Our book today is Elizabeth Bowen’s winsome 1960 glory of place-writing, A Time in Rome, in which she blends history and travelogue and memoir in an entirely successful attempt to capture in words what the Rome and its environs had meant to her for half a century.
As with everything else she wrote, whether it was smart, razor-sharp novels like The Heat of the Day, or The House in Paris or studied, intensely personal works of nonfiction (the best of which, Bowen’s Court, easily stands comparison Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles) – and of course the standard pile of uncollected, unremembered deadline book reviews that sparkle with offhand brilliance – as with all of it, A Time in Rome is virtually note-perfect despite having been written almost cold, and almost entirely for money.
In it, she doesn’t so much drag in chunks of history in order to fill out her own personal memories (a vice belonging to far to many travel-writers, in her own day and ours) as she personalizes the history, turning even long-dead eras into half-memories complete with vivid details drawn more from dreams than from the pages of Guicciardini. Who would have thought, for instance, that such a wicked old stick as Pope Sixtus V could have elicited such prose as she lavishes on him and his works:
God is praised in His works, praised in the instrumentality He has given man. Sixtus V brought Rome’s extravagant distances and bewildering contours into a discipline which is beautiful. Art harmonizes. His piazzei add wonder and size to daylight by containing it – so do lakes to water – and in the joy set up one’s spirit dances like David before the Lord. Nor was this all; he re-erected obelisks, bestowing them where the Rome reincarnating itself beneath his eyes came to require that they should be, and arriving, under God, each time and in whichever place (Piazza San Pietro, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, or where you will) at miraculous rightness in the relation between the height reached and the space dominated. (The nerve-cracking tensity of the operation, the actual getting into the perpendicular of the huge thing, hauled to the spot, recumbently waiting, death to be the penalty for the onlooker who so much as caught a breath or whispered a word, the sailor’s irrepressible cry of warning, the wetted ropes …)
The book is full of pressed memories, lost and largely silent moments in which Bowen’s narrator-self is neither musing on history nor brandishing her guide-book but simply turning over the pages of her fond memories. These are always my favorite moments in books like this, and it’s always irritating to think of cost-conscious publishers over the decades being impatient with this kind of passage. Bowen was fortunate in her publishers, so she was encouraged to woolgather whenever she felt like it:
I re-live an afternoon more than twenty years ago, when so much of the Palatine had not yet been excavated and stretches of it were bedded with blue irises. It was April. The idle yet intense air smelled of honey; Rome shimmered below with hardly a stir, and bluer than the sky were the Alban hills. There was a harmony between the distances. I was sitting on a broken ridge, reading and sometimes not reading a book. Low but clear voices, coming across the irises, told me that a couple who had been wandering had set down behind me – students, but their serious young tones; friendly lovers or loving friends, familiar with one another as with the Palatine.
I’ve spent what you might call a great deal of time in Rome myself, but the City never worked any magic on me comparable to what suffuses the pages of A Time in Rome – which is a big part of the reason I keep returning to this book. And even those two chosen quotes give a hint as to the allure the place had for Bowen: harmony is mentioned in both passages and many more besides, and I believe that’s what she thought she was getting from the combination of dirty old monuments and dirty young people that she found in Rome (plus her coinage went a lot further there, never a small consideration for an Irishwoman away from home). But however the book came about, A Time in Rome is strong enough and beautiful enough to go on the same shelf as Eleanor Clark’s Rome and a Villa and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days. It’s a shame that Bowen is now completely forgotten while some of her far less talented contemporaries are remembered and reprinted and anthologized and taught. But if ever a city prepares us for sic transit gloria mundi, it’s the Eternal City.
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