The first time I visited Rome, I was broke, heartbroken, and travelling around Europe on my own. My “turning 30” gift to myself — and so far, this had involved cheap train rides, CouchSurfing disasters, and nights in noisy mixed dorm hostels. In Rome, though I’d be staying with a friend, and knowing nothing about the city, I disembarked at Roma Termini, hauled self and suitcase into the metro and alighted at Colosseo station, dumbstruck. “This is where you live?” I accused him. A stone’s throw from the world’s most famous ancient monument, in an apartment atop a heritage building on Via Marco Aurelio. Admittedly, this was a step up from CityHostel Geneva. I stayed a week, fell in love with someone named Giovanni, and — need I say it? — Rome.
Over the next few years, I returned many times to Via Marco Aurelio. I was living in London then, a cheap EasyJet flight away, and came to know many of Rome’s seasons. The scalding heat of July, volcanoing with tourists, gentle, autumnal October, springy April, crisp and light as a sparkling Frascati, sweet abundant May with artichokes and oranges and buckets of flowers at every street corner. In Rome, I walked everywhere — as far as the Protestant cemetery near Pyramid (just beyond the Catholic city’s walls), where Keats and Shelley are buried, all the way up Janiculum Hill topped by the wondrous Fontana dell’Acqua Paola. I stayed long enough to find favourite places — the piazza in Monti where locals gathered in the evenings for beer and chatter, a little Sicilian pastry shop near Ponte Sisto, a one-Euro per slice pizzeria opposite the Spanish Steps, Piazza Popolo at sundown.
But I haven’t returned in ages. My friend moved to Hanoi, I shifted back to Delhi, life carried on, and Rome faded; it seemed it had all happened in another lifetime.
Early this year though, I began working on a novel — unlike anything I’ve attempted before, partly because it’s quite the tome, and also because it’s largely historical fiction. Four narratives intertwine, each of them a journey — two real and the rest fabricated. Of the former, one retells Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “escape” to Italy. A trip he undertook in secrecy in September 1786, after a decade of employment at the Weimar court as an administrator (which, to no surprise, left him exhausted and with little time to write). He had his heart set on Rome, what he called the capital of the ancient world, and even the storms he encountered on his journey were winds “behind him blowing him on towards his wishes”. Like me, he, too, entered Rome heartbroken. His long-term love for Charlotte von Stein, a married woman at court, was headed nowhere. But his two years in Italy, before he grudgingly returned to his more northerly homeland, healed and revived him — he fell in love with a Roman widow, he painted and wrote plays, inspired by a creative frenzy in his living quarters on 18 Via del Corso, which housed a lively artist collective. From this also sprung Italian Journey (1817), an account of his time in Italy, drawn from letters and journal entries written during the period.
In February 2020, as part of research, I hope to follow in Goethe’s footsteps, visiting Rome to see what he observed, and revisit the places he, too, explored. It will be a different sort of visit, I suspect, for previously my time in the city was spurred by little or no agenda (unless one counts “let’s find the best aperitivo”); I walked where I willed, and looked at monuments — there’s a lot of those — without his words echoing around them. I have admired St Peter’s previously, but I know now that for Goethe it made him realise that “Art, like Nature, can abolish all standards of measurement.” The Colosseo, which I’ve walked past dozens of times, for him made everything else seem small. “It is so huge that the mind cannot retain its image; one remembers it as smaller than it is, so that every time one returns to it, one is astounded by its size.” I realise this will be a palimpsest journey prompted, shaped, haunted by his own.
Similar ventures have been undertaken in the past. James M Markham for The New York Times in 1986 retraced Goethe’s journey — “I picked up the poet’s trail in Munich at 3.30 am in a rental car and pointed myself south…”— though his article reads somewhat rushed, which is no surprise given Markham had a day to spare in cities where Goethe spent several. But I cannot judge harshly, for likewise, I’ll be a fortnight in Rome where he stayed almost two years.
Others have been far more conscientious. Vancouver-based photographer Eric Klemm replicated Goethe’s trip in 2009 precisely down to visiting the same stations on exactly the same day as did the poet — only 223 years later. His photographs are strangely poignant, desaturated and bereft of people, as though the only ones present are the viewer and the poet. They capture for me the experience of travelling alone but accompanied, of being privy to multiple views, my own and his, of the collapsing of time, of existing both in the past and the present. What also stayed with me is Klemm’s artistic statement: “Putting myself in the poet’s state of mind, I found other motifs he would have loved, but perhaps either didn’t have the time to see or failed to mention.”
I have a feeling that before me, too, lies this negotiation — not just to see new sights and old, guided by Goethe’s text but also to catch that which wasn’t mentioned — a process which I hope will prompt a deeper understanding of the experience of being in a place. It will not be easy to be writer, reader, and tourist all at once — to look both inward and out, at text and subtext, to allow for reading and misreading, but for him as for me, we will emerge “changed to the bones”.
Janice Pariat is a Delhi-based author. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Changed to the Bones’