ARTICLES

Holiday weekend in ROME

A Maclean’s editor mints a fresh turn for an old phrase: all pleasures lead to Rome

McKENZIE PORTER May 21 1960
ARTICLES

Holiday weekend in ROME

A Maclean’s editor mints a fresh turn for an old phrase: all pleasures lead to Rome

McKENZIE PORTER May 21 1960

Holiday weekend in ROME

A Maclean’s editor mints a fresh turn for an old phrase: all pleasures lead to Rome

McKENZIE PORTER

THE FIRST TIME I entered Rome, the world’s most beautiful, spiritual and storied city, I carried a Thompson sub-machine carbine, a Smith and Wesson pistol and four Mills hand grenades. With these I helped thirty thousand other British, Canadian and American troops to liberate Rome from twentieth century Huns, Vandals and Visigoths. A few days after this long overdue rescue, which took place on June 4, 1944, I w'as removed from the infantry and posted to a staff officer’s job in the heart of the Eternal City.

While former comrades died in northern Italy and northwest Europe I lived for twelve months in luxurious Roman hotels and apartments. 1 dined at officers’ clubs wherein great Italian chefs transformed simple army rations into Lucullan banquets. I danced with pretty Canadian, British and American girls who poured into Rome to staff the newly opened embassies. In other words 1 led the life of Riley, seeking, when conscience smote me, to find a moral hiding place behind a Military Cross I’d won in Sicily.

Meanwhile the Roman civilians were passing with dignity through the most gnawing famine in their twenty-five centuries of history. 1 never ceased

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to admire the taste and dash with which both men and women contrived to clothe their wasted bodies and the debonair attitude they displayed during the days of Italy’s deepest humiliation and distress.

In one vignette I saw the Roman spirit epitomized. As Allied troops performed a victory march through the city I watched an emaciated Roman policeman yawn, shake his head, stride into a barber’s shop, and sit down to a manicure.

Last March when I returned to Rome for a weekend, aboard one of the Alitalia airliners that now fly direct from Montreal, I experienced a sense of home-coming. To the delight of the spellbound passengers the aircraft circled twice over the gorgeous classical and Renaissance architecture, framing in the cabin windows the fluted columns and carved arches of the Forum, the centre of ancient Rome; the Colosseum, the well-preserved amphitheatre in which fifty thousand spectators once watched lions tearing Christians to shreds; the Castel Sant' Angelo, the enormous cylindrical fortress built as a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian; the huge white marble monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the Sardinian king who ninety-nine years ago united many principalities into modern Italy; the battlemented fifteenth century Palazzo Venezia, from whose balcony Mussolini once ranted; and St. Peter’s, and the Vatican City, the capital of all Christendom. Suddenly the sixteen years 1 had been away from Rome seemed like sixteen days.

My most moving impression that Friday evening was of the rich warm red-brown hue of Rome. The masonry, toasted by almost constant sunlight, sweats a tawny mineral that gives the buildings all the colors of an over-ripe tangerine, colors ranging from madder to burnt sienna.

As the clean powerful modern airport bus carried me along the asphalt filled chariot tracks of the statued Appian Way, 1 was glad to see from the conditions of the automobiles, the myriad whizzing motor scooters, and the elegant dress of the people, that Rome is enjoying the greatest boom it has ever known since it reached the apex of its power in the third-century days of the Emperor Trajan.

At The Grand, the swankiest hotel in Rome, I saw evidence of the prosperity in which Italy is now rejoicing. The orange marble pillars, the black-and-white marble floors, the oriental rugs, the crystal chandeliers and the damask-covered lounge seats that have always pampered the rumps of royalty, statesmanship and diplomacy, shone with the effort of renovation. In

my fourteen-foot-high, twelve-dollar-a-day bedCONTINUED ON PAGE 79

Holiday weekend in Rome

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“Loliobrigida said she was leaving Rome for Toronto; I often feel like doing the opposite”

room, the management had placed a pyramid of delicious fresh fruits, and in my marble bathroom, which might have been removed from a Cecil B. de Mille set, the taps were as big as Primo Carnera’s fists.

