The Idler: Roman Wine and Water

When I am in Rome, I have two unbreakable drinking habits. Let me warn the Jansenist-inclined among this journal’s readers that one of these habits involves alcohol. In fairness to those practicing a more bibulous lifestyle, however, I should admit, before we go any further, that the other habit admits of nothing but pure water. The unconscious connection between these two practices finally became clear to me as I was working in the Eternal City just before Christmas last year.

One way I always celebrate being in Rome is by drinking an alcoholic aperitivo (you have to specify: the Italians have also perfected what they call an analcolico) at the Caffé Greco. This pleasant watering hole dates back, I believe, to 1767 and has cheered any number of distinguished foreign visitors and dashing political and literary figures in the intervening years. The more energetic English exiles like Lord Byron were fond of taking a glass in the caffé’s hospitable chambers. Babbington’s Tea Room, a few paces away at the foot of the Spanish Steps, was and is, as the name suggests, a refuge for a much more staid kind of anglophile visitor to Italy.

Today, to get to Caffé Greco you still only have to walk a couple of doors down the Via Condotti from Piazza di Spagna. The “condotti” refers to the aqueducts of the Acqua Vergine, built by Agrippa in 19 B.C. for his baths, but still invisibly feeding the fountains at the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, and Piazza Farnese. As Chesterton was the first to observe, everyone talks about the seven hills on which Rome is built, but in fact, there are also seven valleys into which have been poured millennia of human history that may at any moment literally gush forth in renewed life. A very small amount of superficial poking into guidebooks about almost any Roman site will amply confirm this Chestertonian intuition.

A few things have changed in Via Condotti since Agrippa, the heady Byronic days, and even my own first visits. In the last few years, a U.S.-style Foot Locker store has interposed itself between the piazza and the caffe. The thirsty Roman visitor now has the slightly unreal sensation of going from the usual mob scene in the piazza past windows displaying Washington Redskins’ and Florida Marlins’ caps and jackets, and Italian salespeople dressed up, like their American counterparts, as hockey referees.

Yet another ten feet and the scene has changed to the facade of an eighteenth-century caffé.

I always think of the English Romantic writers when I enter. For years, this seemed odd to me because the Caffé Greco has hosted many kinds of people and still displays memorabilia from diverse times and places. Yet for me, nineteenth-century romanticism is linked with modern Rome. I have never much liked the Romantics’ politics, their personal behavior, or—if truth be told—their work (Keats, who died in a room a hundred feet away, and a few of Byron’s mock epics, perhaps, excepted). But the older I get, the more I appreciate their early, mistaken revolt against some of the most irksome tendencies of modern life. They were self-absorbed; they were mostly privileged; they were ungrateful for many modern blessings and humanizing tendencies. Browning and Henry James were more civilized visitors. But the Romantics had a certain gallant spirit that, when all is said and done, still marks them as alive to certain realities that were probably invisible from the tea rooms. Modern Rome herself is a living force that energetically resists all efforts to reduce it to an artificial order.

Next to the cash register at Caffé Greco, there’s a box for donations to continue the work of Padre Pio. That, too, seems right in the long history of this caffé. The atmosphere is still thick with ardor and generosity. One of Byron’s friends once told him that should he ever return to Christianity, it would not be to one of the milk-and-water versions, but to a fierce form of Catholicism, perhaps even to a monastery where he would distinguish himself for the rigor of his penances. Perhaps this was one more Romantic illusion. But when in Rome, I lift a glass to that whole, somewhat blind, but highly colored thirst for life.

My other drinking habit is more austere. Toward the end of any trip to Rome, usually the last evening, I make my way on foot to the Capitoline Hill. There is an overlook on the tiny Via San Pietro in Carcere, behind the monstrous monument to Vittorio Emmanuele from which you can stare out over the Roman Forum down the ancient Via Sacra to the upper decks of the Colosseum. The Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (soldiers carrying away menorahs are sculpted on the inside walls), stands on top of a hill and is one of the few intact structures amid the ruins.

The street here is named after Saint Peter because, according to tradition, he and Paul both spent time in the Mamertine Prison a few feet down the hillside. A small round monument called the omphalos (navel), further down, marks the spot from which the Romans officially measured out their travels, road construction, conquests, and government in Greece, Asia Minor, Gaul, North Africa, ancient Palestine, even Britain. From this one spot, you have a clean line of sight to the glory, horror, and ambivalent legacy of ancient Rome.

