“For perfection one must look over the Ponte Sisto on a fine evening at sunset, when the sky is red behind the cypresses on the Janiculum and the faint glimmer of the floodlighting is just beginning to be perceptible in the twilight….” reads the beautiful prose in Georgina Masson’s The Companion Guide to Rome.
I’ve spent a total of about six weeks in Rome, and I’m always ready to go back. As the Italian journalist Silvio Negro says, “Roma, non basta una vita” (Rome, a lifetime is not enough.) I wholeheartedly agree. The complicated tapestry of Rome extends into many dimensions and it is hard to make sense of the today’s city as well as her passage through time. You need to be an art historian, a Biblical scholar, and have the stamina of Hillary Clinton to make the most of your visits to the capital of the ancient Roman Empire. And you need one or more guidebooks.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to study ancient Roman houses in Italy with some other teachers. The name of the seminar was Houses of Mortals and Gods. We spent two weeks in the Bay of Naples area, and two weeks in Rome. The seminar was wonderful, but I liked to sneak off every once in a while just to let everything soak in. The guidebooks that I brought along were the wonderfully illustrated EyeWitness guide, and my old Rick Steves for the basics in case I needed some logistical help. But the treasure that I carried was Georgina Masson’s guidebook that was written 50 years ago.
The Companion Guide to Rome
I searched on Amazon for some in-depth guidebooks on Rome. There was one book for which reviewers consistently gave 5-star ratings. This was Georgina Masson’s guidebook that was first published in 1965. The newest edition that I could find was from 1986. I purchased a used copy with its faded cover off of Amazon for a few dollars. As it turns out, I had very little time to use it during my hectic stay in Rome, but it has a revered place on my bedside table.
The guide stands on its own as literature. If I want to read something beautiful and relaxing before I go to sleep, I will open the book at random and read a few pages; or I will use the index to read about a place that I remember visiting in Rome. Writing of the Piazza Navona:
“Where the mellow ochre-washed houses that ring it round now stand drowsing in the sun, the excited Roman crowds once cheered themselves hoarse over the victory of one of their favorite athletes, though Domitian’s arena never witnessed scenes of carnage like the Colosseum and blood never flowed where Bernini’s fountain now spouts rivulets of gleaming water among rugged rocks and wind-tossed palms….”
The Author Georgina Masson
Her biography is skeletal. Not much is known about her life before she lived in Rome for 30 years. Georgia Masson was her nom de plume– her real name was Marion Johnson. She did not have a traditional university education but became an expert on art, architecture, and in particular gardens and gardening. She wrote biographies and histories and surveys of Italian gardens. She was also an accomplished photographer and developed her own images in a darkroom. By the sheer force of her personality, she attained a position among the Roman cognoscenti, and renovated the stables of Fillipo Doria historic home on the Janiculum to serve as her personal residence.
The last copyright under her name is from 1986, and even by then it was hopelessly outdated. Many venues that she mentioned in the book are closed, and new sites are not listed. The book was still popular however, so the publishers sought out an anglophone who knew Rome as well as Georgina did.
New Edition Edited by John Fort
John Fort was a banking refugee from London who set up a smoked fish operation and shop in Rome in the early 70s. When the business became less profitable, John found himself at loose ends and was “found” by the publishers of The Companion Guide to Rome. He spent a year retracing Georgina’s steps and edited her walks while adding several of his own. I will certainly get his version of the guidebook before my next visit to Rome. Here is how he became the editor of the new edition in his own words.
Here’s What I’d like to Do
I would like to take both editions and use them as templates to write my own guidebook. I would like to see if I can match the mood of the words because I think it will add to my appreciation of the city. I also feel like I could add some special content of my own–I know quite a bit about the aqueducts of Rome! In the meantime, I’ll keep the original edition by my bedside, and marvel at the writing of a master wordsmith as she paints an evocative picture of my favorite city in the world–Rome.
Here is the closing sentence of The Companion Guide to Rome.
Even today most of us would still agree with Master Gregory–the first Englishman to give a full account of Rome, some eight hundred years ago–that “The sight of the whole city is most wonderful, where is such a multitude of towers and so great a number of palaces as no man can count…Nothing can equal Rome, Rome even in ruins”–is indeed Rome still.