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.
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.
Pines of the Villa Borghese.
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.
But the favorite element of our day at the villa was, like the subway, something Respighi hadn't contemplated: a balloon ride. Near the entrance was a gas-filled balloon called l'Ottavo Colle. (It took me a while to grasp the significance of that name: The balloon gets you up above the average terrain, thus, it is effectively an "eighth hill.") Tethered with a sturdy steel cable, the balloon ascends 500 feet, higher than the tallest pine.
Typically, my acrophobia kicks in at the height of the gutters on our house, but the air was calm, the sun was bright, and the gold and powder-blue sphere was too poetic to ignore. The ring-shaped gondola swayed a bit as we boarded and even more as we took off. Once we literally reached the end of our rope, though, it seemed no more precarious than the observation deck of a tall building, and I walked around its circumference, shooting top-down photos of the pines.
Although the day didn't correspond to Respighi's vision, it's not his fault that no children were scampering about during our visit. Anyway, the frolicking children in his imagination would be octogenarians by now, so maybe we did see them.
Pines Near a Catacomb. Lento.
"Suddenly the scene changes -- we see the shades of the pine trees fringing the entrance to a catacomb. From the depth rises the sound of a mournful chant, floating through the air like a solemn hymn, and gradually and mysteriously dispersing."
Respighi didn't specify which catacomb; there are several in and around Rome. We went to St. Callisto, a city of the dead established in the second century, with miles of underground passages and a half-million tombs.
There still are pines around the entrances to the catacomb, yet there are changes inside. The bodies in the publicly accessible portions have been relocated -- tourists kept helping themselves to bones.
Salesian priests watch over the sacred ground on behalf of the Holy See, and they guide tours to this part of the underworld. Hundreds of burial niches were dug out of the tufa (volcanic rock); some, the graves of children, are not much larger than jewel boxes. Except for a few popes and martyrs, the names of the buried are unknown, and they are identified only by assigned numbers. (I think about that now, when I hear the wistful longing in the solo trumpet's song early in the movement.)
Our priest/guide explained that, Hollywood-inspired myth notwithstanding, early Christians did not hide from Roman persecution in these tombs. They did gather here, but for worship. Not that being a Christian was without peril: Pope Calixtus, for whom the place is named, was killed circa 222 while saying Mass. Many other martyrs were buried here as well, including St. Cecilia, patroness saint of music. (She's since been relocated; saints' remains are in demand.)
I am not a botanist, but the pines of this area seemed to include more of the kind that one might find in a North American forest, although some of them had odd, berry-like seeds. (Umbrella pines have large cones, the size of hand grenades, that due to the distance of their fall often crack on impact.) We heard sheep bells in a neighboring pasture, a nice pastoral sound to go with the spiritual aura of the place.
Still, what I will remember most from our visit to the catacomb was the sight of a dozen scissor-wielding women attacking something in the grass not far from the entrance. What are they cutting, I asked one of them. "Chicory, for salad." They seemed delighted at the find, and some were filling large plastic bags with the stuff.
It's too bad Respighi missed the chicory hunters, but their near-giddy enthusiasm would have been hard to accommodate with the somber subterranean chant of souls.
Pines of the Janiculum.
"There is a thrill in the air: the pine-trees of the Janiculum stand distinctly outlined in the clear light of the full moon. A nightingale is singing."
This movement offended purists when Respighi's "Pines" first was performed. Respighi demanded that, rather than using a musical instrument to simulate a bird song, a recording of an actual nightingale be played.
Perhaps we could have heard nightingales had we gone to the Janiculum at night, as Respighi did. The pines were there, though, even if they occasionally were joined by more contemporary trees: construction cranes.
As we walked up the long ridge south of the Vatican, we got increasingly impressive views of St. Peter's Basilica through the pines (and TV antennas). Our passage up the Passeggiata del Gianicolo (essentially one long scenic overlook) offered us vistas of the Tiber, ancient Roman neighborhoods and lots of red-tile roofs. In the distance, Villa Borghese's blue and gold balloon stood out against the deeper blue sky as it took another load of shutterbugs into the air.
A small group of children stood in rapt attention before a phone-booth-size stage near the top of the hill. Puppets howled and punched at each other, as they have for centuries in this ancient Italian art form.
An equestrian statue of Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi dominates the hilltop. Respighi doesn't acknowledge the statue or the battle that took place here in 1849 between Garibaldi's troops and the French army during the fight for Italian unification. Garibaldi's Brazilian wife, Anita, also has a monument here, farther down the hill. It is smaller than her husband's, but much more interesting. She, too, is shown in battle, charging forward on horseback, holding a pistol in one hand, a baby in the other.
Maybe these scenes don't fit the moonlit mood of Respighi's pensive third movement, but he was right about one thing: There still is "a thrill in the air."
Pines of the Appian Way. Tempo di marcia.
"Misty dawn on the Appian Way: solitary pine trees guarding the magic landscape; the muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories: trumpets sound and, in the brilliance of the newly-risen sun, a consular army bursts forth towards the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitol."
This one is harder to check out, since Respighi is describing his own fantasies and patriotic feelings. The Appian Way was built in fourth century BC and extended all the way down and across the Italian peninsula to Brindisi, on the heel of the Italian "boot." The road enters Rome via a portal in the old city wall, changes its name to Via di Porta San Sebastiano and becomes just one of many modern city streets near the Baths of Caracalla.
On Sundays a section of the road just outside the old city wall and near the St. Callisto catacomb is closed to all but pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and thus you don't have to worry about being blindsided by a Fiat 500 as you imagine Roman chariots.
That's where we picked it up. There were no Roman armies, but the idea is to let the pines summon for you the glories of ancient Rome. Personally, I had a little trouble tuning out the tourists. (I don't think Roman soldiers wore running shoes and carried digital cameras.) Also, except for one excavated stretch where we could see the original surface, the road has been paved to accommodate cars. At least it's still a relatively narrow road -- nothing like an American interstate -- and pines still verge on it in places.
It would have been true to Respighi's vision had we marched the entire distance to the Capitol. We cheated and took the bus to what once was the focal point of the civilized world, the Roman Forum.
There still are pines on the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, looming above the scattered remains of temples and monuments, and I could imagine standing up there among them, watching armies moving resolutely past the Coliseum, turning onto Via Sacra to the delight of multitudes. In my mind the temples and monuments are whole again, and the masses by the Coliseum are cheering citizens, not sightseers desperately clutching their purses and scanning the crowd for pickpockets.
The pines endure, and with them Respighi's vivid audio postcards of 80 years ago.
Jerry V. Haines is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.