Melville Enters Rome—Day 1 (cont.)


A couple days ago, I posted my first in a series of bloggings that follow Melville’s steps during the month he stayed in Rome, in 1857. The writing up of only the first half of his first day was so exhausting for me that I had to stop writing at 2 am to get some rest.  Now some days later, after tinkering with my previous posting, I am ready to finish day one.

Melville had reached the Hotel de Minerva at 10 am his time, which was a somewhat embarrassing 3 pm my time. I was in good shape having stopped for a meal—big flat square Roman ravioli and a side dish of puntarelle all’acciughe, curly crunchy, early shoots of the chicory (soaked to remove the bitterness) and served chilled with a light and flavorful sauce of pulverized anchovy and olive oil, a mid-winter Roman treat—and so I had perhaps more energy in the afternoon than Melville had had during his first Roman morning.

Once Melville had registered and unpacked at the hotel, he set out on tour, with what seems to have been a clear objective: to see St. Peter’s Cathedral.  But rather than head west to Piazza San Pietro, he went south and east to the Capitoline Hill, the highest point nearby to look for the familiar dome, like a seaman climbing a mast to spot a whale.

His most likely and most direct route to the Campidoglio, which sits atop the Capitoline Hill, is an easy walk.  I headed down Via dei Cestari to what is now Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, an 1880s era avenue that follows the much older roadway of the  papal procession, a route that connected the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano to the Basilica San Pietro, the pope’s two official homes. Directly across this busy road would have been several undistinguished palazzi surrounding a small piazza.  These were later torn down and excavated in the 1920s in an effort by Italy’s fascist government to add luster to its crimes by unearthing and restoring areas of ancient Rome previously buried underground. The project proved far more fruitful than anticipated: what emerged was a “sacred area” consisting of the ruins of four temples and of Pompey’s Theater (used two millennia ago as a Roman Senate building), on whose steps Julius Caesar was assassinated. The excavation in the area now known as Largo di Torre Argentina (one of my favorite places anywhere) is sunk more than twenty feet below the surface of modern Rome, and Melville would have had no inkling of its existence.



Moving east along the roadway, Melville would have come directly to Piazza Venezia, Rome’s central hub, at the foot of the Capitoline hill.

DSC_0049Atop the hill is Piazza del Campidoglio and its three buildings: one a government building with its bell tower and two museums. One of Michelangelo’s last projects was to redesign this square, including the Cordonata, its gentle sloping staircase (with several footsteps per riser) flanked at the top by monumental statues of Rome’s legendary founders Castor and Pollux.

DSC_0050Melville went still higher than the piazza and, like visitors of the day, climbed the bell tower to take the panoramic view of the city and to scout for St. Peter’s. But his exhaustion finally caught up with him.  Or, was it the kind of malaise that grabs a traveller when he or she can no longer contain the disappointment that comes with the sullen contrast between our anticipation of a storied place and what lies beneath our feet.  Melville himself was not quite sure:

Whether it is having come from the East, or chafed mood, or what, but Rome fell flat on me.  Oppressively flat.—Did’nt sleep any last night, though . . . The whole landscape nothing independent of associations. St: Peters looks small from Tower of Capitol.

These observations were written in his journal later that evening, back at the hotel, before his early dinner and collapse into bed, so that he carried this disappointment with him throughout the rest of his first day.  Even though he is looking for St. Peter’s, his mind is on the landscape, which in itself is not as dramatic as what he experienced in Naples, or had experienced in January and early February while visiting Jerusalem, the Pyramids, and Greece.  For him at this moment, Rome’s urban terrain had nothing on the stark and picturesque landscapes of “the East.” All that was pressing upon him, that day, were the historical associations he knew to expect from his reading.  Nature’s landscape seemed defeated by Rome’s sprawl, its ruins, and relentless history. He wanted something unexpected.

Perhaps, though, it was just his “chafed mood, or what” that was influencing his impressions and flattening out Rome’s seven hills.  Tourists do not allow themselves, or have time for, their moods.  The point of touring is to leave one’s mood behind, to escape for two weeks or even more, in order to “vacate” one’s self and fill it, temporarily, with the otherness of a foreign land. One has not the time while touring to feel a mood; the itinerary, the next stop, prevents the dwelling upon a mood.  Melville had left home to go “on tour,” which was a different proposition. Perhaps, he would return a different man, perhaps he would not return. He was roving for his mental health, for new ideas.  Unlike the tourist, the rover packs his moods and brings them along:  they never leave you, and that’s the point; they are the unbidden thing by which landscape, history, art, and associations are colored, measured, even judged.

I wanted to climb the bell tower to take Melville’s stance and try (midst my excitement) to find the disappointment he had felt.  But contra Melville, I liked Rome’s landscape, if by landscape you mean its hills, which are admittedly flattened by the city’s many buildings (though not, thankfully, a single skyscraper).  Still, you feel the landscape the moment you walk the streets.  Seeking higher ground, Melville wanted the bird’s view, not the pedestrian’s.  And perhaps to catch his chafed mood, I wanted to climb as well.  But the Palazzo Senatorio remains a government building, and the guard wearily cooling his heels at the entrance, wishing he were a bird, or at home, or at least inside a museum not patroling outside, maintained a practiced indifference despite my asking the generally never-asked question of why the bell tower was closed to me. It’s ufficiale, non é museo.

