I am sitting in an apartment in Venice with a glorious view which encompasses the towers of San Stefano (looking worrisomely more lop-sided then usual), San Marco, San Francesco della Vigna, and even, in the most extreme distance, the three icing-sugar pinnacles of the façade of Madonna del’ Orto, and I have a glass of wine at hand. The downsides are that it is cold, windy and rainy, and I have a wracking cough which I am inclined to blame on the person two seats behind me on the Stansted–Fiumicino flight five days ago, who liberally sprayed his germs into the re-circulating air with a remarkably wide repertoire of sneezing, nose-blowing and (by the sound of it) spitting.
I am therefore not in the best of moods (despite the wine and the view) to reflect on our three-day experience of Rome. This was my first-ever visit, despite a period in my distant past when I claimed to be a classicist: my excuse is that I always found Greece and the Greeks rather more interesting and endearing than Rome and the Romans.
I don’t know whether I would be appalled if I were to revisit Athens now, for the first time in almost thirty years, but I was fairly appalled by Rome. The filth everywhere – cigarette butts in every crevice in the pavements and cobbled streets; disintegrating plastic bags in the trees and the telegraph wires; discarded paper, packaging, broken bottles, rags everywhere underfoot. The graffiti like uglifying tidemarks on all the buildings. And the impossibility of looking up or around you, because the said pavements and streets are so badly maintained that you need to keep a constant eye on your feet or risk a twisted ankle or worse. And then the endless cars and motociclette, all moving at terrifying speeds (especially in the so-called pedestrian areas) or parked (some of them, judging from the depth of dirt of the windscreen, for many years) on all the roads and most of the pavements.
On the plus side, there were the Palatine Hill and Farnese Gardens, where mooching about among the ruins and wildflowers was a wonderful distraction from the wider world, and where a lot of thought and effort had gone in to interpreting the complex and multi-layered side for the visitor. Ditto the Coliseum – though I have to say it’s the first time I’ve visited anywhere where you need to queue for an hour to make sure that you are in the right queue at the right time to make used of your pre-bought timed ticket.
It was lovely to see in real life (as it were) the sites familiar from endless illustration and reproduction, such as Trajan’s Column and the three surviving pillars from the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum, to say nothing of the (very duck-weedy) Spring of Juturna where the demi-gods watered their horses after the battle of Lake Regillus. And great fun was had as Him Indoors performed one of his party pieces, a recitation of Macaulay’s Horatius, at (approximately) the site of the Sublician Bridge.
We spent a wonderful morning in the Galleria Borghese, where Bernini’s ‘Pluto and Proserpina’ and ‘Apollo and Daphne’, both of which I had known since I was given a book on Greek mythology for my ninth birthday, are present in the marbly flesh. I was also amused to see Canova’s reclining statue of Paolina Borghese (née Pauline Buonaparte), where the wrinkles on the plump cushions supporting her seem to have been executed with much more care and attention than the bland and vacuous face.
The best thing, IMHO, in the gallery is Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’, which one could stare at for hours, and which after five hundred years nobody has successfully interpreted.
The winged baby in the centre, stirring the waters inside a Roman sarcophagus (and who is a rather beautiful Bambino, which makes a nice change) is presumably Cupid. But is the undressed lady on the right Venus, offering pre-marital advice to the chastely dressed widow Laura Bagarotto, who married Niccolò Aurelio, who commissioned the work from Titian around 1514?
Or, alternatively, is the chastely dressed lady Profane Love and the almost-nude one Sacred (as in idealised, pure, not fleshly at all)? Or vice versa? Why is Venus/Sacred Love holding a lamp in daylight? What is the significance of the red and white sleeves (the red matching the colour of the cloak), the two bowls? What is Cupid doing, exactly? Are the scenes on the side of the sarcophagus important? Is the landscape real or ideal? Are the two female figures in fact the same model? And what about the rabbits?
The title itself was attached to the picture in an inventory as late as 1693, over eighty years after it had been bought by Scipione Borghese, the ‘Cardinal Nephew’ of Pope Paul V, a stunningly acquisitive cove whose usual tactic was to imprison people when they refused to sell or give their art to him (this is at least according to an account given by our guide as we stood in Scipione’s gardens and looked at his aviary).
The gallery also has (among a great deal else) a version of the Raphael portrait of the elderly and somewhat defeated-looking Julius II (had he just heard from Erasmus that he was going to be excluded from Heaven?), and some Caravaggios: Scipione was an early patron. I can do without the simpering boys, but his St Jerome is stunning.
After a light lunch, we crossed the Tiber and headed for St Peter’s (which has the name of Pope Paul V Borghese, who completed it, plastered across the front).
This was, I have to say, the most underwhelming experience of my life. The usual faff about where to stand with the timed tickets (and it didn’t help that by this time it was raining), but what a horrible place! Where is the beauty, the joy, the mercy, the exaltation, the peace? Outsized, stern, anguished apostles and martyrs leaning over from their niches, heavy gilded vaulted ceilings, Bernini’s ludicrously ugly baldacchino, much worse in real life than in pictures. It’s all about power and harsh authority, the deliberate attempt to impress, oppress, overwhelm, depress.
The only things which caused my spirits to lift slightly were the rather comical little stone doves on the pillars, and the point in the crypt where, among the buried popes in their ostentatious stone finery, you can see the original ground level of Constantine’s church and two broken columns from its structure.
We went back out into the rain, somewhat subdued, and recrossed the river to go and see the Pantheon. I’m afraid that although this had been quite high on my to-do list, we chickened out, opting instead to sit in shelter on Piazza della Rotonda, drinking prosecco and eating bruschetta as an endless circle of dripping visitors passed in front of us in the queue to go in.
Shortly before 6 p.m. two officials emerged to tell the people at a certain point in the queue that they had no chance of making it inside – the turned-away were remarkably acquiescent, or possibly still numb from having previously been inside St Peter’s.
So, we’ve barely seen anything. Will we go back? I’d certainly go back to our lovely hotel, which has a roof-garden bar with better and better-kept plants in it than the unkempt Farnese, Aldobrandini and Borghese gardens: these, paradoxically, were totally devoid of insect life, in spite of the bee-friendly weeds they mostly produced.
And in two days of sunshine I saw precisely four butterflies. Perhaps the particulates from the traffic, which you could sometimes taste, make life difficult for them? But then there are all the other galleries, museums and churches, and the botanical garden, and the Appian Way … not returning doesn’t seem to be a serious option.