Rome in August is always slow. Under the mid-August ferragosto holiday – the remote origins of which reach into Pagan antiquity – the city until very recently would become a ghost town.
I recall one year – probably 2014, when Pope Francis went to South Korea for five days in August so we were all working and none of us particularly happy about it – when I was about town of an evening, after a turn in the commentary booth for a papal event.
I encountered a big, shady-looking fellow on an otherwise desolate stretch of road. I greeted him at ten paces, and he closed the distance separating us laterally on a four or five-yard wide pavement. He made a point of bumping my arm. I hadn’t given way, you see – I thought it a sign of weakness – and he fairly bellowed, M’hai rott’ er braccio! (being Roman dialect for Mi hai rotto il braccio – “You broke my arm!”), though of course I’d done no such thing.
He then demanded satisfaction. I told him he could have my apologies, and he blocked my way, clearly unsatisfied. Co’ ’e’ scuse nun ce faccio ’n’ cazzo, he said. (That is a colourful Roman expression suggesting the uselessness of my apology.)
Understanding that this was a shakedown, I quickly calculated that he would do no worse than bark, and that I could probably make his next few minutes unpleasant enough did he try to press the issue with me otherwise.
I also had a walking cane, which perhaps he hadn’t quite noticed. I helped him attend to it, with a carefully, deliberately non-threatening gesture. This fellow deployed another colourful Roman expression, and was on his way.
The rest of my walk that evening took me past the municipal records office and the church of San Nicola in Carcere – one of the Lenten stations and historically a locus of particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin under the titles of Our Lady of Pompeii and especially Our Lady of Guadalupe (a replica of the tilma is kept in the church).
Then I turned left and across the street, past the bocca della verità (ie the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which is the now the Melkite church in Rome but was built during the period of Byzantine rule, in what was then the Greek quarter of the city).
The whole area, which contains a fairly well preserved Pagan temple dedicated to Portunus – the Roman god of doors, but also keys and livestock – and sometimes perhaps misidentified as the Temple of Fortuna virilis (manly fortune), is built in and over an area that used to be the forum boarium, in English the municipal cattle market.
All that is crammed into a space maybe five hundred yards across – probably less – and I caught a bus at the base of the Aventine Hill, with one end of the Circus Maximus across the street.