Journeys to “Rome” (what and where and whose is Rome?) more than to any other city are characterised by a remarkable depth and intensity in their narrative dimension. Although the printing press made dissemination of itineraries possible, and the survival of a sample at least suggests their popularity, guidebooks to Rome were far from a pop-cultural prominence or mass market saturation. To want to know Rome was a result of persisting classical penetration of elite education filtered through the Christian Church’s ambivalent relationship with its ancient Roman contexts.
Itineraries focusing on medieval Rome, such as the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, more or less acknowledge their classical routes and branches. But the balance was delicate between what a wannabe religious pilgrim should, ought, and must need from such a text and the alt.mythography of classical mythohistory imprinted on the city.
The Roman Guidebook phenomenon would develop especially vividly during the eighteenth and nineteenth century European Grand Tour, where creating opportunities to rendezvous with the textbook heroes and horrors of a classical education made Italy a do-or-die culmination. Death on the Grand Tour was an ever-present reality, offering a real frisson of excitement. Would bandits see the party off? Or “bad air” (mal-aria)? Or VD? The Cimitero Acattolico in Rome bears witness to some of the forgotten (or still reverberating) sorrows. From classical antiquity onwards the travelogue, in various forms, has attempted to unpack Rome’s significance in ways that could make sense of its growing imperial power, and the centripetal forces of political hegemony. Rome as “caput mundi” was not just a metaphor, it was (Roman historians and mythographers would have it) an authentic quality of the combination of site and people that became Rome.
Over the centuries, ancient “travelogue” literary texts, from Vergil and Ovid, through to Martial, and historical and antiquarian narratives by big names such as Varro, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Tacitus, and Ammianus Marcellinus, not to mention encyclopedists (such as the Elder Pliny) or geographers (think of Strabo) all fed a sense that there was an inherently storied quality to the city of Seven Hills. By the time that Cola di Rienzo was citing ancient paradigms in support of his revolutionary movement in Rome, his friend Petrarch was developing a renewedly literary approach to the mythic, historic, artistic, poetic tesserae whose ongoing reconfiguration was to my mind more akin to a kaleidoscope than the more static “palimpsest” metaphor typically in play in scholarship from the past few decades.
Late antique and medieval Rome was a burgeoning tourist city long before the Grand Tour. This was an aspirational as much as a real-world industry, and guides to Rome’s marvels pitched distinctive, but often complementary
and rarely separable itineraries whereby “tourists” (typically characterised as pilgrims) could imagine themselves into various scenarios and identities depending on the route they followed.
The Roman “imaginary” spoke to a clientele that understood the city to be uniquely accessible in an epistemological sense. Rather as with the superfluity of available information online, today, the sheer volume of textualised Roman “experiences” on offer made the city as apparently “knowable” as Google seems to make universal information possible now. In both cases, the role of the user tends to be downplayed, and we have little “reception” from contemporary consumers of the early phases of post-classical Rome’s development as a tourist city. Yet as Rome was gradually losing everyday contact with a classical past sinking beneath rising street levels and isolated by changing patterns of habitation, another part of antiquity was re-emerging. Pompeii and Herculaneum. Substantial excavations on the Bay of Naples created a new model dialogue between classical antiquity and the present.
Part II: Where Rome met Greece…
When I was a child, my school was full of “international” children. Exotic, temporary migrants, they were uprooted and (to my mind) almost feral in their freedom from norms. There were no rules if one was from “elsewhere”. My dad, an architect travelled mainly in his imagination; we could only snatch little forays into “abroad”, as I grew older, and we made some expeditions. When I grew quite old enough, still recalling and mentally reliving my first trip to Rome back in the 1970s, I joined the Irish diaspora. Home never looks as good as it does through the prism of alterity, and that’s how I like it.
Spool forward some years, and death, divorce, cancer, and we reached a very significant birthday for my mother. A party wasn’t quite enough, a trip was called for.
