Last week marked only our third week in Rome. Because we have just embarked on a five-month stay, we know that we still have plenty of what is often referred to as “time” ahead of us. We immediately panicked. Tempus was fugiting all around us, almost a month was gone, twenty percent of our Roman journey would be done in a week. Ars may be longa, and Rome eternal, but vita breva, baby, so let’s get on the road.
I had taught my first class—a PhD seminar on the American Renaissance—and the anxiety of meeting new students and getting a feel for who they are, where they are, what they need, and how we all would mesh—I an American; they Italian (but also Spanish, Russian, Iranian, Argentine, and Chinese)—all that anticipatory anxiety had evaporated. The following evening we spent at the opera, two rows from the orchestra pit, awash in Muti’s orchestration, Anna Netrebko’s warm soprano, and the low tenor of Yusif Eyvazov, a brilliant young voice from Azerbaijan. But the following morning, the only music we heard was the rattling of our one suitcase as it rolled unsteadily over cobblestones to make a bus to Termini—Rome’s sweeping, monumental train station—and then the whir and whoosh of the high speed Frecciarossa to Firenze. A few days later, we were on a slower train to Siena, and then an even slower train back to Rome.
So in a furious long weekend—from Friday to Tuesday—we were tourists, and the experience is something both Ginny and I will no doubt recount in further separate but intertwined postings to come. We had been in Florence decades and decades ago—not long after that unpleasantness with Savonarola—with Emma (then one or so) on my back—and today I have only vague recollections of visiting the endless halls of the Uffizi, but that is about it. So I was eager to return to Florence for a fuller engagement. I don’t recall there being back then in 1978 quite the mobs of tourists already assembling on this weekend in early March 2014. Granted, the crowds were mostly Italian school groups, or other Italians touring Italy, plenty from Asia (China, Japan, Korea), and only the occasional bewildered American or Brit. We had a room “with a view,” as the Soggiorno Battistero B&B put it in their ad, and their ad was not false: our third story windows looked directly onto Florence’s multicolored Duomo and Baptistry. We could watch the tides of visitors wash over the square, pause, look up, pose, click, and move on.
Each night after our day of relentless touring—Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio, the Accademia, the Medici Chapels, Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a bracing exhibit of books from Boccaccio’s library, with his inscriptions, and more—we rested by taking a leisurely stroll around 6 or 7 pm, which is the time of day that Italians take their traditional passeggio or passeggiata.
My recollection again goes back decades and decades ago when we spent a year in Genova, and lived in a garden apartment in a small coastal town called Nervi just east of Genova. And by “coastal town” I mean to say, without guilt or embarrassment, that we were living on the Italian Riviera. Less than a block from our apartment in Nervi, and through the sottopassagio that takes you under the train tracks, we would arrive on a spring or summer and even fall or winter day onto Nervi’s passagiata, the town’s walk-way along the rocks and tiny beaches of the Mediterranean. We would stroll along with Emma in her stroller, sit and watch the sun set, or look further to the east past the fishing village of Camoglie to the looming peninsular Portofino mountain jutting into the sea. It was pure hell.
Passing us or approaching us would be tight joyous intense knots of Italian raggazi and raggaze, more cautious Italian families with their bambini, either held in arms, or guided along off a finger, or in strollers, and elderly couples bundled up against the occasional breeze even on the hottest days: they well-dressed regardless of economic status; we looking like Americans. We passing people would greet each other with buona sera and stroll along. I have the fondest memories of passegio.
Return with me, if you will, to Florence, March 8, 2014, a Saturday at 6pm, along the Via Calimala that takes you from Piazza della Repubblica to the Ponte Vecchio. These end points are only two of the many hang-outs for Italians and tourists alike, and the strada that connects them is so filled with humanity that the occasional taxi must simply take its time trying to head down the roadway. All of Florence is a pedestrian mall, it seems; and has been since before Savonarola. That night, Florence was taking its passegio with a vengence.
