December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Completely still

By |2018-03-21T19:04:56+01:00March 15th, 2015|Area 51|
Rome is swollen with empty apartments.

he shrubbery trimmers always appear toward the end of winter. I hear buzzing noises and see them from my window. Two men, one with a beard, diligently cut back the overgrown hedges and plants tucked into concrete slots that run the length of the wrap-around penthouse apartment across the way. The greenery is probably glad to see these hairdressers since for most of the year it grows undisturbed and lonely. No one is ever around.

Strange vacancies are a feature of Rome. Some people own homes but refuse to rent them. Others are embroiled in decades-long lawsuits that leave apartments in limbo. Still others regard vacancy as a wealthy conceit.

The penthouse apartment across the way was for years occupied by an elderly woman who seemed uninterested in her elegant if plant-less terrace. But her death some 15 years ago introduced a great hubbub. Workers revised and remade both apartment and terrace. Foremen and architects strutted around for years, pointing at this and that, lording over the installation of grand scenic windows. When the whole was finished, in mid-2005, a new group of workers arrived to ladle in concrete sluices, followed by gardeners who brought gobs of earth and dropped in the first bushes. By 2006 the penthouse was surrounded by a neat green rectangle.

But the residents never came. Once, late on a midsummer night, I saw two men dining at small outdoor table at a distant corner of the terrace. One smoked a cigar while the other gesticulated. They later strolled the length of the wrap-around like associates of Hadrian surveying the groomed territory ahead of the emperor. But the emperor never comes, nor did they come back. That was 2007.

Since then, the vacant apartment and its vast terrace is occasionally visited by an Filipino manservant — he apparently works as a part-time custodian — who jerks a hose from a box (not a very Italian gesture) and then gets to spraying parts of the lonely pavement and plants. In winter there are no lights inside. The living room with its picture window, a large modern sofa in view behind them, is unoccupied year in and year out, perhaps sometimes visited by the Filipino.

The only change in this now decade-old pattern is when the trimmers come round. They take to the greenery like barbers to Marine recruits, working hard until everything is flat-topped, only stubs still showing. From time to time they find a hay-colored patch that didn’t make it through winter and cut it out using clippers and shovels. Whole generations of leaves have lived and died without knowing the identity of the person who claims them as property, if such a person (or entity) actually exists. A careful look at Rome would turn up hundreds of such unused private gardens, but mine makes its forlorn point daily.

When the gardeners arrive they behave like hardy colonists, placing a big wicker chair and a small table outside. They take turns sitting down and smoking. When they leave, the Filipino often forgets to take in the chair and table, or dawdles. So it is that well into the summer I see the same chair, table, and ashtrays untouched as if expressly set out for fashionable visitors who promise to come but never do, or who do come but appear only when I’m not looking, perhaps deep into the night when the human record disappears and Rome time, its own lord and master, stands completely still.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.