Alessandro Torresi: Wanderers / wonderers through the Roman night

At night, when people fall asleep, the city wakes up and starts to live. And this is particularly true for Roma. There is something mystical about this eternal city which seems to transcend the reality we live in. Only at night, when the streets get empty and there are no tourists wandering through the narrow alleys and hidden corners of the city, you can truly feel what it means to say: “I am in Rome”.

Roma is a protective mother who guides us from street to street, ancient palace to ancient palace, in a perpetual quest to understand the essence of our fragmented life. And as we walk, we might notice lonely and adventurous wanderers who are stuck in the same quest. And as we pass each other, we feel our nostalgia growing, even if we don’t know why. It is like we are aware that we are missing something in our lives, or that we can never fully have it: but the melancholy caused by a lack of love, success, or happiness is heartened by the warm arms of Roma.

Roma is a protective mother who cannot be fully understood. You feel loved, you feel protected, but you cannot fully understand why. You just know that you must keep walking and you must keep passing people by. Roma is unreachable, because thousands of years of history are shown off with pride every inch of the city, but you constantly sense a decadent presence that confers to the city a folksy halo.

Roma embodies the ‘Cabiria’ character in Fellini’s “White Sheik”. When the bourgeois character Ivan is sitting at night in an empty square, crying because his wife has snuck off to meet her soap opera idol, he is the lonely vagabond who’s oppressed by social conventions. And when he is lost for words, in despair, the prostitute Cabiria suddenly appears, whose only way to show love and support is by making jokes and by keeping things light. Cabiria and her friend Assunta look at the pictures of Ivan’s wife, making silly but loving comments, raising Ivan’s spirit up. Roma, as Cabiria, will never take you seriously, but it will always make you feel comforted and at home.

A still taken from “The White Sheik” where an open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

A still taken from “The White Sheik”, 1952. An open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

I become that adventurous wonderer every time I have the occasion to visit Roma. Coming from a very small village located in Southern Italy, I have cultivated, since I was a child, a fascination for Roma. The capital was just a four-hour drive from my village, but my family and I were not used to travelling a lot. So, when we visited our cousins in the city it almost felt like we were travelling to the other side of the world. Roma was on the national newscast every day; Roma was the place where my fellow countrymen were going to try their luck to find a job; and Roma was the city where my older cousin was attending University. There is a very special unsaid tradition in my family that tells you that every time you leave the village, you have to wave goodbye to every relatives’ home. And I remember those moments, when my cousin had to return to Roma, as heart-breaking and painful, feeding my view of the capital as “The” destination with no return. Even today, although travelling has become a more common thing for me to do, when I visit Roma, I feel in the same way I used to feel when I was a child.

Last August, for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my family and I decided to take a two-day trip and there couldn’t be any other destination but Roma. We arrived in the late afternoon and we were supposed to leave the following day after lunch, so we had just one night. I was really looking forward to walking through the city centre when I could have spent some time really enjoying the empty city.

It was 3 am. While my parents and my brother embarked on the impossible mission to find an open ice-cream parlour, I ventured to walk around Piazza di Spagna. I climbed the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps and, reaching the top, I was dazzled by the view: the city enlightened by hundreds of tiny yellow lanterns. It reminded me why I love Roma so much. You can get bewildered by the grandeur of the architecture, but you never feel uneasy.

On the way to re-join my family, I suddenly felt observed by two stone hollow eyes. It was like being trapped in one of those oneiric scenes of Fellini’s movies. The city was alive, and it was peering at me. I instantly remembered when I visited the Cinecittà film studios for the first time and I got hypnotized by the majesty of the Casanova’s Venusia. This massive sculpture of a crowned head, which had been made for the opening scene of the movie directed by Fellini in 1976, now stands at the entrance of the historical studios. The hollow eyes that confronted me that night were, in fact, just the entrance of the Hertziana Library of Zuccari Palace, one of the largest History of Art research sites in Europe, but I really had the impression that the huge mouth of the creature was a magical portal to enter a parallel Roma. A photograph by Anthony Kersting held in the Conway Library as G19688 captures this strange doorway.

Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari, in Via Gregoriana, Rome. By Anthony F Kersting.

Two furious eyes reveal the entrance of Zuccari Palace, Rome. Photograph by Anthony Kersting, “Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari Via Gregoriana, Rome. KER_PNT_G19688. The Courtauld.

It is funny how an elusive glimpse can take you to impossible places. But this feeling is quite common when you visit this unique labyrinthine city. It is the atypical and the bizarre that transform Roma into a human, into a mother. The intrinsic contradiction between the sacred and profane, between the solemn and familiar is the blend that continues to attract hundreds of wanderers every year. If you arrive alone, you will have the city to keep you company. The towering fountains, the cramped cloisters, the wide arcades, the charming churches are a multitude of faces that will guide you through the city, that ascends to the eternal because every vagabond will leave a peace of their soul that will live the streets forever. And at night, when it’s just you and the city, strange miracles can happen.