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To Rome with Love: the romance of a city

By Lee Marshall

Woody Allen’s new film is a paean to the beauty and romance of the Eternal City. Lee Marshall, a long-term resident, salutes the director’s choice of location – and adds some insider tips of his own.



Rome is one of the world’s great romantic cities because it is at one and the same time beautiful, and nonchalant about its own beauty. It doesn’t try too hard to sell itself, it doesn’t package itself for romance in the way that Paris sometimes does.

Woody Allen’s new film, To Rome with Love, which was first released in Britain, was criticised by some local reviewers when it opened in Italy earlier this year for being riddled with clichés about the Eternal City and its inhabitants. “All that’s missing,” wrote one, “is a fat lady with a moustache.” But although Allen ticks off all the obvious sights in the course of the film – the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and Villa Borghese, among others – and although his vision of Roman life seems influenced as much by films from Italy’s cinematic golden age as by contemporary reality, the New York director has understood something fundamental about Rome.

At one point, Allen even comments ironically on the way spectacle and romance tend to merge in Rome, when he stages the scene of a meeting between newly-wed Milly and her actor idol Luca Salta in cute little Piazza Mattei – famous for its Fontana delle Tartarughe, or Turtle Fountain. The joke is that Salta is filming here, and Milly wanders onto the set without quite realising that it’s a set (in the same way as she fails to realise that the scuzzy Salta is a long way from the romantic hero he plays).

Rome does this: it blurs the borders between reality and theatre. I once had a similar experience, arriving at the scenic Giardino degli Aranci (otherwise known as Parco Savello) on the Aventine Hill to find it full of wandering medieval friars. It was only when I saw the arc lights, and noticed that some poor third assistant director was tying oranges to the orange trees with wire (it wasn’t the orange season) that I realised I’d strayed into a film.

Another thing that makes Rome perfect for lovers is the lightness with which it wears its two-and-a-half millennia of history. You never feel as if you’re being lectured to, or being kept out by guards and fences. True, it’s not as easy to get into the Roman Forum at night as Allen makes it look in one key scene, when the spark of a thunderstorm ignites the flame of passion between Monica (Ellen Page) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) as they shelter inside a ruined temple.

In fact, it’s positively off limits. But nobody will stop you from playing hide and seek any time of day or night among Hadrian’s granite columns in the portico of the Pantheon, or perching on a Roman marble fragment on the grassy knoll just the other side of Via Celio Vibenna from the Colosseum, watching the full moon rise above the world’s most famous amphitheatre as the last tram glides by.

Sure, it helps that the climate is mild well into the autumn, it helps that the spectacular sunsets for which the Eternal City is famous turn its walls and domes and church towers to lambent gold, and it helps too that Rome has an embarrassment of panoramic points, like the Fontanone (“big fountain”) above Trastevere, from which to contemplate, hand in hand, a cityscape that is pretty from just about every angle. But it’s the city’s refusal to make a big thing out of its cultural riches or to package its romantic corners that, paradoxically, makes it so attractive to lovers, and so primed for love.

Fellini understood this when he set the bonding of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg against the backdrop of the Trevi Fountain. Everyone remembers Ekberg’s nocturnal wade into the cascading waters, but watch the scene again, in full, and you will see that the main point Fellini is making about the fountain is not just that it’s ridiculously romantic, but that it’s ridiculously romantic because its huge scale is so unlikely in this location, and it comes as such a surprise when, turning a corner in a warren of medieval lanes, you stumble upon it.

And then there’s the fact that even today, if you go to the Trevi Fountain as Marcello and Anita did just before dawn and out of season, you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself. To see Rome at its most romantic, it’s worth taking one piece of advice at least from the restless party animals of Fellini’s iconic film: sleep all morning, breakfast at lunchtime and emerge late in the afternoon, just as all the other visitors are starting to think about dinner. As sunset turns the city to fire, Rome changes its dusty daytime garb and becomes the city of lovers.

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