La dolce vita
Growing up as a Roman Catholic in Brisbane in the 1940s, I knew that the Holy Father lived in Roma, which, aged about seven, I located on a map of southern Queensland. I thereupon resolved to visit the pope when I was old enough to leave home. Fifty years passed before I got there, last November.

One reason for my delay was the appreciation that Rome was too important just to drop by for a long weekend. Although I set aside a month for looking, listening and licking gelati, I was well aware that I still would do no more than scratch the surface. What I did not expect were glimpses of Canberra.

Just beyond Piazza del Popolo is the Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen, the residential studio that the Norwegian expatriate sculptor and painter built in 1925 to house the monumental figures for his “world city”, an ideal he had proclaimed in 1913 when he founded the World Conscience Society. The museum displays the plans that Andersen drew for his racist utopia and his sculptures in the Classical style fashionable with dictators. His glorification of the Caucasian nudes would have thrilled Percy Grainger and Normal Lindsay.

The date of Andersen’s dream city brought to mind that Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony had been simultaneously applying their Theosophical notions to the design of our national capital. How many more unbuilt Canberras are there from that era? How many of them were inspired by dreams of harmony just as the civilization that Andersen accepted as racially superior was about to lunge into two world wars and totalitarianism?

Mussolini had offered to build Anderson’s Utopia west of Rome, near the Mediterranean port of Ostia. The closest the fascists came to fulfilling this promise was in 1938 when they inaugurated the site for the Exposition Universale di Roma, scheduled for 1942. War put paid to that development until the 1950s when E.U.R. (pronounced ay-oor) became a satellite city, with government offices, museums, a convention center and expensive apartments.

Tramping through the grid of highways that maroon the buildings in de Chiroco-like expanses made me reflect how lucky we had been to get Canberra, and not a Modernist attempt to square the circle. Even the commercial excesses of the past fifteen years have not attempted to straighten the eccentric shape, or clear-fell the trees that do their best to hide the horrors that architects and planners continue to impose on us. Anyone who thinks Canberra soulless has not seen E.U.R.

Because so much of my life in Canberra revolves around the National Library I wanted to test the services at the refurbished and upgraded Biblioteca Nationale Centrale, completed in 2001. A chance to see Claudia Cardinalle star in Pirandello’s Come tu mi vuoi (As You Desire Me) provided the reason to be more than a tourist because I needed an English translation to have a better idea of the plot. The building is undistinguished from the outside but the interior is a fine example of how function should determine form, so different from our faux Greek temple.

In Rome, more than six million items are divided into subject areas, branching off from a long passage which houses the catalogues and reference material. Each section has its own specialist staff and reading rooms so that users deal with experts, not clerical assistants. Entry is restricted to adults and so, unlike our National Library, its shrinking resources are not diverted into pretending to be a suburban public library. Although the complex includes a bookshop, the Biblioteca Nationale does not pretend to be a tourist attraction. Its café is for readers, unlike the expensive elegance that blights the NLA. Rome revived my belief that the NLA should promote itself, not by wasteful PR exercises, but by demonstrating how a research library can express a national culture.

When friends asked me why I was going to Rome, I would joke that I was going to try to talk some sense into the Pontifex Maximus. While I was there, the Pope, as head of the Vatican State, addressed the Italian Parliament. Afterwards, the leader of the left-wing of the Communists told reporters that he had agreed with everything His Holiness had said because his speech was a rosary of platitudes. Morality required specifics about peace, refugees and jobs. After journalists at one of the government television stations interspersed the papal speech with apposite images, they were sacked.

Those dismissals provoked another round of demonstrations, which are part of quotidian Rome in a way that extra-parliamentary politics are not in Canberra. The demonstrations associated with the World Social Forum in Florence reverberated down to Rome when trade unionists marched against sackings by FIAT and in opposition to the use of Fascist-ear laws to arrest of organizers of the anti-Globalisation movement for subverting the economic order. On the day before I left, the police closed the center of the city to traffic for a march of 40,000 unionists as a build-up to a national day of protest. Overhead, a police helicopter hovered. Around it circulated a single-engine plane trailing a banner reading Communisti Italiani – Avanti Popolo.

The political culture of Italy is thus as distinctive as its cuisine. One evening, the walls were covered with 100x150cm posters bearing the photograph of an elderly man, his family name – de Martino – and the salutation “ciao”. Next day, I read that de Martino, a legal historian dubbed the conscience of the Socialist Party, had died at age ninety-five. This manner of paying tribute seemed as remote from Canberra as his honesty had been from the corruption within his party.

Closer to home was the Italian Right’s reaction to the conviction of the ex-prime minister, Guilio Andreotti, for conspiring to murder a muck-raking journalist. “Judicial Activism”, howled Andreotti’s successor Berlusconi, himself under sentence from the courts.  Meanwhile, another death among the political elite – this time, of the Christian Democrat ex-mayor of Palermo - revealed that Italy’s New Right had not severed all its links to the Old Guard. He had been under Palazzo arrest in Rome but his chauffeur could drive him to his other Palazzo in Tivoli when the weather became too hot. After a new regime in Sicily claimed fifteen million Euros in compensation for his bribe-taking, his worship had responded: “Do you want it in cash?” Did such brazenness sail him past the pearly gates?

My childhood desire to make a pilgrimage to Roma and the Vatican remained long after my childish faith had fallen away. For forty years, I had not given a thought to religion other than as an object for sociological analysis. In Rome, I underwent a new conversion. As I toured the churches in search of art, I was disturbed to see people praying to statues, not just before them or through them to a supposed Deity. As my repugnance deepened, I began to think of myself as a Protestant a-theist, sympathizing with the anti-Catholicism, if not the Puritanism, of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860), which I was reading as a cultural supplement to my Lonely Planet guidebook.

Yet, like Hawthorne, I was not a thorough-going iconoclast. Rome supplied images that I could worship as fervently as did any Italian girl praying to a sacred statue not to be pregnant. The Christ figure in the Pieta, the red marble faun in the Museo Capitolino and the portrait of Innocent XIII by Velasquez in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj are only the best-known among the graven images that confirmed my faith in the creative power of human labour.