We continued our walk through ancient Rome, an era that lasted 1,000 years, from 500 B.C to 500 A.D. Half of that time Rome was focused on expanding her government and the other half building a dominating empire. In 500 A.D. Rome fell, and fell hard, due to corruption, invaders, and disease, dragging all of Europe into 1,000 years of darkness. The city declined to a mere 20,000, leaving a crooked pope, crumbling ruins, and malaria-carrying mosquitos. In the 1300’s even the popes said ‘enough’ and headed for France.
Beginning in the early 1500’s the popes decided it was time to rebuild Rome in order to attract new settlers. They commissioned the best artists to decorate the churches and palaces, carve statues and build fountains. We were fortunate to have the time to visit several of these artistic wonders.
On top of Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Forum, sits the oldest public museum in the world, with roots dating back to 1471. The Capitoline Museums, consisting of two palaces, house some of Rome’s most famous statues and archeological finds.
The Etruscan Lupa capitolina is one of the most famous statues here. It is the original bronze She-Wolf, a wild animal coupled with two hungry babies, Romulus and twin brother Remus. According to Roman mythology, these two babes, children of Rhea Silvia and Mars, were credited with being the founders of Rome. They were orphaned as infants and raised by a she-wolf on top of Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, overlooking the Forum. It is a powerful symbol of perseverance for the city of Rome.
We decided to take one of Rick Steves’ self-guided tours, the Heart of Rome Walk, which carried us across the city to several popular sights. Our first stop was Piazza Navona, a square which has been a center of Roman life since ancient times.
The main attraction at this piazza is the Four Rivers Fountain. The pope, looking to clean up some of the seedier Rome neighborhoods, commissioned Bernini to build this fountain, with an obelisk rising from the center. It represents gods of the four great rivers in four continents – the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Río de la Plata, separating Uruguay and Argentina.
Our next stop was Campo de’ Fiori, where for centuries public executions were held.
This spot is where philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for blasphemy in 1600. Today it is a much more pleasant square and a major focus of Roman life. Mornings it is transformed into a huge open-air market, while the evenings bring out a rowdier crowd, pub-style.
We continued our tour, stopping at the Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, and one of the most famous in the world.
Built in 1762, it celebrates the reopening of several of the city’s great aqueducts. Neptune, god of the sea, is the central figure, with his trumpeter, Triton, blowing his conch shell, announcing their arrival. It is impossible to photograph day or night without swarms of tourists surrounding it.
Our Heart of Rome Walk took us to the Spanish Steps, in Piazza di Spagna. Named for the Spanish embassy to the Vatican, it’s been the hangout of Keats, Wagner, Goethe, and others.
English poet John Keats succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 25 in the orange house to the right of the steps. It is now a museum dedicated to his memory. At the base of the steps is Bernini’s Sinking Boat Fountain, powered by an aqueduct. It is a popular hangout at night.
Rome’s best preserved monument, the Pantheon, is also one of her greatest engineering feats. Engineers still marvel at how ancient Romans built such a mathematically precise design without the use of computers or electricity. Although I’m not an engineer I found the statistics to be quite fascinating. The dome is as high as it is wide – 142 feet from side to side and from floor to the top of the dome. The base of the dome is 23 feet thick, made of concrete mixed with travertine while the top is less than 5 feet thick, made of volcanic rock mixed with concrete.
The coffered ceiling offers reduced weight without compromising strength. At the top of the oculus sits the Pantheon’s only light source, 30 feet across. When the rains come, the 1,800-year old floor has holes in it and is angled towards the edges to drain off the water. This floor still has 80% of the original stones. It is inconceivable to me that this engineering design was completed in 27 B.C. Due to fires the Pantheon we see today was completely rebuilt in A.D 120.
This Rome temple, dedicated to the gods, may look like an ordinary building from the outside, but perhaps is one of the most important in art history. It’s dome has inspired the Florence cathedral dome, Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. It is the only of Rome’s ancient buildings that has seen continued use. The building, sunken below street level, shows how Rome has been lifted up over 20 centuries of rubble.
Perhaps the most unusual stop we made in Rome was to the Capuchin Crypt, a catacomb beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. It contains bones of 3,700 Capuchin friars, artistically displayed, not meant to be ghoulish but rather a silent reminder of our own mortality. Click here for crypt photos as they are prohibited during your visit.
Next Up: Ostia Antica