That summer evening of 1959, standing before the great statue of Marcus Aurelius during my first trip to Rome, I was struck with the sense that the Rome I was standing in was the Rome it had always been, and would continue to be—a pervasive naïveté, I see now, born of crude imaginings. It has been interrupted, that sense of continuity broken, by the foul, corrosive breath of our own centuries. For their own protection from terrorism, the horse and rider have now been removed to the Capitoline Museum, and they have been replaced on Buonarotti’s pedestal with a replica. It won’t matter that many passersby won’t see that it is a replica. Just knowing it is will spoil the pleasure of its viewing.

What makes it worse is that whoever installed the great sculpture inside the Capitoline deprived it of its base and placed it slantwise, cantilevered out on an inclined ramp. This is vandalism. It is absolutely intrinsic to the meaning of the Marcus Aurelius that the horse and rider should be level and horizontal; otherwise, their firm authority is lost. In its new installation, slanting meaninglessly upward in a way Michelangelo would never have countenanced for an instant, the sculpture becomes a parody of the huge bronze of Peter the Great by the French sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716–91), the “bronze horseman” of Pushkin’s poem, riding up his rock in Saint Petersburg. It would be very hard to imagine a more stupid treatment of a great sculpture than this: “design” run amok, vulgarizing the work it was meant to clarify, ignoring all ancient meanings for the sake of an illusion of “relevance” (to what?) and “originality” (if you don’t know the Falconet). But, unfortunately, that’s Rome now—a city which, to a startling extent, seems to be losing touch with its own nature, and in some respects has surrendered to its own iconic popularity among visitors.

The “tourist season” of Rome used to be confined, more or less, to the months of July and August, when the city was filled with visitors, when restaurants were overcrowded, hotels jammed, and reservations for anything hard to get. The principal “sights,” such as the Vatican Museums and the Sistine, were best skirted during those eight weeks, or even avoided, by the clued-in traveler. That is no longer feasible. Today this season has lengthened to embrace the whole year. And if you think the Sistine Chapel is a tad overcrowded now, just wait another five or ten years, when post-communist prosperity has taken hold in China and expresses itself as mass tourism. A good preparation in the present would be to visit the Louvre (if you haven’t done so already) and make for the gallery in which the Mona Lisa is displayed to a crowd: a fortress wall of blinking, clicking cameras, all taking bad, vaguely recognizable pictures of the picture, whose function is not to preserve and transmit information about Leonardo’s painting but to commemorate the fact that the camera’s owner was once in some kind of proximity to the insanely desired icon. All the high points of Rome will be like that, I gloomily think, before so very long. Some will survive it—at least partially; others cannot and will not, because it is not in the nature of works of art to do so. The closed spaces—museum galleries, churches, and the like—will suffer most; it will not make much difference to one’s experience of the Forum, not at first. But who can tell what the big outdoor spaces of Rome will begin to feel like once they have twice as many people in them, and their perimeters are jammed even more thickly with buses?

The degree to which the Sistine Chapel is overcrowded represents the kind of living death for high culture which lurks at the end of mass culture—an end which Michelangelo, of course, could not possibly have imagined, and which the Vatican is completely powerless to prevent (and would not even if it could, since the Sistine is such an important source of revenue for the Vatican). You cannot filter the stream. Either a museum is public, or it is not. To imagine some kind of cultural means-test and try to impose it on people who want to visit the Sistine Chapel is, of course, unthinkable. But since the Sistine is one of the two things (the other being Saint Peter’s Basilica itself) that every tourist in Rome has heard of and wants to see, the crush there is numbing; it defeats the possibility of concentration. At least the basilica is huge enough to accommodate crowds of people. The Sistine, and the way into it, are not.

