Rome: Saturday – Part I

(Here Godsbody becomes a travel journal, and a somewhat random one at that. We arrived on Friday, but I’m starting with Saturday. Some of you may be completely uninterested in what follows – it’s hardly the usual sort of thing for this blog. My apologies.)

I first met William Murray – son of a Roman woman and an American talent agent – in 2000, long after his 30-year stint at The New Yorker (a stint which saw him write many of the magazine’s “Letters from Italy”) had come to an end. His Roman days were long behind him by then, as were his years in Malibu, writing for television. By 2000, he was living in the lovely coastal village of Del Mar; the most Italian thing about his newish, stuccoed California home was the stand of Italian Cypress that ran along the back of his yard. The “Letters from Rome” had given way to a string of books, many of them crime novels – and some of those set in the world of horse racing. (The Del Mar racetrack was just a few minutes away; Murray was still living close to the source.)

The occasion for our meeting was another sort of book – Murray’s memoir of growing up, largely in the care of two women who were also lovers: Natalie Danesi Murray, his mother; and Janet Flanner, who for many years wrote The New Yorker’s “Letters from Paris” under the name Genet. It was called, appropriately enough, Janet, My Mother, and Me. My paper, The San Diego Reader, was running an excerpt from the book as a cover story. (Our Senior Editor, Judith Moore, was a minor luminary in the literary journalism world on account of the long, conversational interviews she conducted with authors and then ran in the paper’s Reading column. Authors liked her; she gave them the luxury of space, a chance to ramble in the fields of nuance and detail. I think she felt that getting the excerpt was something of a coup – given the literary pedigree, it might have gone somewhere other than a West Coast alt-weekly. But she got it.) The Reader had decided to run parallel stories on the cover – the excerpt, and a profile of the author written by yours truly.

The story had an extremely tight turnaround, and I was very pleased with how it turned out. As a wannabe writer with a longtime admiration for The New Yorker, there was a vicarious thrill in talking with a man who had been a part of its world – Flanner’s letters stretched back through World War II – and who had been published regularly in its pages. But my most salient memory from the whole experience remains this: walking into Murray’s living room and beholding the framed artwork on the wall – artwork that included an original work from Peter Arno, one of the great cartoonists from the New Yorker‘s early years. It wasn’t a particularly clever piece – just a thick-lined sketch of a woman sunbathing in France – but I found myself actually wishing I could have it, this personal gift given from artist to writer. A strange feeling.

But I digress. (That’s a joke. I fear digression is going to be the order of the day. Going to Rome was a large event for me, the kind that pulls a lot of other things in its wake, and I want to get it all down.) Two years later, I chatted with Murray again, this time for his slim travel book, A Walk in Rome: City of the Soul, part of the Crown Journeys series that included Edwidge Danticant’s walk through Jacmel, Haiti at Carnival, and Christopher Buckley’s walks in D.C.. Part memoir, part highly personal travel guide, Murray’s walk began at the north end of the old city, in the Piazza del Popolo, and swung back and forth, east and west, as it worked its way south to the Verano Cemetery. It was a slim volume – not quite enough for a Reading column, apparently – and so I was assigned to write an Events piece about Murray’s upcoming reading at a local bookstore.

Chapter Two of A Walk in Rome opens thus: “The only way to really enjoy Rome and to begin to understand the city is to walk about in it. It is not even necessary to follow any particular itinerary. I’ve always felt sorry for the masses of tourists who are yanked about from one great popular historical site to another in air-conditioned buses, or herded through museums and churches in unwieldy groups led by guides spouting endless statistics and nuggets of often unreliable information. What can they get out of such visits but a bewilderingly kaleidoscopic view of the capital’s many wonders, a passing impression of historical time as reflected by such familiar monuments as the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain?

“No one should come to Rome for only a day or two; better to stay home and watch the Travel Channel. This is a city that makes demands upon your attention, that requires a commitment to leisurely exploration. Its ancient ruins, its gleaming Renaissance palaces, its great Baroque basilicas and dozens of treasure-filled churches, its squares and fountains and statues, its maze of narrow cobbled streets, the very stones themselves, which exude an aura of time endlessly indulged, can only be appreciated in the intimacy of personal exploration. And even then you will find that whatever time you have spent in the city, you will long for more. Like Hawthorne, Goethe, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Twain, and so many other artists and writers and just plain visitors, you will find yourself lured back to it time after time by the fascination it exerts. ‘For Rome one lifetime is not enough’ is the apt title of one Roman author’s cheerful reminiscences…

“A walk anywhere in Rome cannot be hurried. I still like to stroll at random through the snarled cobweb of the centro, pausing every few yards to look around, then unfailingly up the building walls where, no matter how familiar the area or how many times I’ve already walked that way, I always spot something I haven’t noticed before – a cornice, an inscription, a fragment of a ruin, an arch, a statue…Recently on the Via Montoro, a narrow little street near the Campo dei Fiori, I glanced upward and spotted a marble tablet on the corner of a large seventeenth-century palazzo that read, ‘By order of the resident Monsignor of the Streets, it is forbidden to discard rubbish in this place under penalty of fifteen scudi and other penalties in conformity with the edict promulgated May 22, 1761.’ I had never been in the Via Montoro before or noticed such a sign, but since then I’ve become aware that it’s to be found on the corners of many buildings all over the centro.”

