California Literary Review

Notes From Italy: Running, Rome, and Red Brigades

by

September 12th, 2007 at 9:46 am

  • Print Print

Piazza Navona, Rome

I began to run in the streets of Rome after some years jogging around other capitals–Washington, Panama, and Moscow. My Foreign Service colleague Yale Richmond wrote some years ago that I was the first jogger in Moscow (he being the second), and I dare say he was right. Certainly I never saw another runner as I jogged passed the old log houses behind our embassy, and around the track in the Metrostroi stadium when, as often happened, someone had forgotten to close the gate.

Nor did I find many fellow runners after my family and I were sent to the embassy in Rome, in 1966. Mary Jane and I, with our three children and our dog, found rooms in the Hotel d’Inghilterra, in Via Bocca di Leone near the Spanish Steps. At dawn I would go run. The Palazzo Torlonia was across the street, and occasionally when I came out I would see Prince Alessandro Torlonia, who still kept a horse, riding out of his courtyard to go up to the Villa Borghese. Usually, though, I saw no one but a sweeper on Via dei Condotti, clearing away the previous day’s wrappers and cigarette butts. I would go up the Steps at a jog and run along the street leftward to the Pincio and the Villa Borghese beyond it.

On my way was an ancient marble herm, a sculpted human head on a square-cut column four feet high. The head had a slight indentation on top. Each time I ran by I tapped the top with my fingers for good luck. Four decades later I still tap it when, not so often now, I go that way.

My temporary lodging allowance that let us live at the Inghilterra was good for only sixty days. Prince Torlonia–whose mother was American and who had younger relatives named Brooke Shields and Glenn Close–showed us an apartment in his palace but it was too small for our family. So it was that each weekday morning, after my wife saw the children off on the bus to the Overseas School, she and Seumas the dog would go looking for an apartment for us. There were real estate agents in Rome, but none had many listings to offer. Mary Jane decided that the best course was to walk through the centro storico, which was where we wanted to live, and look for rental signs posted on walls. This also gave her the chance to learn the streets and narrow vicoli of the old city and, not least, look into interesting shops.

About the time my allowance ran out we settled on a fine if not overly large apartment in a refurbished building dating from the 1600s. The address was Via dei Banchi Nuovi, 24. This had been a street of Renaissance bankers; Benvenuto Cellini probably had his workshop here. The Tiber was not far, and just across an ancient bridge was Castel Sant’Angelo, with a park where kids could play. Walking in another direction, one came in half a mile to Rome’s grandest piazza, Piazza Navona, and there kids could ride their bikes.

It did not take me long to figure out a running route. It was a good and also an historic one. Seumas and I would go out our front door at six a.m. and start left up the Banchi Nuovi in the direction of Piazza Navona. In a hundred yards we came to the Piazza dell’Orologio, named for the big clock in its tower above the Oratory of St. Philip Neri–where musical oratorios were first performed.

On the left-hand corner of the piazza was an unlovely palazzo where the Pacelli family once had a big apartment. A number of Pacellis were lay officials in the Vatican. Marcantonio Pacelli was secretary of the interior under Pius IX; his son Filippo Pacelli was dean of the Sacra Rota, the Vatican tribunal. Filippo’s son Eugenio, born in this palazzo in 1876, entered the priesthood and became Pius XII.

The street that led left beyond the Pacelli building went uphill for some yards and ended at a portico. This was the entrance to the Palazzo Taverna, built in the 1400s on the ruins of a medieval fortress–which in turn had been built on Roman ruins. From the fortress the Orsini family long dominated this part of Rome, in decades when Popes abandoned the city to live in Viterbo, or Ninfa, or Avignon and there was no central rule.

Via del Governo Vecchio, Rome

But my way took me straight, out of the piazza into the winding Via del Governo Vecchio. This is the street of the “old government,’ where the Papal governor of the city used to have his office, in a fine Renaissance building completed in 1477. In the late 1960s the building was seized by a radical women’s commune. The women defaced the building and resisted the authorities’ invitations to leave. Every time I ran by there and saw the old door and portal painted bright orange and red, I thought that if I were the Rome police I would kick the ladies out. But this was a time of troubles, when some leaders of the student rebellion that had spread to Italy from Berkeley were beginning to turn to terrorism. No reason, the authorities may have thought, to court more trouble. The commune stayed there for years. In the end the women left the building but it remained a mess for many more years.

It was in any case pleasant to run down Via del Governo Vecchio at dawn, not too fast since Seumas stopped to leave his mark at points along the way. (Seumas, if I may pay him tribute in passing, was the most beautiful and intelligent of all dogs we have had: a large broadheaded mongrel from a Maryland dog pound, white with some brown and a little black. I always wished there were a breed like that.)

In a third of a mile came another piazza. This was Piazza Pasquino, and at the far end stood the much defaced marble statue that the Romans long ago named Mastro Pasquino. It dates from the third century B.C. With a little imagination one can agree with the experts that it depicts Menelaus of Sparta with the body of Patroclus, killed at Troy. Long ago, in the years of arbitrary Papal rule, people would paste satirical anti-regime poems on the statue, poems said to have been authored by Mastro Pasquino. This eventually produced our English word pasquinade. In the years when Seumas and I ran past Pasquino, I would give him a salute and look for pasquinades. There were few, then; there are many more now, most often in romanesco dialect.