I wandered about the Campidoglio square somehow knowing that if I could get behind the buildings blocking my view and up to higher ground, closer to the edge of the hilltop, I might glimps St. Peter’s dome, though of course at a lower level than atop the bell tower.  I walked up a staircase to the left of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, then down to an open service area, and around the building to the right where I found a railing that I was sure would lead me to the view I wanted.  Following the railing and a little alleyway that inclined up the other side of the building, my mood lifted as my DSC_0056prospects seemed increasingly to improve.  Initially, the tops of trees from down below rose up to obstruct my view, but as I walked on, I could begin to see, down toward the traffic below, the Teatro Marcello and the Ghetto’s Synagogue (which had not been built in Melville’s day). Walking still further up, I came to the level of Rome’s red tile rooftops stretching out before me.  And as I continued along this railed terrace, called Piazzale Caffarelli, I saw on the horizon, distantly placed amidst closer spires, domes, and tv antennas the dome of St. Peter’s, diminished in size by its distance and the least imposing of structures in this cityscape.  Two young girls were engaged in conversation on a park bench, an elderly man with his miniature dog was watching the horizon, and I snapped photos.  That’s St. Peter’s, I asked the man, for confirmation of what I knew was true.  We both wanted to admire it together: É bella, I said; bellissima, he added.  I felt we all, the two ragazze included, had found this private spot, and yet we were sharing our privacies on this terrace.  And I felt, too, that I was never farther from Melville’s aggravated, longely, chafed mood than in this moment of sharing.DSC_0053

In my wandering, I had made a full circle; the top of the Cordonata was only a hundred or so feet down a little paved path from the piazzale, and there I joined the rest of Rome’s tourists two-stepping their way down Michelangelo’s platform steps to the street below.  From his bell tower perch, Melville had sighted St. Peter’s, not at roof level but significantly higher up, and the domed edifice he looked for might therefore have seemed all the smaller.  Having sighted it, though, he wanted to grasp it, so descending the tower denied to me, he walked the mile and a half to reach it.  I, however, took a bus.

His most direct route was to retrace the short section of the papal roadway he had already taken. Continuing on that narrow, bustling thoroughfare, and almost immediately after crossing the Tiber, he took a left turn and walked the final quarter mile to Piazza San Pietro.  But thinking Melville might have wanted to avoid such streets and ones he had already traveled and thinking that, in fact, he seemed to want to see more in the way of “landscape,” I played with the idea that he might have taken a no less indirect option on roadways along the Tiber.

More than one time, though not as many as three, I have taken one of those open-air tour buses that circle a city, and I sincerely feel that this somewhat embarrassing option—nothing says I’m a tourist like a tour bus—is nevertheless a good way, early on, to get the lay of a city.  But in Rome, if you take regular city buses, you also get a sense of the numerous piazze and the radiating, name-changing vie that connect them; you can surf the odd irregular netting of Roman life.  But the Tiber, which seems not so wide that you can’t pitch a ball over it but is indeed much wider than you think, is an exception to the city’s netting.  Flowing south, it cuts a swathe of open land, water, and sky that serpentines its way through town, dividing Rome unevenly, with most of the ancient city to the east of its left bank and with the Vatican, Borgo, and Trastevere to the west, lining its right bank. Centuries ago these banks were reinforced with concrete and stone; bridges were made to spring from one side to the other, and roadways were paved to follow along the banks, all to afford the rider of Bus 271 many unexpected vistas of this picturesque river, that is, if you can get a window seat.  Because Melville, on foot, was still feeling his “chafed mood, or what” later that evening, he wrote in his journal somewhat dyspeptically: “Tiber a ditch,” adding as most tourists before him had noted that its color is “yellow as saffron.”

As for the basilica across the Tiber, Melville was as unimpressed with regard to St. Peter’s as he was with Rome’s landscape.  He wrote: “Front view disappointing. But grand approach.”  The “approach” to St. Peter’s that one sees today is Via della Conciliazione, a wide boulevard, built during the fascist era, that replaced buildings and consolidated streets to create an unobstructed view of St. Peter’s as one walks toward it.  Today’s grand approach is not what Melville would have seen. From the bridge over the Tiber and as turned toward St. Peter’s, the dome was still obstructed by buildings.  Instead, he made his way through a warren of palazzi lining the usual vie and piazze along the way, until, suddenly, it all opened up onto Piazza San Pietro.  This unexpected square was the “grand approach” he admired.

DSC_0063In fact, Melville had little immediate appreciation for the cathedral’s facade, and he expressed this view a couple years later in his “Statues in Rome” lecture.  He called it “the great pile of confused architecture which is the outside of the Vatican.” What, then, was so “grand” about St. Peter’s was Bernini’s double rows of  massive Doric columns, curving out from the cathedral as if to embrace the piazza in front of it. Once inside the basilica, Melville became more impressed with the church itself, the “Interior comes up to expectations,” he wrote. ” But dome not so wonderful as St: Sophia’s.” In architecture as in landscape, Rome was, at this point, no match for the “East.”

DSC_0065But coming out of the basilica, Melville began to nurture a fuller perspective on St. Peter’s, and perhaps Rome.  He walked a hundred feet into the square, turned back, and, as he recalled in his lecture, looked up: “High, high above are the beetling crags and precipices of masonry, and yet higher still above all this, up against the heaven, like a balloon, is the dome.  The mind is carried away with the very vastness.” As he looked up at the dome, the feelings of both awe (associated with what aestheticians called the sublime) and yet mental confusion wrestled within him. Later, he would return to the square, not only for the church and its dome but also for the statues exhibited in the Vatican Museum.  And there, amidst the carved marble shapes, he would finally find the different mood in him he had been seeking.   “The mind, instead of being bewildered within itself, is drawn out by the symmetry and beauty of the forms it beholds.”  No longer “carried away” or “bewildered,” Melville felt that special exhilaration when the mind suddenly grasps the lines, forms, and impact of a work of art in and of itself, as the expression of an otherwise ungraspable ideal.  An art-feeling that draws us out of ourselves, for a moment.

