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Pining Away for Old Rome

Been wondering how that 1924 tone poem holds up?

By Jerry V. Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page P01

Benito Mussolini reportedly admired Ottorino Respighi. It's not clear whether the Italian composer returned the feelings. I hasten to add that what Il Duce loved about Respighi was his 1924 tone poem, "The Pines of Rome." Listen to it and you can hear why: It concludes with a goose-pimply evocation of Italy's past glories. It also reflects youthful energy, serene beauty and undying spirits.

Specifically, Respighi tried to capture the essence of Rome's Villa Borghese, a catacomb, the Janiculum Hill and the Appian Way. He accompanied his score with a brief text depicting the scenes, but mostly he let his music do the describing.

Rome's Janiculum, noted in the Italian poet's third movement, was thick with pines and views of St. Peter's Basilica. (Jerry V. Haines)

I got to wondering what had happened to those four sites since 1924. Would the Appian Way be six lanes of concrete? Would there be a shopping mall on the Janiculum, or townhouse projects at the Villa Borghese? Most important, would there still be any pines -- or would they all have fallen victim to chainsaws, bulldozers or some kind of Dutch Pine Disease?

Thus my wife and I sought out the four sites and compared their appearance today with Respighi's 80-year-old descriptions. Although much has happened to Rome in the intervening decades, the sites remain inspirational -- if not exactly in the ways Respighi pictured.

First Movement: Pines of the Villa Borghese. Allegretto vivace.

Respighi wrote: "Children are at play in the pine groves of Villa Borghese; they dance round in circles. They play at soldiers, marching and fighting, they are wrought up by their own cries like swallows at evening, they come and go in swarms."

One element absent from Respighi's portrayal of the Villa Borghese is the subway trip. (Understandable, since the metro line wasn't opened until 1980.) There's an underground passage from the Spagna station, and the long walk through it is eased by escalators and moving sidewalks.

As Janice and I emerged into the daylight, the first thing we saw was a pine -- a small, scruffy one at the edge of a busy highway. Just how much poetic license had Respighi used? But we weren't actually inside the grounds yet, and once we were, we could see that, although there might be an occasional Charlie Brown Christmas tree, the pines of the 200-acre park still merit a tone poem.

These pines do not have the traditional triangular silhouette -- they look nothing like car air fresheners. Known as umbrella pines, they have tall trunks and are branchless until the third-floor level. From there, they spread into graceful, rounded crowns, so that a stand of umbrella pines resembles a corps of tall, slender nymphs with painstakingly coifed art-nouveau hair styles.

In the first movement, Respighi intended to communicate the feeling of small children at play. But the kids must have been inside when we visited. There were lots of adults at play, however: runners and joggers loping along the shady trails; soccer players competing on sunny fields; young lovers nuzzling by the romantic lakes. We saw horses exercising in an equestrian area, which was labeled with the grand Italian descriptive noun, galoppatoio. Although the villa's grounds are a great place for walking, some folks rented bicycles or four-wheeled pedal carts (mostly used by teams of shrieking teenagers playing "chicken").

For quieter recreation we visited the Borghese Gallery, the 17th-century palazzo of the powerful Borghese family, including Cardinal Scipione Borghese. He used his wealth and influence to assemble (and, some would say, steal) a collection of paintings and statuary that still has people lining up for the rare opening on the reservations list.

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