A single coin thrown into the Trevi Fountain, with your right hand, over your left shoulder, is said to ensure a return to Rome. The tradition might have originated in ancient Rome, when an another, older fountainhead existed here, at the meeting of three roads (tre vie) and end of an aqueduct, which served Romans for more than 400 years. The water, if drunk before a journey, was thought to impart good fortune and promise a speedy return.
More modern superstitions suggest that throwing two coins ensures a marriage, three coins a divorce. And the faithful throw about €3000 into the pool below Neptune’s sculpted feet every day. It piles up steadily in the shallow water and is collected at night, funding a supermarket for hard up Romans.
Claire and I did our duty as tourists in Rome. We joined a jostling crowd, picked through our wallets for the smallest change, turned our backs on the fountain, and threw, hoping we hadn’t hit anyone in the ranks ahead of us. An African choir group nearby were also finding and throwing their change, but stood out: as much for their black skins and identical clothing, made from the same brightly coloured, motif bearing cloth, as their spool fed, film cameras.
We gradually worked our way to the front, joining a line of people already dangling feet in the rippling blue water, and sat there shoeless for a while, watching crowds as they came, saw and threw, echoing Caesar. Rain clouds had hung over us persistently in Florence, but Rome was balmy and bright. I slipped slowly into reverie and only realised why feet further along the line had been hastily removed, and not replaced, when two carabinieri – Italy’s amalgam of army and police – approached Claire.
“Madam, your passport please.” The carabiniere, wearing a white leather sash and tight trousers, a wide red strip attached on both sides, looked at Claire with distaste. “And your feet, remove your feet from the water.”
Claire turned, irritated, as much by the man’s attitude as the interruption. “Why?” Her tone was surly. I feared the worst and moved quickly to retrieve our shoes.
“Madam, for this there is a €2000 fine.” The amount seemed peculiarly reasonable, thousands were, after all, clinking on the fountain’s bottom. We might really be criminals, intent on stealing from Rome’s needy with our toes.
Claire had thankfully removed her offending limbs by now, and was rummaging in our bag for her passport. “There’s no sign anywhere. None! How was I supposed to know? Everybody else had their feet in the water.”
“€2000 madam,” he said, glancing at Claire above the pages of her passport. “It’s the law.” He cocked his head to a lapel microphone, radioed in her passport number and waited. A woman’s voice crackled over his radio speaker, establishing I presume (she spoke in Italian) that Miss Claire Frances van den Heever had no prior convictions, that no warrants had been recently issued for her arrest and that she had no known affiliations with any terrorist organisations. “Don’t put parts of your body in the water again,” he said, handing back her passport. He and his partner turned and left through the quickly parting crowd.
“I can’t believe it! They didn’t ask anybody else. Nobody! And his stinking attitude! I can-not believe it.” Claire was irate. “€2000! Bullshit!! If this stupid country wants to fine people for such stupid things they should put up some bloody signs!!!” The moments of reverie had clearly passed. We removed ourselves from the tangle of people and chose one of the three roads leading away from the Trevi Fountain, south west towards the Pantheon, and McDonalds.
The Pantheon, oddly, is remembered only after the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica and the Trevi Fountain as a symbol of Rome. It’s masonry dome is the largest in the world and the exact composition of the concrete used to build it remains unknown; modern concrete would collapse under it’s own weight, but the Pantheon has stood for close on two millennia.
A perfectly round beam of natural light enters the building through the oculus – an enormous circular hole at the dome’s peak – as does rain water, which drains away through small, hardly noticeable holes in the floor.
It was built as a home for all the gods, but has served only one since 609 CE, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated it the Church of Mary and the Martyr Saints. Its adoption by the Catholic Church guaranteed its maintenance (although Byzantine Emperor Constans II and, later, Pope Urban VIII stripped much of the interior’s gold, copper and marble) and the building is today ancient Rome’s best preserved monument.
In front of the Pantheon is a small fountain, an Egyptian obelisk – one of eight in Rome – jutting from its middle. Behind the fountain, amongst other restaurants, is a subtly integrated McDonalds. McDonalds meal deals had spared us the monotony of yet another bland and overpriced Italian pizza slice once before. Returning from the Joshua Tree in Florence, we stopped, ravenous, to consume four €0,50 hamburgers. The much hated slices of gherkin had been discarded and each patty seemed to have been lovingly bathed in a puree of Italy’s finest tomatoes. I regarded this as the work of a chubby, food loving employee, perhaps with a tall hat and curly moustache, who had disdainfully abandoned the chain’s cardboard formula near closing time.
