La Dolce Vita?

I have wanted to visit Italy for a very long time. Naturally, part of Italy’s attraction is its historical richness, but for me, an even larger part is the food, the scenery, and the culture. Thanks to an ongoing scholarly workshop I’m participating in, I finally got a chance to find out whether the Italian life really is la dolce vita. What I discovered was–as I suppose it always is when you travel–different from what I expected.

I left Chengdu late in the evening and arrived in Rome early the next morning. I took the express train from the airport to Roma Termini, Rome’s main train stop and subway hub, which is in the same neighborhood as the hostel I was staying in. The neighborhood around Termini isn’t much to look at, It’s mostly touristy hotels and restaurants surrounded by somewhat dubious neighborhoods. Still, it has a certain interest of its own. In addition to the tourist restaurants selling mediocre Italian food, and the McDonalds and McDonalds look-alikes selling mediocre American food, there are a surprising number of Asian and Middle-Eastern places. I confess I didn’t try them, but I was impressed by the diversity of the neighborhood–including a woman from Chengdu running a small luggage shop.

As soon as I had checked into my hostel, I headed out to see a bit of Rome. I was exhausted from the flight, but it was only 10 am, so I decided to avoid sights that would involve long lines or lots of time indoors. The weather was beautiful, and I wanted to enjoy it.

I decided to do the Centro Storico, the historical center of Rome where most of the Renaissance sights and a number of the Roman ones are located. I took the subway up to the Spanish Stair (with echoes of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” ringing in my mind) and started walking down toward the Pantheon. As I wandered I found the Trevi Fountain and, well, a lot of ruins, obelisks, and old buildings. I also had my first taste of true Italian gelato, nocciola–hazelnut–flavor.

I was enjoying myself, but something didn’t feel quite right. I couldn’t quite put in words, but somehow the relation of Rome to its history seemed odd, or at least different from what I had expected. China is the kind of place where history is both everywhere and nowhere. In India and Nepal, history often feels completely alive, right there in front of you. In my brief visit to Lisbon, I got the feeling that history was all around, but it seldom jumped out at you. Rome was like none of these. History is everywhere, and it does jump out at you. But it jumps out so frequently that it can be hard to take in. The monuments and famous buildings and ruins demand your attention, but with so much to see, it’s easy to to lose the trees in the forest. A friend of mine–with far more Italy-experience–helped me put it into words later. I felt like I was walking around a remarkable, very well-curated museum that has so many exhibits I could never see them all–a bit like the Met in New York, but on the scale of a city.

I might have become a bit overwhelmed, but Rome sorted me out quickly enough. The Centro Storico isn’t the easiest place to find your way around–not at first anyways–and my efforts to find the Pantheon went slightly off track. As so often happens on the road, accident proved better than intention. I found myself in a perfect little piazza. Tree-lined, quiet, and home to a trattoria–a old-style Italian restaurant.

It was lunchtime, so I decided to sit down. My Italian was all learned in a month–mostly on the strength of my very rusty Spanish–but I can get by. I opened the menu, however, and discovered that there’s more to language than language. The menu wasn’t divided by the type of food, but rather by the course of the meal. So there were antipastiprimi, secondi, and dolceDolce I understood, but the rest was not so clear. Was I supposed to order one item from each section? I couldn’t afford to even if I wanted to. How big were the servings? Would I be able to eat more than one dish? In the end I gave up any pretense of knowing what I was doing and just asked–and learned that I was free to do whatever I wanted. I ended up getting two courses: a pasta with anchovies and parmesan and saltimboca. Beginners luck was with me. It was a great restaurant and the food was phenomenal. The anchovy pasta as unlike anything I’d ever had before, and the saltimboca was so tender it really did melt in your mouth.

