For those of you who like it aural, I made a voice recording of this post. Forgive the vocal stumbles toward the end; I couldn't bear to read the whole thing again.
If walking through Rome doesn’t make you want to divide and conquer, you need to take a look at your testosterone. Those hills undulate around you like a heaving bosom, like parted thighs, like dimpled buttocks. The cypresses stand proud and erect like so many martial pricks. The river runs through it, wet and mossy smelling. I have spent the past two decades in New York, a city that wafts faintly with the funk of sex, but only Rome has made me wish I had a cock.
Italy is, of course, sexy as fuck. I’ve now traveled up and down Liguria and journeyed all over Tuscany’s hills and dales. This next week, I’ll venture into Trentino-Aldo Adige, Friuli and Piedmont. Next month, I’m going to Umbria, Campania and Sicilia. I’ll have seen a goodly portion of this absurd country by the time I return to Gotham in June. But judging solely from the slender share that I’ve seen thus far, I can say that Italy lives up to its sexy reputation. The land is beautiful. The food is beautiful. The wine is beautiful. And the women are badass. But what really makes this country hot as hell is the men, and nowhere are the men as smoldering as they are in Rome.
Thus I genuflect and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. I give praise to the men of Rome.
If we as humans like to project our complex and often conflicting sexual desires onto the body of women, the personification of that woman is the city of Rome. Its terrain, its buildings, its topography, its strange creative anachronisms so complex and mind-bending that they make steam-punk look like child’s play: Rome is a singular city, if one with a dual consciousness. To be succinct: Rome embodies the violated virgin and the wanton woman. It both looks as if it wants it, and it looks away, more terrified than demure. Everywhere—from the ruins that punctuate the landscape with the scattered littered look of children’s toys to the fascist white birthday cake that is the Monumento Vittorio Emanuele II—the city has the aspect of a victim and of a mistress. Only the outskirts smack of the Borghese wife. It is a landscape that you can’t help but objectify, and as much as it makes you feel dirty to do so, it nonetheless makes you feel empowered.
You want to take Rome with vigor, and you want to make it cry for more.
On one of the buildings of the piazza surrounding the Musei Capitolini Roma is a frieze of some mythological figure or other. The god may be Neptune or he may be Zeus, but whoever he is, he looks intently at a large, horn-like implement. It looks like nothing as much as catching a man in deep conversation with his cock. In a similar vein, the Piazza del Popolo holds two basilicas separated by an obelisk. Which, from a distance, looks like nothing as much as two giant testicles and a long, if spindly, phallus.
Cocks abound in Rome. You can’t swing a dead pussy without hitting a dick, or something dick-like, a building reminiscent of dick, or a dickish monument. It might be that this city, home to the Catholic church and thus invested in the extreme regulation of sexual behavior, might be the testament to the veracity of the theory that Michel Foucault laid out in his History of Sexuality: the discourse that works to prohibit sexuality in effect incites sexual activity. Or it may merely be that the only place that could possibly house the Vatican was the most testosterone-driven city on earth. In any case, the defining visual characteristic of Rome is the penis, and, as far as I’m concerned, bully for Rome. God bless it and all its phallic glory.
For it’s really as simple as this: the men of Rome are things of beauty. In other places and at other times, I’ve lamented the fact that men have since the Industrial Revolution forsaken their plumage. Like the Gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I feel that men have given up something important when they relinquished their right to wear scarlet trousers. The choice to dress in clothes as dull as starlings is one that makes eyes glide off men as if they were coated in Teflon. I like clothes that extend an implicit blank check to let my eyes linger. And that is why I cherish the men of Rome.
The second day I wandered Rome, I walked to the Jewish quarter, where I had the questionable pleasure of enjoying the cultural tradition of the fregatura romana, or the Roman rip-off. This is when a restaurant sizes up a customer for the exact usurious limit that he or she will pay without raising too big a fuss, and charging it. My limit, it turned out, was €33, or about $45 in American dollars. It’s not merely a lot for a lunch, it was also a giant gutload for this specific lunch. But I knew when I got the check what the score was, and I had to hand it to the host; he had pegged me correctly. I would pay this bill even knowing full fucking well how much I was being ripped off, and I would do it with not unpleasurable chagrin.
Sitting down in Rome long enough to pick at a plate of food and drink some not bad Kosher Vermentino, I had the chance to confirm what I had suspected for the past couple of days. Roman men were hot. More than hot, they were smoldering. They dressed without fear, and they oozed cool upon cool. They were, as a group, the most solidly stylish bunch of men I’d ever ogled to my loins’ content.
And ambling past the Pantheon down the Via del Corso to Piazza del Popolo and then back up the Via del Babuino, I had the sublime experience of having that suspicion validated again and again. Old men, young men, middle-aged men, men in suits and men in jeans, men on bikes, men pushing strollers, men leading packs of track-suited athletes—they were everywhere and they looked amazing. They strutted with all the smug satisfaction of peacocks; they lolled like well-fed lions; they strode with the iron-thighed cool of silver-backed gorillas. They were fucking men, and they dared you to look.
Tight pants have an insouciant charm. They invoke the gaze. Your eyes are drawn to that golden bulging triangle. It’s a thing, and you want to see it. American men tend to choose pants that do all but erase their masculinity. American men wear pants as if their towering pubic mounds were mere bumps, smooth and burnished as a Ken doll’s. American men, at least the ones who dress coded as straight, tend toward pants that don’t fit. Italian men, however, like pants that show what their poppa gave them.
I like it, in short. I like the gift that my imagination keeps on giving. I like the permission to objectify. I like that I’m not only constrained to women’s décolletage for my sexual imaginings, or to fashioning some full-fledged three-D phallus out of some pale and pallid flap of fabric. I like the invitation, and I’ll take it. I can’t say that my short stay in Rome did the conflagration of my libido any favors. It was one prolonged giant clit-tease, and yet I wouldn’t take the experience back for all the dildos in Dallas. If anything, I want to move to Rome.
It’s hard to say how much the energy of a place is the fabrication of all the mythologies of that imagined space. How much of my phallic vision of Rome is the combined force of every Antonioni movie I’ve ever watched, every Verdi opera I’ve ever listened to, every bottle of Sangiovese I’ve ever drunk, every Forster novel I’ve ever read, every Vespa or Ducati I’ve ever wished were snuggled tight between my thighs? How much of it is the weight of my high school, college and grad school Latin and all of its rapacious syntax? And how much is simply intrinsic to this mythical place, this city built and ravaged and built and ravaged and built and ravaged and built again, a cycle of Greeks and Gauls and Visogoths and Fascists and so on for millennia? How much of it is the ineffable magic of the lemon-lavender light that lingers over Circo Massimo, this light that glows with the aura of Aurelius? How much of it is there, and how much of it nestles quietly in the succulent grey matter between my ears?
It’s hard to say. You can never extract the empirical real from the subjective experience, and that, when you’re talking about an eternal city, is a good thing. It’s a thing of magical hardness and velvety softness and the quicksilver scent of musk and smoldering glances. It’s a thing of kinetic electric and atavistic mysteries and beautiful, beautiful men. Long live the Roman man, there in that eternal city. When they and their mythic potency are lost, then we truly have reason to weep. In the meantime, let me rejoice and linger and remember those men and their cool air and their hot, hot trousers.
If you like these pictures, you might want to check out my photo blog from time to time. All the cool kids tumblr for you.