After a shower I decided to inspect first the most glittering coterie of Roman society, the three thousand performers, directors and technicians who turn out a hundred movies a year in Cinecitta, the best equipped film studios of Europe. The evening papers told me that the queen of this supposedly fabulous colony, Gina Loliobrigida, had announced her decision that day to emigrate from Rome to Toronto. 1 resisted the temptation to telephone her and tell her that often I had dreamed of doing precisely the opposite.

I walked just around the corner from The Grand to the Via Veneto, the hangout of the movie clique, hoping to see in the fluorescent light that bathes the bars, restaurants and terrace cafés, a celebrated face. I recognized none. But the darting bird-like expressions of the extravagantly turned-out young women, and the satisfied smirks of the scented male smoothies who lolled among them, confirmed for me the widely held suspicion that Italian starlets seek to become stars by means of a highly personal casting system.

Two martinis: sixty cents

Even in the Italian movie world itself the Via Veneto set has its critics. Rome was in a furor the day I arrived over a new movie named La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life. Directed by Federico Fellini it amounts to an exposé of the orgies which are alleged to be a part of the Via Veneto set's activities.

The set was under fire in Rome’s newspapers while I was there, but none spitted it more pointedly than the distinguished British novelist Evelyn Waugh who wrote:

"Like the heart of man Rome has always been torn from within by faction and from without by the barbarian. At present the great barbarian threat is from the cinema and, closely associated with it, from the new type of tourists who come neither as art lovers nor religious pilgrims but as pleasure seekers. For these a nasty quarter has sprung up in and about the Via Veneto.”

I found some truth in Waugh’s words when 1 popped into the Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto for a drink.

There were hundreds of tourists about, many American, when I walked into the Excelsior’s huge cocktail lounge, and most of them were creaking down the hill of years, alcohol and adiposity. Hardly a word of Italian could be heard. 1 paid a reasonable cheque of sixty cents for my two dry martinis and left.

The taxi was a tiny van-like Fiat that moved with the sound and agility of a bumblebee, making much better time through the narrow congested streets than the big American cars of the diplomats and millionaires.

Presently I disembarked at the Hostaria deH’Orso, a fifteenth-century inn at the bottom of a sunken alley by the banks of the Tiber. Once Dante dined behind this crumbling brickwork, and these worm-eaten oaken doors. The frescoed walls, vaulted ceilings and wrought-iron lanterns have provided atmosphere for the

officers of invading armies over a period of five hundred years. Napoleon's captains roistered here. During World War II the Orso was filled first by German and then by Allied officers with their Italian girl friends. Today the Orso is still

one of Rome’s most fashionable restaurants. But although there is dancing on the top floor the main attraction now is food.

1 took a table in the second floor restaurant. a table on which I saw many a

Roman beauty dancing in my army days, and dined in depressing respectability. All about me were plump, elegant, middleaged gourmets, including a table full of priests, one of whom came from Toronto. A trio played romantic Neapolitan

ballads. I ate a delicious ravioli with butter; a wafer of butter-fried veal with peas, mushrooms and tomato; and ice cream. I drank Lacrima Cristi, or The Tears of Christ, a delicate white wine from the Isle of Capri. The bill was about ten dollars.

Feeling reckless I taxied off to see some night life. The driver took me to some hideous place that was bouncing with bongo music, crawling with bar girls and heaving to the amorous sighs of Anglo-Saxon fatheads. I tried another night spot and found it even worse.

So I went out into the warm Roman night and hired myself a carrozza, one of the four-wheel horse-drawn cabs that trot about the ruins and fleshpots with such a restful rhythm. The driver told me that there are now only five night clubs in Rome and that these, even though they are listed in the best Englishlanguage guide book, are all clip joints. “The Americans have done it,” he said, “with their extravagance. Only fools go to night clubs in Rome these days.”

