Show Me the Bust of Marcus Agrippa
Christie B. Cochrell
But after all, Agrippa is not here. The Etruscans are here—their finely granulated gold jewelry, their etched bronze mirrors—those things you’ve seen in the art books, and roomfuls more, laid out in all their mystery and splendor. And in the garden, there are heavy-laden lime trees and a small café where you can sit and rest your blistered feet and imagine that you have turned the clocks back and returned to summer for a little while. All that is here, at the Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, and for only 8000 lire (a single stroke of the delightful triple-zero key on Italian ATMs, which I’ve fallen in love with). But the marble head of Marcus Agrippa, builder of ancient Rome and second-in-command to Augustus Caesar, which we have come so many hellish miles to see, is not here. “We are Etruscans,” the old museum guard with his beetling brows and military bearing says dismissively.
We stagger out, defeated. I feel Oliver’s spirits plummet, though he was distracted momentarily by the masterful working of the gold, examining each piece minutely while I rather rushed through, art books or no. But I’ve spotted the café—dependable solace for any disappointment in Italy. We can sit in the October sunshine in the quiet garden of the Villa Giulia, the 16th-century palace in the Borghese Gardens whose courtyard is painted with frescoes, and not move, for an hour or two.
I feel I’m getting sick, headachy from not sleeping, throat scratchy from the smoke in the train, and it’s a comfort to sit under the lime trees in this lovely place. Really in Rome again. We can slowly regroup, consider our options, scour the guidebook for clues to where Agrippa might be.
The Vatican seems like the best bet. The guard has shrugged his starched shoulders reluctantly when pressed, “The Vatican has busts…” and Oliver’s guidebook confirms that literally tons of statuary left by the Renaissance pope whose palace this was were hauled off to the Vatican Museums after his death. We’re only several hundred years too late, then.
It started in the Alps two years ago, this journey back through the millennia after a beguiling man. We’d both gone as archaeology students to northern Italy to excavate a Roman road, and one day went to measure a high-arching aqueduct. Oliver was fascinated, quite beguiled. He evaluated its structure and functions, read obscure volumes in the dimmest stacks of Stanford’s libraries, paid to have treatises on ancient engineering translated from Italian and Finnish. In one of the books, he found the picture of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, 63 BCE-12 BCE, builder of aqueducts.
“Look at that face,” he said admiringly, smoothing the folds out of the Xeroxed page he carried with him in his shirt pocket. He was taken immediately by it—a face of great character, of gravitas, that complicated Roman virtue. Thoughtful, a little sad. Wary but sympathetic. Going on 2012 years old. Ancient indeed, but like somebody you might see today, notice in a crowd and think now there’s someone I’d like to meet.
The caption in the book said only “Marcus Agrippa”; gave no clue to its location. But someone he had shown it to (fond as a new father) had suggested the Villa Giulia in Rome.
“Why don’t you show me Rome?” Oliver asked me cunningly, knowing I’d been before. And how could I resist? So off we went, bust-hunting.
After revisiting the aqueduct, we took a train to Rome—what Dante called “a never-ending rout of souls in pain.” Jammed full, and sweltering, with air conditioning that didn’t work and windows that wouldn’t open. Ignoring the “non fumare” signs with Xed-out cigarettes, men smoked profusely in the corridors. I tried to read I Claudius, but couldn’t get beyond a page or two. Oliver kept taking out and smoothing the Xeroxed picture of Agrippa, as a soldier in the trenches does a thumb-worn photograph of his sweetheart.
Finally, we were in Rome. We sat in shirtsleeves late at night in a café, but had, in fact, turned the clock back much further than a few weeks of summer. You felt the tremendous swathe of history here, especially now, when another millennium was coming to an end, and there was so much hype you couldn’t help but think in grand terms of beginnings and endings. Y2K disasters, technological, apocalyptic…all being threatened daily. Rome was just the place to be for that.
I couldn’t bear to sit still, needed to reclaim immediately everything I half and wholly remembered from my time here and the collective legacy of my fellow Romantics. We had to see the Colosseum by moonlight!
