Letters From Rome

Roman Palimpsest

Italy is a giant archaeological dig, endlessly plundered, built upon, defiled and revered. It’s also covered with graffiti, with lots of misspellings.

We return to Rome from Umbria and rain streaks the train windows and the headlines on the papers say, “Blood on the Umbrian Highway: 2 Dead,” but maybe I’m mistranslating, because two truck drivers burned to death in an alpine tunnel near Turin yesterday, 630 kilometers away. Maybe drivers are dying in pairs all over Italy.

Mosquitoes travel the aisles. A shack in a field flashes past, a dark-faced man staring across a table made from a sheet of corrugated iron. Then he’s gone. The Tiber appears, green and slow, fringed with plastic bags. Then it’s gone. We are in the outskirts of Rome now and something is always replacing something else: buildings, meadows, ruins. My wife sleeps beside me, her hands folded. Ahead of us, just a few miles away now, our boys chase their babysitter around the apartment. The train slows as it rattles into Tiburtina.

Graffiti coats the underside of a bridge, coasting past; graffiti wraps every available surface of an uncoupled train car, even the windows. TYSON, says the back of a supermarket, and, Chiamate subito Rambo, which means “Call Rambo immediately.” I pick out Onion! and Piantatela (Stop it). For every legible scribble, a hundred are illegible, sworls and loops and drastic, hyper-stylized tags.

The train grinds to a halt. A man comes groaning and weaving down the aisle and falls into the seat behind us.

There are hours living here when you feel like everything in Italy has been written on. Monuments, windows, trashcans, awnings, rocks. You see it most clearly from the trains, as you leave behind the fields and gorges and groves of the countryside and enter the apartment blocks and autoofficine, slipping beneath bridges and tension wires, the horizon progressively shrinking. More people here, more paint. Stop Bush, Febo, TASMO. Magik, Els, DMG don’t touch.

The newspaper says Roman authorities spend €2.5 million ($3 million) a year scrubbing 4.25 million square meters of graffiti off city walls. This cannot approach what private property owners must spend: On a dozen different mornings I’ve seen sad old guys taking water and steel wool and some kind of awful chemical to the bricks of their restaurants.

The pearls are often in mishandled English: Punk Rains; Einstein Rules Relatively OK?; and Always let you guides by love [sic]. My favorite is near the Trevi Fountain: Viva Nixon. The street level of nearly every wall of every building is paler than the rest; scrubbed and bleached and repainted. Then tagged again: Panda7, Dumbo, Satan! Subway trains are sometimes so heavily painted that they become montages of color: greens and reds and blues, conduits of paint, bellowing through their tunnels.

So many surfaces in Rome have been spray-painted that, after a month or two, the graffiti becomes background. It is our guests who point it out now. Kung has been busy in the neighborhood of Trastevere. So has Uncle Festah. A single towzone sign sports maybe 10 surfing stickers along with Fuck Cops, Rex, and Real Rock. A stenciled marijuana leaf has been applied maybe a hundred times along a single block of Via Cavour.

No Blood for Oil is rampant. So are No War and Yankee Go Home and USA GO AWAY. Hammers and sickles, swastikas, pentagrams, and anarchy A’s are easy to find. The wall above the doorbell of a government agency has been labeled, Assassini; and a window shutter nearby reads, Tetti per tutti (Roofs for everyone).

Even the seemingly innocuous slogan is usually political: Me ne frego (I don’t give a damn) was the motto of Mussolini’s Blackshirts; Carlo vive (Carlo lives) is a reference to Carlo Giuliani, the 23-year-old demonstrator who was killed by police during the 2001 G-8 summit in Genoa.

The pearls are often in mishandled English: Punk Rains; Einstein Rules Relatively OK?; and Always let you guides by love [sic]. My favorite is near the Trevi Fountain: Viva Nixon.

They’ve been doing it forever here. There is graffiti in the ancient port city of Ostia and lava preserved a bunch of it at Pompeii. In the Palatine Museum there’s a first-century drawing of Christ on the cross with an ass’s head. Several meters below the altar at St. Peter’s, second-century pilgrims put their tags on what is believed to be Peter’s grave. I saw 16th-century graffiti scratched inside Trajan’s column and a friend tells me that in 1528 a German invader scratched, Why wouldn’t I laugh? The Lansquenets [German soldiers] have made the pope flee above a fresco in the Villa Farnesina. Chapel singers signed their names into the lofts of the Sistine chapel, and Napoleon’s soldiers got busy on the walls at Villa Madama, and the legendary architect/etcher Piranesi scribbled Piranesi 1741 into a grotto at Hadrian’s Villa with a red crayon.

Who am I to judge? I’ve left my name here and there. We all mark our territories somehow: a picket fence, an iPod, potpourri. The smell of aerosol, the satisfying sound of a ball bearing rattling in a cylinder of paint: it probably satisfies some aesthetic need.

When you live in Italy you live in a place that has been peopled for so long you feel the writing on everything, and it’s not just graffiti but the way the land is a palimpsest of all the generations who have lived on it before you. We write ourselves into landscapes as surely as landscapes write themselves into us. It’s like genetics, or language: our faces are written over the tops of our ancestors’ faces, and our sentences are written over the tops of the sentences people used to say.

Even Umbria—which looks wild and where boars trample through the woods and whole mountainsides wear old-growth pines—is touched, and touched everywhere: the trailing spires of a farmer’s fire, the bright cliffs of quarries, the forests of trees that you realize, after a minute, are planted in rows.

Natives, exotics: the parasol pine, symbol of Rome, the tree that holds its graceful, broad head over every villa, every park, isn’t even an indigenous plant—the ancient Etruscans brought it from the Middle East. Can a botanist still call a tree exotic if it has been growing and dying here for 3,000 years?

Our train shunts and quakes through the maze of rails funneling into Termini and the rain hisses on the roof. A final quarter-mile of graffiti slinks past. Rex, and, SLIM, and Up! Up! The man behind us moans. We shoulder our bags and move down the aisle and hold hands as we climb back out into the city.


TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr