A tourist grapples with the larger-than-life splendors of Rome
Everyone in the Roman Forum is stumbling over ancient rocks and column bases while holding a guide of some sort in front of their faces. It gives the impression of a dazzlingly sunlit library that has fallen to glorious bits. Some people read aloud to their families. Others narrate to school children. Information is flying around, pouring out of the Blue Guide, the Michelin, and the ''Companion Guide to Rome,'' and the stones just bask in the sun, permitting themselves to be explained.Skip to next paragraph
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To someone who is attempting to understand the 2,736 years since Romulus first made peace with the Sabines, the Forum can be a frightening place. Civilization has really gotten the jump on you this time. No wonder everyone is reading as fast as they can, though they have no hope of catching up.
Fortunately, the book in front of this traveler's nose was Georgina Masson's ''Companion Guide to Rome.'' (Prentice-Hall, New Jersey. $8.95.) Ms. Masson writes affably, and she had been chatting me through the old money-lender's hall and around the dungeon Peter was supposed to have been incarcerated in. She had lost me a couple of times when there were repairs being made to an arch here and a temple there. But she got me to the Forum itself and gave me a long talk on just what the Forum was. Too long to take standing, so I sat down, and then, probably for the first time that morning, I looked around.
It was quiet. The white stones were as hot as new bread. The bright blue sky was set off by the baked-out marble bones of the basilicas, temples, and arches around me. The mud-brown, soft tuff stone of other ruins in the background looked like giant African anthills. I felt the sun on my legs and for the first time I felt as if I was actually there. This, I realized happily, was just another piazza. The original piazza, in fact. But a piazza nonetheless.
''A few years ago,'' Masson writes, ''an architectural critic said that Italians today pay little attention to the interior planning of their houses and , like the ancient Romans, have the smallest bedrooms, because they have the largest and finest 'parlours,' in the sense that a parlour is a place to meet and talk in, and that is exactly what a piazza is and what the Forum was, especially under the Empire.'' In short, the ancient Romans were people, too, and you already know something about them if you have had an ice cream in the Piazza Navona or written post cards in front of the Pantheon.
Piazzas not only link you with ancient history, they are good retreats from ancient history, or at least good places to back off and ponder it. You can always drag yourself away from something dumbfounding for an ice cream and a long gaze at whatever it is, which will give you perspective, refreshment, and the will to tour on. The fact that you are doing all this in a public place, along with others in need of the same kind of refreshment, means that it wasn't for nothing that Romulus made peace with the Sabines. Sitting in a piazza, gathering with other thinkers out in the open, you are enjoying the same sense of peace and communication that made establishing a city worthwhile in the first place.
This is a city that feels, in the 20th century, as powerful, busy, fast, grimy, and self-important as New York. Except that there's always a place to sit down, to step away from the surging Fiats and Vespas, and just watch.
If the piazzas are Romans' parlors, they look like they're expecting company. People dress up here, not to be formal but to be beautiful. Chic women, when I visited, liked gray, with short gray pants showing gray-stockinged ankles in gray pumps. Men were well tailored, whatever their shape, and sleek-haired. And even the lady who fed the pigeons in my favorite square did so in a well-cut suit with a snappy shopping bag from St. Tropez full of bread crumbs.