I recently returned from a trip with three of my sisters and two of my brothers-in-law to Rome. I’d been before, but it had been a few years, and I was eager to return and show my family some of my favorite spots. Of course, I love the vibrancy and energy of the city–and the fabulous food!–but one of the main reasons that I travel to old cities is that my interest in history and how it continues to interject itself into the present is always nurtured by seeing and experiencing how human creation and culture grows organically, and old cities are the best places to do that.
You almost cannot walk a block in Rome without encountering some fantastic site, whether it’s the curious Elephantino wearing his odd Egyptian obelisk near the Pantheon or the sunken area thought widely to be the place where Julius Caesar was murdered. My sister Taryn and I spent a long time simply looking–and we discovered that the many cats who used to roam this area have been transported elsewhere.
The present co-exists with the past, as you can see near the statue of the sixteenth-century tailor Pasquino, who began “publishing” his complaints about local politics and corruption by tacking them up where everyone could see them. Contemporary Romans and visitors keep this tradition alive by putting up their own requests and comments–though nowadays they must restrict themselves to the message board that sits next to Pasquino’s statue. That doesn’t stop anyone from saying what they want to!
You turn a corner, and find yourself unexpectedly in a medieval-looking courtyard–and you had better be quiet, because the residents have no patience for loud visitors, particularly nosy tourists.
In almost every street, history juts into the present, sometimes literally. And this, among other elements, is what I love about Rome. Yes, it is loud. And, yes, the traffic is insane sometimes. But this is a city that feeds my belief that our histories remain part of who we are, even as we change. My project as a writer has always been “filling the gaps” in history–both the recorded history of eras and my own personal history. I am particularly interested in the history of women, whose lives have often been ignored, rewritten, or demonized. Faulkner famously said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I agree with him, and it’s one of the reasons that I embarked on a series of novels set in Tudor England. We know a great deal about many of the famous figures of the period. I was interested in the smaller figures–particularly the women in the convents that were closed during Henry’s reign. Many of these women likely did not choose to be in convents, and when they were evicted many of the nuns did not get their promised pensions. Were they taken back in by their families? Did they flee to the continent? About many of them, we will never know. But, for me, their voices continue to echo into the present. They are not “dead.” They are “not even past.”
I love old cities, and Rome is one of my favorites. It rings with its history, both the good and the bad, and builds upon it without forgetting or pretending. The Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Forum, the little churches that surprise with their sublime art.
For me, to write about the past, to experience the past, is to create a new present, seen through new eyes. It’s a kind of double vision, to be sure. But it’s the best way to understand ourselves that I know.