Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

The Pursuit of Things

Rome, Thursday 25 September

7.00am  I’m woken by the first of the day’s Vespas rasping down the street. A button on the bedside console opens the blind; morning sunlight catches the peeling peach-coloured plaster of the apartment block opposite, a wedge of perfect blue visible beyond. The hum of air conditioning accompanies me as I shave.

Walking along a brown hessian corridor to breakfast. The lift is a Kone, I note to no purpose. Orange juice and cornflakes reassure amidst unfamiliar foods and the burble of languages.

9.00am  Outside, the heat hits immediately as my feet find the harsh cobbles and my hand steadies the bulky Nikon on its strap. A Vittel bottle thumps against my thigh, although its original contents are long gone, repeatedly replaced – rather subversively, I fear – with tap water, spring water, other brands. I pass tiny shop fronts, privately owned, no more than single chrome-edged windows set into well-worn walls, offering leather goods, jewellery, lighters. The interiors seem cool and dark.

12.00pm  Tourists swarm over the Spanish Steps, a collage of humanity wrapped in anonymous T-shirts and denim. Directly opposite, the direct opposite – Via Condotti. Severely chic men and women glide amongst Prada, Bulgari, Gucci, Armani, YSL, Cartier, Valentino and nothing else. Acres of pale wood and golden light lie beyond intercoms and crop-haired guards who not only look smarter, tougher and more efficient than the local police but, you feel, probably are. I pluck up courage and enter.

Inside, the objects of our desires are raised on plinths like Catholic icons. I reach out for a black leather case, one of several, in all sizes, arranged individually. It is soft and strong and wonderful. There is no price tag. A young woman approaches, smiles, offers help. I smile back and, suddenly very conscious of my M&S jeans, faded shirt, scuffed boots and tourist mien, quickly leave.

Friday 26 September

11.00am  Vatican City. I cross the road, and am nearly run over – by a priest. Later, treading the labyrinth of the Vatican itself; as paintings, frescos, tapestries and sculpture intertwine with endless numbers of visitors, creators of images over the centuries merge…Titian, Gentilleschi, Sony, Raphael, Olympus, Bernini, Canon, Bellini.

3.00pm  The vast drum of the Colosseum, implacable object of a hundred glass eyes. Inside, passages wind between the walls, steps worn smooth with use. An exhibition – glory of the ancient Greek games. Athletes are frozen mid-leap on classical vases, statues depict honoured winners, foreheads crowned with laurels. They are timeless, elegant, untainted by ages past.

It is sponsored by Nike.

Saturday 27 September

10.00am  EUR, Mussolini’s abortive fascist suburb, dominated by the tyrannically monotonous ‘square colosseum’, the Palazzo della Civilta del Lavorno. Fittingly for a monument to the dignity of manual labour it is being slowly cleaned, pressure-washed by a small group of workers, their super-Karchers blazing.

The surrounding streets are empty except for old men who have little need for Bank Italia and the Palace of Congress. Fiats line the streets like ants.

Fiumicino airport, Sunday 28 September

6.00pm  The driver pulls smoothly into the drop-off bay, the Mercedes 190 whispering to a halt after its 150kph slingshot around the ring road. He hands me my Samsonite and wishes me a good journey.

Check-in, then Skybridge to satellite terminal C. Cool glass and white steel and, appearing like a mirage amongst the chocolate shops and coffee bars, a Fabriano concession. Fabriano, eight-hundred-year-old stationers, suppliers of paper to J.M.W. Turner. I rush over and am instantly, desperately smitten. I’m not alone – a young Japanese couple prowl around citrus-coloured notepads good enough eat, stylish diaries, witty greetings cards, solid fountain pens.

Only available in Italy, the salesgirl tells me, as I present my treasures for purchase. I grin and nod. I stroll to the departure gate, a smile on my face. Only available in Italy…

8.00pm  And as the Boeing rises into the darkening sky, my acquisitions safe in the hold below, a thought tugs at me…do I have enough?

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