The angels aren’t used to being ignored. Their wings demand attention while their coy expressions rebuff it. Maybe they’re weary of centuries of admiration. Or maybe they’re just resigned to their own splendour: despite brandishing instruments of Christ’s passion, it’s the muscular grace of their bodies and curved precision of their robes that people contemplate first.

But on that humid night in September, no one was looking at the sculptures. The crowds pulsing through the streets and crammed onto balconies focussed only on the river. Down there, a small fleet ferried braziers into place. Torches flared occasionally, illuminating the choir installed on the right bank. On the left bank, barefoot dancers flung their bodies around as tribal drumming made a sonic heartbeat. We on the bridge jostled for space. No doubt these were the same people we had lined up beside earlier at the Trevi fountain, the same people traipsing behind us through the Vatican museums. The festival of WaterFire was the last stop on the tourist trail.

We had followed the crowds from Trastevere, where our small group of Australians had gone to walk off gelati. It was late, but the churches were full. While the locals prayed and lit votive candles we stared, with eyes as blank as the angels keeping vigil on the bridge, at yet another sumptuous building. Some cities have yet to mature but Rome was like an overripe fig. Too much pleasure can become painful, and the city provoked a feeling that existed on that knife edge between elation and exhaustion. Rome, our expat guide was fond of saying, is an African city, and she wasn’t referring to the recent immigrants lining the pavement with their wares. It was chaotic and demanding; we still dithered when crossing the road, unable to emulate with any conviction our guide’s example. She stepped out fearlessly onto the road, halting lanes of traffic simply by lifting one magisterial arm. Self-assurance, and perhaps a touch of arrogance, was necessary if you were to survive the Eternal City.

Below us the festival neared its climax. As boatmen began to light the braziers snaking along the river, people put their water bottles were put away and the rustling of city maps momentarily ceased. The crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed and reached for their camera phones, but not everyone was convinced: ‘It’s not a straight line,’ said one American woman, peering down at the blackish water, ‘it’s not a random line,’ she continued, ‘it’s not anything!’ Dancing in the holy lap of the Tiber like haphazard fireflies, the braziers formed a beautiful but irregular line. Soon rowboats once again took to the water, this time to dismantle the braziers, and gradually the crowd dissipated. Like us, WaterFire wasn’t native to Rome. Imported from some brisk, efficient New World city, its presence here seemed contrived, unnecessary. After all, who needs festivals when you have the Pieta? Michelangelo believed sculptors merely revealed the figures trapped inside marble slabs, and looking at the angels – every sinew visible, every drape finely contoured – it was hard to believe they had been painstakingly carved. Guarding the bridge like benevolent dictators, their gentle curved faces aren’t coy, or resigned, but resting somewhere between pity and compassion.