From the Tiber to the Clyde: Rome, Healing, and the Epistemology of Autopsy

I’m in my Roman bedroom, which looks nearly the same as it did three years ago. The various posters, photos, books, CDs, leaflets and random bric-à-brac that once had the role of marking the place as distinctively mine are right where I left them, starting to acquire a memorabilia-like aura though still seemingly linked to present time through their messy, scattered layout. My past self is closer than ever: if only my bed hadn’t been replaced by a sofa for the sake of practicality and my blue suitcase hadn’t been left half open on the floor, a PIK-CIA bag tag still firmly attached to the top handle, I could easily pretend to be back to my high school days. On my lap sits a copy of Bassani’s The Garden of The Finzi-Continis, which I picked up earlier today after browsing my bookshelves in search for something to read, my eyes gravitating towards the thin volume with the unmistakeable pull I sometimes feel towards novels I remember to have once enjoyed but which have almost completely escaped from my memory if not through a few images of nature more cinematographic than literary.  

Comfortably laying on the new grey sofa, I go through the book’s prologue a few times to then let myself zone out, the gilded visions of tennis matches under sunlight I inherited from my first reading freely combining with those emerged from the novel’s initial settings of the necropolis of the Banditaccia and Ferrara’s Montebello Street Cemetery. The thought of these funereal locations sends my mind to my renewed plans to visit Testaccio’s non-Catholic cemetery, the resting place of Keats, Shelley, and Gramsci, a site I have only ever had access to through Pasolini’s verse despite multiple failed attempts to physically get there. As white tennis skirts overlap with Etruscan burial mounds and with the foreign garden and bus timetables, my mind takes a further leap, sending me back to the argumentative line of an essay about the epistemology of sepulchre and autopsy I studied and mulled over for a few months. I stay there for a while and keep on mulling. 

An ongoing undergraduate degree; piles of mail, a bank account and a railway card; a bay-windowed living room in a flat I have barely seen; a phone number I still fail to remember; books and clothes I need to give back; the vast majority of my recent memories; a wonderful network of friends who feel like family; or, in short, my life’s articulation towards the future and its reminiscence of a time just lost and still faintly breathing; all, unequivocally, a thing of Glasgow, Scotland, of Maryhill, Hillhead, Partick, Finnieston, Sauchiehall and Bath Street, of Edinburgh, Luss, and Aberdeen. It is a bare fact: my life does not intersect much with that of Rome anymore. I returned here a few weeks ago, after six months of absence. To my wonderment, I am generally feeling calm, inspired and full of good and productive intentions. The end-direction of my cerebral associations provides me with a possible explanation for this unexpected stability: it probably has something to do with the gradual dying down of most connections between my future and this city, the only significant remaining ones being those relevant to personal and familiar relations. 

This newly-discovered barrenness has had the surprising effect of making me approach scenes of the utmost familiarity with an attitude of continuous discovery. Free from all investment, I can finally take a proper look at my surroundings, singling out previously unnoticed details in the scenery and rejoicing in each finding, places I have always taken for granted suddenly charged with the attractive force typically emanating from things one can only rarely witness and may never encounter again. Standing on the infertile roots marking my unbreakable belonging to the city, I take it all in: the daily summer wildfires and the occasional thunderstorms; the languid stretching of the Roman Castles upon the Alban Hills, the serpentine streams of peak-time traffic and the shouting of vendors at a Sunday outdoors market; the marks and cracks on ancient faces and façades, and the familiar inflections of voices infiltrating into my room from floors above and beneath and from nearby houses. I never tire of observing and, now that the attachment doesn’t hurt anymore, I nestle up on each image, comfortably bewitched by beauty. Fully receptive, I soak in the radiance in heterogeneity so constitutive of this estranged home of mine and of its endless stream of travellers and dwellers, which, conjoined, offer an intricate mosaic of the variety, suffering and ecstasy of humanity, each tassel fundamental, irreplaceable, absolutely necessary. 

Writing this column, which I started and am finishing in Rome but have mostly worked on in Glasgow, has decidedly helped me make peace with a city I viscerally feel for in all sorts of contradictory ways, allowing me to make sense of its conjoined threads of marvel and toxicity. When I started drafting article ideas at the end of last summer, I had a much lighter vision of what this project would be focused on. Any creative act characterised by an element of uncontrollableness, the column unexpectedly and gradually detached itself from my initial plans to turn into a monthly exercise of self-analysis, each article an epitaph to processed experience through which I have been able to examine my relationship with Rome and to ultimately accept it in all its complexity, healing through mental wrestling on the grounds of autopsy. 

[EF – she/her]

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