The day started out as any other, being lost in the twisting streets of Rome. At that point I was living in the thirteenth district called Trastevere, an area considered ancient and population consisting of locals and students, luckily still kept secret from the onslaught of surrounding tourists.
I kept my map in my purse and didn’t ask for directions. I loved proving to myself that I could find my way independently. I knew that if I just kept wandering I would eventually find the Tiber River, and could always find my way home from there. I always thought the river was the only guide I needed.
This is how I stumbled across the fountain. One street had led to another, sharp corners turned me around, and I found myself in Piazza Mattei. A quiet square tucked away, seemingly separate from the usual chaos of Rome.
What first struck me was that there were no benches in the square, which seemed uncharacteristic. Piazzas are defined as public spaces, and in my experience they act as a gathering places and spots of rest and leisure. At night I would go out with friends to different Piazzas. We would sit on the fountain steps and drink cheap Peroni beer while mingling with the locals. These warm crisp nights would always end in gelato dates with charming Italian’s, or on one occasion a Vespa ride up Janiculum hill overlooking the best view of Rome’s skyline. The squares were the initial draw that brought people together. Or maybe drew the American tourists which in turn attracted insatiable Italian men. Either way, the scent of sex hung thick in the air of these piazzas.
I walked through Piazza Mattei and examined the fountain that lay in its center. It consisted of four young boys standing around a column. These youths were sculpted in a frozen moment of sweeping movement, a perpetual state of reaching. They simultaneously urged four turtles to drink from the top marble basin while pushing dolphins down with their feet and grasping their tails, as if to hold them in place. It gave a sense of pushing and pulling, providing tension. The boys faces were set looking straight ahead, locks of their hair caught in an invisible breeze. They looked confident and sure of themselves, like any Italian male I met in the city.
There is a romantic legend of why the Turtle Fountain was built in Piazza Mattei. I heard this by eavesdropping on a tour guide that wandered in beside me. Apparently the fountain was used as a grand gesture to win over the respect of a future father in law. Duke Mattei had lost his fortunes due to a gambling addiction. Because of the loss of his wealth the father of his fiancé tried to cancel their engagement. To impress the father the Duke had the fountain constructed secretly in the quiet of a single night. The next morning he opened the curtain to let the father behold the beautifully erected fountain. He was so impressed that he allowed for the engagement to continue. And to commemorate the occasion they had the window overlooking the fountain covered over with brick so no one else could enjoy the view.
There actually is a mysterious brick laid window in piazza Mattei overlooking the fountain. The legend, however, is thought to be false. It is unlikely that they could have built that structure quietly and in one night. Plus, historians believe it to have been built over the course of ten years.
I wandered slowly out of the square and thought of a museum I had recently visited. In it there was a statue of Apollo and Daphne that reminded me of the same sweeping motion I saw in the Turtle fountain as the boys reached their right arms towards the sky. The Greek myth foretold in the marble statue is one of pursuit. Apollo had bragged to Cupid of his victory over the Python, claiming his skill with a bow to be superior. In retaliation, Cupid shot Apollo with a love arrow and shot the beautiful nymph, Daphne, with an arrow to be repelled by love. Thus began Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph. Daphne, however, begged her father, the river god Peneus, to allow her never to marry. She wanted to remain pure and untouched by any man. But that request came with a cost. Daphne would be forced to change her form and give up her physical body. As Apollo chased Daphne’s supple figure through the woods she called upon her father to help.
The statue captured the crucial moment when Daphne chose to sacrifice her life rather than marry the love smitten Apollo. It eternalizes Apollo’s restless pursuit, shows his hand reached around and grasping Daphne’s waist. However, the instance his fingers contacted her skin she began to transform. Tree bark grew where flesh had been, encasing her torso. Daphne’s mouth lay open in exaltation as her fingertips grew into thin tree branches and leaves. Her hair, hung high in the air by the force of her flee, tangled and melded into the branches growing from her fingers. Roots that ground into the soft soil replaced her toes.
The detail of the statue itself was exquisite. Bernini captured the physical climax of the moment. Apollo’s back foot was raised as he propelled himself towards her, his abdomen tight from strain and caves flexed from forward motion. Daphne’s body was twisted as she tried to swivel out of his grasp, arm raised and hand flexed as she transforms into a Laurel tree.
