I woke up smiling. It had happened again. How many times? Over how many years? It had started on an early trip to Rome with my husband, George.
The morning had come early that day. And the night had run late, carried along by convivial voices resounding over the cobblestones and echoing off antique walls in the piazza outside our hotel. Our piazza was noisier than most, attracting tourists and Romans to socialize in its outdoor cafes and to lounge around the fountain in front of the Pantheon. We had wanted to stay here anyway, in an old hotel on the Piazza della Rotunda. Just to look out the window at the most perfect building in the world.
Squeezing sleep from my eyes that morning, I could see gray light seeping through the tall thick wooden shutters that enclosed the windows and that had muffled, without silencing, the sounds from outside during the night. I drew in the windows and pushed out the shutters. And there it was. The Pantheon. Its magnificent colonnaded portico crowned by a pointed pediment, and its graceful dome rising above to the hole-in-the-top oculus, an eye open to the sky. Standing almost exactly as it has for almost two thousand years, ever since the emperor Hadrian built it to honor the Roman gods. Hadrian, it had always pleased me to remember, was one of those five good emperors when Edward Gibbon had said presided over “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” I knew things like that as a student of Roman history. And I had liked that about Hadrian. I liked Gibbon, too, for his extravagant praise of the good emperors, and for saying that he had decided to write of Rome’s decline and fall one evening while “musing amid the ruins” of the half-buried Roman Forum as “barefoot friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter.” I could never visit Rome without picturing the melancholy Gibbon sitting in the ruins listening to the friars’ evensong in the eighteenth century and resolving to tell the world how this greatest of all empires had fallen, leaving its capital to barefoot friars.
But the Pantheon remained. The impeccable, enduring Pantheon, the one unruined monument of ancient Rome, almost as perfect now as ever–probably because the Christians, like those singing friars in the Forum, had made a church of it. And yet, I remembered, how curious it was that Hadrian had claimed no credit for building it. The bold Latin inscription across the pediment reads: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” A historical red herring, I would explain to my students. Once historical memory of the Pantheon’s origins was lost, history had understandably attributed the Pantheon to Agrippa, the renowned general who had defeated Marc Anthony and had become second-in-command to the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and who had built an original temple on this site a hundred years before Hadrian. Hadrian got no credit for the Pantheon until the 1890s, when industrious archeologists unearthed evidence that it had arisen during his reign and had simply retained the original inscription to Agrippa in an act of deference that Hadrian commonly observed . I liked this story of the good emperor, too. Very Roman.
Rome is full of such curiosities, if not such architectural perfection. It is a mongrel city, made of bits and pieces of history jumbled together in a dozen styles. You never know what will turn up around the next corner. A Roman ruin. A random column. A Medieval gargoyle. A Renaissance fountain. A Baroque church. A lively piazza. Cataloguing the styles that morning, I had noticed a pair of banners hanging on a wire beside the Pantheon announcing festivities for the completion of a year-long renovation of the piazza. The asphalt surface had been replaced by cobblestones, returning the Piazza della Rotunda to its historic character, before it was given over to automobiles. We go forward to the past, sometimes, I had thought, even in Rome.
That is where my morning reveries had stopped that day. And where my story had begun. For I had caught sight of a human figure in front of the Pantheon barely visible in the rising light. It looked like an old woman cloaked in black, a cowl shrouding her head, and bent forward almost at a right angle, leaning on a cane. A crone preparing to beg, perhaps? But the hour was much too early for that. Why was she there?
Staring more intently, I detected an animal at her feet. Then two. Then three. Ah, Roman cats. You can’t be here long without seeing them. They slink along alleys, flash through entry ways, doze in cafes. They’re everywhere. I wondered how they survive, who feeds them. Or are they just another of Rome’s native curiosities? Part of a mongrel city as hospitable to cats as it is to history and to history’s ruins.
A cluster of these cats now entwined themselves around the feet of the crone, as she posed before the Pantheon like a drooping specter. The light was up now, and the first rays of the sun were catching the rooftops. Sounds of sweeping and of water spraying against the cobblestones ended dawn’s silence. The city was awakening.
I watched the piazza come to life. Workers sprayed off yesterday’s dust, vendors opened news stands, waiters arranged tables and chairs at the outdoor cafes, delivery men hauled food from trucks parked in the narrow side streets. And sunlight began falling across the columns of the Pantheon from the side, grazing each one with a thin band of light, then bathing the façades of the sixteenth-century buildings bordering the piazza on the west and calling to life the colorful mural of a Madonna, or some other innocent, on the upper floor of one of those façades.
