For Here Be Barbarians

By Christopher Walsh

Her collapsing body was now that of a marionette deprived of her nimble puppeteer. A young life ending, bloodily, in front of me and the surging throng. Taken by the stabbing tip of an umbrella, on a subway platform, on a dry Italian day. On her face no indication of that irony. Only…what? Resignation? Acceptance? For this was Rome and here be barbarians.

In Via Rasella, near the Trevi Fountain, I counted, as the rain fell, the bullet and bomb scars that recall the 23rd of March, 1944. Italian partisans, tiring of the German Occupation and fascist intransigence, ended the lives of thirty-three Nazi security personnel before escaping, unharmed, into the smoke and mayhem.

No. Nobody escapes such a thing unharmed. The German High Command authorised retribution and in the caves of Ardeatine, the next day, three hundred and thirty-five Italians were executed by young Germans fortified by old French brandy.

So, I stood early at Ardeatine for the solemn Commemoration Ceremony and occasionally exchanged stares with a tired President of Italy. He mostly looked up a little at the TV cameras and the gaudy partisan banners but, at times, way up to the oh-so-serious police snipers, on the cliffs, who were making very sure that we plebs remained civilized as we reflected on the extremes that the uncivilized of any generation are prepared to embrace.

In the Ardeatine Museum, Sabino Martinelli, amid the relics, and the emotions of decades waiting to be exorcised by time, told me he was a boy living nearby when the massacre happened.

“What were the Nazis really like?”

“They were…cruel.” Explicitly. Implicitly.

I could no longer see the youth in the collapsed folds of his ancient face but something of the skittish, hesitant lad that he once was could be picked up in his darting and rheumy eyes.

At Largo di Torre Argentina, retribution and animal savagery is a daily occurrence. Daniela showed me the feral cats there confidently postering in a way that Il Duce could have related to on his balcony in the Piazza Venezia, in the years before anti-fascists executed him and strung his corpse upside down from a gas station in Milan where his earlier confidence spared him not one iota of final ignominy. The cats scrambled across the baking and fractured terracotta pieces and, screeching, bared their claws and assaulted any others who attempted to rise in the hierarchy. Unaware that in 44 B.C., in that very place, in a not dissimilar fashion, Roman senators ended the dictatorship of Julius Caesar.

Blood spilled. Feline, canine, ursine, bovine, equine. Above all human. Spills, thrills. Kills. Any day I circled the crumbling Colosseum or paced the arid perimeter of what was once the Circus Maximus I felt the tension of the millennia of “civilizing” forces rubbing up against the chaos. And who is to say which was which with leadership from the Neros, the Caligulas, and, more recently, the Mussolinis and the Berlusconis of the Italian world. With highly organized criminals and highly disorganised governments vying to be in the ascendant.

Nowadays, I live just about as far away from all of that as is possible. But I would love to go back and the photo I once took of the traffic sign – “Roma” – outside of the apartment that sheltered me for some years comforts me and reminds me that, if not all, enough roads lead to Rome. I, too, have pitched sufficient coin into the Trevi waters to guarantee my return, one day.

In the years I pursued my Italian life, and on the occasions when I went back to check Rome’s more recent evolution, I took my share of pizza and pasta in Trastevere. I spent too many euros buying gelato I then consumed on the banks of the Tiber River or on The Spanish Steps at about the same place Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck strolled past in “Roman Holiday”. I turned up on the day a new Pope was installed and waited near St. Peter’s Square from 4 a.m. while they made two dead ones into saints. I’ve “oohed” at Bernini’s and Borromini’s works and “aahed” at what Michelangelo wrought in the Sistine Chapel.

But Rome, despite its beauty, pomp, refinement, elegance, and subtleties, was established, if legend has its way, by one wolf-suckled brother who killed another. It is a collection of violent events and historic entities built on top of other troubled regimes and is a constant reminder of how we are all forever too close to the laws of the jungles we came from. I love to be present in that tension, that threat, that possibility, that implication. For here, too, in Caput Mundi, right next to the “dolce vita”, be barbarians.