t is 11 a.m. on what has for days been billed as Rome’s hottest summer day so far. This is thick, wet air, stagnant and honey-like, unrelated to hair-dryer Saharan heat,
So far, it’s a modest 33 degrees Celsius, just barely into Fahrenheit’s 90s. But Noon and its afternoon accomplices, accomplished assassins all, have yet to show.
In some other era, a century ago, say, this would merely be, among those out in it, a very, very hot and humid day. The kind of day that can make old age into a fatal condition. Weary organs rebel and shut down faced with the weight of the unnaturally torrid. Temperatures ten degrees above the body’s inner norm unleash sequences of havoc and rebellion.
That’s what happened about this time twenty years ago, in 2003, when a heat wave that began in late June refused to relinquish its grip for three months. No rain broke the spell. The sun seemed determined to make each passing day like the one before, killing some 70,000 people, mostly the frail and the elderly in rural France and Italy. France recorded eight straight days of temperatures in excess of 40 degrees, with the worst ones in mid-July, then as now. But media attention, while high in southern Europe, touched the United States only in passing. There was little space for the now-requisite alarmism in a country obsessed with terrorism while completing its deceit-marred, ultimately botched invasion of Iraq. Even France itself, at odds with the U.S. over the merits of the invasion, focused only distractedly on what would later be recognized as the worst summer oppression since the mid-16th century, the Renaissance period in which the chronicling of weather got its fledgling. And soon it gripped the historical and literary imagination.
Virginia Woolf ’s most mystical of novels, “Orlando,” vividly imagines London’s winter of 1740, which long before the introduction of the Industrial Revolution pollutants (the forerunner of today’s decried coal and chemicals) saw the whole of the Thames frozen solid. Why this freeze occurred, no one knew. To most, like recurring plague visitations, the 1740 chill was no more or less than an Act of God, as was death itself. And because a deity propelled them, such acts lacked both vocabulary and terminology. This would not change for centuries.
As a boy, though well into the mass media era, I knew nothing of wind-chill factors. Few satellites existed to plot and photograph the progress and girth of hurricanes.
No doubt exists that modern methods have saved millions of lives while at the same time impregnating enlightened culture with a boundless, borderless hankering for intimations of misfortune. It is a hankering separate from personal survival that has shown itself (witness the proclivities of the internet) as a feral side of the species that overrides education and that which was once called common sense.
Growing up, I was blissfully free of from the now commonplace colors of dread. I was not invited to invest anxiety in a swirl of red on a screen, by now an invitation of rampant proportions, no matter the peril real or perceived.
In 2003, I walked Rome’s sun-torched streets unfettered.
Cometh the first leap. The temperature has risen to 37, a whisker short of 99. Warnings crawl across TV screens. It feels very much like the hyperbole of “recent” old, COVID deaths, terrorist shadings, a sense of broadcast human meltdown some take as gospel and others ignore, getting on with their day-to-day. There’s much to be said for those who refuse to be ruffled or adopt the British stiff upper lip — parties were many and nightclubs packed even as Nazi bombers ruined parts of London in 1940. The unruffled are determined fatalists, lovers of routine. Who when told, as in the old Arnold-Terminator axiom, to be “very afraid,” tune out the hyperbole or simply turn the other cheek, at times to their own detriment.
In the brutal summer of 2003 I wandered Rome’s streets alone, glad for the solitude, tiring only of weeks that became months of unchanging days. I saw my grape farmer Ludo. “My grapes are dead, gone,” he said. I met my bookworm olive tree landowner Matteo, nicknamed porco for his hands constantly the color of earth and dirt. “And the sun also rises,” he said, borrowing from Ecclesiastes and Hemingway both. “What il bon Dio has in store for me I do not know, but he is no mood for olives, at least not this year.” The Good God had seen him flourish before and he would flourish again after.
Heat waves such as this one usually top-out in July and August, months when many Rome residents are already ensconced in their houses by the sea or in the hills. Others are in paease, at home, which may be just as hot or hotter than the city but brings with it the distracting drama of family life, which of course comes with lamentations about the heat. Che caldo che fa!
There you have it: 37, or 102.5, which, given today’s humidity (another new combo), equals roughly 114F.
Fellini got the mood of this weather right in his “La Dolce Vita,” in which both Marcello Mastroianni and busty Anita Ekberg wade into the Fontana di Trevi in the dead of night, he the cynical, alienated journalist, she the thrill-seeking Swedish blonde. No one took that day’s temperature, or that of actors, but one can assume it was high – above all since Fellini himself was both a perfectionist and a hothead.
Their romp mesmerized American audiences for its literally splashy audaciousness, its drenched sexual fragrance evident to all. Mastroianni, in fact, became a Latin Lover prototype, though hardly himself a sexually overheated man. But all it took was that fountain shot and he was made indelible, his name marked for celebrity, now in much the way scalding days and hurricanes are marked for similar celebrity.
This is, admittedly, the celebrity of circus-like attractions, in which an act of bravado – an acrobat’s high-wire walk, a firebreather’s spew, or even the ominous images of a huge storm– borrow from the future to suggest calamity. Red alert! All want to see. All want to know. All want to see, if only to imagine themselves safe. Which makes even “uber-hot” days into superstars. When the web and its apps tell the world to jump, this new world of brazen followers does just that, begging to know how high. In this way, hot and cold become the metrics of meteorological sensationalism. To cover “news” is to swear by its big-top dimensions, to dwell on extremes, to lavish menace with color, to make much of the little, since the new age free press depends on keeping all in the thrall of peril – the bread and butter of a century hooked on, and sensitive only to, the needs and wants of smartphone addicts.
