ROME is the middle section of a three part story, titled Fichi d’India, set in Florence, Rome, and Sicily, about an American composer who goes to Italy to compose an opera based on Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun.
In the late afternoon the Roman streets which have been deserted since lunch time suddenly fill with people dressed in brilliant colors. The sun, a dull red ball, sinks over St. Peters, filtering red smoky light through the streets. The cobblestones are packed with slowwalking crowds ignoring the automobiles, Vespas and bicycles, filling the air with their voices and gesticulations and creating the excitement of a warm Christmas eve. At seven the first lights start twinkling.
Stateley’s arrival in Rome in the daylight upheld his expectations. The approach by train to almost all cities shows them at their ugliest; but the rail approach to Rome from the North is through a circle of green pastoral hills. Twice and then again, ancient walls and arches break the sward; then a minimum of ugly houserears pass and suddenly the station appears. Yet, despite the beauty of this approach, Stateley’s feeling on arrival was that the possibilities of Rome would increase rather than dwindle as he stayed there.
He moved into a hotel on the Via Bocca di Leone which friends had recommended and found himself in the center of a Roman colony of Americans. But the colony was different from the one he had known in Paris. In Paris everyone lived in remote rooms and met at the same restaurants and bars; here, as soon as he walked into the lobby of the hotel he saw half a dozen people whom he knew from New York.
Stateley followed his baggage to his room, washed, came down again and joined some of his acquaintances for supper. They were acquaintances rather than friends, for although he knew who they were and what they did he could not have guessed the details of their lives. Still, he was surprised at supper by the difference of the atmosphere among them from that he had known among his friends in Paris. In Paris everyone had behaved as on a deliberate holiday and had displayed eccentricities like party dress. Here, everyone seemed leading a pedestrianly ordinary life. The casual intimacy which is bred between people away from home was touched among them with an air of indifference. They appeared to eat together because they did not want to eat alone, but Stateley had the impression that each one of them had accepted being alone in the world, and that any one of them would have considered as naive an offer of real friendship.
At the table were a girl photographer from a fashion magazine, a writer, an ex-dancer and his wife, a painter and several other people more identifiable by their aimlessness in life than by the labels they had chosen to give their aimlessness. When the meal was over they went together to the bar on the corner and drank a coffee, standing at the small marble counter. Then it was taken for granted that they would part and each go his own way, as though they were people who worked in the same neighborhood and met for lunch. How each one could have a self-sufficient center to his life in so transient an existence, Stateley did not understand. But he was too exhausted to question his ignorance. He returned to the hotel and soon, despite the step and scrape of feet passing along the pavement beneath his window, he was asleep.