It was Thursday, we bought two double cheeseburgers for €2,60. The €0,50 hamburgers were sold on Tuesdays, McToasts went for €0,50 on Wednesdays. The tables squashed into a small area outside the McDonalds, looking squarely onto the Pantheon, were either occupied or in complete disarray. We took our thrifty meal away, to eat below the nearby fountain.
A short woman, squat to the point of being square, approached us. She was walking awkwardly, thighs rubbing, atop shining white, out-of-the-box trainers. “Oh hun, Oh hunny looook!” she squealed, gesticulating wildly, the fat on flabby upper arms writhing with each extension of a stumpy index finger. “It’s the… It’s the…” She stopped, turning to “hunny”. He seemed equally clueless. Grinning the grin of the spectacularly stupid, she demanded a coin. “Hunny” produced it and dutifully followed her to the fountain, camera at the ready. She gripped the money in her right hand, turned her back to the fountain, smiled for the camera, and threw. I heard a plop, watched her wipe sweat from her brow, and laughed as she waddled off into the distance.
I joined a queue snaking along the Vatican’s walls while trying desperately to adjust my shorts. Our guidebook, read through a haze of cheap Italian wine the night before, warned that dress rules at the holy city were “stringently enforced – no shorts, miniskirts, or sleeveless tops.” If my knees were covered, I reasoned – observing respectfully trousered legs behind and in front of us – the guards might consider me on the righteous side of piety’s borderline, and allow both of us in.
Half an hour later, near the front of the queue, a balding tour guide sailed towards us, followed hesitantly by a middle aged couple. “If you’ll just follow me,” he instructed, pushing through rows of patient tourists, “I have special clearance.”
The man dripped slime and mock superiority, he was lying. “Could I see that ‘special clearance’?” I asked uncertainly.
He stopped just past me and turned. “And you?” he spat, smirking. “Who are you?”
“I’m… I’m… I’m waiting in the queue,” I mumbled. “Who are you?”
But the man had walked on, still followed by his now even more hesitant cargo.
Casual guards admitted us to the Vatican Museums, and hence to Vatican City: the world’s sma llest independent nation, with the world’s highest per capita crime rate. The state’s roughly 600 citizens must share demographic responsibility for the hundreds of petty crimes perpetrated within its 440 walled square metres each year. Four million people had visited the Museums by November last year, pickpockets and purse snatchers among them. The criminals are as transitory as the tourists and only 10% are ever convicted.
The Museums display Papal wealth accumulated over the last fifteen or so centuries, including masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance art. Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli (amongst others) were hired to paint the walls, busts that have survived long dead Emperors line the corridors. Visitors are forced to move through most exhibits in one direction, with the Raphael Rooms (which include his masterpiece the School of Athens, Plato pointing up, lofty and idealistic, Aristotle pushing down, earthy and thorough) and the Sistine Chapel appearing towards the very end.
We followed the one way system, reading and absorbing what we could, crowded into the Raphael rooms, most of them small, nearly square, and sweaty, and arrived down a flight of stairs at the Sistine Chapel, where a pre-recorded voice warned us that “photography and speaking are not permitted.”
It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and six years, more than twenty years later, to paint the altar side wall. Michelangelo hesitated before accepting the Pope’s commission, because he considered himself a more complete sculptor, but then worked almost alone, dismissing assistants he deemed incapable, enduring repeated temporary blindness caused by paint dripping from the ceiling into his eyes. Goethe, Germany’s Shakespeare, said of his efforts, “without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
The three other walls were painted twenty five years earlier, in 1482, by artists who are not as well remembered. Perugino painted St Peter receiving the keys of the faith from Christ and, on the opposite wall, Botticelli painted the Punishment of Korah, a scene from the Old Testament. The frescos are considered political, a legitimisation of the Pope’s authority, and a warning.
Peter, Christ’s chosen successor, brought his new religion to Rome, where it slowly came under the authority of the Pope, also called the Bishop of Rome. A triumphal arch of Constantine’s is prominent in the fresco’s background. Constantine was Rome’s first Christian Emperor, the first to acknowledge the Pope’s religion and allow him earthly power.
The same arch appears in Botticelli’s fresco, in which Korah leads a rebellion against Moses and offers incense in defiance of Aaron’s appointed position as high priest. Aaron is portrayed wearing the triple ringed Papal tiara, linking him directly to the Pope. Korah and his followers are punished on the fresco’s left: swallowed by the earth because their authority is not, like the Pope’s, God given.
