The story of an Englishman in Rome, and in love.
Like any big, ancient city, Rome is riddled with contradictions. Within a few weeks of arriving there, I began to perceive the way in which it was at war with its own history. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a lot of places in my life, for work or pleasure, but nowhere is like Italy for that sense of time piling up. Ironically, in that respect it most resembles Britain. Both have been at the centre of Western European civilisation for two-thousand years, more or less uninterrupted. Athens, for example, is completely different. Despite the Acropolis presiding over it, most of the architecture is 20th Century brutalist, as if the city disappeared in 500 BC and then popped back into existence in 1940. Despite its place in the history of the West, Greece is much more like one of the Balkan states, with that same undercurrent of militarism, speaking of a history defined by revolution and armed coups.
But, back to Rome. The strange thing about Rome is that so little of it is Roman, in the classical sense. Ancient Rome is long gone, supplanted by centuries of regime change, though sometimes it can be hard to tell: the Renaissance aped antiquity so convincingly that you’d be forgiven for thinking the statues and fountains that fill the piazze were erected by the Emperors. In fact, for most of modern history, the ruins of Rome were buried in sediment, all but forgotten. It was Napoleon, himself half-Italian, arguably the last man to aspire to true imperium in the Roman sense, who began the project to unearth them and, in turn, filled the city he conquered with new architecture in the same style. So Rome is packed with three different generations of columns, friezes and heroic statues, and without a decent tour book, it’s hard to know whether what you’re looking at is 1st, 15th or 19th Century. It’s easiest to just drink it in, which can be easier said than done.
Quite apart from the academic strangeness of all this melange of eras, Rome requires a kind of doublethink. Visit the Pantheon, in the heart of Rome, and the first thing you see is a vast, ancient façade. This is the real thing: built on the orders of Hadrian, the same Emperor who created an almost arbitrary divide in northern Britain that persists to this day. Huge columns, marble steps, the works. Inside is no less impressive: a renaissance chapel, round and empty, crowned by a vast concrete dome. It has a hole in the middle, so that on sunny days a disc of perfect sunlight slowly makes its way across the curved ceiling. (“What happens when it rains?” everyone asks. The answer is that the floor gets wet). What’s strange about it is that the signage, expounding on the history of the place, refers dismissively to the original building as ‘a pagan temple’. While accurate, there’s something jarring about that: most tourists come to Rome for the Roman history, so to walk through an entrance built to the glory of the gods whose names we know so well – if not from mythology then astronomy – on whose broad shoulders was founded the might of an empire so influential its language, customs, infrastructure and borders are still with us over a millennium later, and have that be treated as a footnote makes one’s head spin. It made mine spin anyway. This then is the foundation of Rome’s multiple personality disorder: a centre of Christendom that wouldn’t exist if not for the dominion of heathens. Come for the myths, stay for the Catholicism is I suppose the general idea.
For me, it was in fact the latter rather than the former that had brought me here. I’m no Catholic – I’m no anything, really – but I had been given the opportunity to study certain archival information in the Vatican, in the pursuit of my academic research. It was dry stuff, but you don’t turn down an opportunity like that. And, my personal spiritual indifference aside, I was curious to see the city-within-a-city. I had been to plenty of cathedrals and other places of worship, but few things prepare you for the first sight of the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica. It’s a space vast enough to encompass half-a-dozen lesser cathedrals. In fact, the basilica is to a cathedral as a cathedral is to a parish church. It is the ur-cathedral. The columns that line the entrance hall look large enough to shoulder Atlas’s burden and then some (in fact, I later found out that they were authentically Roman, plundered and repurposed). Each alcove could hold an entire congregation, each lesser chapel would be the glorious centrepiece of any other church. Standing inside the main entrance, looking up the immense aisle, I was struck by the strange notion that if one were a particularly committed Atheist – or perhaps an Antitheist, to be more accurate – and you wished to take God to task for all the human suffering He had inflicted since Creation, this would be where you’d stand. This was the spot to pick a fight with the Almighty.
It was a fanciful idea, but Rome has that effect, or at least it did on me. I’ve talked about architecture and history, but there are other ways in which it’s an otherworldly city. I never had a bad meal there in three years, even when I ate at the smallest, cheapest cafes, but equally I never received any service that I’d describe as better than poor. Walking through the narrow streets between piazze, streets which would be pedestrianised anywhere else, but here played host to occasional convoys of blaring cars, or adorably tiny garbage wagons, slowly pushing through the same crowds as everyone else, you would pass the most beautiful person you’d ever seen and, for a few seconds, fall helplessly in love. Then they’d be gone, lost forever into the press of people, and your heart would break, only for them to be supplanted thirty seconds later by the new most beautiful person you’d ever seen. In the summer months, every park bench seemed to belong to a young couple – tanned, dark, indescribably lithe and perfect – locked in a passionate embrace. In London or New York, two young people in love might share food, take selfies, enjoy conversation: in Rome, all they seemed to need was each other. It is an intense, invigorating place. Like any Mediterranean city, at night it’s scarcely quieter than the day. The Trevi Fountain is as packed with tourists at 11PM as AM, and there is a constant, low-level night-time roar. People spend hours eating meals. There is no division between café, restaurant and bar, no establishment where it would be unseemly to order wine or beer, but equally, few places where one might just drink – and none where it would be possible to actually get drunk, because everywhere has table service, and that service is universally appalling. You’ve sobered up before your next drink arrives.
