October 14, 2009

Roman Holiday

Regular readers of my blog know that I am an unapologetic Francophile, but last week I made a diversion and spent three glorious days in the Eternal City. I had never been to Rome, in fact it is almost 25 years since I last visited Italy, and I was wowed beyond my greatest expectations!

I think what struck me the most about this city of over 2.7 million inhabitants (and almost as many tourists!) was the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. America is a very young land and to walk amidst ruins and structures dating back thousands of years was thrilling. Everywhere you go you are surrounded by history, yet on these ancient paths thoroughly modern motorini roar by with their drivers yelling into telefonini!

This marvelous city has so much to see and do that it was hard to know where to start. So I decided to go to another city entirely - Vatican City - to begin my discovery of Rome. Arriving at St Peter's Square around noon I found it bustling with Cardinals and Clerics rushing about in their distinctive attire, but not so many visitors waiting in line to view the Basilica. I began with a descent into the Vatican Grottoes, where St Peter is buried as well as centuries of Popes. The most recent tomb is that of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, whose grave is covered with flowers and prayers left by the faithful. Upstairs, the Basilica is enormous and awe-inspiring with massive marble columns and Bernini's bronze "Baldacchino" marking the high altar. Michelangelo's "Pietà" lies directly to the right of the entrance. Now, sadly, behind protective glass, the sculpture nevertheless inspires great emotion and I was amazed at how a piece of cold marble could be turned into something so tender and touching.

Piazzo San Pietro

I decided to forgo the climb to the dome and opted instead to visit another Michelangelo masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. But to get there one has to pass through the entire Vatican Museum, which probably covers a few kilometers! It's an amazing walk though passageways filled with treasures from the Gallery of Maps to the Borgia Rooms culminating in the magnificence of the most famous ceiling in the world. The urge to lie down on the marble floor and gaze upward is almost overwhelming but fortunately prohibited or visitors would have to pick their way through a mass of prostrate people!

After a late lunch of a delicious pizza it was time to leave Città del Vaticano and continue to the nearby Castel Sant' Angelo. Begun by the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 135 as his own mausoleum and serving variously as a fortress, prison and papal residence, the castle offers spectacular views of the city from its many ramparts and terraces. Wandering through the halls and stairways I could almost hear Puccini's Tosca in the background as it was here that he imagined his heroine leaping to her death.

Castel Sant' Angelo from across the Bridge of Angels

A short walk across the beautiful Bridge of Angels and I had crossed the Tiber River. It was late in the day and my head was filled with art and history. Time to head back to the hotel and get ready to enjoy a glass of prosecco followed by a delicious dinner!

The next morning broke sunny and beautiful and perfect for a walk in the Borghese Gardens. Begun in the 1600's as a pleasure park for the nephew of Pope Paul V, Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, the gardens have evolved into an important public green space with paths for walking, jogging and riding, flower gardens, museums, play areas, cafés and even a casino. One of the main attractions for me was the Galleria Borghese whose collection of Caravaggio's and Bernini's is meant to be sublime, but admission tickets were sold out until after my departure. I would have to reserve well in advance next time.

Instead I headed south toward the Villa Medici, the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. Named for the nearby Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, the steps were actually financed by a French diplomat in 1725 who got tired of climbing up a muddy slope to the church of Trinitá dei Monte. From this practical beginning came one of the city's most famous landmarks and a special meeting place for Romans and visitors alike.

After strolling past the elegant boutiques on the Via Condotti, peeking into a few open Basilicas and a stop for a cappuccino, I found myself in the epicenter of Rome, the Pantheon. Another structure begun by Hadrian (in A.D. 119), it survives as the best preserved ancient site in the city and a temple to art history and architectural design. The perfect hemispherical dome has a hole in the center allowing natural sunlight to stream within illuminating different points as the sun traverses the sky. The building still functions as a church with a lovely altar and beautiful frescoes on the walls, and is the burial place for the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and the painter Raphael.

It was time for lunch and a slice of pizza with the typical light crust, almost like a piece of matzo, with a delicious tomato and mozzarella topping was just perfect. Restored, I was ready to visit the next site just around the corner on the Piazza della Minerva.

The focus of this square is a fantastic sculpture officially titled il Pulcino della Minerva and affectionately known as Bernini's Elephant. Designed as a tribute to Pope Alexander VII, Bernini sculpted this adorable pachyderm, a symbol of wisdom, fidelity and abstinence, with a 12th-century B.C. obelisk on its back.

The backdrop to Bernini's Elephant is the very unimposing Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Built on the site of the ancient temple of Minerva, this church is the only one in Rome built in the Gothic style. Frankly, from the exterior the building looked like a garage, but the stream of tourists heading inside made me wonder what all the fuss was about. What treasures lay behind those doors! Michelangelo's "Last Judgement", Fra Angelico's "Madonna and Child", and the most amazing, a chapel decorated in 15th century frescoes by Filippino Lippi with colors so fresh and beautiful it might have been painted yesterday. The icing on the cake was the arrival of a wedding party - what a promising beginning to be married in such a special place!

I had just about reached my capacity for culture that day so I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the charming streets, window shopping, eating a gelato in the Piazza Navona and drinking in the heady Roman ambiance.

Sunday dawned another beautiful Indian summer day and I had a full agenda! I still had not visited Rome's most famous attraction, Il Colosseo, so I put on my walking shoes and started off. The approach to the Colosseum, along the Fori Imperiali, passes acres of ancient ruins in various states of archaeological excavation and the avenue is lined with statues of Julius Caesar. In the distance is the monumental Colosseum - now visited by thousands of sightseers, but formerly the site of monstrous bloodshed in the form of gladiatorial combats and animal sacrifices. In its heyday the arena held 50,000 spectators, but centuries of earthquakes, attacks, scavenging of materials and pollution have left the building damaged yet still very impressive and a global symbol of longevity and solidity.

Just beyond the Colosseum is a small church that is well worth a visit for the remarkable fact that its bottom layer, the lowest of three, dates back to Pagan Rome and the very beginning of Christianity. The "modern" San Clemente, named after the third successor of Saint Peter, was built in the 11th century on top of ruins of a 4th century church, which was next to a Mithraic temple dating to the 2nd century A.D. Visitors can descend to the bowels of the structure to see ancient altar and frescoes of royal figures and early images of the Christ Child. Every now and then one is struck by the sound of running water as the building was constructed to utilize Rome's advanced aqueduct system which provides water to city residents to this day. The modern basilica is decorated with fabulous 18th century mosaic of the Crucifixion over the high altar. It was here in San Clemente that I truly experienced the depth of Rome's 2,000 year roots.

Soon it was back out into the sunshine and a last promenade through Rome's fabled forums to visit the rather incongruous Vittoriano, the enormous white edifice that overwhelms the surrounding ruins and topography. A climb up the steps to the terrace with rewarded with superb views and a tasty lunch of pasta with a glass of vino rosso was very restorative!

It's almost time to leave this beautiful city, but there is still one more very important destination. No visit to Rome is complete without a stop at the marvelous Fontana di Trevi. Seeming to grow out of the adjacent buildings, this magnificent fountain marked the end of the aqueduct that brought water from the eighth mile of the via Collatina to the east of Rome. Immortalized by Anita Ekberg in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" the Trevi Fountain is a must-see on any Roman itinerary. So I did, and as I faced away from the fountain and threw a Euro over my left shoulder, I made a wish that I may soon return to visit this magical place. Arrivederci Roma!

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