The Eternal City is home to many eternal things—or, rather, their representatives, among them St. Peter’s, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Capitoline Hill, and the Forum. Nevertheless, on recent travels to Rome, my wife’s and my first visit has been to none of these things, but, instead, to our good friends Asha and Bellamy, who reside on the north side of the Villa Borghese gardens two streets over from Il Ristorante The Meeting—an establishment which, though heavily patronized by Americans and Britons on account of its proximity to the U.S. Embassy on Via Veneto, offers a superb Italian menu and wine list. Our friends are hardly Roman notables or intellectuals, and this estimable restaurant in an upper-middle-class residential neighborhood is not listed in any guidebook I know of. Rather, they belong to the quotidian society of the great city they inhabit, away from the worn track beaten by the paparazzi and the guidebooks, in which the foreign and the familiar merge invitingly. In such company, we experience Rome as living Romans experience it—as a vital modern metropolis, not a dead historical one. The Eternal City can wait 24 hours. Our first day in Rome, we are more than content with the contemporary one.
My fundamental inability to regard a foreign capital as either a gigantic museum or a superuniversity is related no doubt to my having grown up in a great American city, New York. Residing in Manhattan, my family, and our friends and acquaintances, were scarcely in awe of the place in its aspect as a cornucopia of learning and culture. My sister, brother, and I received our educations from the Spence, Buckley, and Trinity Schools, not from the School of New York, the metropolis itself. While retaining the impression of having grown up at the Metropolitan Opera to which my parents had subscription tickets, I have probably visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art no more than a dozen times in my life, and the Museum of Modern Art perhaps once (and that once was more than enough). I was up in the Statue of Liberty on one occasion; the Empire State Building, once also. Fortunately, New York is not rich in historic buildings, or, indeed, in any architecture worthy of the name, so there were no great cultural opportunities missed in that respect. Most Saturdays when we remained in town over the weekend, my father and I taxied to the North River Piers and went through one of the berthed North Atlantic liners for several hours before sailing time. Afterward, we watched from pier’s end as she was nudged into the river and headed downstream by tugs. (Thanks to my father’s passion for ships and the sea, I have been aboard all the great liners of the middle part of the 20th century, including the old Europa—a German ship confiscated by the French after the war and rechristened Liberté—the first Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, Mauretania, America, Andrea Doria, Cristoforo Colombo, Ile de France, United States, and France. And most of them were architecture, incidentally.)
My experience of London was quite different, the year I spent in England with my family when in my middle teens. My father, an Anglophile who was doing research at the British Museum at the time and for many years taught a two-semester graduate-level course on the history of the British Empire at Columbia, ruthlessly dragged my sister and me (and my mother and infant brother) around the city and its environs each weekend on what he, mischievously, called “culture tours.” We greatly resented these “CTs” (or thought we did, or maybe just pretended to) but we saw a prodigious number of marvelous things in a year and learned a great deal as well—mostly from my father but also, of course, from the various professional tour guides who took us about the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court Palace, Chiswick House, the Tate Gallery, and the rest.
Unfortunately, Trinity did not offer a course in British history until the following year, so that much of what my father taught fell into no comprehensive context and was, therefore, to some extent wasted; had we visited England two years later, all of what I saw and learned would have had far more meaning for me. As it was, my memories of London (and of Cornwall, where we rented an 11th-century farmhouse near the hamlet of Marhamchurch for two weeks in April and, later, the month of August) remain, more than four decades afterward, intense and indelible. And yet the basis of memory is less—far less—of the monuments, the cathedrals, the paintings, the formal 18th-century gardens than of the homely reality of English town and country life. My sister and I went every day to school in London (she, to St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith; I, to a tutorial establishment based in Knightsbridge, since Trinity perversely refused credit for a year at the Haberdasher School where I had been admitted), and otherwise made ourselves as free of the place as we had of New York. London, to us, was not a monument to the past but a living city—the more so since my grandfather Philpotts, a native-born Londoner, was still around in those days. I think I should have been thrilled far more to see Evelyn Waugh (who died only four years later) emerge unsteadily from White’s than by a view of the Tower room in which St. Thomas More was imprisoned.
Still, background aside, it seems to me that my approach to foreign travel would be fundamentally different were I less of a novelist and narrative writer and more of a scholar and critic. My immediate interest, as I have said, in traveling abroad is to observe how foreign peoples live today and to share their experience insofar as I am capable of doing (which, of course, is ridiculously little). The history—political, social, religious, and cultural—behind that experience is not so much secondary in value as it is in the temporal sense: I am too impatient to hold back from seizing immediately on what is directly apprehensible, while understanding that the past usually means more to me when fixed in the context of the known and felt present; and so I prefer to investigate the present first, and move on to the past after that.
