André Aciman Finds Famous Ghosts Walking on Italian Streets

The Coliseum at sunrise. Henryk Sadura / Tetra Images-Corbis

Rome, they say, is about history. Enter any large doorway and it becomes a portal; rub clay off some stucco wall and you’re suddenly led into another era. In Rome, all roads lead to older Romes: Ancient, Augustan, Medieval, Renaissance, Papal, Baroque, Rococo, Modern, even Woody Allen’s Rome. There is no such thing as a short walk to buy groceries in Rome. You may start in Henry James’s Rome, stumble into Michelangelo’s, only to realize you should walk over to Mussolini’s by way of Fellini’s and Lord Byron’s. The matter is no different underground. Because historic detritus is buried underneath, it took Rome decades to build a subway line. History intrudes everywhere.

But Rome is about something far more stirring than history. Rome is about time. And time you can’t touch, smell, see, or hear—you can’t even understand time; you can only drift in and out of it. History is demarcated; time is not. History is about facts, dates, names; time is at best a feeling, an intimation of passage. Time is not about things but about their traces. Time is about the footprint, not the foot; the afterglow, not the light; the resonance, not the sound. Time is how each of us privatizes the past, fantasizes the past. Everyone knows the Roman monuments. Those are not about time. An unmarked tiny old alley that continues to bear traces of its unpaved days says more about time than does the Arch of Constantine.

One day I happened to stumble into one of Rome’s most precious time capsules. There are about 122 of them, and they are scattered just about everywhere, and you can only happen upon them. There can be no planning, no guidebook, no anticipation, and therefore always the luster of revelation. These miracles are the memorial plaques of Rome. Some plaques are flood markers and indicate exactly the level at which the waters of the Tiber River rose in, say, 1598, 1564, or 1937. Then there are the plaques banning the dumping of garbage in public places, with specific fines carved in marble; these date from 1727, 1763, 1766.

But most eloquent are those plaques commemorating the places where famous writers and composers lived. My favorites almost always begin with the words: “In questa casa abitò”—“in this house lived” Henrik Ibsen, or Percy Shelley, or the composer Pietro Mascagni, who sat in a hotel room anxiously waiting to hear whether his opera La Cavalleria Rusticana was going to be a flop or a success. Plaques announce the house where Walter Scott stayed, or George Sand, Gioachino Rossini, Mozart, Wagner. Then come the dead. Here died Michelangelo, or more stirring yet, the tribute to Keats off the Spanish Steps, where the marble plaque reads: “The young English poet John Keats died in this house on the 24th February 1821 aged 25.”

When you stand outside the house where Keats died of tuberculosis, you do not step back two centuries. Instead you stand outside and catch yourself nursing the most absurd what-if thoughts: “Is that John coughing upstairs? If I wait long enough, might I run into him? Should I order chicken soup for him?”

I always know that if I pass by the Grand Hotel de la Minerve, where Stendhal’s plaque stands, I will either try to catch him on his way out at night or, if I’m looking toward the Pantheon, observe Mascagni walking to meet another opera composer, Gaetano Donizetti, living a few steps away, and I suspect the two may head out to Via del Babuino to meet Rossini and later, around midnight, drop in on Mozart. Stendhal would have liked the young Thomas Mann living nearby. And James Joyce enjoyed nothing better than a mind as ribald as his own and could have found one in Giordano Bruno, who wiled away the closing days of the 16th century on death row in Tor di Nona not far from where the young Irishman sat each day writing the best short story ever written in the English language. Perhaps, as in a magical play, they all step down from their respective homes at night and, when no one’s looking, spend their time confabulating among themselves.

These plaques may mean very little, but to a lover of books and of music they are a way of pleading with the city, with the dead, with time itself to keep alive the indelible memory of those who passed through Rome but never truly left. Here he lived, says the plaque, and hereabout he continues to wander, it should add. Each time I discover a plaque, something like a conversation starts: the questions I want to ask, the answers they might give, the three wishes I’d try to wrest from each should they be forthcoming enough, the warnings they may want me to heed, and the message I always forget to convey. The whole transaction is a fantasy, and it stays that way. But we’ve connected.