Alan’s mom saw Piazza Navona 50 years ago. It was THE place for elegant Romans to gather for a leisurely lunch, or an aperitivo before dinner…. or perhaps for the dinner itself. It was an oasis of calm after the hustle bustle of the streets outside of the piazza.
Alan first saw it 20 years ago, and it still had that same air of refinement. People were beautifully dressed and you would hear Italian spoken at most of the tables around you.
My first time was in 2001, when Lou dragged me there for lunch. I had been to Italy many times before, but this was my first trip to Rome. We had just arrived after the usual long, uncomfortable plane ride, and to make my life even more miserable, I had the kind of cold where you’re afraid to swallow, fearing it would cause a vacuum in your sinuses and your head would implode.
However, even in that reduced state, I immediately felt the energy of Piazza Navona and realized that it was really, really fun. 100% touristy? Absolutely! You can turn up your nose at places that are 100% touristy – as Alan does at the Piazza Navona of today – but the fact is that they can also be 100% fun. You might not find a lot of Parisians up at the top of the Eiffel Tower, but people from everywhere else in the world are enjoying the views every day of the year. Likewise — just because you probably won’t find Romans eating at any of the cafes in Piazza Navona today, that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a wonderful Roman experience.
The large oval piazza started life as an amphitheater for athletic games back in early Roman times. Now the perimeter has 2 harmonious churches and innumerable cafes topped by beautiful apartments. In the center are its three elaborate fountains – the most famous being Bernini’s Fountain of the 4 Rivers in the middle. Filling the space around the fountains are painters with their easels set up, surrounded by their own particular brand of art: Roman scenes, Venetian scenes, still lifes, landscapes, caricatures of famous celebrities, abstracts. There are mimes and “human sculptures”; jugglers; balloon sculptors; t-shirt vendors; street musicians playing violins, guitars, flutes or any other portable instrument; foreigners from Ethiopia or Pakistan or Cambodia selling cheap toys. And perhaps most important to the health and wealth of modern piazza life are the potential purchasers of all these goods and services — most of whom seem to be dressed in their favorite football team’s T-shirt, baggy Bermuda shorts, wearing white sneakers or flip-flops. There’s no mistaking today’s piazza strollers with those from the past who wore tailored suits and fine leather shoes.
Now that I’ve been there many times, I’ve noticed that the cheap toys being sold by immigrants change each year. I don’t remember what they were that first year, but last year the “toy of the day” was a plastic ring with lights flashing and a whirling sound that you could throw up in the air and it would come back to you. This year it’s a ball of rubberish material with little mouse ears that you throw on any surface where it splats flat like a broken egg with little mouse ears, only to re-form itself into the ball – all the while giving off squeals like a little mouse. It’s amazing to think that somewhere in this world there are inventive brains thinking up “toy of the day” ideas instead of doing something truly useful for humanity like figuring out how to make Retin-A get rid of deeply-set wrinkles instead of just those “fine line” wrinkles.
But to get back to 2001 — right after we sat down for lunch, it started to rain. And in a snap of your fingers, the hucksters somehow got rid of whatever that year’s “toy of the day” was and suddenly, from nowhere, went from selling the world’s most useless product to selling that day’s most necessary product: umbrellas. Where had they hidden the umbrellas??? How did they get rid of their useless toys so quickly??? This was obviously a much more well-organized machine than it might seem at first glance.
The “human sculptures” also change each year. In 2001 they were gold or silver statues, with their flowing robes wafting gently in the breezes that sweep around the Piazza. The next year was the year of the mummy. They were encased in a shiny gold stretch fabric with the black eye outlines and features of Egyptian artwork. When they held their elbows out slightly, they looked exactly like an upright mummy case. Last year it was a man standing perfectly still, but looking like he was in a hurry, with his tie flying over his shoulder. This year they look like bronze statues. Once again – since these are not things you could just whip up on your home sewing machine – I can’t help but believe that the same “toy of the day” company has a branch that picks “human sculpture” themes each year, makes the costumes, and distributes them to all the major piazze. It’s probably listed on the NY Stock Exchange. I seriously doubt that a free-lancer would be permitted space.
People watching is always THE highlight when eating in Piazza Navona. Prices are much higher in Italy’s famous piazze, but the payoff is that you get free “theater” right from your table. During one lunch, I even learned an important Life Lesson from a 3-year old – all the while enjoying my favorite carciofi alla giudia (artichokes Jewish style — fabulous!). A family sat across from me: husband and wife, their little daughter, and the wife’s mother. It was easy to guess the relationship among the females because seeing the 3 of them together was like one of those studies of someone aging; I saw the exact same face at ages of 3, 25 and 50.
The little girl was adorable. She toddled out into the piazza just next our tables to see what was going on. A slightly older child – maybe 5 – came along pushing a doll carriage. You could see the eyes widen in excitement on the younger girl, and with a huge smile on her face, she ran over to play. The older one totally ignored her and just kept walking. The younger one looked stunned for a few seconds – not believing that her good intentions had been so unceremoniously spurned — then spotted her daddy standing there, and with an equally huge smile on her face, happily ran over to him. The lesson? Always approach a potentially good situation with a smile, and if it doesn’t work out – well…. something equally good will probably come along later that will deserve the same bright smile.
Just last Friday I once again got to visit the same restaurant where Lou and I ate 11 years ago, have my favorite carciofi alla giudia, see this year’s little mouse-eared splat toys and the bronze-man “human sculpture”, wander past the all the artists, and best of all — watch the parade of people streaming by. I think the only Italian at our restaurant was our friend Antonella, who was with us. Alan knew the Piazza when it acted as an outdoor salon for elegant Italians, and he bemoans its fall from grace. I was introduced to it in its fallen state when it had turned into the circus it is today, and I must say that I have enjoyed every second of my visits. True – it’s no longer for Italians, just as Venice is no longer for Venetians, but believe me – they are both experiences that could only happen in Italy.