Rome’s Abandoned River and the Empire of the Forgotten
Other cities embrace their rivers. Rome turns her back on hers.
You might too if it looked like this. The Tiber, or Tevere in Italian, is the unsavory khaki color of the urine of a person with advanced liver failure. It rises on Mount Fumaiolo and drags the Apennines’ silt and mud across Italy on its way to the city.
Under the Italian sun, even the dirtiest things can be made to shine, but Rome’s river is more or less neglected. Without it, the empire would never gotten off the ground, but nowadays, there are better ways to feed a city.
Still, what makes Rome the marvel that it is is not its well-known landmarks, but its secrets. It’s the gloomy crypts and hidden passages and half-forgotten masterpieces that keep people like me coming to the city again and again. Besides, my favorite gelato shop is right beside the river.
But this isn’t really about Rome. It isn’t even really about the river. It’s about the way the words and photos of a stranger online can give our memories back to us. It’s about the way that one day, many years and thousands of kilometers away from another, can nevertheless start to take on the shape of the past. Like everything worth writing, it’s about the connections between things.
Usually, it’s a bad idea.
I do it anyway. Not everything we do is good for us, and by the immutable law of essential paradox, I don’t believe it’s healthy always to be doing healthy things. There needs to be a little bit of wrongness, the tiny bit of gravel that wears away the jagged edge.
Besides, I sleep with my phone beside me. I’m compelled against my will by the sinister manipulations of rogue psychologists to go online every morning before I’ve even gotten out of bed.
Once in a while, the Internet shows me something other than the usual self-righteous screeching and cynical lifehacksmanship that consumes so much bandwidth these days. Every now and then, the doomscroll produces something beautiful. Today, it was this photo essay by G Dondlinger.
No prizes for guessing why it struck a chord with me. I know Rome. I know the quiet cobblestones underneath the bridges, flanking the swift brown river that sweeps through the city. I’ve been there before. But I can’t go there now. Right now, most of us can’t go anywhere.
Through the magic of the Internet, we can still travel the world. Words and images combined with my own misplaced memories until I could feel again the cobbles under my feet, could hear the dirty water muttering in its stone channel as it rattles ignored toward the sea.
And then I got up. Outside in the garden, the morning air was filled with tiny floating flies that caught the sun, dwarfed by frantic butterflies and hummingbirds like clockwork toys. These flies only live for a day, their mouths sealed shut, their adult life counted in hours as they fly and breed and die.
But what a day they picked to be their last.
Legends sprout around the river like reeds.
Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were abandoned here and found by the shewolf who raised them. An even older king, Tiberinus, drowned trying to cross the river. In doing so, he gave it his name and became for a while the river god.
Certainly, the Tiber has claimed no shortage of lives. Those who killed their fathers in ancient Rome could expect to be sewn up into a sack along with a live dog, a rooster, a monkey, and a viper, and be thrown into the river to die. The bodies of popes and princes have slipped beneath the rushing waves, their bleached bones rising from the bottomless mud beneath the river to scrape the bottom of tourist boats.
Modern Romans don’t come down here. Not really. Oh, you might see a jogger or two in the early morning. The occasional policeman. But mostly, while the city above echoes with the noise of crowds, the dark paths along the Tiber are silent.
It feels subterranean. It’s not so much that the river has sunk. In fact, the heavy sediment washed out of the mountains continually threatens to make the river too shallow, and the dead are disturbed by regular dredging.
But the city has risen over the centuries, and the abandoned temples with their vanished roofs open to the view of the gods now sit below the buzzing hive of modern streets. The bridges over the Tiber don’t leap. They lounge. The god of the river reclines on a couch beneath the sky where starlings swarm like stars.
Anywhere hidden attracts fugitives. Under the bridges, the homeless sleep. Ramshackle tents and tarps hang from the moss-fringed bricks, a tiny empire continually threatened by rain.
Passing one tent, enhanced and enlarged by an impenetrable tangle of ropes and tarps, I almost stepped in a long trickle of liquid flowing from inside toward the river. Grimacing, I pulled back. A long stream of urine crept to the stone curb and vanished into the river.
Under a high bronze sun, everything shines.
The Romans had a god for everything. The river. The city. The mountains and the sky and the sea. There were small gods of the household, the Lares and the Penates and the Vesta. Every family had its genius. Every genius was a daemon.
But what kind of god, daemon or genius, would consent to rule over a damp tent under a dripping bridge?
The kind that would sooner rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. The kind that needs the silent darkness where nobody goes to hear the heartbeat of the world. The kind that would rather watch stars circle the ancient church domes than the slowly accumulating sedimentary filth that oozes from the speakers of your nearest TV.
You can draw a line from anywhere to anywhere.
From the center of the circle, all points on the circumference are equally close. A floating fly and a fluttering hummingbird and the sunny summit of the mountain behind my house form the points of a scalene triangle with no equal sides, no corresponding angles. And a line drawn from here to Rome through the top portion of the globe would need something in the heavens to hang from to form a geometry of its own.
A trickle of piss loses itself in the river. And by some corroborating concatenation of fragmentary and fugitive things, I find myself walking once again by the side of a river I haven’t seen in years.
Dondlinger ended his essay with a quote from legendary Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. But I can’t go to Rome and see the words scrawled on the ancient walls. Now I can only use screens to travel, and I carefully fold one part of the pattern over the corresponding curlicues of the next, looking for those connections that chance provides and art exploits.
I probably won’t get much argument if I claim that Paolo Sorrentino is Italy’s greatest living film director. In his Oscar-winning La Grande Bellezza, or The Great Beauty, after nearly three hours of one gorgeous image stacked on top of another, the credits roll over a long and lingering tracking shot of the Tiber River. Rome’s thousand stone bridges swing slowly past to a soundtrack of Vladimir Martynov’s Beatitudes and the stately clanging of church bells.
This filthy river has rolled along underneath the gorgeous city forever. In the dense silence underneath bridges, you can hear the heartbeat of history, feel the damp breath of vanished gods, and catch the faint tang of a homeless person’s piss. And thanks to the fearsome power of the internet, you can do it all without leaving your house.