We were walking near San Giovanni in Laterano when we ran across this scene. San Giovanni is one of four churches in Rome. It dates from the 4th century although it is much renovated. The main doors come from the Roman senate in the forum. The Pope opens them during Jubilee celebrations. We were there when Pope John did so in 2000. Across the street is a set of steps supposedly used by Jesus when he was questioned by Pontius Pilot.
The Domus Aurea – The Golden House – now sits beneath ground level just above the Coliseum on the Via Celio Vibenna side. It was buried after the death of the Emperor who had it built, the infamous and wildly unpopular Nero. In its glory it was a vast entertainment palace surrounded by extensive and gorgeously landscaped grounds. When the underground are was discovered in the early 1500’s by a farmer whose shovel broke through the ceiling of one of the immense galleries, it was explored by Raphael and other artists, who were infatuated by the art they found, and so the Domus came to influene European art for the next 500 years. Thanks to the high tech 3d goggles included with the entrance fee, you get a good sense of its beauty and scale.
The complex extended to the Palatine, Esquiline, Oppian and Caelian hills, although the exact extent of the development is not known. It included a man made lake in what was before a marshy valley, located where the Coliseum is now; the latter was built to replace the lake. There were groves, vineyards, and pastures and a huge bronze of Nero, called Colossus Neronis, last mentioned in the 4th century. It was placed at the end of Via Appia, about a kilometer from the current visitor’s entrance, but later moved to where the Coliseum is now located, and to which it gave its name.
There were some 300 variously designed rooms, none of them sleeping quarters, and neither were there kitchens nor latrines. Nero’s residence remained on the Quirinali Hill. The walls were covered with polished white marble. Openings lit the pools, fountains and the frescoes that fascinated Raphael and his colleagues 15 centuries later. An interesting tidbit- Nero’s chief artist for the complex was called Fabulus ( presumably from Latin fabulosus “celebrated in fable;” also “rich in myths,” from fabula , story or tale) or Famulus. This suggests that our use of ‘fabulous’ was changed from having to do with fables to being wonderful, as a result of the discovery of Domus.
Fabulus and his assistants painted on wet plaster, a method we call ‘fresco,’ meaning ‘fresh, that yields such permanence that we still have good images from 2000+ years ago. The exposure to the cool (you need long sleeves even in summer) damp air of the caverns caused significant deterioration to the frescoes once the dome was opened. The massive numbers of 20th century visitors just about finished them off. Now they severely limit the numbers by allowing only weekend visits, to preserve what is left.
When Domus was rediscovered at the end of the 15th century in the farmer’s field on the Esquiline hill, artists climbed down ropes into the richly frescoed caves- grotta in Italian. They called the frescoes grottesche, from which we get the word ‘grotesque,’ which we now use to describe something ugly but these frescoes were anything but. The impact on the artists was powerful. You can see it best in Raphael’s work in the Vatican, their influence spreading from there.
Some of the wall frescoes:
There is a slide show during the tour and we managed to get a couple of photos from it:
Walking around the interior can be disappointing as it is dark, there are few frescoes to see and they are not in great shape. However the 3d goggle production, in addition to the slide show and the guide’s comments, make the visit one of the best. The goggles show you the chamber you are in as it was at its peak. You look up, right, left or ahead to see the dazzling white walls and their frescoes, statues and other wonderful decorations. The most stunning moment comes when they virtually take you outdoors, through what is now a filled in opening, but what then was a beautiful terrace with a massive view of the artificial lake, the forum and the Capitoline Hill. From the latter a huge temple overlooked the area, as its ruins still do, below the Roman city senate building, from whence you gaze through the ancient columns over the forum.
For those who are fans of antiquity, or who would like to see what the brouhaha is all about, a visit to the Domus Aurea is a must!
Small (as in Vatican City) can be beautiful and that the Vaticano is. The Vatican Museums house some $15 billion in art, although some of it is way beyond a monetary evaluation. The popes who built the art collection, as well as the Basilica and the rest, were scoundrels who engaged in deception, fornication, thievery, hypocrisy and much more including the sale of what I call ‘get out of purgatory free’ cards: you contributed in some fashion and in exchange the Church guaranteed you would be more leniently treated by the celestial powers that be. But no one can deny that the legacy they left us is a storehouse of treasure that has enriched the world. As much as I detest those people and hate to admit it, but we are indebted to them, yet own allegiance to their means.
