We traversed the Tiber left to right one day early in July, and meandering down by Porto Fluviale as we began to set our sights on Testaccio and Home, we passed Sonino Camping etc., where last summer we bought cheap and cheerful deckchairs for the roof terrace. From the slow-flowing, golden (after a downpour) Tiber, to reminders of seaside sedantry afternoons and evenings under the stars atop our condominio block, seems a minor imaginative feat. But it passed the time pleasantly as we strolled.
And then we reached the underpass, the marker for the conceptual dividing ‘line’ between Rome and notRome space (if one is a classicist). What confronted us was a magical landscape beneath the bridge, a world of fierce, sanguinary cats with gore-dripping jaws, monstrous birds and imaginary monsters, haunted owls, and a feral garden of elegantly disturbing flora.
It was as if a leak had developed between dimensions, opening a portal to an alt.Roma where beneath the urban infrastructure lurks a kind of Everwhere, if one has eyes to see.
So we were primed for the unexpected when we strolled in to Monti to meet friends for a G&T the following evening. We were early (I am always either monumentally early or crashingly late, in Rome), so wandering the gnarly backstreets we swerved from one instance of quaintness to another instance of boho chic (the dividing line is flickering), all the while feeling that we were not quite getting under the skin. When we stumbled upon an unexpected delight: a new (to us) park.
This might seem banal, but for a park-fancier (me) and a fetishiser of the quirky and unexpected (ditto), finding a park-in-the-sky where previously I’d seen only what appeared to be private property was a moment of bliss.
What we had encountered was the Villa Aldobrandini. In the past, walking along Via Nazionale, or down Via XXIV Maggio, I’ve seen palm fronds gently waving and fantasised about the beautiful but/and inaccessible garden they must signal. This time, strolling up Via Mazzarino, we realised there was an open gate, a stair, flanked by ruinous brickwork, and hidden until the very last moment, access to the tantalising world glimpsed longingly and hopelessly so often from below.
The park, like so many in Rome, is in a state of gradual dereliction. But in its instantiation of demi-decline, it opens up mental spaces for interrogating how past and present coalesce in this most palimpsestic of cities. Renaissance sculptures abut the classical (and Trajan’s Markets are only a hop, skip, and leap away), dry fountains (pictured) speak volumes in their new guise, and couples catch moments of tranquility amidst gently out-of-control foliage and crunchy gravel paths.
A breeze catches the hair, lifting it lightly after a day in the heat, and the bustle of people and traffic diminishes. We will return.