My third visit to Rome, which happened in late November 2015, wasn’t only about karaoke — although I did go singing on multiple nights, thereby finally managing to add Italy to my World Karaoke Tour after a previous failure to accomplish that in 2004. 🙂 Enjoyable pursuits also filled my daytime hours. This post is about the ways in which I occupied my time when I wasn’t descending upon the karaoke bar. As you’ll see, my activities constituted a mix: I experienced new attractions that I hadn’t made it to during my 1993 and 2004 excursions to the Italian capital, while also stopping by to say “Ciao!” to some of my favourite landmarks in the city built on seven hills. There was, however, one commonality among the various sights I took in: if you’ve been reading this blog for any significant length of time, you’re aware that I’m passionate about history. Throughout my stay, I indulged that passion in a city that’s as steeped in history as any other.
The Spanish Steps: at least I was able to look at them
Situated just off the Piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps (Scalanita di Spagna) consist of 135 stairs linking the plaza to the Trinità dei Monti church above. They were installed from 1723 to 1725 and are a renowned meeting place and a mecca for people-watching — somewhat akin in both respects to London’s Trafalgar Square. Here’s what the Spanish Steps looked like in 2004:
Upon my return to Rome 11 years later, I was disappointed to discover that the Spanish Steps were closed for renovation, and weren’t expected to reopen until August 2016. So I was confronted with the rare sight of the famous steps devoid of people (well, with the exception of construction workers):
By January 2016, a thin sliver of the steps had been re-opened so that people could walk up and down that narrow segment. This short video from my friends at Walks of Italy shows what that looked like:
— Walks of Italy (@WalksofItaly) January 27, 2016
Still, as of the date of publication of this blog post, full public accessibility to the Spanish Steps has yet to be restored.
Trevi Fountain: these beloved waterworks never get old
Arguably the most famous fountain in the world, the Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) is a Baroque masterpiece that was built between 1732 and 1762. It’s appeared in many films, most notably the Federico Fellini classic La Dolce Vita (1960); and the romantic comedy Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), for which the title song, performed by Frank Sinatra, won an Oscar for best original song. Although I’d gazed upon the Fontana di Trevi during both of my prior excursions to Rome, I felt compelled to catch a glimpse of it again — especially since its waters cascade within easy walking distance from the hotel in which I was lodging.
And here’s the iconic scene from La Dolce Vita in which actress Anita Ekberg and actor Marcello Mastroianni frolic in the fountain — a scene that helped cement the fountain’s international fame:
The Vatican: secret photography and more
One of my top goals as I planned my latest foray to Rome was to photograph the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) in the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) — a challenge, given that no photography is permitted in the Sistine Chapel and that the chamber is well-patrolled by guards, in large part to prevent museum-goers from using their cameras. In 2004 I tried to capture a photo of the ceiling, but a guard stopped me while I was aiming my point-and-shoot. This time around, things went better; I’m pleased to report that I successfully emerged with photos of what is surely the most well-known ceiling on the planet. Here’s one of them:
The photo above came about as follows: When I strolled into the Sistine Chapel on a late November morning in 2015, the room was extremely crowded with tourists. Immediately I realized that once I had penetrated into the midst of the throng, I would be hidden from the guards’ view as I took my illicit photographs. And I was right. So I proceeded to take all the photos I wanted to, unimpeded. It was all ecstasy and no agony for me. 🙂 I was yelled at by a busybody tour guide who noticed me snapping away. In response, I pointed out to her that I wasn’t even in her tour and that therefore the matter was none of her concern. I added that the magnificent artwork that was hovering above her and me belongs to the people (admittedly, a statement of dubious legal validity). I may also have told her that since I’m Jewish, I didn’t think Pope Francis would excommunicate me. 🙂 Besides, I ended up buying a 2016 “Sistine Chapel” calendar in the museum store (and that calendar is currently hanging on my apartment wall right next to the computer desk where I’m writing this), so as far as I’m concerned, the museum and I are square. Even-Steven, we are. 🙂
The ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel that I surreptitiously photographed with my smartphone were painted by Michelangelo between 1511 and 1512, under commission from Pope Julius II. The most iconic of the frescoes is the universally recognizable panel entitled “The Creation of Adam.” Incidentally, the chapel that this illustrious ceiling surmounts is also the room in which new popes are elected by the College of Cardinals.
Of course, the Sistine Chapel is only one of the many rooms in the Vatican Museums that’s lavishly adorned. Have a look at one hallway that I found especially captivating:
After achieving my mission in the Vatican Museums, I ambled around the corner to catch a glimpse of St. Peter’s Basilica, with its distinctive dome designed by Michelangelo. (The basilica boasts the tallest dome of any building in the world, topped off by a cross that stands over 448 feet above the floor. By the way, Michelangelo doesn’t get nearly as much love for his work on that dome as he does for the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.) I’d already toured the interior of the basilica during prior visits to Rome; this time I was just doing a quick walk-by, as I lacked the time to wait in the lengthy queue to enter the facility.
