Rome is not a sea of tranquility but this gets close. Tourists are home sheltering in place or restricting their visits to more nearby locations. Many locals work from home or are out of work altogether, reducing the normally intense traffic.
We chose this time to come to get to enjoy Rome without the crowds of tourists, and when the streets are not quite so full of Romans in their cars and on the buses. Italians are normally friendly. They seem even more so now, not so pressured by crowds and traffic.
We breezed through security. There were just three people with us.
St Peter’s never seemed so big. I had a relaxed 15 minutes in front of the Pieta- “relaxed” and “Pieta” have never before been in the same sentence except. Except now. It’s great for us. The empty shops and restaurants tell the opposite story.
There’s a stunningly decorated side chapel with gilded angels by Bernini which is reserved for prayer. We have never gone in as we are not religious but it was empty and there was no guard although there is usually one. What a treat! I do not know who did the figures at the join of the walls and the ceiling, but they are fantastic!
Masks are everywhere, people keep their distance, the businesses have hand sanitizer, even the Metro entrances. They are trying.
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!
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.