Joseph O’Connor: “Rome is the city that I miss the most … at one point, research turned into love”
Rome is the city that I miss the most since the start of Covid. I’m writing a novel set there in the 1940s, inspired by the work of Irish priest Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who was living in the Vatican at the time and secretly helping thousands of Roman and Allied prisoners of war. to flee from the Nazis.
The project required several extended research trips, the most recent interrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic in February 2020. But, at some point, the research turned into love. These days I have a Rome of the heart.
The multitude of bell towers, this skyline made of a pincushion. I will never be able to forget the euphoria of the first few weeks I spent there. This quartet of great and majestic basilicas in the half-light, the hundreds of dark and beautiful churches, the food, the art, the joyful life, the many languages, the glories to be encountered in the Vatican library: it was like diving a reef of wonders.
Rome is a painter’s palette, a chiaroscuro of burnished roses, old copper, walnut, honey, ivory, mocha. It is also his own soundtrack, a piano sonata or an aria by Puccini. Tosca, which is defined there. But in memory, Rome still comes to me like everyday music: the thud of a shutter on a sweltering afternoon, the gasps of wonder when you are inside the pantheon and the rain begins to pour in. fall through this magnificent O open in the roof. Hot pigeons chirp, like drinkers sneer. You walk through magnificent chords.
Pilgrims everywhere, which adds to the life of the city. As Chaucer knew, pilgrims are rarely the sadly immaculate saints we imagine; they are usually people who have lived with all their heart.
I love everyday Rome, the singing of vespers bells, the faces of travelers from all over the world, some of their languages so foreign that one wonders if they are languages, how two born people could have started to speak them. learn, the theater of crossing the streets.
There is an ease in Roman life, a grip by the senses, the very name of the city a metaphor for patience. The place that was not built in a day. A good lesson for an impatient author trying to write a novel, and for everyone, too.
My favorite daily walk there takes me through the Spanish Steps, past the Hassler, one of the largest Roman hotels, to a church where I sometimes light a candle for this haunted man. , John Keats, died in a nearby house. A greater poet than Wordsworth, whose daffodils I have never been able to forgive.
Place names and direction signs are like jewels set in a mosaic: the Quirinale, the Farnese Gardens, the Fontana di Trevi, the Arco di Costantino, Santa Maria Maggiore. To say these words out loud is to sparkle.
Villa Borghese’s Sala Bernini has the most beautiful sculptures we’ve ever seen, so detailed and delicate that it’s impossible to believe they were once blocks of marble.
To walk the Via Cola di Rienzo or the alleys of the Mercato Rionale, the great beauty and the profusion of the products, the sweet prosciutti and the bright cheeses, the intense sensuality of any place in Italy where one buys or sells the food.
Watch the handsome merchants haggle, their mocking way of chatting with the merchants, lift a lawyer here, a stalk of succulent tomatoes there, or cool off by the waterfall in Piazza Navona, sit for a while by the Tiber, stroll the the alleys of Trastevere, some so narrow that you can touch both walls.
Ardent lovers, hand in hand, eyes shining and gestures, alive in the radiance of their need for each other, or young people full of peaceful silences, as Italians can be against all expectations, watching with contentedly a fountain. The Romans are like people coming out of Caravaggio, with long noses, attractive, courteous. Street singers, beauties, bawling men argue. The zizz of mopeds at night.
With a thousand churches in the city, it is impossible to see even a representative sample, but a good place is to undertake the Walk of the Seven Churches, a pilgrimage established in the 16th century by St Philipo Neri, including beauties such as San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura and San Giovanni in Laterano. The English church on Via del Babuino is one of my favorites and is rarely overrun by visitors.
The trattorias and osterias offer plump figs and baccalà mantecato, delicious fish, sgagliozze, saltimbocca and zuppa di farrofa, the glory of Roman bread. The Romans, like all Italians, have their own recipes. I was once at a dinner in Milan where an argument broke out over the best rice for cooking risotto. It was almost settled by a duel.
Then I remember a sweltering spring evening where my wife and our youngest son and I shared, in a cheap trattoria near Borgo, a bowl of puntarelle alla Romana, a seasonal salad of anchovies and chicory, so glorious we sat there in awe-inspiring silence afterwards.
A feast for the senses, soul and heart, Rome has become my favorite European city, with a magnetism all its own. This is the last place I was before the pandemic changed the way we travel, and it will be the first I return to when it’s over.
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His novel Shadowplay won the An Post / Eason Prize for Novel of the Year 2019. My Father’s House, his novel about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and Rome in Wartime, will be published in early 2023.