And here we stood, amongst so much art, so much history, and so many people. I couldn’t see the floor, it was obscured by a cloud of trousered legs. A security guard climbed occasionally onto a small platform near the altar, above the mass of uplifted heads and pointing fingers, to request silence. He was ignored, the rumble persisted. An occasional flash and click gave away people obsessively photographing this well documented space. And I was tired, the air was thin and we’d been wandering since early morning, rats in this crowded maze.
I’ve since studied photos of the Sistine Chapel. The floor is pastel coloured, large circles run down its centre. Inside are alternating rings of dark and light. Every cracked image is perfect, with a lustre that only time confers. I didn’t, couldn’t, notice any of this then. We gave the Sistine Chapel about twenty minutes of our divided attention, and left.
The incessant “bella, bella, bella” of Miss Italy blared through a small, smoky hall in our hostel, Bella Roma. The competition lasted a week, today it was being contested entirely in bathing suits. Parades of lithe flesh were periodically interrupted for a demonstration of each participant’s talent: twirling a single hula-hoop, playing volleyball, badly, with a bemused judge and clumsy security guards, dancing in a lycra skirt, strapped on for modesty.
“I shouldn’t be drinking this,” said Cassie, cautiously accepting a glass from Claire’s one and a half litre bottle of wine, “I have a sulphur allergy.” She was sitting at one of the hostel’s few spartan tables, her back turned pointedly towards the television. Cassie was from Canada. Sitting next to her was Jeff, from the States. Jeff had been in Rome for two years, working predominantly as a tour guide. He now lived at the hostel, helped clean up, and was paid a small salary. He refused Claire’s offer of wine.
It was Friday night and our last in Rome. Cassie muttered occasionally about going alone to a nearby jazz club, Claire and I, drinking steadily, were warming up but weren’t sure why. Jeff seemed unimpressed, happy to have a cheap and lazy night at his temporary home. We chatted for a while, probably half an hour, maybe an hour, sharing observations of Italy, confirming and contesting ideas about the other’s home – having, in short, another typical hostel conversation.
“We could go to Trastevere,” said Jeff, when the conversation slackened. It sounded spontaneous, a mere suggestion, but had probably been carefully considered. “There’s a place that sells cheap beer,” he added, looking at the almost finished bottle of wine, “you can drink it, in the piazza.”
“Okay,” I said. “Great!” Jeff knew Rome, knew which bus would take us to Trastevere and, hopefully, which bus would get us home.
Half an hour and one bus ride later, we joined a cluster of people in Piazza Santa Maria (its name taken from the 1700 year old church nearby) watching a man with fluorescent hair juggle fire. The man was dressed in black, to better reflect hot flashes of red and yellow, and was performing within a clearly demarcated rectangle, which passers by trod quite carefully around. Lazy globules of flame dripped from his whirling batons, the smell of paraffin mingled with a nearby cloud of cannabis smoke, before wafting onwards through the square, past people chatting, laughing, gasping.
Claire had found herself another bottle of wine, I had followed Jeff to the cheap beer. By the end of the performance, when a crowd reported to tip euros into the juggler’s hat, both were finished. We dispersed, stood on a footbridge, listened to a three piece band play instrumental, modern jazz, watched light reflect on the Tiber. Claire looked up at me, her expression too serious. I knew the look: twenty years of dance instruction had found, and needed, an outlet. She sauntered towards the band, kicked her foot, spun round. Her arms started to move, gentle, off balance stretches, out and up. The expression hardened, she steadied herself and jumped, legs and arms outstretched – a jete – and landed. Her sandal gave way, she fell.
Claire stood, teetered. “My shoe,” she whined. The strap had broken, it couldn’t be fixed. Now shoeless and embarrassed, she wanted to leave. The last bus had gone, I was told, and Jeff and Cassie looked comfortable behind us, chatting easily, gazing at the water. We hadn’t brought much money with us, knowing we might otherwise stray from our inflexible budget. A taxi would be expensive. Too expensive, I guessed. We could walk. We would have to walk. I knew the way.
We headed north, following the Tiber. Claire hobbled beside me, wary of broken glass. Halfway down Via della Conciliazione, built by Mussolini, she stopped. Her feet, she said, could take no more. I angrily wrenched size 15 trainers from my feet, stuffing my socks up near the toe. Claire put them on. Her drunken sway was now exaggerated: with each step, the large objects would dangle precariously from her too small feet. We passed St Peter’s, tread wearily around limbless beggars sleeping fitfully in the shadow of charity, and continued, past one metro station, two metro stations. At an all night bakery we paused, I bought delicious pastry hexagons, covered in a tomato paste, barefoot. And gratefully we arrived at what we called, acknowledging the error, home.
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