Three and a half years ago, I left Southern California willingly, even eagerly, happy to embrace the softer, as I thought, purer light of the northern latitudes, pleased to leave behind the brittle glare of a too-harsh sun. I longed for the more subtle palette of colours under the pale blue sky, the silver mists hanging over fields of every shade of green, the wisps of cloud caught on the low-slung, heath-covered hills of Tipperary. Though I cherished the jagged Santa Monica Mountains as the sun gilded them rose-gold at sunset, I didn’t mind leaving behind the torpor of late August, with its shimmers of heat hovering over softened asphalt.
Here in Salzburg, light and colour are closer that of Ireland. I’ve grown used to its subtleties through the changing seasons. A softer, pastel blue sky cushioned with thick full clouds has become the norm.
So it was with a jolt of recognition that Himself and I stood on Via Adda in Rome last week, gaping at a sky of brilliant blue, a blue I’ll call cerulean, a seductive deep rich blue. Its depth of colour spread from horizon to horizon, unmoderated by clouds. It was a sky the breadth and depth of which we were used to seeing over Los Angeles.
Which only makes sense. The Los Angeles region shares with Rome a Mediterranean climate and ecosystem. Standing on the street in Rome, we felt at home. Across from us, deep green foliage tumbled over a tall mottled sienna-coloured wall. Around us, trees filled with oranges and lemons grew even more profusely, it seemed, than in our former California neighbourhood.
We were in Rome to celebrate our 25th anniversary, the first visit for each of us. Though I had immersed myself in reading Roman history and the excellent Blue Guide to Rome, I had formed only vague impressions of what to expect. As it turned out, the reality was overwhelming, simultaneously familiar and foreign. We were blessed by mild temperatures—in the mid-teens—clear skies and sunny days. In the evenings, a sliver of the new moon gradually waxed, the Cheshire cat’s smile growing brighter against the luminous violet-blue night as the week progressed.
We tramped sidewalks and steps, roamed the Forum and the Coliseum, climbed the dome of St Peter’s, from which we stood looking down into the luxury of the hidden Vatican estate. We lost ourselves in the collections of the Capitoline and Massimo and in the crowds surging up Via del Corso on the Sunday evening darkness, shops still open.
There was an element of pilgrimage as I came face to face with works I studied decades ago as an unworldly student of art history on the brick-built campus of UCLA. Last week I trembled as we waited to enter the Borghese Gallery at nine a.m., the first entrance allowed. As it happened, it was a quiet morning and, in my eagerness, I had positioned myself at the head of the small queue. So I led the procession up the stone steps, my eyes misting unaccountably as I climbed. So too did I spontaneously tear up as we entered St Peter’s and stood before the Pieta behind its sheltering glass. I don’t know why Michelangelo’s famous work had that effect on me; it isn’t my sentimental favourite in any way. Yet it was moving to be in its presence.
We sought out dozens of objects of adoration during the pilgrimage, many of them in churches: The mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore; Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli; the frescoes ascribed to Giotto in Santa Maria d’Aracoeli; the Raphael fresco on a pier in shadowy nave. We tracked down as many Caravaggios as we could, going from church to church on increasing aching feet to do so. In most of the churches, we pushed through crowds to see them. However, in Sant’Angostino, we stood in awe before perhaps the loveliest Caravaggio we saw, Madonna di Loreto, virtually alone.
I stood with binoculars picking out the details on Trajan’s column, dimly recalling lectures in Roman art from all those years ago. Also brought back to consciousness was the astonishing dome of the Pantheon, and the profusion of Bernini sculptures throughout the city.
So we gorged on art, seeing works I had waited most of a lifetime to see in person, many of which Himself was encountering for the first time. But though we can take away those images in memory, as well as in reproductions, they do not make up the magic of a visit to Rome.
Even without visiting a single gallery or museum, without wearing ourselves out trying to put art and history into context—which we do because we’re both temperamentally disposed to—we would have loved Rome for its freshness of spirit and sophistication. I loved the swagger of Rome’s men and women, the way they walked confidently, heads high, feet placed securely. I loved the audacity of style of dress. I loved the voluble, loud, expressive, incessant chatter heard everywhere—in the street, on buses, in restaurants and shops, the hallways of museums, coming from doorways—everywhere. On a crowded tramcar, a someone asked a question one day, evidently enquiring about the right stop. Everyone—all apparently strangers to the man and to each other—joined a heated conversation that continued after he got off. That would not happen here in Salzburg, nor in Ireland, nor, I venture, in Los Angeles.
We loved too the visual sophistication, the elegant motifs painted on the sides of villas and walls, the ceiling paintings and mosaics, the rich warm earth tones that the Mediterranean sun illuminates so brilliantly. After the grey stone buildings in the green Irish landscape and the more stolid wood-beamed architecture of the Austrian Alps, it was a delight to see warm brick and stucco enlivened by colour and embellished with swirling arabesques. Interiors everywhere were covered with murals, green poured out of window boxes, lemons and oranges glowed from the green foliage of trees seen over garden walls. The city seemed alive with colour and design.
We admired as well the Romans’ enthusiasm for eating out in the evening. We made the practice, after a couple of false starts, of going back to our hotel, away from the tourist centres, to rest briefly before going to a later dinner in nearby neighbourhood restaurants. It was only at 8 or 8:30, we noticed, they began to fill with Italians. When they did, how lively the dining rooms became. Clearly Romans take their food seriously, but even more important, it seemed, was the conversation and enjoyment of their companions. This became our night-time entertainment; there was no need to seek out a pub or club. Back at the hotel, exhausted by the day’s walking, I quickly fell asleep.
It was a wonderful week.
After 25 years of marriage, Himself and I have made some unorthodox compromises to deal with our differences. We both like window seats on airplanes, and my in-flight restlessness disturbs him. In consequence, when we can, we sit in different rows, each with our own window seat. So it was when we left Rome last Saturday, on a sunny, mild afternoon. I craned my neck into the window, rapt by the turquoise-green Mediterranean as the plane banked away from the airport. Realising my seatmate also wanted to see the view, I leaned back and looked sidelong as the green receded. Then the aircraft broke through the ceiling above. Below us, all was irregular white, a vast snow field of clouds. My seatmate turned back to his book and I to my magazine.
Just over an hour later, the captain was welcoming us to Munich. The temperature, he said, was three degrees. My seatmate and I looked at each other, eyes wide, rueful. Then we shrugged and laughed.
‘That’s why you go to Rome,’ I said, then turned again to look at the flat, grey light beyond the window.