The statue of Apollo and Daphne left a lingering sensation in my memory. The look of pure lust and need carved into Apollo’s stony face in contrast to Daphne’s determination to escape. I could not understand Daphne’s need to remain pure and untouched, a virgin. But I could understand Apollo’s lust. It was etched on the face of the men I pass on the street. The toothy smiles and burning feeling of their eyes boring into my backside as I walk past them. That said, it is a power that men give women, the ability to be objects of desire. Things to be wooed, people to build fountains for. I made my way back towards the main street, still hoping to find the river.
My need for coffee sidetracked me. As I walked with my back to the Tiber I noticed a gentleman trying to get my attention. Walking step for step with me was a tall Italian, tanned with a boyishly lopsided grin. His eyes were warm pools of captured light that had a mischievous glint about them. In his rush he was trying to communicate with me through a mouth full of food, trying to swallow and talk to me better. It seemed to be a very ‘in the moment’ decision he made to chase me down the street.
I no longer remember exactly what he said to me as we walked. The memory is a blur of colour and movement and lost bearings. But I do remember him asking me at a stoplight, with dripping charm, “So, where are we going?” I had to make a split second decision and rested on the edge of unease of whether to trust this stranger or not. But his pursuit of me piqued my interest enough for me to tell him I was looking for a café. He, of course, said he knew the best Italian café in Rome, and would take me there. A café seemed safe enough to me.
His large hand suddenly grasped mine as he led me deeper into Trastevere. The river was gone. At first I tried to remember markers so I could find my way back, but quickly became overwhelmed by the short twisting streets and sharply narrow alleyways. I realize now that he had been trying to get me in the vicinity of his apartment. His long legs took us so fast that I kept tripping over the tilted cobble stones, face flushing hot red.
At one point he asked me to close my eyes.
With my eyes closed the Italian led me confidently, telling me when to step up or to watch out for broken cobble stones. We walked for an impossibly long time. I could hear people around me and feel their energy as they milled about. Then, without breaking motion he suddenly spun me around and pulled me tight into his arms, leaving me immobile and encased by his warmth. I smelled his masculine musk and couldn’t help myself from melting a bit deeper into his grasp. But I was sure to inwardly berate myself for falling for this obvious ploy of seduction.
He told me to open my eyes. I gasped as I looked up at the building towering above us. We were standing Piazza della Rotanda, in front of the Pantheon. I had not been there before. The structure loomed above us as I took in the pure totality of the structure. The rows upon rows of marble pillars that impossibly managed to hold up the ancient concrete entryway. And the amount of people in the square was overwhelming, it seemed as though we were the only two standing still as I experienced the site for the first time. And in that moment I didn’t care how many other girls he may have done that for, in that same spot, with his arms holding them that same way.
I let him bring me back to his place after coffee. It was an apartment like I had never seen before. Located near the Spanish Steps we approached a comically large green door, like the draw bridge to a castle. A normal sized door was cut into the larger one, and we entered through it. His apartment was small, with tiny steep stairs (more like a ladder) leading up to his bedroom. The bathroom had no door and the toilet faced the bed. I did not pee while I was there.
I left his place later that day, and threaded my way through the streets amongst the people, finally asking someone to point me in the direction of the Tiber. I was a long walk from home, but that was okay. The river moved alongside me in consistent strides, keeping me company. People passed my leisurely stroll as they hurried along. I crossed more statues of stoic males and let them rest, frozen in their foreverness, just in my peripherals as I propelled myself homeward. The man made me promise, as I left, that I would call him. Said he genuinely wanted to see me again before I left. And I felt overwhelmed by the intense look in his eyes, witnessed the aggressive determination of a prize to be won. And that was the point I settled back into reality, whisked suddenly out of our spontaneous sexual encounter, and thought it strange he would ask that of me. I thought the whole point was the chase. He got me, had me, what more would he want of me?
I met him when I was still new to Rome, and during the continuation of my stay there were many more men like him, conquest warriors of American women. And I was okay with that, it was nice to be pursued, to put up my defenses only to have them beaten down, reaching the point where I gave into their desire. The Italian men I met didn’t give up, never walked away from the challenge I presented. And I gave myself to them willingly while the virtuous Daphne sat appeased in the museum, her Laurel tree form just out of reach of the devoted Apollo.
*Originally published in Cargo Literary