It was not always like that. One reads in Goethe’s Italian Journey his account of walking more or less casually into the Sistine to escape the baking heat of the Roman summer, two hundred years ago. A cool, approachable place where one could be alone, or nearly so, with the products of genius. The very idea seems absurd today: a fantasy. Mass tourism has turned what was a contemplative pleasure for Goethe’s contemporaries into an ordeal more like a degrading rugby scrum. The crowd of ceiling seekers is streamed shoulder to shoulder along a lengthy, narrow, windowless, and claustrophobic corridor in which there is no turning back. At last it debouches into an equally crowded space, the chapel itself, which scarcely offers room to turn around. These are the most trying conditions under which I have ever looked at art—and over the past fifty years I have looked at a lot of art. Some of the arts benefit from being shared with a large audience. All kinds of music, whether rock-and-roll or piano recitals, seem to. Dance sometimes does, and so might theater and poetry readings. But the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture, do not. Throngs of other people just get in the way, blocking your view and exasperating your desire for silence with their overheard comments, which are always a distraction, even if they are intelligent—which they seldom are. Fellow humans are fellow humans, endowed with certain inalienable rights which we need not go into here, but you no more want to hear their reactions in front of a Titian or below a Michelangelo fresco than you would like to have your neighbor in a concert hall beating time on the arm of his seat or humming the notes of “Vesti la giubba” along with (or just a wee fraction ahead of) the singer, to prove his familiarity with the piece. (When this happens, it is an invitation to murder.)

Painting and sculpture are silent arts, and deserve silence (not phony reverence, just quiet) from those who look at them. Let it be inscribed on the portals of the world’s museums: what you will see in here is not meant to be a social experience. Shut up and use your eyes. Groups with guides, docents, etc., admitted Wednesdays only, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Otherwise, just shut the fuck up, please, pretty please, if you can, if you don’t mind, if you won’t burst. We have come a long way to look at these objects, too. We have not done so to listen to your golden words. Capisce?

The only way to circumvent this Sistine crowding is to pay what is in effect a hefty ransom to the Vatican. After closing hours, it now runs small tour groups through the Vatican Museums, guaranteeing the visitor about two hours (start to finish) with Michelangelo and Raphael and, of course, a guide, whose silence is not guaranteed; “normal” viewing time in the chapel itself is about thirty minutes, which is a good deal more than the usual visitor, harried and chivvied, is going to get. The tour groups, at present about one a week, are made up of about ten people, though there may be as many as twenty. (The very first time I went to the Sistine, there were, by my rough count, about thirty people in the whole chapel, but that, I repeat, was some fifty years ago. It felt a little crowded then, but not intolerable, as it is today.) Each visitor, under the new tour system, pays up to five hundred dollars—some three hundred euros per person—for the privilege, and the deal is done through outside contractors, not directly with the Vatican itself. How the fee is split is not known. Of course, this is highway robbery. If you don’t like it, you can always write to the pope; or else buy some postcards and study those in the calm and quiet of your hotel.

What happens inside churches also happens outside, on a vaster scale. No European city that I know has been as damaged, its civic experience as brutally compromised, by automobile and driver as Rome.

The traffic of Rome used to be bad, but now it is indiscriminately lethal. Parking in Rome used to be a challenge that required special skills, but now it is almost comically impossible. Of course, it is rendered all the more difficult—in contrast, let’s say, to parking in Barcelona—by the near-impossibility of discovering an underground public garage: such amenities do exist, but they are rare, since the city government cannot dig below ground level without invariably encountering some ancient, illegible, and archaeologically superfluous buried ruin from the time of Pompey or Tarquin the Arrogant, an unwelcome discovery which will freeze all future work on the site for all ages to come—in omnia saecula saeculorum, as the Church used to say, before it abandoned the Latin for the vernacular Mass.

The most astonishing thing about the city used to be, until recently, the Romans’ cavalier disregard for the chief thing that brought so many people there—namely, its deposit of art. People are apt to suppose that a nation which has been left enormous cultural legacies by its ancestors can automatically be assumed to be highly cultivated in the here and now. Italy is one big proof that this is not true.

Most Italians are artistic illiterates. Most people anywhere are; why should Italians be any different? Though once they pretended not to be, today most of them can’t even bother to pretend. Many of them see the past as a profitable encumbrance. They like to invoke the splendors of their patrimonio culturale, but when it comes to doing anything about them, like turning their considerable energies toward preserving that inheritance in an intelligible way, or even to forming a solid and organized constituency of museumgoers, little or nothing is done, and nothing or little happens.