Having visited forty percent of Rome's night clubs in less than an hour I felt no mean fool so I ordered the driver to take me back to The Grand.

It would have been fun to have had with me under the blue hyacinth sky of that balmy Roman night, my wife, or an old flame, or a new flame, but such was not my luck. As other carrozze clopped by, each with its pair of lovers, I rode mine alone, attempting to satisfy the curious eyes that turned my way by affecting the sort of noble expression you see on the faces of proud middle-aged men who have just suffered the crash of their last grande affaire.

An insult to Gibbon

I slept well. It seemed only a minute before the telephone rang. I voiced the customary Roman response of "Pronto.” This means: "I am ready. You may speak.” A few minutes later I was breakfasting with an energetic young Roman photographer named Carlo Bavagnoli who was convinced—and I did not bother to disillusion him—that I had come to Rome to pose as a model against the ancient ruins for his renowned camerawork.

The only ruin I wanted to see again is one that is overlooked by many visitors to Rome. This is the remains of the seventy-five foot statue of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to espouse Christianity.

Parts of the arms and legs of this gigantic marble figure stand in the quiet courtyard of the Campidoglio, or the Roman City Hall, on top of the Capitoline Hill, the most historic of the Seven Hills of Rome.

The right hand presents Constantine’s first finger, as big as a man’s body, raised in ecclesiastical admonition. In my opinion this is the most awe-inspiring symbol extant of the three centuries of cruel intellectual and physical conflict that were required to transform Rome from a jackbooting pagan power into the gentle capital of the Christian world.

It would be an affront to God to spend but a few minutes in St. Peter’s, and an insult to Gibbon to dally for so short a time about the Forum or the Colosseum, so, with only a weekend in hand, I decided to leave such subjects to the guide book writers and visit my favorite Roman Piazza. This is the Piazza Navona where the medieval churches and palaces stand around an unmistakable outline of a chariot racing track. It was curious to think that the spectators in those days hurled at flagging drivers on whom they

had bet the same kind of epithet that modern racegoers hurl at jockeys. One of the favorite taunts was; “Get down from that chariot and let your mother drive!”

In the Piazza Navona stands one of the best of the exuberant fountains that were designed and built all over Rome in the seventeenth century by Bernini. It’s his Fountain of the Rivers, topped by an obelisk and flanked by four galvanic male nudes representing the rivers Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate.

Bernini carved one of the figures recoiling in seeming terror from the towers of the church of St. Agnes, which was designed by his pupil Borromini. Bernini believed that Borromini’s towers were unsafe and would collapse upon the fountain. For more than three hundred years Romans have smiled as Bernini’s river figure anticipates, with a hand before its eyes, the imminent crash. But the joke did not amuse Borromini. It is believed that it contributed to his suicide in 1667.

From fhe Piazza Navona, Bavagnoli and I drove to the Spanish Steps built in 1720. We rested awhile, as Romans do, upon the stonework, and read the morning papers. Thus we enjoyed what was the last glimpse of earth for the English poet Keats, who died in a small house at the foot of the staircase.

Keats encouraged so many of his countrymen to visit Rome that the Piazza di Spagna, at the bottom of the steps, remains as British today as the Via Veneto is American.

Bavagnoli and I took morning coffee in Babington's. a tea room opened on the Piazza di Spagna in 1894 by Miss Anna Maria Babington. an Englishwoman, and her partner. Miss Isabel Cargill, a New Zealander. For thirty years the ladies served tea to visiting British, including Queen Alexandra and George the Fifth. Other crowned heads came too, among them that of the Kaiser.

But if any patron spoke any other language than English the Misses Babington and Cargill coughed reproachfully.

