"ROME" BY MICHAEL DAVIDSON
The following comes from English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.
Davidson says here that he stayed in Rome for an unspecified time in the summer of 1948 and for a year in 1954, which conforms roughly with the firmer chronology given in his more general autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), where he says he stayed there for a week in the summer of 1948 and then from Christmas Day 1953 until November 1954.
The text is taken from pp. 109-123 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which, in the case of this chapter, differs from the earlier British edition only in the Americanisation of spelling and the odd word.
HOW THOSE delightfully outmoded Roman bathing establishments manage year after year to stand up against the tremendous weight of the Tiber's swift and muddy stream, bending and swirling for a dozen or more kilometres round its meandering banks of splendid masonry, I've never understood. I expect that nowadays most of the piles which support them are stone or concrete; but a lot of their patched-up timbers have to face the relentless power of this headlong river and bits of their upper-works must often get carried away during winter floods; yet summer after summer they awake from a pitiful hibernation and burst into rather squalid blossom with awnings and striped umbrellas and tatty little tables.
There must be some twenty of these stabilimenti balneare along the river between, say, St. Paul-without-the-Walls and the Ponte Milvio—the last city bridge to the north. They are interesting examples, even attractive in a "period" way, of what might be called nineteenth-century balnear architecture: vast wooden conglomerates of tiny dark cabins, as if hundreds of Victorian bathing machines had been welded into one piece. On their decks one feels oneself vaguely aboard ship or on the second-rate pier of some decaying English seaside resort. They might be a cross between the offspring of these two things and that of a college barge at Oxford and a village "longhouse" in Borneo.
Twenty years ago, on the Vatican side of the river and near the Ponte Sant'Angelo, there arose from the yellow stream the Stabilimento Barese (as I shall call it here), looking rather like some ancient pleasure craft on the Mississippi. Six years later, I was disappointed to find, its character had entirely changed; but in 1948 Signor Barese's establishment was, during the summer's heat, the most attractive peg-house in Rome. It was a boys' brothel which fulfilled the most exacting demands of that term: the boys were there, and suitable accommodation was there and Signor Barese and his wife between them composed an obliging and friendly "madam." Food and drink were to be had at very reasonable prices, and there were spacious decks under the sun along which the boys in their little bathing briefs disposed their limbs charmingly.
The place was admirably cheap: the few cents of entrance-fee was within the reach of most Roman boys, and many who couldn't afford it waited on the shore opposite Signor Barese's establishment until somebody paid for them. A cabin for one's clothes cost, I think, a mere 100 lire (say a shilling), and one paid an extra 200 lire every time a visitor entered it. A very modest tariff.
And yet, although nearly all the boys and youths who dived and splashed from its platforms and who languidly displayed their slim forms on the sundecks, were willing, and many of them were anxious, to make a financial profit out of their afternoon's pleasure, nobody who didn't know would have guessed that the Stabilimento Barest was a male brothel; so unobtrusive were these heretical amours that those without eyes to see, like the bourgeois family parties and the bikini girls with attendant exhibitionist swains who came to the place in some numbers, seemed not to notice what was going on. I do, however, remember a certain lower deck—or was it at one end of the construction, well sunk between high bulwarks?—whose introductory flirtation was rather freer than in the more open decks; and where, some people might have thought, preliminary play before retiring to a cabin went a bit far. . . . And I remember Italo, a bronze-eyed boy with the oval face and neat features of the Old Roman—the stock, they say, breeds on in Trastevere, that ancient suburb caught in an elbow of the river south of the Vatican. Italo . . . he would be 35 years old now; married, no doubt, with half-a-dozen children. I hope so: he needed love.
I was away from Rome for six years; and I came back at the beginning of 1954. When the Tiber bathing establishments had put their coats of summer paint on and opened up their gangways in June, I made at once for Signor Barese's stabilimento. But his manner had changed: completely gone were his knowing nod, and his wife's prim amiability as she took the money for a visitor to one's cabin. Indeed, no visitor to one's cabin was allowed; an uninformed customer arriving with a boy companion and trying to hire a cabin for them both would be told curtly that he must take two cabins and that a watch would be kept to make sure that neither entered the other's. Signor Barese had taken to prowling about his decks on the lookout for any sign of lasciviousness between adult and adolescent: he behaved like a carpet-slippered housemaster patrolling the dorm at an English school. The boys still came there, deliciously inviting, to bathe and loll in the sun and—they hoped—be picked up: preferably by well-to-do foreign tourists. It was the "facilities" which had been withdrawn. "I don't allow that kind of conduct on my premises," Signor Barese would proclaim self-righteously; and the boys, if there were no better place to go, led their clients for a "stroll," a passaggiata, through the thickets of scrub and brushwood that spread like a canopy over the river-bank below the mausoleum of Hadrian.
