After World War II, a young student who grew up with "the sounds of
Rome" in his ears returned to the city of his childhood to study
opera. On the fifth floor of an apartment on the Via Fontanella
Borghese, where an hour-long lesson cost fifty cents, this young
man "cracked a high note at the end of an aria." A voice called out
from the courtyard below that he should change his profession.
Lucky for us, he did.
In CITY OF THE SOUL, William Murray, who began his writing career
as a stringer for Time-Life and later penned The New
Yorker's "Letters from Italy" column, quickly proves that there
is no better way to see Rome than on foot. He wends his way from
the Piazza del Popolo, just inside the ancient Aurelian Wall on the
north side of Rome, through the medieval streets in the historic
Centro, to the Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber River.
Murray offers a new perspective on heavily trafficked tourist sites
like the Piazza di Spagna, where on weekends "all of Rome seems to
be passing through" and the Pantheon, which until 1847 was the site
of a fish market. From the Colosseum to the Castle San Angelo to
the Forum, he makes clear why it is "impossible to go anywhere in
the city without becoming involved in its past. The very stones you
stand on are the ones over which emperors, kings, popes, nobles,
artists, soldiers, humble folk and history's great rascals and
victims all passed in an endless procession dating back over
twenty-five centuries to the city's founding."
For Murray, a walk through Rome is as much about his own personal
history as it is the city's past. It's these personal memories and
shared stories that add an intimate quality to CITY OF THE SOUL and
elevates it above a traditional guidebook. In particular, Murray
recalls moments from his childhood with his mother, grandmother and
two aunts. As he walks the city, "the streets seem emptier and
haunted by the ghosts of these four Roman women."
If you're interested in more than armchair travel, CITY OF THE SOUL
is filled with tips for visitors to Rome. The delights of the Villa
Borghese --- and the grounds on which it is located --- should not
be missed. Walk along the Via Condotti and then turn back for a
spectacular look at the Spanish Steps. Both tourists and locals
frequent the cafes, restaurants, wine bars and shops in the Piazza
Navona, "the beating heart of the city." The roof of the Capitoline
Museum is open to the public and "provides the most magnificent
view over the whole city."
Murray returns to Rome every spring and it's easy to see what keeps
him coming back. In CITY OF THE SOUL, he quotes an English friend
who has long resided in Rome: "It's not only the physical beauty of
the place…. It's the smell of it, the aura of great history
in the stones of every street and every building. To be in Rome is
to be in touch with everything in life that really matters."
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on January 21, 2011