You may think I’m writing about Sondheim’s 1962 Broadway musical comedy which, when it transferred to London’s West End, inevitably saw the legendary Frankie Howerd in the central role of Pseudolus – a slave who ends up both fixing everything and causing mayhem (now, where did anyone get the idea that he could play that kind of role?). But no: on our recent Italian holiday, a funny thing really did happen on the way to the Forum. Well, several things really.
Mind you, it wasn’t just one Forum, the famous one in the middle of Ancient Rome. We didn’t consciously plan it, but in two weeks away we found ourselves touring quite a number of mind-bogglingly impressive and ancient Classical sites, most of which boasted a Roman forum (if not a Greek agora, which was much the same thing, but older).
Mrs Trafford and I were last together in Rome in 1983: back then the Forum was closed for restoration, and you took your life in your hands getting to the Colosseum which formed the centre of a colossal (hence the word, I guess) traffic roundabout.
Now a tour of the two occupies hours (not least in the queuing in the now-traffic-free surroundings). One is lost in wonder at the ambition of those great builders: also that of the vainglorious emperors who demanded these great civic structures be created, certainly to immortalise their names, but also (to be fair to them) because there was a sense that leaders had a duty to improve the civic amenities at the heart of their empire – and, my goodness, that heart must have impressed anyone visiting from out of town.
Thus Rome’s Forum was adjusted, enlarged and even moved by several absolute rulers (it took that kind of power), including Julius Caesar and Trajan (the latter also built what was probably the world’s first shopping mall, still visible and four or more storeys high).
A Classics-teacher friend told us we must take a day out of Rome to visit its ancient seaport, Ostia. The river Tiber and the coast have moved, and this vast archeological site, Ostia Antica, is now landlocked, but remains fascinating. There we visited a wine-shop which looked as cheery a pub as the modern equivalent.
A first for me (and a rarity) was the number of surviving blocks of flats, insulae. Romans were lovers of urban living, and in these multi-storey blocks the wealthier shopkeepers and merchants lived on the gound floor, while floor by floor upwards the apartments became more modest and cheaper. These survivals were intriguing, and we rather glossed over the forum, though of course there was one.
On to Sicily, then, where we moved from mere 2,000-year-old Roman remains to Greek cities half a millenium older, dating from 500BC. Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples: Syracuse’s Greek theatre; the vast luxury Roman villa at Villa Etenea boasting apparently the world’s finest surviving collection of mosaic floors; and, everywhere else, random theatres, amphitheatres, gateways and basilicas; all occupied far more time than we had expected, having captivated us.
These are world-famous tourist sites, so even in late September there were big crowds, though never enough to spoil things for us. We were amused, though, by the modern obsession with selfie-taking.
I’ve noticed it before: a few years ago, in Paris’s Louvre, we went to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. We did see it, just: it was almost impossible, though, but not because so many other people were looking at it (after all, you could just form a tidy semicircle): it’s now obligatory, it seems, to take a selfie with the masterpiece in the background. So any of us who merely wanted to appreciate the world’s most celebrated painting had to squint between hordes of faces with fixed, gormless grins and a smartphone in front of them.
We found the same with all these wonderful ancient sites. I understand it: as long as you use your elbows and move fast, the resulting picture looks as if you’re the only person there, such a grotesque denial of the truth that I found it laughable.
Let me give an illustration. In Rome we found the famous (and very fine) Trevi fountain. Here’s a picture of it, which I took with arm stretched above the crowd.
Did I catch it at a quiet moment? Of course not! Here’s a view the other way, with thousands of tourists jostling for position for their own picture. They say the camera doesn’t lie: but all the selfies we witnessed were being successfully employed to give a hugely misleading impression!
While I’m at it: what did this centuries-old nearby inscription (in the background in the picture above, enlarged below) have to do with North-East England’s Redcar? Suggestions to Voice of the North, please!
Finally, a funny thing did happen to us – if not on the way to the Forum, then nearby. By chance we discovered that, on our last night in Rome, the world-renowned choir of King’s College, Cambridge, was performing in Santa Maria Maggiore (rather a decent 5th-Century basilica). It just happens that the son of a former pupil of mine (from the 1980s!) has recently joined it. So we met up for a reunion bowl of pasta and then enjoyed the choir’s 75-minute concert.
It was warmly received, as befits what’s probably the best church/cathedral choir in the world, and we Brits relished the cheeky encore. It was a rendering of Allegri’s Miserere, that mysterious piece that used to be the unique and jealously-guarded preserve of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel – until the boy Mozart heard it on a visit to Rome and, with youthful precocity, memorised it, wrote it down and thus spilled the musical beans.
Generously the mainly Italian audience appreciated the encore’s gesture, and (we learned) the random Cardinal present went round patting the choristers’ cheeks to show his pleasure (they do that!). At a time when our attempts at Brexit negotiations leave most of our fellow Europeans incredulous and bemused (and me, at any rate, hugely embarrassed), to witness this apparently effortless excellence was a joy. We looked up at the vaulting, and soaked up the music. OK, a bit smugly.
Yes, several funny things happened on the way to and from the Forum – but, like the best things, few of them were expected.