Rome Stories

In the Campo dei Fiori, Jesse Grimond encounters a magician the Romans love to mock; and a curious child by a fresh grave in the Villa Medici

Sunday 12 January 2014 02:27
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Once the florist has swept up his stems and the greengrocers have boxed up their last tomatoes, the smell of fish dissipates with the merchants of Rome's Campo dei Fiori, leaving Giordano Bruno, a hooded, Darth Vader-like figure, gazing from his plinth. He'll only get a few hours' peace before a new swarm arrives in the piazza.

Bruno was a philosopher burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600, in the innocently named Campo dei Fiori, or Field of Flowers. No one is sure of his exact crime, but it seems he sparked anger by proposing that Christ was not God, but merely an exceptionally skilful magician.

If being burnt to death were not enough, his eternal punishment is to cast his judgment nightly on the less than adept skills of the piazza's contemporary resident magician, an unprepossessing man from the Indian subcontinent who has somehow found his way to Rome.

Day in, day out, comes his hooting cry: "Sono Ma-go!" (I am the Magician!). "Guar-da!" (Look!). He makes a rigid rope go floppy. "Guar-da questa co-sa!" (Look at this!) A card slotted into a wooden frame disappears. "Guar-da!" he sings out in the same rag-and-bone-man monotone. He eases a sword into his mouth at an angle that would send it through the back of his head.

"Guar-da!" and another frame comes out, to be placed round his neck. An unemotional gurgling "Aaaaargh", open mouth, eyes closed. The sword emerges from the back of his neck and he slides it back and forth.

It is a shop-worn magic set, performed in every surrounding restaurant for years, but somehow Mago's wooden style and complete lack of showmanship have gleaned him a cult following. There is said to be another, more spectacular street magician across the Tiber in Trastevere, also a popular gathering-place at night, but the very slickness of his tricks apparently grates, and he does not have anything like Mago's following.

In the Campo dei Fiori, chic young Italians mingle with the tourists in the square to watch their magician. There are whoops from the open-air restaurant tables and cheers from encircling spectators, who make mocking, panto-style calls of "No, Mago! No!" While he is performing his act, the other hustlers in the square – the rose-sellers, the barefoot children with cupped hands, the men clutching Polaroid cameras – get short shrift.

Then the grand finale. Mago whips off his wig with a flourish and the spectators fill it with coins. Whether he is aware that he is a figure of derision is impossible to determine: when I tried to speak to him, his English turned out to be as poor as his Italian. He scurried away from my questions, possibly because he is an illegal immigrant.

When the Roman art élite showed up en masse at the French Academy's Villa Medici on Thursday, there were envious mutterings about the French having scored two of the most beautiful buildings in Rome (their embassy in Piazza Farnese being the other). The Academy is perched near the Spanish Steps, and the view is as breathtaking as the villa.

The occasion was the Academy's grand new exhibition, and there were further intakes of breath at one of the works. Music emanated from a small brick courtyard, where there was a walled installation by the English artist Georgina Starr. Curious viewers, climbing ladders to peek over the top, saw a little girl of about seven playing on her own.

The child, humming to herself, and seemingly oblivious to the people watching her, was playing in a camp made of branches and on a swing. Nearby, a spade was planted in the ground next to a newly dug, child-size grave. "That must be illegal," mused one Italian.

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