Thus refreshed, I headed off in search of the Pantheon again, and quickly found it. It was well worth the search. When I used to teach World Civilization, the Pantheon was always something we covered, and I’ve always wanted to see it. It doesn’t disappoint. No one knows exactly how old it is, but construction of the current structure probably began around 114 CE, after an earlier temple was destroyed by fire, so it’s somewhere close to two thousand years old by now. It has been in active use ever since it was finished, first as a temple to the Roman gods, and then as a Christian church. In spite of its age and historical importance it is still an active Church and feels very much alive. It has what I recently heard an artist describe as “that thick patina of memory” that makes certain places viscerally unlike our everyday environment. And yet, it is an everyday environment for some people. For the parishioners of this church, for the people who live and work in its vicinity, it is the everyday. Having grown up in the American suburbs, with nothing more than a few decades old around me, I often wonder what it is like to live in the presence of history every day.

At least on sunny days, interior lighting is still provided entirely by the oculus, a round hole in the center of the dome which distributes the weight of the dome as well as providing light and fresh air inside. It produces a quiet, muted lighting inside and casts a moving circle of light on the walls.

My second day in Rome was devoted to the Vatican. After a not-so-early breakfast of cappuccino and pastry. I set off for St. Peter’s Square. This is another place I’ve often seen in photos or videos, and it was every bit as impressive in person as I thought it would be. The real surprise for me, however, was St. Peter’s Cathedral. I knew very little about it, but ended up loving it even more than the Pantheon. By luck, I arrived just in time to join a tour in English. There is so much to this cathedral that you wouldn’t recognize without a guide, and it is truly beautiful. Even more than the Pantheon, it exudes that living breath of active devotion that pervades places of worship. It holds numerous examples of magnificent pieces of art, but it doesn’t feel like a museum. The art there seems to live along with the place, performing a function other than being stared at dutifully by passing multitudes. One surprising bit of trivia: there are no paintings in St. Peter’s Cathedral. Everything that looks like a painting is actually a mosaic based on a painting. The mosaics took years to make, but unlike paintings, they can endure for ages even in a heavily trafficked cathedral.

If there are no paintings in St. Peter’s, there is a superabundance of them–and every other form of artwork known to humanity–in the Vatican Museums. This was my one true disappointment in Italy. I know that in many ways, that disappointment stems from my own inaccurate expectations and the fact that I didn’t have time to wait for a day when the museums would be less crowded, but a disappointment it remains. It was a lot like the odd feeling I had on my first morning in Rome, only amplified. The Vatican Museums are a group of remarkable, very well-curated museums that contain so much amazing artwork per square foot that you literally couldn’t trip over your own feet without smashing a priceless work of art. Fortunately, the mob surrounding you would no doubt break your fall. I think it would take a week to even begin to give these museums their due, and it would help if you had an art historian for company.

The epicenter of the disappointment for me–no doubt because it is so central to our stories of great art–was the Sistine Chapel. To even get to the chapel you must walk through a maze of other museums, a process that would take two hours even if you stopped to look at nothing on the way. By the time you get to the Chapel, you are not only tired and–unless you have a prodigious appetite for the visual arts–sated, you quite simply don’t know where you are. This bothered me a great deal. If I could have entered the Sistine Chapel in such a way that I knew where I was when I did it, I think it would have given me a far more satisfactory experience. After meandering through labyrinth of masterpieces, it seemed to lose some of its power. The crowd control devices in the Chapel don’t help either, even if they are necessary. I should at the least have been deeply saddened to look up at the scene of God touching Adam and not feel something akin to awe. As it was, I felt little but an urge to leave the room. If I ever have the chance, I will have to revisit the Vatican Museums on a less crowded day and walk straight to the Sistine Chapel, just to see if it affects me differently.

The Museums weren’t a complete bust, however. Some of the artwork there did manage to reach me, and I was able to see in person Rafael’s great “School of Athens”–another work I’ve long admired and often shared with students.

On the way back to my hostel that night, I stopped at a bookstore in Termini train terminal, just out of curiosity. What I saw blew me away. This train terminal bookstore was a better bookstore than most of the full-sized chain bookstores that dominate the U.S. In particular, it had a far better selection of the classics of English literature than any Barnes and Noble I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of the New York Union Square store. Their selection of the works of G.K. Chesterton is better than Amazon’s. It’s embarrassing: Italians value our literary heritage enough to read in translation classic works of literature that we are studiously ignoring.


