Piazze and Pasquinades: Report From Literary Rome

Stephen Morison Jr.

Walking home in the rain after our interview, I am reminded by the bustling streets that one of the nice things about the center of Rome is that people actually live here. Despite the infamous squalor of the traffic and the much-derided public-transportation system, the citizens have not decamped for the suburbs. Apartment blocks, both handsome and modest; enviable villas; and modern housing complexes all exist cheek-by-jowl with cathedrals, fashionable shops, ancient ruins, and restaurants. In the city center, it is not uncommon to find residents actually living atop—and even inside—the ruins.

For example, the two-thousand-year-old Theater of Marcellus, which opened in 13 BC to host performances of the comedies of Plautus, the tragedies of Seneca the Younger, and other works by playwrights whose names are lost to antiquity, is still standing and has long been repurposed as a domestic residence. Its guts were removed in the Middle Ages, but its walls remain. The eleven-thousand-square-foot palatial home has its entrance in the neighborhood of the Jewish ghetto, while its curved and colonnaded backside—the original exterior of the theater—faces the Capitoline Hill. It is common to find tourists from China and the United States milling about on the sidewalk outside the building’s ancient galleries wondering aloud if this isn’t the Colosseum, a structure that passing Romans will inform them is a couple of blocks to the east.

The Theater of Marcellus never hosted gladiator battles or bull baiting. Instead, two thousand years ago, crowds of up to twenty thousand people filled it to watch works that would be revived during the Italian Renaissance, when they inspired Petrarch and Boccaccio, who in turn inspired Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s thrilling and also slightly chilling, I suppose, to acknowledge that literature began here, in buildings that are not only still being looked at but actually lived in. I can’t help but imagine that those ancient Romans would be delighted to know that in the streets, piazzas, theaters, living rooms, and computers of contemporary Rome, poetry and writing continue to thrive.

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He has reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Jordan, Myanmar, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria. He lives in Rome.