As we walked, sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the street; sometimes one in front the other, other times arm in arm, phalanxes of teens wove effortlessly beside us and each other, advancing side by side, some falling back, each heading relentlessly forward until suddenly pausing, lighting up, yelling out a witticism or banality, laughing, catching up, making no eye contact either with those they love or simply bump into, full of life, utterly oblivious of a past or future: they move in step with the exhilaration of their momentary bonding. Without a buona sera or a mi scusi, they seem racing one way or another, toward the carnival of the Piazza with its carousel and vendors, or to the shimmering lights along the Arno, which bring them, for a brief instant to a moment of silence and longing.
I know these raggazi who have left us in their dust. They are my clients, my children, my students: I am blessed that I love this form of humanity, because so many in my profession disdain their ignorance, narcissism, arrogance, and seeming disregard. Their hair is tufted and shaven on the sides, their piercings and tattoos carefully placed, their presence is imposing, adult, muscular, and curved: so much beauty and self loathing. But their skin has a translucence that betrays an underlying layer of baby fat. So I love them: I know their fear, respect their drive to escape self-knowledge, and admire their eventual emergence into a deeper awareness of darkness within light. Somehow, despite their utter obliviousness regarding my presence, I wait and watch them because they seem the epitome of humanity becoming humanity.
Occasionally, we saw an elderly man or woman, separately walking, eying the crowd and store fronts, or an older couple, such as ourselves, walking together, watching their step, lingering beside a gelateria that displays their flavors in peaks, like a range of Alps. But each of us pensioners were like dislocated shells tumbling along with the waves of raggazi heading this way or that, striding not strolling, care less of others.
I could see Buster Keaton doing this scene very well: exiting his house on a quiet vicolo, adjusting his hat and vest primly, taking his girl in his arm, and walking down the side street, the two merge onto Via Calimalo in anticipation of a pleasant, lovey stroll and are swept into a river of people that swirls Buster around in bewilderment, hat and girl flying off in undisclosed directions. He catches his hat, is bumped again by this striding pedestrian and that, swirls again as he tries to keep pace, grabs for his girl’s hand, only to find a scowling man in a bowler. Cut to lonely bedroom.
I refuse to make generalizations about today’s frantic passegio as compared to what I experienced or remember experiencing decades and decades ago. And I refuse to condemn a generation of young Florentines for failing, in their justified panic over the flight of time, to slow down, to say good evening, to acknowledge the life around them instead of the panic within. But I worry, too, about the passing of passegio.
Siena was different perhaps only because its crowds are smaller. Even so, the pace along Via Banchi di Sopra, which bends back along Siena’s hill becoming Via Banchi di Sotto, the city’s two main streets, seems slower. People actually saunter. A well-dressed gentleman smokes his blunt Italian cigar; an elderly woman escorts her ancient mother, in matching scarves; and of course raggazi, raggaze, raggazi. The city’s proudest gelateria, named Grom, has a glassed in area with banquets allowing you to sit, enjoy a coppetta with invert plastic spoon, and watch the procession. Out on the street, we managed a buona sera and got a response. It seemed closer to what I want passegio to be, and to what I wish Italians would always be in retaining this tradition, whose ideal of movement and community is so inexplicably dear to me.
Back on the train out of Siena, heading to Rome. Our car is one of those older types with a long windowed corridor and 8 or so compartments seating six people, three facing three. The train is crowded with high-schoolers at one end and their teachers at a compartment at the other end. Occasionally, when the ruckus reaches the level of riot, a teacher strides down the corridor, making the familiar fingertips touching thumb tip gesture saying “Daniele, ma cosa fai?!” and the noise subsides, temporarily. Our compartment is all adults; we have reservations for the window seats. As we pull out of Siena station, the train winds through hilly farm land, sheep in pastures, bare orchards waiting for spring buds. Occasionally, I see a hawthorne’s white blossom flash by, then the rarer cherry pink, and down in the brush a pheasant is flushed out by the train’s clatter. Then higher hills are sectioned off with vineyards, also bare. We stop at the delicious station called Montepulciano. We come next to hill towns; first in the distance, they look like trees on top of slopes, but they are peopled. Closer and overlooking us and a river is Orvieto, which seems like a collage of cubes piled upon each other; a painting by Corot. I want to return there soon. But once or twice on this voyage, I see a bush with big bright red blossoms, which flashes by so fast I cannot alert Ginny in time to see them. I do not recognize this flower; maybe it is some kind of hibiscus, though brighter than any I have seen. I cannot name it, but will: rose of passing.