But this is what Melville, back home writing up his lecture two years later, came to say.  Surely it is not what Melville felt as his first day in Rome ended.  His last remark for the day says it all: “Exhausted.” It was 3 pm on a late February afternoon.  Already the sun was declining and its refracted beams were moving down the spectrum giving a rosy yellow tint to the buildings surrounding him. At least that is the color I saw, as I approached St. Peter’s a bit later in the afternoon, closer to sunset.

Regardless of the route Melvile had taken to get to St. Peter’s, his return to his hotel was a direct walk back, across the Tiber, along the papal procession roadway, and just a couple blocks to his left up to Piazza della Minerva. I made that trip, too, this time on foot; this time pausing, as Melville most surely must have done, to lean a bit on the wall of the bridge and watch the setting sunlight transform Castel Sant’Angelo into a work of art.  Then I ran to catch Bus 62.



Melville Enters Rome—Day 1

MelvilleMy first confession: what follows did not happen on February 25, the 157th anniversary of Melville’s arrival in Rome. Ginny and I had an appointment for lunch with my colleagues Giorgio Mariani and Ugo Rubeo at Sapienza.  So I planned ahead and did my first Melville day on February 24. My second confession: I didn’t stay strictly to his probable itinerary for the first day.  But let’s be fair: Melville covered a good deal of territory on his first day in Rome, much of it in a coupé, or a kind of two person carriage with the driver seated on top. Moreover, Melville was thirty-eight in 1857. Did I mention that I am sixty-four, and this is 2014?  So instead of a coupé, I took the Rome Metro to reach Melville’s point of entry—Porta San Giovanni—and the beginning of the first leg of this day’s journey.

Previous to his arrival from Naples, Melville had been galloping along in the coupé, stopping every 8 miles or so for a fresh team of horses. He and one other rider had been at it for twenty-four hours when they reached Rome’s wall.  Starting out fresh at 8 am on February 24 in Naples, the postillion and his two riders would have taken city streets from the Naples Post Office and then country roads to a point inland and well north of the city where the carriage then joined the Appian Way.  At nightfall, they reached the hills around Fondi and  headed to Terracina back on the coast.  Rattling along until sunrise on February 25, at the Alban Hills just southeast of Rome, they joined the Via Appia Nuova, which was built in 1784 and runs parallel to the Via Appia.  They arrived at the Porta San Giovanni about two or three hours later.  Melville had gotten no sleep and was exhausted by the ordeal.  Today’s alta velocità train from Naples to Rome takes an hour and ten minutes.

I had had a sleepless night as well, the night before my retracing of Melville’s first day.  I had been up past two am, still a little bit jet-lagged from our flight over from New York, and I was still adjusting to daily espressos, which add more caffeine to my system than I am used to. And I had been excitedly planning my itinerary for the next day. My options were to get up at sunrise and see the day as Melville would have seen it or to sleep in a bit and do my best to get to Porta San Giovanni around 9 am, about the time that Melville had reached the gate. Reader, I arrived at the gate at noon.

I was also delighted to find out that Porta San Giovanni is a fermata on the Metro A line, which crosses the Metro B that I had taken to see Dr. Bacci.  I made my way over to Piazza Bologna, caught the B and got off three fermate later at Termini, Rome’s magnificent train station.  I followed the well-marked signs on walls, ceiling, and floors through various underground pedestrian routes to make the transfer to the Metro A, and three stops later I escalated back above ground into floods of blue sky and sunshine: I was just outside the massive city wall, looking directly at Porta San Giovanni.

DSC_1188I had two photos I wanted to take: one would be something close to what I thought Melville was likely to have seen (that is, a picture taken at such an angle so as to strip away as many modern trappings—traffic signs, lights, ads, and cars—as possible), and the other would be full of today’s traffic. But that plan seemed more of a challenge to the photographer in me than the biographer.  If I wanted to approach the problem of “then and now” in biography—the Melville and the me—or rather PortaSanGiovanniCa1930the distance between these two, I needed a more authentic contrast.  So I searched for old photographs of Porta San Giovanni and found one that dates from 1930 but could just as easily have been from 1857—and I paired it with my own.

As you can see, while the seventeenth-century stone gateway remains the same, the brickwork of today’s Porta San Giovanni wall has been spruced up considerably: six new arches (five visible in my photo above) have been added to accommodate modern traffic. But you can also tell from the mid-eighteenth-Vasi08century etching by Giuseppe Vasi (below) that the squared off passage way was itself a later addition, to accommodate the modern traffic of the nineteenth century.  How many piercings into this wall did Melville see?  Obviously, I need to find an etching or photo that comes closer to 1857.

Regardless of which passageway Melville’s coupé took, he made it through Porta San Giovanni.  To his right, he might have seen the row of stone pines similar to the ones along the wall photographed below.  But, of course, the real attraction was the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano to his left.


Later during his stay, he returned to view the basilica more closely, and after his return home and when he composed his first lecture called “Statues in Rome,” Melville gave a succinct rendering of his early impressions of the church.

As you pass through the gate of St. John, on the approach to Rome from Naples, the first object of attraction is the group of colossal figures in stone surmounting, like storks, the lofty pediment of the church of St. John Lateran.  [These statues, like others in Rome, are] the true and undying population of Rome.

He called these statues “mute citizens” of Rome, suggesting that their form and presence spoke more truthfully about human character and beauty than any histories he had read.  Excited by entering the Eternal City for the first time, Melville wanted to stop, to tour, to absorb, but the postillion had seen it all before, and had his riders and the mail to deposit in the center of town.