It was farther than I remembered. But there it was, still, finally, the great bulk of the Colosseum which speaks to us so strangely powerfully from out of the immense reaches of time, huge and shadowed and mysterious, though it is worn and broken too—and half of it, I saw, now behind masses of scaffolding. Eternally thrilling, anyway.
To get to Agrippa on Saturday morning, we walk past the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Baths of Diocletian, the square Oliver dubs the Piazza of the Tiny Little Fiat (Cinquecento), north, along the Roman walls of the city. On the Spanish Steps, a bride is being photographed by several different cameras—one official photographer, calling instructions in sonorous Italian, various indiscriminate tourists, and an inexplicable old Japanese haikuist in a quietly peaked straw hat. The streets are full, as if for a parade. Three people stroll along with orange balloons, paying no attention to the horse-drawn carriages around them. The orange stands out against the lovely glowing pumpkins and persimmons of some of the buildings. Others are, by contrast, dingy and subdued. From there, we walk on to the Villa Giulia. We’re both hobbling a bit, paying with blisters for the impulsive visit to the Colosseum at midnight. So much for Romantic urges.
On the way back, we’re both subdued. I want to linger in the park of the Borghese I remember, under dappling pines and oaks, but much of it is under construction. Harry’s Bar, on the Via Veneto, looks a little sad, too, when we pass it, like a Henry James character living out a faded life, regretting chances not taken. I loved Harry’s—sitting at outdoor tables with white linen cloths in the glamorous neighborhood where the world’s famous hung out, Hemingway and European film stars and a few garden-variety princes, drinking champagne with white peach juice out of tapered crystal flutes. The change is disappointing. We don’t stop, scarcely slowing down.
Sunday noon we’re standing at the corner of Snake and Gypsy, wondering which way to go. We’d planned to take the Metro to the Vatican, first thing, to find out if the bust is there. But when I checked Frommer, I learned that the Vatican Museums are not open on Sundays. Chiuso, le Domeniche.
So, we wander with our poor sore feet. It’s a lovely afternoon, and golden on the Palatine Hill, with autumn sunlight filtered through umbrella pines, and sprawled out all across the hill the ruins of ancient brick walls and arches of villas and imperial palaces. It’s perfectly peaceful on this wooded rise above the crowds of the Forum. We drink water from the stone fountains in our cupped hands, in the pine-thick shade. My throat is sorer today, and the cold water seems to burn it.
I could stay here for hours, idling, but Oliver has seen all he wants to and makes a beeline for the frantic circus down below of fake Roman soldiers and brides draped in their stocking feet across lengths of fallen marble column and hawkers of doughnuts the size of small tires.
“Hang on a minute…” I look around for something irresistible to hold him. I’ve dropped back, and stop to read the sign beside the doorway of a building he’s gone rushing past. The villa that belonged to Augustus, it says. Hang on a minute, indeed! Why wouldn’t the bust of the emperor’s favored general, his son-in-law Agrippa, be here? The villa is a museum now. Excited by the possibility, I call out to Oliver, and he’s persuaded to come back and go inside.
Maybe the bust was here once, who can say. Some drowsy Sunday afternoon millennia ago. It isn’t now. Nothing much is, in the chilly rooms. I love the bits of frescoes on one or two walls of the villa but want to be back outside in the dreamy sunlight. My delaying tactic has backfired. Now, perversely, Oliver wants to linger, scrutinizing every broken bit of marble with the keen intensity of a forensic paleontologist.
Later, we sit in the lovely piazza in front of the Pantheon, first built by our elusive Agrippa. Agrippa himself is buried elsewhere, but the tomb of Raphael is in this perfect monument—the four corners of the Empire represented in its floor, exquisite varieties of granite, porphyry, and marble—and a couple of Italian kings for good measure. Agrippa’s bust is not here either. Outside, though, in the coming evening, the beautiful colors are intensifying, the rich browns and orangey browns of the buildings around us, and café lights coming on. The colors above all are what I’ve loved, all day. Glowing, again. Here too, I see, as in the Piazza di Spagna and other neighborhoods we’ve been through, some of the buildings have been cleaned recently, others not. The grime of the ages is being systematically removed, to greet the coming millennium (and here in Rome the Holy Year) with a fresh face.
