Design

Urbanism

Rome in a lifetime— Rome

Preface

Our design editor has been in love with Italy's capital since he was a boy but he's concerned: is it getting a little self-conscious in its old age?

Italy, Rome, Urban design

4 February 2013

I was recently in Rome, a city I know and love perhaps more than any other. My mother spent the formative years of her childhood growing up in Rome and from a young age she made sure it occupied as large a part in my heart as it did hers.

Luckily for her this wasn’t difficult. Aged 10, I was transfixed by the history and all that remained in mighty monument form of the ancient empire. I was seduced by the sculptures and fountains that graced even the smallest piazzas and street corners. I was overwhelmed by the pomp and ceremony of the Renaissance and Baroque churches and all that went on inside. I grew a nose for incense. I developed an addiction to antipasti. I learnt to avoid old ladies, who loved to pinch my cheek just a little too hard. And I learnt not to touch the cats. Rome is a city of endless stories and my mother, with just a little help from Georgina Masson’s timeless 1965 Companion Guide to Rome, knew every tale to tell. Twenty years later and, with almost as many visits under my belt, I’m every bit as charmed as I was aged 10. It’s not called the eternal city for nothing.

Rome is not a model for good urbanism but it works beautifully. It has the confidence of history and the romance of good taste, which allows it to break any code of urban quality of life. And it’s precisely this arrogance that makes it so alluring.

That said, things have changed and I have rumbling concerns that the Rome I know and love for its backward idiosyncratic foibles is becoming self-conscious. At street level you feel this in the gradual rise of the chain stores. Dusty workshops and ateliers that used to bustle with the daily hum of craft and restoration have gone quiet. Restaurants and hotels where once older men and women delighted in serving tourists like members of their extended family are getting scarcer. Paper tablecloths and cheap crockery (that never mattered because the food was so good) have been replaced by linen and fine china. Even the gloriously simple fare has gone a bit fancy. It pains me to wonder if the familiar la famiglia character that makes Rome so special might be falling foul of the homogenous brand police.

It is of course tempting in times of political and economic difficulty to follow the rules but Rome is not a city that’s ever played it safe. It’s never needed to. Twenty years from now I hope I won’t be visiting it purely for nostalgic reasons. For a city that’s almost as old as the seven hills on which it was founded back in 753 BC, it’s confidence rather than conformity that Rome must cling to.

Hugo Macdonald is Monocle’s design editor.

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