Friday. September 9.
Today I’ll go on the first of two big tours in Rome. “Privileged Visit to Caesar Augustus Emperor home with Colosseum, Forum, Palatine.” It would start at 8 a.m. I had my route to the meeting place figured out.
I got an early start and walked up Via de Quirinale. Some swallows banked and dove around me in the early light. It was coffee time. I saw a local cafe, but it looked crowded with early morning regular locals. I needed a quick take out. I get the European take your time and enjoy life approach, but I didn’t want to screw around this morning. What I really wanted was the quick in and out of a Starbucks. There was another place on the corner. It looked more modern. There were only two customers inside. It wasn’t a local favorite, but it was what I was looking for. The man behind the counter sensed I was in a rush. “Cafe Americano to go?”
I remember straying from the route. If I cut down this street, I could save some time. I still had a lot of time, but I took the shortcut anyway. After walking for a while, I realized I should be there by now. Looking at the map later, I can’t figure out how I got so far off the track. It seems so stupid now.
I stopped at a newspaper kiosk and asked the grizzled proprietor where the Coliseum was. He was surprised, “It’s very far! You can’t walk there from here.” He pointed me in the general direction.
I started walking again. A well dressed commuter walks towards me. He’s wearing a suit and tie and he’s carrying a briefcase. He is friendly and helpful, but I hear it again, “It’s very far away!” There’s not much traffic, but a cab drives up. I get in and say I’m going to the Coliseum Metro stop. He corrects me, “Colosseo Metro” stop. Whatever.
The meeting point is in a small plaza above the Metro stop. It’s the same spot where I got the great view of the Coliseum yesterday. I get there in time to have another coffee and a croissant in a cafe across the street. It’s exciting to look across the street and realize that soon I’ll be walking around inside the Coliseum. I talk with other tourists waiting to meet their tour guide contacts. The crowds haven’t started gathering in front of the Coliseum yet. Parrots squawk and fly around in some palm trees.
Our tour guide is Rosy Gennusa. She’s a friendly and personable Art History teacher. Before we go into the Coliseum she tells us about the huge statue of Nero that stood here. It was called the Colloso, and the Coliseum took its name from it. It had originally been a statue of Apollo, but Nero had his head put on it. After Nero’s demise the statue was replaced and eventually it was melted down. Rosy tells us that Nero had built a huge palace near the Coliseum. Its exorbitant price and the taxes it caused didn’t make him very popular with the people of Rome.
There is the usual airport security check. We walk under the arched entrances. The Coliseum’s architecture is still copied by sports stadiums across the world today. Huge crowds of sixty thousand could get in and out of the Coliseum easily. Each section had its own entrance.
The Coliseum had some dark days after the fall of Rome. It was stripped of its statues and most of its marble. Materials were taken and used for other buildings in Rome. It became a marble quarry. Rosy points out some marble that is still left high on an arch. The entire Coliseum had been covered in this marble and it’s believed some of it was gilded. The Coliseum used to shine in the Roman sunlight.
We enter the inside of the Coliseum. There is a large cross at one end. It’s near where the end zone would be. Archaeologists now believe that no Christian martyrs were killed at the Coliseum, but the Church believed the blood of the martyrs had been spilled here. It was considered sacred ground. The legend helped save the Coliseum from total destruction. The Pope still begins Good Friday services at the Coliseum.
We walk up some stairs to the next level and enter the seating area. Rosy explains the seating. Tickets were free, but where you sat was regulated. Your seat was a reflection of your social status. The Emperor had the best box. There were special areas for Consuls and Senators. What passed for the middle class filled out the second tier. At the top were seats for the poor and slaves. The rabble. The crowd could get pretty rowdy up there. There were arguments about gladiators and gambling. In the nose bleed seats people stayed all day and cooked on open fires. It was the genesis of tailgating!
A day at the Coliseum usually began with a hunt. Exotic animals were imported from all over the known world. The area around Rome supplied many mammals, especially wolves and bears. Importing animals for the arenas was an industry. Hippos, giraffes and elephants were imported and slain. Many died while being transported. It was a PETA nightmare! There is a large display case with the remains of animals and gladiators that have been found in construction sites near the Coliseum.
