Friday, September 19, 2008

An Afternoon in Rome

by Caroline Lawrence
Thursday 18 September 2008

Today is the last day of my three-day flying visit to Italy, to gather sensory detail and fun facts for the last book in the Roman Mysteries series, The Man from Pomegranate Street, about the mysterious death of the emperor Titus and the succession of his younger brother Domitian.

After an event-packed day in the Sabine Hills and yesterday around Lake Alba, I decide to spend my last few hours in Castel Gandolfo just wandering around and soaking up atmosphere.

After a brief sighting of the Pope's car leaving the Papal Palace, and a nice espresso in Piazza della Libertà, I walk down to the lake for lunch at a waterside trattoria. At around 2.30, I catch the little train from the Castel Gandolfo station.

The train runs parallel to the old Appian Way, and there are several stops with romantic names. One of them is Acqua Acetosa, which means something like 'Vinegary Water'. Antonia later tells me that water with a slightly sharp taste, often naturally carbonated, is associated with volcanic activity, like the water we tasted below Nemi the day before. Antonia says that the Appian Way follows an ancient lava stream and is marvellously straight with a gentle and constant slope which must have amazed the Romans.

The train also stops at Capannelle ('Little Sheds'). This last name is particularly appropriate as there are lots of stables here. I wonder if there were stables here in Roman times, too. After the train pulls out of Capannelle, I see one of the best-preserved aqueducts from the right hand window, to the north. This is the Aqua Marcia, built in 144 BC. It is still impressive today.

We arrive in Rome 45 minutes out of Castel Gandolfo, and I set out from Termini on foot. It's another glorious day, the warmest so far, but not too hot. I take snaps of a colourful news kiosk, building works (Rome is not looking her best) and in a pasticerria window, some cookies called 'Brutti ma Buoni'. (That means 'ugly but good') A sign tempts me off my planned route to investigate the 'Citta dell'Acqua', some underground remains of another aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo. This little museum is near the Trevi fountain and, as usual, you go down to go back in time. It is cool down here and I can hear the splash of running water.

Presently I emerge again and try to find the Piazza Navona, where my artist friend Dennis Cigler lives. Dennis is another expat American, living in Rome. I first met him a few years ago when I did an author event at Marymount International School. He is art teacher there. Dennis is very creative and bohemian, and 'when we were young and beautiful' he used to run with a crowd of Italian celebrities like Antonioni and Fellini. I look for someone to ask directions from, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON I meet is also clutching a map and looking lost. In stark contrast to peaceful Castel Gandolfo, Rome is packed with tourists.

The Trevi Fountain is twenty people deep. No chance of tossing a coin in there today.

The Pantheon is heaving with sightseers.

The Piazza Navona, when I finally find it, is clogged with plebs.

Worse, the beautiful Bernini fountain of the Four Seasons in the Piazza Navona is boarded up for renovation. At last I find the little cobbled backstreet where Dennis lives. I press the button and he buzzes me in. As I step out of the lift and into his apartment, I enter another world. He has covered the walls with Graeco-Roman or Egyptian type frescoes. Books line the walls and in his bedroom is an enormous sphinx head from the Cinecittà set of Cleopatra. There are glowing Turkish carpets, jewel-coloured cushions and indoor plants lit emerald by the late afternoon sun. 

The windows let in a cool breeze that causes the curtains to swell and subside, as if the whole afternoon was asleep and breathing deeply. In Dennis' studio, there are objets d'art everywhere, and some of Dennis' dreamlike paintings. He also does etchings, like this one of the Bernini fountain in the Piazza Navona. 

I don't have long - I have to make my way back to the train station at 5.00pm - but an hour is long enough for us to catch up a little on what is happening. By serendipity, a friend of Dennis' happens to be in Rome and he calls her to encourage her to drop by. Kristin has just been to see a collection of medieval tapestries. The subject? The Emperor Titus!

Dennis is something of a pagan. His nickname for himself is 'Dionysus', he has a Facebook application for 'what were you in your previous life' and he freely admits to being a sun-worshipper. When I mention the magnificent moon I saw rising over Lake Alba on my first night here, he says casually, 'Oh yes. The moon is in Pisces at the moment.' My jaw drops. That is exactly the kind of thing Domitian's astrologer Ascletario would have said two thousand years ago when the Romans were obsessed with omens, portents and horoscopes. As the French say: Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose. 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.'

And really, that's what my books are all about.

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