Paul Potts on Rome

Potts was a Canadian poet who was the last person to talk to George Orwell. This is from his memoir Dante Called You Beatrice.

Rome caught my imagination before I was well out of the station on my first visit as a grown up. I don’t remember it as a boy; all I can remember of that visit was my excitement at seeing the Pope (Benedict XV). I was disappointed. He didn’t look a bit like the way I had imagined God would. He was a thin little man, slightly hunchbacked. Count Sforza in his memoirs says he was the most attractive of the the modern Popes. I find it more difficult to describe a place than a person. I am more concerned with people really. But I love Rome. It is the only natural love affair of my life. It loves me, in the sense that things are always easier for me there than elsewhere. It is like some enormous Latin Dublin. It is in no way like Paris, more like Jerusalem, with wine. In fact throughout history it has had much more to do with the Jordan than it has with the Seine. But even in this I was a rejected suitor, to win a girl you have got to have sex appeal, to stay in Rome you have got to have a “sojorno”.

I love it more now than I loved Paris when I was twenty-one. It hasn’t got the brains of its Latin sister but it is much kinder. The kindest place to a lonely person this world has ever seen. What is it that makes it the most beautiful city in the world? The most beautiful to live in as well as the most beautiful to look at. I honestly don’t quite know. Among Italians the Romans are not the nicest. The Torinese are far more intelligent, the Milanese kinder, the Venetians better looking, the Genoese more polite. The Tuscans speak better Italian and the Bolognese eat better food. The wine is more like wine in Piedmont and the waiters more like men in Florence. But Rome, despite the tourists, the museums and the Vatican, is the place to live, if you are poor, lonely and civilized.

I don’t know what it is about it. It is not its history; I prefer that of Paris, Athens and Jerusalem. In Rome itself I prefer the Via XX Settembre to the Forum. But to walk through the streets of Rome alone, with a clean shirt and a little money in one’s pocket, is the best thing in the world a lover can do, except be anywhere on earth with his love. One could easily have the happiest week of in one’s life with leaving the station at all. I suppose it is the size and the grandeur and the untidy carelessness of Rome. It is the safest place int the world, no harm can ever come you here. All roads may lead to Rome, but unfortunately, too, all roads lead away from it, to the hurting north, the cruel east, the impossible south and the lonely west.

In Rome, I always feel as I do in the presence of a girl I love. Only it’s a little more mutual. One discovers something new to love about this city almost each added day one stays on there. People always turn up from everywhere, from London, New York, Jerusalem and Paris. One meets one’s friends in the streets. The whole town is a drawing room. Rome, since the war, is having one of the best periods of her history. The exaggeration of the Fascist regime is over. She is now for the first time in the modern world the second city of continental Europe. She was once, for centuries, the only real city in the world. Then, for still more centuries, she was ruled by the only other priest-king left in history. Nowhere is the divergence between an artist’s political opinions and his private tastes more clearly shown than by the fact that Byron and Shelley—two great soldiers of a greater revolution—spent more of their lives in Papal Rome than in republican Paris.

As the hair of one girl and the hands of another are even more difficult to forget than the rest of them, so too the Campo di Fiori and the little crooked streets leading into and away from it are more Roman to me than all the huge great rest of it. Than Belli’s Trastevere or Trilussa’s Via della Croce. I loved the Campo di Fiori before I ever saw it. Giordano Bruno was burnt here by the matches of the Pope. Then during my lifetime a Jewish poet wrote, while waiting in his turn to be burnt in a German gas chamber, a very good poem about his predecessor. I, with much help, translated it and it was published in London during the war.

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