For an earlier significant celebration we took her StateSide and tramped Broadway, looped the Guggenheim loop, sipped martinis in high and low places. This time it was the novelty of a rediscovered, still unseen, Old World that she wanted: Campania.
Plotted in the dying days of December, planned with the enthusiasm of Napoleon’s March East, anxiously scrutinised to ensure that campaign’s upshot was avoided, we convened at Naples airport on a warm spring day. This was to be a Grand Tour, albeit on a small scale, in a slew of ways. For my mother, the culmination of a lifetime’s interest in the past resolved in a landscape in which antiquity still erupts complexly within a fragile future. The topopoesie of the Bay of Naples has particular resonance for my mum and me because two of our best friends once lived on Dublin’s Italian echoing Sorrento Terrace, and swimming at the sea-pool off nearby Vico Road was a shivery summer thrill. But this would be the real thing. Even Dalkey Island’s goat colony would echo forward and back in Capri’s name.
First stop, in our rental car, Baiae.
We went with Catullus, with Cicero, with Clodia, with Antony all jostling for attention. The museum is deceptive. A castle, imposing on a high promontory, commanding the view north, the humpback of Ischia, and in Aeneas’ wake but also east and south towards Puteoli, Neapolis, the engulfed towns, and Surrentum.
Enter the museum, however, and what seems at first like a small collection eventually takes shape as a primer for life on the bay across centuries. Drowned urban sites, surfaced, combine with finds from across the region in a silent, cool, series of rooms showcasing the wealth, civic and personal pride, and sophistication of the resorts and cities of the Bay.
After a picnic lunch we drove back to the Baiae Thermae site (which in reality comprises rather more mixed use than simply bath houses). We saw the amazing upside down tree, we tested the reverb in the large baths’ domed vault (unlike me, my mum sings sweetly), I got moss on my trousers by taking a traditional site visit tumble (my first: at Villa Adriana, 1976, followed in quick succession by a second and eponymous trip at Ostia Antica).
We tried to imagine the bricolage morphing into stable structures, meaningfully collocated, telling a story of the site’s use… Evocative, but inscrutable, is my recurring reaction there.
After a coffee, we had 30 minutes to scamper round Cumae — the Sibyl’s cave was closed for business (is April a bad month for the fallen leaf business?), but standing atop the arx, gazing at the strand (complete with cantering horse with latter-day charioteer in tow) Aeneas and the Trojan boat-people seemed very close; could we just have peeled an airy layer away? Even the blink-and-it’s-gone appearance of a man exercising his horse in harness seemed to conspire to blur the chronotope. Driving through Arco Felice on the old Via Domitiana certainly sensitises one to the complex textures of this area, and the palimpsest inquisitors are something I was subsequently musing over as I wrote a paper for the BSR’s Imagined Landscapes of Campania Conference (summer 2014).
Cuma has some happy associations. I met one of my now best friends at a conference at the Villa Virgiliana there, many years ago. The conference was a curate’s egg, but making a friend is not a usual conference outcome. That trip was also my first time south of Rome; Naples was a daunting, chaotic, noisy, dirty surprise. But perhaps it was the unsatisfactory conference context that made it seem so?
On returning our hire car, and having walked rather further than expected through the old centre of Naples’ labyrinthine streets to get to our B&B, we regrouped for a late supper and to plan the next day. Weather in April is a mix of fortune and expectation, and we were promised clear skies through to the weekend. Naples’ Archaeological Museum became the morning destination, with Herculaneum a quick afternoon ride on the Circumvesuviana for mum’s first volcanic descent.
Naples’ museum never fails to delight. The sculptures which once populated Caracalla’s baths (Rome) always draw a gasp, while the monumental “restored” legends of the Farnese collection silently continue a story that spans not just museological ideology, but the Grand Tour economies and valorisation of the rediscovered, for which Pompeii and Herculaneum are the melancholy poster-children…
Herculaneum remains a place of poignant delight. The enclosed quality of the visit as one watches the walls of lava rise again above one is a stark reminder of the extraordinary cataclysm that Vesuvius produced. Striding down and back into Herculaneum concretises the distance from us to them, but also encourages a sense of ownership and comradeship with the site.
