When Rome speaks to you, it speaks to you very quietly, below a whisper even. You’d be there in St. Peter’s Square surrounded by marvel and marble and as though a stranger snuck up behind you and quickly vanished, you’d turn to see no one near you but you’d hear the echo of their words in your mind, and it would be then you’d feel Rome has spoken to you.
Come to think of it, it’s similar to a way a painting of Christ speaks to you as you absorb the visual messages and meanings before you, or the way the Sistine Chapel moves you to silence because you want to listen and use your senses in newly unexpected ways. When Rome speaks, you know you’ve heard something deep inside you, where calm remains untouched and unfettered by the world at-large: Sensationalized headlines of mindless gossiping mistaken for reporting on politics and social media.
You’d be on Janiculum Terrace, which overlooks the Colosseum and the Pantheon and on to the large hills that run along the horizon, and you’d hear Rome tell you exactly what you’ve been feeling for the last ten years or more but you were too busy to notice or too bothered to take the time to care. There’s something about the way the city speaks that gets you to listen.
You can be lost in a neighborhood, a residential area where real Romans live—the ones who wake at six in the morning to get fresh breads through the side entrance opening directly onto the steamy kitchen where bakers nonchalantly hustle to fill the orders—and you can be completely lost, having walked for thirty minutes in a circle or a square—having watched daily Roman life stretch and unfold around you—and you wouldn’t have the slightest fear gripping your heart and thoughts, because somehow you’ve heard and you know that all roads lead to Rome and that all the city streets lead to the center of Rome.
Roads, like Fanicum, appear at first tiny alleyways, secret passages to nowhere, but you brave yourself up to take to the side of the street where a faded white line marks the pedestrian’s path alongside zipping and zooming automobiles, and you walk along a stone or brick wall some twenty or thirty feet high that curves and curves along the alleyway that has now opened to a medium-sized street, and before you know it you’re walking along a large sidewalk next to a roadway running smack into the side of the Vatican.
When you are in the Vatican museums, Musei Vaticani, before they even open to the general public, while the museums wait deserted but patient for the morning crowds and tours to come in bulk after ten, when the rooms lie open and naked before you, the relics and sculptures and frescoes are alone with you, all alone with you and only you, you’ll hear Rome speaking to you in new ways about very old things, like ancient ideas that have taken on new meanings, and you’ll find that Rome is right and you’ve been mistaken every day of your life, but you’re not dismayed, not in the slightest, because Rome feels to you like an old friend you can trust your words and life to, and you feel grateful at having been corrected and set on a new course you never saw before.
You’d also be on a high balcony watching the sunrise and see the orange and white lights twinkling, almost like they were eyes blinking at you from the still darkness that recedes into dawn as the first rays of day ebb and flow out over the mountain range that holds the city safely inside its interior, and you’d feel Rome standing next to you out there on that balcony, like the memory of a family member who has died long ago but has returned to comfort you in your time of loneliness and beauty on a balcony in Rome at sunrise, and you feel comforted at having Rome there beside you out there in the cold November morning, all around you, at the same time, like a new lover or a very old spouse, you don’t really need to say anything because you and Rome are happy just to be there together watching the sun warm the city to its waking hour. Rome might speak to you then and you’d know without knowing and you’d want to hear more because you’ll leave one day, you would have to leave at some time, so you’d want to learn all you could about Rome and what it has to say to you out on a balcony at dawn.
The rich history and its culture, its deeply moving aesthetics continuing on into the ages, will fill you with its ease of understanding wisdom, but it’s the philosophy of life that Rome is speaking to you about, and you might even regret there wasn’t more time or more places that speaks to you the way Rome speaks to you.
The crazy thing, or the not-so crazy thing, is that you’ll hear Rome speak and you’ll want to listen and not want to ask any questions—just listen—and you’ll know that your words don’t mean as much as you thought they did or should, because after all you are not Rome and Rome has been before you and will be after you and when Rome continues, you’ll be gone—a sobering thought, and fact, you know—but you won’t be sad when Rome speaks to you about these things because, like the sun and moon in their proper positions things have their specific place and reason for being, and to that idea of time and space you belong—yes, you’re a part of all that—and Rome, too, has its place and reason for being, and that includes speaking to you about your place and reason for being.
But before Rome speaks, you might want to learn Italian.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.