Now came the best part. We ran down the narrow street beyond Pasquino. I knew what was coming but it was always a thrill. Suddenly to our left the world opened out and there was the grandest of piazzas, Piazza Navona.

The name Navona and the piazza’s long oval form go back to its origin as the Circus Agonale. This was a stadium, inaugurated by the Emperor Domitian in 86 A.D., that was designed to host a Roman alternative to the Olympic games (and to the gladiators in the Colosseum, that had been built by Domitian’s father and brother, Vespasian and Titus). I never liked Domitian. He was big on public works but a terrible administrator. He may or may not have killed a lot of Christians but he was certainly a murderer of many opponents–until they murdered him in the year 96. Still, perhaps I owed him something. At six-fifteen on weekday mornings I loved to run with Seumas around the long oval pavement, and think of the runners two millennia before me. Later the piazza would fill with tourists and with neighborhood children, including ours. At dawn, though, I had the place to myself except for perhaps a sweeper and Claire Sterling, my friend who wrote on crime and terror, lived nearby, and came walking her two dogs.

Seumas and I would do four laps around the piazza and head for home, stopping in the Via del Governo Vecchio at an old bakery. I would leave the dog at the door and go inside, to find the baker shoveling round rolls, rosette, out of his oven. I would buy a dozen and carry them back to the Banchi Nuovi. Across the street from our apartment building was the Bar Amore–the owner was Fausto Amore–and I would reach there just about the time the truck from Rome’s municipal dairy, long since privatized, was delivering cartons of milk for Fausto to sell to neighbors. The dairy being a socialized enterprise, the truck was manned by three men, one to drive and two to carry, though the delivery to Fausto was no more than half a dozen cases of liter cartons. Delivery completed, the workers would be enjoying a caffé corretto–an espresso with a dollop of brandy–when I took my two liters and headed upstairs for breakfast with my family. It all made a good start to the day.

Eventually they transferred the Bridges to Prague, and then to Washington. Ten years after we had left Rome I happily returned there to be the number-two in the great embassy, with the American title of deputy chief of mission and the diplomatic title of minister. My ambassador was Maxwell Rabb, a Reagan political appointee. We got on well, as is not always the case with political ambassadors and career deputies. Max stayed in close touch with the President and the Prime Minister and his Cabinet and other notables, and I saw a range of leading Italians while also administering an embassy that contained attachés from far too many Federal agencies. It was a great job and a hard one, and of course I continued running, muttering as I went mens sana in corpore sano.

By now (this was 1981) terrorists were targeting official Americans in Europe as well as elsewhere. My counterpart in Paris, Christian Chapman, was shot at when he walked out of his house one morning. Italy’s Red Brigades, who killed four hundred of their own fellow-countrymen, kidnapped an American general, James Dozier, in Verona. There were threats against Ambassador Rabb, and two police cars accompanied his Cadillac whenever he drove out.

The ambassador was called back to Washington for some days. I would be the chargé d’affaires in his absence and, I learned, the police intended to provide me protection. I told the embassy security officer to let the police know that I went running in the Villa Borghese every day at dawn. Fine, came the answer, we’ll be with you. When I walked out the next morning to run, there was a white Alfa Romeo with two agents in front of my door. The streets and drives of the Villa Borghese had been closed to vehicles for some time now, but this morning when I ran the two agents stayed with me–not running but in the white Alfa. This was not what I wanted. Max Rabb would be back in a week and the agents would come to me no more. Meanwhile, anyone interested in targeting Americans might well have cast a close eye on the runner important enough to have a cop car behind him. I told the security officer to thank the police and say I wanted no more protection.

Subsequently I varied my course. I flattered myself that in the Circus Maximus at dawn, or Piazza Navona at lunchtime, or Villa Ada in late afternoon, no one would imagine that the middle-aged runner in the Roma sweatshirt was il ministro dell’ambasciata americana. The fact is no one ever seriously targeted me, or they would have got me. But you can’t run scared; you just keep running.

  • http://myjaneausten.com Julia Braun Kessler

    A great pleasure to read Peter Bridges charming essay, “Notes From Italy: Running, Rome, and Red Brigades” since it brought back the most wonderful memories of my own adventures there when I lived with my family in the Centro, back in 69-70. We were in a huge flat at the Piazza Compitelli, near the Tartaruga Fountain. I certainly wasn’t out at six in the mornings and thus never saw exactly what he did. My own experiences though were more leisurely. Once I’d gotten my kids, all three of them, off to their various schools each morning, I was free to wander among those same piazzas and vicoli that Bridges mentions. I would be wheeling my cart along everywhere because I knew that I must also manage to get my fruits, vegetables and groceries shopped before retuning home. And yes, I too would catch the local bakery as they brought out their fragrant breaads and cakes. And when he describes the moment he turned out on to the magnificent Piazza Navona, I gasped yet again. I used to think of those side streets as exquisite theater sets that opened upon even grander sights.
    What fine excursions they always were, filled with stops here and there to chat with the jewelmakers, or woodworkers and then,finally with the priests at the various local churches to locate the “capolavori” they could show me that morning. Peter Bridges’ was a delightful outing. Thank you.
    Julia Braun Kessler

Get The Latest California Literary Review Updates Delivered Free To Your Inbox!

Powered by FeedBlitz

Recent Comments