Letter from Rome: The view from the Janus Hill (or, How some Romans think of Rome)

A few minutes before noon Saint Peter’s begins caroling its bells. This tintinnabulation began at the beginning of time and presumably will continue until the end of it. The Vatican’s bells are followed by 900 other lunch bells ringing from 900 lesser churches scattered among the city’s Seven Hills. As the ringing reaches noontide paroxysms, a cannon springs out of a bunker atop Rome’s highest hill and blasts a single deafening shot. It silences the bells for a second, perhaps two.

The cannon is kept on the Janiculum Hill underneath panoramic Piazzale Garibaldi. In the center of this square, an imposing equestrian monument to General Giuseppe Garibaldi reminds Italians of the glories and sacrifices of nationhood. Hero of the Roman Republic and Risorgimento, Garibaldi is the country’s George Washington. From the 1840s to 1870s he fought bloody battles on the Janiculum-and elsewhere-to unite Italy, drive out foreign occupiers and cast off the proverbial papal yoke.

Mounted atop his charger, Garibaldi’s bronze effigy seems to smile at the stroke of midday. He is not smirking at stunned tourists. Famously anticlerical, Garibaldi’s cannon blast is a daily raspberry aimed at the dome of Saint Peter’s a quarter-mile north. Or at least so it seems to me. The juxtaposition symbolizes the tragicomic struggle of Italian society to reconcile anarchic, secular, hedonistic republicanism with the timeless-some might say anachronistic-strictures of Roman Catholicism.

The view from Piazzale Garibaldi stretches from Saint Peter’s across Rome’s monument-studded center to the Alban Hills and Appenines. Wander up the looping, landscaped staircases from the Vatican, or the low-lying Trastevere quarter along the Tiber. Or do as the natives do and roar up under the towering sycamores to take the air. The Janiculum is cooler and windier than the rest of Rome. Once here, belly up to the balustrade of Garibaldi’s panoramic terrace. Itinerant rose-hawkers, most of them illegal immigrants, will thrust long-stemmed roses into your hands.

Like the hawkers, the roses do not come from Italy, once Europe’s biggest grower and exporter of flowers. They come from Holland, Morocco, Turkey, or Spain. The hawkers and their roses are the modern-day equivalent of the slaves and colonials, and their exotic wares, that the Romans dragged home to the seat of empire. Now they come of their own accord. Unlike the provincials of old, they rarely set down roots.

Sweeping views, sea breezes and globalized commerce are not the Janiculum’s only attractions. This is the least Roman and most Roman of neighborhoods. Atypical, it has few hotels, restaurants and residents-diplomats, clergymen and scholars, and the patients at Bambino Gesù pediatric hospital-and no ancient ruins. Yet it’s the quintessence of the Eternal City.

The Janiculum is named for Janus, the two-faced god of thresholds. It simultaneously looks backwards and forwards, east and west, north and south. Long before Garibaldi, Romans fought Etruscans here, and built the farthest reaches of the Aurelian Walls to enclose the Janiculum’s heights. It’s claimed Saint Peter was crucified where Bramante’s iconic Renaissance Tempietto now stands, flanked by the church of San Pietro in Montorio, on the hill’s southeastern edge. Mussolini used the site for Fascist propaganda. He erected a monument, facing the church, to Garibaldi’s fallen soldiers. Other hallowed nooks, marble plaques and statuary extol Roman patriotism and piety.

Whether Romans today glance at these memorials is questionable. The once fierce tribe is now placid. Its members flock to the Passeggiata del Gianicolo to relax, stroll, gaze, gossip, meditate, make out, jog, sip and snack at Bar Gianicolo, or slurp soda pop from the refreshment stand at Garibaldi’s feet. Surrounded by photographers, they get married where Saint Peter was crucified, because the backdrop is breathtaking.

In leisure and love a country reveals its true colors, making the Janiculum a must for anyone delving beyond stereotypes. Besides, in Italian, “zeitgeist” is l’aria che tira-the way the wind is blowing. No place in Rome is breezier.