My chief preparation before going abroad is always to learn as much of the language of the place I am traveling to as I can, language being for me, a man of words, at once my natural milieu and my sole defense. Not having language as a traveler for me is at once an inordinate inconvenience, a humiliation, and a scandal. In France and Italy, whose languages I have studied, I would rather keep my mouth shut than attempt, in extremis, to communicate in English—since, speaking English, I might as well never have left home. Once on foreign soil, my immediate, overwhelming, and lasting impulse is to set out on foot and almost in random direction, carrying with me a guidebook, it is true, but mainly as an orienteering reference and for its maps. Museums are wonderful places—and so are the streets, the mean and commonplace just as much as the elegant and historic. To walk all day across Rome, poking into this and that, stopping in at a wine bar to sit with La Reppublica over espresso and a cornetto or a glass of wine, consuming a three-course Roman lunch lasting two hours and chatting afterward with the waiter, dropping into a neighborhood church to hear part of a Mass being said, taking a walk in the park or the Bioparco and warming up afterward with a martini at Harry’s Bar at the top of the Veneto across from the Porta Piciana before going on to a performance at the Rome Opera—finally, at the end of the day, to catch a cab or ride a crowded bus back to the hotel through medieval byways, past the lighted windows of elegant shops where, earlier in the day, one bought an elegant silk necktie, a pair of fine leather gloves, or a well-printed and strongly bound messale—these things, for me, come even before investigation of the magnificent buildings, museums, and galleries. Living in Rome for a week or two, I live much as I lived in New York for 30 years, although on an unimaginably grander scale.
In New York, too, I was a walker, mainly on the weekends and especially in late fall (mid-October to the beginning of December) which is always the best time of year in the city. Often on a Saturday, I would walk from my apartment on East 93rd Street down Madison Avenue as far as Greenwich Village and back again up Fifth Avenue, looking into shop windows and ducking inside secondhand bookstores and tobacconist shops, eating lunch in some cheap but excellent neighborhood restaurant, admiring the beautiful, well-dressed women who were still to be seen around town in the 70’s. The canyoned streets of New York are justly famous, yet nothing can make up, in my mind, for the city’s lack of a natural eminence from which the entirety of the metropolis can be taken in at a glance. New York has the Empire State Building as Paris has the Eiffel Tower and London, the Tower and the column on Fish Street commemorating the Great Fire. But these are artificial vantages, with no mediating ground between the foot and the spire. Paris has also, of course, the hill of Montmartre, affording a splendid view of the city below to which the eye descends by degrees. But not even Montmartre compares with Rome’s Gianicolo, the long, partly wooded ridge extending south of Vatican City to Trastevere from which Garibaldi defied the French troops in 1848. The Gianicolo is dominated by the impressive Garibaldi monument and the Villa Farnesina, which I have not visited but expect to look into some day. A crest of umbrellaed Roman pines surmounts the ridge, decorated on its eastern slopes by a number of elegant villas, some of them surrounded by vegetable gardens and even a modest vineyard or two. For years, I had wanted to climb the Gianicolo and take in the city from the summit. On a recent trip, when we lodged in a convent at the foot of the hill, I decided to make the ascent without further procrastination.
In fact, I climbed up three times over a period of twelve days, the view on the first morning having been obscured by clouds and rain squalls. In the end, I beheld the Eternal City from the heights at three different times of day and in three wholly different kinds of weather. Most enchanting by far was the third and last time, toward sunset on a short January day, with the sun low at my back behind the great pines and the snowfields glinting on the blue indistinct Apeninne Mountains 70 kilometers (or so I judged the distance) to the east. The spoking, obtuse rays illumined the city in a golden glow and picked out its every salient feature—San Giovanni in Laterno, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo (the dome of San Pietro was out of sight around the wooded shoulder of the Gianicolo), and, behind the Villa Medici, the emerald expanse and dark green canopy of the Villa Borghese stretching to the northeast suburbs. (I thought of the lovers at the conclusion of Gianni Schicchi, regarding Florence from a balcony: “Fiorenze è bella . . . ” At that moment, I felt that I possessed Rome.) We had our farewells yet to make to Bellamy and Asha before the impending departure two days later.
The gardens of the Villa Borghese lay shrouded in a misty rain next morning, silent and peaceful as an English estate park, as my wife and I passed through the ivied Porta Piciana from the bus stop at the head of the Veneto. It is a 10- or 15-minute walk along the broad gravel path of the Viale S. Paolo de Brasile to the aviary, and on to the Bioparco. On account of the rain, there was no one ahead of us at the ticket window that stands to the left of the tall, stone-columned iron gates surmounted by a pair of statuary lions. At the gate, we surrendered our tickets to a pleasant young woman to whom we were by now familiar and went round past the elephant exhibit to an enclosed yard surrounded by a wall whose three wide observation windows gave upon the lush Indian rainforest beyond.
Bellamy reclined close by the lowest window with his left paw and chin resting meditatively on a short log. Behind him at a distance, Asha had just emerged from a dense grove of tropical foliage at the back of the extensive yard. On seeing us, the black brush at the end of her tail waved gracefully, and she started forward on her great, silent, well-sprung, deliberate paws, but Bellamy continued to doze with his amber eyes closed, insensible as yet of our presence, his mane beaded with droplets of moisture.
Asha and Bellamy, our great friends, are a gift from the government of India to the Italian government. As only 300 Asian lions remain in the wild on the Island of Gir, and these few are greatly endangered, they are fortunate to have had the good luck to end up in Italy, where they are making great progress with the language. The four of us—Bellamy, Asha, my wife, and I—chatted for a time in broken Italian before falling silent ahead of the arrival of a pair of keepers. The keepers confirmed for us that, indeed, there are as yet no cuccioli leoncini, but that the zoo is hoping for a blessed event some time in the next year or so. Perhaps, on our next visit to Rome, we shall find confirmation of the divine primeval truth that one and one indeed make three, or even four or five.
Chilton Williamson, Jr., is Chronicles’ senior editor for books and the editor of Immigration and the American Future.
This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.