I can only speculate on which of the myriad possible routes Melville’s post coach might have taken. I am still looking for a reliable, viewable map of Rome ca. 1857.  However, what I have found so far may be the best of finds, online, even if it is one hundred years off the mark.  It is the 1748 map created by Giambattista Nolli, which has been digitized in an exquisite, interactive site titled Imago Urbis: Giuseppe Vasi’s Grand Tour of Rome (, created by Jim Tice and Erik Steiner of the University of Oregon. The site layers modern maps over Nolli’s map and uses Vasi’s engravings (also layered with modern photographs) to show scores of “views” (veduti) of the town.  Tice and Steiner also provide on their layered map the various “historic pathways” through Rome.

One such pathway shows a direct route from the basilica along Via San Giovanni, around the Colosseum, directly through the Roman Forum to the city’s center,DSC_0038 2DSC_0041

then further on and across the river at Castel Sant’Angelo to the Vatican.  This “papal procession” route connected the Pope’s two major “homes.” Melville’s postillion, I imagine, took these stone streets to Piazza Venezia; however, he would not have to have endured the pretentious Monument to Vittorio Emmanuelle II that now dominates the square.

DSC_0043 2DSC_0045

Turning right onto Via del Corso, Rome’s major north-south avenue, Melville passed by the power and wealth of many palazzi and on to his destination: the post office.

In his journal entry for this day in Rome, Melville writes that he got his “first letter from home” once he entered Rome, and this little notation, combined with the fact that he had begun his trip at the Naples Post Office and was surely riding along with the day’s mail, suggests to me that his first stopping point in Rome would have been Rome’s central Post DSC_0016Office.  But this is just a guess.  According to the travel guide Melville had with him—The Handbook for Travellers to Central Italy, prepared by Melville’s British publisher John Murray—Rome’s central Post Office was located, then as it is today, on Piazza San Silvestro. And to get there and catch up with Melville, I returned to Metro A and rode the distance to Piazza Barberini, the stop closest to the Post Office.

If this is indeed the building Melville entered to see if any mail was waiting for him, he could have looked up inside the entryway and seen two frescoed lunettes above him, one over each shoulder.  Up in the left lunette is a reclining oriental empress asking to be fanned by an elegantly attired African servant.  Up to the right, appears to be Queen Isabella of Spain in casual conversation with a native American. Today, these same images of empire and femininity watch patrons as they come through DSC_0017the door, seeking not so much their mail any more as various official, governmental, and financial transactions. (See Ginny’s post “Moduli.”)


From the Post Office, Melville probably walked to his lodgings at the Hotel de Minerva. Throughout his life, Melville was a great walker, mostly by inclination but often he had no choice in the matter.  Throughout his journals, he makes a point to indicate when he was forced, for reasons of practicality or exhaustion, to take a cab. But walking was his default mode, and because he does not mention taking a cab from the Post Office, I see him with suitcase in hand walking down the streets of Rome, at 10 am, presumably with some kind of map, trying to find the Minerva Hotel.  Or perhaps, this is how I see myself.

Chances are Melville went back down Via del Corso past Piazza Colonna, named not—Ginny tells me—for its towering column but for the powerful Colonna family that owned much of the surrounding district of Rome. The column is dedicated to Marcus Aurelius, and like Trajan’s column near the Roman Forum (which he would have seen from the coupé), it is bedecked with a single marble ribbon of figures spiraling upward, depicting the history and accomplishments of the two emperors, both of the Roman ruling family called the Antonines.

DSC_0020Thirty years later, at the end of his life, Melville had witnessed the growth of his nation into an imperial power.  And after twenty years as a customs officer in New York City, he had seen palm-greasing corruption all around him. In 1891, his last year, he published a perhaps bitter, perhaps hopeful poem titled “The Age of the Antonines,” in his travel-inspired, Italy-suffused collection Timoleon, which concludes:

Ah, might we read in America’s signs
The Age restored of the Antonines.

With Trajan’s and Marcus Aurelius’s columns punctuating his trip through Rome, Melville had to marvel, as any of us does today, at the spectacle and ruin of Rome. But as a nineteenth-century reader of Roman history, its rise and fall, he saw America, perhaps more acutely than we, as a republic similar to Rome coming perilously close to similar ruination. More likely, though, Melville had other thoughts on his mind than the fall of America or the ribbon of Roman signs spiraling up the virtuous Antonine column as he crossed Piazza Colonna. For once he left the Corso, he was into the maze of Rome’s historic center and finding his way would have meant following his nose, or asking for direction; the map is not always so helpful.

DSC_0031The side streets crowding about Piazza Colonna lead to remarkably incongruous piazzale, one with the tallest of obelisks seized millennia ago in the conquest of Egypt, another with boys kicking a ball in the dust.  Each bending alley way connects to another, but never with a straight view to an end, but each leading him, somehow, soon enough and subito, just around the next corner, signore, to the utterly unexpected magnificence of the Pantheon.


I imagine Melville at this point so completely battered by all these monuments and bustle leaping at him from every turn of a corner that the very second wind that was keeping him awake was beginning to leave him breathless.

Moving forward to the left and just behind the Pantheon, on the Piazza della Minerva, DSC_0036Melville saw Bernini’s ridiculous little monument, an elephant with yet another obelisk on his back.  On the south side of the square, with the Pantheon still in view, was Melville’s immediate objective, the Hotel de Minerva, now a Grand Hotel with ever fresh bouquets of flowers but then a much more modest albergo, catering to travelers desperately inclined to speaking English or French.


Melville wasted no time.  He unpacked, washed his face but probably no more, read his letter from home, and in less than an hour, was out again on the streets.  Despite all that he had seen, he had not seen what he had wanted most to see. But, while Melville at 38 could go on touring, or roving, after twenty-four hours of no sleep, I cannot, at 64, go on writing.  He has kept me up until 2 am on successive nights, preparing for and writing this post, and I shall have to save the rest of his day for another posting.  Good night.


