I’ve been sitting here on my marble backside for nearly 200 years. Watching, waiting, a witness to the history of man.
The Piazzo del Popola isn’t the best-known square in the city. It doesn’t draw crowds like the Colosseum or the saints looking down from the Vatican rooftops do. We don’t see people willingly throwing their money into our fountain like they do at Trevi. But it’s our own little corner of the eternal city of Rome. The ‘People’s Square’ has seen its fair share of humanity, and from where I sit solidly at the feet of the god of the seas, I’ve had a ringside view of it all.
The three of us – Neptune, me and the other Triton on top the Fontana del Nettuna – have seen everything. The beginnings and ends of hundreds of affairs. Countless bottles of wine drunk. Mountains of pasta eaten. Tourists snapping selfies as testament that, yes, they were here. They pass through, perhaps stopping for a cup of freshly brewed espresso, before heading for the next ‘must see’ attraction to tick off their lists and get the shot to prove it. It’s not enough to tread the flagstones, smell the coffee and nibble on the biscotti - if it’s not on social media, it doesn’t count, or so it seems. Heads down, thumbs busy. Do they even see what’s happening around them?
But today? Today is different. The Square is throbbing with kids. Children and teenagers who really should be in school – it is Friday, after all. But here they are. In their thousands. Chattering like a flocks of starlings, laughing like hyped-up hyenas, shouting like over-excited penguins. Selfies are shot, hand-made signs are waved, music blares out. Some pedal madly on the bank of bicycles behind us, going nowhere but generating enough young energy to power the sound system set up in front of our fountain.
The air really does smell of teen spirit. And outrage.
The babble lulls as a small, pigtailed girl in lilac jeans and a striped top steps up to the microphone. She’s tiny, insignificant, just a child. But there’s something about her – a certainty, a determination, the arrogance of youth perhaps? – that silences the crowd. They look up at her expectantly.
Her voice is small too, even through the microphone that bounces it off the buildings. She speaks in halting, timid, slightly awkward English.
“I speak on behalf of future generations.”
Cheers, hoots and applause explode into the spring air.
“I was born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big, I could become whatever I wanted to, I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more…”
She is not speaking to the crowd. She is speaking for them, and for countless more not here. She is claiming the voice of those who are told they are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to have a say. She speaks to the powers that be, men in suits, decision-makers and those holding the purse strings. She’s showing them no mercy.
“You lied to us, you gave us false hope, you told us the future was something to look forward to.”
A scrape of stone next to me makes me look up. She’s caught my master’s attention. For the first time since 1823, Neptune has shifted his sculpted gaze. No longer looking regally out across the Square, he is now staring at a little girl from Sweden who looks like she’d rather be hiding at the back of a library than holding a crowd of thousands rapt with her words.
I flick a look across to my fellow Triton (I call him Luigi - you can call me Al). He raises his eyebrows in surprise. We’ve seen just about everything since we’ve been here, but nothing has ever moved Neptune. Until now.
But maybe that’s only right. After all, isn’t the very thing they’re protesting about destroying his realm too? Soon, they’ll be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Some waters are already too toxic for life. Where does that leave a messenger of the sea like me?
‘May you live in interesting times’. Isn’t that how the old curse goes? Well, I’ve seen my share of interesting times. Mussolini’s Camicie Nere marching through in shirts as black as their hearts. Violent retribution when Il Duce was toppled from power and ripped to pieces by an angry mob. Red Brigade bank robberies and kidnappings. Berlusconi’s belligerent buffoonery. The unbounded joy of winning the 2006 World Cup.
But perhaps these times are the most interesting of all. Maybe they’re even the end of the times.
Children behaving like adults, surveying the mess we’ve made, begging for action to stop it getting worse. Politicians acting like spoiled brats, fingers in their ears and singing ‘la la la la’.
“…Around the year 2030, 10 years, 257 days, 13 hours away from now we’ll be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it… …unless in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent…”
Greta is pulling no punches.
“The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced, the easiest because we know what we must do: we must stop the emission of greenhouse gas. The hardest because our current economics are totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create an everlasting economic growth… …we have to stop burning fossil fuels and restore nature and many other things we may not have quite figured out yet… “
There’s a gravelly creak to my right as Neptune shifts his left foot, preparing to move forward.
“… we must start today, we have no more excuses… ...nothing is being done to halt or even slow climate breakdown. Despite all the beautiful words and promises…”
I flex my muscles and get ready to get to my feet for the first time in centuries. This is no time for sitting around.
“In the last six months millions of school children all around the world, not least in Italy, have been school striking for the climate. But nothing has changed, in fact the emissions are still rising…”
As Greta’s words ring around the Square, and around the world, no-one notices that the statues on the fountain behind her have changed. No longer sitting back watching the world go by, but standing up and lending our heft of history in the hope of saving the future.
“…We children are doing this to wake adults up, we children are doing this to get you to act, we children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back...”
Will the adults wake up? Or are the children’s urgent pleas about climate change lost in the bickering about banks and immigrant boats?
Their passion have woken hearts of stone in our little corner of Rome. But what will it take to stir those who can make the difference?