Rome Has Been Sacked, Conquered and Abandoned. Now It’s the Coronavirus’s Turn.
ROME — Rome turned 2,773 last week.
To mark the legendary founding of the city and its past glory, there is usually a crowded birthday parade of re-enactors dressed up as gladiators and vestal virgins. The coronavirus took care of that, leaving eerily abandoned streets that evoked something closer to a disastrous sacking in the 6th century, when the population of Rome plunged toward zero.
The coronavirus has no marauding army breaching the walls, dumping bodies in the Tiber or burning down buildings. In some ways, the city has bloomed under the epidemic.
With so few cars and people on the streets, the scent of wisteria, draping over ancient defensive walls and garden fences, floats further. At the quiet Ponte Sisto bridge, usually crowded with street artists, I watched five mallards, their necks flashing green, land in formation to skim on the Tiber.
Without car exhaust and onion-thick smoke billowing out of trattorias, the air has become so limpid that from my apartment on the Gianicolo Hill — the site of a French cannon-fire attack on the city during a 19th-century siege — I can count the windows on the usually hazy palaces of the city center.
Beyond the ochre city, the surrounding mountainsides are now sharply drawn. The far-off towns appear like white patches of snow.
Unlike conquests, fires and floods, the virus is clearly not a danger to Rome’s beauty. But what will it do to its spirit?
Last week, days after Rome’s birthday, I went into the city center to get some supplies from the office. The state of the city was, as one would expect, weird.
Campo de’ Fiori, a square that is usually home to a bustling, touristy market, was pretty much empty except for a little girl riding her bicycle around the statue of Giordano Bruno. The philosopher and astronomer was burned alive at the spot in 1600, only decades after imperialist Spanish and German-speaking mercenaries ransacked the city in a gory 1527 sacking.
A few masked figures moved around Hadrian’s Mausoleum, which popes had turned into a fortress that had provided protection from invaders for ages.
In Rome’s old Jewish Ghetto, where Nazis dragged Italian Jews out of their homes during the German occupation, I walked to the normally swamped Portico d’Ottavia. Absent the cacophony of modern life, it recalled an 18th-century Piranesi engraving, the black-and-white Instagram travel posts of their day, which drew Europe’s interest to Rome after another downturn.
But as I wandered around in a mask, I tried to imagine what the city must have felt like when all Romans abandoned it for about 40 days after the sixth-century sacking.
Only a century and a half earlier, Rome had close to a million inhabitants, but then “for the first time in its existence,” as Matthew Kneale writes in his book “Rome, A History in Seven Sackings,” it was deserted.
Things, I thought looking around at no one, can change fast.
The Ostrogoth leader Totila led that sixth-century assault. But few here really remember Totila. Or for that matter the Gauls, the Visigoths and the Normans, or the cruel nobles or reactionary popes who governed the city so badly, or the plagues, measles, typhus, malaria and syphilis that brought Rome low at various points.
Last century’s fascists and Nazi occupiers are fresher but fading memories, an erasure accelerated by the virus’s decimation of older Italians.
I wondered if these months — maybe years — of quarantine or living with the virus would irrevocably change Romans or become another in a long line of hardships that have shaped a Roman character known for irreverence, anti-authoritarianism and more than a drop of cynicism.
The government will begin loosening Europe’s longest lockdown on Monday. Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte announced on Sunday that people could soon start seeing their “congiunti,” a word that loosely means relations, and that he later clarified, with his typical vagueness, to mean those with whom one has “stable emotional relations.”
Romans immediately began offering broad interpretations.
“Sweethearts are relatives too,” the Roman daily, Il Messaggero, asserted in a headline. “Seeking Congiunto, Near the Beach,” read one of the memes Romans shared.
Romans have a reputation for getting around the rules — in traffic, in line, in life. Fans call it endearing creativity; critics, insupportable incivility. Will living with the virus enhance or expunge that?
The virus demands a brutal efficiency to life: Stay home, work, go to the supermarket. But the lifeblood of Rome is languid; it doesn’t rush, it meanders, gets caught in eddies and occasionally pools, sometimes for a century, sometimes for an afternoon at the wine bar.
Old men stroll slowly with their hands interlaced behind their backs. Students lean against cars and spend the entire night talking about what they will do that night. There is a pleasant idleness, a sense of “dolce far niente,” or sweetness of doing nothing, that is raised to a public art form. The result is a perpetual outdoor theater. The streets reverberate with comments from the peanut gallery.
That sensibility is out of step with the current crisis. With Romans forced inside, their iconoclasm and ennui is stashed away; the feeling is one of public service and patriotic mission. It’s admirable and saving lives. But it makes for a different Rome.
Outside, there are still some echoes of the pre-virus city.
Under my apartment the other day, a bus, carrying no one and essentially cruising the city, hit a scooter, the only other vehicle on the road. They both wanted to go first. Around the corner, city workers painted fresh white crosswalk stripes around a parked Smart car, leaving what will be a faded dark spot when the car moves.
During Easter, a sweets shop illegally sold chocolate eggs out a half-closed door. And as the weather has become warmer, I have noticed a lot more oh-funny-seeing-you-here-wink-wink meetings of families on street corners, and an explosion of people carrying shopping bags and dogs — the get-out-of-jail-free-cards of the epidemic.
An awful lot of people also seem to be ditching the communal rooftops, where at the beginning of the lockdown, they jogged laps or even hit tennis balls. Now more are on the streets, taking morning constitutionals, pushing strollers or riding bicycles wearing yellow kitchen gloves. All of this is supposedly within 650 feet of their homes.
There is an undercurrent of a city about to burst.
The popular Roman cartoonist and humorist, Michele Rech, better known as Zerocalcare, has been satirizing the Romans disregarding the lockdown. In this week’s cartoon, he is invited by a friend to a party celebrating the fourth birthday of a dog.
“Guys I can’t,” he responds, “there’s the quarantine.”
“Madonna,” says the friend in a thick Roman accent, drawing out the vowels and tripling the consonants. “You’re still going on with this quarantine business?”
Authorities appear to be cracking down in anticipation of Monday’s loosening of restrictions.
On Saturday two black police helicopters hovered menacingly over my neighborhood, looking for violators of the lockdown. After they had buzzed off, two women came out onto their balcony in the building across the street and sang the old partisan song Bella Ciao to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Liberation from Italy’s fascists.
Nine jets screamed overhead, trailing Italy’s red, white and green colors across a blue sky.
That was a nice, patriotic, spectacle. But my wife, a Roman, was more moved by the three young women, apparently neighbors, who sneaked up to the roof of that same building to flout social distancing rules by drinking wine and smoking (mostly) cigarettes and talking together for six consecutive hours.
Amazed, I told my wife that I couldn’t imagine that anybody could possibly laze and talk in the sun for so long.
She looked longingly across the balcony and said she’d give anything to be able to join them.