Rome is, arguably, one of the most handsome cities in the world. Not that I’ve been to every city in the world, of course, but that’s its reputation. But it’s also a city that’s in many ways defined by its debris, its dereliction, its waste. The glory of ancient Rome over the centuries became the picturesque ruination so beloved of artists, the bourgeoisie and the artistic bourgeoisie holidaying on what became consolidated as the ‘Grand Tour’. Which reached its sublime expression in things like this, by old JMWT:
Of course, in our modern world, defined by its barbaric plague of combustion engines, single-use plastic packaging and solvent-based territorial marking, it’s not quite so picturesque, despite Rome still having an embarrassment of antique riches.
Trastevere, the former working class district now beloved of tourists, students and ex-pats, where we’ve been staying, is plastered with graffiti (I’m a fan of quality street art, but not this rampant, artless tagging), while the various stairways up the Janiculum Hill and up to the more down-to-earth residential neighbourhood of Monteverde Vecchio, where we’re moving tomorrow, are adrift in litter. All that odious non-biodegradable crap that defines our era. The plasticocene, or something. And lots of crap tagging and graf too.
Today, however, we drifted over to Testaccio, on the east side of the Tiber. It’s a neighbourhood with a very different character again. (Here’s a quick caveat: these observations are all of course only initial, pretty superficial, and made in August, when many Romans are elsewhere.) Testaccio, historically, is defined by its huge rubbish mound, Monte Testaccio, which is made up of broken amphorae, and by its long heritage in the meat industry, based at the old (now closed) slaughterhouse, the Ex-Mattatoio.
The area around the base of the Monte seemed pretty seedy during the daytime, with its ring of closed-up bars and nightclubs. I’m not really the demographic to sample its nocturnal delights methinks. What we did delight in, however, was a visit to the Protestant – or more accurately, Non-Roman Catholic – Cemetery. It’s not a grand place like Paris’s sprawling necropolis of Père Lachaise, but it’s similarly fascinating, and boasts some notable residents, like Keats. Percy Bysshe Shelley was cremated, but his ashes were put here at Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley’s request; according to the Rough Guide she had quite a wrangle with the papal authorities. Their son, William, is also buried here. As are numerous other important, wealthy or just plain forrin non-RC types; some of the English residents are clearly of that rarefied type of upper class who can get away with names like “Viking”.
It’s a wonderful place, with extra interest granted by the fact that it’s loomed over by Caius Cestius’s pyramid, built after his death in 12BC. He had a thing for Egypt. His slaves built it in 330 days, apparently. He freed them on his death; whether they built it when still ‘under contract’ I don’t know (and can’t be bothered to Google just yet). Beside the pyramid is a little cat sanctuary, and a couple of little feline charmers accompanied us on part of our stroll.
Apparently Romans are cat lovers, and these ones seemed pretty happy. You came across several contented-looking beasts drowsing among the gravestones.
The cemetery is also pleasing and relaxing because I didn’t spot a single piece of litter or scrawled tag. Litter really upsets me, it’s a sign of humanity’s lack of self-respect and foresight, and widespread distain for the environment, and this is especially tangible when it’s draped over a city as unique as Rome.
Oh, and just so I don’t end this post on a downer, we ate lunch at the best place we’ve tried so far in Rome, La Fraschetta di Mastro Giorgio. Very much about grilled meats (suitably enough), but we also had some wonderful cheese and some great focaccia. Focaccia in its British incarnation can be quite plump and puffy. Before we left the UK I made some that was much thinner, crisper. I was very pleased to see the stuff here was much more akin to that effort of mine.