Rome Sweet Rome

When his wife was invited to study in Rome rent-free, Stephen Heuser took a six-month sabbatical and tagged along. 'La vita' doesn't get much more 'dolce' than that.

The Janiculum Hill is home to one of the city's best views--and also to the American Academy in Rome, where our lucky writer was living (Lorenzo Pesce)

What you'll find in this story: Rome restaurants, Rome culture, Rome attractions, Rome neighborhoods, Rome churches, Rome museums

When I was 22, I did Rome in three efficient days. With a backpack and a guidebook I covered St. Peter's, the Colosseum, the Pantheon. I ate a pressed sandwich. I sat on the Spanish Steps. A group of Italians drove me in their tiny Fiat to a genuine out-of-town restaurant.

I liked the city well enough, but I didn't get why it seduced people. I prefer to peek under the skin of places, figure them out a little, and in Rome that seemed impossible. The city was a labyrinth of churches, ruins, and steep-walled palazzi barred by iron gates. To be honest, I was happy to tick Rome off the list for good.

And then came the telephone call. My wife, Jennifer, a student of classical art, had won something called the Rome Prize. She was being offered a free year to live in Rome, and if I took time off from my job I could stay with her through the summer. We'd live atop the Janiculum Hill, in a room with 15-foot ceilings, overlooking a fountain. Dinner would be served promptly at 8 p.m. Could we come?

How could we not? The Boston Globe gave me a leave of absence. We found a cat-sitter and a car-sitter. And we packed and repacked, weighing our crammed luggage until it fit precisely under the airline's weight limit, 74 pounds per bag.

We arrived in January to find the streets raked by 40-degree winds. The Rome of my memory had been rolled into storage. Café awnings were furled; outdoor tables were stacked and chained. Some restaurants were shuttered completely until March.

The city's crumbling grandeur was familiar enough, but the details of daily life felt endlessly strange. The streets buzzed with two-person microcars, smaller than anything I'd ever seen driven by adults. Policemen carried machine guns and sported intricately sculpted beards. Store owners were fastidious about handing out receipts, even for a cup of coffee, but they were creative in making change, often in my favor. Everyone wore thick quilted coats, and men all had the same moleskin pants in ocher yellow--but mysteriously, no stores appeared to sell them.

We were living at the American Academy in Rome, a venerable institution seemingly designed to hold its occupants in splendid isolation from urban life. So although we had moved to Italy, we had almost none of the ordinary bureaucratic headaches expats have to endure.

The academy was full of professors and artists, some of whom had been coming to Rome for years. They knew a version of the city that wasn't in guidebooks, and they knew who to call--a former colleague, a government functionary--for permission to see it. When they went out, I could almost always tag along. One early winter morning, we rode the number 75 bus over the river to the Colosseum stop. (Can you ever really grasp a city where the Colosseum is a bus stop?) We walked past the Arch of Constantine, past the Forum entrance, and stopped on the Palatine Hill.

A grad student had landed a permit to visit a rarely seen building called the House of the Griffins. Even with permission, Rome doesn't yield its secrets easily: We shuttled back and forth between two gatehouses for 45 minutes before we found our contact, a custodian who spoke no English. He led us through a fence and stopped at a stone arch that opened onto a blank wall. There was no house, just a steep metal stairway running straight down into the ground.

We climbed three stories down, plunging from a cold day into colder, damp earth, from an Italian park in 2005 into the living room of a man who wore a toga and sacrificed to Jupiter. The House of the Griffins is the long-buried mansion of a wealthy Roman who lived in the years before Julius Caesar. We played our flashlights over walls painted in faux marble--apparently the Romans have always loved faux marble--and floors in op art mosaics.

Rome has more buried epochs than most cities have epochs. Every square inch of the city is like a pressed sandwich of history. Beneath the churches are older churches, and beneath those are temples, or the remnants of huts. It wasn't just me who couldn't get a handle on Rome. Nobody could.

As more and more doors opened, and I read a bit of Italian history, I started to figure it out: Prehistoric settlements lay under the Republic, the Republic lay under the Empire, and the monuments of the Empire were leveled and pillaged by a nearly endless succession of popes. The popes put their crests on buildings as if they were signatures. Six mounds and a star was the work of Alexander VII; three bees was Urban VIII.

Another door wasn't opening as easily, however: the language. Before I had come to Italy, I had studied Italian grammar and even started listening to CDs. With devastatingly accurate intonation, I could ask, "Is Chiara there?" And, "Is Amanda there?" But on the street I would produce one grammatically shining sentence--"Excuse me, where is the church with the preserved heart of St. Charles?"--and get back a rapid-fire mouthful that sounded like nothing I had ever heard.

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