Rome – Cities Tell Stories
The way we describe cities often resembles how we talk about people.
We’re familiar with hometowns like they’re old friends. We romanticize places we yearn to see. We associate cities with personas that reflect ourselves as much as the places themselves. Every city’s history – its unique sequence of golden ages and dismal days – imparts character to an area brought to life by its locals. They – we – all have stories to tell.
Rome is where you feel this impression most. The city is beautiful, dramatic, complex, and wondrously revealing…if you’re willing to be patient and perceptive.
The same way you get to know anyone, it’s best to start with a long walk. Like so many others, this story begins in a garden.
One of the largest parks in the capital, Villa Borghese is nearly 200 acres of greenspace amid a city of marble. People stroll somewhat aimlessly depending on their attitudes toward nearby accordion music. We meander past the calm trickling of the water clock and explore a surprisingly quiet zoo, but all paths lead to the Galleria Borghese and the striking story held within.
Apollo and Daphne is the crescendo of the 2,000-year-old story “Metamorphoses.” Apollo, one of the most powerful warrior gods in Greek mythology, mocked the god of love we know as Cupid. So the story goes, Cupid fired two arrows – one made of gold and the other of lead. He shot the gold arrow at Apollo, instilling a pursuing desire for the nymph Daphne – who was struck by the lead arrow that elicited an intense hatred of Apollo.
When Apollo finally got close enough to reach her, Daphne’s river god father granted her wish to end the perpetual chase and turned her into a laurel tree.
People far more artistically knowledgeable than me say that Naples-born Gian Lorenzo Bernini was arguably the greatest sculptor of his time. He designed St. Peter’s Baldachin in the Vatican, and in the early 1600s, he captured this story’s transformation scene in marble. The sculpture almost looks like it’s moving, and just like the story, you can see the pain of its characters catching and losing something at the same time. We’ll all eventually be caught by the haunts that pursue us, with no idea what will happen if we ever reach whatever we’ve been chasing. It’s the story of all of us.
We exit Villa Borghese atop the Spanish Steps, passing caricature artists and people sitting on the 135-step descent – appreciating the day. The swelling crowds suggest we’re getting close to one of the most beautiful spots in Rome. Three narrow streets surrounding Trevi Fountain are crammed with people holding selfie sticks, takeaway pizza, gelato, or any trinket hawked by forgivably persistent street vendors. This gorgeous fountain is even more mesmerizing at night, and it takes something especially enticing to lure us away.
There are no waiters here – just a bar and a half-dozen tables. If you’re fortunate enough to get one, it’s yours to stay at pretty much as long as you’d like. Meaty, cheese-choked lasagna? Best look someplace else, preferably out of country. This is the real stuff. Order the largest wooden slab of cured meats, marinated vegetables, and whatever this unmarked, holy red wine is. Rinse and repeat. This is where you let the city come to you.
Satisfied and only slightly unsteady, we enter one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings. Old gods and the new, the Pantheon has outlived more than a few divinity stories. At 142-feet tall, it’s still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and has been continuously used as a church since the 7th century. Leaving the church whose name means “common to all gods,” we’re on to see the ruins of a temple dedicated to one.
The Temple of Saturn sits at the western end of the Forum, the rectangular plaza at the heart of ancient Roman glory. Some of the city’s oldest, broken roads lead to the legendary Colosseum and wind up Palatine Hill. The centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome, this site offers one of the most outstanding views of the Eternal City.
The “Metamorphoses” myth doesn’t end where that grand piece of rock left us. The poet wrote that Apollo vowed to love Daphne forever and used his immortality to make her an evergreen. In return, she bent her limbs as “her graceful nod gave answer to his love.”
If cities are indeed like people, there’s only so much we can know about them – only so far that they’ll let us in. But maybe, if you’re lucky and patient, Rome will bend its boughs and show you its extraordinary beauty and allure. The stories we tell afterward are up to us.