Alf in Italy, Piazzetta San Simeone, Rome – Part 2 – the TouristsJul 22, 2015
Via Dei Coronari leads from above Piazza Navona to the bridges that cross the Tiber to the Vatican. In Medieval times the street was part of a pilgrim route lined with rosary sellers. Because of its position the street is a thoroughfare for that ubiquitous group of modern pilgrims, tourists. Intermingled with the entertainments staged by the Romans, tourists put on a complimentary show as they passed through Piazzetta San Simeone. I may be considered a little cheeky to use tourists as a target when I was also a tourist but there were quite a few who innocently amused me.
As I made myself comfortable a very particular but quite common variety of tourist came into sight. Now this type is not only seen in Rome, they are found visiting all major tourist sights and are particularly incongruous. I have even seen them at home in Melbourne. I’m not going to stoop to making a cheap generalisation about any particular country of origin as this is an international species often found in pairs.
I take a sip of my drink as a couple walk along Via Dei Coronari – let’s call them Jungle Jill and Jungle Jim. This pair have taken a very odd approach to exploring one of the world’s great cities. They are dressed in very particular way. Many passing visitors are wearing a fairly standard ‘I’m relaxed and on holiday’ uniform of shirt, shorts and sneakers, but not these two. They are outfitted as though they are prepared for any dangers that Rome may toss-up. Every item is colour coordinated and the colour of choice is invariably khaki, just as in a B Grade 1960’s jungle adventure movie. Let’s examine them closely. Regardless of gender each one is almost identically attired. Shirt and trousers or shorts made from the toughest material available, so that it can’t rip when pushing through the thorn bushes on the way to the Colosseum. The footwear of choice is very sensible. Those heavy duty hiking boots will earn their keep when crossing the glacier to reach the Pantheon. And those hiking sticks, two each, will be perfect for poking any of the deadly snakes in Via Condotti out of the way. Jungle Jim is the perfect gallant gent. He is lugging the gigantic back pack they have brought with them. It seems to be stuffed full, has lots of handy pockets and straps to buckle equipment onto it and is branded something like Patagonia or Sahara. What could be inside I wonder? An inflatable canoe in case the Tiber floods? Climbing gear to scale the Spanish Steps? From one strap hangs a two litre water bottle just to ward off the danger of dying of thirst trekking across Piazza Della Rotonda. You can’t take any risks in the wilds of central Rome. And every item of clothing has multiple pockets, handy for emergency first aid kits or dehydrated rations. You never know food may run out right in front of a restaurant. They disappear into the distance. Just imagine the reaction of the folks back home when they regale them with tales of courageously crossing Piazzetta San Simeone in 25 degree heat and surviving.
Marching toward the fountain like a disorganised and barely disciplined amateur army is a tour group who have at least made an effort at being on parade in uniform. Almost to a man and woman they are wearing polo shirts, shorts or the greatest fashion disaster ever, cargo pants. And naturally, sneakers. On their heads are floppy sun hats or baseball caps. They have all been wired for sound with headphones so they won’t miss a syllable of the tour guides insights into Rome. There are about 20 of them in this group. They are in one of Europe’s great cities but they don’t look happy about it. As the guide points out fountains, palazzi, shrines or antique shops many look anywhere but where he is pointing. His group hardly raise a smile. They look confused and lost. There is too much to take in. Fountains, buskers, history, stylish eccentrics, dogs, architecture. All explained in 30 second sound bites. Some are so confused they try to wander off and have to be called back. To record his great memories of Rome forever and to bore his relatives and friends one of the group is filming the whole experience. For the few minutes he is in the square his video camera does not leave his eye. Is he filming the fountain or the movement in Via Dei Coronari? No. He is filming the tour guide. He may have passed through quite a bit of Rome on his tour but what will he show when he gets back home? Trevi fountain, Castel Sant’Angelo, Trastevere? No. He has captured 4 hours of the guide talking. Memories are made of this.
The next group enter the piazzetta heads resplendent in dazzling yellow caps. They flap along like a flock of giant sulphur crested cockatoos. No chance of the tour leader losing any of them. The guide goes through his pointing and explaining routine. His group have the same stunned expressions as the previous lot. One of them is more independent than the rest. He has discovered something more significant and fascinating than a shrine tacked on the corner or a palazzo or an old fountain. He turns to face the tables outside Il Ritrovo del Gusto and unashamedly stares an intent piercing stare. In particular he stares at me. I feel like a meerkat in the zoo. Should I stand on my hind legs and look cute? I’m not local colour. My rather pale Anglo Saxon look is a slight hint to that. But he has discovered one of the most intriguing sights in Rome, an ageing Australian tourist sipping a beer at a terrace table. How exotic is that!