I don’t know, now, how much of my memories of Rome are coloured by those of Marco. The two are necessarily intertwined. I didn’t come to the city expecting to find love, despite its reputation, and despite all those beautiful people who seemed to have stepped directly off catwalks. I was a pale, balding academic, a fusty professor from an unpopular corner of Europe who knew more Latin than modern Italian. But, somehow, I became involved with Marco. He was a painter, in both senses of the word. I first encountered him – met would be too strong a term – in one of the Vatican’s more modern corners, where he was applying magnolia emulsion to a newly-plastered wall. He was in overalls, his golden-brown skin spattered with paint and effortlessly sexy in that uniquely Italian way. He smiled at me and I was lost forever.
Like Rome itself, he seemed lost in the wrong age. He was physically massive, almost architecturally so. Not muscular (though he was lean and toned), but constructed on a different scale. He was at least a foot taller than me, but while an Englishman might have been a gangling beansprout or a rugbyish wall of wind-reddened flesh, he was perfectly in proportion. He was a marble statue, just stepped off a plinth, the memory of an Emperor or gladiator. Like most Italian men he smoked, but unusually he didn’t eat meat. To be a vegetarian in a place like Rome was so perverse is could only be contrariness, but he never explained his reasons. He drank, but cheaply, his only concession to taste an insistence that his wine be Sicilian. I said he was a painter, and he was, though not a very good one: he worked in oils and his small apartment was littered with half-finished (or half-started) works, mostly self-portraits. He was vain, yes. You would be too, if you looked like Marco. Hell, if you looked half as good as him you would be. In the digital age, maybe he ought to have just taken selfies: there was no shortage of the sticks being sold by street vendors (seemingly all North African, also selling a mixture of obvious tourist tat and craft items that would have appeared genuine had not identical versions been for sale two streets away – there must be a factory somewhere). Instead, he stuck to his terrible paintings. In all the time I knew him, he never sold one that I knew of. I’m not even sure he tried. For Marco, it seemed more about the image. He was all image. Affected. But irresistible for it. He spoke the worst English of any Italian I ever met; our conversations were rarely consequential. But I spent so long combing through mouldering records, cataloguing, theorising, using all my years of training and experience during the day, that I wanted the evenings to be mindless, silent, focused on the physical. The copious food, the cheap wine, the enormous, oddly intimidating presence of Marco. Music and scents and hot rain on the worn-smooth cobbles. And the sex, of course. There was no shortage of that.
I suppose, looking back, I wanted more than Marco could ever give me. Italians are usually expansive, gregarious, argumentative. Marco was quiet, even furtive, and it was more than the language barrier. Maybe he’d learned to minimise himself because of his size, or perhaps there was the old shame of being gay in a Catholic country – in the Catholic country. Maybe it was just me: perhaps he was embarrassed by me. It didn’t matter. I was in love. In love with him and the idea of him, and with Rome and its strange story. We never talked about commitment; it was never even entertained as a discussion. Perhaps that was another social thing. He had to be clandestine, and that didn’t lend itself to relationships. And, after all, why would he limit himself to one man? I imagine he had other lovers. I feel he must have. It makes me feel strange to think about that now, but at the time I either didn’t realise or did and didn’t allow myself to think about it. Ignorance is bliss, and bliss was all I cared about in those heady, hedonistic months. He didn’t love me. No matter how passionate he was, no matter how we connected, I’m not sure he was capable of that. Like the old, bellicose gods modern Rome affects to be embarrassed by, all he really craved was worship. Marco was Marco, unchanging and eternal, uninterested in others except as a source of immediate pleasure, giving generously, but promising nothing. If I sound harsh, it’s not out of bitterness: he was what he was (what he is, I suppose, for he must still be there in Rome, living his life – a strange thought for some reason) and I can’t begrudge him that. I never told him how I felt, even if he’d have grasped it through my broken Italian patois, and never imagined he could reciprocate. Maybe he did and my own insecurity just stopped me from asking the right questions at the right time. Perhaps I missed out on the romance of a lifetime for a year or so of heathen lust. Maybe when Marco tells this story, he reflects bitterly on the cold Englishman who was happy to fuck him but never showed any signs of real affection (as unfair as that summation of our relationship would be). But I think not.
I left Marco in the same way I left Rome, piece by piece, without even knowing I was doing it. The magic faded, the passion dulled to lived-in comfort, and when the last winter washed in, I decided it was time to go. I parted with both lover and city casually, intending to come back when I’d handled affairs elsewhere, but somehow the time never seemed right. I felt that going back would be to tempt fate. I had no reason to go there, from a career point of view, and returning for a holiday seemed forced. I’d be trying to recapture the experience not of a place, but of a time, and the understanding that Rome – and Marco – would simply go on without me much as before, was too painful to confront. I would forever be an outsider in my own memories. So I add my own little layer of contradictory history to the human strata of Roma, knowing my impact is as significant as a mote of dust settling on a ballroom floor, but treasuring it nonetheless. I left a piece of myself there; going back for it would be disservice.