What can you possibly say about Rome?
That it’s eternal? That all roads lead to it? That it wasn’t built in a day? That when there you should do as the locals do?
For millennia, Rome has embodied and repelled every cliché, description, and act of comprehension or explanation applied to it. As a city, it has been built and destroyed and rebuilt by — and has celebrated and signified and outlasted — caesars and barbarians and popes and Fascists and prophets and artists and pilgrims and schemers and migrants and lovers and fools.
As a symbol, it has contained almost infinite meaning, allure, and resonance, a vessel that appears entirely full and that nonetheless can absorb virtually anything poured into it. The concept of infinity may have been conceived in ancient Greece, but it arguably finds, like so many Greek inventions, its most apt instance in Rome. “How many Romes there are,” sighed the English travel writer H. V. Morton in 1957, citing, among other Romes, the ecclesiastical, the diplomatic, the archaeological, the artistic, and the everyday. But, truly, he could have expressed the same sentiment any time during the previous two thousand years and been just as correct. Rome is eternal, all roads do lead to it, and the locals, with their daily acquaintance with depths of history, art, culture, religion, and eccentricity, really do offer a model for living, whether you are in Rome or not.
Rome has been a lodestar in the constellation of Western culture for thousands of years, partly because a certain nexus of lifestyle, manners, ethos, fashion, sensation, and art has coalesced in the city again and again, like a crystal or a reef, drawing and captivating the world’s attention. To live life alla Romana has meant different things at different times, but among those meanings has always been, surely, to live fully and sweetly, in beautiful form and happy company, with an attitude of knowing-but-not-entirely caring, at a high rate, in plain view, steeped in confidence and élan and flair, and liable to cause jealous pangs everywhere else.
It was true in the time of Cicero; it was true in the time of Michelangelo; it was true in the time of Keats. And it was, improbably, true once again not long after World War II, when, the capital city of a nation that had just been defeated and disgraced in a conflict in which it had inarguably been one of the villains, Rome stood as a shining light of style, culture, and ways of living for the outside world.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, huge swaths of Rome were little more than strata of new ruins atop all the ruins that had come before: the Americans, the British, and the Germans had all bombed the city, completely devastating the San Lorenzo district, just north of the main train station, and even striking Vatican City. Sizable portions of the population were homeless, jobless, hungry, or idle. The glories of the past were still intact — Rome was largely spared the far more devastating bombardment that was suffered by such industrial centers as Milan and Turin, partly because Pope Pius XII begged the world not to destroy the city. But to all eyes it appeared in most every way exactly what it was: a defeated capital, the seat of a vanquished empire, staggered, battered, bloodied.
And yet there were signs of vitality and even sparks of brightness. In and around that rubble, a small group of filmmakers who had been active before the war created brave new works that explored the human struggles of the moment — actually got right down into them and painted them with vigorous respect for realism, with honesty and empathy. Their movies put a new face on a bruised nation and, almost incidentally, launched a new type of cinema that would become common the world over.
There were bona fide bohemians, freed of the overbearing yoke of fascism, creating demimondes in bars, cafés, and studios tucked into the center of the city: painters and sculptors and poets and novelists and musicians who had kept the flames of art kindled through the war, however dimly, and were ready to stoke them into a fire of making and sharing and being seen and heard and read.
There were other creators, of elegant and stylish things to wear — because it was Rome and Italy and how one looked mattered, as it always had since togas were the fashion. You could always, but always, count on a Roman at least to try to present a bella figura, a beautiful form, even when everything else in his or her life was a wreck.
There were renegade lifestylists, people who were intent on bringing to Rome some of the vitality that had invigorated Paris and Berlin and New York in previous decades but who had been stifled by moralists and Blackshirts and the Catholic church, aristocrats and rebels and avant-gardists, often from other countries, other worlds, with a shared passion to avoid the usual thing and to embrace the sensual, the iconoclastic, the daring.
And there was a small clutch of young men with cameras and flash bulbs, freelance photographers whose depictions of the city and its people and its extravaganzas and its crimes and its sensations and, most of all, its celebrated visitors were greedily gobbled up by a media culture that, too, was operating with new vigor now that the pall cast by Benito Mussolini and his Fascist censors no longer loomed.
This is reprinted from “Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome” by Shawn Levy. Copyright © 2016 by Shawn Levy. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. All rights reserved.