Rome is changing. Rome has changed.
You hear those phrases around Rome all the time these days. Crime, corruption, unemployment, immigration, unreliable public transit, trash collection, the euro – Italy is in crisis and the prevailing mood among its citizens is one of resignation and exhaustion. This was most recently expressed cinematically with La Grande Belleza, which plays like a more mature sequel to La Dolce Vita. Romans are no doubt still enamoured with what Rome represents. Today, however, when Romans hold up a mirror to the city, they are more likely to see Jep Gambardella’s malaise than Marcello Rubini’s confident swagger.
As part of the renewed writing initiative of the Italy Roundtable, I wanted to write about the mood of Rome and Italy and how it has changed since I last lived here. But I realized as I waded into my commentary that I was not qualified to talk on such complex socioeconomic issues. This month’s unifying topic is “change” and, well, I changed my mind.
While I am neither an economist nor a historian, I am a travel writer who has been lucky enough both to visit Italy on numerous occasions and to live in Rome – twice, during two very different life stages. So I want to discuss some things that have changed in Rome but also how my approach to seeing Rome has changed.
I’ve seen Rome change, for the better and for the worse, in numerous ways since I first began writing about it more than 15 years ago. In those first years, it was free to wander inside the Forum and up onto the Palatine Hill. The site has charged admission since 2008. The Ara Pacis, the ancient Augustan altar to peace, was once exposed to the air and practically abandoned; I remember a friend and I walking right up and into it in 1999. Work on the swanky, controversial Richard Meier building that now surrounds the altar had yet to begin.
Rome has become even more popular and crowds seem more numerous than ever. I have been inside St. Peter’s only once since I arrived six months ago as the line to get inside, even on wintry days, extends from the entrance and curves around to at least the top of St. Peter’s Square. In some ways this is heartening, as I lamented many years ago that the security process to get inside such an important landmark was too lax. But still, I groan when I think of travelers who only have a few days in Rome wasting time standing in that line, especially when the rain is heavy or the sun is strong.
Two other sites, the Pantheon and the Bocca della Verità, are more popular with travelers today than they were 15 years ago. Going inside the Pantheon, one of the few remaining ancient sites in Rome that doesn’t charge an admission, can be stifling because of all the touristic milling about and the loud speaker repeating on loop in several different languages that visitors be quiet. Nevertheless, I still recommend a visit if you’re never been inside of it; such ancient architectural mastery, particulary a glimpse at the coffered ceiling and oculus, is astonishing up close.
I am not sure why the Mouth of Truth has surged in popularity, as it has been there, free of charge, for years. Has there been a renewed interest in the film Roman Holiday? Oh, I know what it is – camera phones and selfies. At any rate, the recent line for a photo op with the Bocca drove me inside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which I had never fully explored.
It is not lost on me that my job as a travel writer has contributed to this mess. I am sorry.
Meanwhile, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, two of Rome’s most popular attractions, are undergoing needed changes. Both are under scaffolding and are both undergoing privately-funded restorations. The Colosseum renovation has meant little to zero inconvenience for those who want to tour it. And its cleaning has also led to new discoveries at the ancient site. On the other hand, the Trevi Fountain area is going to be unappealing for the next few years, as it has been drained of its water (and grandeur) and scaffolding obscures most of it. There is a walkway that allows visitors to get near the marble statues in the fountain – who knows when you’ll get to do that again? – but there is also a designated spot to toss in your coins like a good tourist is supposed to do.
My approach to seeing Rome has also changed over the years. When I first started writing about the city, I saw it as no challenge to walk from Trastevere to the Spanish Steps, for example, or to see site after site with no time for rest or reflection. I was in my mid–20s and knew little about what it meant to travel as a parent or as a person with finite stores of energy or low thresholds for noise or crowds. Sitting in Piazza Navona recently, it occurred to me that my favorite places in Rome had changed, either because I have learned more about their history (see the Turtle Fountain) or have grown weary of the hordes.
Rome has changed. But so have I.
Luigi Barzini noted in his 1964 book The Italians: “The Italian way of life cannot be considered a success except by temporary visitors.” Rome puts on a beautiful show for its guests. And the longer one lives here, the more one learns about the façade and how it’s held up with equal parts of pride and necessity – as well as a few dashes of contempt.
One of the reasons I wanted to shift gears on the direction of this piece is because I rediscovered this Barzini quote and realized that even though as a current resident I can understand the modern challenges that Romans are facing, I still have the mindset of a temporary visitor. Having the opportunity to see Rome evolve – ever so slightly – over multiple visits and stays is a privilege I am grateful for every day. However, I often feel I need to conceal my naive optimism about the city for I know that I am experiencing a far different Rome than most Romans.
But maybe Rome thrives on the wide-eyed optimism of its tourists? I often hear complaints that Rome neglects the needs of its citizenry in favor of maintaining the parts of the city that only travelers see. Tourists are disruptive, sure, and a burden on infrastructure. But what would Rome be without its visitors? Beyond the monetary reasons and the impetus for maintaining its ancient structures, tourism helps Romans remember what is beautiful and special about their city. As a writer specializing in Rome and Italy, I want to continue to hold up that mirror and hope the city (and my readers) see what I see. It is all I can do.
So, yes. Rome is changing. Rome has changed. But it has always been in flux. Rome will weather this storm as it has countless others. Change is eternal and so is Rome.
Read More from the Italy Blogging Roundtable