The peaceful protest in Rome yesterday dissolved into a civil battle between the polizia and a group of militant youths on the streets adjacent to my apartment. Unaware that the peaceful nature of the protest had already descended into violence, we ventured out optimistically to find that all roads leading to San Giovanni were already being blockaded by polizia armed with shields and batons. Our next potential point of entry was obstructed by hoards of people heading in our direction away from the centre of the manifestation. A few young men in black, protected by motorino helmets passed directly in front of us. These few soon became forty. There were sounds of distant explosions and some people began to run. We took shelter in the church and watched from the gates with other civilians before deciding to try to return home. From there we followed the progression of events online and waited for the others to return (having been in the centre of the protest they did not arrive until 10pm when the violence had fortunately died down and the blockade had ended).
Watching news reports of the international occupation movement, Italian friends were visibly upset and ashamed that it was only the protest in their country which had descended into significant violence. Not being Italian, I couldn’t feel the same as I am no more than a spectator here. Reading further news of activism of friends and young people in New York and London this morning I became preoccupied with a sense of guilt at my pleasure-seeking lifestyle in Rome. Why am I here? Do I deserve this? Robert Hughes, in his historic account of the development of the city, writes in response to a similar concern: ‘I am human. And I came here.’
Every day in Rome delivers an otherworldly experience which makes it difficult to choose which stories to recount which might reflect how special the experience of life is in the city, so vividly felt. This week I spontaneously wandered into the opening of a large Mondrian retrospective in Piazza Venezia. In the first room I met an Italian artist and we ended up touring the whole exhibition together. He noticed symbology in the works which I would not otherwise have perceived. His insights have altered my perception of modern art and I will treasure the experience. On Friday I took a train and bus to the medieval village of Calcata, thirty miles north of Rome and discovered an eerie medieval castle, perched perilously above a dense forest and inhabited by bohemians and craftsmen. I dined with a friend in the old jewish ghetto of Rome, Trastevere, and we ended up spending the whole evening in the company of a generous young Milanese couple who bought us limoncello and shots of rum in chocolate cups…and I’m writing all this from a cafe, sitting outside with a very reasonably priced, delicious coffee in the warm morning sun. I think I’ve made my point.
Everyone around me is reading the paper and discussing the events of yesterday. Reading the news this morning I became wracked with guilt. There is suffering and injustice and here I am in Rome, soaking up everything which is good and pleasant. I considered becoming more involved with activism, changing my degree to economics or politics…my life might only have some real value if I can think of a way to sabotage the White House or be the next British Prime Minister…or be clever and qualified enough to re-invent western political and economic practices. But all of these options are either implausible, have secret egotistical motives, or are beyond the limits of my character.
For me, the outbreak of mindless violence in Rome yesterday as cars were burnt-out and whole streets destroyed, was an exemplar of how, on a basic day-to-day level, some people blame the banks and government for social problems and inequality, yet aren’t prepared themselves to act in consideration of the well-being of others in their local community.
Despite yesterday’s events, I have noticed over the last six weeks how essential to Italian culture is the sense of responsibility which everyone seems to feel with regards to caring for friends and the recognition and value of the importance of the family. Come-what-may, they will share communal meals three times a day and leave plenty of time to sit and chat with friends, shop-keepers and even the local madman who is occupying the table adjacent to mine, enjoying a cigarette and an orange fanta as I write, whilst greeting passers-by.
My theory is that it is for this reason, this innate ability to practise the art of well-being, that the political system in Italy has been able to degenerate to its current state. Italians stubbornly refuse to associate their way of life with the control of a political body: rules are ignored, taxes are unpaid and the government is really just a phony figure-head for a group of people who don’t need to be told how to live. Which seems to me to be a significant protest in itself. The governing body is unjust and unrepresentative of popular ideology and is thus ignored as far as possible and people, for the most part, seem to live instead in consideration of the guidelines of their historic culture.
So I’ve decided to stick with the History of Art degree and my year abroad in Rome, having reassured myself that such indulgences might be justified as small protests in assertion of life, undictated by the one per cent.