It embraces visitors even as it emblematises the devastation that humankind and nature enact upon each other.
Wandering the palaestra area, a phone-call told on my aunt’s death. In the late afternoon sun, in the midst of the life-in-death excavated streets and colonnades, we remembered our mortality and delighted in our company. It was especially lovely that evening to rendezvous with Agnes and her sister, themselves on a Campanian road-trip, but ending rather than beginning their loop. In Piazza Bellini we sat and drank cocktails before pizza; limoncello brought a final bitter-sweetness to the day as back in the Piazza, night drifted into morning.
Like Alma-Tadema, OH and I had wandered Pompeii on honeymoon; that trip too had taken us to Oplontis and the classical villa known as Poppaea’s (Nero’s ill-fated wife. The delicious irony of a honeymoon visit was not lost on us!). In a minor way, this villa became something of an obsession of mine; so much so that I shoe-horned discussion and a photo of one of its frescoes into my 2010 book on Roman Landscape.
This is a villa for living, even if only in the imagination, and just for one day.
From the porticoed courts, through the magnificent, dazzlingly coloured, detailed frescoes of the grand, public rooms, through to the trellis-effect decor on corridors, and garden faux-fences, the deeply relaxing, instantly cooling viridiaria with their lifelike but impossible fountains, lush planting, and eye-soothing shades…
…and the tiny birds, insects, animals, recalling the Ara Pacis, that line the pool promenade.
This second trip was some thing I’d anxiously anticipated. What if I fell out-of-love? What if the colours were less resonant? What if my mum didn’t get the echoes of the ancients fleetingly present just teasingly always in another room? Baseless anxieties.
Pompeii site itself, a full day, total immersion experience from 0800-1700 (-ish) the following day, was as overwhelming, maddening, surprising, as ever.
We picnicked on the elevated path above the city walls, we agreed that the Villa of the Mysteries is underwhelming, especially when (as then) one can’t actually enter the Mysterious room, or see the villa’s “working” zone. We enjoyed spotting small delights (e.g. the weights and measures office, at the Forum), and I remembered the almost eclectic oddness of the early Doric temple, and indeed the Apollo temple, monumentalising Pompeii’s Greek flavour. My mum found the lupinar repelling and a little sad, but was (oh so not literally) tickled by the flying (and other) phalluses.
We were all starting to pick up injuries. Very Grand Tour to be ailing (though we were inauthentic in our various plights: I was getting a sore throat; OH a stiff lower back; mum, a dodgy foot. None were syphillis or gout-related! Compare e.g. Chloe Chard’s important discussion of ‘horror’ on the Grand Tour, and Jeremy Black’s exploration of British Grand Tourism).
Being weary Grand Tourists we needed a rest day; cue Castellammare di Stabia. An overnight at the very grand and delightfully friendly, old-school welcoming, Hotel Stabia followed an early check-in having made the short hop under threatening skies from Pompeii on the circumvesuviana.
We took ourselves down to the prom for a stroll, sea-air, some (by then emerging) sun, and (at the far end by the port) a fantastic fish lunch outdoors with all the spectacle and intrigue of harbour business to amuse us while we ate, drank, and paused.
Evening saw us take the prom in the other direction, lighting upon a sea-front cocktail bar with picture windows and a grandstand view of the sun setting over the bay. My raspy throat and I had an early night.
Castellammare in many respects marked the mid-point of the trip, and the weather changed to highlight the shift. Emerging from the hotel, sheets of rain put a wet trip to Sorrento on the cards. Staying at an old-school grand hotel has many pluses, one of which is the delightful offer of a “transfer” to the train station. Feeling a little shamefaced (for goodness sake, it’s only a five or six minute walk!) but very happy! we took the ride.