Vatican City is a country officially recognized by treaty between the Vatican and the Italian government since 1929 when Mussolini and the Pope came to an agreement. Before the reunification of Italy in 1861, the Pope ruled much of Italy from the Vatican, but the Risorgimento, as it is called in Italian, reduced the papal state to a mere 44 hectares, and it remains the smallest country in the world both in size and population.
You may have heard the term “The Holy See” and wondered about the meaning. The Holy See governs the religious life of the world’s 1 billion Catholics. It is the arm of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that has diplomatic relations with other countries, not the Vatican City. It’s an odd arrangement, indeed, but there you have it. Another tidbit- the word ‘see’ in “Holy See”comes from the Latin ‘Sede,’ meaning ‘Seat,’ so has nothing to do with seeing and thus not as presumptuous as it seems.
Many people confuse the Museums (there is just one entrance to all of them) with St Peter’s Basilica. Each has its own entrance- if you standing on line in front of St Peter’s you are not going into the Museums. The Museum is not free except for the first Sunday, while the Basilica is always free, though given the costs involved I would not blame the church if it decided to charge. It’s houses amazing art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, completed when he was just 23 years old.
There is additional background information following the next section.
About the art of the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1477 by Sixtus IV, for whom the chapel is named. It remains the setting for formal deliberations naming the next pope. Michelangelo, primarily a sculptor, was hired by Julius II to paint the ceiling, which he did from 1508-1512. He started with the center piece, The Creation of Adam shows Yahweh, surrounded by his buddies, injecting life into Adam. Once Michelangelo completed this section he realized the scale was too small, and it would take him too long to finish the immense project. Therefore the remainder of the work is in larger scale. He painted nine scenes in all from Genesis, and also painted the Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall.
Here’s a view of the hall. Photos are not permitted but people manage to take ones anyway. I found this one on the internet, one of the better and more interesting ones. The chapel is hard to photograph well due to its size and the side lighting.
The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous paintings of all time, and the first to be painted in the ceiling project:
This next is one of my favorite paintings in the Chapel. From the far side of the hall his legs appear to be dangling in space.
A little more background
Pope Julius II, aka Giulian della Rovere (1443-1513), aggressively sought to unite Italy, to the point where he led troops in battle on at least two occasions. He engaged in an active building program, most remarkably the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, and invested heavily in the arts, such as the decoration of the ceiling of the Chapel. His uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had first made him a cardinal, assuming the position his uncle had vacated to become Pope. Although unmarried Giulian fathered Felice della Rovere in 1483.
He began the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in 1506, the same year he conceived of the ceiling for which he would hire Michelangelo. Michelangelo was not interested in the project, saying he was a sculptor not a painter, and besides he was already at work on the Pope’s own tomb. The latter project was set aside and remains uncompleted, housed in St Peter in Chains near the Coliseo and Domus Aurea; more about this in a coming article. The Pope prevailed but went to war for the next two years, delaying the ceiling, during which time Michelangelo continued to work on the tomb, giving us what we have today, the Moses in St Peter in Chains, the center piece of the installation in that church.
Michelangelo wanted no restrictions imposed on the project and he was granted complete control. He eventually painted some 300 figures over the course of the four years it took to complete the ceiling. He worked standing, not laying down as most people believe, using wooden scaffolding. The scaffolding was held by brackets extending from openings at the top of the windows, and allowed for work on half of the ceiling at a time. A lightweight screen below to prevent damage to the artwork and flooring below. The openings were employed for the scaffolding used in the recent restoration, which turned a much darkened ceiling into a brightly colored one we see today.
At first he encountered mold problems in the plaster, into which paint was mixed to produce what we call ‘frescoes,’ coming from the Italian for ‘fresh.’ (I often hear Italians using the word ‘fresh’ for ‘cool’ as in ‘temperature.’) An assistant developed a formula that is mold resistant, after the first applications had to be removed. This formula is still in use.
Fresco painters employ a detailed drawing into which small holes are punched to transfer the design to the plaster. Michelangelo, however, drew directly on the plaster. Each day a new section of plaster was laid, the edges of the previous day scraped off, being too dry. As a result you can still see the daily progress of the work.