Roman Wall


Today—February 25—is the 157th anniversary of Herman Melville’s arrival in Rome, on this day in 1857.  One of my goals, while in Rome as a Fulbright Fellow teaching the American Renaissance (1820-1860) at the University of Rome, Sapienza, is to take Melville’s journal of 1857 in hand and follow his daily itinerary.  I thought it would be FUN to follow in this man’s footsteps, to do my touring of Rome through his nineteenth-century eyes, while also sustaining the perspective of a twenty-first-century resident (rather than tourist), if only for a semester.

When walking about Rome, and looking hopelessly like the Americans we are, Ginny and I are frequently accosted by waiters and the occasional man dressed as a Roman gladiator (cigarette cupped in hand), the former to get us to eat at his place, the other to offer us a photo op with him.  And we say to them, “non siamo touristi.”  We are not tourists: we are locals; we are residents; we are Romans.  And though these waiters and faux gladiators buy our line and leave us alone—and I recommend the phrase if you are in Rome and would like to do your touring without being solicited—I realize that wanting to be Roman is not being a Roman. And so “non siamo touristi” is a fiction, just as it is a fiction that I could ever see Rome through Melville’s eyes. It occurs to me, though, that we are tourists wherever we may be domiciled. When we are most alive, we see our surroundings as if it were all new, as if we are suddenly touring our own backyard.  Maybe, then, we  are lucky to be tourists, if only our touring can be done for the right reasons, whatever we decide those reasons might be.

For all my years, I have spent extended periods of time residing a block from the beaches of San Diego and in a housing development beside the truck farms of nearby Lemon Grove, then in Chicago’s southside, in Genoa for a year, then outside Philadelphia, then in northwestern Pennsylvania, and for the longest period just outside New York City.  So much roving but always with family around me, and so I have never been far from home, though always in some sense an outlier, never a native. Now I am back in Italy a second time around, and for a month of days spread out in our five months here, I will be uno touristo melvillesco. I will be a tourist in Rome in the role of Melville touring Rome. The trick in this experiment will be not to delude myself into thinking I am seeing what Melville saw or seeing how Melville would see what he saw but to sustain a vital, critical distance between my present and Melville’s past.

I am not saying that in this business of being a tourist, I must keep my distance, to remain aloof and disinterested, to erect some wall between me and the subject of my research; in fact, I must plunge into my subject.  All I’m saying is that in plunging, I must know my distance.

So, if I can keep it up, some of my blog postings—which I will identify clearly in some way as being for anyone interested in Melville—will be on and about this experiment. Eventually, what I post will, in some way, make it into the Melville biography I am writing.  At the same time, these postings will naturally drift between Melville and me.  I hope I can keep the distance clear.  Tell me if it all goes fuzzy.


DSC_0007 I am not one to make broad generalizations about anything, much less the topic of masculinity, since it is so fraught with anxiety, for men.  But it seems to be a truth universally accepted that a true sense of manhood begins with plumbing, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. Somehow, the proper containment and flow of water is the appropriate domain for anyone struggling in our culture to become what is called “a man.”  If you can master plumbing, you are finally worth something.  I felt an important bonding, just two days ago, when our landlord and neighbor, Giuliano, responded to a request on our part to fix a faucet.

Giuliano, in his early sixties, is the owner’s son, and lives next door in a two-room portion of the spacious 1920’s era apartment long ago subdivided to give him some privacy.  He has a separate entrance, and we see him maybe once a week.  He is lank, though only a bit taller than I, always courteous but more: congenial, chatty, amusing; he laughs at my jokes.  Since his mother is English and father Italian, he has since birth been bilingual—even trilingual at an early age when he developed, for a spell, his own childhood language.  Now retired, he taught mime, or rather stage presence, to actors—some of whom he delights in seeing on TV—and you can tell in his normal positioning of his feet that he has the poise of a relaxed fencer in his stance.  He seems very comfortable just standing while in conversation.

When we first walked through the apartment upon our arrival, we stood agape at its simplicity of design and layout and yet the elegance and sun-drenching of the splendidly tall windows and entries to our two balconies.  But we didn’t try the faucets, and one, the bathroom sink, did not have the little nozzle you find at the end of the faucet.  When, the next morning, we attempted our ritual tooth-brushing after breakfast, we found the faucet stream spraying out every which way into the sink.  It created an irregular, multi-directional flow, something you could live with, but on the other hand, why not mention this to Giuliano?

aspendos_jcl_half“Well, there’s a lot of chalk in the water,” he said looking at the stream.  And I instantly knew what he was getting at.  Roman water is conducted, still by ancient acqueduct systems (though mostly the underground variety), from sources in the hills that are full of calcite.  What Giuliano referred to as “chalk,” which for Americans connotes what we used to use to write on blackboards, is what we are more likely to call limestone, resulting in what you might call “hard” water.  In fact, Roman water—or at least what you get out of the faucet in the environs of the neighborhood of Trieste in which live—is clear, colorless, and pleasant to taste, not at all “chalky.”  Nevertheless, the chalk is there, and you can see it building up on fountains in the city, such as the one at the foot of the Campidoglio, in the Piazza D’Aracoelli.

At any rate, the chalk also builds up in the little wire meshing located inside the nozzle at the end of the faucet used to catch particles in the water.  And eventually, if that mesh is not periodically attended to, the faucet might clog.  A previous tenant, it seems, had removed a formerly clogged nozzle altogether—it was gone—and what remained in our bathroom was a completely un-nozzled faucet; hence the many directions our chalky Roman water would spew.

