday. When power and politics went wrong for Popes long past, they sometimes took refuge in a great fortress nearby the Vatican. It is known as Castel Sant' Angelo these days, a major tourist attraction, another of Rome's enduring symbols, a huge, drum-shaped structure perched on the banks of the Tiber, topped with the famous statue of the angel, St. Michael, drawing his sword. Museums sometimes numb my brain, but Sant' Angelo lets me pretend. Yes, it is a museum, but a realistic one where Italian parents let their kids run around the walls and bang-bang at invaders. Any traveler who has grown weary of trying to piece together history on the basis of a guide book and a few broken columns will relax and enjoy at Sant' Angelo.

The make-believe begins as one enters the fortress via massive wooden drawbridges. An armorer's blacksmith shop has a huge bellows and many tools scattered around and seems ready to start turning plowshares into swords at the drop of a match. Likewise the Corporal of the Guard's Room—helmets and weapons and lanterns all about and ready to defend the Pope. Outside, on the "bastioni" (parapets), there are guns and medieval catapults and neat piles of white marble cannon balls.

Within the huge structure there are elegant rooms, huge fireplaces, massive old furniture, frescoes in recognizable condition and creaking wooden floors. The treasury room contains massive chests; a storeroom deep in the fortress held oil and grain in giant amphora. This is a nice old castle, not a ruin. It even has a pleasant cafe on the top deck where one can sip an espresso in the sun and take a 360-look around the Roman skyline.

What color is Rome? The easy, trite descriptive term usually given is "ochre"—albeit it takes a painter to explain what that out-of-a-tube term (like "Siena") really means. As I wander around neighborhoods of Rome, I see buildings which reflect many palettes of color, mostly warm and muted, mellowed by age, streaked, faded, flaking, stained, neglected, hardly ever new-looking, but every one original and all different: mustard, peach, pigskin, red wine, amber, terra cotta, rust, melba toast, honey, rose, iron oxide, spaghetti-sauce, mud, bay horse, weathered cedar, potter's clay, cinnamon, suntan pants, old brick, tawny port, purple heart, cafe latte. . . .

What color is Rome? Don't ask.

So. A visitor here may, after a time, begin to feel an elementary grasp of history, a sense of control over the story of the place, the layers. The centuries, like ducks, get put in a row. The Caesars and the Popes get sorted out. . . a little. Benito Mussolini's xenophobic maps, still displayed on the Forum walls, depict the spread of the lost empire. Museums date the artifacts: five hundred years before Christ—two thousand years since. That's it, no? No.

There were some interesting people here before that. I find the Etruscans in an out-of-the-way palace after a walk through the Borghese gardens. Villa Giulia is included in all the guide books, but it does not draw big crowds. It was built by a Renaisance Pope as a luxurious hideaway in which to entertain friends. Now it contains the largest, finest collection of Etruscan art and artifacts in the world, an absorbing albeit limited picture of these enigmatic people who populated Italy from the Po Valley to Rome for hundreds of years before the rise of Roman power.

Like the Egyptians, Etruscans believed in an afterlife in which the deceased would need stuff—nothing fancy, just the ordinary accouterments of everyday. As a result, Etruscan tombs are the source of almost all that is known about these pre-Romans.

Villa Giulia's many glass cases could be called an unimaginative display, but a single astonishing object will make a visit there memorable—a terra cotta double-sarcophagus on the cover of which recline the life-size, sculpted figures of a husband and wife, presumably enjoying a serene and happy afterlife together. It is the work of a 6th Century Etruscan artist—who understood how to depict a love that would never die.

The flip phone has come to Rome—everyone is making al fresco calls: monks, Gypsy pickpockets, policemen, waiters at sidewalk cafes, street artists, tour guides, Via Veneto prostitutes, Swiss guards at the Vatican — and a young man on the Spanish Steps who holds a young woman in a long embrace, her head buried on his chest, his chin over her shoulder, his arms circling behind her back—where he is punching in a number on his phone.

You are told it is impossible for utility companies to dig in old Rome without striking some archaeological trove, some layer of civilization, some urgent reason to stop work and call in the academic authorities. And even after scholars have investigated and excavated and sifted and brushed, another decade or two may pass before the significance of the new hole in the ground is understood, much less explained.

An extraordinary illustration of Rome's layered history can be found at the Basilica San Clemente, a small treasure of a 12th Century church in an otherwise uninteresting district. Thanks to the curiosity and diligence of an Irish Dominican priest in 1857, excavations beneath his church revealed the well-preserved remains of another, 4th Century Christian church—and below that, most remarkable of all, the remains of two houses from days of the Roman Republic. One of these was later converted to a Mithraem—a temple for the clandestine worship of a pagan god, Mithras.

The three layers of history at San Clemente are preserved and available to visitors in a real (not just realistic) way. The subterranean pavements and earthen floors tilt and slant; Mithras himself, in bas relief on the altar, is shown cutting the neck of a sacrificial bull; the torrent of a main Roman sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, still roars through the foundations—and a room which may have been a gymnasium where gladiators trained is eerily empty. . . until you think about it.

Had I seen it all now? Had I covered all the important sites? I thought so. But then, in the taxi on my way to the airport, I spot a near-perfect marble temple I must have missed—I twist to look out the rear window—a beautiful, round structure with Greek-style fluted columns! How could I have overlooked that? More important, what was it?

On the flight home, I dug out my guides and found the answer: "Temple of Vesta. . . oldest standing marble temple in Rome. . . dates from the reign of Augustus. . . a church in the Middle Ages. . . ancient produce market was nearby. . . ."

Good thing I threw a coin in the fountain. . . Arrivederci Roma!. . . I'll come back soon, to continue. . . .

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