The final result is greeted by some five million visitors a year, paying about 15 euros each. The Pope’s grandiose plan appears to have paid off, but I yield nothing to his immorality nor the Church of his time.
These are from the top of Vittorio Emanuele monument in the heart of ancient Rome. The monument is from the late 1800’s, commemorating the unification of Italy, but it is in the heart of things, with the Roman forums to its rear and sides, the historic center where you find the Pantheon, with St Peter’s Basilica in the background– although with my excellent Canon telephoto lens you can get quite close. Photos below the video.
Chiesa Sant’Agnese is a small domed church designed by Boromini, a contemporary of Bernini and a rival who never made it to his competitor’s stature. In my book he had nothing to be ashamed of, he just had a competitor that was outstanding and well connected. The work he was assigned was smaller in scale but he did a magnificent job of making the interiors zoom in space.
Chiesa Sant’Agnese is often termed “St. Agnes in Agony’ but this gives an incorrect translation of ‘Agone.” Agone means ‘games’ and also refers to the stadium built by Diocletian starting in 80 AD, with a circle track. So perhaps we should say “St Agnes at the Track,” as irreverent as that may seem.
The church sits on what we now call Piazza Navona, originally called “Circus Agonalis” (circus is a circle, just like Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus). Apparently the name Agonoalis morphed into Navona. Aside from the track shape of the plaza and the buildings facing it, the main feature of the plaza is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).
Every summer the Italian government sponsors outdoor music events as part of a broader cultural initiative. The Polo Museale del Lazio (Museum Center of Lazio) put together one hundred activities for this summer’s entertainment. See http://art-city.it
To date we have attended three concerts, one at Castle St Angelo and two at Piazza Venezia. The former is in Vatican territory and the latter overlooks the Roman forum and the ‘centro historico’ of Rome. Two more fabulous venues would be hard to find.
From the Castle you have a great view of St. Peter’s Cathedral as well as the River Tevere and it’s many summertime tents, where patrons sip cold beverages or have a plate of pasta while sitting on the banks of the river that divides Rome.
We were privileged to enjoy the Barcelona Gypsy balKan (sic) Orchestra seated on the upper levels of the monument, erected circa 139 as Hadrian’s tomb. You too can watch the performance we did, without the venue unfortunately:
Their lively performances fuse Roma and Klezmer. Klezmer is a musical genre created by Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. The groups are called klezmorim and originally it was largely dance tunes and instrumentals that they played for weddings and other celebrations. It is every bit as energetic as Roma music and likewise there are dances that go with some songs. When we were in Budapest one summer we watched a band and dance group performance, men in traditional black hats and suits dancing on an outdoor stage along the Danube. It was impressively athletic, including bottles balanced on heads.
The concerts at Piazza Venezia take place within the monument to Vittorio Emannuel II, made king of Italy at the time of unification in 1861. (You may recall that in 2000 Peg worked with the nephew of Lampedusa, who wrote the Leopard, a novel about Sicily at the time of reunification- Gigi was working on a novel). The monument overlooks Piazza Venezia on one side with great views of the historic center, and portions of the Roman forums on the others. You can easily see Trajan’s column.
While waiting for the concert to begin, I sketched Trajan’s column. The column recounts the conquest of Dacia, in what we now call Romania. Romanian is a romance language, adopted as a result of the conquest depicted here. The sculptors who did these columns came to be called columnists, from which we get our use of the word.
Romans are not fond of the monument, pejoratively calling it The Wedding Cake for its many layers. That you have to climb 260 stairs to get to the terraces does not make it any easier to like. They say it is two floors to the terrace, which is true I suppose, it’s just the ceiling height that kills you. There is an elevator to the highest level but you pay for those amazing views, but there is no stop on the level where they hold the concerts.
One evening there was a jazz band that whose offerings were too far from melodic for us. The second night was Bach. There were a flutist and a violinist, each accompanied by a virtuoso pianist, and a cellist who joined the rest for a third piece. Fortunately I am a Bach fan, but if I were not, there would have been far too many notes for comfort.
These concerts and other events continue until September. What a pleasure!
We landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport. We are barely on the ground and already Rome’s disarray hit us.