More insidiously still, hyping scorched days plays to the cult of victim culture, since all are exposed to weather’s cruelties and can find means to say they are unable to function, stricken by what all others suffer from. Inertia, trepidation, and melancholy, by all means pull up a chair.
Once, heat was heat. Now, heat is hot and all must be made aware of its potential peril.
Since what is life, where please its pulse, without hourly suggestions that in one way or another we’re all at risk, under this siege or that, a state of affairs my long-gone parents taught me to accept not as exceptional but as part of a life they portrayed as all too often unfair if not mostly difficult. Reject the sensational, they advised, because it is tethered to little that lasts.
But “cool, calm, and collected” has, I fear, lost most of its takers.
All the while, as I formulate my dog-day mental musings, the temperature is rising, obliging yellow, red and uber-new fuchsia screen colorations in quick succession.
Three p.m. Do you know how hot it is?
Hint. Apps are ablaze.
It’s 30, or 104, nudging the city’s all-time high.
A radio broadcaster rather obviously tells pet owners not to take their dogs for a walk, as if dogs themselves wouldn’t know not to frolic in just the kind of humid heat that leaves them panting. Some, even tugged, refuse demands that they endure the afternoon purgatory.
Another announcement speaks of the need for hydration, once common sense peasant logic. But common sense departed long ago, and so many need to be told what to do by their digital authority of choice. They do what they’re told. Both rebellious and maverick tendencies quashed, all but fulfilling the presaging of Aldous Huxley, who once warned democracy carried within it the seeds of tyranny, that the hyper-organization of society would and could produce an unwitting slavery based on following the “wise” injunctions of the times. How could democracy lose its way? By falling victim to an efficient and agreed upon system of fear-mongering, ensuring security through a system of warnings and alerts that can come to reek of propaganda. Fuchsia warnings are a matter of course – consistent with the brave new world of security — and all must know what’s coming, or what might be coming, glued to screens that speak in the language of Cassandra as much for profit and attention as for the common good, which is undone by worry, nourished not by truth but by ratings and followers.
And rabid followers naturally go for heat, the more oppressive, the more alive with foreboding.
There now, fuchsia has spoken.
It is 3:33 p.m. and the voice-activated thermometer on the balcony across the way, its volume turned up especially for today, shrilly crows QIARANA, 40, in its still imperfect AI voice – one no doubt to soon be replaced by Marcello Mastroianni brought back to life (with an AI “La Dolce Vita” digital sequel soon to follow). The sun’s 105 is the dead air’s 120, putting Rome into Dubai territory – though Middle East heat is dryer and somewhat less oppressive as a result. Moreover, Dubai is the capital of the cooled desert, a city in which sun is segregated from man using countless fully cooled structures, lobbies, vestibules, and tubes. In that sense, the cities of the Emirates are Martian colonies, urban enclosures designed to keep humans alive and alert notwithstanding readings that routinely sweep well past 40, even creeping past 50, which at 122 is more than twenty degrees hotter than human organs.
Rome has no such shields, though it’s 21st-century version contains hundreds of cooled locales, a no-doubt hundred percent jump from the 1970s, when I first arrived here, astounded at its disdain for artificial cooling systems, seen as the creator of colds, back spasms, even sudden chilled death. “You can’t take a soaked tourist who has been out in 35 heat all day and put him suddenly in a 20-cooled room,” the manager of a leading hotel told me in 1975. “You’ll kill him.” The hotel had a plethora of fans – a situation that naturally enraged North American visitors.
What those visitors failed to account for then, as some do now, is that Italy must import most of its electric power. It has no major electricity-producing centers of its own. As a result. Rome hotels with air conditioning charge more than their sweltering cousins.
These days, an apartment owner who has managed to install central air conditioning and keeps it on constantly will face monthly bills running into the thousands.
It’s 5:15 p.m. and I just returned from a quick visit to my superintendent, who has a small cubicle at the center of our building complex. His hut is air conditioned and he’s watching TV.
Forty-one, he says, handing me the small package I had gone to fetch.
Forty-one, he says again, this time adding, Na chi se ne frega… “Who gives a damn!”
“Look,” he continues, “last I checked this was summer and we’re in Rome, and, well, so what that it’s a few degrees hotter? Would I feel better at 35 than 40? Not really. As if the world didn’t already have enough drama.”
And there’s the rub.
Fuchsia is one part science and two parts the manufacturing of drama.
Which Italy does well, very well.
But as the clock pushed toward 6 p.m., another thing is certain. Italy, a nation and culture that once seemed to have a monopoly on all things dramatic, hyperbolic to the core, has been supplanted if not copied by a planet eager to indulge fussing, feuding, and exaggerating, giving the one-time banality of an exceedingly hot day means to attain its own strange kind of celebrity status, fuchsia in the forefront.
– Editor’s note: On July 19, Rome broke a standing record, registering 41.7 Celsius, about 107 degrees Farenheit. Elevated humidity placed the “felt” temperature some fifteen degrees higher. The heat wave is expected, like that of 2003, to continue well into August. But unlike 2003, it began only in mid-July, following an unusually rainy and cool month of June.