At your back, an open spigot in a stone reading Aqua Marcia runs with some of the coolest, clearest water on earth. And in the crepuscular atmosphere during which I prefer to visit this site, I drink this living link with that immense past. Several times I have tried to figure out if this water can really still be flowing from the old Roman aqueduct that the marker suggests. (The Latin poet Horace had a farm up near the mountain springs that fed the aqueduct, and mentions them in several famous poems.) My last stab at trying to solve this mystery was still inconclusive: some portions of the aqueduct have collapsed, others may still be bringing mountain spring water down to this crossroads of many religions, civilizations, and cultures.

You have to be particularly careful about the genius loci here. In 1764, just around the time that Caffé Greco opened, Edward Gibbon confesses that, a few feet away, at the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, as he “sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the friars were singing vespers, that the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the City first started to his mind.” That immense, glorious, and misleading history reflects both the richness of human reality and the temptation to illusions of the place. Gibbon saw the broken stones, but did not recognize the miraculous continuity; the monks were chanting the same language that had been casually spoken on the streets of the forum more than a thousand years earlier.

When I went through my own usual routine there this December, jumbo jets passed regularly but quietly in the clear still air above the ruins on their way to Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Further up the Capitoline, a controversy over Italian education reform had drawn a crowd with protest signs; journalists with portable television cameras were quietly shifting around, trying to get dramatic footage for the evening news. Cars were illegally parked all along both sides of the narrow street—none more inconveniently so than the police cars. Yet these inevitable products of modern Rome do not appear to disturb in the slightest the deeply sedimented record of human life that seems to draw everything here into a sober moment of contemplation.

Back in Washington at almost the exact same hour, local time, the next evening, I looked at the Lincoln Memorial and its reflection in the Potomac as the car left National Airport. Modern jet flight makes differences that once seemed merely literary sharper than ever. The traveller who steps off the Rome-Washington flight sees imitation classical temples—the White House, the Capitol, and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials—all surrounding that enigmatic descendent of the Egyptian obelisk that we call the Washington Monument. The echoes of Rome are unmistakable. Yet compared with the originals, these structures seem gargantuan, inauthentic, artificial, especially to anyone with literary sensibilities.

I have Southern friends who grow wistful over a glass of sour mash contemplating Lincoln’s legacy, but not looking at his memorial. Other friends of a more stoic temperament are inspired by the forest-stream sobriety of Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. I don’t think, though, they spend much time admiring the classic lines of Washington architecture. Nor should they. To equate these sentiments with those inspired by Rome would be literature, in the worst sense of the term.

The last temptation induced by the powerful spirit of Rome is the tendency to believe that everywhere else is, by comparison, jury-rigged and superficial. This is a mistake, especially for an American. When an American has spent a long period in Italy, the sheer weight of the past impresses you. But it also makes you nostalgic—if such a thing is possible—for a lighter tradition. Snatches of Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, and Duke Ellington start coming to mind. The still open, untamed parts of the American countryside start to show up on your mental screen. The very impulses that may have taken you to Rome in the first place, you begin to see, were right. But an American is not a Roman, however much the District of Columbia may be the Urbs for our time that Rome was in its own.

It takes a strange combination of intoxication and sobriety, lightness and weight, to make up a balanced human life. The early Church took over elements from the cults of Dionysius, mixing him with water, and of Demeter, in an unleavened incarnation. It shunned neither human cheer and enthusiasm nor the virtues and stabilities of our daily bread. The American republic used to show a healthy balance all its own between fun and industriousness. Now I am not so sure. Today, we are more often libertines who practice safe sex, gourmets who also jog.

Washington in 1994 has not a single generous, hospitable cafe. Nor do its historical sights much anchor us as Americans. This says more about what we have become lately than what America has been. There is no city in America, perhaps on the face of the Earth, that congratulates itself more for being the center of What’s Happening Now. The World Historical Spirit, as Hegel and the Hegelians have designated it, now passes through the District of Columbia. But it is a surprisingly narrow flow that seems tied neither to the healthy cheer of American wines nor the stern school of our mountain streams.

Maybe in a few centuries.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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