I didn’t see any such tablets, and I probably couldn’t have read them if I had, but I did notice this, on a wall in the piazza in front of the Pantheon:

The inscription reads: “TOTA PULCHRA ES AMICA MEA ET MACULA NON EST IN TE” – a verse from the Song of Songs which translates as, “Thou art all fair, my love, and there is not a spot in thee.” Noticing it was something of a providential moment for me – one of a great many on this trip – because I have, frankly, a pretty serious taste for the ugly. Such a taste has its uses, even its virtues – I think of Flannery O’Connor saying that Southern writers wrote about freaks because they were still able to recognize them – but it also takes a toll. A priest once told me that I ought to place Book Two under the patronage of St. John the Evangelist, who saw terrible things on Patmos. And I’m the first to admit that there are times when my taste for the ugly leads me to places that are unhealthy.

I don’t want to overdramatize, but there was a point during our visit when I told The Wife that my taste for the ugly hadn’t made itself felt for days. It certainly wasn’t gone – a few days back was enough to make that clear – but living in a city where great beauty was commonplace did have an effect on me, to the point where I stopped noticing the omnipresent graffiti (well, most of the time*) and found myself paying more attention to the sweetness and grandeur of human creativity. I’m sure some of it was because of the extraordinary character of the visit – I don’t imagine even the most pious and/or aesthetically-minded of Roman citizens spends as much time visiting churches and museums as we did – and I know that almost anything, no matter how beautiful, can become everyday and thereby cease to signify. But it was wonderful, for those few days, to delight so easily in goodness. Spotting that Marian image and that inscription above a piazza crowded with tourists, packs of teenagers, and trinket vendors made for a happy image of that experience.

(As I say, I don’t want to overdramatize. I live in San Diego, which is not exactly the bowels of Mordor. And holy cow, did we hear a lot of bad music in Rome. One of the more extreme examples: our most expensive dinner, in a restaurant with a truly world-class wine list – ’98 Pio Cesare Barbaresco for 78 Euros! – was enjoyed to the strains of Huey Lewis and the News singing “I Want a New Drug.” Plus – dignum et justum est? – a little Amy Winehouse. And there were times when it wasn’t much better in the churches. The dregs of Glory and Praise have been borne back across the Atlantic. That said, there aren’t too many town squares here at home where you’re likely to catch some itinerant tenor belting out a few easy arias for tourists sitting by a fountain on a Friday night.)


I read that passage in the Murray book on the plane from San Diego to Atlanta – in the mad rush to set everything in order before our departure, we really didn’t get to do too much in the way of preparation, which left me – surprise, surprise – worried to the point of anxiety about whether or not this astonishing opportunity would result in an equally astonishing fiasco. (The Wife, needless to say, was not so perturbed.)

One great concern: the food. My first visit, back in 1991 had been marked by unremarkable food – partly, no doubt, because of my teenage hesitance to wander too far into unfamiliar territory. Lots of pizza margharita. (Part of my trouble then was that I had just spent a week in Medjugorje, where our kind hosts had attempted to please us with American food, which translated in one memorable instance to spaghetti doused with ketchup.) So many people had since told me about the wonders of Italian dining – I’d manage to miss out the first time, and didn’t want to do so again. As I’ve said, dinner at home is often the high point of my day – chiefly because of the company of wife and children, but also because I love to eat and drink. I asked The Wife on our first night there what her hopes were for the visit. Her reply served for both of us: see great things, eat great food, spend time with spouse.

I needn’t have worried. I had one addition to The Wife’s list: shore up flagging faith. My first visit had been a wonderful high point in my spiritual life – I left Assisi certain that I would become a contemplative Fransciscan priest – and while I wasn’t chasing a high or trying to recapture the glorious purity of young(er) faith, I was making a pilgrimage of sorts. The Scavi tour to see Peter’s tomb, the Papal Mass, Divine Mercy Sunday in the church dedicated by John Paul II to the Divine Mercy – these were the most unmissable elements of our Roman holiday. I was looking to recollect myself, to recover some sense of God’s presence in my life.

That recovery started long before we left, through the workings – if not explicitly religious, then still manifestly charitable – of God’s faithful. We began by asking friends and acquaintances for suggestions about things to see/places to eat, and we were amazed at the outpouring that followed – in particular, the loving detail in the descriptions. Particular dishes to order and avoid, particular parts of certain churches to see, particular streets to traverse. Even what coffee bar to frequent. No doubt there was an element of vicarious living in all this – some people even said as much – but still: there was clearly effort in what they sent us, time carved out for the sake of another. We ate all but a few meals in restaurants suggested to us by people who had lived in or visited Rome before us, and we were never disappointed.

