Travel: Rome Matthew Bell

Matthew Bell takes the ul­ti­mate in­sider’s tour of the Eter­nal City with a Bri­tish guide and writer who’s lived there for more than 40 years

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - John Fort can be booked for walk­ing tours of Rome via jf@john­fort.com. Flights to Rome start from £80 re­turn with Ryanair, easyjet, Bri­tish Air­ways or Vuel­ing

Pitched on top of the Do­ria Pam­philj palace in Rome are two pavil­ions. One of them is derelict, and in the other lives John Fort, aged 69. He’s one of five Fort sib­lings; they in­clude Matthew, the food writer, and Tom, who writes books about Eng­land and na­ture. John, or Johnny as he is known, has lived in Rome for 40 years, much of it in this ex­tra­or­di­nary gar­ret in the heart of the city.

To reach his apart­ment, you have to barge past the tourists gaw­ping at the Car­avag­gios in the pub­lic gallery, and take a stone stair­case right to the top. The palazzo, which stands on the Via del Corso, the main road that bi­sects Rome, is the big­gest in pri­vate own­er­ship, and is still home to the English-born Jonathan Pam­philj (joint heir with his sis­ter to the palazzo, the big­gest pri­vately owned palace in Rome, in the fam­ily since the 17th cen­tury). The gallery is worth vis­it­ing just to hear Jonathan’s lan­guid voice nar­rate the au­dio guide.

Once upon a time, this 1,000-room build­ing was di­vided into some 300 apart­ments, all crammed with Bri­tish writ­ers and bo­hemi­ans pay­ing pep­per­corn rents. To­day, Johnny and his wife, Emma, are the only ones left, much of the palazzo now let at more sen­si­ble rates to a smarter class of clien­tele.

As you step out on to their ter­race, you un­der­stand why Johnny has never been able to leave the Eter­nal City. Scan­ning the rooftops, you can see count­less churches, the Pala­tine and Capi­tol hills in

the dis­tance and, just across the Pi­azza Venezia, the great wed­ding cake of the Vit­to­rio Emanuele mon­u­ment. It’s as if the whole of Rome’s his­tory is spread out be­fore you, there for you to touch.

Johnny is a self-taught his­to­rian who has be­come Rome’s go-to guide. His pre­ferred mode of trans­port is by foot and, hav­ing spent years pound­ing these streets, he has amassed an im­pres­sive arse­nal of knowl­edge. He shared much of it in The Com­pan­ion Guide to Rome, a book writ­ten in 1965 by Ge­orgina Mas­son, which he up­dated in 2003 and 2009. For that project, he re­traced all Mas­son’s steps and checked all her facts and ob­ser­va­tions, and added lots more.

If you don’t want to see Rome with your head in a book, you can hire the man him­self. Or fail­ing that, he has cre­ated Walks in Rome, an app which you down­load on to your phone – and his voice will talk you through ev­ery step of your walk, which you can take at your own pace. It’s a bril­liant way to get the most out of some­where as lay­ered and com­plex as Rome.

I plump for the real-life op­tion, and we set off at a brac­ing pace.

‘Now, what would you like to see?’ he asks.

‘I was think­ing per­haps the Forum,’ I ven­ture. Mis­take!

‘I’m sorry – there are two things I don’t do any more, and that’s the Forum or the Vat­i­can.’

Right ho! As he ex­plains, to see those sites with Johnny is a bit of a waste of time. The Vat­i­can has its own guides, which make it dif­fi­cult for in­di­vid­u­als to op­er­ate there. You can, how­ever, book a pri­vate view­ing of St Peter’s through Bellini Travel, a be­spoke, high-end agency with whom he works. As for the Forum, he can’t abide the crowds. Much bet­ter, as I dis­cover, to ask Johnny to show you ‘undis­cov­ered Rome’.

