Walking through the centre of Rome is a walk through history. Slowly peel back the layers of time like the big onion of history. If you notice, the Largo Argentina and the Pantheon, all sit some way below road level. It’s really 2000 years of worth of historical debris, a vertical timeline all piled up that we stand on today. I wonder, if we stripped away the layers centimetre by centimetre, moving a year, then 10, then 100, then 400, 1000, 1200, 2000 years bit by bit, what would each layer tell us?
And I’m not just interested in the big names, the important people, the significant monuments of history. I’m curious about the people, their lives, their relationships, the everyday common routines and habits. Would we see shy young romances, a mugging, an argument, the sharing of food, a mama yelling at her kids or something as mundane as friends just hanging out on another hot Roman afternoon five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago? Maybe some things will not change even with the passing of time. And that’s the thing about history – at least from a cursory touristy point of view – that we only see the big stories, hear about the big important names. We can’t know about everyone but sometimes I wish I could just step through the glass panes separating this time and that time and peek into an ordinary life. If we could bring these slice-of-life stories to life, I think more people would find history lessons a lot less boring.
Walking in the middle of Rome, you see buildings like the one above, old buildings propped by even more ancient walls, sticking like an afterthought to each other, plants growing unheeded like hair out of an old man’s ear. Rome cannabalised itself as it grew and changed over time – old stones were harvested and recycled to make new buildings. Somewhere a couple of hundred years ago, some architect must have said: “Right, let’s keep this wall here since you’re low on budget. Yeah it’ll look a little weird but someday someone will call this quirky, funky and say your place has ‘character’!”
For a huge urban mass, Rome has many fountains – set in walls, in the backyard of palaces, in piazzas small and big. It’s a good thing. These lend a pretty tinkle to the soundscape, and are used by humans (above) and birds (below):
And because Rome is also Catholic City, it’s also fashion capital for the priests and religious. The boutiques range from the functional to the discreetly elegant. You can tell from the displays – the mainstream and affordable pack as much oomph as they can into the window displays. The upmarket ones are usually more subdued and minimalist in window treatment. Think Chanel versus Forever 21.
As a Catholic, I marvel at the variety of robes and cassocks ranging in colour from gold to green, from opulent to simple. I see the fancy gold chalices and think of Fr Loiseau’s humble silver one back home. Somehow, his – simple, well-worn and polished to a shine – has solemnity and gravitas more fitting to the purpose than these ostentatious ones.
The streetscape is livened by street performers – now far more innovative and creative than the ones I last saw almost 20 years ago. I wasn’t the only one doing a double-take when I saw this one:
Finally, what city would be complete without some wildlife? In Rome’s case, you’re looking at the protected species called cat. Quite a number live among the ruins of the Largo Argentina – now a cat sanctuary. They are no ordinary strays but live quite the charmed life – sheltered and fed in the Roman Cat Sanctuary. On the day I was there, I was scrutinising the ruins in search of the famous cats but could only find a handful snoozing in the shade and one or two who ambled up aboveground for a photo op:
A thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, it probably was as it still is today – the cats still walk around as if they owned the place.
I guess some things will never change.