Friday, May 25, 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke on Rome

One of my companions on this trip is Letters to a Young Poet, a tiny pocket book of letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke to an aspiring poet. I have had the book, a gift from a former boyfriend, for more than 15 years and I have read it several times, although sometimes it remains unopened for months or years on end. Like a faithful friend, it is there when I am feeling lonely or out of sorts and need comforting words. The book tends to open to precisely the page I need to read at any given moment, the words still freshly powerful after many readings.

And so it was that I opened the book last night before going to sleep in Florence, after leaving Rome a day earlier than I had planned. The crowds, noise and pollution were too much and I felt that all of the "noteworthy" sites had absolutely nothing to do with Italy in the here and now.

Flipping through the tiny tome, I hit upon this passage from a letter written in 1903:

..Rome (if one has not yet become acquainted with it) makes one feel stifled with sadness the first few days: through the gloomy and lifeless museum atmosphere that it exhales, through the abundance of its pasts, which are brought forth and laboriously held up (pasts on which a tiny present subsists), through the terrible overvaluing, sustained by scholars and philologists and imitated by the ordinary tourist in Italy, of all these disfigured and decaying Things, which, after all, are essentially nothing more than accidental remains from another time and from a life that is not and should not be ours...

Aside from the prevalence of motorbikes and Vespas, perhaps not much has really changed in the last 100 years. My thoughts turned rather cynical in Rome, when I realized how many people are making a livelihood off of ancient history, selling souvenirs emblazoned with images of things past, or opening bed & breakfasts to accommodate the flow of people who perpetuate the tourist "canon", seeing places that "must" be visited.

Trastevere, the funky neighborhood across the river from ancient Rome where I spent a few evenings, bustles with vitality. I will remember it as the real Rome.

No comments: