Rome ~ The Final Chapter

By now those who have read my earlier posts on Rome know that I was smitten.  The history, ancient ruins and towering monuments called to me at every turn.  I could have easily spent a month here, diving deeper into all she offered.  Our week slipped by quickly and we left the city on a rainy pre-dawn with the news that a couple of earthquakes had hit nearby Umbria and Marched, areas that had been hit two months earlier, resulting in the loss of 300 lives.  This was a solid reminder that, although we spent our week walking streets littered with evocative ruins that have stood the test of time, Mother Nature can wreak havoc in the blink of an eye.

As we walk away from our time in Italy, I leave you with a few more sights to consider should you find yourself in romantic Roma.

Rome’s first Christian church, built in A.D. 318 by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano.  It was the most important church during medieval times and today is the home church of the Bishop of Rome, the pope.  This church was the model for all those to follow, even St. Peter’s Basilica.  Her tall green bronze doors once greeted those entering Rome’s Senate House in the Forum.

Directly across the street from the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano are the Holy Stairs, sacred steps taken from the home of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, believed to be those that Jesus climbed on the day he was sentenced to death.  Today it is the place where those seeking atonement climb on their knees, reciting prayers.  These steps lead to the “Holy of Holies”, the private chapel of the popes in the Middle Ages, still used today.  For those who want to save themselves from aching knees, a separate set of stairs can be walked.

Down the street from the Colosseum sits a large multiplex of ruins, thought to be the world’s oldest shopping mall.  Trajan’s Market, built in A.D. 100 was part mall, warehouse, and a series of government offices.

The first monument we saw as our driver carried us across the city to our apartment was the Victor Emmanuel Monument, hard to miss as it rises skyward 230 feet and spans 443 feet.  If its size didn’t capture your attention, its stark-white marble in a sea of surrounding earth-tone ruins certainly will. This massive shrine celebrates Italy’s unification and honor’s her first king.  The 43-foot statue of Victor Emmanuel sitting proudly on his horse is one of the largest equestrian statues in the world.  At the base is the museum of Italian Unification and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the eternal flame.  A lift was added in 2007, allowing all who visit to breathe in sweeping views of Rome.  For all of its grandeur, many locals consider it to be ostentatious.

We awoke to rain our last day in Rome, and although the Borghese Gallery is best seen on a sunny day, as this villa turned museum is set amid lovely gardens, we had no choice but to brave the weather.  The opulence-loving Borghese family commissioned all the artwork, which still stands in the rooms for which they were originally intended.  Beautiful frescoes and marble add to the grandeur.

The cardinal who commissioned the artwork was controversial as he wasn’t religious.  But nepotism was alive and thriving in the 17th-century so being a nephew of the pope put him on the fast track to being a cardinal.  It’s hard to believe that this family of religious figures introduced so much artwork laced with erotic themes but they felt that all forms of human expression celebrated God.

Our final week in Rome was spent in a beautifully appointed apartment in the bohemian neighborhood of Trastevere, a delightful place to wander.  Our favorite restaurant became Cajo & Gajo, which we frequented three times, for its food, atmosphere, the yummy homemade biscuits and limoncello served after a meal, and the lovely young waitstaff.

Our time in Italy may have ended but so many wonderful memories remain.

Addio Italia!

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Smallest Country in the World ~ Vatican ~ Rome Series, Part 4

Measuring just 0.2 square miles (100 acres), the Vatican is the world’s smallest country according to land mass. Completely walled, it is tucked neatly within the city of Rome, with nary a single street address.  Vatican City may be the tiniest of nations but don’t mistake that for lack of power.

Here are some interesting tidbits about this mini empire:

  • It is the center of the Catholic Church, the religious capital for 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
  • Its income is derived from the generosity of world-wide Catholics, along with tourism revenue and postage stamps, which are quite famous.
  • Two of the most important sights housed within its walls are St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, and the Vatican Museums, which house some of the most symbolic art works of the Renaissance.
  • It has its own armed guards (Swiss Guards), train station, post office, radio station, and helipad.
  • The Pope is both religious and secular leader of Vatican City.

A visit to Rome is incomplete without a trip to the Vatican, especially if you came into this world as a Catholic, as I did.  We chose to pay for the “Pristine Sistine Tour” through Walks of Italy, allowing us to get into the Sistine Chapel one hour before the crowds (highly recommended).  This tour is a 3.5 hour guided walk through the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica.  Our tour guide, Francesca, a gifted archeologist, generously gave us five full hours since our small group of 12 was so fascinated with the sights and history lesson being given.

Sistine Chapel

As magnificent as the Sistine Chapel is on the inside, the exterior leans to the nondescript, a small brownish building with a pitched roof topped by an antenna.  A tiny chimney along the roofline is where the white puffs of smoke announce the election of a new pope.

The tiny, nondescript Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica

You are required to practice silence when you enter the Sistine Chapel.  I don’t believe I could have uttered a word had I wanted to.  The moment I gazed upward and looked upon Michelangelo’s ceiling, I fell into a reverent state of awe.  I was looking at the crown jewel of the Renaissance, with only a couple of dozen others in the entire chapel!

When Pope Julius II first asked Michelangelo to paint the chapel’s ceiling, he respectfully declined, seeing himself as a sculptor and not a painter.  With much cajoling and a few threats, Michelangelo finally agreed, but only on his terms.  To say that his vision was much grander than that of the pope is an understatement.

Michelangelo laid out the history of the world before the birth of Jesus and spent the next four years (1508-1512) working on scaffolding six stories high, covering the chapel ceiling with frescoes of biblical scenes.  Imagine how physically demanding this must have been, how paint constantly dripping in your eyes could sap your creative juices, how the demands of a pushy pope could drain you.  But the public was blown away when it was revealed.

The centerpiece of Michelangelo’s work, the reaching of God’s and Adam’s hands. Note that Adam’s reach is passive, God’s is strong – the moment of creation.

The subject was universal, although deeply personal for Michelangelo.  It is evocative, at times shocking, and very emotional, perhaps the greatest work of art ever.

Michelangelo returned 23 years later to paint The Last Judgement on the altar wall, a time during which  religious wars had sprung up across Europe and the Catholic Church had stifled free thought.  Michelangelo’s views on the inherent goodness of mankind had changed and his work reflected those thoughts.

In The Last Judgement Christ is not depicted as loving but rather as judgmental, come back to see “who’s been naughty and nice”.  This time when his work was revealed to the public, it caused a shock wave, especially with Church authorities.  Michelangelo rebelled by painting his worst critic into the scene, shown in hell.  He also painted his own face into the painting, giving voice to the belief that he too questioned how he would be judged on his final day.

St Bartholomew sits at Christ’s left foot, holding his flayed skin with the face of Michelangelo, a self-portrait of a self-questioning man.

Note:  Both photos of the Sistine Chapel were obtained online – Wikipedia and pbs.org respectively.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Named to memorialize the first pope and Jesus’ closest disciple, St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world and the main altar is built on the site where St. Peter’s remains are buried.  The original church stood for 1,200 years and the one we see today was begun in 1506, taking 120 years to complete and another 200 to decorate.  Everything here is larger than life, including the statues, and 60,000 Catholic devotees can gather here at one time.

Michelangelo had a hand in designing the magnificent dome, which rises 448 feet from the floor to the top.  Terry and I decided a climb to the top was a must, all 554 steps.  Had I known beforehand that the staircase winds between the outer and inner shells of the dome I may have reconsidered.  It was a bit disconcerting to have the walls angling inward as I climbed the narrow, winding stone steps.  But the views at the top…wow!  This is the only way to catch a glimpse of the beautifully manicured gardens without a guided tour, booked several days in advance.

Vatican's manicured gardens
Vatican’s manicured gardens

The stoic mercenary Swiss Guards guard the Vatican City border crossing and are responsible for the personal safety of the pope.

Vatican Museums

A composite of several museums, the Vatican Museums contain some of the greatest artwork to be found anywhere.  Many of the statues and paintings found in the museums had the private parts of the anatomy draped in cloth or fig leaves when the church decided around 1550 that nudity was obscene.

The tapestry and map room was one of our favorites.  Workmanship dating back to the 1500’s was stunning.  And the Raphael rooms, named for the artist, with beautifully painted ceilings and walls, depict impressive scenes from ancient Rome into the Renaissance.

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Next Up:  One final Rome post (maybe) – a little of this, a little of that

Artwork and Engineering Feats ~ Rome, Part 2

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

Ruthless, Chaotic Rome ~ Part 1

Beware, a history lesson awaits. You have been forewarned.