We have coffee and then Frascati in the piazza. I hold the cool wine glass against my aching head. Oliver is adding to the list he’s started of the ceaseless Roman spectacle:
Vespa with cellphone
Vespa with briefcase and baseball cap
Vespa with lighted cigar
Vespa with large spaniel
On Monday morning, we take the Metro, with stops named for Roman emperors, to the Vatican Museum. There’s a whole wing of Greek and Roman statuary. Our feet take more punishment. We saunter around each room of busts without bodies and bodies without heads, carefully scrutinizing every face.
Unimaginable richness is here—walls, ceilings, and floors all ornate, beyond reckoning or reason (the way Agrippa’s great-grandson Nero, one of the famous flawed emperors, was said to add ground pearls to his milk). The tall windows of the map room open onto sunlight, gardens, the distant view of villas, roof tile, quintessential Italy. Even from here, though, I can see the scaffolding that I now notice everywhere.
We’ve both got blisters from too much walking. Oliver has taped some French francs he happens to have into his shoes to relieve the pressure in key spots. But we go upstairs and examine Greek statues. Maybe Augustus was mistaken for a Greek? Later, we eat at a sidewalk café whose owner has cajoled us to a table, like a circus tout, standing out on the curb with his bright-colored fan of menus.
On the way back to our Albergo, we pass the Baths of Diocletian, the National Archaeological Museum. Halfway down the block towards the Piazza of the Tiny Little Fiat, I stop. It’s suddenly occurred to me.
“Wait a minute. What about there?”
We go back to the museum and rattle the doors. Not open, of course. Frommer tells us, “One of Europe’s finest collections of Greek and Roman sculpture.”
“First thing tomorrow,” Oliver says excitedly.
What they’re doing in Rome is quite astonishing, I write, soothing my feet in a bidet full of cold water—both the extent and the progress of the cleanup for the coming Millennial Jubilee, organized by the Vatican. They’re apparently cleaning and painting every building in the city, besides restoring monuments and fountains, piazzas and bridges. The yellow-building committee seems to be working faster than the orange- and terra-cotta-building committees, in various neighborhoods. Within the same block, some buildings are clean and some still dirty, more or less at random. Other times, only the trim and statuary are clean. Or just certain letters of signs, like the shiny “E” and “C” of the Gelateria Tre Scalini, with the famous Tartufo, balls of gelato coated with bittersweet chocolate.
However admirable, though, it’s causing what we’ve named the Roman Y2K Phenomenon—practically everything shut down because of the millennium. The Campo di Fiori is having its cobblestones replaced, so has no market. One of the fabulous fountains in the Piazza Navona is drained and covered over. Dozens of arches, temples, domes, and spires are out of commission. The mighty Colosseum has been drawn and quartered. Scaffolding and Chiuso signs are almost as ubiquitous as accordion-players.
Tuesday, already. Our time almost up. Chances fading.
“Why don’t we head over to the archaeology museum?” Oliver cajoles.
But I’ve had my heart set on Ostia Antica, the ancient port… Something other than one more museum with painfully hard floors. Something with the patina of time on it, the lovely play of mid-October light, graceful and telling and remote.
“Can’t we go there this afternoon?” The train to Ostia runs only a few times a day. Reluctantly, he agrees, to my relief.
Ostia Antica is immense, overgrown, like a greener Pompeii. The vast shipping complex at the mouth of the Tiber silted over and excavated. Wildflowers are everywhere, now, and the lovely cross-hatched patterns of brick. Extensive black and white mosaics pave an open court—elaborate constellations of mythological beasts and swimmers, sinuous sea creatures. The mosaic images were the equivalent of signboards advertising shipping companies carrying cargos between Ostia and the far ports of the Empire. Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage.