The main sources of stress in this otherwise perfect world are the pediatric hospital, and the grim Regina Coeli prison in Trastevere below it. Knots of anxious parents mill around the gravel-filled square facing Gesù Bambino. Like the rose-hawkers, most new parents are not Italian: Italy has negative population growth. They shoot down espressos from the kiosk strategically sited here, or pace back and forth, listening to haunting shouts. The shouts come not from the hospital, but the prison. Inmates cup their hands and call up from the barred windows. Their mates shout back, leaning from the Janiculum’s parapets. It’s a heart-rending slice of Fellini in the age of text messaging.

Naturally not everyone experiences the Janiculum as I do. For one thing, the bells of noon are not lunch bells to Romans, who cannot constitutionally contemplate a meal before 1:30pm. The mad tolling therefore has nothing to do with the crisp-fried Roman-Jewish artichokes, Carbonara or roasted lamb I adore, or the “priest-strangling” strozzapreti all’Amatriciana so many “priest-eating” mangia-preti Romans delight in gobbling, the spicier the better.

For another thing, most Romans are too busy, blasé, and befuddled after decades of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s cult of mindless materialism to contemplate the country’s origin myths. Many seem to have forgotten who Garibaldi was. Some wish Italy would split back into city states.

Though born Catholic, the Romans I know rarely set foot in Saint Peter’s. They would swoon if their children joined the church. Young Italians simply do not become priests, monks or nuns nowadays. How could they? They live at home until age 38. They marry, get divorced, use contraceptives, have abortions, eat chocolate and cakes during Lent, swear a blue streak, and feel no compunction about their sins even if they’re believers. Faith and the Vatican’s rules occupy watertight compartments encrusted with evil eyes and amulets.

But recent scandals have rekindled interest in the age-old yin and yang of Italy. This has swollen the crowds of gawkers on the Janiculum. It’s not only the best and most scenic spot from which to gaze at Michelangelo’s Vatican dome. It’s also a fine transit point for observing foreign pilgrims and clergymen. They too are rarely Italian these days, often coming from far-flung, impoverished outposts of Roman Catholicism. They bustle by in a kaleidoscope of robes and skin-tones, climbing from Saint Peter’s to Sant’Onofrio’s monastery, next door to the hospital, then on to San Pietro in Montorio. Inside these storied sanctuaries, among the haunting images by Il Domenichino and Pinturicchio, a visitor rarely encounters Italians.

Romans watch the parade with bemused equanimity. Celibacy and abstinence? Rome flaunts its cityscape of temptation. The fountains alone are an incitement to lust. Caravaggio’s homo-erotic masterpieces hang in a half-hundred churches. Philandering and homosexuality among priests, monks and nuns is not only tolerated, it’s expected. In Italian, prete means both priest and bedwarmer.

Boccaccio, writing nearly 700 years ago, told many a bawdy tale in The Decameron. Who could forget lusty prelate Dom Gianni, who turned upon Gemmata “the tool with which he was used to plant men,” while her dopey husband looked on?

G. G. Belli and Trilussa, Rome’s revered anticlerical poets of the last two centuries, both Trastevere residents and Janiculum habitués, skewered sinful, sleazy papal tyrants, dressing up with hilarity the corruption, cynicism and perversion of their day.

No wonder few Romans blinked when in March 2010 a Vatican chorister and the pope’s gentleman-in-waiting were caught in a seamy gay sex-and-corruption scandal.

But rape, molestation and pedophilia are different. In a country where every child still incarnates the Baby Jesus, and in a city where the Gesù Bambino hospital stands only a few hundred yards from the pope’s fortress city, how could alarm about the goings-on not have been raised?

Why travel if you live in Rome? Tens of millions of people spend a fortune each year to come here.

Sit amid the mossy busts of Garibaldi’s soldiers on Passeggiata del Gianicolo and listen to older Romans gossip about er Papa and other piquant topics. Soccer, sex, vacations and tax evasion are the most common themes, since the weather is generally good, and the exchange rate for the euro makes no difference as long as you don’t travel. And why travel if you live in Rome? Tens of millions of people spend a fortune each year to come here.

