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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Simone de Beauvoir in Rome


While reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, I learned that Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long companion, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, had spent a good deal of time in Rome--a month or two every summer in the 1950s and 1960s, and some summers before and after, about which I have less knowledge.  I was intrigued.  I ordered two volumes of de Beauvoir's autobiography (each 400 pages): Hard Times: Force of Circumstance II, covering the years 1952-1962, and All Said and Done, covering 1962-1972.  

What I learned was not what I anticipated. Both Sartre and de Beauvoir were known as deep thinkers and careful, elaborate analysts, and I expected de Beauvoir to apply their considerable intelligence to the city of Rome, to enlighten me with one insight after another. It didn't happen. There's plenty of analysis in the autobiographies--of postwar Japan, or France's poisoned relationship with its Algerian colony (one of de Beauvoir's obsessions), of the social structure of Rio de Janeiro, and so on (the duo traveled relentlessly), and of the distress of growing old and contemplating one's death--but not of Rome, where they spent, cumulatively, several years of their lives. What was going on? What did Rome mean to these two brilliant intellectuals?

In some respects, Sartre and de Beauvoir related to Rome as other tourists--though they were not so fond of those "other tourists." Although de Beauvoir wrote that they had once enjoyed staying outside the city center, and did, in fact, once live in a hotel near Ponte Milvio, their preference was for the center (they would take a car from Ponte Milvio to walk in the old city).  One hotel was the Hotel d'Angleterre, just off Piazza di Spagna [named as such, because of its popularity with the British, and now known as "Hotel d'Inghilterra"]. Another was on the Piazza Montecitorio (the Albergo Nazionale), and still another, the Hotel del Senato, on the Piazza della Rotonda (overlooking the Pantheon). [All three are still operating.]

De Beauvoir (and sometimes Sartre) did some sightseeing, inevitably at sites frequented by those "ordinary tourists," and most of them in the city center. On the Aventine Hill, looking through the keyhole, de Beauvoir wrote: "so by fixing my attention upon a small corner of the earth, beyond it I see an entire country, together with its relationship with the world." With Sartre she visited the Castel Sant'Angelo, saw the city's Caravaggios, walked the Corso ("now made commonplace and ugly"), and waxed eloquent about the beauty of St. Peter's dome against the sky. 

Beyond the city center, they traveled to Hadrian's Villa, Ostia, Cerveteri, Orvieto, the Alban Hills and the new Roman suburbs ("a ring of concrete," in the words of Italian politician Giancarlo Pajetta, quoted approvingly by de Beauvoir). But seldom are these places worthy of more than a mention, of more than the name.  In 1968 and 1969, writes de Beauvoir, "we did not leave Rome at all, and it had never seemed to us more delightful....We walked about less than we had in other years because we had the feeling of being in all the streets and all the squares of Rome at one and the same time." 

Like other tourists--at least those of means--Sartre and de Beauvoir haunt the familiar squares. Coffee in the morning in Piazza della Rotonda; for a time, Piazza Sant'Eustachio (until it got too noisy and crowded); dinner in Piazza Navona or, later on, Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere; late evening whiskey in Piazza del Popolo; the "best ices in Rome" (a standard tourist trope) at a "little street near the hotel." In these volumes, at least, there is no mention of Piazza Vittorio, Monte Mario, the Gianicolo, Ostiense, Piazza Bologna, Monte Sacro, Garbatella, or EUR--Rome's marvelous 19th- and 20th-century neighborhoods. 

At the Pantheon--a favorite piazza 

De Beauvoir could be romantic, even poetic, about Rome.  In the early 1950s, she wrote:  

"Even when its bricks are being scorched by the heat of the ferragosto [the August 15 holidays when all of Italy shuts down], when the asphalt is  melting along the deserted avenues, occasionally punctuated by a solitary, useless policeman in a white helmet, we still feel comfortable there.  This great bustling, crowded city still calls to mind the  little town founded by Romulus.  'They should build cities in the country, the air is much cleaner,' goes the old joke; for me, Rome is the country.  No factories, no smoke; there is nothing provincial about Rome, but often in the streets, on the piazzas, one feels the harshness, the silence of country villages. The old designation 'people,' in which all factions were dissolved, really applies to the inhabitants of Rome, who sit in the evening along the Trastevere [her words], on the Campo de' Fiori, on the fringes of the old ghetto, at the tables on the wine merchant's terraces in front of a carafe of Frascati; children play around them; calmed by the coolness of the streets, babies sleep on their mothers' knees; through the fragile gaiety hanging in the air, impetuous cries rise up from below.  You can hear the popping of the Vespas, but a cricket sings as well." (There's more, but you get the idea.) 

De Beauvoir and Sartre were workaholics. Both were voracious readers (that was part of their "work") and prolific, usually every-day writers.  They were also well connected with various Italian and Roman left-wing networks--they knew Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia (a terrible driver, by the way), artist Renato Guttuso, literary critic Mario Alicata, and journalists who pressed them for interviews--and these relationships took time. Their days were long but dominated by work: breakfast at ten (reading the newspapers, with the Pantheon as backdrop); writing or reading in the hotel until mid-afternoon ("we also spend many hours in our rooms"); a sandwich on the terrace; a brief walk; work until 5--and often into the evening.

Yet for de Beauvoir, Rome was a certain kind of workplace--a workplace melding into a vacation place, a retreat from frenetic travel and (sometimes) writing. "We were both," she wrote in the 1950s, "Sartre as well as myself, a bit worn out with all the traveling we had done; above all other countries we loved Italy, and above all other cities, Rome; so there we stayed."

For her, then, Rome was, at least in part, an escape. In Rome, she could ease up on being a committed (and exhausted) tourist, and ease up, too, on the writing. In the early 1960s she wrote: "[Writing] is still necessary for me, but sometimes I like giving myself a break from it: I do so when staying in Rome, for example, where I could have all the spare time I want to work....I read for hours when I am in Rome during the summer."  In language that sounds disarmingly simple, even simplistic, she describes Rome as "happy's all so familiar, so happy, there's no need for words." "Rome" is for de Beauvoir a license to read (and not write) or, conversely, a license to return to writing: "Today," she wrote in 1958, "is very beautiful, very blue, I feel the happiness of being in Rome for a long time take hold of me again, and the desire to write. And I write." 

In All Said and Done de Beauvoir describes a variety of her dreams, including several that take place in Rome--"an agreeable place."  


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