John’s research project here, tracing Herman Melville’s steps on his month-long visit to Rome in 1857, could not happen if Herman had not kept a detailed journal, laying out his daily activities–what museums he visited, what pictures he looked at, where he walked, the views he saw. Earlier this week, I went with John on Day 2 of the Herman odyssey. We started from the colosseum, where Herman had begun his day.
We walked along the wide boulevard, via dei Fori Imperiale, through the crowds of tourists and souvenir hawkers and living statues (this year’s favorite seems to be a saffron-cloaked guru who appears to be magically sitting on thin air).
We stopped a bit at the forum of Trajan, taking some photos of Trajan’s Column, and then continued on around the fabulous “wedding cake” monument to Vittorio Emanuele II at Piazza Venezia to the Campidoglio (but the Capitoline Museum, where Melville spent an hour or two, was not open, so we cheated and didn’t climb the broad Michelangelo steps).
We turned west and walked the full length of the Corso, all the way to Piazza dei Popolo, stopping for yet another delectable Roman meal at a tiny, 130-year old restaurant just off the Corso. At the piazza, we climbed, as Herman had done, up to the Pincio terrace and gardens, where he raved about the view and seemed, for the first time in his two days in Rome, to be really impressed. (Until that moment, he had been comparing Rome somewhat unfavorably to the sights he had seen in Jerusalem and Istanbul.)
His reaction to the view is understandable–it is spectacular still. From the huge open terrace dotted with palms, you look down onto the Piazza dei Popolo with its tall obelisk, casting a shadow like a sundial, and the tiny people scuttling about; and then you look up, out over the roofs of Rome, all the way across the river to the dome of St. Peter’s. (An added delight for us: We happened on the last day of a little festa del cioccolato, small market tents occupied by chocolate makers from all over Italy and indeed Europe.)
From the Pincio, we came back down and visited the piazza’s church, the basilica di Maria dei Popolo, with its two Caravaggios and Bernini sculptures.
Then, like Herman, we headed back east toward the Spanish Steps and ended our Herman-day, as he did, at Caffe Greco, then an artists’ hang-out, now very much a tourist attraction just a block down from Piazza di Spagna, but pretty much unchanged (according to an accommodating waiter) since the days of Byron, Keats, Shelley, and indeed Melville. (The prices, however, have changed substantially–almost €35, or about $50, for two capuccinos and two pastries.) At each step, Melville’s journal led us on our way.
A day or two before we went out on this adventure, after we had been here about two weeks, I began to fear that I was losing track of what we had done and seen. John was out, and I picked up a notebook and tentatively wrote down what I remembered happening, day by day, since our arrival. I thought I had it more or less right. When John came home later that day, I asked him to go through the list with me. “We saw the Moses on our first Saturday here, right?” I asked. He looked at me strangely. “No, much later than that. You wrote about it–check your blog.” Indeed, we had been to see the Moses a solid week after we arrived.
“And which day was your doctor’s appointment–Wednesday?” No, Monday.
Then it was his turn: “I think we ate at that little restaurant near San Silvestro, where we got the really good gnocchi with pesto, the day we got our phones set up, right?” No, the gnocchi was actually at the ristorante in Trastevere, the day we got our codice fiscale–it was nowhere near San Silvestro. And we ate at San Silvestro the day we chased after our permesso di soggiorno applications, not the day we set up our phones.
It went like that, back and forth, for about twenty minutes. I crossed things out, wrote them again, crossed them out again, rewrote them again, as we laboriously reconstructed the fourteen days we had spent in Rome so far. Between us, we finally got it right. Neither of us could have done that alone; we needed both minds to find all the details and put them in place, to create a complete memory.
I have been reading Robert Hughes’ Rome since I have been here and learning a great deal about Rome, art, Catholicism, architecture, and the various personalities–many previously unknown to me–who have played significant roles in the history of Italy. At one point, Hughes talks about conflicts within the Catholic church, and one in particular that caught my eye. It was a doctrinal dispute from the 18th century, and he quoted two Englishmen trying to define the Holy Trinity. One said, “Picture three people riding in one coach. That is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Three entities within one enclosure.” “No,” said the other, “picture three coaches, with one person–the same person–riding in all three of them. That is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. One entity within three enclosures.” At the risk of being less than respectful, I submit that this second image works well to illustrate memory in old married couples like John and me: one common memory that exists in two minds, and is only whole when the two minds share it between them.
I have never kept a journal, and sometimes I regret this. I realize how much of my life now is unremembered. Some things are there, startlingly clear. The clear things include what you would expect–images of weddings, children, friends, a few (but not many) from my own childhood. And the clear things include some very detailed images that still surprise me: an ice storm from when I was about 8, tree limbs glistening with what seemed like diamonds; a Kansas wheat field being harvested at midnight, four combines abreast under massive floodlights, glimpsed from the car as we drove from Chicago to New Mexico, the “bread basket” of America made real; the feeling of almost drowning once at Jones Beach and being pulled out of the water by a lifeguard; Ritchie Havens singing at a tiny club in Greenwich Village. Lots more remembered, of course, but so much missing.
I resisted “blogging” when John first suggested it. I have always feared that blogs were a bit narcissistic; who would really be interested in all the details about someone else’s life? But I realize that this blog (and perhaps this is true of many blogs) is really not for other readers–or at least, not primarily for other readers–although I welcome them warmly. It is for me, to retrieve my memories, one day at a time.