Eventually Miss Babington retired and Miss Cargill married a Professor Da Pozzo. Today Babington’s is run by Signora Da Pozzo’s daughter, the Contessa Dorotea Bedini. When, during the last war, German officers barged into Babington's and insisted on speaking their own language the Italian staff replied coldly in English. When Field Marshal von Kesselring, Commander of German troops in Italy, was asked to order Babington's to give its name and fare a more Latin or Teutonic character he replied, according to local legend; "Good God no! If the British win they'll hang me.”

Bavagnoli and I walked up the Spanish Steps to the Via Ludovisi and took a prelunch cocktail in the Hotel Ludovisi which boasts the smallest bar in Rome. I was billeted for many months in this quiet charming little hotel during the war and found it unchanged. Above the fourfoot-long bar the baby Bacchus, in black marble, still grinned down at the customers, and on the bar, as always, were fresh pink carnations in a silver vase.

The management still remembers the fantastic officers who inhabited the Ludovisi in war-time, the British, American, Canadian, New Zealand, South African, French. Italian and Balkan men and women of the Psychological Warfare Branch of the Allied Headquarters in Italy. They included poets, novelists, journalists, painters, sculptors, actors, radio producers, film producers, printers, publishers, and every conceivable type of individual engaged in the arts and communications. I heir job was to change the Italians from a Fascist to a democratic society and despite all the temperament,

tantrums, drinking and love-making that marked their efforts they didn’t do a bad job.

Among the motley crew in the wartime Ludovisi were some oddballs engaged in what was known as black propaganda. They told deliberate lies to the Germans over fake Axis radio stations, arranged for false documents to be found behind the enemy lines, and fired at the enemy troops shells which carried leaflets showing German soldiers’ wives sleeping with slave workers back in the Fatherland. It was a dirty business which drove one brilliant lieutenant-colonel into a mental hospital, but 1 suppose it paid off. Once at a wartime party I was introduced to one of these professional prevaricators, an elderly English captain. It was explained to me in a whisper that he was the man who had invented the World War I story about Germans melting down French babies for axle grease, a story which brought thousands of volunteers flocking to Kitchener’s army.

From the Ludovisi, Bavagnoli and I walked through the Pinciana Gates in the old Roman Wall and entered the Borghese Gardens where equestrians ride, children play, and lovers stroll and historians inspect the hundreds of marble busts of Italy's great and near-great. Many of these represent controversial figures of the past and the Roman Department of Public Works is compelled to maintain sets of marble noses to replace those hammered off the busts at regular intervals by living enemies of the dead subjects.

At the west end we came to the Pincio Gardens dominated by a restaurant named the Casino Valadier, once a summer

villa built for Napoleon during the French occupation of 1809-14. There is not a restaurant in Rome which affords a better view of the entire city and a better meal for about five dollars.

Unfortunately I found that the kitchen staff of this most dearly loved of all my favorite restaurants was taking a presummer-scason holiday and we had to content ourselves with a drink on the terrace. Later Bavagnoli and I decided to cat in a trattoria of his choice—the Fontanel la Borghese, by Palazzo Borghese, the home of one of Italy’s oldest titled families.

We ate scampi (little shrimps fried) in a white batter; fcttuccine (boiled egg noodles); partridge; and a dream of a salad made of bitter greens. We drank Primofiore, or a rose wine named Spring Flowers. It tastes as fresh as spring flowers smell. The bill came to nine dollars for the two of us.

After this banquet we walked in a state of beatitude around the adjacent Piazza Borghese where I bought, for about eight dollars, an old Italian colored print from one of the artistic little stallholders who set up shop there every day.

Meanwhile, as in earlier days in Rome, I was overcome by the need for siesta. 1 went to bed and slept like a top until the Roman dinner time, which is about nine p.m. Then I dined among diplomats, statesmen and nobles on an eminently suitable menu of pasta, chicken, fruit and wine for about six dollars.

