I didn’t get an audience with the Pope when I visited Rome last weekend. But given that he’s a borderline commie, an open borders advocate and an increasingly fervent evangelist for the climate-change religion, we probably wouldn’t have found much to say to one another. Nice art collection, though.
Well, it would be if you had it to yourself which of course you don’t. Even in the autumn off-season, the Vatican museums feel like shuffling in the midst of a zombie horde from The Walking Dead. I’m surprised the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel haven’t peeled off by now, what with the collected acid exhalations of the 25,000 tourists who pass through every day.
There’s only one way to do it: book the 8 a.m. Smug Tour, where you pay over the odds for privileged early access ahead of the crowds. Then reward yourself afterwards with a cappuccino in the gardens outside the café and watch the unwashed masses being prepared for their cultural experience. Arrayed along the pathways are perhaps two dozen boards, each with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s two sets of frescoes, each with a guide explaining to his or her group what the details signify. ‘Been there. Done that,’ you think. Smugly.
Is it worth it? Only so you can knock it off the list of items on your bucket list and then tell all your friends how thoroughly overrated it is. St Peter’s Basilica especially. What a blowsy, kitsch monstrosity that is. Some of my best friends are Catholics — the soundest of the sound — and I’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of doing an Evelyn Waugh and joining them. But I didn’t come away thinking that the papacy is a very good recruitment advert.
Do you know it makes more than £80 million a year from tickets to its art collections alone? Yes, part of me was grateful that all those sculptures and mosaics and paintings had been kept safe in one heavily guarded collection for all eternity. But another part of me thought: ‘What a bunch of spivs and rob-dogs and plunderers and pederasts and thugs those old popes were! They just went round the vestiges of ancient Rome, looting. And imagine what Jesus would say if he’d turned up today and saw what was being done in his name.’ It would be like the Cleansing of the Temple II.
At a trattoria called Felice a Testaccio, I ate a spaghetti alla carbonara so delicious, so perfect in every way that as far as doth the Capitol exceed the meanest house in Rome so far did this ambrosial concoction tower above all other pasta dishes ever made. (You’ll gather that this vegan diet I’m supposed to be on slipped while I was away.)
But the best thing of all was that the Fawn didn’t order it. She picked another dish, not quite as spectacular. This enabled me to spend the whole lunch congratulating myself on my menu skills, glowing with schadenfreude, and occasionally charitably offering Fawn little pity-morsels from my plate to help remind her what she was missing.
Felice was on a long list of expert recommendations given to me beforehand by Tim Watson, a teacher at Oundle who knows Rome like the back of his hand because he leads a party of schoolkids there every year on a gastronomic and cultural rustic route march, starting at Siena. On the last trip, Boy went — which is the main reason we’d gone to Rome in the first place. Boy had been banging on about the glory that is Rome — ‘You’ve got to see the Caracalla Baths! And the Pantheon! And the Aventine Keyhole in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. And for God’s sake don’t order a cappuccino after 11 a.m. or a doppio espresso which is only for tourists’ — for so long, that we felt we had to put him out of his misery.
Obviously it’s quite pleasing when your kids turn out not to be complete philistines. The worry is, though, that the only career that their refined aesthetics fit them for is one that doesn’t pay. Really, Boy would have done so much better had he been born an Agnelli or a Pamphilj. On the other hand, I’ve noticed, there’s almost nowhere a fit, posh heiress type likes to hang out in more than an art gallery — so maybe all that fancy education will pay off yet.
A fan in the Forum
Wandering aimlessly in the Forum, not really having a clue what the various ruins were, we did that thing where you eavesdrop on a guided tour and hope your hovering presence isn’t noticed. But it was. Happily, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, this guy was one of my biggest fans. ‘I looked round and was going to offer you a free tour but you’d already gone,’ he told me via a message on Twitter, pleading for me to meet up with him later.
Once I’d persuaded the Fawn he wasn’t a psychopath — wives find it hard to imagine any sane person seeing anything to recommend in their useless husbands — we did meet up. Anton (Anton Nagle if you want to follow him on Twitter) is a charming, motormouthed autodidact who stopped off in Rome on a bicycling trip to China and 15 years later is still there.
We learned more in three hours with Anton than in the rest of the trip put together. It’s so handy being with someone who knows the answer to every single question you ask. Like, where exactly is the barbershop where Audrey Hepburn got her crop in Roman Holiday? It’s on the right as you face the Trevi Fountain (it’s now a bag shop) and there’s a great story behind this, actually. You see, when Nicola Salvi was building the fountain... oh dear. We’re out of time. Guess you’ll have to book a tour with Anton.