The last time we landed here there was only one bus to Termini, Rome’s central transit point. We presumed that was still the case when we bought our tickets from the vendor in Valencia’s airport, thinking what a good idea it was to sell tickets ahead of time. But then we walked out the front door, saw the bus platforms and four bus lines” names, but the name printed on our ticket was not there. I asked several staff and passengers to find which line was ours. We stood in that line for 15 minutes (at least we were shielded from the hot sun). The confusion was not over, however. as we were told to get in another line, whose placard was for another company. Indeed our bus appeared but as we waited we wondered if we had been mislead. Then there was getting on the bus. Italians do not stand in line, they crowd around the door, outflanking you. Eesh- I was already exhausted. And the struggle goes on and on. Why? Because Rome is chaotic like a turbulent fluid.
Traffic moves like a raging river one moment and a logjam in the next, herking and jerking until the wee hours. Yet like the fluid that finds its level, people get to where they are going, eventually, competing with each other and the buses and trams. The latter are what the drivers avoid using, but once in their cars they spend lots of time trying not to hit them and the other cars and the jillion darting scooters. Everything would work better if most everyone used mass transit, or the recently added bike lanes which they might do if there were enough buses, subways and bike lanes, but there aren’t since people spend money on cars instead.
The enormous trash bins are another sign of chaos. They are emptied daily yet each day overflow in an unsightly mess. Rome city government is getting advice on how to solve their trash mess from Palermo, of all places- that’s how bad it is. Even the upscale neighborhoods of the city have these problems, such as on Viale Giulio Cesare, which runs past the windows of our summer abode. Down a bit from our place tourists by the millions line up for St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum. The back streets are lined with upscale stores, wine bars, restaurants and made to measure shops. But trash mars the area. The platforms upon which the containers nicely sit hold four dumpsters, one for household trash and three for recycling. They need perhaps two more but there’s no room on the platform and cars take up the room otherwise available.
Rome’s other issues contribute to the strain. Refugees, street people, tax avoidance, pollution, street trash. The list is seemingly without end- this is not an easy place to run, so no wonder there’s so much dysfunction. And yet people come, because Rome eternally beckons. Where else would you find an Eternal City, a city of such high art? There are countless richly decorated and appointed churches, public buildings and monuments, private palaces such as the Pamphili Palace, still occupied by the family but mostly a museum. There are Egyptian columns and Roman era ones such as Trajan’s which tells the story of the conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania. And there is ancient Rome. Every shovel full brings up a history lesson, it seems. This is why Metro Line C is not yet done after so many years, delaying one of the remedies for the chaos. There is plenty of cultural modernity to bring you in and keep you here. Wanted in Rome publishes huge lists of things to do- concerts, expositions, talks, walks, plays and of course opera. The Italians invented this high soap. Good grief, are they melodramatic or what? http://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/.
Summer brings the Music Fest, starting June 21. Nighttime is filled with outdoor concerts and plays and acrobats and who knows what else, all free, and all the ones I have seen have been very good. My favorite venue is atop Castel San Angelo. Order a glass of wine and enjoy the music and the view of St Peter’s!! And of course any time of day or night have a cappuccino. Maybe you’ll find a delightful something to draw.
Then there’s the odd public service we ran across. At Ottaviano metro, where you exit the subway for the Vatican, there is a free water spot. Rome has had public drinking fountains, these little green creatures called ‘nasoni, for eons.’ They run constantly. But this fountain is different, like the old milk dispensing machines, standing some 2 meters/7′ tall. You put your bottle under the spout, press the button showing the size bottle you have and presto! You can get fizzy water as well, yet it is totally free! What?
Only in Rome would you get free carbonated water. How do they manage this and yet not be able to adequately handle the trash and sweep the streets? Or perhaps more importantly, why bother with this at all? Perhaps it has something to do with the trash. Millions of plastic bottles filled with water fill landfills and float in the Tevere that winds through the city. Can we help if we give away the sparkling water? I’d say so.
The government is trying. You can see that with this strange giveaway, with the trash platforms, another metro line. But you see the challenges everywhere you go, the trash strewn streets, the refugees, the homeless, the African street vendors.
We arrived in Rome Tuesday afternoon after a short flight from Valencia. After meeting our landlord for the week- we rented a small flat in Trastevere near the train station- we had a bit of a rest, and went to find a friend at the school on top of the hill. A colleague got her on the phone for us. We’ll meet up some time this week. I’ll tell you about her in a later post.