Continuing our Italian journey, we hopped on the Circumversuviana train (a bit of a rattle trap) to Naples, then connected with the high-speed ItaliaRail to our final destination, Rome.  I had ordered our Roma Passes and scheduled pick-up at the train station upon our arrival.  If you intend to spend a few days in Rome and want free admission and/or discounts at some of the more popular sites, this pass is a must.  And perhaps the best feature of the Roma Pass is that it allows you to move to the front of the line instead of waiting with the throngs of tourists.

The massive, spectacular Victor Emmanuel Monument
The massive, spectacular Victor Emmanuel Monument

We road-weary travelers were wondering how much energy we would have for our last full week in Italy, after almost two months of perpetual motion through France and Italy.  But as the taxi driver carried us across Rome to our apartment, all my worry dissipated like a wispy fog as the city and her history unfolded before me.  I became a wide-eyed child as we passed ancient ruins entwined with modern buildings and monuments.  I couldn’t wait to get started.

I had chosen an apartment outside the center of the city in Trastevere (trahs-TAY-veh-ray), Rome’s bohemian neighborhood, and some would say her most charming.  We were thrilled to find a beautiful apartment awaiting us and have the tram just outside our door.  It was the perfect location to explore this magnificent city.

Caesar Forum
Caesar Forum

Rome is ruthless and grandiose, an imposing chaotic urban maze.  I loved her many layers.  But let’s be real, isn’t Rome really Caesar, gladiators, chariots, wild animals, and trumpets blaring?  With that lingering thought in mind we stepped back in time to A.D. 79, to the core of ancient Rome, the Colosseum.

The Colosseum was where Rome’s thirst for violence was quenched, where men and wild animals alike fought to the death in unimaginable ways.  Killing was a spectator sport back then and on any given day 50,000 roaring fans could be seen giving a thumbs-up or down to the blood lust in the amphitheater below.

Looking at her bones, the Colosseum is an amazing engineering feat, with 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine stacked into the shape of an arch, sans mortar.  It took four straight years of daily work and 200 ox-drawn wagons traveling back and forth from Tivoli to bring the stone to Rome.  Once the travertine was stacked, a keystone was wedged into the top to keep the stones from falling.

This grand amphitheater saw four centuries of grisly use.  When the gladiator games were banned in A.D. 435 the Colosseum sat eerily silent, with just the haunting echoes of the wretched cries of man and animal carried on the wind.  Today only one-third of this historic building remains.  Earthquakes consumed some of her, but most of the stone was carted off for use in other buildings across the city.  When you look down into the Colosseum today you see where the gladiators and wild animals were kept. Atop these underground passages a wooden floor was placed, sprinkled with sand, which became the killing field.

We remained in ancient Rome as we stepped away from the Colosseum to see two impressive arches, the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus.

The Arch of Constantine marks an important turning point in history, the coup led by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 312, which resulted in the legalization of Christianity.

The Arch of Titus honors the military accomplishments of Titus and stands at the head of the Forum.  It has been the inspiration for many arches to follow, including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  The Via Sacra (Sacred Way), once Rome’s main street, leads up to the arch.

Walking through the Arch of Titus, we found ourselves in Rome’s political, religious, and commercial center, the acclaimed Forum.  Anything important that took place in ancient Rome happened here.  It is said to be the most revered meeting place in all the world, throughout history.  Today the crumbling ruins of many of the oldest and most important buildings of ancient Rome can still be seen on this sacred spot.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux is the most photographed site in the Forum.  Built in the 5th century B.C., it is one of Rome’s oldest temples.  This is where the senators met and its front steps served as a platform for free speech.   This shrine was raised to celebrate victory over the Etruscan king, Tarquin, who had once oppressed all who lived here.

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was dedicated to Emperor Antoninus Pius and wife Faustina the Elder by Marcus Aurelius.

This is the plaque that commemorates the man who exemplified the greatness of Rome more than anyone else – Julius Caesar.  On this spot he  was cremated after being stabbed 23 times by political conspirators and his adopted son – ‘Et tu, Brute?”.

Entrance to the Temple of Saturn, the Forum’s oldest temple, erected in 497 B.C.

The Arch of Septimius Severus, with reliefs that celebrate the African-born emperor’s battles in Mesopotamia.

This unusual structure, even older than the Temple of Saturn, was named Umbilicus Urbis (Navel of the City).  It was considered the center of the universe and all distances in the empire were measured from here.

The Column of Phocas celebrates the pagan Pantheon’s transformation to a Christian church.  It was the symbolic nail in ancient Rome’s coffin.

Next Up:  Artwork and Engineering Masterpieces of Rome