I believe myself to be a master plumber since the age of twelve when I first grasped the mysteries of the tank, its odd floating ball, and why you need to jiggle the handle. I knew early on how to fix a running toilet.  By my twenties, I was unscrewing drains to rescue items and unclog pipes.  Of course, my plumbing manhood does not extend into walls or down into the basement or outdoors to sewers.  I remain untested in those areas, but I am handy inside the house.  And I knew that we needed a new nozzle.  I also knew that I could remedy the situation, if only I knew where to find a hardware store in Rome, or even find the right word for such a negozio. Two days into our five month stay in Rome, I did not have the language skills to explain what was needed, and I was apprehensive about this entire matter. Italian toilets don’t have tanks behind the seat; the tank is elevated high up on the wall, the flush handle, in our apartment, is a button on the wall, and I knew that I was no longer in the land of normal plumbing.  And if so, how would I begin to fix the nozzle on the bathroom sink faucet, or what Giuliano (half-Brit) calls the “tap.”

But Giuliano was also flummoxed.  Turns out that the nozzle was not gone; it was still on the faucet; only the little mesh insert had been removed. Worse still, none of Giuliano’s metric wrenches seemed to fit the nozzle, which now needed to be removed.  Plus, the nozzle itself had encrustations of chalk hidden where the nozzle screws on to the faucet.  Giuliano worked on the encrustations with a small screwdriver while I rattled off alternative solutions: a vise grip? an adjustable wrench? a new faucet? Giuliano entertained them all.  But we both knew that even if we got the nozzle off, we would have to replace the mesh.  He was certain that the faucet model was no longer in existence, but somewhere, we knew, there was a negozio that sold spare parts of ancient faucets, and Giuliano got on the case.

DSC_0026 2The following day he arrived with a couple optional mesh inserts that we hoped would fit this modern-looking though already out-moded faucet.  Still, the task of removing the chalked-up nozzle remained.  Much strength and torque is required to perform this delicate, manly maneuver; too much strength and you twist the faucet and new springs of water might come gushing forth.  We both knew—though did not say it—that the wrong move would make things much much worse.  The nozzle would not budge; apparently the chalk build-up had begun to metamorphose into marble.  As Giuliano continued to chip and carve at the residue in the dim and intimate lighting of the bathroom, I suggested that in America—negli stati uniti—we have a magic spray called WD40.  He knew it, though it does not exist in Italia, or least not in his toolkit; but he had a can of something else: “Laser” it is called.  Of course, WD40 (which I believe is aerated oil,  gasoline, and deodorant) is a solvent to loosen up rust and silence squeaky doors. It’s not for dissolving limestone.  But whatever its “Laser” equivalent in Italy is, Giuliano ran off to get his can.

We sprayed, and Giuliano, as if speaking for the Ages, said, “And, now we must wait.” He departed for his rooms, and forty minutes later, I took the funky adjustable wrench / vise gripe he had left behind, squeezed the nozzle gently, applied a certain amount of easeful torque, and it moved, and moved again.  I ran to Giuliano’s door and yelled, “Success.”  And he returned, and the rest is routine.  Suffice it say the chalk is gone, the mesh inserted, the nozzle back on, and we smiled as we shook hands, both of us feeling a mutual self-regard.  In this plumbing feat, we both—the Italian and American—had conquered Rome.



The Italian for “sugar” is pronounced DZOO-kair-oh, a word that Romans let roll like a ball bouncing down the stairs.  It’s a word they deeply cherish, as do I.  My problem with zucchero is that I am diabetico. Which is why I took a trip on Rome’s Metro the other day.

I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes over twenty years ago. I had no symptoms, but a routine blood test had revealed that my blood sugar was through the roof.  So I have worked to keep this silent, relentless condition under control first by diet and exercise; then with diet, exercise, and pills; and for the past ten years with diet, exercise, pills, and insulin.  Guess which two of the preceding four requirements for good health I am lousy at.

Because Americans are becoming increasingly obese and because the incidence of Type II (or Adult onset) Diabetes is growing, people naturally enough assume that being overweight causes diabetes.  But it doesn’t.  This particular diabetic condition is inherited genetically and has to do with your particular body’s particular capacity to produce a sufficient amount of insulin, which is a hormone that permits your red blood cells to absorb sugar flowing in the blood stream and into the cells themselves.  If your pancreas makes plenty of insulin, the sugar molecules enter the cells and are processed into energy that makes your organs work.  If it does not make enough insulin, the sugar molecules stick to the surface of your red blood cells, and these sugar-encrusted cells cannot flow properly.  They will then clog up your capillaries, and you go blind, or get infections in your toes and lose a leg, and so on. Apparently, my pancreas sort of pooped out around 1991 and continues to produce less insulin than I need.  My weight has always gone up and down, but being more or less overweight did not cause my diabetes.  You can be seriously overweight all your life and not become diabetic, and I know plenty of diabetics who are skinny as a rail. Controlling one’s diet is essential, of course, because being overweight is not good for a diabetic.  Coming to Italy, for five months, posed this extra challenge for me:  how do I manage my blood sugar levels in a land renowned for its truly irresistible cooking.

The upshot of my diabetic condition is that I also need my meds, and I need to have a special blood test (A1c) once every three months.  On the plane, I was able to carry with me three months’ worth of my prescriptions to Italy.  But since I will be in Rome for five months, I need an MD in Rome to write prescriptions for pills and for this special test, and to hold my hand.  I found Dr. Vincenzo Bacci.  And to get to Dr. Bacci I took the metro.

