WHICH is the best view of Rome? The cognoscenti cannot agree. From the Janiculum hill, which lies to the west of the city, says one school of thought, and by preference first thing in the morning. Then, says G M Trevelyan, you can look down on 'the city spread beneath our feet in all its mellow tints of white and red and brown, broken here and there by masses of dark green pine and cypress and by shining cupolas raised to the sun', and behind it the 'grander dome' of the Alban mount, from which, some time before 753BC, the first Romans came down to found the City.

Nonsense, says E V Lucas. From the Janiculum you cannot even see the dome of St Peter's. He prefers the view Corot painted, from the great marble basin under the umbrella pines on the Pincio, the hill at the top of the Spanish Steps. There, in the evening, you can look out over the stuccoed walls and tiled roofs of the city, and see the humped domes of the great baroque churches silhouetted against the Roman sunset, 'stained', someone said, 'with the blood of the martyrs'; and there across the Tiber is the brick drum of the Castel Sant' Angelo, where Hadrian was buried, and the dome of St Peter's, floating over the city like the flagship of an armada of churches.

Climb the Janiculum in the morning, by all means, and the Pincio at sunset as well. But don't forget that in the foreground of every view of Rome there will be Romans. On the Janiculum, where Garibaldi's red-shirted Legion mounted its heroic defence against the French in 1849, the foreground will be vendors selling balloons shaped like cartoon characters, and puppets, and sweets, and soda, and the background will be the steady beat of Roman rock, and you will see the Alban mount through a frieze of young men taking snaps of their girlfriends. And at nightfall now, at the top of the Spanish Steps, on which Keats lived and Goethe bought a fragment of Roman terracotta, as the city darkens against an opal sky, snogging couples are precariously perched on the balustrade; and the soundtrack is the snarl of small, fast-revving motors, the happy shouts of young skateboarders and tuneless bursts of non-traditional song.

What is true of the views of Rome, of course, is true of Rome itself. We want it to be our Rome, the Rome we have brought with us in our imagination, pieces of which have stuck in our minds since early childhood. In this city of the mind Mark Antony came to bury Caesar, not to praise him; Nero fiddled; St Peter was crucified and St Paul beheaded; and in the Colosseum Christians were thrown to the lions. In this city of the imagination, St Gregory saw blue-eyed children in the slave market and said they were not Angles, but angels. Here Borgias feasted and poisoned, Michelangelo sculpted and Raphael painted. This is the city where, in 1764, as he sat 'musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter', the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first came to Gibbon.

That is our Rome. But the Rome of the pilgrim, the traveller and the tourist has always been an intrusion on the Rome of the Romans. Rome is as wonderful a city to visit now as it was for Keats, Goethe and Gibbon. You can still trudge the five kilometres of the Vatican galleries and see masterpieces all the way. You can muse like Gibbon in the ruins of the imperial forum, though when musing there the other day I was accosted by a motorised prostitute who mistook my musings for more purposeful loitering. And besides the great monuments - the Colosseum, the forums, the Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, the temples and the crumbling walls, and the four great basilicas of the Roman church - you will find smaller favourites. There is the cloister of Santa Maria della Pace, just off the Piazza Navona; the elephant that Bernini sculpted to hold up the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza Minerva - because, he said, 'the elephant is the most robust of beasts'; the wonderful gallery of Renaissance maps of Italy in the Vatican; and the exquisite, though headless, Venus of Cyrene in the Baths of Diocletian,

None of this, though, has much to do with the Rome of the Romans. Few of them, for a start, live in the Centro Storico, the historic centre; it is too inconvenient, too expensive, too impossible to find parking spaces. They live in modern suburbs out on the Via Flaminia, or Piazza Bologna, or in EUR, the modern business city that Mussolini built, in a world of modern plumbing, terrazzo floors, giant supermarkets and small bars with the television on in the corner. As recently as the early years of this century, the open country began just beyond the Janiculum on one side, and in 1870, when Rome became the capital of Italy, little more than half the area inside the Aurelian walls, built at the height of the Roman empire, was built up; photographs taken in the 1890s show bullock carts bringing in produce from the campagna and goats browsing among the ruins. The population, which is estimated to have been 2 million under the Roman empire, fell to 10,000 or so during the Papacy's exile in Avignon in the 14th century, and was only 226,000 in 1870. Now it is 2.5 million in the city; and Greater Rome, with some 4 million people, sprawls from the Apennines to the sea, a motor city like Paris or Los Angeles, only with fewer freeways than Los Angeles and a less ambitious metro than Paris.

Rome is not the industrial capital of Italy; that is Turin, the home of Fiat. Nor is it the business capital; that is Milan, home of the stock exchange and the world of fashion and design. Rome is the political capital: the capital, that is, of that discredited system that lurched along, concealing a good deal of incompetence and corruption, as long as the Christian Democrats could persuade the voters to keep them in power, to keep the Communists out.

The official monuments of this political Rome are the Quirinale, the president's palace up the hill above the forums, and the Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister's office, just off the Corso. The senate sits in the Palazzo Madama, close to the Pantheon (close, that is, in the geographical sense); and the chamber of deputies is in the Piazza Montecitorio, next to the Piazza Colonna. It is worth seeing the Transatlantico, the lobby where the parliamentarians do their peculiarly Roman wheeling and dealing. But the true monuments to the Italian political system in the 20th century are nearer to the ancient forum. There is the Palazzo Venezia, from whose balcony Mussolini used to harangue the crowd. There is the headquarters of the Christian Democrats, appropriately in the Piazza del Gesu, next to the Jesuits' church; and, scarcely 100 yards away, in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure, the Street of the Dark Shops, the headquarters of the old Communist Party, rechristened the Party of Democratic Socialism, with the green oak replacing the hammer and sickle as its badge.