I soon learned that some time during the years I was away there'd been a scandal; somebody had denounced poor Signor Barese for allowing boys of minor years to be led into immorality aboard his stabilimento. One could understand that thereafter—no doubt he was heavily fined, and was lucky not to see his establishment closed down—he was determined not to let it happen again; and by 1954 nobody could have been more diligent than Signor Barese in the preservation of adolescent virtue. To compensate for his loss of revenue to which this sort of propriety condemned him, he had raised the rental of a cabin from 100 to 300 lire.
When Signor Barese wasn't about, the boys, titillated by the sun and by the sight and feel of their own bodies, would amongst themselves indulge in those small comparative and competitive indecencies which are natural to boyhood all over the world. I remember especially Franchino, a leggy lad of fourteen whose interest in his own genitals seemed, whether he were alone or in company, to be unending; and a nice simple friend of his named Maurizio, whose curly auburn head reminded me of a dahlia. It was these two who first led me to the phantasmagoric world of fauns and satyrs that exists among the woodland and undergrowth running wild on certain reaches of Tiber's banks.
At the base of the immense walled embankments—the Tiber ploughs a dyke through the core of Rome thirty or forty feet below the level of the streets—runs on either side a shore as variegated in kind and configuration as the coasts of Calabria: here the walls drop to a mere tow-path; there, beyond a belt of tangled undergrowth spreads a gravelly beach; at another part, as between the Ponte Sant'Angelo and the Ponte Umberto, there's a wide ribbon of "jungle" in which boys can play all manner of games, invisibly to anybody who might be looking over the balustrade far above; or, again, the shore may rise steeply against the wall like the foothills of a mountain and be hidden by a coating of green tree and scrub and bracken and reed growing as thickly as any wild woodland. The whole Roman foreshore of the Tiber provides— or it did fifteen years ago—an enchanted jungle playground and an illusion of being a hundred miles from any city.
It became my playground too. Through the Spring I explored these banks from one end of Rome to the other, crept softly among the tangled bushes; glided under the silent trees; pushed a way through the waist-high scrub and fern. Down here, insulated from the sounds of the city by the immense height of these precipices of stone, there was, on a windless day, a strange, an almost haunted, hush: that sort of warm, odorous, pregnant quiet which, if one lets the fancy go, suggests to one's susceptible spirit the propinquity of Pan and his like; or, perhaps, of those delightful and libidinous and charmingly indecorous attendants upon Dionysus—of "Bacchus and all his crew." Indeed, in that glittering Latin sunshine and especially in the sweltering months of summer, one could quite often catch a glimpse, and more than a glimpse, through the lush foliage, of real live flesh-and-blood satyrs, and juvenile sileni, with sweet urchin leers on their sallow Roman faces; warm, naked figures so like some marbles and bronzes of classic times that it seemed one could almost see the infant goat-horns growing from their skulls.
Swarms of boys swam from these banks, where swimming cost them nothing and where, in the secret alcoves of the screening undergrowth after their swim—who cared what they got up to? . . . There were certain points specially suitable for bathing in this fiercely running river: places where a small stretch of beach made landing easy after a joyous drift down with the stream; one such was by the Ponte Umberto, under the Palace of Justice (a sylvan mound there was, where the boys undressed and hid their clothes: through the leaves, white naked flesh flashed and glinted like sunshine). But my favourite reach lay at the most northerly point of the city, a short way below the Ponte Milvio—a beautiful bridge still standing from classical times and famous as the spot where the Emperor Constantine, after seeing a vision of the Cross, won a great military victory.
At this bridge the city stopped. Above it, the river flowed through rustic fields; downstream, for half-a-kilometre or so, the banks between wall and water's edge were wide and ample and multiform as the Appenines in miniature: a low tree-covered tableland fell sharply to a belt of verdant prairie, from where a hard gravelly beach sloped gently to the water. It was a summer dreamland for the slum-boys of northern Rome: a landscape fraught with adventure and the requisites of pleasure—a field of entertainment of every sort far more attractive than the striped-umbrella-cum-jukebox "lido" provided at Ostia (Rome's seaside resort), and one which didn't cost a soldo. In the water or scampering on the beach, the boys wore trunks or underpants or a twist of rag—something to satisfy patrolling policemen watching from the bridge for breaches of the decency laws. But a bit inland, on the sandy clearings screened from unsympathetic eyes by thick high scrub or trellises of leaf, it was nobody's business what one did: here one could find rows of adolescent boys, naked as they were born, drying themselves in the sun or amusing themselves with the various stages of masturbation, from preface to postscript, which come as naturally after swimming to boys all the world over as chewing the cud does to ruminants after a good spell of grazing. I've often thought, indeed, that since masturbation is an important, and even needful derivative of adolescence, which should be made the best of rather than tabooed or lectured about, it should be initiated in the most natural and healthy circumstances possible: and where can these be better found than after a bathe: when the limbs, mildly tired, are pleasantly relaxing; the flesh is warm and deliciously enlivened by the sun, and the mind keenly aware of the sensations of nudity?
