About the Author

Taras Grescoe

TARAS GRESCOE is the author of four books, including the bestselling Bottomfeeder, which won the 2008 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction. Two other titles, Sacré Blues and The End of Elsewhere, were shortlisted for Writers’ Trust awards. His work has appeared in a great variety of major publications including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Gourmet, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic, The Times (UK) and The Independent. He lives in Montreal. Visit him online at www.tarasgrescoe.com.

Books by this Author
Possess the Air

Possess the Air

Love, Heroism, and the Battle for the Soul of Mussolini's Rome
edition:Paperback
tagged : italy, historical
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Prologue: The View from the Janiculum

Weary of dodging gelato-eaters and rushing motorini, a lucky walker in Rome may be lured out of the teeming streets of Trastevere by the prospect of the upward-sloping paving stones of the sicamore-shaded Via Garibaldi. To the right, a sidestreet dead-ends in flights of well-worn stone steps, bordered on one side by fortifications built by a third-century emperor to repel barbarous Germanic tribes.

The staircase ascends, alongside crumbling bricks overgrown with wildflowers and canary-grass, to a piazza dominated by a striking monument in luminous travertine limestone. The Fontana dell’Acqua Paola is a confection of the high Baroque, built around five niches—divided by columns of red granite, and topped by high-perched griffins, lines of stone-cut Latin, and a gossamer iron cross—out of which water gushes into a cerulean basin, as shallow as it is enticing. Built by a seventeenth-century Pope, it is fed by the same ancient aqueducts that once filled Trastevere’s naumachia, an artificial lake where the Emperor Trajan staged mock naval battles using galleys rowed by real slaves. Taxi drivers know it simply as the fontanone, the big fountain. Of Rome’s two thousand municipal fountains, it is the only one in which citizens are permitted to bathe during summer heat waves.

The Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, however, is merely the backdrop to a far more impressive spectacle. Crossing the paving stones of the semi-circular piazza, the fortunate stroller approaches a curved stone balustrade, which projects like a proscenium over the most sumptuous of playhouses. Just beyond the high canopies of thin-trunked umbrella pines, the first metropolis of the world unscrolls to the limits of peripheral vision.

Ecco: Roma.

In the foreground, quadrilaterals of weathered stucco in hues of ochre and pink form a Cubist jumble, jostling around a bend in the Tiber that snags Trastevere, the most ancient and authentic of Rome’s rioni, or central neighbourhoods, like a bishop’s crozier. Across the river, the hemispheric roof of the two-millennia-old Pantheon, the largest dome in the world until well into in the twentieth century, protrudes from Rococo cupolas, a concrete barnacle cemented fast to the medieval and Renaissance city. And, white as sun-bleached baleen, the Brescian marble of the Vittoriano, that pretentious monument to the earthiest of Italy’s kings, rises against the Impressionist smear of blue on the horizon, the foreboding Sabine and Alban hills.

The Latin satirist Martial, who owned a villa near the crest of the Janiculum, wrote of this view: “From here you can see the seven lordly hills, and measure the whole of Rome.”

The only reminders that this is the second decade of the twentieth-first century are the cellphone masts that bristle from certain strategic eminences, and the occasional contrail of an airplane that scumbles a sky notably unscraped by towers of glass and steel.

One hundred years ago, a young man, newly arrived from New York, leant on this same balustrade and, contemplating his uncertain future, consoled himself with the enduring glory laid out before him. Humans and their problems came and went, he mused, but Roma—the Urbs Aeterna, the Caput Mundi, the Città Eterna—would always abide. Its persistence across the centuries seemed to offer a salutary rebuke to an unhealthy obsession with the present.

The young man was wrong about Rome. It has never been exempt from history. From the Janiculum, “the balcony of Rome,” observers have watched the flames that leapt up from the Temple of Jupiter as Sulla sacked the Forum, the cannonballs that burst in the Piazza Barberini after French troops dislodged General Garibaldi from the Villa Aurelia, and the columns of smoke that rose from the rubble of the San Lorenzo district after its carpet-bombing by Flying Fortresses in the dying days of the Second World War.

And on that autumn day in 1920, the cast was already assembling in the streets below for the next revolutionary act in the city’s ongoing drama. In the salons and cafes, war-maddened poets, drunk on velocity and technology, were calling for the burning of St. Peter’s Basilica and the razing of the Colosseum. Across the river in Testaccio, red flags were flying from the roofs of workshops occupied by laborers hoping to bring the Bolshevik revolution to Italy. Black-shirted war veterans, who were even then terrorizing peasants and workers throughout the country, were setting their sights on Rome as the ultimate prize in a new battle for Italy.

None of that, of course, could be perceived by the young man leaning on the balustrade perched on the Janiculum. As he turned towards the Fontana dell’Acqua Paolo, to walk the hundred yards back to his new home at the American Academy in Rome, this visitor from the New World was conscious only of being young, happy and alive in the timeless, the unchanging, the Eternal City.

Except that everything was about to change, for him and for everyone he knew. Between the ancient cobblestones, modernity’s most corrosive doctrine was already sending down deep roots. Fascism’s time had come. Only a rare few would perceive the danger, and begin to resist.

Rome, Italy, Europe, and the world would never be the same.

