In the autumn of 1984, after an unexplained fall, I found myself in a hospital in Rome acutely head-injured and disorientated. I had been found sprawled on the floor of my flat on Via Salaria; the police suspected an intruder, yet nothing apparently was stolen. Bloody handprints covered the walls where I had tried to steady myself. I was 23 and newly arrived in Rome to work as a journalist and teach. Later, I regained consciousness outside a latrine on the sixth floor of San Giovanni hospital. A group of nuns with elaborate bird-like coifs swished past, each bearing a carafe of white wine. So I was in paradise — or perhaps a Fellini movie. (The carafes turned out to contain urine samples.) The nuns acted as paramedics, owing to a shortage of trained nurses. After surgery, they suggested that I sleep on the hospital roof during the day as the ward was so stuffy. A makeshift bed was set up on the terrace overlooking the basilica of San Giovanni and the Egyptian obelisk which Pope Sixtus V had erected in the 16th century. At a distance of over 25 years, I still have no idea what happened.
For the art critic Robert Hughes, Rome is an ‘enormous concretion of human glory and human error’, where centuries of murky history confront the visitor. The city has changed immensely since Hughes first visited in 1959, however. Each year an estimated three million tourists descend on the Colosseum alone. Many of them are excited by stories of gladiators and martyred Christians, only to be hustled for cash by youths dressed as Roman centurions. (In between shifts, these Felliniesque wideboys can be seen phoning their girlfriends or smoking cigarettes in the adjacent Metro station coffee bar, their plumed helmets resting on the counter.)
In pages of trenchant prose, Hughes chronicles the art and architecture of Rome from the Emperor Augustus up to Federico Fellini.