I had a delightful walk through Rome’s historic centre on Thursday morning, delightful because I had some of the world’s most exquisite sites – Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain – pretty much to myself. No, the weather wasn’t miserable; it was warm and sunny. The coronavirus was keeping the tourists away.
For the first time in my dozen years in Rome, I could hear the water from Piazza Navona’s baroque fountains the moment I entered the square. Normally, the long oval expanse, which traces the shape of the ancient Stadium of Domitian and is now dominated by a Gian Lorenzo Bernini masterpiece, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, is a mass of babbling humanity, stuffed with jugglers, musicians, cheesy artists, several thousand tourists with selfie-sticks and café patrons paying extortionate prices for cappuccino and gelato.
The surreal experience was bliss for me; I had not been to Piazza Navona for a year because I always found the eternal crowds wearisome, an assault on the spot’s artistry and elegance. In the era of Airbnb and discount airlines, there is no such thing anymore as off-season in Caput Mundi.
Repeat at the Spanish Steps, which, too, were pleasingly empty. I treated myself to a caffe macchiato at Caffe Greco, the Roman landmark that opened in 1760 and whose patrons have included Casanova, Goethe and Keats, who died nearby, in an apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps, from another infectious disease – tuberculosis. There were two of us in the entire place and my coffee was served in 30 seconds flat. I asked the barman whether he was enjoying the respite from the jostling crowds. “Not really,” he said. “I’m a bit bored.”
Better bored than broke, for the novel coronavirus, and the resulting COVID-19 disease, is rattling the nerves of Italians and bringing on financial distress. The tourists began to disappear about two weeks ago, about the time 11 towns in the north of Italy, all of them hit hard by the virus, were quarantined. On Wednesday, the government closed all the schools in Italy, sending parents scrambling for babysitters, until March 15, though not a single parent I talked to believes they will reopen by that date. The virus is spreading by the minute and won’t disappear magically on March 14.
At last count, more than 3,800 Italians were ill with the virus, some of them severely so, and 148 had died. A common question among Italians: What if hospital admissions surge and there are not enough ventilators to treat the critical patients?
The workers who depend on tourism for a living are becoming frightfully worried.
Typically, half a dozen horse-drawn carriages wait for tourists at the base of the Spanish Steps, near Pietro Bernini’s lovely Fountain of the Boat (talented family; Pietro was the father of Gian Lorenzo). The coachmen, known as vetturini, are often the sons and grandsons of coachmen, passing their licences through the generations. The work can be lucrative. A 45-minute tour of Rome’s wonders can set you back €150, the equivalent of about $225. Repeat even two or three times a day and the cash builds up.
Coachman Augusto Celli, 45, was slumped in the back seat of his black carriage when I talked to him, his horse Strike standing as still as a statue in the sun. “I am getting only one or two tours a week,” he told me. “The coronavirus is spreading too much alarm among the tourists and we’re suffering. My wife doesn’t work, I have two kids. Now we’re eating a lot of pasta – pasta doesn’t cost much.”
In Piazza Navona, the waiters and waitresses were standing in front of their cafés like carnival barkers, waving menus and urging the few tourists who strolled by to take a seat. Tucci, a restaurant and café in the shadow of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, has 100 small tables outside. Precisely one of them was occupied, by a couple from Edinburgh. The chattier of the two, Alison Essom, who works for an insurance company, said she loved Rome’s crowd-free status. “We’re taking a calculated risk being here,” she said. “But we’re used to travelling where things aren’t perfect. In Asia, we have to get rabies jabs.”
Even though Romans are nervous about the potentially devastating effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, they are adapting and keeping their sense of humour. Gone are handshakes and cheek kisses, on government orders. The “Wuhan handshake” has replaced them, an amusing little stunt that involves tapping elbows or shoes. My Canadian-Roman friend, Jeannie Marshall, said, “The Italians are not kissing! I can’t think of a more ominous sign of the apocalypse.”
Life in Rome and the rest of Italy will get worse before it gets better, but there will be no apocalypse. Romans are famous survivors and have millenniums of practice in the art of emerging from plague, pestilence, war and endless inept governments largely intact. About a decade ago, when the financial crisis pushed Italy into deep recession and near bankruptcy, I asked my language instructor, Simona Minervini, if she was worried.
“Why worry?” she said. “We’ve seen worse.”
“Like when?” I asked in all sincerity. “This is really, really bad.”
“You know, the fourth century was really bad, too. We’re still here,” she said.