Even if you think you know the city, Johnny will show you sites you never knew were there. Our route takes us from Pi­azza Navona (shaped like a sta­dium be­cause it was one in the 1st cen­tury) to the Campo de’ Fiori and over the river to Traste­vere. Along the way, we stop to look in­side court­yards and up stair­cases, all free to en­ter. He points out the church of Sant’ivo alla Sapienza – de­signed by Bor­ro­mini, unique in baroque ar­chi­tec­ture for its con­cave façade and spi­ral-shaped lantern. We pass a palace with doors so enor­mous there’s a smaller door within one of them and an even smaller one within that.

We en­ter a court­yard where there’s a low build­ing with an out­side stair­case: ‘Quite a rare sur­vivor this – you can tell

it’s ear­lier, prob­a­bly 15th cen­tury and much lower class be­cause, in a mod­est house, you wouldn’t use pre­cious covered space for a stair­case. You put it out­side and brave the el­e­ments.’ How did he dis­cover these trea­sures? ‘By spend­ing years pok­ing my nose in wher­ever I thought there might be some­thing in­ter­est­ing.’

Johnny was born in 1949 and came to Rome in his twen­ties, af­ter Ox­ford. ‘I got a de­gree in ori­en­tal lan­guages – Turk­ish, Ara­bic – and I thought I wanted to work in the City,’ he ex­plains. ‘My first job was for a mer­chant bank but I hated it. I stuck it out for three years, then re­signed and came to Europe by car for a sort of pro­longed hol­i­day, to try to make up my mind what I wanted to do.’

He ended up buy­ing a piece of land out­side Rome with a ru­ined olive mill, which he re­stored and turned into a smok­ery. ‘There was no de­cent smoked fish in Italy at that time,’ he says. ‘There was no farmed salmon; only wild, which I would im­port from Van­cou­ver.’

The busi­ness grad­u­ally ex­panded, and he did a good trade sup­ply­ing ho­tels, res­tau­rants and cater­ers. He even opened a shop on the ground floor of the Palazzo Do­ria Pam­philj.

By 2000, he had got bored with the op­er­a­tion and sold up.

It was around then that he had the idea to up­date The Com­pan­ion Guide. It

is a walk­ing guide­book, which starts on the Capi­to­line Hill and takes the reader back­wards in time.

Johnny raised two sons in Rome with his first wife, but found him­self a wid­ower late in life. Emma was di­vorced and liv­ing in Bal­ham when she went on one of his tours. They have been hap­pily mar­ried ever since.

For a rest, he takes us into a me­dieval Bene­dic­tine clois­ter (pic­tured), part of a work­ing hospi­tal, the Nuova Regina Margherita. We sit on a bench, drink­ing cap­puc­ci­nos from the hospi­tal bar amid pa­tients on drips. Where else would a hospi­tal have a bar, or ex­posed tim­bers? We exit via the main en­trance, a huge mod­ern build­ing slapped on to the old, one layer of his­tory piled on to an­other.

On our way back to the Do­ria Pam­philj, we pass Ber­lus­coni’s pri­vate man­sion – fit for a king! – and nip into the church of San Francesco a Ripa to see Bernini’s sculp­ture of the Blessed Lu­dovica Al­ber­toni.

‘This is one place where it’s worth spend­ing some money,’ he says, slot­ting a euro into a box, in­stantly il­lu­mi­nat­ing a wo­man clutch­ing her breast in a state of ec­stasy. ‘Rather erotic, don’t you think?’

Back at the gar­ret, Emma serves de­li­cious penne with pesto, and a crisp Ver­nac­cia. We drink our cof­fee on the ter­race and I try to re­trace the route of our walk over the jum­ble of domes and roofs. I have spent many happy days in Rome, but none as per­fect as this.

‘If you don’t want to see Rome with your head in a book, you can hire Johnny Fort’

The Palazzo Do­ria Pam­philj, crammed with Car­avag­gios, is home to Johnny Fort, co-au­thor of The Com­pan­ion Guide to Rome

13th-cen­tury clois­ters tucked in­side Nuova Regina Margherita Hospi­tal, Traste­vere

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