Peter Popham: Our Man In Rome

A star-studded night in the Basilica
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The Independent Online

Some 20 years ago, the government of Rome had this liberating idea: our city is full of fabulous ruins, the relics of the Republic and the Empire; instead of merely roping them off and gazing at them, piously, why not put them to good use?

That's how it happened that Paul McCartney, three weeks back, played first the Colosseum then the Campus Maximus. And on Tuesday, it was the turn of the great Italian-American novelist, Don DeLillo.

The venue at which DeLillo read was the nearly 1,700-year-old Basilica of Massenzio, close to the Colosseum. It doesn't have a roof. In fact, it doesn't have much of anything except three colossal barrel vaults composed of millions of tiny, ancient red bricks, and a couple of socking stone brackets above them, propping up the sky.

This was the first of Rome's ancient monuments to be opened to the public when it became the venue of a film festival, in the teeth of furious opposition from archaeological experts.

After a long hiatus, it has been opened again, for a literary festival. The stage spans one of the vaults, and the audience sit in front of it in this virtual enclosure. Over to the west, the winged charioteer on top of the Vittoriano stands out, black and apocalyptic, against a pink and gold sunset; low-flying swallows cruise the Via Sacra.

Rome's literary festival is only two years old, but they do these things with the sort of casual perfection that comes easily to a town that has been throwing great parties since the time of Nero. The festival is arguably a little heavy on stars such as DeLillo, Doris Lessing and Susan Sontag, a little light on fresh young talent; and although 99 per cent of the audience is Italian, of the 16 authors, only two are Italian, which seems a little bizarre.

In DeLillo's case, the anomaly is handled like this: an actor called Tony Servillo comes on and reads a section of DeLillo's novel, Underworld, in Italian, then a jazz pianist called Franco D'Andrea plays "Homage to Don DeLillo", then the man himself, slight, receding grey hair, glasses, stalks to the microphone and reads an essay, The Amnesia of the Future, in English, while the translation unscrolls on a large screen behind him.

"Technology sweeps us future-wards," he reads, "causing the past to sink back into the shadows... All doubts arise from past experience but the past is disappearing."

Afterwards, he reads from his new novel, Cosmopolis, in which a super-rich businessman and a woman wearing "a dress that has been washed a thousand times", sit in a white stretch limo, while an anti-globalisation demo palpitates menacingly around them. But their passionless, theoretical conversation unspools, regardless. "Money has lost its narrative quality. Money is talking to itself... The present is hard to find, it is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future..."

The pressure of dire events is bearing down on DeLillo's prose, stripping it of colour and poetry; even the wonderful, baggy, capricious syntax goes out of the window. Nothing is left but skeletal assertion, as the writer grits his teeth and strives to return the future's baleful stare. In a basilica without a roof that is 1,700 years old.

While DeLillo is still reading from Cosmopolis, the unspooling translation on the screen concludes with the translator's credit, but Don keeps chugging on. "The speed is the point, the thrust, the future," he reads, and the audience gets very fractionally restless as Cosmopolis vanishes off the screen of their comprehension, and all you have left is a little old American fellow, rabbiting away.

From speeding chariots to weeding and carrots

The Romans have been finding clever new uses for their ruins for a long time, and an ancient amphitheatre where chariots raced will soon be reborn as the city's most magnificent vegetable garden, open to the public.

As so often in the city, the history surrounding it is stupendous. In 320, the mother of Emperor Constantine created a Christian chapel in her home; the home itself became a church, and several rebuildings later, was to become the Church of Santa Croce in Jerusalem, with its treasures that include three pieces of Christ's cross, a nail, two thorns from the thorny crown, and a finger that once belonged to Doubting Thomas.

What few people know is that close by the church, hidden behind walls that contain the remains of a mini-Colosseum, the amphitheatre of Emperor Heliogabalus, is an immense kitchen garden by which the Cistercian monks, in residence here since 1561, have kept themselves in fresh artichokes and aubergines.

Nobody knows about it because it is private. But this week it was announced that the hitherto highly functional plot is to be redesigned, complementing comestibles with roses, vines and flower-beds, and thrown open to the public. Where the charioteers once cracked their whips and hoi polloi roared, there will be, says the designer, Paolo Pejrone, "a great silence. The only sound to be heard will be silence".

The pin-up padres

Most of the time, Rome seems as worldly as any other city, but occasionally one stumbles on beguiling suggestions of innocence. Every autumn, the news stands are choked with calendars oozing young female flesh, inspired by the celebrated calendars of Pirelli. But leading the pack by several months this year is the Calendario Romano 2004, which takes the form in an entirely new direction. It features 12 black-and- white photographs of attractive young priests, pictured among the city's churches and monuments. They are, of course, fully frocked.