Roman Ruins: Update on a Once Great Beauty

Paula Spurlin Paige
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On a recent sunny September afternoon, I stood on one of the hills of Rome with a group of Italians, looking across the brown Tiber (below) to the old orange buildings of Trastevere. A bright green bird, maybe some sort of parrot, swooped over the river toward a row of darker green umbrella pines. Modern Rome has few birds, except for sparrows and pigeons, and precious little quiet, so we stood for a while and drank it in.

This was not, however, one of the seven ancient hills of legend, like the Palatino and the Aventino, although it is very old. It is Monte Testaccio, also known as il monte dei cocci, or “the hill of shards,” made up of broken pieces of pottery dating from Roman times (below, right). Rome was so large in the first centuries A.D. (its population was nearly a million) that it had to import some of its food from other countries, particularly Spain. Giant terracotta jars were used to bring in wine, olive oil and grain by boat. When the jars were emptied, they were broken into pieces and dumped on the Testaccio site, then uninhabited.  Eventually, it grew into what some call “the eighth hill of Rome.” The residents of Trastevere used to go up there to picnic after the harvest. A host would furnish the bread, tables, cloths and cutlery, which led to the practice of charging a separate fee for pane e coperto (bread and cover) in Italian restaurants today.

Monte Testaccio is not usually open to the public, unless one is part of a tour. However, it is worth seeking out for a respite from the crowds and chaos that reign in Rome’s historic center today, especially during the long tourist season.

Outwardly, Rome seems to be falling apart at the seams, but the body underneath is still beautiful. One wonders if there are any zoning regulations at all in its center—witness the piazza in front of the Pantheon. In the Sixties there was one café there, where I used to see Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sitting having their morning coffee. Now, the Piazza della Rotonda (below left), as it’s called, is lined with pizzerie and cafés, where enterprising young men wait to lure tourists inside. I can’t imagine what the great sixteenth-century poet Ludovico Ariosto, once a guest at the ancient Albergo del sole—still on the piazza—would say if he looked out his window now.

The beautiful Piazza Navona is a rapidly becoming a lost cause, with its numerous restaurants, cafés and illegal merchants who set up shop every day in its midst. The latter sell touristy trinkets like an improbable globe containing snow falling over St. Peter’s Basilica. The Piazza di Spagna’s beautiful Bernini fountain, known as la barchetta (the little boat), was badly damaged this winter by drunken Dutch soccer fans. Yes, the police arrived, but they were too late to prevent the trashing of the piazza– despite the fact that these young men had wreaked havoc in Campo de’ Fiori the day before.

The small Piazza Sant’Ignazio is a baroque jewel that has so far escaped these rampages. Perhaps this is because one of the ochre palazzi that line the piazza now houses a police headquarters. It is also a bit off the beaten track, so the hordes of young people who party along the Corso Vittorio and adjacent neighborhoods at night don’t venture here.This smashed-bottle, urine-soaked happening is known by the Spanish term la mo vida, “the scene.“ The nighttime commotion in downtown Rome over the past years has resulted in an exodus to residential neighborhoods, such as Monteverde up on the Gianicolo.

Right: A view of Rome from Monteverde.

My friend Alessandra was one of those who gave up the picturesque for peace and quiet. She sold her lovely old apartment in the Via de’ Cimatori, complete with Roman column in the living room, and moved up to Monteverde. Life is more livable there. Unlike downtown Rome, garbage and recycling dumpsters divided into various categories line the streets, and the refuse is collected regularly at night by a very noisy garbage truck. The neighborhood has pleasant cafes, where residents sit out on summer evenings drinking a new cocktail called a “spritz,” a mixture of Campari, Prosecco and orange juice. A certain café catering to students at a nearby American university advertises panini containing prosciutto, cheese and pesto sauce, a combination that Italians seem to find disgusting. Of course, there are disadvantages, such as transportation. Busses do go down the hill to the center of Rome, but they are few and far between, so that if you’re in a hurry you have to take a taxi or walk.

Up here there are beautiful parks and villas, but even they are crumbling for lack of maintenance. This area used to be country, where the noble families of Rome built summer villas in order to escape not only the heat of the crowded city but also malaria, a threat into the early twentieth century. The Villa Sciarra is near my friend’s condo building, its park a wonderful, cool refuge with meandering paths. However, this summer a notice posted on the gate stated that the park was not being maintained because of an unresolved contract dispute between the mayor and the gardeners. There is a gatekeeper, but he doesn’t seem to do much of anything to keep the place tidy. My friend kept stopping to pull weeds.  What used to be the Peacock House has become a dog latrine. A German institute now occupies the villa itself, and Alessandra remarked that they must be eager to clean up the area around them.  But that, of course, would be illegal, taking jobs away from the hard working natives…

Left: 19th c. image of a “proper funeral for a Roman emperor.”

The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, fled to the Caribbean and the United States for two weeks, leaving his duties to assorted lackeys.  During his absence, the city fumed with outrage over the lavish funeral of a Mafia boss, Vittorio Casamonica.  Signor Casamonica, hailed as “The King of Rome,” was accompanied to his final resting place by a police escort and helicopters dropping rose petals. Mayor Marino, a surgeon who didn’t know what he was getting into, has since resigned, his departure compelled by bitter complaints about the Mafia, littered streets, and a decline in all public services.

Among those services was garbage disposal. Unfortunately for Dr. Marino, Monte Testaccio was no longer available.

By Paula Spurlin Paige, Contributing Writer © 2015

Paula Spurlin Paige was adjunct professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan University for thirty years.  She has won multiple awards for her writing, including the 2010 Our Stories Gordon Award, was shortlisted for Glimmer Train’s February 2014 Short Story Award for New Writers, and was First Runner-up in Red Hen Press’s 2015 Short Story Award.  In 1991, she was Writer in Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. She travels extensively, especially to Rome or Paris, to maintain fluency in French and Italian.         

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