September 22, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:46:59+01:00December 4th, 2011|Area 51|
Crane no. 2: For the zoo? A museum?

rom my bedroom window, in the distance, I can see two construction cranes, and, more nearby, an unfinished but empty apartment, its wrap-around balcony tended to by loudly diligent gardeners who fuss over the well-groomed shrubbery at least twice a month. They water and tidy, pot and plant, trim and pat down, and leave. Also my sightline is the Borghese Gallery, its two square Renaissance towers providing some relief from the two cranes that lord over the horizon like stuck preying mantises.

I’m happy for the gallery. It seems finally at peace. In 1984, the city of Rome began a long-overdue, three-year renovation project. The gallery and its museum had become dingy and dark. Its plumbing rotted and stank. Even the art inside felt defeated. Up went the scaffolding.

And remained up three years later, when I visited, and five years after that, when I came back from a stint in the United States, and after nine, when I returned from two more years abroad.

Money ran out, then arguments began, after which giant woodworms were found in transverse beams in the palace’s attic, or so newspapers said. More imperceptible work followed. In 1995, 11 years after the scaffolding went up, it hadn’t budged.

Then something happened. Maybe the giant worms died. Or enough was finally deemed as enough. The gallery was “freed” in 1996.

Italy has emergencies but no deadlines. Ask earthquake victims.

The 150-foot cranes, which replaced the scaffolding in my vista, are in the same vein as the gallery repairs. One was moved into place in 2001, as part the construction of a new Metro station. For a while at least, the crane actually operated, slowly twisting left and right to lift girders and hunks of steel, a tedious but promising undertaking since the noise suggested the progress between start and finish. Then, about a decade ago, the movement stopped. It hasn’t restarted. Someone did manage to clamber to the top hoist a local soccer pennant, which juts out and flutters on windy days. Otherwise the crane simply stands there.

The second crane, a mile or so from the first, is in the park just past the zoo, where it would seem the city is remodeling something. Whatever’s being repaired or invented has no tangible shape. Little surrounds the crane aside from the much-visited zoo and a rarely visited museum. Like the Metro crane, it twisted and turned for several years before also seeming peter out, as if a crane, like a man, could just lose interest, or grow depressed. I watch it carefully, like a lunatic waiting for a werewolf to bay, but it’s a futile vigil. Nothing changes. The second crane is now a new piece of my common law landscape.

The empty apartment, a grandiose penthouse in the shape of a small fort, is half-and-alley away. It was owned by an elderly woman who died in the late 1990s, after which no one touched anything. Exempt from known urgency, her apartment simply sat there. Then, in 2004, workers broke out, zealously tinkering, expanding, roofing, and embellishing.

Their intense redrawing went on nonstop for two years at unimaginable cost (at least to me). When the workers finished, producing what amounted to a new ship, I imagined new tenants and opulent parties. But no. A heavy rainstorm, then a second one, forced the busybody workers back to work. They tore up the new roof and the new terrace and replaced it sturdier layers, or so it seemed. Perhaps a leak. Or many leaks. This took another year.

Finally, in late 2006, all seemed ready. But no tenants came. Those I asked just shrugged. Maybe a lawsuit. Maybe a dispute. I never penetrated their maybes.

The gardeners arrived in 2009, seeming determined to establish some kind of life, which they did, meticulously planting shrubbery and hedges in the penthouse terrace lining. I was sure humans would follow. But no again.

Instead, the gardeners continue their biweekly ritual, fussing under the watchful eye of a portly custodian (the owner?), hauling bags of peat moss, speaking in Italian, Romanian, Albanian. I’ve memorized their movements.

This entire hubbub is for no human benefit and all of it occurs under inanimate gaze of the two motionless cranes, awkward L-shaped adults that have come to find themselves at home.

Live long enough in the confines of cliché and you turn languid, passive, even resigned. My view does that. When I think of Mario Monti and his executive incitements — urgency, austerity, immediacy, action — I can’t phase out the museum, the cranes, and the empty apartment.

I see a south that postpones efficiency to protect deeper lifeblood fashioned from cleverness, continuance, fickleness and the sacredness of approximation. I see prettying gardeners who stand in for accomplishment simply by circling dutifully around the shrubbery of a vacant flat. I sometimes wave at them, and they wave back.

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.