After some light shopping at a fancy joint – we’d been there before – we had a nice light dinner at a tavola calda called Pizza Boom. Turns out our landlord recommended it but we picked it out on our own. It is just a small place with pizza by the slice, veggies by the weight, and 3.50 for a decent bottle of red. Dinner for two including a nice hunk of mozzarella di bufala for 15 euros.
Tuesday morning, after a cup of the most fabulous cappuccino (how do the Italians do it time after time?) in a little place nearby we went to the Tor Argentina. These ruins are in the middle of busy area. Cat’s live there and are fed and cared for (a sign reads ‘do not feed’). This is where Caesar was assassinated. Like most ruins, they are quite below current street level. This is one of my favorite spots but here I have many.
Then we walked to Bocca de la Verita http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bocca_della_Verit%C3%A0. No way would a guy like me go anywhere near that Bocca thing. This is Peg’s favorite church. It dates from the 8th century. I recall reading that the RCC distributed food from here (grain and oil were given away by the state in Roman times, if I recall correctly), continuing the practice in the absence of government. The crypt is now open. You pay just a euro to go in. Just some columns and a little table with a Byzantine Mary image on it.
Across the street is my favorite Roman temple, that of the Vestal Virgins (not that I am partial to virgins.) I’ll try to do a pen and ink of it. It is in fine shape. Across the way is a 4 arched gate. It is being excavated so you can not get near it right now. Too bad. It was a very important entrance to il Foro (the Forum) which is just a short distance away.
We went into the center of the old town for lunch. There are jillions of places but since we were eating at friend’s house, we ended up in a pizza al taglio (by weight) place since you can eat a light meal for relatively little money. They also have other choices. There was a veal plate for example. I got a plate of veggies. The Italians love veggies and feature them like no one else I know of. I had a plate of breaded eggplant/aubergine and several other veggies. The Italians love olive oil almost as much as the Spanish so there was plenty! I think a bit much for me as afterwards I had to buy a coke to settle my stomach.
In this place and others, if you want say some veggies and some pizza, you have to go to two separate counters. The pizza counter here is run by a woman who reminds me of the nurse character played by Cloris Leachman (opposite Harvey Korman) in Mel Brook’s High Anxiety, a film he did in the 70’s. She had the world’s pointiest boobs with which to menace her opponents. The woman who serves the pizza here thinks all customers are opponents. Anyway she intimidated me into buy a huge piece of pizza with just fresh tomatoes and a few mozzarella balls on it. It was fabulous.
After we went on our merry way we got on the shopping bus they run during the holidays. You get a nice tour of the old town while pretending to window shop. Actually I check out the Roman women, whom I still find to be stunningly shapely despite the winter apparel, which I think should count as a handicap. The young Parisian wearing short shorts with leggings in winter still give me whip lash as well.
After a bit of a rest up we went for diner at friends M and P’s place near the Barberini palace. We met M in 1999 and had maintained contact (this is my department as Peg does not do contact very much) and met up in ’04 and ’05 (when we were here for shorter periods), so it was a real pleasure to see them again. Their children have grown up. The son is now 17 and the daughter 16, and a very impressive pair they are. The son expects to study in the UK and the daughter in the US after they graduate. Both speak English and Italian with equal ease.
We had great conversation and food for the next several hours, starting with some thinly sliced ham and some mozzarella with some very lovely Italian red. Then it was the primi piato, pasta with a red sauce and pancetta. Then she served some involtini – which means stuffed. In this case it was some sausage with thyme wrapped by a slice of chicken breast. Lovely.
In the meantime friend J entertained us with his theft story. He left his wallet on the seat of his car in Iceland. The crooks immediately went to a cash machine but did not have the password so J got a message on his phone regarding the attempt, telling him the location. He found a policeman, they went to the bank, got the video of the incident (they knew the time from the phone message) and the cops recognized the crooks. They even knew where they lived, went there and retrieved the wallet completely intact- having threatened the crooks with jail time if there was even a penny missing. Unfortunately J told this story several times. I think he had a bit too much to drink.
It was otherwise going well before we ran out in a panic thinking the buses stopped at 1030 (Peg got this one wrong, the fault of a website). But it was late enough for me anyway, though I hated to end the evening so abruptly. Out we walked into the cold winter night.