I am getting about a bit these days! H and I had three days in Rome over the weekend where we had the privilege to swim through herds of tattooed wildebeest in spray on shorts marauding round the Coliseum with their wheelies. If only it were the Circus Maximus, I could have felled one or two with my trident.
Is the world now entirely inked from neck to ankle? I had to reach for the sal volatile on several occasions. The vogue for women of every age to have the palest blue, pink or green washes put in their hair is equally bewildering. I blame Disney.
But Rome – Rome! – was quite simply majestic. My happiest hours were spent on a roof terrace overlooking the Coliseum slurping Aperol Spritz and chowing down on risotto for the Gods. For Italians, food is a religion. The world turns around the mangiare. I fully endorse the three hour lunch, don’t you?
My favourite day in Rome began with a walk to the Palatine Hill and a ticketed tour of the Imperial Palaces. A surprisingly large footprint of Augustus and Livia’s palaces survives though in the shape of thin, flat, red Roman brick that would once have been smothered in marble. If you imagine the Pantheon and project the marble mosaics onto the Palatine Hill you can picture the glory of the Augustan age.
As Augustus said, he found a Rome built in brick and left it in marble. My Roman history comes more from I Claudius than Tacitus but it was truly thrilling to see the servants’ corridor where Caligula was stabbed to death and walk on remnants of marble pavement upon which Livia trod silently en route to the fatal herb cupboard.
The views from Augustus’s palace over the Circus Maximus were spectacular as was the bathhouse complex which must have looked like St Paul’s Cathedral with water features. On the first night in Rome H bought tickets for Carmen in an open air arena situated in what was the largest public Roman bath. The production was themed to Mexico and was rather heavy on political commentary about asylum.
However, what’s not to like about a red sequin-clad Carmen pole dancing or a chorus dressed in Day of the Dead skeleton costumes? The orchestration was sublime even though interrupted once when H wrenched the cork out of a mini bottle of prosecco in a moment of calm. About twenty big swarthy Italians hit the deck presumably mistaking it for a Mafia hit.
One of my favourite scenes in Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley was when Jude Law’s character takes Matt Damon’s Ripley to the Jazz Festival in San Remo. This we tried to replicate on the banks of the the Tiber where there was a string of pop-up, tented bars one of which contained a trad jazz band. Said breathtaking band ambled through an old school great American Song Book repertoire with voices that made Tom Waits sound like Kathleen Battle.
One of the highlights was the Air B&B run by a salty old Nonna and her dog Bella. The single-storey dwelling on the fringes of Rome had the prettiest rose, herb, lemon and lime tree garden at the front and a draped conservatory. It was built like a cuckoo clock: one door for Nonna and Bella and the other for H and I. It was rather like a Roman remake of Allo Allo and none the worse for that.
The best exhibition in Rome was a major retrospective of Belle Epoque master Giovanni Bellini. Bellini painted sublime portraits of grandees in all their splendour describing the garments and jewellery in such detail that he’s the reference for a lost age of elegance. His faces evidently paint in the best light but that was why he was so popular amongst the beaux and belles of the age.
The exhibition was set over several floors of King Vittorio Emmanuele II’s white marble Wedding Cake facing the Palatine Hill: a monument to the unification of Italy and a new golden age for Rome that never quite materialised. I also enjoyed pieces from the largest Marilyn Monroe memorabilia collection belonging to an American collector.
Marilyn is a specialised subject and I had seen a blinding collection of MM’s film costumes, personal wardrobe and shoes in the Ferragamo Museum in Florence a couple of years back that I thought would be hard to beat. This exhibition presented pieces from the various sales such as the Chrisite’s MM sale in 1999 and a more recent Julien’s Auctions sale of David Gainsborough-Roberts’s collection.
There were star pieces – the Prince and the Showgirl white silk evening dress, the purple satin How to Marry a Millionaire evening gown and a whole collection of MM film scripts – but there was an equal amount of objects that were in more questionable taste: prescriptions for uppers and downers, pieces of lingerie and objects from MM’s kitchen such as a melon scoop that were presented like religious icons … as I suppose they are to collectors.
These short breaks to hot countries have been totally life-enhancing and made all the more pleasant for returning to London in the throes of a heatwave. It sweetens the pill somewhat. What else is new on the Rialto? Much to tell about The Wedding Gallery at No 1 Marylebone, a meeting with the Bedford Estates and the feedback from Royal Murder Mysteries on Yesterday. This will all have to wait until the next missive. Until next time…