The Tiber is an earthy river, yellow and cloudy like some factory waste. It piles up above the Milvio bridge, one of whose two expansive arches is partially blocked, and then, squeezed between the pillars, races down in a great gush—faster, the stream looks, than a man can run. Bathing here isn't for babies or non-swimmers; even the strongest can only go in upstream and be carried down on to the beach some two hundred yards further down. It's fun, though risky more than a few yards from the water's edge. But there are plenty who risk it: flurries of boys dash down from the scrubby dunes and into the water, squealing and twittering like a cloud of starlings; others are baking on the gravel; and others again, in the sheltered privacies of the greenery above, are secretly engaged upon their private devices. . . .
* * *
I found Rome, through the year I lived there, a city where affection was hard to come by, though there was sexual blandishment round every corner. Human feeling, one fancied, had been soaked up by history and the architectural telling of it: there was none left for the hearts of simple people—one felt that love had been left out of Rome's platinum atmosphere. In none of the brief friendships I hoped I was making there did I find any desire for constancy; none lasted longer than the moment when the last extra hundred lire had been wheedled or blustered forth. Roman protestations of love, like gas-fires worked through a meter, go out unless the slot is constantly re-fed. Rome, I suppose, has always been a city of whores— writers under the Empire like Martial and Strato seem to make that clear; and John Addington Symonds, a perceptive and erudite English student of Greek and Roman eroticism, wrote in the last century: "Instead of love, lust was the deity of the boy-lover on the shores of Tiber." It still is. This long tradition of prostitution, and the honour of a classical prototype, perhaps exonerates the modern tourist (speaking generically) of a charge of corrupting the Roman boy-world; yet it is a truth of modern globetrotting society that where tourists abound (and the abundance everywhere is increasing at such a rate that before long, like the automobile to its owner, they'll become more a bane than a benefit to the countries who receive them) the boys quickly learn that they're the proprietors of a commodity which fetches a high price; and the market, of course, becomes irresistible. The foreign tourist, now that he's an industry and no longer merely a curiosity, has become a kind of chemical which starts corruption wherever he touches the native community that harbors him—the catering, hotel and retail trades, transport and so on; he manages to corrupt the art and architecture of a country by behaving like a football crowd when he visits the places his guidebook tells him he ought to see. And he even helps corrupt the national economy—governments apply huge sums of money, much needed elsewhere, to the "development" of tourism, this flood of foreign vulgarity which willy-nilly is becoming a deluge destroying the fields and vales of culture it engulfs.
To be fair to the tourist, one should say that his corruptive action is generally involuntary: it's the awareness of the money in his pocket that turns the decent citizens he comes amongst into cunning extortionists. But not always: his behaviour often corrupts by offending local taste: he gets drunk among an abstemious populace or affronts them with his unapt attire (would his wife, walking down Main Street at home, wear nothing but bikini and brassiere?). There's a curious belief that the price of a tourist-ticket buys dispensation from the usual restraints of good manners. And in the sensual sphere his action is more deliberate still; here he doesn't merely passively leave temperance behind (the pronoun "he" stands for a considerable number of tourists)—he comes all out to get what pleasures he can't find in his home town, and convinced that his foreign currency will procure them. Of course he's right, generally; and his demand creates a supply.
It's the money that corrupts, not the sex: the money which, combining with sex in a kind of psychochemical way, produces in the growing mind a condition in which sex becomes inseparable from money. Sex by itself is quite innocent. Money by itself, unitised with any of the agents in combination with which it generates power (and sex is one), is merely a useful thing to have. But money acting upon sex can destroy the capacity for happiness; it adulterates and sophisticates the emotions that make sex a principal vehicle of happiness, so that the mind that ought to be a young lover's becomes the equivalent of a shyster-shopkeeper's. Money, of course, plays a part in all human "love," in every sexual transaction however socially edifying: the purest young bride glances at her dowry or at least counts on being kept for life; the young lover feels impelled to take gifts to his beloved girl; a beloved boy looks for presents from his man lover. It's when money becomes more important than the sex, when the purpose of sex becomes money and the notion of the one evokes the image of the other that corruption of the emotions sets in. The guileless mind of the girl or boy becomes the calculating mind of the whore; and a principal source of happiness has been lost for good, before even it's been properly tasted. There can be no harm, surely, in linking a gift with any sexual transaction—corruption begins when the idea of "gift" turns into one of buying-and-selling and becomes a habit of mind.
