The room had a simple tiled floor. I don’t remember if the ceiling was wooden with open beams or with stucco. There was a chair, a table, a bed, a wardrobe, all made from wood, in simple style, and perhaps a hundred years old, I don’t know. There was a lamp on the ceiling and a Bakelite switch at the door. There where wooden shutters in front of the windows. If you closed them, the room became really dark. The room had no bathroom of its own, you had to go out and down a corridor and up some steps to reach one of the simple bathrooms, with toilet, wash-basin and shower.
We had arrived two days ago in Rome, a group of young people. When we arrived in the “Albergo Paradiso” some were shocked because they had expected a hotel with a much higher standard. The older lady at the counter told us our room number, but then she had to guide us because in this labyrinthine place you could not find your room on your own. She led the way, up the stone steps of an old stairwell, with cast iron and wood stair-rails (if my memory does not fail me) and stone or black and white tile floors in late 19th century stile. Through a passage in the wall we reached another stairwell, of a neighboring house. The floors here where not exactly on the same level, so there where a few steps up or down. This stairwell was different, although similar in its old fashioned stile. I don’t remember if we finally had to enter even a third connected house.
At times when business was better, this albergo had been growing from house to house at some time in the past. But people became richer and started expecting a higher standard and the Albergo Paradiso failed to catch up with the time. Getting into financial difficulties, they had to sell the houses. We heard that there was a plan by the owner of the houses to sell them and as a result, nothing had been invested for more than 20 years. Upstairs and downstairs and upstairs again, we finally reached our rooms. This lady obviously did this several times each day and that was the sports that kept her fit.
Some people from the group complained but after staying here for some time, I started to feel the charm of this place. In its simplicity, its lack of any luxury, its restriction to nothing but bare needs, I spotted a rare quality. We had everything that was essential; a bed, a bath, a roof. I felt happiness in this place in a way that a more luxurious place, like the hotel we had been in in Florence before, could not have provided. If you ingested the atmosphere of this simple, even primitive, place, it would teach you that it was possible to be happy without a lot of things, that you didn’t need all of those things.
My memories of this place might have mixed with pictures of other old houses in the more than 30 years that have passed since. I think I remember chalked white walls, tiled or painted in another color in their lower halves, tiled floors with elaborate borders, stone steps or wooden staircases, windows with cross-like frames that could be opened to the outside and fixed in that position with little hooks.
Some of the windows of the house had a stripe of cobalt glass inserted at the top, a remnant of better times before the house was made part of the Albergo, when it was maybe the place of some well off middle class people. It was strange to look at Rome through the blue glass. It gave the city a timeless look.
I looked down through one of the windows on the Piazza del Paradiso, a small piazza that had given the albergo its name or received it from the albergo, I don’t know which way around. I could see shops, small cars, Vespas, people. Voices of people – shouting, laughing, chatting – came up from the piazza and out of open windows around it. There was the rattling of scooters and the noise of cars, the swooshing of the big city.
Opposite, in front of an open workshop, a man had put up a chest of drawers on two sawhorses. One of the legs of the furniture was broken. I don’t know what stile of furniture that was, I am not an expert in antiques and back then, I knew even less, but it was definitely an old piece, probably from the 19th century, from a time when such furniture where hand made in workshops like the one I saw down there, and people bought them for their lifetime or even inherited them from their parents and grandparents and passed them on to their children. It might have been part of the endowment of a bride who had used it to store hand-stitched tablecloths, bed sheets and other linen goods that also where part of her endowment. Maybe she had died and when the furniture had been moved from her apartment, the leg had been broken.
Without hesitation, the carpenter took a saw and removed the irregular stump. The legs were short, thick and curved. He took a block of wood, measured it and then covered one side with glue. He attached it to the leg and fixed it from behind with a nail. All this had been done with fast and skilled movements. Now he took a wooden hammer and a chisel and started to remove flakes of wood from the block he had just attached. A few glances at the opposite leg where enough for him to know the shape. Like a sculptor who, after looking at somebodies face or body, is able to remove the right bits of stone to carve out an exact replica, this carpenter was able to sculpt the shape of the curved leg just by looking at the other one. Here was an heir of those old sculptors who had created the famous sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, of Renaissance times and up to the Baroque river gods of the fountains at Piazza Navona, a few minutes’ walk from here. Here was the craft from which that art had developed and that in turn had been inspired by that art.
After only a few minutes, the carpenter had finished the shape roughly. With a rasp, he rounded the edges left by the chisel, then finished it with sand paper. With a brush, he then applied some would stain or lacquer, to give it the same dark color of the other side. The solvent in this paint might have been the reason he did this all out on the street in the open instead of inside his workshop, but it might also have been pride of the master who could advertise his work simply by showing his mastership out on the street, between the scooters and people bustling around him.
I can date these memories to May 1980. I can do so, paradoxically, because we did not have TV or Radio there. On our way back to Germany, in the Bus, we heard about the eruption of Mount St. Helens that had happened during the days we had spent in Rome. That volcano had exploded on May 18th 1980. Hearing about it in the bus made us aware of how removed we had been from the world for a couple of days.
I can now look at Piazza Paradiso in Streetview. The cars and Vespas are still there, in modernized versions, but the Albergo Paradiso is gone and I am not sure again which of the houses contained it. The carpenter’s workshop is gone as well. There are now restaurants or trattorias, a modern hotel, places for tourists. I wonder if that carpenter, if he is still alive, can afford the espresso in those places.
When he repaired that chest of drawers, it was still an everyday piece of furniture. But then, incomes grew. The remaining pieces of old furniture have been restored and sold as expensive luxury items for rich people. Repairs are now done by furniture restorers who would not take a piece of bright wood, shape it out on the street and use some wood stain to give it the right color. They would instead take the original hazel or cherry wood and measure the shape of the other leg exactly (although it probably was carved free-handedly and by eye by the original carpenter, just the way I had observed it. While their quality is esteemed by their new owners, the quality of simple life that they once were part of is lost.
The not so rich people, on the other hand, will buy their furniture in large furniture shops at the borders of the city; cheap, industrially produced, disposable stuff made from fiber board that will break after a few years and cannot be repaired.
Between these two sides, the simple traditional cabinet maker lost his market niche. The carpenter from Piazza del Paradiso probably did not find any apprentice who would want to learn what he had to teach, and so this old tradition will die with him. That window I was looking down from was a window into a vanishing world. Younger people who have never experienced the quality of these things will maybe not understand what has been lost there.
The old Rome of which I was able to get a last glimpse probably no longer exists. The tourists are flocking to Piazza Navona. They did so back then and so did I. But I cannot remember much of it now, 34 years later. I am looking at those old memories from Rome now as if through that slab of blue cobalt glass. They have faded. But what has remained vividly in my memory is the light happiness of Albergo Paradiso and the hands of that cabinet maker with his chisel and wooden hammer.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Klopfholz_mit_Beiteln.jpg.)