Immediately a neighbouring table is vacated two English couples charge and seize possession. One of them points at a spare chair at my table and mimes that he would like to take it, as if I must speak a different language. I play along digging into the depths of my extensive Italian vocabulary. “Prego”, I say, smiling. He looks Italian and orders coffee for himself and his wife in Italian. The other couple a tall, slim middle-aged man and his square built wife take their chairs. “That man outside the poob back there was trying to get us in but I was a wake-oop to him. It’s much nicer here, better than that gloomy poob.” The waitress is taking orders. “I’ll have a coop of tea.” A cup and saucer, a jug of hot water and a wooden box filled with a selection of tea bags arrive. “What’s this?” She is perplexed. “I don’t know what these are.” The Italian speaker could read her the labels and explain but chooses not to. “Earl Grey?”, he suggests. “I don’t like Earl Grey,” she complains, “I joost want an ordinary coop of tea!” “Va bene.” says the waitress and she fetches a cup of already made tea which is viewed with great suspicion. “Look, now this isn’t even a full coop.” You have to be careful in Rome the Italians will even try to cheat you out of a few sips of tea. This doubting English woman is wearing sneakers, socks, a t-shirt and checked knee length shorts. Together with her short hair and square, chunky shape she has a masculine look. She twists in her chair to get a better view. Passing young women are proudly wearing their best summer dresses. She looks at them in a hard, disapproving, puritanical way. She draws in a deep shocked breath. “Will you joost look at them. You’ll never catch me showing my boost like that’. Her husband, who has not spoken, sits with his arms held tightly across his chest, his thin lipped mouth clenched rigidly shut, facing the Via Dei Coronari parade. He joost looks at them, the corners of his mouth twist into the slightest of smiles. “I’ll joost ‘ave a beer.”
Sandra and Antonella have finished shopping and we settle in for aperitivo, the extremely civilised Italian habit of slowing down in the late afternoon at a bar with a drink, perhaps Campari and soda, perhaps wine or beer to prepare the appetite for dinner later in the evening. I leave the table to explore the Piazzetta. Walking across the square toward Via Della Maschera d’Oro I notice that the palazzo on the corner has been painted with mythical scenes that have faded, almost erased by centuries of city grime. The painting is flaked, faded against the washed out brown of the palazzo. Around the corner in Via Della Maschera D’Oro there is more of the same but the figures are rounded and voluptuous, more suggestive of movement than those which look out on the Piazzetta. The colour just remains, grey-white, traces of blue highlighting two muscular, breaded male figures. There is a suggestion of gold on the cracked, fissured, pockmarked background. I try to imagine the glowing colour of this work freshly painted. On this lazy afternoon I’m the only one looking at this incredible thing. Alone in a back street this is my private viewing. It was only when I returned home that I discovered the story and significance of what I saw. The 16th century Palazzo Milesi was painted by Polidoro da Caravaggio, a pupil of Raffaello. There are scenes from myths and detail drawn from the reliefs that spiral around Trajan’s Column. Via Della Maschera D’Oro is named for the boy hiding behind a golden mask pictured in the painting’s detail.
Back outside Il Ritrovo del Gusto I lean back in my chair and think of what I have just seen when a tour group decked out in Tricolore caps arrives. There are only four of them lead by a loud, hyper active, over enthusiastic guide who is yelling in American accented English. Like a hell fire preacher trying to enthuse his acolytes, he jumps and hops, rushes to the fountain and shouts out its story. Arms waving, he goes through the same routine with every feature of the piazza. He is putting a huge effort to awaken a glimmer of comprehension, but his followers are not the ones to show any type of ecstatic response to his preaching. Resembling a group of staid, unemotional Calvinists, his tiny congregation follow passively, stony expressions on their faces they are immune to the historical diatribe he is delivering. The busker plays on but not one of them shows any interest. Distractedly they look around perhaps finding their own highlights. Maybe one will gaze at Palazzo Lancellotti and gain a new insight into architecture or raise a smile at the pleasure of discovering the fading fresco on the opposite palazzo, or reflect on the devotion of medieval pilgrims. Or perhaps not.
The dazed quartet meekly follows. They are being lead to one of the greatest sights in Rome; one he knows will grab their attention. He leads them into Vicolo Di Montevecchio. “And here,” he waves madly at the latest object of his enthusiasm, “is a true Roman fountain. It’s called a nasello, a little nose, see the shape.” A couple look the other way, fiddling with camera straps or adjusting the silly caps. “This is how it works!”, he booms. Deftly blocks the outlet with his thumb so that a stream of cold water is through a hole in the top of the nasello is directed to his mouth. He jumps toward a female acolyte. “Come on Sandy show us how it’s done!” Sandy shows how to do it. Tentatively she leans over and blocks the pipe. A torrent squirts up, drenching her. She jumps back on shock, cold water dripping from her soaked shirt. The rest just stare. Not an ooh!, not and aarrh!, not even a wry grin or a supressed giggle. Expressionless, they turn back to Via Dei Coronari. Sandy is left on her own as she wipes drips away. No one shows any concern or even offers her a tissue. The preacher races to the lead and shepherds his flock in the path of righteousness. Shuffling along they look at their feet. Sandi tries to catch up, leaving a trail of water. Could she have been set up?
In Italy there is so much to see and learn that, just like the members of tour groups it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by your surroundings. Can you have a surfeit of great art, history, architecture, churches and brilliant style? The answer is yes and on reaching this point the best thing to do is to stop, find a place to sit, order a coffee or a glass of wine and watch. Watch the Italians, look for details that are missed when visiting the most famous sights, absorb the atmosphere. You will make your own discoveries and observations, learn a lot and if you have an inquiring mind you will find many riddles to be solved just as I did with the decoration to Palazzo Milesi.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)