I said last week that being in a city is being “among the dreams and intentions and designs of Man.” But when I was recently in Rome, I had two distinct responses to it: one was a dire confusion about the personality of the city and the other was absolute confirmation of what I sense as Italian culture. Rome is Rome, but its prolonged and shifting history made it challenging to understand, while its readiness to share and enjoy its riches seduced me entirely.
We had visited Florence a few days earlier, and that city—even though it pre-dates the Renaissance by about 400 years—has a purely Renaissance personality. The preeminence and power of the Medici family flowered in Florence in the 1400s and introduced the Italian Renaissance; to this day, the city exudes all things Renaissance: the Uffizi collection is all about the Renaissance: Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci; Michelangelo’s David and his unfinished Slaves at the Accademia breathe the Renaissance; the squares throughout the town may house modern life, but it’s life in the remnants of the Renaissance.
Rome did not offer such a concise experience: the Coliseum and the Pantheon date to the beginning of the Christian Era; the Vatican and all Vatican City date to the 1600s; the Spanish Steps and much of the city’s baroque flavor date to the 1700s; and Mussolini’s modern influence dates to the early Twentieth Century. Too much of Rome presents itself out of context as a confusion of times and flavors and designs—I should have done more homework to learn the history and focus a context ahead of time…the Coliseum is fascinating, the Pantheon is beautiful, St. Peter’s Basilica is overwhelming, but I had no context that told me a story of Rome and the people who created it.
Conversely, the small details of the city—the people and their enjoyment of the riches of everyday life—could not have been richer or more defining. We met a 96-year-old woman who ran a small novelties shop on Via Frattina; she readily shared with us details of her long life, how she had survived the War, and her plans to close the shop for good very soon. When my wife complimented her English, she pointed at my daughter and said to my wife, “She has time to learn Italian. But you, not so much.” Conversation first, business later. We had engaged a tour guide for the day who insisted that we enjoy a coffee at the bustling Casa del Caffé Tazza D’oro around the corner from the Pantheon: coffee first, architecture later. She later had us cool off in an ice cream shop at the gates to Vatican City with bowls of ice cream: ice cream first, statues later.
But for me, the most defining event was our dinner on the first night in Rome, on the Via della Vite at a restaurant called, Life. The place and food and service could not have been better: tucked onto a cobblestone street in Rome; with no time limit—a delightful aspect of dining in Italy is that they expect you to use the table all night; thousands of Italians and tourists strolling past; being charmed and spoiled by an overly attentive young Roman server; with the coolness of a spring evening descending on us as we ate…it was perfect. Of course the Italians do nothing so well as they do bread, which came to us by the basketful. I started with a carpaccio of beef dressed with black truffles and olives and olive oil…wonderfully sweet, truffley, and salty/olivey yet subtle. I next had ricotta ravioli in a truffle cream to which I added fresh basil leaves that I stole from my son’s plate. I overwashed it all with a very affordable 2008 Barolo. For dessert, I simply had strawberries, but I asked that they add a dollop of a Chantilly cream from a different dessert recipe that I had noticed on the menu—the server congratulated me that the dessert chef was more open-minded to changes like this than was the head chef. Then I finished the meal with a Grappa.
If the design of Rome had been confused for me by the ages, the details of life’s riches were everywhere offered, shared, and enjoyed…a story of Rome and its people that is easily understood.