Over coffee in the lounge I was introduced by a friend to an Italian princess in her mid-forties. I could tell by the princess's red hair, bony face and freckles that she belonged to the "black” aristoc-

racy, who are descended from the ancient Romans and papal princes. They consider themselves superior to the “white” aristocracy who, paradoxically enough, stem from the more swarthy courtiers of Victor Emmanuel II and other petty princelings of Italy’s divided centuries.

The “black” Princess, now an interior decorator, told me that she felt it was a pity that Italy had become a republic after the war because she believed that the people needed an aristocracy to show them how to live. I argued as politely as I could that one needs an aristocrat’s income to follow an aristocrat’s mode of life and that, insofar as I could see, the Roman plebians need no instruction whatsoever in the art of congenial existence.

I decided that my argument was well supported the following evening. After a Sunday trip in Bavagnoli’s car to some battlefields I knew around Cassino we returned to dine in the Trastevere, a word which means “the other side.” The Trastevere is on the unfashionable west bank of the River Tiber. Here all the small craftsmen, cab drivers and laborers of Rome live in passionate tribal community.

They too claim decent from the ancient Romans, rarely marry outside their own kind, and so perpetuate those fair, chunky, proud characteristics that differ so markedly from the olive skinned, dark eyed and often servile appearance of the partly Moorish southerners.

Mind you, they can be just as excitable as the Latin types. When aroused they become convulsed with one of five degrees of gesticulation: pianissimo, andante, robusto, fortissimo and furioso, turning from relative calm to controlled hysteria like scales on a piano.

Nobody has defined the emotional gesticulations of the Trastevere better than the English travel writer H. V. Morton. He says they include “crouching; placing the fingers against the forehead and suddenly extending them; hitting the breast and flinging the arms wide; turning swiftly away as if parting forever, but whipping around suddenly with a pointing finger; bunching the fingers in front of the mouth; and the very insulting one of shrinking the neck into the shoulders, and shrugging with extended arms, slowly and despairingly as if one were addressing a hopeless and incomprehensible moron.”

Keeping both hands in my pockets lest an involuntary gesture might lead to some unwanted grappling with blades, I walked

with Bavagnoli through the narrow crowded, ill-lit streets, beneath lines of washing and balconies full of staring bambini, past the hellcat girls and the squat men who spat contemptuously at my clothing, and so came to another of my favorite restaurants, Qui Sta Cencío.

This is one of a dozen unadorned eating houses serving simple but delicious dishes in little holes in the thick walls of the four-hundred-year-old masonry that lines the narrow Via Viccolo de Cedro.

Cencio, the rugged padrone, now helped by two lusty young brothers, serves pasta, meat, poultry, fruits and wine between rousing songs sung to the accompaniment of a guitarist and accordionist. His customers come from all over Rome. On our night there a beautiful blonde Italian princess was dining in one corner with an escort and with a group of roughly dressed working men, in another sat a saintly looking young priest.

Cencio’s songs have nothing in common with those plaintive Neopolitan ballads that, tinged as they are with Arabian influence, often degenerate into a kind of caterwauling. Cencio’s are robust songs, sung to a lively marching rhythm, and every verse ends in an ironic or satirical crack about the politicians of the day, or in a very earthy joke about mankind’s frailties.

The star of the evening is the cook, Renata, a plump lioness who emerges from the kitchen around midnight to ridicule those who have dared to venture in from outside the Trastevere with songs she makes up as she goes along.

To the uproarious amusement of the other patrons she sang at me for at least five minutes, accusing me of bearing unspeakable weaknesses but with such a roguish light in her big blue eyes, and with such a gentle “it’s-all-in-fun” sort of touch on my head, that I was madly jealous when she waddled off to another victim.

When Bavagnoli and I left Cencio’s around two of a Monday morning, I had only four hours in Rome ahead of me and was much in need of sleep. But I forced myself to walk to the Trevi Fountain and, like any other rubberneck, cast into its sparkling waters the coin that, according to legend, would ensure my return. It had better do. I had had such a good time on about two hundred dollars that I chucked in a five-hundred-lire coin. ★