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Notes From Italy: Dawn in the Suburra

Posted By Peter Bridges On July 24, 2007 @ 11:26 am In Italy,Non-Fiction Reviews,Travel | 2 Comments

Via Urbana, Rome

In early June, the best time in Rome is dawn. A little after first light the song of a neighbor blackbird wakes me in our little fifth-floor flat on the Via Urbana. I dream for a few minutes but again the blackbird wakes me and I get up. I walk to the window. High above the rooftops the swallows are already darting, soaring, plunging, on their morning quest for insects. A plump big seagull flies over, one of the many that have invaded Rome skies in recent years.

I manage to shave and dress without waking my wife, and I walk down the stairs and out into our street. Via Urbana bears the name of the Pope who died in 1644, but it is far older. It was once a track along the course of a little stream that ran between the Viminal and Esquiline hills down toward the Forum. By the time of the Republic–not the present one that dates to 1946, but the republic created after Rome expelled its kings in 509 B.C.–the track had become a road or street where prosperous patricians lived: the Vicus Patricius.

Things change. By the end of the first republic the patricians were living elsewhere in Rome (and on their estates in the cool mountains, or like Pliny by the sea, whenever they could get away from the noisy, dirty city). Our neighborhood was now the Suburra, a place of multi-story, often flimsy, tenement buildings. When the Emperor Nerva finished his forum in 97 A.D. he built a high stone firewall to keep Suburra fires from spreading there. The wall still stands, at the end of Via Baccina, a half-mile from where we live.

I walk that way, to the right, down Via Urbana. It is six a.m. and quiet. A red Fiat panel truck stands in the middle of the street. Workmen are loading it with bags of rubble that they are carrying out of one of the older buildings–1700s, maybe late 1600s–on our street. The rubble is from an apartment that is being redone. There is no construction permit hanging outside, so the work is perhaps being done abusivamente, illegally. Much of the extensive renovation in the Suburra in recent years was done without permits, partly because of the long bureaucratic delays in getting a permit. Every few years, though, the authorities declared a period of condono, when restorers lacking permits could make formal application for pardon. Thus the law was upheld, the bureaucracy continued to bumble along, and the restoration got done.and the Suburra turned more upscale and pricy. Real estate in the center of Dublin or London or Manhattan may seem shockingly expensive to a visitor, but it is far from cheap here. In the Suburra, in mid-2007, people are asking a half-million euros ($675,000; the dollar has sunk low) for an apartment of 650 square feet.

There are no impatient drivers behind the red truck, waiting for it to move out. True, it is early; shops will not open before nine; but a decade ago, even at this hour there would have been several vehicles waiting on the truck and, no doubt, honking their horns. Several years ago the city authorities finally tightened up on traffic in the centro storico. Now, to drive into our area if you are not a taxi or a delivery truck or the Carabinieri, you must be a resident with a special plaque-and violators can get caught by cameras at the edges of the neighborhood.

At the Cavour subway station a few people have gotten off a train, early though it be, and walk out into the Piazza della Suburra. My destination is a few hundred yards farther along: the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti. This is not a large piazza but it is the acknowledged center of our neighborhood.

On one side of our piazza is the large church of the Madonna dei Monti, built after an earthquake uncovered an old fresco in 1579 and the badly shaken residents thought it worked miracles for them. There is a handsome fountain, the work of Giacomo della Porta in the 1580s, and a newspaper kiosk that takes up more space than it should–but the owners are everyone’s friends–and yet another church, dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. This is the Rome center of the Ukrainian Uniates, who entered into communion with the Vatican in the seventeenth century in exchange for being able to keep their Slavonic liturgy. Many or most of their clergy were killed by the Soviets, but in the 1970s the Uniate archbishop, Josef Slipyi, was permitted to come to Rome after years in the gulag. His name is on the facade, and inside the convent next door the nuns run a hostel for tourists that has simple, clean rooms. (One can write them at santannasrm@yahoo.it.)

I buy a Messaggero at the kiosk and sit down by the fountain to scan it. Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, is calling for early elections, claiming that Italy’s economy and government are not doing well under his successor, Romano Prodi. In fact, as I recall, it was under Berlusconi that the government’s fiscal deficit soared above the limit established for the euro currency zone. Prodi has brought the deficit down again, and everyone knows the economy is doing well. But whatever Berlusconi says gets major play; he owns all the major private TV channels.

There was some kind of party or rally here by the fountain last night. The cobblestones are covered with plastic cups, and there are even more cigarette butts than usual. But here comes the city sweeper in his orange coveralls. With his big broom he has soon got things cleaned up–though one can never get all the cigarette butts out from between the cobblestones. Nor, for that matter, can one often escape breathing in others’ smoke, walking down Rome streets. Romans in general eat a good diet, drink in moderation, and smoke too much.

I start off for home, past Via del Boschetto, named for a grove of elms that stood here several centuries ago. Rome shrank seriously after the end of the Western empire and throughout the Middle Ages, and a city map of 1577 shows this area as largely trees and open fields. Here is Piazza degli Zingari, where once poor Gypsies gathered, as they still do elsewhere in the urban area. The authorities say there are forty camps of Rom on the edges of the city.

As I come back into Via Urbana I see that the door is open at the church of San Lorenzo in Fonte, although it is just six-forty. Few passers-by notice this church. The facade dates only to the early nineteenth century. I walk inside. It is not unhandsome; there are good paintings of the 1600s. An Asian nun in white comes out of a side door on the right and takes some flowers up to the altar, where there are already other bouquets. There is no morning Mass here on weekdays, but perhaps there is to be a wedding, or a funeral.

In the choirloft two–no, three–women’s voices, accompanied by a guitar, begin a Gregorian chant, not expertly but sweetly. I sit, and meditate. This church is far older than it looks. In the left wall is a door, and over the door an inscription reads ADITUS AD CARCEREM ET FONTEM S. LAURENT, i.e. access to the jail and spring of St. Lawrence.

Lawrence was one of the deacons of the Roman church when, in 258 A.D., the emperor Valerian decreed that those who refused to offer sacrifices to the old gods should be executed, even senators. The Pope, Sixtus I, was soon martyred. Lawrence the deacon was arrested and incarcerated in a room in the house of a tribune named Hippolytus. He was not immediately killed, it seems, because the authorities wanted from him the whereabouts of whatever riches the Church had accumulated in two centuries. Instead of telling, Lawrence converted Hippolytus and his family, baptizing them in the waters of a little spring that flowed into a basin outside his cell. Lawrence, Hippolytus, and his family were executed. Something over seventeen centuries later, one day a friendly priest gave an old key to a young man who led us down stairs and corridors to a room with brick walls in opus reticulatum, next to which water was flowing into a little basin. Who would doubt that this was the cell of Lawrence the martyr? (Incidentally, the murderous emperor got his just deserts. Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260. They say King Shapur used him as a human footstool in mounting his horse, before he killed him.)

When I got home Mary Jane was up, coffee was ready, and we turned on the TV news. American losses in Iraq had reached 3500. The Vatican was upset over a BBC documentary about pedophile priests. Stocks had reached a new high on Wall Street. The great bells of Santa Maria Maggiore began to peal for seven o’clock. I had a couple of e-mails to send, but the two Pakistani brothers would not be opening the Internet cafe downstairs for another hour. There was plenty of time to think on the palimpsest that is Rome.


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