At Sorrento, sitting having a coffee by the harbour awaiting our boat to Capri, we watched the clouds gradually lift.
We were all Capri virgins, but our one night/two day visit was so richly textured, so dramatic, surprising in its scenography, that it became very “fat” time indeed.
The funicular up from the harbour was our airlock. It delivered a pause not only to take the measure of the views but also to recall similarities with Porto Borbonico at Ponza, from our late, late summer vac in 2013. At the Hotel San Felice we were charmed, pampered, and made to feel loved. On an emotional high we set out for the Villa Iovis. I’d say we’d spent that high and drawn some more on credit by the time we finally got there (after one of those coincidences one thinks the world has become too fragmentary to sustain: re-encountering high up near the Villa a family previously met, and bonded with as one does when in traveller-mode, it seemed aeons ago in Herculaneum).
The site is more evocative than intelligible, but as with so many of our excursions on the tour, pretty much deserted. Bird-song, rustles from the undergrowth, the weird quiet of waves crashing too far below to be audible… There’s a sadness to the storied notion of an emperor so trammelled by the weakness of a political class, the uncertainty of structures of governance in a still-new framework, diminished expectations after a life at the heart of intrigue, that he restricts himself omnivorously to Capri’s limits.
An unexpected highlight was the jelly blue sky, and we headed onto Arco Naturale, then took the dramatic descent to the supposed grotto of Magna Mater (Cybele). Whatever the long-ago reality, this was evidently a Roman site, and reminded us vividly of the maritime triclinium at Sperlonga.
The thought of slogging back up the steep, occasionally broken steps was unappealing. The sun was hot, we’d had an early start. We considered following the stepped path down instead. Genius: do it! The path gradually manifested itself as Via Pizzolungo, and took us round the south side of the island delivering heart-stopping views of the villa I’d hoped more than any other to see: Curzio Malaparte’s sleek modernist outcrop, site of Bardot’s languid, unhappy sunbathing in Goddard’s Le mépris (1963).
Heading on, for “home”, we lingered in the Moderne with the (then) closed-for-renovation Hotel Punta Tragara at our backs.
In one day, three outstanding examples of architectural idealism.
The Villa San Michele, a morning’s short, precipitous bus ride to Anacapri, swallowed much of day 2. Despite the (not huge, but nevertheless evident) crowds, the heat, the azure sea-sky echo, even the close as dammit kitsch sphinxes (not to mention the birdsong, the nestling sculptures and winding paths, the vistas)…serenity was hard to ruffle.
We lingered on the terrace for lunch, and were mostly silent. It’s that kind of place. It seemed a shame to leave Anacapri without visiting the creation-tiled extravaganza in the church of San Michele. It’s a kind of terrestrial Sistine Chapel, with Eden rather than a last Judgement.
We were sad to leave Capri, and lingered long over fancy sweets and coffee after a stroll round the Gardens of Augustus (marvelling at the zigzag magnificence of Via Krupp, carved and curling up to the Grand Hotel Quisisana), complete with miniature Augustan Horologium.
But the late boat was calling, and we ferried back to Sorrento.
Our hotel was in the centre of the old town, above the port, and welcomed us with a bottle of prosecco, disco lights (they claimed they were relaxing “mood” effect illuminations…) and a private balcony. The wind had got up a bit though, and sitting out seemed less appealing than hunting for dinner. Pizza, wine, a fresh fish platter all ensued. We discussed (the roses of) Paestum — tomorrow’s destination. But the wind brought rain.
The morning stroll to the car-hire pick-up was chilly and damp, but the drive to Paestum was often spectacular (Vico Equense coast road, Salerno ring-road, I have you in mind…) and even through rain clouds, rounding the corner to temple-view was still an extraordinary sight. Perhaps even more than last time — the warm stone against the louring sky actually shimmered. The chill and damp was more reminiscent of childhood “summer” picnics (everyone wearing coats and warming hands on thermos mugs of tea…) than Italian memories. But the photos of awe-struck, damp, umbrella-bearing Spencers remind me that the right occasion Teflon-coats memory.