The tourist rains down like some volatilized insecticide: encouraging, mainly among the semi-prosperous, patches of prosperity and, mainly among the unprosperous, a rush of cupidity to the head. He comes all the year round; but is at his thickest in August when better-off Romans are away: the poor remain, vulnerable to the tourists' toxic potencies.
So much for the tourist: rather pathetic, in spite of his aggressively carefree ebullience—a bundled-round child of the technological age (how our forbears on the Grand Tour would have shuddered at the idea of the "package tour"). He is with us for good: the day may come when nobody will stay at home and everybody will be "abroad." In the meantime, the demerits of "tourism," like those of automobiles-for-all, are rapidly outnumbering its benefits; one can only hope that both will bring about their own demise by, so to speak, swallowing their own tails.
Small wonder if there's a smouldering belief in Italy that tourists as a species are sexual marauders: people who regard Italy as an easy field for their erotic eccentricities. The pursuit of boys got the name in the eighteenth century of the vizio inglese, presumably because Englishmen on the Grand Tour were more numerous than other European nationalities. Nowadays all Englishmen, Americans and Nordics generally are expected to go for the boys until they've shown that they don't want to. The reason for this is simple: boy-lovers from abroad are apt to arrive with two ideas in their heads—that all young Italians are to be had for the paying, and that it doesn't matter what you do because you're "abroad". In 1967 a southern Italian newspaper reported that two young Londoners were finishing their holiday in Poggireale prison in Naples—and waiting to be tried for committing atti innominabili with two adolescent boys in a rowing-boat which they'd hired at Mergellina. The "unnameable acts" were observed from the shore, police were told, and the boat-load was arrested while a "hostile crowd" gathered at the landing-stage. The lesson of this story lies in the touristic turn of mind it displays: the notion that in Naples it was all right to break several laws with two under-age boys in an open boat and on a stretch of water in full view of almost the whole Neapolitan seafront. At home, they know, they'd have been off their heads to behave so blatantly: abroad, and especially in Italy, anything goes. . . .
* * *
But this corruption of boys by fusing in their minds the two notions of money and sensuality, so that thought of "cash" or "cockstand" automatically evoke each other, is an ancient Roman institution, not an importation of the tourist trade. Evidence unlimited of this may be found any evening or winter's afternoon in certain small cheap and shabby cinemas which tend to be tucked away in unobtrusive little back streets. I can remember three, especially, of these special little movie-theatres—specialized, one might call them—where men and boys crowded much more in order to perform the atti innominabili of which Petronius, Martial and Strato wrote than to watch some old tattered film; and where a constant game of musical chairs seemed to be played as men moved from one seat to another—from one boy to the next, like bees exhausting bloom after bloom—or the boys clattered about, seeking yet another likely client to sit beside. Generally the equivalent of three or four shillings changed hands after these cinema-seat skirmishes, according to the age and cunning of the boy. And never a tourist in sight.
They were very much "local" places of entertainment: one saw the same faces hungrily scrutinizing the probabilities of the audience while the lights were still up; and the boys who came there were mainly "neighbourhood" boys. In those days, nearly fifteen years ago, the prices were absurdly low—there was one, I recall, where one paid 40 lire (less than sixpence). On a cold winter's afternoon, then, or a day of unrelenting Roman rain, almost any boy could find enough money to get inside and, warmed by an accumulating concentration of human heat and reposing upon a shifting supply of wooden seats, pass a whole afternoon and evening with a flickering movie to watch when he felt like it and, with luck, a few clients to provide cigarettes and cash. The knowing boy counted upon coming out better off than he went in.
One of the best-known of these places was the "Farnese," a small cinema in the Campo dei Fiori ("Field of Flowers"), a kaleidoscopic and picturesque market square set spaciously in the labyrinth of Old Rome; a street away stands Michaelangelo's prodigious and patrician Farnese Palace—the home nowadays of the French embassy—from which this cheeky little picture-palace impudently took its name. A ticket into the Farnese cost 80 lire which gave you the right to a seat, if you could find one, on the platea, or pit-stalls, or standing-room in the side-aisles which, for ogling perambulation and for feeling and fumbling far outran the old Empire Theatre promenade in Edwardian London.