The Galleria Borghese: a villa where the Renaissance lives on
My next stop was the Galleria Borghese, a 17th century villa that houses an extraordinary collection of Renaissance artwork. It began as the eponymous collection of Cardinal Scipio Borghese. Particularly abundant in its stores are sculptures by the great Lorenzo Bernini and paintings by the legendary Caravaggio, although other Renaissance-era artists like Titian, Correggio and Rubens are also represented. In addition, a number of antique artworks dating back to classical times are displayed on the premises. The villa is just a brisk walk from the Piazza di Espagna, a location that proved especially convenient for me since my hotel was just a few blocks from that piazza.
Bernini: exquisite scultpures with stunning detailing
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is credited with inventing the Baroque style of sculpture. He was also an architect, famous for designing the piazza that leads to St. Peter’s Basilica. Some of his greatest works are housed in the Galleria Borghese. Here are just a few highlights of the Borghese’s Bernini holdings:
Everyone is familiar with Michelangelo’s David statue in Florence. But did you know that it was just one of many David sculptures crafted by various artists during the Renaissance? Here’s an interpretation by Bernini, on display in the Galleria Borghese. This David’s face is much more expressive than the one on Michelangelo’s version (although interestingly, the face is believed to be that of Bernini himself), and it’s more of an action pose – this guy is pulling back the slingshot to shoot at Goliath.
Another breathtaking Bernini sculpture on display in the Galleria Borghese is “Dafne e Apollo,” his depiction of a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For a summary of that story, which involved Daphne being turned into a laurel tree, go here. Given the precision with which Bernini carved the details, including the leaves of the laurel tree, it’s hard to believe he was working with a substance as adamantine as marble:
Greek mythology again comes alive with Bernini’s “The Rape of Proserpina” — created when the artist was just 23 years old. Like “Dafne e Apollo,” “The Rape of Proserpina” represents a tale that can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In brief, as explained here, it involves the abduction of Prosperpine (also known in various traditions as Prosperpina or Persephone) by Hades, the lord of the underworld, and his dragging of her into his infernal realm.
Caravaggio: a killer painter
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) has been dubbed one of the fathers of modern painting. Some of the masterpieces of this seminal Italian artist belong to the collection of the Galleria Borghese. One of the most notable of those works is “David with the Head of Goliath.” Superficially, it dramatizes the encounter that’s the subject of Bernini’s “David” statue shown above. But it also has a backstory. In Caravaggio’s painting, the putative head of Goliath that David is grasping in his hand is actually the artist’s own pate. At the time when Caravaggio created this painting, he faced charges of murder. By making the painting a gruesome kind of self-portrait and sending it to the Cardinal Borghese, Caravaggio hoped that the cardinal (who was the pope’s nephew) would procure a papal pardon on his behalf. (Only the pope had the power to pardon Caravaggio; things were different back then in the realm of criminal justice.) In the event, Pope V did issue the requested pardon, but it arrived too late; Caravaggio had already died of a mysterious fever. Historians dispute whether Caravaggio, the accused murderer, was himself the victim of a homicide, or whether lead poisoning brought on by exposure to paints may have been the cause of his death.
In a city teeming with cultural treasures, the Galleria Borghese displays some of the most superb artistic achievements found anywhere. It’s well worth a visit.
Et tu, H-Bomb? Strolling by the site where Julius Caesar got deep-sixed
What is surely the most famous assassination in history went down on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., when a group of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger fatally stabbed Julius Caesar. That stabbing occurred outside the Temple of Pompey, which at the time was one of four temples in the Largo di Torre Argentina, a sacred square in the Campus Martius Area of Rome. You can still visit the square today; it’s just a few blocks behind the Pantheon. I went there to pay homage to a towering historical figure. Shown here is an image of the square where he was killed, as it appears today. The pine trees that are slightly to the right of center in this photo mark the spot where ol’ J.C. is believed to have met his demise.
For over 400 years, people have read and watched performances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; and I can now say that I’ve been to the scene of the assassination that was at the center of that tragedy. Anyway, in the course of researching the present blog post I learned that there’s also a statue of Julius Caesar in Rome, in front of the remains of the Forum of Caesar (also known as the Forum Iulium, Forum Julium, or Forum Caesaris). That gives me something new to look for the next time I find myself in Rome! For now, here’s a stock photo of that statue:
Creepy bones, and layers of history, in underground Rome
Some of the best things to see in Rome are underneath the surface. I took a tour that showed me some of these subterranean splendours — crypts, as well as a small portion of the 753 kilometres of catacombs that wend their way beneath the city. (Did you even know that Rome had underground passageways that you can explore?) The tour, given by Walks of Italy was called “Crypts, Bones & Catacombs: Tour of Underground Rome”. My favourite aspects of this tour were the Capuchin Crypt, and a series of churches that are literally piled one above another.