Now, before we get on the Metro B from Piazza Bologna, I must tell you that the only other time I have taken Rome’s Metro was back in 2003 when Ginny and I were in Rome for a conference on Emerson that I was attending.  Why else would you fly to Rome but for Emerson (who hated travel)?  Upon our arrival at Termini, Rome’s colossal train station, we found the line at the taxi stand stretching down Via Cavour and seemingly out of sight, so we elected to take the Metro subway instead. The Metro was equally crammed but at least moving somewhere.  As we stood in our subway car pushed up against tourists, gentle Romans, but (apparently) two thieves, Ginny felt a man with his coat folded over his arm sidling up too close to her and saw a woman sidling up too close to me.  She called out to me to beware, and made glaring eyes at the guy next to her while I held my wallet.  Two stops later we emerged with luggage unmolested, pockets unpicked, and purse unsnatched.  However, when we got to the Hotel Portoguese (a wonderful place north of Piazza Navona) and into our room, Ginny discovered that the bottom of her leather purse had been slit rather cleanly, but the cut purse had not had time to slice as well through the purse’s inner lining, so this ladro was not able to steal the contents of said purse, while we were crammed in the Metro. A close call.

And one well remembered as I headed down the stairs at the Metro station in Piazza Bologna in order to make my 11 am appuntamento with Dr. Bacci.  You always carry yourself warily in a big city, but I also feel the need for contact: I like to look at faces, the contours of bodies, and imagine what a child might look like in ten or fifteen years, or what an old man or woman looked like as a youth.  In short, my mind in a subway is more on faces than my wallet.  Knowing my failings and the event of 2003, I was all the more wary and apprehensive as I stood in the crowded Metro B, heading south to my stop at the Circus Maximus, which Ben Hur and others in Rome call Circo Massimo.  No apparent thieves (AT) in sight, just people heading for work and a couple tourists heading for the Coliseum, not yet weary but ready to start their days, but none, too, happened to meet my gaze.  Was I a thief contemplating their pasts and futures?

When Metro B reached Termini, the car emptied considerably, but no cut purse or pickpocket or in fact much of anyone got on board, and I took a seat and rode safely to Circo Massimo, my backpack (zaino) containing my medical records in my lap.  Ascending to daylight, I found across the busy via San Gregorio the huge sunken field of the Circus, fenced all around.  At the nearest end is a small tower and below it were what looked like archaeologists at a dig, or perhaps they were conservationist because they were shoveling Rome’s rich dark clayey soil into a machine with two rollers pressing the soil and making it ready for bricks; another worker was loading already made bricks onto a platform.  I wanted to learn more but did not want to miss my appointment with Dr. Bacci, so I moved up the via, and then turned up the Aventine Hill and dropped in at the small Church of Santa Priscia, where a modest sign indicated that Pope Francis would be visiting on March 5, which might account for the fact that the interior was draped and worker-tape prevented closer inspection. Besides, my appointment.

Making my way to the top of the Aventine and to my new doctor’s office, I filled out the usual form (modulo; see Ginny’s new blog) for first-time (prima volta) patients, and revisited an irony I had been thinking about since I had first discovered Dr. Bacci’s name in a list of English speaking medici (yes, that’s the right word for doctors): “Baci” (which sounds the same as “Bacci”) means “kisses,” and “Baci” are also a famous Italian confection: a hazelnut wrapped in nocciolo wrapped in chocolate; I love Baci. And while Baci are bad for diabetics, Dr. Bacci turned out to be pretty good, for this diabetic.

He is a man just under my height (which is 5’8″), with a pleasant smile and friendly manner to match.  He wore one of those Italian blue cardigans that zip up the front, and he set me at ease immediately.  We established in our initial interview at his desk that we were the same age and that he had studied medicine in New York just about the time that Ginny and I were in Genova on my first Fulbright.  I could see in the slight wrinkling around his eyes a younger man riding the subways of Manhattan.  I had chosen sweet Dr. Baci, not for the irony of his name, but because—all the more ironic perhaps for the sweetness punningly implied in his name—he is an endocrinologist, which means he knows diabetes.

Then I removed my shirt and pants for the examination.  I weighed in at a shockingly low 79, and I am always pleased to be weighed metrically because it seems lower than pounds, and happily this 79 converts to 174, which means I had, in fact, lost two pounds (almost a kilo) since leaving home. (My goal is to get back to 160—from 79 to 73—and to do it in Italia! Six should be easy.)  Dr. Baci sat me on the examination table, checked my blood pressure (a little high on the upper number), thumped my back, and listened to my breathing and heart.  We talked about my work on Melville, and he mentioned his time in New York.  He then converted the prescriptions I had received from my medico at home, the venerable Dr. Marvin Lipman, and he told me how to arrange for an A1c blood test (which is sure to be another story).

On my return home, I had other errands to perform, including entering the belly of Italian bureaucracy at the Post Office in Piazza Bologna, and it was not until this posting that I realized that Dr. Baci had had his hands on my back and chest; I had been touched by this Roman, and not by a pickpocket or cut purse.  Of course, it would be an insult to Dr. Bacci and the medical profession to suggest that I had any doubt about him, his skill and knowledge, his gentilezza and good humor, his gift for setting me at ease; or even to consider that I had had anything less than complete confidence in this new acquaintance.  Nor during my time in his office did I ever feel that his touching might be the kind of violation I had experienced years ago on the Metro.  You give your body willingly to a doctor—not at all to a thief—and it is understood that this physical intimacy of a unique kind is a positive and confidential sharing.  But it never occurred to me until now that going to this Roman doctor for my diabetic prescriptions and a checkup involved an unexpected release.  No more the fear of the Metro.  And before me began my second chance at Rome.


The bird pictured in my previous post is not the mockingbird I heard during my first night in Rome.  The bird below is a robin.  It was one of more than a dozen robins flocking on a holly bush beneath my window at home in Hartsdale, NY.  I had planted that bush when we moved into the house in 2002.  A few years before that, we had adopted Liana when she was four, and our apartment at the time suddenly got smaller as she got bigger, so in time we bought the house, and I planted the holly.