Off one of the aisles there was a passage into an enormous pee-place as stately as any Farnese salone: here one's unheralded entrance might intrude upon all sorts of atti innominabili. But most of the activity took place in the auditorium—and even more so at another little movie-theatre which I chanced upon one day and often visited during the first three months of 1954.
If this cinema had a name it wasn't displayed, and no neon lights decorated its dingy façade; only the posters outside, advertising strip-cartoon-heroics-type films, revealed that it was a cinema at all. The entrance was dark and poky, and shabby, in a shabby and poky by-street off the Largo Argentina: that grandiose meeting-place of buses and trams (as it then was) on the main thoroughfare between Vatican and Piazza Venezia, and site of an excavation of antique masonry which, like other similar ruins, sheltered one of Rome, numerous herds of homeless cats—those strange feline colonies condoned by the municipality and nurtured by benevolent old women.
To get into this place, it cost at first only 40 lire—I remember being shocked later that winter by a rise to 50 lire. Its doors opened at two in the afternoon and by three o'clock it was packed the early comers had grabbed the best strategical seats or made for likely looking persons to sit next to. Once the lights were down, the place seemed to become the landscape of some bizarre, half-lit dream—half lit by the hesitant luminosities of the screen, and half by the sensually illuminating discoveries of a hundred exploring hands. . . . One's seat chosen, one didn't know what might happen—though almost certainly something would. The boy beside one might casually take out his penis and work it into erection, with an air of its being the most ordinary thing to do in a public cinema; or he might wave it ostentatiously beneath one's nose, as if the thing were a challenge. Or, more restrained, the boy might merely open up his trousers and sit quietly waiting. Or else a boy of angelically demure aspect, his eyes fixed with apparent absorption upon the screen, wouldn't bat an eyelid of surprise or protest when one let fall a gentle inquiring finger on his lap. . . . The seat-back, linked by strengthening battens, would frequently communicate to each other a rhythmic shuddering which would run down the row from one aisle to the other. After half an hour or so, the musical chairs would begin—people getting up and walking about looking for further prey; when the lights were turned up for interval and ice cream, everyone in the forward rows stood up and turned about, in order to see who and what were sitting behind. . . .
I was working most mornings and evenings—at that time I was writing articles for one or two London magazines—and in the winter afternoons there was little to do but go to a film. But since I'm not one to drop into any movie without first being assured it was a first-class one, and there being few of those, I was very often drawn to one of these louche places I'm describing. . . . I went partly for the pleasurable titillation of the unknown, partly of course for the sensual excitement, partly for the thrill of "the hunt"—that thrill experienced by everybody on safari, even the most miniature sort; and partly too in that hope, seldom fulfilled in Rome, which every boy-lover nurses, of finding perfection—or something within range of it. But I went also for the sake of a perverse fascination which the cynicism of this wholesale sexual commerce had for me—everybody, I dare say, relishes being thrilled and shocked in one breath. I felt enthralled by the grotesque horror of these fumbling men (ignoring the fact that I was often one of them), and the venal obscenities of their cunning charmers; and by the wry comedy of the General Post and musical chairs that were constantly going on. I was appalled, and yet engrossed, by the proximity of so many cocks-for-sale; and by the pervasive diffusion of corruption-by-purchase. The air of the place seemed loaded with a vitalised eroticism that smelt of the water-closet and was the epitome of anti-love. Yet it captivated my imagination as, I suppose, the same atmosphere had captured Roman imaginations like Trimalchio's a couple of millennia ago. . . . One thing that should be noted is this: only a small percentage of the boys who make up the daily audiences in these cinemas would have called themselves prostitutes— would have agreed that, to use the London and Berlin expressions, they were "on the game" or uff'n Strich. They were mostly ordinary lower-class boys, at school or at work or looking for work; and, to them, what they did in the cinema was as ordinary a way of picking up a little pocket-money as running errands, and more pleasant. Yet the circumstances of their doing it implanted in their minds the notions that sex was prostitution, that what they had between their legs was a form of cash, like the Sunday suit at the pawnbroker's. . . .
I remember a third theatre which I visited a few times—in a narrow street running through from the via del Tritone to the Trevi Fountain, and thus bang in tourist country. Here entrance was more expensive; but there always seemed to be a boy or two on the lookout for a patron—a boy probably more consciously a "prostitute" than the youngsters in those other cinemas, since a number of avid tourists generally found their way here from the Trevi square, and mingled with the families of the Roman bourgeoisie. The game of musical chairs was played here with much greater discretion, and sexual behaviour was stealthy and governed by the utmost prudence. After all, quite a lot of people came in really wanting to watch the movie.