At night, in Rome, it seems you can hear lions roaring. There is an indistinct murmur, and that is the city breathing, amidst its dark domes and the distant hills, in shadow that glistens here and there; and every so often, the raucous noise of sirens, as if the sea were nearby, and ships were setting sail from the harbour for unknown horizons. And then there is that sound, both lovely and savage, cruel but not devoid of an odd sweetness, the roaring of lions, in the nocturnal desert of houses.
I have never figured out what makes that sound. Perhaps hidden workshops, or car engines as they climb uphill? Or perhaps the sound is born, more than from any actual event, from the depths of memory, from the time when between the Tiber and the forests, on solitary slopes, wild beasts still roamed, and she-wolves still suckled foundlings?
I listened carefully, peering into the dark, over roofs and terraces, into that world teeming with shadows; and the sound pierced me like a childhood memory, terrifying, moving, and obscure, bound up with another time. Even if produced by machinery, it is still an animalistic sound, which seems to well up from hidden viscera or from maws yawning futilely, seeking an impossible word. It is not the metallic sound of trams rounding bends in the night, the prolonged, thrilling screech of the trams of Turin, the doleful but confident howl of those factory-worker nights in the empty cool air. This is a noise full of laziness, like some yawning beast, indeterminate and terrible.
You can hear it everywhere in the city. I listened to it for the first time, so many years ago now, as it came through the bars of a cell in the prison of Regina Coeli, along with the screams of the sick and the mad in the infirmary, and a distant clattering of metal; at the time it seemed like the breathing of that mysterious liberty that must somehow still exist, out there. And I was listening to it just now, a few months after the liberation, from a room high above the Via Gregoriana, a temporary, provisional refuge in those times of change, according to where a providential destiny led us, here and there.
(Carlo Levi, L’orologio, trans. Tony Shugaar)