Lead Review

  • Book: The Rome Plague Diaries
  • Location: Rome
  • Author: Matthew Kneale

Review Author: Tina Hartas



This is the author’s diary of being locked down during the Coronavirus epidemic. It starts on the 10th March 2020 when Italy locked down and continues into early May when restrictions were eased.

His is in many ways a universal experience of Lockdown, there are so many aspects that felt so familiar but it is the overlay of reporting from Rome that makes this different and engaging. He ponders his days as the horizons narrow from being able to be out and about in his postcode area of 00135 Roma, down to a radius of 300 M from his home base. It became mandatory to self certify why you might be out and about.

Each day was different and practically he came to embrace and appreciate the little things in the vicinity, aspects that were taken for granted. The insect life, the graffiti, and ultimately the sadness at life lost. How familiar does that feel!

He lives in Trastevere and regularly frequented the market in neighbouring Testaccio. The family pined for pizza from Da Ivo (there are other great eating recommendations for his area highlighted in the book) and mourned being able to share time with friends. Once he has exhausted the losses and sadness (and acknowledging them in my own experience is quite exhausting), he goes on to ruminate about the city for which he has developed such a palpable passion. He looks a little at the history and makes it feel very accessible: who knew, for example, that Rome was a sinkhole for malaria, right into the 19th Century and that the Jewish populace in the ghetto didn’t suffer because they suffered from overcrowding with no room for pretty flowers. However, the monied people who could amble through the well-watered gardens of the Villa Borghese seemed to be very prone to malaria. He ponders the plagues that have beset the city over the centuries and how the Sack of Rome in 1527 (which I remember from history, even the date felt familiar), carried out by Charles V, took place during a plague infestation.

The concierge for their apartment complex, Cinzia, furnishes him with some wonderful, authentic recipes, which he includes in the text.

There is further detail about driving in the city, his thoughts on Brexit and the tardy lockdown response in his home country (and his consternation at Theresa May’s unfortunate quip about people of varied heritage being “citizens of nowhere“). He discusses the merits or not of the 64 bus (which also feature prominently in She Seduced Me: A love affair with Rome by Mark Tedesco), which seems to be generally cited as the consummate place for pickpocket activity in the city (ok, the Colosseum isn’t much better). He ponders Fascism and Mussolini and notes that of course the homeless and beggars have now once again disappeared and recalls that Mussolini rigorously cleansed the streets of Rome, an uncomfortable parallel.

This is a well written and informative book, without being didactic, that will enable the reader to explore Rome, with the light, personal touch of someone who knows the city very well! The irony now, of course, is that reading this book in 2021 we know that restrictions were eased but the authorities clamped down once again to try and control the spread of the virus.

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