Ghosts of Rome

July 13, 2009

My first visit to Rome, I was eighteen years old. The city was so full of life – and I, with all the passion of youth, fell head-over-heels in love with the place…a love affair that continues still, to this day!

During the Spring of that year the monumental staircase to the church of Trinita’ dei Monte was a sea of colour with all the azaleas heavily in bloom. The church above contained Daniele da Volterra’s painting, the Descent from the Cross, which I’d been told was “a must see”! At the foot of the steps stood the Barcaccia fountain designed by Bernini, no less; young people sat here and there on the steps in the sun while tourists climbed wearily up to the church or descended to the Piazza di Spagna where they could pause for an ice cream and listen to the musical sound of the water in the fountain.

Aldo once told me, ‘Rome is a city of fountains…and of ghosts!’

Aldo was seventy something then, but looked younger: sixty, perhaps, and very fit. He had one of those severe, military-style haircuts normally associated with a much younger man, and, paradoxically, spoke English with a thick Bronx accent which led me to suspect he’d learned the language as a child from the occupying GI’s at war’s end. He earned money to supplement his pension from the University, where he’d been a lecturer in art history, by working as a guide. He’d been born in Rome: it was his city; the place he’d grown up. And walking from the Largo Goldoni by the Via Condotti to the Piazza di Spagna it seemed all the small traders knew him, greeting him with waves and smiles and cries of ‘Ciao Aldo’.

‘In the early hours of morning, ghosts sometimes walk the steps,’ Aldo told me. ‘Ghosts from way back in time, a lady in a fine dress, a gentlemen in a baggy silk shirt, drifting together from the Piazza to the church. It’s true. You can come yourself here and see them. You might even see on occasion the ‘White Nun’.’

Standing in the sun bright Piazza Lisa my girlfriend asked Aldo about his ‘White Nun’.

‘It is a sad story. Too sad for such a beautiful day,’ he replied. ‘She was thwarted in love, is all. She couldn’t go on and took her own life, which is a sin of course. Now she is forced to wander the steps in search of forgiveness.’

‘That is sad.’

‘Yes, indeed.’ Aldo’s eyes sparkled with good humor. He raised his hand to the sharp grey stubble on his skull-like head. He was a great one for teasing with such stories.

‘But you must not trouble yourself with these things,’ he said, gently. ‘Be happy. Walk in the sunshine with your man. Leave the ghosts to the night. Come. Let me take you to the Villa Borghese Park. We will need a cab. I’ll show you the lake with its small temple dedicated to Aesculapius. And we can eat ice cream and be happy together, the three of us.’

Such an idyllic spring day, and so many years ago now.

Lisa and I were both culture-freaks, which made the city nothing less than paradise on earth. It was her first time there, too, and she couldn’t get enough of it! Even the crowded market in Campo de’ Fiori thrilled her. I remember seeing her eyes so full of wonder like those of a child, and thinking how happy she looked. How happy we both were.

One time we had a row over nothing. I remember sitting in a bar somewhere off Via Vittorio Veneto, the interior air-conditioned, drinking vodka and ice with Nastro Azzurro chasers, the light beer fizzy at the back of my throat. Outside the day was slowly dying. Cars were parked bumper to bumper on either side of the road. I was alone at a table near the door. People stood at the bar behind me, loud, raucous. Others sat outside at pavement tables.

How many drinks had I consumed? I don’t know. But I’d reached that state where the waiter’s conversation with me was an insidious, labyrinthine thread I struggled to follow.

Later that evening it began to rain. I decided I needed to walk. The rain was rattling off the parked cars curbside and streaming down the windows of the bar. I saw people running for cover and heard the click, click, click of a young girl’s high heels on the pavement nearby. The rain was torrential, but I didn’t care. The air smelled fresh, good. The rain wouldn’t last, I thought, even as the watery darkness enclosed me. The narrow road was flooding in half-a-dozen places. I walked on, head up, face awash, streaming rain.

I crossed one deserted piazza and entered another via a narrow street where tall buildings stood wedged together. I saw faces in darkened doorways. Outside a small pizzeria two men with broom handles poked at a bright red and white striped awning filled to bursting with rainwater. The smell of the wood fired ovens reminded me I hadn’t eaten.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and some seconds later lightening flashed lighting up the narrow street. I was soaked to the skin but continued to walk through this deluge.

Then, abruptly, I sensed I had company – someone drifting beside me through the rain, a young woman in the shadows.

One of Aldo’s ghosts?

I became certain that if I could just turn my head slightly to the right, she’d be there – a ghost or spirit, at my side. But I couldn’t bring myself to look. I couldn’t look in that direction; couldn’t face it. Instead I breathed the faintest hint of scent, of azaleas, before walking quickly away from that place, and the overwhelming sensation of a ghostly, female presence.

After midnight, the rain long departed, I sat on the Spanish steps breathing in the scent of all those tangled flowers, my back propped against a crumbling mildewed wall, watching for ghosts – if not a scarlet clad cardinal from another age, perhaps Aldo’s white nun?

She might appear with one of those sad, haggard eighteenth century ladies whose hair hangs in powdered ringlets about the shadows of her cheeks. The rich silks of her dress rotting from time spent in the grave. Both floating down the steps and passing me by without a second glance.

In the Trinita’ dei Monte at the head of the steps was darkness. Within that darkness was da Volterra’s Descent from the Cross. my thoughts turned to the four grieving female figures depicted in the lower left hand corner, the three Marys and one other.

Perhaps Aldo’s White Nun hovered within, watching those figures with sympathetic gaze?

The painting had recently been restored. Before it had been obscure, dark, filled with gloomy shadows. Now, the colours were more robust – much more vivid, and the depicted forms were consequently more dynamic. This reality had lain hidden from modern observers of the work until its restoration. It was an example, I thought, of the reality concealed behind appearance.

I knew then that Aldo was correct: Rome was a city of ghosts. I knew, too, that I would return to Rome. I hoped it would be with Lisa.

Now, all these years later, I realise it is people, not places, that are haunted.

We each of us carry so many ghosts around with us…I carry the ghost of Aldo, and of Lisa…and the ghost of myself, as I was then, a very young man in love with a very young woman, and with life, and with that wonderful glowing city of Rome….