A Tide of Tourists

Empty St. Peter’s Square – March 2020

Roma, 18 aprile 2022

Dear R. ~

It’s been a while since writing you.  I’ve been feeling strangely nostalgic these days and have been reflecting on the last two years. It’s not that I miss them, they were hard times and of course I wish they had never come to pass.  They were extraordinary times, I have no other way of putting it, and it continues to be so.  I think what is happening is that I am finally adjusting to things, am finally able to pause and look back for a bit.  Perhaps seeing so many signs of normalcy (even if things aren’t totally normal yet) indicates that we are truly transitioning out of Pandemical Times. I hope so.  

I think it’s easier to notice change in a city that is a tourist destination. Tourist flow is an obvious marker.  Tourists are like the tide, they come and go more or less according to a schedule.  In Summer the city swells with visitors and in Winter the numbers diminish.  The streets of Rome are packed with people today. This whole week the city has been brimming with tourists, practically at pre-pandemic levels. Rome has always belonged to everybody: visitors, pilgrims, immigrants, and Romans alike.  Everyone is welcome.  And so I feel a bit selfish to complain about how crowded it is.  It was so shocking to witness Rome come to a stand-still.  Unfathomable.  And yet.  Those were remarkable days when Rome was empty.  It was a luxury to roam the streets and not see anybody for blocks and blocks.  Having the city all to yourself was like holding a snowflake, a suspended ice crystal destined for you.

Easter this year was celebrated without restrictions.  We were in lockdown for the last two Easters and everything was closed down, from places of worship to museums, everything was closed down, except for essential services of course.  Pope Francis presided over the Via Crucis at the Colosseum on Good Friday and 10,000 people attended.  On Easter Sunday he celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s Square for around 50,000 people.  That’s a lot of people!  It feels momentous and the numbers of people gathering serves as a milestone for how far we’ve come.  Two years ago we were counting lives lost.   

These last few days I’ve spent a lot of time going through photos from the last two years and reflecting on the story they tell.  My last two outings before the First Lockdown in March 2020 were to see the Raffaello exhibit at the Quirinale and then the next day to Saint Peter’s Basilica. I hadn’t been to the Basilica for many years because I just didn’t want to stand in the long lines to get in.  Hearing that there were no lines, and unaware of what was coming next of course, H. and I  went running to the Vatican.  I only have three pictures from that day.  I think I was so stunned to see it completely empty that I hardly reached for my camera.  It was just us and the stone Apostles topping the façade.  The greyish green dome rose up behind them and everything was so still and symmetrical that for a moment I thought I was looking at a postcard.  It was both beautiful and eery.  I remember that outing so vividly but the only evidence of that day are three photos.  There is a selfie of me and H. in a completely empty St. Peter’s Square, I’m looking in one direction he’s looking in the other and now it seems almost like a premonition of what was to come, both of us vigilant. Of course there’s the requisite photo of the Basilica.  It’s not even very good, it’s off-kilter as if I took it furtively, on the sly, in a rush.  I wish I had taken the time to take it properly.  Silly regrets.  The last photo I have of that day is of Michelangelo’s Pietà.  It was an easy shot with no one there blocking the view.  I could have taken thousands.  Instead, I put my phone away and just stood there.  I remember my eye being drawn down to the Virgin’s bare foot peeking out from under her white marble robe, and then I burst into tears.  I pulled up that photo on Good Friday.  It seemed fitting.   

It is Spring and the sun is out.  The azaleas have already been set out on the Spanish Steps for the season.  I welcome the renewal to come. 

Will you be coming to visit soon?  Wish you were here.  


P. S.  I’ve enclosed a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica from that day

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