The Catholic Press – 23 July 1925
Even during the Holy Year, it is not the pilgrims who are the most conspicuous figures in the Roman streets. Pilgrims, indeed, look very much like everybody else except when you see them invading the churches in small armies.
In the streets the police are far more noticeable than the pilgrims. This is probably due to their delightful uniforms.
It is charming to see one of the great cities of the world policed by men wearing three-cornered hats, swallow-tailed coats with silver buttons, white, gloves, blue trousers with red braid running down the legs, a sword hanging on the left side, and a revolver bulging in the belt on the right.
Everywhere you go in the middle of the city, you will see two of these picturesque figures standing at a corner or slowly promenading. Even an opposition newspaper speaks of the Carabinieri as “the finest police force in Europe,” and they seem to be universally popular. Their duties are not exactly the same as those of the London police, and there is a different set of civil police to direct the traffic, as well as a body of plain-clothes men to hunt down criminals.
The Fascisti, too, catch the eye in the central streets of Rome, though their grey uniform, their deep black shirts, and their black caps are less picturesque than the uniforms of the Carabinieri. Soldiers, too, I think, are more in evidence in the streets of Rome than in the streets of London.
But perhaps of all the costumes that bring colour into the streets of Rome, the prize must be given to the long scarlet cassocks of the students at the German college for the priesthood. Clerical students—each college with its distinctive dress—are constantly to be seen passing through the traffic in little swarms, but the Germans are the only ones that visitors turn their heads to look after.
The Romans have nick-named them “boiled lobsters,” but they arc much more beautiful than boiled lobsters. A priest told me that the origin of the costume was not due to a simple love for bright colours, however, but that when the German college was first founded—or, at least, in the good old days—the students, coming from a beer-loving country, were much given to frequenting taverns, and that, in order that they might not be able to do so by stealth, those in authority dressed them in brilliant and annunciatory scarlet.
Another thing that strikes the eye in the streets of Rome is the survival of the horse—the supremacy of the horse, indeed, over the machine. Hilly as are the streets of Rome, and hard underfoot with their square stones, nearly everybody who drives at all drives in a fly.
These odd little carriages are very cheap, for the fare begins at fourpence. They are bound in time to disappear, for horses were never meant to pound up the square setts of such hills as the weary Roman animals have to climb. Still, if it were not for the hills, these carriages would be the ideal vehicle from which to see the world on a sunny day.
And, on wet days, when some of the drivers sit under immense bookmakers’ umbrellas, you have, at least, the pleasure of sitting behind a piece of antiquity that will soon be no more.
The chief objection to riding in taxis at Rome is that some of the streets have so pitted a surface that as the taxi bumps over the holes you are flung about in the cab as if you were being rattled in a dice-box.
The taxi-drivers in Rome, as in France, seem to me to be extraordinarily skilful, and, indeed, to have acquired a new sense which enables them to juggle in and out through the most crowded and impatient traffic and to avoid collisions as skilfully as do starlings in their manoeuvres through the air.
They owe their security, no doubt, partly to the fact that they make such a noise—and make it all the time—that they scare everything in their way in flight to the sides of the road. They make Rome resound like n menagerie of wild bulls and lions.
The motor-horn is to them a beloved musical instrument, and they delight in its strains as others delight in the strains of the saxophone. How happy they are when they get into that long tunnel that goes under the Quirinal. They begin hooting joyfully as they enter its mouth, and every taxi in the processions of taxis, that are rushing in both directions through the tunnel does its best by continuous bellowing to turn the tunnel into a cave of a thousand echoes.
Even the youthful foot passengers in the tunnel occasionally join in, and by whistling, screeching whistles like the whistles of railway trains, and yelling ordinary human yells, help to bring pandemonium down—or up—to earth.
Nor do the little yellow-and-red single decked trams that crawl on their roundabout way through the streets fail to play a part in the Roman orchestra. Here, too, the driver has a bell, and he plays it with as much enthusiasm as if it were an Orange drum.
If there is a block in the traffic he does not wait quietly till the block is at an end, but beats his bell at the rate of 60 times a minute as the drivers behind him and the drivers before him are also doing. The motto of every Roman driver, I fancy, is “Clear the way,” and with bells and horns he expresses this in music.
Even during the small hours, the horns of motors and taxis keep up such a monstrous and incessant din that, lying in bed you would think that the entire population of Rome was riding through the streets all night long.
There is, it must be admitted, some excuse for these “clear-the-way” noises. Few great cities have such narrow streets as the central parts of Rome. Roman traffic problems, indeed, would be insoluble if it were not for the fact that the city has a net work of still narrower streets which are not streets at all, but lanes and dark passages, which, in spite of the dim electric light, have the air, as you drive trough them at night, of the byways of a mediaeval town.
There are no footpaths in them, and the pedestrian has at times to squeeze himself tight up against a wall, and to take great care not to expand his chest or his stomach, in order to avoid getting mixed up with the wheels of a passing taxi.