 

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Shanghai Grand

Shanghai Grand

Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook Paperback
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Straphanger

Straphanger

How Subways, Buses And Trains Are Saving Our Cities
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook Paperback
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Taras Grescoe Three-Book Bundle

The Devil's Picnic, Bottomfeeder, and Straphanger
edition:eBook
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The End of Elsewhere

The End of Elsewhere

Travels Among the Tourists
edition:Paperback
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Naples, a little too scary and real for North American college kids, ­wasn’t a popular stop. I’d overheard the backpackers at Fawlty Towers regaling one another with stories of pickpockets and muggings. It was true: in Naples, you had to be on your toes, if only to avoid the helmetless 12-­year-­olds riding three-­to-­a-­Vespa. Shelley witnessed a murder within minutes of his arrival, and one Grand Tourist reported seeing a street urchin steal a handkerchief from an English dandy at one end of the Largo di Castello and peddle it back to him at the other. Even today, Naples, with its genially shambolic street life, had something of Bombay to it. Patrick, a hostel guest from Limerick, told me about being offered a cut-­rate carton of Marlboros in the market.

“Jesus,” he marvelled, “the fellow was completely mesmerizing. I ­couldn’t take me eyes off him.”

The salesman took Patrick’s money, handed him a well-­wrapped Marlboro carton, and melted into the crowd. When Patrick tried to check his purchase, an accomplice appeared, ripped open the packaging, and showed him the cigarette packs were filled with nails.

“Then he panicked, as if the carabinieri were coming, and ran off with me bloody nails!” he said. “It was worth it, though, just to see the sheer artistry of those fellows.”

At the desk, Diane, from Seattle, also cautioned me about scam artists.

“If you get offered a digital camera for like a hundred bucks in the market, ­don’t buy it. You’ll just open the box and find a block of wood or a bag of sand inside. It happens a couple of times a month to guests here. This is a good place to pick up counterfeit Gucci, though.” (Later, one of my banknotes was pushed back to me at the rail station window. It was a colour-­photocopied counterfeit. Naples — a town so crooked that even the bank machines rip you off.)

Over the next few days I got to like Diane, a pretty woman in her mid-­20s, with big dark eyes that betrayed her Cuban-­American roots and tight dreadlocks that spoke of her involvement with Seattle’s anti-­globalization scene. She’d been travelling for four months, mostly in Spain, and was looking for a change in her life. Over a glass of wine in the kitchen one night, she told me about her courtship of the Italian boys.

“When I arrived, I saw all those hotties on their scooters, with their sleeveless shirts, and I was like — mmmm, I gotta get me one of those.” She gave her phone number to the guy who delivered the laundry, but he stood her up. “So, forget it, buster, I said. You know, these Italians are all spoiled by their mamas. They live at home, they’ve got a regular girlfriend they know they’re going to marry. Until then, it’s like: ‘What can I get today?’”

Lately, she’d been hanging around the Piazza Gesù Nuovo, trying to score hash from the anarchist squatters, and she had high hopes for a guy from the local communist centre. She reminded me of myself when I’d been rattling around Germany and France in my 20s: a little lost, looking for something new — preferably a genuine relationship with a European, not a drunken one-­night stand with another backpacker.

I’d come to Naples with a particular goal: the Secret Cabinet, a collection of erotic art in the National Archeological Museum that had been a required stop on the classic Grand Tour. For much of its existence the Gabinetto degli oggetti osceni could be visited only with a permit, and had actually been walled up by the Bourbons in 1851. Recently reopened after a complete reorganization, the collection was still kept behind a metal gate, and while our group waited to enter, I studied the petitions of English dignitaries asking the Bourbon kings for admittance. “The foreigners visiting Naples on the Grand Tour tended to indulge in ribaldry whenever the collection was mentioned,” a sheet in a display case noted dryly, “and their comments could be decidedly defamatory with respect to life and morals, both ancient and modern, in the Kingdom of Naples.”

A pretty young woman in a red top led us into the first of the Cabinet’s five small rooms.

“Welcome to the Gabinetto Segreto, a collection of objects that were considered unmoral in their day. As you can see,” she said, pointing to a cabinet of objects from the Borgia collection, “they are all in the shapes of virile members, uteruses, and breasts.”

“Careful where you sit down, luv,” an Englishman whispered to his girlfriend.

How the Tourist toffs must have tittered when they’d finally gained admittance. Many of the objects had been recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Bakeries were advertised with images of erect stone phalluses — an allusion to rising bread — and bronze bells made up of clusters of penises had hung outside middle-­class houses.

“These are pygmies, in a Nile scene,” said the guide, gesturing towards a narrow fresco of naked, childlike figures from the House of the Doctor in Pompeii. “They were considered a very lascivious people, very close to nature, and were usually depicted with very large phalluses. Here you can see them involved in some very strange performances.”

“Gives me some good ideas for my next trip to Egypt, that does,” said the Englishman, sotto voce.

There were Kama Sutra — like frescoes from brothels, a marble of Pan sodomizing a goat, and a Venus in a bikini leaning on a tiny figure with a huge erection. (Or it would have been huge, if some Vatican censor ­hadn’t snapped it off.) I was particularly taken by the Freudian symbolism of a bronze gladiator duelling with his own penis, which was turning on him like a wild beast. The Gabinetto Segreto must have been the 800-­metre bungee jump of the 18th-­century Grand Tour, providing Tourists with a new perspective on their long and dull Latin studies and fodder for dinner conversation for the rest of their lives.

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