There are places in the world that I have no particular longing to visit but which I love to read about. Rome is one of those places. For all the other cities and regions in Italy that I long to visit, Rome does not entice me. Milan, yes. Venice, absolutely. Rome, not so much. But I love reading about the city and so turned the pages of The Seasons of Rome by Paul Hofmann with delight.
Austrian by birth, Hofmann (who died in 2008) spent decades living and working in Rome. By the time The Seasons of Rome was published in 1997, he had lived in the city for more than 30 years (including during the war) and the book reflects both his first-hand and his learned knowledge of the capital’s history. In these short journal-style entries, he is able to examine a year in modern Rome and see in it the echoes of its classical heritage as well as the more recent past.
It is recognizably the work of a journalist. Hofmann was chief of the New York Times bureau in Rome for many years and his writing is factual and understated. He uses the first person but without gushing and emoting in the manner of many current columnists. Essentially, he reports.
I was fascinated by the city’s never-ending appetite for papal gossip. Neighbours gossip about the pope’s health constantly, with everyone seemingly having some connection, however tenuous, inside the papal state to provide private info. In turn, the gossips then gossip about their sources. One of Hofmann’s neighbours gets her (unerringly correct and days ahead of official new sources) updates on Pope John Paul II’s ailments through the sister of her daughter-in-law:
She is an unmarried woman in her thirties who ten years ago was hired as a computer operator by an administrative office in the pontifical state; meanwhile she appears to have risen to a quasi-executive position under the supervision of a high prelate. ..I remember her as a chubbily attractive, fashionably dressed blonde. Later I was told she lives in a nice apartment in a church-owned building not far from the Vatican, has a Filipina maid, and in August every year spends her vacations in Switzerland. Inevitably there is talk that she has a clerical friend.
Innocent that I am, I was a little shocked by the idea of a “clerical friend”. But then I am rather surprised by the mention of modern-day mistresses in any context. If you trust what you read by Italian and Irish authors, a mistress seems to be an absolutely essential accessory even for modest businessmen in Catholic countries.
Hofmann loves Rome and made his home there for many years but is far from blind to its faults. What was most fascinating for me were the pieces (and they are many) which discuss the difficulties of Roman life: the mail lady who comes maybe two or three times a week (as opposed to the promised 9 times); the disruptive and never-ending strikes by unions and students; the nepotism and cronyism among politicians; the pervasive influence of the mob; the racism experienced by Asian and African immigrants…the list goes on. But he is not negative, just truthful. There is never any doubt that Rome is a city he loves and through his eyes even I could see its appeal.