In my letter last month I tried to describe the noble seriousness of Italian life, unique in that it has given the modern world a middle class with a human face. Even on a simple physical level such as that of the naked eye or of the camera lens, one can observe this seriousness like a uniform glaze all over Rome; so uniform, in fact, that looking at a certain tangible space, say a corner of a market square or a street intersection, one cannot easily distinguish between the very old, the old, and the newer patinations.

A Russian photographer friend who lives in London came to visit for a few days. Generally I hate photography and photographers, and it is quite likely that I love Gusov all the more for being an exception to the rule: so one may delight in having a pimp, a fence, an editor of the New York Times, or a circus wrestler among the names in one’s address book, and congratulate oneself for being a well rounded, socially complete person. But Gusov isn’t like that, really. Famous in England for his portraits of actors, artists, and musicians, since the death of Princess Diana he has insisted on calling himself a paparazzo.

He also collects combat and hunting knives. During the first day of his stay he trudged dutifully along to all the right places, such as the Colosseum, where the meaning of the phrase “butchered to make a Roman holiday” is usually expected to be revealed, but I could see he was coming unstuck. On the second day he announced he had a terrible stomachache, angrily waved away a beautifully presented plate of trippa alia romana at luncheon, and come evening was frying potatoes in sunflower oil (“No dill,” he moaned, “they don’t even have dill here!”) and drinking warm vodka in the kitchen. I desperately needed to awaken him to the splendor that was Rome, and on the third day we took him to the Pantheon.

Opposite, almost directly beneath the inscription that reads like eternity’s e-mail address, M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIVM FECIT, there nestles a small shop with all sorts of junk in the window. A moment later Gusov was singing an animated duet with the proprietor in assassin Esperanto wherein the relative merits of the Spyderco and the Applegate where expounded and compared. He emerged cured, and I saw that what saved him was the proprietor’s manifest seriousness, his honest and openly held belief that his knife shop—not the rotunda opposite, not the Egyptian granite of the columns, not the giallo antico and pavonazzeto, not the tomb of Raphael—was the main attraction in the Piazza delle Rotonda. And, having emerged thus cured, my savage friend was finally able to traverse the majestic pronaos and even nose around inside Augustus’ marvel without feeling alienated. He now felt he belonged.

Mark Twain, who swore that he would never repeat the phrase about the Roman holiday in his travel notes, lived in an age when the essence of banality was didacticism. In our own age it is incongruity, and one trope the 20th-century writer might swear to avoid is the city of contrasts. Contrasts, you see? Contrasts are wonderful, from the modern platitude-monger’s point of view, because at the end of the day there is, as it were, no moral.

It is hardly a coincidence that the 20th century has raised photography to the level of art, so that the very word “contrast” now seems to belong to the darkroom. Photographers thrive on what they flatter themselves is Chekhovian ethical neutrality, and what they aim at is popularizing the incongruous at street level. Here is a small man with a big nose, they all like to say, standing next to a big woman practically without one, and behind them is a shiny Cadillac. “So what?” demands an audience of old fuddy-duddies. “So what?! Oh, philistines!” spit back the young artists. “Don’t you understand anything? This is life in the raw, this is chance, this is nature bursting out of a bookish straitjacket! There are no plots anymore, don’t you know, there is only situational chiaroscuro! Look, it’s a city of contrasts!”

But as I said, Gusov isn’t like that, perhaps because the Russians of my generation still have a sense of intellectual shame. We feel we must wash our hands after picking up somebody else’s point of view, even if this means going without dinner. Which is why, having adapted to the city as man and thug, at this moment in his Roman sojourn he came to face a new and even more terrible dilemma, how to adapt to it as man and artist.

We are back to the noble seriousness of Italian life. Rome is not a city of contrasts. Perhaps no city is, but if one’s objective is some sort of living truth, not to see contrasts here is far more vital than not seeing them in New York or Calcutta. Gusov is artist enough to have understood that; and for the second time in those three days I watched him coming unstuck, this time as a photographer. I would like to be able to report that when he first pointed his Nikon at a street corner. Baroque and mildewed and crumbling and covered with communist graffiti, to photograph a young woman, immaculately elegant, gliding past, his viewfinder melted like pagan bronze in the hands of Bernini; but this did not happen. He looked, and then he looked all around, and then he put the lens cap back on. Like him, the woman belonged.

It was a sentimental, Stalinist moment, rather like something out of a movie about the civil war when a White officer refuses to shoot a Bolshevik commissar because he too is Russian, or because he too has a soul, or because he too is part of the empire which will someday rule the world for the good of mankind. Those better acquainted with Hollywood depictions of the American Civil War, the civil rights movement, or, for all I know, the holocaust, sexual harassment, and intergalactic strife, may substitute this with their own national cinematic cliches, in glorious color or racially insensitive black-and-white. The point is, Saul became Paul.

The following day being Sunday, we went for a stroll along the Corso. The Romans, in couples or more complex family groups, promenaded, pausing to examine shop windows, and without thinking what this meant, we did as the Romans. It meant stopping to look in every shop window on a street of shops that runs from the Vittorio Emanuele monument to the Piazza del Popolo, something like a mile or more. It meant standing for two or three minutes in front of each shop, peering at a display of men’s socks that had changed all but imperceptibly since the previous Sunday, discussing, in respectful and leisurely undertone, the nature and meaning of the change. We saw every commercially available sock in Rome, and also all the ties, shirts, shoes, and ladies’ unmentionables. We were very serious, and nobody laughed and said: “Listen, what’s wrong with you fellows? Why are you staring at shops you’d never notice in London, even if they were open? And they’re all shut, you idiots, on account of Sunday!”

Because this was Rome, where we all belonged. The mercer and the cobbler and the dyer had done their best during the week, and the photographer and I and everybody else in town turned out for the performance. Tomorrow it may be the mercer’s turn to commission a photographic portrait of his children, my turn to sell an article, and everybody else’s turn to do all the other serious things that one may do in a community of people who take life seriously and think that every story worth telling must have a moral.

For obvious reasons, politics of the global kind—”democratism,” as an English journalist friend of mine calls (after Edmund Burke) the modern hybrid of totalitarianism and democracy—is just not one of those serious things. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the politically disabled Italians are such a joke among nations that have lost their sense of humor along with much of their liberty.