Every day I’ve woken to the sound of the city as it comes, slowly, filtering into my consciousness, the volume of a half-tuned radio being turned up. Somewhere – in the space between the crumbling masonry and the cracked ground, pressed hard by the weight of the sun – the white noise crystallises into voices, singing and shouting; car horns; dogs barking; motorbikes making halting progress down the street; work songs keeping time for a team breaking a concrete floor with pickaxes; an accordion, a phrase from a trumpet; the idling engines of old, lovingly-maintained cars; power tools. It all rises up in the slow-moving morning air to knit together, and each morning I read a different part of a tapestry, woven in each moment and undone the next.
Our apartment – at the top of a tall, century-old Art Deco building – is reached via a steep staircase lined with tiles. The noise of the street dies away suddenly as the front door shuts, and the stairs are cool and dark after walking in the heat, but in climbing up to the apartment you do not retreat from the city, step by step. Up here, among the patchwork of rooftops, on balconies and terraces, the city reveals itself: a vast auditorium of stalls and stages, open to the empty sky.
Seen now from the balcony, the street is a cross-section, layers of stone and brick and concrete, paint and tilework, cut through to reveal the slow aggregation of history – a trench dug from the gilded dome of the Capitolio to the sea, 500 years of colour and texture that, in its infinite, minute variation, and as the city moves with its perpetual momentum, is sensed rather than seen.
Across the road, an old woman has taken delivery of something in a bucket, lowered to the street on a rope and slowly, haltingly, pulled back up; a few doors down, another woman, a shawl around her shoulders despite the heat of the early evening, leans on the edge of her balcony and watches the slow, meandering procession of the people below. I have been leaning, like her, on the balcony for some time, and I was here earlier, watching as a man began manually cutting lengths of a metal pipe that he had clamped to the top of a trailer. Every time I found myself drawn back to the balcony, leaning over the edge to look down into the street, he was there, tirelessly rotating his tool around the pipe until a section would drop clinking into a bucket at his feet, the sound cutting cleanly through the heavy air.
I watch a man carefully picking his way across the rooftop of an abandoned building to sit, still above everything. He might be smoking, or on the phone – I can’t tell from here – but I can see that he is looking, watching the city move; its rhythms, patterns repeated and predictable and yet always different, the way a text, copied out each day by hand, would never be the same. From there he can see how gestures and exclamations, and the paths are chosen by people through the old streets, the clothes they wear, grow into the chorus of a city, drowning itself out.
And yet somehow, amid all the noise, it is still possible to pick out a sound, the timbre of a voice, a woman chatting in the shade of a portico, old men discussing the weather as they walk down the street, a disagreement between a balding man and a young woman in the middle of the road; footsteps, car doors closing, a yellow tarpaulin hung from the side of a balcony, filling itself with the breeze. George Upton 2019.