There was a system of trap doors and pulleys. Animals and gladiators could pop up in unexpected places and times. It really was like the movie Gladiator. The floor of the Coliseum was a grisly sight. With such large beasts being killed there was a lot of blood. After the hunt sand would be spread to soak up the gallons of blood that had been spilled. Arena is the Latin word for sand.
Not every battle was to the death, but a serious wound usually meant death anyway. With all the blood and sand flying around the risk of infection was very high. Most gladiators died from infected wounds.
Gladiators were slaves, but if they survived they became the Rock stars of ancient Rome. Women would seek them out for sex. Their sweat was considered an aphrodisiac. We know a lot about the gladiators, even some of their names.
Popularity was very important for gladiators. The Emperor carefully watched the crowd’s reaction before giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on a gladiator’s fate. Gladiators played different roles. Some were heroes. Some were villains. A young guy on the tour asked, “You mean like how pro wresting is?” “Yes, exactly.”
Rosy said that one of the most amazing things about the gladiators was that some of them were volunteers! Some Roman citizens were fascinated by the life of a gladiator. They gave up their Roman citizenship and became slaves to fight in the arena. If they won and survived they could never get their citizen rights back again. It’s estimated that two per cent of the gladiators were volunteers drawn by the allure of the ring.
The Coliseum is an ancient ruin that must pale next to its original glory, but when you walk around inside it, it’s not impossible to imagine what a day there would have been like.
We made the short walk to The Forum area. This area wasn’t open to the general public and any tours that are allowed are tightly controlled. Rosy checked us in with the staff at the home of Augustus and Livia. A young woman joined us with a set of old and large keys. She would escort us. We entered through a very old doorway. There were ten in our group. We walked through a long hallway that had piles of dirt along the sides. Rosy explained that the excavations here are constant.
We’re on the site of the Lupercal. It’s believed that this is where the she wolf nursed Romulus and Remus. The remains of an Etruscan village have been found here. It’s suspected there may be relics from an even earlier time buried here. They hope to find artifacts that date back to the time of the founding of Rome. Sometimes it is a difficult decision to allow excavation on such historic ground.
We pass through a long underground tunnel. There is a dusty courtyard. The courtyard has large frescoes. It was meant to impress foreign dignitaries.
Rosy says the frescoes have faded since they were excavated. It reminds me of the scene from Fellini’s film, Roma. Archaeologists open a buried room full of ancient frescoes. When the door is cracked open oxygen rushes in. The frescoes melt. The wall paintings had survived for centuries because they had been buried. At least the frescoes here only faded.
The frescoes give us a hint of what these rooms may have looked like. It’s more than an excavated ruin. In one room there is a trompe l’oeil effect. The frescoes join to make the room look like a stage. There are side doors and an entrance.
Rosy explains that we know a lot about Augustus from the writings of the historian Suetonius. Livia was his third wife. We enter the Domo of Livia and Augustus.
Augustus was a shrewd politician. Julius Caesar had been too egotistical and eventually he paid the price. Augustus learned the lesson and portrayed himself as a man of the people. He avoided the excesses that tempted Emperors. His home was lavish, but it was modest by the standards of other palatial homes in Rome. It helped him cement his popularity with the people. It was still the home of an Emperor. The house had a view of the Circus Maximus.
Augustus did not declare himself a god, but he was the son of a god, Julius Caesar. Rosy says that really he was a nephew. Maybe being a nephew of a god was enough.
It’s near the end of the tour. There’s a room with a plastic window protecting it. It’s believed this was Augustus’ study. It’s small by imperial standards, but there was a view of the gardens below. It’s amazing to see a place that was a part of a Roman Emperor’s daily life.
Rosy is a great guide who is obviously inspired by being able to lead a tour in such a historic site. Her stories sparked the imagination. The tour was a glimpse at what life must have been like for a Roman emperor.
We exit Augustus’ Domo and go up stairs on the side of the Palatine Hill. It’s hard to tell how old the stairway is, but it doesn’t look ancient. We stop at the Nymphaeum of the Mirrors. It’s a small shrine to the water nymphs. A nymphaeum was usually built at the end of natural water springs. It’s not very impressive next to the grand monuments of the Roman past that I will see today, but it seems to be a more direct link to a very distant past.
