Till a few days before the lockdown, voices of people who spoke many different languages came inside my living room from the windows and since I live in a narrow street with little traffic, without any effort you could also listen to many conversations of people on the phone who shared with the whole building a good part of their private life, mainly about unlucky sentimental issues! Words unable to reach the windows, shattered themself in the air of Rome in a constant fall of vowels and consonants to turn into background noise, sustained by the more or less regular traffic of the nearby Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
Just the bells that mark the hours of the day could overwhelm this mix of multilingual conversations pieces, cars’ engines on, trolley wheels, cleaning the air at every tolling. In order to communicate during the tours, I had to scream too, straining my vocal cords without any mercy. Who knows how many pieces of my words ended up under the millstone of background noise, helping to turn up the volume of the city!? Many nights on the way home, my throat was burning. I had no voice anymore. Out of empathy or due to mirror neurons influence, Vincenzo put his index finger in front of his nose as to say “Don’t talk!”, making his dream come true at least for a while. And when he stretched out his arm pointing to the couch, I interpreted like: “Rest! Keep the beauty! Leave the rest! I’ll prepare the dinner and I’ll bring you a drink too. After dinner, I’ll wash dishes and clean the kitchen. Don’t worry!”. It worked!
With quarantine instead, there is silence on the roofs of Rome. No voice bounces off the streets and paradoxically, this kind of acoustic indifference between night and day keeps me awake. Few Romans are left in downtown because most of the apartments have been converted into B&Bs or offices. There are no trolley wheels on the road or broken hearts screaming on the phone. You can still distinctly hear the bells, the cries of the seagulls that have not left the city despite the reduced availability of food, the rustling of their wings in flight (nice!), the ambulances that give me no little restlessness (not nice!) and the noise of the tram when it turns at Largo Argentina to go to Trastevere or Piazza Venezia. Yesterday afternoon, from a little cloister nearby, my windows were reached by the sound of a ball bouncing on the walls and it seemed to me a kind of miracle. I imagined a child playing alone but I couldn’t see anybody and no voice managed to get up here.
At noon, however, depending on how the wind blows, just before the bells start ringing, you can be surprised by a completely unexpected and new noise: the cannon shot fired from the Janiculum hill. Without the common daily noises, this dull, faraway sound reaches the windows and boom! It is really breathtaking for me ‘cause the cannon shot is deeply connected with Rome. Anyway, the first time I heard the cannon from the windows, it worked as a Petit Madeleine of Marcel Proust, ‘cause it took me immediately back to the first blood tests of my life. Yes, because on the Janiculum, there is also the Bambin Gesù, the children’s hospital of Rome. After all the check-ups and waiting in front of the door of the doctors, I could have for breakfast whatever I liked, even super caloric junk food! And at the end, my parents and I stayed to “see the cannon shot”.
Those were beautiful mornings! Up there, on the top of the Janiculum hill, admiring the entire city in front of my eyes, where the cannon was fired, there was for me the feeling of something magical, a suspended time in which life was full of possibilities and exceptional events, a life completely separated from the day by day one that was waiting to stick on us again as soon as the descent began. Yes, I paid those mornings with my blood but I mean, who had ever seen a cannon firing?
The use of marking time with cannon blanks was introduced in December 1847 by Pope Pius IX to synchronize all the bells of the city on the hourly count even if, to tell the truth, where I live some bell towers jump the gun and ring just a few seconds before the others. Seconds, however.
Have you an idea how many bell towers there are in Rome? Can you imagine how it could be if they were not synchronized?
Originally, noon was set by the Observatory of the Roman College and indicated by a ball falling along a pole on the roof of the Church of Saint Ignatius. A soldier observed the fall of the ball from the Janiculum with binoculars and gave the signal for the cannon.
The tradition of firing at noon began at Castel Sant’Angelo but in 1904 the cannon was transferred to the Janiculum. During the Second World War, this custom was suspended, probably so as not to upset the population of Rome. In fact, the shot is so powerful and unexpected that a tourist unaware of this tradition and close to the Janiculum at noon would be very frightened to hear the shot!
As history has sense of humor or it was made on purpose to emphasize who is in charge in Rome after 1870 perhaps (the year of the Unification of Italy and the end of the Papal State and the temporal power of the Popes), one of the cannons used to synchronize all the bell towers at midday was one of those used by the army of the Kingdom of Italy to conquer the Rome of the Popes during the breach of Porta Pia…
The custom of the cannon shot was resumed on April 21, 1959, on the occasion of the 2712th birthday of Rome and evidently not even the virus was able to stop it.