I’m charmed, but Oliver’s restless again, ready to go as soon as we get there. Agrippa clearly isn’t in Ostia, either. (Though he did build harbors. Where were those?) He turns back, heading for the entrance. I feel compelled to hurry through the beautiful, evocative place, snapping quick out-of-focus pictures.
Entering the National Archaeological Museum, our intentions are at loggerheads. I’m supposing they’ll have a catalog—maybe computerized—of museum holdings throughout the city, and can easily determine where the bust is located. But Oliver will settle only for the bust itself. “Where is this?” he demands, thrusting the Xerox at the ticket-taker and pointing at the one face that has called him out of those nameless hordes. And then, in tragic tones, “Dovè?”
The poor woman has no idea what worlds are resting on her answer, but suggests (just short of the anticipated shrug) we check their bookstore. What good will that do? Books on Agrippa? In Latin, if at all, likely. But then I see a whole wall full of reference guides to museums, to collections of sculpture, to individual artists, sculptors, periods, styles—Roman, Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Roman copies of Greek originals, English and French copies of Roman copies of Greek originals…and on. Statuary isn’t uncommon in Rome.
We start in, row by row. The sales clerk, talking to a friend, ignores us. After many defeats, I take down a two-volume reference guide to the collection of the Capitoline Museum. Unexpectedly, its index lists a head of Agrippa. But there are no pictures, and I can’t decipher the reference, a cryptic “fil 16.” There’s no list of abbreviations in either volume, and I don’t think “fil” means floor (piano) or room (camera) or any word I know.
Meanwhile, coincidentally, Oliver’s found the volumes of illustrations of the same guide. He’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged, looking through them page by page. Late in the second one, he finds what he is sure is his face, though this is a different picture, at a different angle, a little less clear. I squat down next to him. The caption says this bust, not named, is in the Hall of the Philosophers—”filósofo” (aha!)—at the Capitoline Museum, in slot #16.
Back in the appropriate volume of text, I find the written description of the head of Agrippa. Sure enough, just what we’ve been looking for. We’ve established that, as of ten years ago, when the volumes were published, Agrippa was in the collection of the Capitoline Museum.
Elated, we rush outside, pausing on the museum steps to consult Frommer. The Capitoline has, of course, just closed for the day. Tomorrow is our last chance, then—but what could possibly go wrong now? It’s in the bag.
A feeling of anticipation brightens breakfast, our remaining morning. We head immediately afterward to the Capitoline Museum. It seems appropriate that the museum is on the hill where Edward Gibbon claimed he stood and was inspired—seeing all of Rome laid out before him in its ruin and its glory—to write his monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
As we, in turn, rush up the hill, all colors are new-washed and gleaming, even in their pagan glory worthy of the coming Holy Year. And here’s the museum—Agrippa’s lair. We bound up to the door and clasp the handle, before noticing the sign. CHIUSO. Like a sizeable portion of Rome, not declining or falling, the Capitoline Museum is cheerfully closed to be made new for the new millennium. It will reopen in April.
The bust hunt is a bust, thanks to the Roman Y2K Phenomenon—builders of the ancient Empire no less than anyone needing a spot of cleaning and repairs to spiff them up for the great Jubilee.
Oliver is unexpectedly calm about this fatal setback. He says it will be a good excuse to come to Rome again, someday in the next century. The time in Rome has made him philosophical.
“After all, after two thousand years,” he muses, “what’s another year or two?”
About the Author
Once a New Mexico Young Poet of the Year in Santa Fe, Christie Cochrell now lives and writes by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California. Informed by extensive travel over the years, her writing has been venturing off into international journals (Belle Ombre, The Wild Word, Mediterranean Poetry, Foreign Literary Journal), but she’s happy to have it welcomed nearer home as well, in Lowestoft Chronicle, Orca, and the even-nearer Catamaran Literary Reader.