When I first came to Rome, as a student, in the autumn of 1947, it was a small city. Italy seemed small. The war had divided the country; its end had then shrunk it. And there was movement everywhere: tourists were still few, but the railroad stations were crammed with Italians ready to try their luck in a new place. Devastation was visible. One day, for instance, going to San Lorenzo station to collect a package, I saw the rubble from the 1943 air-raid that was described in Elsa Morante’s History many years later; it had been only slightly disturbed, and plaster-dust swirled in the air. But you felt the excitement of freedom and renewal, and everyone I met seemed to be writing a book or directing a play or making a movie.

It was easy to meet people, especially if you were a wide-eyed American and spoke Italian. The literary world was particularly accessible, for all the intellectuals wanted to know about the States; grave professors, beetle-browed critics, questioned me closely, as if I were a personal friend of Hemingway, Louis Armstrong, Rita Hayworth, and Harry Truman. Before I had been in Rome a month, I had been invited to a party at the hospitable apartment of Morante and Alberto Moravia, just off the Piazza del Popolo; soon I was a regular guest, and there I met other writers: Carlo Levi (whose Christ Stopped at Eboli had been my introduction to contemporary Italian writing), and Vitaliano Brancati, and somewhat later, the young schoolteacher Pier Paolo Pasolini who had, at that time, published only a few poems, most of them in the (to me) exotic Friulan dialect.

At the other end of the Corso, in Via della Botteghe oscure there was Palazzo Caetani, where the American-born Princess Marguerite Caetani had just founded her eclectic, rich international magazine, named after her address. She also welcomed writers, famous and unknown – Italians like Giorgio Bassani (her managing editor) and the taciturn Ignazio Silone (and his beautiful, ebullient Irish wife) – foreign residents like the Irish consul, Denis Devlin, and distinguished visitors: Ponge, T. S. Eliot, Spender, and Dylan Thomas, who had contributed the first version of Under Milk Wood to her magazine. The favourites were invited to Sunday luncheon parties at Ninfa, the Caetani villa south of the city, where the gardens – created largely by the Principessa and her daughter, Lelia – were a subtly organized jungle of foliage and colour and perfumes. I soon became a favourite because I had volunteered as proof-reader for the magazine.


Jim’s Journey
The Bird of Paradise Lost