I don’t know just how long I stayed there that morning leaning on the window sill and musing on two thousand years of Roman history greeting the day. But the first tourists broke the spell. Following their predictable path from the wide Piazza Navona a few streets to the west toward the cramped Fountain of Trevi close by on the east, they would quickly become hoards, reminding any Romanophile that much of the eternal city now exists mainly for transients. Another irony.
Before turning away, I looked at her again. The crone. Still standing at the front of the Pantheon in her crooked pose, bent at the middle, the cowl covering her face, one frail hand propping herself up with a cane, the other now stretching out for alms. Cats lying at her feet. She was working the tourists after all. And some of them were complying, dropping lira into her hand, while others held back, snapping pictures of the decrepit, spectral figure against the great pagan temple. Perhaps she was a con artist who had an act that she knew many tourists couldn’t resist. Who knows, she might live in a comfortable house on the outskirts and travel here by car for her performance.
With this disillusioning fantasy, I had turned from the window and begun readying for a day of tourism. We were quite young then, and George was always a willing, if slightly cynical, tourist. But we were going to avoid the usual “sights.” That day we wanted to find a different Rome. So we strolled back streets that most visitors neglect and walked along the Tiber River that wends through the city nearly hidden by its banks, a trickle that goes practically ignored compared to the Seine in Paris or the Thames in London. We explored Trastevere across the river where working people live and few tourists go because it is a thriving part of Rome, not a monument. And we wound up on the Aventine hill in the south, where the poet John Keats rests in the “English” cemetery under the epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”–“Evocative,” George had said, “but what does it mean?”–and from whose shady crest you can see the sun set over the Tiber behind the Janiculum and the distant dome of St. Peter’s.
By late evening, we were back in the Piazza della Rotunda after dining not far away on the sublime fettucine Alfredo at Alfredo alla Scroffa, which boasts of inventing the dish and deserves honor, whether the claim is true or not, for the elixir it serves. We sat at a busy café in the piazza where seasoned waiters dressed in black fronted with white aprons, scampered about exuding a charm fashioned to win the hearts of lonely ladies from the likes of mid-western American towns who have dreamed of Roman romance, and who get just enough of it this way, a staged dose of solicitous Italian male attention that they can take home with them in memories of imagined raptures, and can invoke with far-away-looks for inquisitive friends, and can thereafter enjoy sweetly and safely in their sleep. These are the guys who can do it.
“Ah, buono sera. You like cappucino? Gelato?” said a waiter pleasantly. We ordered espresso and sumbucca. “Mille grazi.’” With a smile and a crisp approving bow he clicked his heels and glided briskly away. We watched him go and followed the others as they darted back and forth, catching bits of their salutations and banter with customers. “Bella notte, signorina.” “Ah, veryy nice.” “Splennndeedo.” It was all Roman charm. The convivial piazza. The summer night. Safe romance. Eternal Rome.
Then through the bustling waiters and crowded tables, I saw her again. The crone. Was it the same one? She was still in front of the Pantheon, now illuminated by lights aimed at it from around the square. She had hardly moved since morning. But the Pantheon was now closed. Why was she here at this hour? Maybe she did live in the streets. I pointed her out to George. “From central casting, I’d say,” he replied nonchalantly.
We lingered a while relishing the Roman night, then finished our drinks and went back to the hotel. Later, I lay in bed, listening to the voices outside wane. Unable to sleep, I went to the window and watched the last few café patrons drift away. The waiters started to stack their tables and chairs against the walls and to shutter the doors. The lights illuminating the Pantheon had gone dark, other lights around the piazza flicked out, and the piazza fell silent. But the scene remained surprisingly bright, the Pantheon standing in a soft luminescence. I leaned out the window and looked upwards. A radiant full moon hung in a starless sky. It bathed the dome of the Pantheon and washed over the piazza with a glow that picked out the contours of the cobblestones–how poignant that they should be a new evocation of the past–and threw distinct shadows down from the temple and from the fountain’s gargoyles, shadows that seemed to belong to such a night.
Suddenly, I saw a shadow move. It passed in the moonlight from the corner of the Pantheon to a narrow street running along the western side of the former temple toward the back. A trail of creatures low to the ground moved with it. It wasn’t a shadow. It was the crone. And the cats. Or so I concluded. This gets mysteriouser and mysteriouser, I had said to myself, like Alice in Wonderland.
