By Nathaniel Mellor
Rome is lost.
Not physically lost. It’s still where it’s almost always been, about halfway up Italy, just a little inland, sitting between the folds of the Tiber and the swell of the seven hills. It still has cars narrowly missing pedestrians around tight corners, though the cars are now Audis and BMWs, no longer the whimsical Fiats and Peugeots. Old men still gather on plastic stools and benches around cafés that have been there longer than Western democracy, and old women still file through green markets under unfinished roofs made from green tarps and unusable bed sheets to buy vegetables (in season only) and dried meats (from last autumn).
Rome is lost in the same way the immigrants of the Esquiline district are lost, adrift in a place so determined to make them feel unwelcome, unable to return to a place that only exists in their minds as a remnant of childhood. But there are days when the smell of wood smoke mingles with fish, or the smell of hot stone and sand from one of the countless Roman neighborhoods devoid of trees and plants sends them back to the barest edges of those memories.
Rome is somewhere around the edges of the Tiber, in between the willow trees and rushes, under ducks and coypu nibbling riverweed and mud. It’s in the last few calzolaia run by Indians or Bangladeshi in markets and small storefronts stuck in the cracks of the city, creating only a pair of shoes a month. In the Senegalese, Ghanaians, Dominicans, and Jamaicans who work in the green markets, freely giving information on the best ways to use plantains or yucca to an Italian woman who’s never seen either.
“Authenticity” is a word often thrown around when someone visits a city they’ve only dreamed of. Are there flowers really sold in the Campo di Fiori? Can I really eat a plate of cacio e pepe in front of the Pantheon? Or was it the Parthenon? I always get them confused. But I can’t wait to figure out which one it is!
Come summer, Rome is overwhelmed with do-ers looking for authenticity. Those that are here to do. Let’s do the Forum. Let’s do the Vatican. The Coliseum. Maybe we can even do a museum or two if we have time.
I pretend to be impartial. I pretend to see every traveler as the same, born of an open mind and willing to kill their prejudice as Twain claims it will. But they aren’t. And I’m not. Nearly eighteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine wrote to Janarius and gave a piece of advice that has survived the centuries. Saint Augustine explained that when one travels they should do as the people of that place do. Specifically, Janarius was traveling to Rome and inquiring about fasting on Saturday, to which Saint Augustine recommended he do as the Romans do.
In truth, I don’t know Rome, and I can’t find Rome, so how should I do as the Romans do
Naples, not two hours away, can be found in a day—in an hour if someone is a particularly open-minded traveler, willing to set aside preconceptions about how an Italian city should look. It’s in the graffiti on walls that have been there since its name meant “New City” in Ancient Greek some three thousand years ago, a few hundred years before Rome gathered around the Palatine Hill. It’s in the volcanic stones that lead up to Castel Sant’Elmo and through the Spanish Quarter. In the Roman palaces sunken offshore, washed away by wave and wind.
It’s the pickpockets that have turned sticky fingers into high art, pizza into a phenomenon, grunge into décor, and fear into the flavor that runs deep through the streets.
Rome has scrubbed off its graffiti save for the few neighborhoods where it’s been left to add authenticity. It paved over its stones, and then changed its mind, deciding to dig up the stones and flip them so the asphalt faces down, but it’s obvious. In the old coastal cities, the cities of cart and carriage, there are deep lines etched in the street where wheel after wheel has slowly ground away the stone until deep ruts form the veins of the city. Rome has erased those lines. Buried them and burnt them, covered them over with anachronistic stucco and invasive vines and said, “This is who we are.”
The sky, once solely occupied with stone spires and concave monuments to human engineering, are now joined by metal cranes building even taller monuments to the eight-hour workday. Myth and legend have created a new Rome that started with Remus and Romulus and a creation myth of invented kings to lend authenticity to an upstart swamp village.
It became a heritage of theft under the guise of improvement. Along the wrought-iron fences of monuments sit plaques, complete with artist renderings of how the monument would have looked if not for the Fall, if not for Christianity and failed conquests from men too proud to back down, and misplaced blame, and unwavering devotion to the concept of “too big to fail.”
When Rome rose from the swamps, capping Juturna’s power and offering her nothing but a stone plaque in return for every spring that feeds every fountain of Rome, it killed the seed that creates the life, the soul, of a city. It killed the magic.
And now Rome is lost.
But someone, someday, will find it, if they haven’t already.
Nathaniel is a short story writer and poet who lives in Southern Italy with his partner. He's had work published or forthcoming in Willawaw Journal, Second Chance Lit, and Henshaw Press. Twitter @MellorNathaniel