Of course the set pieces were wonderful. Seeing the Sistine ceiling for the first time, I realised that the colours I so loved in Poussin – the apple green, sky blue, terracotta and orange – were of course, really Michelangelo's colours. This time around I have a real interest in the Roman world, not the rather baffled distant respect I had before. Having become interested in prehistory and human evolution, the Rome of 2000 years ago seems virtually yesterday.
But what really struck home was the persistence of traditional Rome – the classic Roman cuisine of saltimbocco and osso buco – and its pleasant unthreatening version of international street life. Campo Fiori and Pizza Navona were the main hangouts.
The buskers were excellent. Everyone knows the Great American Songbook but in Rome the Latin and Rock songbooks rule. Girl From Ipanema, Autumn Leaves, Besame Mucho were the standbys. There is also a great European Songbook: even if some of hails from South America, it’s the perfect music to hear in Roman streets. A really fine rock guitarist in Navona played Little Wing and Sultans of Swing with real fire and technique.
But most striking of all was a street artist with a fabulously theatrical graffiti airbrush technique. People watched him for the theatre more than the results which were usually kitsch but sometimes transcended it. He worked very quickly, rotating his armoury of cans and stencils with hardly a moment's pause. Occasionally he flamed the picture, which was dramatic but had the unfortunate effect of giving the paint a sickly glossy patina which make kitsch unavoidable. His favourite subject was the Colosseum. He painted the planets by request and the joy lay in their eventual emergence from behind a veil of screens and stencils.
From Roman grandeur, through Renaissance harmony, to the hip-swinging joy of Latin guitar music on the streets, it was possible to embrace all of this. The only really jarring note is Victor Emmanuel’s Palace. Enormously tall, overbearingly visible from everywhere, Fascist architecture avant la lettre, this building is wrong in every way. The Corinthian columns piled above ugly masses of stone; the appalling, meaningless decoration in place of standard neoclassical motifs – this seems to be the point where Italy started to go badly wrong. We heard a lot about that, of course, the four-point Referendum was a few days away and the national shame that is Berlusconi hung heavily over the city. But Rome makes a better fist of city life than most of the more touted contenders. It is smaller, more intimate; the bird life in Trastevere, with raucous gulls and air-dicing swifts and swallows, and the majestic plane trees along the Tiber, remind that rus in urbe is Latin. Inspirational.