Why I fell under the spell of La Dolce Vita by the Trevi Fountain
Published 29/04/2014 | 09:30
I first went to Rome in the 1960s, and throughout that decade, and the next, I returned on various reporting assignments. Street revolution was rife in Paris, and then continued in Rome. Italian students and Marxist radicals favoured Maoism as their revolutionary brand – spiced with the influence of the Italian communist, Gramsci (who was an interesting thinker).
Everywhere in Rome, it seemed, then, the walls were daubed with the revolutionary slogan: 'LA LOTTA CONTINUA!' (The Fight Goes On!)
Oh yes, Rome seemed a hive of revolutionary activity at one stage, particularly when the Red Brigades were pursuing their programmes of kidnapping, assassinations and sabotage, in the name of furthering the "proletarian revolution".
Italian revolutionaries, however, for all their fierce, even demented, extremism never seemed quite ready to renounce bourgeois comforts: rioting in the streets during the day was often followed in the evening by a calm pasta dinner at home with an indulgent mamma and papa.
These are some of the images I recall about Rome: the excitement of something new constantly occurring. Previous to the "revolutionary" period of the 1970s, Rome was celebrated for its dolce vita, immortalised by the wonderful Fellini movie, with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg bathing in the Trevi Fountain. This was supposed to capture the exquisite decadence of the Roman Empire as it fell: everything to excess.
I remember walking up and down the Via Veneto and looking eagerly for opportunities of decadence; or shopping. Either would do.
For many Irish journalists of that time, Rome seemed to signal another revolution: a revolution within the Catholic Church, as the Vatican Counsel of 1962-65 got under way.
Experts known as 'Vaticanologists' dispatched sensational reports which splashed across the front pages about the great changes taking place in the Catholic Church.
There was even an Italian word for it, which was on everyone's lips (or everyone frequenting the Pearl Bar and the Oval, two Dublin watering-holes for journos): aggiornament. This was "bringing up-to-date". And much was brought up to date, too.
Apart from Mass in the vernacular – not Latin – and a new focus on Biblical scholarship, suddenly Martin Luther was no longer "in error", as our old catechisms had taught: he was a reformer deserving of respect. (Although feminist historians were anti-Luther, claiming he closed the convents because he thought women in communities became too powerful, and making nuns marry would place them under the proper control of a man.) But anyway, from Rome came ideas of revolution.
Yet the impact of being in Rome today is less about revolution, and more about a powerful sense of continuity. All of modern and ancient history is here, and it all flows into one great stream: Caesar's Rome melds into the Rome of Garibaldi, the princes of Savoy, and every saint and Pope who has graced the terrain.
The streets and bridges embrace, by name, every aspect of the Roman story; the Catholic churches sit in peaceful co-existence alongside the pagan deities and statues to anti-clerical revolutionaries who sought to extinguish religion.
In the run-up to Easter, faith symbols are everywhere and wayside shrines to the Blessed Virgin adorned with flowers. At the Piazza Venezia, from where Mussolini once harangued the populace, a large, artistic image of Jesus Christ is displayed.
This is why Rome is eternal: because it absorbs all of human life and experience, sometimes letting it be, sometimes turning around its purpose with startling ingenuity.
The Colosseum, where gladiatorial combat once meant brutal death, is now ritually lit up each time the death penalty is abolished somewhere.
Italy itself is, like other societies, not without problems: problems of political corruption and uncertain leadership. It is commonly said that Italian unity has never been wholly successful – when Italians speak of "my country", they still mean "my region", which means more to them than the abstract notion of the state.
Immigration is currently putting strains on Italian compassion, since it is, geographically, often the first port of call for those from North Africa and the Middle East fleeing from poverty and conflict.
But Rome, this eternal city, is so embedded, so connected to its roots and its immense breadth of experience, that you feel it can survive anything. To walk by the banks of the Tiber is, in a way, to understand what it means to be a conservative (small "c"). Being a conservative is not about halting the march of progress, or refusing to "change with the times", much less holding prejudices against the ideas or values of others.
Conservatism is about understanding the things that remain constant in human experience: family, tradition, religion – and art. Perhaps one might add money, as that too always holds sway – the great palazzi of the Colonnas, Borghese, Farnese and Doria could scarcely have been constructed without dynastic fortunes.
More revolutionary times may come again, but even if they do, they will come and they will go, and eventually become part of the broad sweep of eternal experience that is Rome.