The monochrome palette of Roman row houses cuts across the winding Tiber River like a batch of swords ferociously tossed into the midst of the battle. This is not Tuscany. The Roman houses are solid, heavy, tall, and thick. It is only in Rome that one is finally able to comprehend the origins of Italian fascism. In Milan and Florence, it was unfathomable. But the raw ambition and severity of the Roman buildings shamelessly bares their formidable past. There is something horrifying in realizing just how much blood sifted through the streets of this once imperial city; how much human misery was silently witnessed by the cold, towering walls of its row houses.
There is one thing that Rome shares with Florence and Milan: the same street booths with mini figurines that can be found everywhere else in Italy, with mini Davids, mini Duomos, mini cathedrals, mini Vaticans, and mini Coliseums, smugly tempting with the vision of one’s very own portable mini Las Vegas. Shipped from the same factory somewhere near Beijing or Shanghai, the mini figurines look like an efficient and feisty army of potato bugs, set on invading every city, every street corner, every souvenir stand, cheerfully peddled by both locals and migrants, who no longer even bother peeling off their small gold “made-in-China” labels.
The beautiful panoramic boulevard along the banks of the Tiber River, which in any other capital of the developed nation would be bursting with strollers, bikes, and infatuated couples, in Rome is empty. Discarded drug needles, cigarette butts, condoms, trash, dog poop, last fall’s leaves left to rot blanket the decrepit sidewalks, so cracked by the bulging roots of ancient oak trees that walking through them feels like hurdling. Why Romans don’t rebel, threading their way patiently on tiny scooters, in high heels, and with numb children trapped in their relentlessly shaking strollers, through the deathtraps of missing cobblestones, movable street tiles, and sinking sewage covers, is anyone’s guess.
Suddenly, I realize that just as the U.S. is imprisoned by the compulsive transiency of its presence and the quixotic tyranny of its future, Italy has became captive to its past. Here, nothing can be demolished and replaced. There is no possibility here for urban renewal or gentrification. Not a single crane rises above the city skyline. Granted, if someone were even willing to spend the necessary billions on a new construction project, most likely, with the first dig, he’d be checkmated by some kind of ruins that would have to be protected, preserved, and shown to tourists, with a shop stand selling the miniature copies of the ruins to accompany it.
St. Peter’s Basilica took one hundred and twenty years to build. Every marble pillar, every carefully chiseled ornament and figure, every painting and fresco is a tribute to that one hundred and twenty years of excruciating effort. But the Basilica’s breathtaking, transcendental splendor was not meant to be a short-term investment. With 15-euro entry fee, the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s amor aeternus, a gift that keeps on giving. Rome’s monuments are its lifeblood and its curse, the cancer that stifles the city and any promise of its triumphant future. Romans tolerate their tourists with almost fatalistic resignation. The tourists are there to spend their money, but the city feels suffocating, taken hostage by the tourists that swarm its every coffee shop and gellateria, bringing easy business and nipping in the bud any will to move forward. They keep coming and coming, demanding to be housed, fed, and souvenired. How much past does a nation need? How much past can it handle? How much past can it sell? How many generations can live off what their ancestors build? Like a cursed treasure, the Italians have been handed the glory of their past, which deprived them of the will and ambition to imagine the glory of the future. After all, China-made mini figurines cannot compete in a global economy of international banking, stocks, steel, and microchips. Not even the fine handcrafted Italian leather, the luxury lines of Italian designers, the fragrant olive oil or Tuscany wine can. What, then, is a tourist to do to save this world that doesn’t know it has been long gone with the Mediterranean breeze? Buy a pair of fine leather gloves and just one more, one more bottle of Chianti . . . ? And perhaps, in exchange, let it make you forget, if only for a while, the vague, precarious promises of the future . . .