Hanging out with dem bones in the Capuchin Crypt
Burrowed beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini near the Piazza Barberini in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt contains the skulls and bones of some 3,700 friars of the Capuchin order, arranged into decorative and creative patterns on the walls and ceilings.
No photography was permitted in this ossuary (or during any other portion of the underground tour), and this time I actually complied with that rule because I didn’t want to get the tour company in trouble. I did purchase some postcards at the Capuchin Crypt’s gift shop and I’ve scanned in a few of them; it’s the next best thing to having my own photos to document what I witnessed. Maybe the next time I’m in town I’ll return to the crypt on my own and sneak a few pix. 🙂
One item in the Capuchin Crypt that made a particular impression on me is a giant clock composed of vertebrae, finger bones and foot bones. It gives new meaning to the idiom “I’ll wait on you hand and foot.” 🙂
The clock intentionally contains an hour hand but no minute hand, and I’ve heard two alternative explanations for that: it symbolizes either that time has no beginning and no end, or that you no longer experience the passage of time when you’re dead. Whichever is the correct intended meaning, the clock dovetails nicely with a placard in one of the most well-known rooms in the crypt, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. That placard bears the following sentiment in five different languages: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” Sadly, the gift shop didn’t have any postcards showing that placard, so I’m unable to share an image of it with you.
A church where going downstairs takes you back in time
One of the highlights of my tour was walking into a 12th century church, the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano (completed sometime during the decade of the 1120s);then going downstairs to remnants of a fourth century church that it was built directly above, and which itself had been converted from its original incarnation as the home of a Roman nobleman that dated back to the first century; then descending still further to the basement of that first century home, which contains remains of a Mithraic church. (Mithraic churches, dedicated to worship of the pagan deity Mithras, were situated either in natural caverns or in reproductions of caves.) But that’s not all! The first century nobleman’s home, had, in turn, been constructed on the foundations of a villa and warehouse that had been built during Rome’s republican era (the period of time that ended in 27 B.C. when Augustus became Rome’s emperor, thereby ushering in the Roman Empire), and which had been destroyed during Rome’s Great Fire of 64 A.D. Yes, that Great Fire is the conflagration during which Nero reputedly fiddled — although the story about Nero’s musical activity while the city was aflame is almost certainly apocryphal. So the Basilica of San Clemente — which today is still a working church in which Mass is conducted and confessions are heard — has architectural underpinnings whose origins can be traced to the first century B.C. or even earlier!
In archaeology, it’s not uncommon in a city of advanced age to find buildings sitting on top of layers composed of the remnants of older edifices. This phenomenon is vividly illustrated by the Basilica of San Clemente and the architectural detritus of over two millennia stacked below it. As I went further below street level, I stepped further back in time.
Rome from above
After exploring the depths below Rome, I climbed above it to gain a different perspective. Above the Vittorio Emanuele II (Victor Emanuel II) Monument is an observation deck that affords commanding views. This high-level platform, a relatively recent addition to the monument, is accessed via a glass elevator.
And yes, the Victor Emmanuel II Monument (named after the first king of a unified Italy since the 6th century, and completed in 1911) is the one that resembles a giant wedding cake. Here’s a photo I took of that hideous monstrosity in 2004:
But although it may not be much to look at in its own right, this monument is a great place to gain sweeping overhead vistas of the city.
A really old stadium
After taking in an aerial view of the Colosseum, I walked over to the stadium that, for so many people, serves as the pre-eminent symbol of Rome. As with St. Peter’s Basilica, I didn’t go inside the Colosseum, having done so in the past. On this occasion I merely admired the exterior of one of the great marvels of engineering and architecture from the ancient world, which is still holding up pretty well over 1,900 years after its construction. (Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum was completed in 80 A.D.) True, part of the structure was shrouded in scaffolding last November, as you can clearly see in the daytime photo below; but what’s astonishing is that the Colosseum has endured so long without any special efforts towards its preservation until modern times.
And the Colosseum looks even classier when lit up at night:
Due to my full-time job and the consequently limited amount of time available to me for travelling, I face a constant tension in allocating my finite vacation days. I’m always torn between destinations that are new to me, and those that I’ve enjoyed and wish to spend more time in. The imperative to see new places usually wins out in my decision process. However, there are some locales that keep drawing me back. Rome is one of those. Along with London and Paris, it’s on the short list of overseas metropolises to which I’ve made at least three visits. And even though my latest venture to Rome was quite recent, I’m always up for more veni-ing and vidi-ing in the ancient city on the Tiber.
But now I must take leave of you; I’m getting ready to head to China this coming Saturday!
Disclosure: Walks of Italy provided me with complimentary admission to the Galleria Borghese, and also graciously allowed me to join the tour of underground Rome free of charge. However, all opinions in this post are my own.