"Come and look," I said to the Celt as he was adjusting his bow tie. I had opened the window, chill notwithstanding, of the little dressing room earlier in the day for fresh air, whilst waiting for the inevitable rearrangement of my pocket square, the latest of the Celt's attempts to bring me, sartorially speaking, into the 21st-century - wearing one always makes me feel visible - I poked my head out to see what there was. What met my eyes was an enticing view over roofs and terraces towards the church, the Trinità dei Monti, that moors the Spanish Steps to the side of the Pincian hill.
We walked early that morning along the banks of the Tiber past the Ponte Rotto, a single-spanned midstream remnant of Rome's oldest stone bridge, up the steep slope of the Aventine hill towards the Basilica di Santa Sabina and the Giardino degli Aranci from whose belvedere one of the most beautiful panoramas of the city is to be seen.
The dressing room, as I call it, was merely an extension of the hall flanked on one side by closets - a space for suitcases on stands, convenient to the clothes hanging in the closets and large enough for the two of us to get in each other's way. In HGTV-speak, I should call that little space a "dressing area" much as a hall in many a fatuous program is called an "entry area," a living room a "living area" or, as I heard only yesterday, a tiny rectangle described as "formal living area," a rudimentary bathroom called a "bathroom area," a family room as a "family room area," and scraps of concrete and grass below the back door as a "patio area" and "garden area."
I'm not sure what happened with the kinds of programs where potential buyers ostensibly are looking at a formulaic three properties - one of which has, of course, already been bought - but it appears they are reading, in squeaky voice-over, a script from which "room" has been scoured and replaced by "area." I know words go in and out of fashion but what did this good old-fashioned word "room" do? Did it offend or is it that it does not sound grand enough?
So, in our tiny dressing area, the pocket-square demanded patience from both of us. If I had a preference, and seemingly fashion trumps all such whims, it would be for a regular handkerchief starched, pressed and placed square in the pocket and left alone for the rest of the day - if I wore one at all. Not so with the pocket-square which, for all its listless dishabille, seems to need an inordinate amount of attention and, maybe more importantly, is inhospitable toward reading glasses and all the other things men stow in a breast pocket.
Our hotel, steps away from the Piazza del Popolo, with a garden that climbed in terraces over the feet of the Pincio, and a bar I remembered seeing years ago in Architectural Digest, was once, allegedly, the favorite of the Russian aristocracy. There is nowadays little trace of what must have been the magnificence of that time, except perhaps in the architecture, now unrelentingly white. Yet the hotel has all the luxury of contemporary minimalism without the feeling of diminishment that much modern design and decoration can bring to old interiors.
Perhaps it's a peculiarly Italian sensibility, this skill in giving simplicity the air, if not the fact, of well-tailored luxury. Not so, I felt, about one hotel in London - Europe's first grand hotel it is claimed -redecorated with a "signature look" by one of London's finest, where we took tea with an Atlanta friend and her children, that had suffered the same application of contemporary drabs and whites in a not-quite-minimalist obliteration of its grand past that compared, albeit cursorily, to our hotel in Rome, appeared heavy-handed if not downright oppressive. Perhaps such a comparison is wrong, for the difference is not only one of wit - a quality the Italians have in spades when it comes to aesthetics - but in weather. London's often lowering skies and grey light can suck the life out of white, whereas Rome's frequently blue skies and golden light can make even the drabbest white sparkle with vitality.
My favorite white in the whole of Rome was that of the linen sheets at the hotel - neither the first nor the last linen sheets we'd sleep between while in Italy - heavy, thick and beautifully ironed. Cool, soft to the touch, they'd appear each day, a miracle of crisp uncreased cloth draping shy of the floor and as inviting as a long drink of cold, fresh water in the heat of summer.