We ate an inevitably unmemorable but filling lunch at one of the tourist restaurants, and while the rain abated, squelched and scampered round the site. I still, always, find it hard to picture the once streets, noise, smells. And some of the remains are down-right perplexing, even (or especially) when one reads the suggested interpretation.
I’m thinking mostly of the ‘Greek gymnasium’ aka ’Temple of Fortuna Virilis’, but doesn’t everyone have a pet WTF at Paestum? This trip, the museum was open and proved a highlight. Especially the tenuous Cicero connexion.
“Let’s go back along the coast road” we said. It’ll be fun. We might see a field of buffalo. (Like last time). The heavens opened. Water poured like an emptied cistern out of the sky. Where the map showed only one Via Litoranea, unmissable, we somehow got lost. By the time we were nearing Sorrento it was not far off eight o’clock and the closing time of the car-hire desk. Dammit we didn’t want to be paying an overnight for car or car-parking. And we were also not entirely sure how to retrace our tracks to Hertz. I was navigating. There was much potential for blaming, judging, and high temper. Luckily I’d been practising pelmanism on our way out and managed by (luck and) judgement to direct us unscathed to the door with a minute or so to spare.
We were chilled and tired by the time we got back to the hotel, but this was our last real holiday night before the Neapolitan layover that would deliver mum back to the airport, and Dublin. We wanted something a bit special. The five-course fish tasting menu we settled on at Ristorante Caruso, preceded by prosecco, was spot on.
Every bit of fish was fresh and nicely cooked, and the warm, friendly atmosphere and encouragement to linger suited, uplifted, our mood. The next morning, after a breakfast of cannoli and baba, we got on our final circumvesuviana train and in leaving Sorrento, set ourselves one final long sweep of the Bay, alighting at Naples.
That was where the Grand Tour formally ended.
We explored some of Naples’ churches, spotted early Christian mosaics, and walked some Roman streets in the cool underground, but my mum settled onto a flight back to Dublin the next day, and we had a return train to Rome awaiting us.
In the evening. So a whole day of rethinking Naples stretched ahead. Naples for me had always been the tiny backstreets and sudden unexpected reveals of a piazza or church facade of the sort that characterises the medieval city (or its underground ghost).
The Naples of my mindscape was shady, punctuated by searing shafts of sunlight, and fluttering laundry strung above.
The mesmerising view was all the more dramatic under a glowering sky, and the city almost held its breath, it seemed, awaiting some portent. Gazing out to Ischia, and south along the ancient coastline, Aeneas’ ships were always just outside my sight line; maybe if I’d rubbed my eyes a little harder that half-light would have revealed the villas of Puteoli and Baiae?
A research project in development with the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library will see Dutch born artist Laurence Alma-Tadema’s Italian sites and imaginary worlds intersect with the omnivorous hunter-gatherer mentality of the 19th century scholar as a group of us tackle his collection of books, photos, and papers. Rome is frequently a sub-text for his luscious paintings, but it was Pompeii and the finds from the Vesuvian cities that sparked the underlying vision. I’ll probably write about all that elsewhere.
The purpose of mentioning it here is that the vividly ideated “Rome” of Alma-Tadema speaks not just to the imagination but to the practice of all the successive waves of tourist and pilgrims who visit the city itself, and add a layer or two to its palimpsest. Although Walter Benjamin’s influential work on cityscapes and identities of movement encompasses Naples (“Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades and stairways…” “Naples”, from One-way street [1985: 169]), it’s not until one sees the density of experiences layered across Naples’ discrete/porous old and new towns that the sterility of going to see “classical”, or “baroque”, or “papal” Rome (for example) becomes evident.