If average Janiculum denizens disdain the Vatican for its perceived hypocrisy, they distrust and despise their government even more, in a colorful, creative way. With their gravely, nicotine-seasoned voices and utterly un-PC opinions, Rome’s tribal elders sound startlingly like Pulcinella wrangling with Arlecchino. The antics of Punch ‘n’ Judy are blasted at high volume from the Janiculum’s dusty little soap-box Teatrino. Everyone knows but no one seems to mind that the Punch ‘n’ Judy soundtrack is now tape-recorded.

Unlike Italy’s politics, the Janiculum is democratic, starting with its demographics. The studiously ragbag teenagers and 20-somethings might even outnumber the retirees. They socialize separately, as never before in Italy, draping themselves over the balustrade at Piazzale Garibaldi, or near the miniature lighthouse and pocketsize amphitheater, both farther north. Here they blare boomboxes and guzzle beer-a recent fad, imported from Northern Europe, Britain and America. They also make pigs of themselves. To these coddled youths, life understandably revolves around consumer electronics, telefonini, motor vehicles and music, plus soccer and sex, in that order. And dogs.

Italians not only jog nowadays, they have also discovered dogs. You will see phalanxes of retrievers and terriers running amok along Passeggiata del Gianicolo, or in Villa Doria-Pamphili, a much bigger greensward nearby. The dogs lift their legs on Garibaldi, and soil the steps of Sant’Onofrio. No one objects. Professional dog-walkers have made their appearance. Like the rose-hawkers, priests and parents, most are not Italian. Neither are the dogs, judging by their names, nearly always borrowed from American soap operas and sitcoms, or reality TV.

Even more than their elders, the young Romans of the Janiculum appear thoroughly globalized in a deliciously provincial, marvelously myopic way. They gulp at the good life as blissfully as fish swallow the Tiber’s murky waters. What about the imploding economies of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain-the PIIGS? The environment? Regionalism? The separation of church and state?

No, grazie, you hear them say, when buttonholed by earnest elders upon the parapets. Rev up the Vespa, Roberto! It’s time for un revival of La Dolce Vita, which everyone knows inspired American Graffiti. Because life in Rome is a revival. “Graffiti” is Italian, exported to America, and reimported with gusto. Every square centimeter of the city is adorned by colorful tags and aerosol art, even the trees and Garibaldi’s men. But this is not new either. The ancients scratched their names in stone. That’s where graffiti comes from.

One chummy curmudgeon I chatted up on a bench by the amphitheater gave me a world-weary shrug. I’d asked him about the fate of the PIIGS. The official acronym of Rome since the time of Caesar, he said waving vaguely at the Forum, has been SPQR. Senatus Populusque Romanus. “It means the senate and people of Rome,” he explained. Emblazed on bridges, manhole covers and parapets, it’s as ubiquitous as the graffiti and garbage. Somehow it survived the fall of Rome. Today SPQR is an initialism for Sono Porci Questi Romani-these Romans are pigs, he added. “And pigs know how to survive,” the man concluded philosophically, forming a good luck sign with his index and baby finger. Well, maybe, I reflected. In any case, they have a pretty wonderful sty.

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An American author and journalist based in Paris, for the last 25 years David Downie has been writing about European culture, food and travel for magazines and newspapers worldwide. His nonfiction books include Enchanted Liguria, Cooking the Roman Way, The Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam, andthree critically acclaimed volumes of travel, food and wine in the Terroir Guides series: Food Wine the Italian Riviera & Genoa, Food Wine Rome, and Food Wine Burgundy. Downie’s travel memoir Paris, Paris: Journeys into the Heart and Soul of the City of Light is being reiussed in 2011 by Broadway Books. His latest books are Paris City of Night, a classic thriller set in Paris, and Quiet Corners of Rome (spring 2011). Please visit David Downie’s website, DavidDownie.com.

[Photos: Flickr | Kieran Lyman; Leo-seta; Scott Denham; Scott Denham; summitcheese; gnuckx]