The Presence and the Absence of Rome

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14 August 2017
Rome Airport

My visit to Rome of October 2016, and this current one, seem to have completely reversed the negative impression I developed of the city in 1982, when I first visited it.

Looking back, I realise now that my reactions were, at least in part, an expression of that most Italian of values, campanilismo – a parochialism I had cultivated by developing a fierce attachment to Florence, where I had spent the previous ten weeks or so. All that I saw in Rome was not-Florence, and I was so filled with the negativity of this experience that I was completely oblivious to the spirit of Rome. I had, that is to say, vicariously set myself up for an experience of alienation that Florentines visiting Rome must have been having for centuries.

To me, Florence seemed intact and coherent, and I took both pride and pleasure in exploring its many marvels. Rome, by contrast, seemed a lackadaisical mess that had accumulated around a heap of old ruins. Of course, my understanding of how cities work has changed a lot in the past 35 years, and I would like to think that it is far more sophisticated than it once was. But it is not just that.

When I look at the ruins of Ancient Rome today, and the beauties of it that remain, I am filled with a deep longing for the world that produced them; and I see that the whole of Rome today longs for its past, as if caught in an orbit from which it can never break free.

Whatever the splendours of the more modern Rome – the Victor Emmanuel Monument, for instance – they can only hint at what was once there, and what can never be created again.

I am reminded of a person longing for the restoration of a physical capacity that has been irrevocably lost – the ability to sing, for instance, or the ability to run. However intensely imagined that once-present capability may be, it will always be lost, and life will always be life-without-something. The Rome of today is both a presence and an absence of Ancient Rome, tantalising like a pain that is almost pleasurable, a loss that one would not wish to live without.

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