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Mendicant ways

Michael McMahon visits Rome

5 March 2008

12:00 AM

5 March 2008

12:00 AM

The Gospel according to St Matthew teaches, ‘Give to him who begs from you’, but St Matthew didn’t take his holidays in Rome. If that’s where you plan to spend yours, brace yourself: there are enough beggars there to try the patience of the whole calendar of saints. I last visited the place out of season, imagining things might be better, but they were worse: the number of tourists had dropped, but the number of beggars had remained constant. There were no crowds to melt into to get away from them. The beggeration factor was unbearable.

Every church door was guarded by a beggar-woman dandling a baby, or a doubled-up crone clutching a stick. Every piazza was worked by mendicants operating as methodically as gun-dogs quartering a field for dead pheasants after a drive. Buses, Tube trains and station concourses were commandeered as venues for impromptu entertainments imposed by dirty-haired youths thrusting paper cups and ghetto blasters at passengers and passers-by. On one metro journey I found myself trapped between stations in a concert of fortissimo, coloratura arias performed in an unidentifiable language by a contralto accompanied by the rippling of her bosom and the rattling of a collecting cup wielded by a dwarf. I didn’t know where to look.

Romans are totally hardened to such carry-ons. Begging has been part of city life for as long as anyone can remember. Centuries ago, the army of Roman beggars included saints such as Benedict Joseph Labre, who gave what little was given to him to those who were even less fortunate; today, begging is less associated with sanctity or even with poverty than with irritation, deception and crime. Some city-dwellers deal with the problem by adopting one bona fide beggar — say, the fellow who is a fixture outside their apartment building — and giving him a coin as they pass him on their way to and from work. But once they get to tourist country, if they are accosted by a beggar, they do as all Romans do: adopt an expressionless countenance and turn away.

This option was unavailable to me, alas, for I was bound by a promise I made in my idealistic youth. When I was in my early twenties, I invented and adopted a two-pronged Rule of Life that includes an undertaking never to refuse a beggar. (Rule 2, by the way, was never to live in a house where you can’t piss in your own back garden. I have only ever broken it once, and I shouldn’t have. There were catastrophic consequences. But that’s another story.) Observing Rule 1 has cost me dearly over the years — not in cash distributed to down-and-outs, but in shoe-leather worn out making detours to avoid them. I don’t think I have ever refused a stranger who has asked me for money when I have been carrying any, but I have often gone to considerable lengths to avoid being asked.

No such lengths are to be found in Rome, where a walk around any block just leads to an encounter with a different beggar at each corner. After a few days I was sick of it. I had been filling my pockets with coins of modest denomination after breakfast, and finding them empty long before lunch. ‘Bugger the beggars!’ I thought, ‘and bugger the street vendors that thrust something you don’t want into your hand and expect you to pay for it, and the pickpockets that work in pairs, one distracting you with a request for directions while his accomplice takes your wallet from your jacket; and bugger the con artists that hear you speaking English, accost you in Italian, and then feign delight at encountering an English gentleman who will surely lend them the money to buy a can of petrol so they can get home to visit their dying grandmothers… yes, damn them all to buggery and back again!’

It was with prayers such as these on my lips that I made my pilgrim path from my convent lodgings in Trastevere to the heart of the capital of Christendom. Forced to follow an erratically spiralling route by my commitment to Rule 1, I eventually found myself approaching St Peter’s along the river. It had begun to rain steadily, and I was pretty wet — wetter than I would have been if I had bought the umbrella that had been offered to me in the Piazza Navona earlier that morning when it had been drizzling. The man had only wanted ten euros for it, but I had refused him because he had held it out to me as if the transaction had been inevitable and he had been doing me a customary favour. Now that the rain was bouncing off the cobblestones, the satisfaction of my dismissive ‘Non, grazie’ was beginning to fade. Still, at least there were no beggars about. Or so I thought.

The pavements of the Lungotevere were as empty as they were puddle-strewn but, a hundred yards or so ahead of me, I noticed a hunched figure squatting on some steps in a doorway. It seemed to have a coat or a blanket over its head; one hand was extended, open-palmed, towards the street. As I couldn’t see the figure’s face, the figure couldn’t have seen me; and as the hand was not held out to me in particular, it was no breach of Rule 1 to cross the road, and — for some reason, this precise phrase formed itself in my mind — to pass by on the other side. So I did. It seemed a bit mean, but I soon forgot about it, and I certainly didn’t mention it in confession when I got into the box at St Peter’s and shovelled three months’ worth of sinfulness through the grill.

It was still raining on the way back to the convent, and I didn’t see or give a thought to beggars or beggary until I turned a corner and found myself a few yards from the doorway in which I had seen the figure huddled under a blanket. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, and braced myself for the inevitable, feeling in my pocket for some change. But there wasn’t any. I was all beggared out. All I had left was a ten-euro banknote, and I was cursing myself for feeling obliged to give it to him when I realised that the figure that I was approaching wasn’t a man, it was a statue. It sits on the steps of the Santo Spirito Hospital, one of the oldest charitable institutions in the world. The bronze hand that it holds out has a hole in it, for it is the hand of the crucified Christ. Last laugh to St Matthew, I think.

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