I remember my first visit to Rome, as a teenager, being an assault on the senses: the peppery scent of fresh basil on balconies, the citrus zing of orange trees in palm-shaded courtyards, the warm waft of freshly baked pizza dough on the breeze — all whipped together with the exhaust fumes of Vespas and the smoky red embers of Camel Lights on the pouting lips of the city’s youth. Rome was life itself: frantic, roaring, colourful, relentless.
But when I returned for work 20 years later, it felt strangely different. Sure, the same breathtaking sights were there — Neptune and his Tritons in the bubbling turquoise of the Trevi; the candle-lit terraces of the Hotel de Russie; the Colosseum bathed in the surreal gold of the magic hour. The same cacophony of the sacred and profane — belltowers and laughter, choirs and Eurotrash — accompanied me wherever I went.
But this time, my reaction had changed. As I strolled through the cobblestoned streets of Trastevere, rather than allowing myself to be enchanted by the atmosphere, I began to wonder what life was really like here. Was there perhaps something unsaid; something dark lurking beneath the surface? This new perspective was probably due to my work in documentaries; for the first time it was allowing me a glimpse of a different Rome. I was starting to see that while Romans might inhabit one of the most stunning cities on the planet, theirs was a complicated lot where connections counted for everything — one wrong word could get you fired, and the line of the law was often blurred.
I came to understand that Rome was a city where everyone was tangled and compromised, like the woozy conga of Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza. And the more time I spent there, the more I wondered just how you navigate this conga-morass while keeping your own moral compass intact. In the end, it provided the inspiration for a series of politically charged crime novels in which my protagonist, Rome Flying Squad detective Leone Scamarcio, must walk the tightrope between what’s right and what’s possible.
However, as the years passed, and my familiarity with Rome grew, I came to wonder whether, beyond the immediate political environment, the city actually posed a more profound dilemma for its people. While its mix of ancient and modern is magnificent and mesmerising, it’s also melancholic. Some might say that, over half a century after La Dolce Vita, Rome has lost some of its post-war dazzle; that it feels threadbare and pessimistic despite the buzz of life.
But perhaps, more than fading frescos and cracked porticos, there’s a deeper, existential problem in play: for many of the city’s inhabitants, any niggling millennial sense of personal unfulfillment can only be exacerbated by the incredible views from their balconies; the living ruins, the impressive monuments proclaiming the most triumphant peaks of civilisation, continually re-emphasise the futility of our small 21st-century lives.
This tension to Rome — the subtle pull between sense of place and placelessness — means that while you may inhabit this extraordinary city, you feel unmoored; adrift. My protagonist, Scamarcio, is already carrying the heavy burden of tainted parentage and living a stone’s throw from Rome’s greatest historical sites. The ghosts of the past haunt the ground on which he must tread and he’s constantly reminded of the need to make something of his life. The world will continue and Rome’s magnificent ruins will remain but will anyone remember this tortured detective from Calabria for the huge sacrifices he’s made?
This most Roman of identity crises struck me anew while I took a stroll on a June morning last year. As I made my way along the wide, stone slabs of the ancient Appian Way, which connected Rome with some of its most distant settlements, I knew I was walking where history’s most important emperors, warriors and saints had gone before. It was across these stones that thousands of troops had been dispatched to the crucial battles of the Empire, changing its fate for better or for worse and defining the shape of our modern world.
Yet again, Rome had reminded me that I was insignificant; little more than a tiny speck on the great tide of time. But with the breeze whispering through the ruins and the dappled light of the cypresses shading the way ahead, I felt sure there was no place I’d rather be.
The Extremist, by Nadia Dalbuono, is published by Scribe. RRP: £8.99.
Published in the Rome 2018 guide, distributed with the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)