So, I’m sitting on the stone benches that surround the Palazzo in the early evening. I’m looking across the cobbled square as families gather, tourists perspire and Romans sit to watch the world. I have just eaten a fine piccolo coppa di pistachio with some even finer tortellini in my bag for later, and I’m thinking about melancholy. Why has the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud that fosters the droop headed flowers all?
Twice today it has struck me that this is the underlying condition of the city. The first time, fittingly, in Keats’ house.
Outside the window, on the Spanish Steps there are many, many people dressed in Austrian costume for some reason; they are having a noisy jolly time. Others are trying to sell them things, mostly wilting red roses and those strange plastic lumps with faces that you throw at the pavement. Inside it is dark and still the early 19th century. In the narrow room in which Keats died, parallel to the steps and jolly Teutons, the sense of place, of loss, of mortality is almost painful.
Nothing physical is here from that specific time, not even the wallpaper; all was burnt after his death. His death mask, by Canova’s mask maker no less, is on the wall beside the bed. It was a thin face (unsurprising in one who died from tuberculosis) and a long thin nose. A clever face, certainly not soft or self-indulgent, or indulged. Many copies of letters in frames on the walls, and in cabinets next door.
What makes the pain greater, is the description that, aware of his tubercular death sentence from the moment he first coughed up blood, Keats could not bear to even open the letters he was sent. Particularly those from Fanny Brawne, the women to whom he had been engaged and could not marry because of his lack of health or money.
Even an astoundingly pretty girl with unfeasibly blue eyes in a short flowery dress, telling someone loudly on her mobile that there was “No probs, we’ll be right down” cannot break the spell of the past in this small, quiet space. I sit in an old leather chair in the corner of this room, at the end of the bed, cheerfulness outside comes through the window, and I am close to tears.
The Second occasion for the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven came from a visit to St Lorenzo in Damaso.
It is a gloomy, half lit basilica of a church, rectangular with a narthex, side aisles, apse and a coffered ceiling, huge and dusty and empty. Bells start to ring, an elderly woman in a housecoat walks in from the left, a priest from the right. She goes to a pew somewhere in the middle, he fiddles with things on the altar, tests a microphone and goes to sit with her. They go through the responses, the place is so big the echoes repeat constantly; his higher pitch, her constant low monotone. A pair of women are now kneeling before candles at a distant chapel, they look like mother and daughter. There is no one else, at no point will he use the microphone, there is no one to broadcast to. This church must be easily the length of a cricket pitch and half as high and wide. The responses go on, the echoes repeat, as they must at mass every day. The priest and his celebrant, alone together until one of them moves to another place.
Next to me on the stone bench at the Palazzo is an American, he is ordering about his two young children who are playing with a green plastic toy. After a while an Italian man introduces his equally young daughter who has been playing with an orange balloon. The Italian suggests that the three children could play together. Solemnly the children swap toys and continue to play separately. The two men watch the children playing in the Piazza, they do not speak.
Roma is the opposite of Amor as Carlo Levi points out:
“The roaring of the lions in the night
Of the depths of time to memory
Owls, Madonna symbols interrupted
Events timeless outside of history”
From: ‘Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita’, By Carlo Levi