The Diary: Simon Sebag Montefiore

I’m in a motor dinghy with a camera crew chasing a speedboat along the Tiber. Tied to the front of the speedboat is a life-sized, ornately dressed and bejewelled madonna. She is bouncing around, barely held by her ropes as an armada of boats follows in her wake.

Initially collected from her church and taken, by truck, to a suburban yacht club, she is dressed, blessed then conveyed by river, past cheering crowds, to be greeted on the quay by a brass band and paraded through the streets. It is an annual ritual that catches Rome’s combination of pagan and Christian culture and one of the themes of a TV series I’ve made about the city.

When I tell one of my friends about the madonna, he is curious:

“Did you get close to her?”

“Yes, very.”

“Did she move around a lot?”

“Well, she bounced around in the speedboat. Held by ropes.”

“Hmm, yes, that image again. Was she in leather?”

“No, brocaded robes.”

“How did she look?”

“Well, pretty waxy.”

“That’s what I’ve heard. What was she like? Like a Virgin?”

“She is the Virgin,” I reply.

“Ohhh,” he says, “I thought Madonna was on tour in Rome.”

Funny how one’s wires get crossed.

Rome is full of secret places that personalise its grandeur. During filming I am shown around the Colonna Palace by its owner Prince Prospero Colonna. The largest privately owned palace in Rome, it has been the family’s home for over 700 years. We walked into the magnificent mirrored hall, the very spot where, in 1849, as France’s president Louis-Napoléon (later Emperor Napoleon III) bombarded Rome to reinstall the Pope, one of his cannonballs landed. Amazingly, the cannonball is still here, embedded in one of its marble steps.

There were many other lovely moments of discovery: filming in the catacombs of San Callisto, we were struggling to find the inscription where bishops of Rome were first described as “popes” but we encountered a rather exuberant Antipodean priest in Australian rugby strip, who was able to unlock some gates deep underground that led to the little-known ancient words.

At the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria we were filming Bernini’s orgasmic statue of the Ecstasy of St Teresa when I noticed a glass case containing what appeared to be the life-sized figure of a berobed Santa Vittoria, whose throat was cut by the Emperor Diocletian’s soldiers. This was a waxwork but, said the priest showing us round, “look more closely”. Sure enough, within the waxwork mouth were real human teeth; the body was encased in the model.

Then there was the joyous privilege of being alone in the Sistine Chapel at midnight, which also happens to be nearby the site of my favourite story of flamboyant Roman depravity: the orgy held by Cesare Borgia at his Vatican apartments and attended by his father Pope Alexander VI, at which (according to the diary of the master of ceremonies) chestnuts were placed on the floor while naked girls on all-fours picked them up with their teeth, their task illuminated by strategically placed candelabra. The guests then competed to pleasure the most courtesans (a word coined at papal court at this time). The most prolific would win a pair of gloves.

Rome is light, pleasure-loving, exuberant; Jerusalem dark, intense, angry. I fly to that other Holy City, where a windmill built in 1860 by an ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore, has been restored by donations from a Dutch organisation, Christians for Israel. The ceremony is attended by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mayor Barkat of Jerusalem and the chief rabbi of Israel.

It is the height of the tensions about whether Israel will attack Iranian nuclear facilities and, as Netanyahu presses the button to set the windmill turning again, an old lady near me whispers with dry Jewish fatalism: “Let’s hope he pressed the right button!” He does. White doves fly; the graceful white arms of the windmill start to turn; and now the windmill makes flour for bread again: a moving moment.

The Petraeus scandal broke when the general’s mistress-biographer became jealous of a pretty socialite and “unpaid social ambassador” for a military base. She sent an email to this rival advising: “You parade around the base ... You need to take it down a notch!”

The word “notch” has since been revitalised and, long after this scandal is forgotten, we will use it as a unit to measure the voraciousness of predatory glamour. A Notchometer is an essential social instrument. Observing a vampishly overdressed hostess at a party the other day, two women near me looked at each other and said simultaneously: “Notch!”

Anna Wintour would be a brilliant US ambassador to London. Britain should learn from the way the US appoints eminent people from outside the foreign service. My favourite American diplomat was not Ben Franklin in Paris but Warder Cresson, first US consul-general to Jerusalem, whose chief qualification was his certainty that the Second Coming was due in 1847. When the president finally dismissed him as a “madman” he simply continued to pretend to be consul for years. Today’s ambassadors tend to be more interested in trade than the apocalypse.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘Rome: A History of the Eternal City’, continues on BBC4 on Wednesday December 12

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