On my third day in Rome, I headed to the Colosseum and the Forum. Make sure to get on one of the tours for the Colosseum. They take you places you can’t go on your own. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on a tour and with my schedule, there was no way to come back for a second visit. The Forum and the Colosseum are remarkable. It’s hard to know what to say about them. There’s so much to see there that a guide would definitely be useful. I was surprised to find out that so many ancient buildings just sat in ruins, overgrown with greenery for hundreds of years. It’s amazing so much survived. The Colosseum is much easier to grasp mentally. The Forum is so spread out and contains so many ruins that it’s hard to imagine how everything would have been related–again, a guide would be useful. Nevertheless, just wandering around among the ruins is enjoyable, stumbling upon buildings you’ve read or heard about, and imagining the lives that were led there. I got a particular thrill when I spotted the inscription “Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Roman Senate and People”) on the top of a triumphal arch–high school Latin leaves some indelible marks :).

On my fourth day in Italy, I had to leave Rome. The workshop of which I was part was being held in rural Tuscany. Three of us road up to the hotel in a rented car. We stopped along the way at Cittavechia to get a glimpse of the Mediterranean before heading up into the hills. The location of the workshop was gorgeous, and although we were busy each day, we took a long lunch break to give us time to explore both countryside around us. We also visited nearby hilltop cities. I think the pictures speak for themselves.

After we finished the workshop, I headed back to Rome. I took the train this time, and I must admit I felt a longing for the train ride to continue, to keep going south into new parts of Italy and then to who knows where. I don’t get to wander much anymore–it’s not easy to find the opportunity when your a professional father–and I do miss it. But I still had one night and one day to enjoy Rome, so I decided to at least accomplish that! That night I ended up at the Piazza Popular, which was full of people and street musicians, then bumped into one of my friends and colleagues eating at a restaurant in that neighborhood. We meandered about a bit, enjoying Rome at night, and ended up at the Spanish Stair, back where I started my explorations of the “Eternal City.” My friend began the long walk back to his hotel, I took the subway back to mine, with new inspiration for my final day in Rome.


During our very haphazard stroll, we stumbled upon something I had hoped to see while in Rome, the museum of the Ara Pacis, “the Alter of Peace.” Built by command of Augustus and originally part of his funerary complex. Augustus intended it as a final act of instruction to the citizens of his empire, exhorting them toward a sober devotion to community and to maintaining the peace he had fought so long to establish. It divinized Peace as a goddess in a new way, and whatever one thinks of Augustus and his conquests, it remains a beautiful symbol of our longing for a world that is ruled by mutual respect, concern, and a desire to live together in harmony.

So, is the Italian life la dolce vita? Italy strikes me as a wonderful place with beautiful scenery, a long and rich history, friendly people, good bookstores, great food, and abundant coffee. That’s pretty hard to beat, and I hope I get to go back and spend more time there. Strangely enough though, I didn’t fall in love with it to the extent I expected to–I still felt the urge to go back to Chengdu. Maybe the expectation ruined the reality, or maybe it’s just that my heart is already given to a different continent. I think I could live very happily in Italy–if anyone in Italy wants to hire me, you can find my CV on :)–but I also think that I’m right where I’m supposed to be–for now. In the end, the truly sweet life is only found in your own heart, and if you can find it there it doesn’t really matter where your are. But good food and coffee never hurt.

ADDENDUM 12/7/2018:

While reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, I discovered that I am not alone in finding Rome’s relation to its past off-putting. Rilke has this to say:

Rome (if one does not yet know it) has an oppressingly sad effect for the first few days: through the lifeless and doleful museum atmosphere it exhales, through the abundance of its pasts, fetched-forth and laboriously upheld pasts (on which a small present subsists), through the immense overestimation, sustained by savants and philologists and copied by the average traveler in Italy, of all these disfigured and dilapidated things, which at bottom are after all no more than chance remains of another time and of a life that is not and must not be ours. (Letter V)

A bit harsher than I would be, but I do think Rome–and all of its “pasts”–become more enjoyable when you begin to get a feeling for its present.

One thought on “La Dolce Vita?

  1. Superbly written! I’ve always wanted to visit Italy. Stephen, please add Dad to the Ten Thousand Li site. He doesn’t get this. Thanks

    Sent from my iPhone



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