The outpouring made for the best sort of visit – the intimacy and reassurance of traveling in a strange place under the guidance of a friendly hand. And better still (he said, selfishly), it was just the two of us. No herded tourists, we. We would have our leisurely walks through “the snarled cobweb of the centro.” We would visit the expected places, but we would have the freedom to discover that comes with the certainty that one is well looked after in one’s wanderings. (And what a happy blunder to accidentally stumble upon the Pantheon – perhaps the coolest building in Rome – on the way to dinner. Boom – there it is. The Pantheon, all lit up and monumental.)


A final comment on that passage from Murray, an affirmation of his claim that “No one should come to Rome for only a day or two.” On our second (and final) morning at the Hotel Santa Maria (which I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who has the means), we descended once again into the basement dining room with the ancient wood ceiling – the sort with hand-hewn beams supporting broad, gnarled boards stained the darkest of chocolatey browns. (I suppose such ceilings are de rigeur for certain sorts of places, the way hardwood floors are a given for certain homebuyers here. “Another horrible ceiling,” The Wife would sigh as we took our place at table in this or that little restaurant.) We were grateful for the nod to American breakfast habits – scrambled eggs, plus a generous array of cold cuts and fruit to go with our (sighs longingly) barely-sweet cornetto and coffee. (Ridiculously, I let my curiosity get the better of me and ordered my coffee Americano, with perhaps predictably disappointing results. When in Rome… The cappuccino the day before had been a dream, the foamed milk seeming to permeate the entire contents of the cup, the coffee strong and acidic but without a hint of bitterness.) As we dined, we overheard an older Englishman chatting with an American couple. It was hard not to overhear; the little room was generally suffused with morning hush, such that every passing scooter in the alley outside sounded not unlike an Allied bomber passing overhead, and so their conversational tones came across as positively boisterous. The Englishman asked how long the Americans were in Rome.

“A week.”

“A week? Here?”

Oh, the glories of British inflection. Back when I had my first chat with my (onetime) literary agent (this was right around when I first met Murray – see how it all ties up?), I got a splendid lesson in the power of pronunciation. She was English (though based in New York), and when she asked, “Now, La Mesa – where is that, exactly?” she dragged out “La Mesa” just long enough, and with just the right inflection, to indicate that she suspected it was situated somewhere deep in the unexplored hinterlands of some largely unknown continent, and possibly populated by cannibals. The Englishman in the breakfast room did a similar number on “A week? Here?” His incredulity was breathtaking – the very idea that a couple could throw away an entire week of their lives in Rome.

The couple was full of apologies, explaining that they had family and friends in the city, and were going house to house – really, it couldn’t be helped. The Englishman was understanding. We were flabbergasted. It became a byword during the rest of our stay: “A week? Here?” Yes, indeed.

*I say “most of the time” – here is a shot I took in the Eucharistic chapel at Orvieto. I couldn’t resist – something about the juxtaposition of the faded black Greek script and the bright white scrawlings of a more modern age:


  1. More!

    (This is much better than cleaning out my closet.)

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    There will be more, but it’s hard to find time to write it all down. Should’ve taken an extra week to document the week off…

  3. Adam DeVille says

    Yes, indeed: more, please! This is a most charming travelogue. Thank you for it.

  4. Cubeland Mystic says

    Very enjoyable so far. Love the writing.

  5. mrsdarwin says

    We spent a week in Rome, a long time ago, and I remember it as being a far richer experience than the rushed weekends in various other foreign cities.

  6. You might like “Four Seasons in Rome,” published not too long ago by Anthony Doerr. He received, out of the blue, the Rome prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which brought with it a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year. What a gift!

    The author learned about the award the day after his wife returned from the hospital with newborn twins, and the book is an account of their year (living with infants!) in the Eternal City. It’s a lovely look at the discoveries of Rome within the context of new parenthood. Doerr also happened to be there during JPII’s funeral, and you can’t help be struck by his attraction to the Catholic culture of the city and to the Holy Father (although I think he was, and may remain, an agnostic). He said in the book that he wished he had found a way to get the babies blessed by JPII. Anyway, it’s a beautiful journal about an unforgettable city.

    As the saying goes, Roma..non basta una vita! One life is not enough.

  7. Matthew Lickona says

    Thanks much, Anon – though I’m not certain I could keep from the sin of envy reading about a fellow who got paid to live and write in Rome – and out of the blue….

  8. Anonymous says

    speaking of envious jobs….have you ever watched “three sheets”? probably not because you don’t have cable, or hd (that’s meant to be a compliment) and it’s on the hd travel channel…but anyways this guy gets paid to, literally, get drunk in all the cities of the world. his actual job is to “sample” the local alcoholic beverages, for example, champagne in Champagne…he does this on film, getting somewhat toasted and high-fiving the locals (in case we were to forget he is impossibly american) it is hysterically funny and HE GETS PAID to do this job. we will be sending you dvds for next gift! it’s worth sharing.

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