What the Italian public really cares about is calcio, soccer. If an Italian government were crazy enough to try to ban soccer matches, those astounding orgies of hysteria in which hundreds of thousands of fans explode into orgasms of loyalty for this team or that team, the nation would cease to be a nation; it would become ungovernable. Not only does high culture not function as a social glue in this country, it probably has less local pride invested in it than anywhere else in Western Europe. What really count are sport and TV, and their pre-eminence is assured by the fact the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a multi-multi-millionaire from ownership of both, and seems to have no cultural interests, let alone commitments of any kind, apart from top-editing the harem of blondies for his quiz shows. That is why most Italians can contemplate, with relative equanimity, the very real prospect that their Ministry of Culture’s already beleaguered and inadequate budget will be slashed, as is now being suggested, by as much as 30 percent by the year 2012, while its present director is replaced by the present chief of McDonald’s. If that happened, how many votes would it cost Berlusconi? A few thousand, a smattering of disaffected aesthetes who never liked him to begin with and can be quite safely disregarded. And tourists, of course. But they cannot vote.

You might say that it has always been this way, but actually it has not. It has gotten worse since the sixties with the colossal, steamrolling, mind-obliterating power of TV—whose Italian forms are among the worst in the world. The cultural IQ of the Italian nation, if one can speak of such a thing, has dropped considerably, and the culprit seems to be television, as it is in other countries. What is the point of fostering elites that few care about? It bestows no political advantage. In a wholly upfront culture of football, “reality” shows, and celebrity games, a culture of pure distraction, it is no longer embarrassing to admit that Donatello, like the temperature of the polar ice cap or the insect population of the Amazon, is one of those things about which you, as a good molto tipico Italian and nice enough guy, do not personally give a rat’s ass.

Perhaps (one hopefully adds) it only takes two or three artists to reanimate a culture. One cannot simply write a culture off because it has gone into recession, because recessions—as history amply proves—can turn out to be merely temporary. Nevertheless, at this moment, it doesn’t look terribly likely. Do I feel this only because I am older, somewhat callused, less sensitive to indications of renewal? Perhaps. But do I feel it because the cultural conditions of the city itself have changed so radically—because, in a word, the Rome of Berlusconi is no longer (and cannot possibly become again) the Rome of Fellini? That, too, is possible, and indeed more likely. In the meantime, there are at least compensations. The energies of what was once the present may no longer be there. They may have been something of an illusion, as promises and first impacts are fated to be. But the glories of the remoter past remain, somewhat diminished but obstinately indelible, under the dreck and distractions of overloaded tourism and coarsened spectacle. Like it or lump it, Rome is there; one cannot ignore it.

There is always a level of delight on which Rome can be enjoyed—unashamedly, sensuously, openly. Is there a solution to the present difficulties and enigmas of Rome? If there is, I freely confess that I have no idea what it might be. So many centuries of history are wound inextricably into the city and confront the visitor, let alone the resident, with apparently insoluble problems of access and understanding. It wasn’t built in a day and can’t be understood in one, or a week, or a month or year—in however much time you may allot to it, a decade or a guided bus ride. It makes you feel small, and it is meant to. It also makes you feel big, because the nobler parts of it were raised by members of your own species. It shows you what you cannot imagine doing, which is one of the beginnings of wisdom. You have no choice but to go there in all humility, dodging the Vespas, admitting that only a few fragments of the city will disclose themselves to you at a time, and some never will. It is an irksome, frustrating, contradictory place, both spectacular and secretive. (What did you expect? Something easy and self-explanatory, like Disney World?) The Rome we have today is an enormous concretion of human glory and human error. It shows you that things were done once whose doings would be unimaginable today. Will there ever be another Piazza Navona? Don’t hold your breath. There is and can be only one Piazza Navona, and, fortunately, it is right in front of you, transected by the streams of glittering water—a gift to you and to the rest of the world from people who are dead and yet can never die. One such place, together with all the rest that are here, is surely enough.

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