Rome, sixty years later. Children swarm into the streets and the gardens of the Capital, where cars cannot drive, and walls are covered with placards. The spring has just found its way through, and fresh grass grows between the sampietrini and along the rifts on the asphalt. An old man in a line 19’s tramway car, what Rome’s inhabitants call tramino, «little tram», complains about its speed. «They never slow down when they get closer to the stop, you have to flap your hands like a fool, mortacci loro [it’s a curse]» tells the old man to a young one, who looks at him without reacting. «Were I a handsome girl, they would burn their brakes!”. Public transportation runs as if it were gliding over ice; since the morning, several areas of the centre are closed to cars (and pedestrians) because of the EU Summit, and the old man is probably right regarding speed. Rome is less clumsy than usual. It is a Saturday, March 25, and even the day after, Sunday, due to a traffic ban aimed at reducing air pollution, crossing the streets is a pleasure. These days, Rome has the kind of fashion which reminds the golden Fifties’ age.
1957, six countries signed a treaty initiating the constitution of the European community, their leaders gathering at the Capitoline Hill, in the Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii. Europe as a common house was a distant dream for people those days, but nobody was questioning that more cooperation among nations who had been making war to each other until then would only bring advantages. Today, three of those founding countries, Italy, France and the Netherlands, host strong political parties who advocate for reconsidering the EU membership, or better said, three and a half, if we include Germany with the emerging anti-immigrant platform Alternative für Deutschland. But who were the Horatii and the Curiatii? Legendary characters of the Ancient Roman kingdom’s era, they were triplet warriors from the cities of Rome and neighbouring Alba Longa, respectively. Upon mutual agreement, the six warriors fought to the death instead of engaging their own communities in a costly and impious war, to decide which town should bow to the other one’s rule.
I have seen the city of Rome of the post-war years only through movies; it was poorer, but clean, graceful and deeply popular. There were few cars, and the magnificence of its buildings and gardens could be appreciated by simply strolling around all day long, the public space was yours. Around the historical core, there were still fields, woods and shacks where one, nowadays, only sees large residential compounds, clung to the slopes of Rome’s hills or stretched over the plains in the direction of the sea. Nevertheless, there are still three things which are making Rome looking like a Fifties’ alike warm place with swarming life, as young families were rebuilding our country and optimism was feeding the spirit of people. First, the landscape, the nature: gorgeous, unexpected, resilient and colourful. The balconies of the housing blocks erected in those years are by now covered by plants and flowers; interstitial land plots, forgotten between a railway and a semi-abandoned warehouse are transforming into dense small groves; archaeological sites are flowering like mountain’s prairies. People of Rome, in the second place, are generous and welcoming, even these days that the crisis hits hard and speed makes pedestrians more hasty. Not only that: at the same time, they show an inextinguishable sense of detachment from the authorities, flavoured with a robust sense of humour which makes difficult for them to be impressed even by narcissistic power holders. And thirdly, the silent stones of the historical monuments keep reminding us of the existence of history, and of its legacy and persistence, in times were we do not produce any more ruins and vestiges destined to last long, but only waste, materials and relations conceived to be decomposed by our globalised metabolism.
There is also a fourth reason why Rome has not lost its heart, its vocation to fraternity and hospitality, and this is a pope named Francesco. He told the European heads of state, the day before this year’s anniversary of the signature of the 1957 Treaties: «The richness of Europe has always consisted in its spiritual openness and its capacity to ask fundamental questions on the sense of existence».
The city is papered with posters of the «Sovereignist Pole», a rightwing platform wanting Italy out of the European Union. They put the images of Mr Draghi, Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande on their placard to convince Romans to join their protest rally, they could have not chosen better profiles for their objective. Then, another poster of a radical rightist group shows a European map chained with a lock. «What was a dream became a nightmare», they suggest… Fortunately, their demonstration was followed only by a few hundred. Rome was the fatherland of fascism, and fascism means authoritarianism, xenophobia and spiritual blindness. Rome has however also been the cradle of resistances, popular resilience and the culture of neighbourhood. The immortal sequences of movies of the Italian neorealist school come to my mind. Roberto Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, or the later Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma are the epics of a town of amazing kindness, where even the last one or the oppressed can find a way, legally or illegally, not to feel lost or isolated, and to keep hoping in social justice. If you avoid the most tourist areas, you can still today have lunch in family-run trattorie, and feel the dispersed humanity living in the city’s neighbourhoods. Here you discover the Baobab Experience, a collective initiative which hosted migrants who do not want to go back to their hostile home countries, and sheltered and fed them with the support of local citizens, until a fire seriously damaged the center at the beginning of this year; or you find MAAM, a contemporary art museum born out of artists’ solidarity with homeless, jobless or migrants who found home in a former factory.
On another tramway car, another old man, he seems to be a gypsy, when he realizes that I almost fell on the floor as a result of the driver’s heavy braking, kindly invites me to seat beside him. When he notices in the newspaper I am reading an interview on Europe to the Romanian president Iohannis, he says: «I am Romanian, like him». And he adds, «He is a good man». Last month, Iohannis refused to sign off a governmental emergency ordinance aimed at de-criminalising some forms of official corruption, and which ignited the biggest protests seen since communism ended in the country in 1989. When I turn the page and the old man sees the picture of the heads of state assembled in the Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, he asks: «But… Problemi in Europa… Many problems in Europe, right?». His wife is meanwhile searching for Portugal’s international phone code, she has to call a relative, probably: if there is a trans-European nation in our continent, this is the Roma’s.
Problems, yes, in Europe there are. There could not probably be however better place than Rome to challenge the interested disenchantment of a tired establishment, and the anti-historical defeatism of political fringes, who believe that – because Europe has not acted so far for her peoples and nations – you can only save citizens’ sovereignty by returning to the nation-state.
Let me go back to the story of the Horatii and Curatii. The duel was finally won by the Horatii, and one swordsman only survived. Alba Longa accepted the Roman rule, but the survivor’s sister, Camilla Horatia, who was engaged to one of the Alba Longa’s triplets, when she realized that her betrothed had died, was overcome by deep grief and got furious at her swordsman brother, up to the point that the brother killed her to bring her to silence. What was a triumph for Rome became a curse for its men. The destiny of Europe is tied to the outcome of a similar duel, where the different political factions are relatives of the same family. After that the peoples of Europe have taken the road of unity by challenging history and enmity, dividing them now would multiply the potential of conflicts. Hate and rage reach in fact the highest potency among those who had earlier loved each other or share ties.
Rome, sixty years later, suggests that our freedom can only be effective if we rediscover solidarity, invest in our societies, and aim at unity with the other peoples. In the post-war years, we suffered so much to make the walls falling in our continent. Despite that, the memory of that toil and of the poverty our grandfathers and fathers lived in seems vanishing, as much as it is vanishing the memory of the misery caused by those divisions.
Preventing such a memory erasure from happening deserves at least another trip to Rome.