Curiosity and the luminous night banished my timidity. Leaving George sleeping, I slipped on some clothes and stole out the door. Down two flights of stairs, I was outside in the quiet, deserted piazza. As if stalking a spy, I sneaked through the shadows against the buildings toward where I had seen the mysterious entourage. I couldn’t see them now, but I went forward, having no clear idea of why, or of what I expected to find.
When I reached the spot by the Pantheon where they had been, I peered down the narrow street. Not a trace. Irresistibly, I pressed on, driven by what I knew to be a silly fascination and a trace of slightly dangerous excitement. Twinges of nervousness pecked at my stomach as I left the open piazza behind for the uncertain trail I was following. Firming my will, I told myself that if I found nothing, I would continue on all around the Pantheon. Then I could at least go home with a story of a solitary moonlit walk in the deep of the night around the two-thousand-year-old Roman temple that is the most perfect building in the world. On through the darkness I went, careful of my steps, which involuntarily grew quicker as I plunged into the night.
As I neared the rear corner of the temple, my nerves tightened more. Moonlight falling on the ancient bricks of the temple’s back wall created a weird patch-work of jagged surfaces and shadows. But no sign of the crone and her cats. They must’ve gone off down one of the tangled medieval streets and alleys fanning out from here, I thought. No point trying to guess which. Suddenly sensing how alone I was in this nighttime foreign place, I braced for the next stretch and headed swiftly down the street behind the Pantheon toward the far side, glancing here and there for my prey. No trace. When I reached the far corner, I relaxed a bit and entered a small adjacent piazza brightened by the moon to make a cursory check for the crone. No one. A tall statue in the center caught my eye. It depicted an elephant holding an obelisk on its back. I had seen it before and knew it to be by Bernini. In the moonlight it appeared even more whimsical than in daylight, not at all an emblem of wisdom, as its inscription stated. Amused by the sight, I forgot for a moment why I was there, thinking how mongrel Rome keeps surprising and amusing you. Then I started back toward the hotel.
Hurrying along the street to the east of the Pantheon toward the Piazza della Rotunda, I was now eager to complete the adventure, and no longer concerned about why I had begun it. As I approached the piazza, the bright moonlight reflecting on the cobblestones and building facades in the wide open space emboldened me again. I slowed my pace. The night had once more become too inviting for me to leave just yet. Then it occurred to me that inside the Pantheon on a night like this, with a full moon shining down through the oculus, must look kind of magical. I had to see it, if I could. Maybe I could peek inside between the massive front doors.
Soon I was standing at the base of the majestic columns at the front. I stepped into the dark portico and made my way to the bronze doors rising twenty feet from the ground. There I pressed my face to the narrow open space where they met.
I could barely see through. A column of moonlight poured down through the wide opening in the dome. My eyes followed it to the floor, where it lit a circle in the middle like a theatrical spotlight. What I saw there so startled me that I bumped my head against the doors. In the large oval spotlight stood–the crone! Less crooked than before, she was swaying back and forth and waving her arms and tossing morsels in the air that momentarily caught the light as they fell. Surrounding her on the floor to the edge of the spotlight and into the darkness were–cats. Dozens. Scores of them. They jumped to catch what she tossed. They rolled. They ran. They tumbled. They stood on their hind legs. They batted the air with their paws. They made the floor seem alive. They almost seemed to be dancing with the crone. But they made no sound.
I stared. How did they get in? A hidden passage? An underground conduit from a nearby ruin? That would be like Rome. But is this really happening? I asked myself.
I watched for five, ten, fifteen minutes. The crone and the cats. The cats frolicking, all as silent as the night, a mysterious performance in a heavenly light that had shined on this stage every night of the full moon for close to two millenia. Tourists see the sunlight come through. But who sees the moonlight?
Maybe Hadrian knew, I thought. The oculus lets in the moonlight as well as the sun. Here was the perfect Roman building, for sure. The perfect temple for worshiping all the gods of heaven. The perfect stage for moonlit rituals. The perfect setting to celebrate the mysteries and magic of the night. The perfect place for congregations of the mongrel cats of Rome. Hadrian must have known.
Finally, a bit dizzied I eased away from the door. Somehow, I found my way across the piazza to the hotel and up the stairs and into the room and under the sheets, and there I dissolved into sleep.
And then I dreamed, for the first of unnumbered times, of what George and everyone else to whom I told the story dismissed as only a dream. Perhaps it was a dream. But I could never believe that. Because that night forever changed Rome for me, becoming my very image of the Eternal City’s wondrous history and eclectic hospitality. And it always leaves me smiling, whenever, asleep or awake, I see again that faceless crone and her Roman cats silently dancing in the Pantheon under Hadrian’s moon.