The most sinister monument to the old Italian political system, made obsolete by the collapse of Communism, does not really exist. Or rather, it is just a spot, in front of the Palazzo Mattei in Via Caetani, the short, gloomy street, on the edge of the old Roman ghetto, which joins Piazza del Gesu and the Via delle Botteghe Oscure. That is where, in 1978, the body of Aldo Moro, the most gifted politician Italy has seen since the War, was found in the boot of an old Renault 4, murdered by the Red Brigades.

It has to be said that, compared with the stifling constriction of the world of Italian politics, the Roman church now seems to breathe more freely. I have felt it when I wandered by chance into St Peter's during a pontifical high mass, and walked past row after row of priests and nuns, Indian, oriental, South American, African, to the scarlet company of cardinals under the great baldacchino, the ornate baroque table that covers the high altar. You sense it when the Holy Father, a Pole who has travelled all over the world, appears for the Angelus on the stroke of noon at his high window, identified by a purple cloth above the horned arms of the colonnade of St Peter's, and speaks, as the ancient formula has it, urbi et orbi: to the city and to the world.

The truth is that Rome has meant too much to too many for too long to be the exclusive property either of the city or of the world. Its peculiar pleasure is that of sinking your teeth into the richest layer cake on earth. You can go to watch Roma one week, or Lazio, with Paul Gascoigne the next, in the Olympic stadium. On the steep-raked seats, where the vendors sell cold coffee with brandy in it, you will experience an atmosphere of commercialism and excitement, even passion, that comes straight down from the circuses of ancient Rome; yet the scene is so entirely modern that to make the historical connection seems pompous.

You can walk down the steps of the Piazza del Campidoglio, a little square like a theatre set which rises above what tradition asserts was St Paul's prison, a square that just happens to have been designed by Michelangelo. To your left is the Theatre of Marcellus, where at least one fat-cat commercial lawyer has his offices; it was built by Julius Caesar. And straight ahead is a warren of streets where you can eat fresh gnocchi in trattorie patronised by the writers and artists of the quarter, and where, from three little rooms, Ignatius Loyola directed the missions of the Society of Jesus from China to Peru. Eternal and frivolous, pagan and pious, Rome still speaks, - to adapt the words of St Augustine - and the case is concluded.

FACTFILE

Getting there: Flying to Rome is easy, if expensive (I flew with BA on a special ticket to qualify for which I had to agree to stay over a Saturday night and book within seven days of flying; it costs pounds 180). It is also a pleasure if you fly in daylight, as you go over the Jura, the lake of Geneva, Mont Blanc and down the west coast of Italy. You can see the marble mountain at Carrara, and the quarries from which Renaissance sculptors cut their blocks and modern floor-makers their terrazzo slices. The Rome Metro has a link to Fiumicino; the bus is cheap but dumps you near the Vatican, where you may have difficulty finding a cab. Train is easy, too, if rather long. Driving is for heroes: from Ventimiglia, on the French border, to the turn-off for Florence near Lucca is a nightmare of trucks, tunnels, viaducts and aggressive drivers. The Metro in Rome is cheap and serviceable, but very limited: it has understandably not been allowed to dig under the 'historic centre'.

Accommodation: Hotels in Rome are superb but expensive. The top flight (the Hassler, for example, on the hill near the top of the Spanish Steps) costs pounds 200 for a twin room with bath; the Bristol, nearby, with a roof garden, is also pleasant and also expensive. So are the two 'palaces' - the Excelsior and the Palazzo e Ambasciatori - in the Via Veneto, haunt of film stars and playboys in the days of la dolce vita. My favourite is the Hotel Raphael, just off the Piazza Navona, where my room cost pounds 120 a night. The rooms are small but the service is pleasant in an old-fashioned way and the location could not be bettered - walking distance to everywhere. A cheaper alternative is the Tiziano, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, at about pounds 80 a night, and full of American teenagers on packages. Really cheap hotels are to be found near the railway station, Stazione Termini, where you could have interesting experiences.

Where to eat: Restaurants, on the other hand, are plentiful and reasonable. Among the best in the historic centre are L'Orso Ottanta (dates back to the Middle Ages, only open in the evening); El Toula Passetto; Archimede. A nice place for lunch is the Trattoria Otello, just off the Via della Croce in the criss-cross of 18th-century streets below the Spanish Steps. And there are two districts full of pleasant places: cheapish trattorie round the Campo dei Fiori and better places, often with good game and Roman specialities, in Trastevere, the other side of the Tiber, south of the Vatican.

Entertainment: They still make films, especially spaghetti westerns, at Cinecitta, which is worth a visit. But the great days of la dolce vita are over. There are still nightclubs - the Italian word is un night - off the Via Veneto, but they are mostly unsavoury pick-up places.

Reading: The Blue Guide is indispensable for serious sightseeing. I enjoyed a 1926 guidebook, A Traveller in Rome, by E V Lucas of Punch. There are almost two many great history books about Rome: if you have time on your hands try Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gregorovius' History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages and G M Trevelyan's Garibaldi trilogy. The great man of modern British histories of Italy is Dennis Mack Smith: try his Mussolini. But Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy is an excellent one-volume survey. Indispensable for the traveller is William Ward's Getting it Right in Italy - full of useful information such as which policemen to trust, how the education system works, how to get picked up or not get picked up, and how to say various things you don't learn in Berlitz Italian lessons.

(Photograph omitted)

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