A city out of time: what do we dream of when we dream of Rome?


August 9, 2020

By Gabriella Coslovich

On a writing grant to the eternal city an Italian-born Australian encounters its two faces – the tourist’s fantasy and the residents’ reality


A city operates on discrete levels – the tourist’s fantasy and the resident’s reality. A Roman urban planner laments the city’s poorly maintained infrastructure and the daily struggle of workers who depend on a fickle public transport system. She jokes about the hi-vis orange plastic fences that appear around collapsed walls and roads – and remain indefinitely. On the nightly news I see the same problems that I see at “home”. Online retail killing bricks-and-mortar shops. Men killing their spouses. Climate change killing the planet. Clerical abuse of children. The rise of racism, antisemitism and the far right. Some problems are graver here. This country is western Europe’s most polluted. Youth unemployment is close to 30%. The mafia mutate and spread. Refugees and migrants stream across permeable borders, arriving by sea and land. Many don’t make it. The coronavirus has yet to hit and, when it does, Italy is pushed to the brink of collapse. Other emergencies slide down the news agenda. The country is in triage, battling an invisible, terrifying enemy that eclipses all else.

Before the pandemic, it was still possible to notice other things. As in Australia, politicians climbing to success on an anti-migrant stance. When Salvini’s plan to force an election backfired, he called on his supporters to descend on Rome, echoing a fascist past. In late October they do, and I avoid the square where the demonstration takes place, watching it instead on the evening news. I see the same old slogans trotted out by populists everywhere: Orgoglio Italiano. Italian Pride. Prima Gli Italiani. Italians First. A Salvini supporter holds a placard that reads Io Sto Con San Salvini. I’m with Saint Salvini. Another holds a crucifix alongside the Italian flag.

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