It’s a prickly leafed bush, as we all know, but the bright red berries against the dark green leaves is a great sight to see, and reminds me of Christmas and, for some reason, children singing.  But for years this holly bush would not produce berries.  About five years ago, I noticed a few red spots, but barely enough worth counting.  The following year brought more though still not enough to make the bush seem recognizable as a holly.  But this year, well before Thanksgiving, the bush seemed on fire with red berries, and I brought some cuttings inside to decorate and impress my older daughter Emma, her husband Russell, and their 20 month old boy, our first grandson, John, who were flying in from Chicago for Christmas.

I’m sorry; were you expecting something about Rome?

So I was inordinately proud of my blazing holly bush; however, in the flurry and babble of my grandson running about the house, I barely gave notice to the holly cuttings.  Somehow, young John’s presence captured our attention.  He was the red-cheeked berry of the moment.

Then came the first of the snows in early January; a melt, then more snow, and more, with deep freeze temperatures creating a pile-up two feet deep.  Everywhere.  I’m not sure how birds survive the winter; I know our robins don’t fly south, and I suppose they always manage to find something to eat on the ground, when it is not covered with snow two feet deep, but weeks of snow coverage will change a bird’s situation, and disposition.  So, long after Christmas, and only a day before leaving for Rome, I found a flock of truculent robins, maybe eighteen roosting in a nearby tree, dive bombing at my holly bush.  They came singly and in groups of six, devouring my holly berries one berry at a time: plucked, then tossed back and swallowed whole.  In less than an hour, the berries and birds were gone.  And I am glad the beauty of that bush was put to such good use.

Thirty-six hours later, on a warm night in Rome, I was awakened by another bird.  It was the distinctive random warble of a brassy Italian mockingbird.  I’m not a “birder,” but I seem to know—or perhaps I made this up so long ago that I am now certain of its factuality—that mockingbirds have a seemingly infinite repertoire of five or eight note songs, and that they can go through 180 of them without repeating.  (I guess some ornithologist simply gave up listening after song 180.)  The bird’s strategy is to sound like every other bird imaginable so that his broadcasting of so many songs will ward off all other birds within earshot.  It’s his way of claiming territory.

I know that Harper Lee’s narrator Scout tells us that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because all it does is sing sing sing.  But maybe she had never been wakened on successive nights at 3 AM to the maddening sound of a mockingbird cheerfully blasting the neighborhood with his boombox rap.  I am a light sleeper, and more than once has my serenity been disturbed, of a night, by a New York mockingbird.  Believe me, it would not be such a sin to wring a couple mockingbird necks.  As you can tell, I have differing views on different birds.  Liana is terrified of birds, but that’s another matter.

As it happens, I also teach mockingbird behavior to my students when we read Walt Whitman’s great poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” This operatic work is about a man’s recollection of being a boy on a Long Island beach listening to a pair of mockingbirds sing love songs all night, until a storm kills one of the birds, and the remaining bird continues his song, although now the love song is a song of death, which harmonizes with the sound of the ocean waves: night, bird, waves, song—death.  It is one of the most moving poems in Whitman’s vast repertoire of songs. And I will admit to softening my view of birds, though not of sin.

And now, having escaped America to live in Rome for a spell, I am awakened by a noisome mockingbird in the night whose song kept me tossing until 5:30 AM, sleepless and wondering about childhood, birds, berries, and death.  Is this what Rome is about? I waited up the next night to hear him, but he did not return.

A Frantic Two Weeks


Yes, it might be fun to run a blog, but you have to have time to write it, and for the past two weeks Ginny and I have been frantically making ready for our departure to Rome, with no time for blogging about our lack of time for blogging.  True, we have known about this sojourn in a foreign country since I received the good news a year ago that the Fulbright commission had accepted my application for a Fellowship at Sapienza, the centuries old nickname for the University of Rome.  We’ve done a great deal of planning ahead for this moment, but that doesn’t mean the last two weeks before you leave won’t be frantic, and apparently frantic does not go well with blog, unless you are used to blogging, which I am not.

I could regale you with all of the ways that our planning to get to Rome was thwarted by all the usual, unexpected crises of Life that you can’t plan on.  Like two weeks of blizzards in New York, where we live.  Like a young man rear-ending our sophomore in college daughter Liana, her first vehicular accident, which left her in tears and in need of parental assurances and advice on getting her car to an auto body shop.  And Ginny can tell you even more about four years of caring for her sister, culminating in January with her sister’s decision to go into nursing care, a transition that could not have happened without Ginny’s miraculous ability to juggle the many complexities—medical, social, financial, legal—in getting the best for her long suffering sister.

Happily, our actual trip to Rome—the drive in a snowstorm to Newark airport, the flight to Copenhagen, the connection to Rome over the Alps (which I slept through)—was utterly uneventful, and while I am looking forward to Rome as an opportunity to teach Italians about American literature (and to learn from their unique perspectives) and to conduct my Melville research, I cannot help but feel that I am also escaping from the hassles of home.  But Rome has hassles, and there is no escaping life, if you are set on living.   To put it better, I cannot help but feel that I am escaping the routines of home: the dog, the phone, the TV, the car, the Mexican order out, email, email, email. And I hope you won’t begrudge me this escape.

Ginny and I are 70 and 64, respectively, and too old for routine.  Our little aches—her hip my shoulder—tell us we no longer have time to waste.  We are writers and want to blog, not to record the sights of Rome for you—although we surely will—but to convey what it means to live a bit untethered, to live as strangers in Rome, and to report on the birds I heard in the night.