Near the top we walk through the Farnese Gardens. The Farnese Gardens are a great place to stop and catch your breath before continuing to the top of the Palatine Hill. The wealthy Farnese family built the gardens in the mid 1500s. It was one of the first botanical gardens in Europe. Rosy points out the tomb of Giacomo Boni. “He’s the father of modern Roman archaeology.” He has the special honor of being buried on the Palatine Hill.
Rosy tells us the Farnese Gardens are at the center of a controversy. There is a plan to take the gardens out and excavate the area. She explains that the Roman people closely watch situations like this. Any changes in the Forum area create heated debate.
We get to the top of the Palatine Hill. The tour will end here. We will guide ourselves through The Forum. Most of The Forum was preserved because it was used as a dumping ground for dirt and other debris from building projects in Rome. Forum buildings were buried under rubble and couldn’t be torn down for more building material.
Below us The Forum is laid out like a map. It’s well below the modern street level. Rosy points out some of the highlights. We can see the Arco di Constantine, Constantine’s Arch. It’s the entrance to The Forum. The Sacred Way, the Via Sacra, runs through the arch and into The Forum.
One of the largest sights below is the ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius. It’s also known as the Basilica of Constantine. At one time it held the tribunal, a court for the aristocracy. Rosy says that if you were called to court here, you were in big trouble. Most of the remains are tall walls that are one hundred feet high. Some of the arches and parts of the ceiling still stand. Parts of the roof were gilded and used on the roof of the old St. Peter’s. The gutted ruins of the Maxentius Basilica are still impressive.
Rosy points out some of the other sights of Rome. In the distance we can see Santi Giovanni e Paolo and St. Peter’s Basilica. Rosy says the tour is over, but she does stay and answer questions.
There’s a bang. A small explosion. It’s a signal gun going off at noon. The bells of the city start ringing. There’s a long gap between the time the first bells start and more distant bells begin. Some start ringing minutes after the first bells have ended. The bells ring for at least five minutes. We can hear bells from around Rome. It’s magic!
I walk around The Forum on my own. There are amazing sites of antiquity at every turn. I see Julius Caesar’s memorial. It takes a while, but I find the Temple to the Vestal virgins. Near the end of The Forum is the Temple of Venus and Rome. Hadrian built it in 121 A.D. There is the Shrine of Venus Cloacina, the “Shrine of Venus the Sewer.” Cloacina was an Etruscan goddess. The Forum is another place I don’t want to leave.
It’s already been a memorable day of touring for me. I walk past the Piazza Venezia and go up a busy downtown street. A stream of tourists is heading from The Forum to their next tourist destination.
A special on the outdoor menu of Da Brunello a Rosa catches my eye. Baccalla a la Romana. Baccalla is dried cod. It was the special on Fridays at the U.S. Cafe in North Beach. It was served with great fried calamari.
The place is busy. It’s near the end of the lunch rush. It takes a while to order, but I don’t care. I could use the break. The fish is obviously fresh and the dish is really great. The U.S. Cafe Baccala was drier and saltier. This Roman dish was certainly better, but I liked the U.S. Cafe version better.
There aren’t many bookstores left in the United States. I walked into a large one near the train station. Even though most of the books were in Italian, I couldn’t resist. Rome still has antiquarian and rare books stores. I pass Borromini Rare Books at Via degli Orfani. I will only window shop at places like this. The address of their web site was on the glass door. libreriaborromini.com.
There’s one big “must” that’s not on any of my tours. I’ve seen great, historic sites today, but I’ve got to see The Pantheon. It was originally a pagan shrine. It was converted to a church and has unique architecture. From the DK Guide: “This monumental 2,000 year old building is one of the largest surviving temples of ancient Rome.”
The Parthenon is a bit off the beaten track from other monumental sights, and I have a little trouble finding it. I finally spot it through a gap in the old buildings. There’s no mistaking the iconic pediment with the square mantel.
There are many people in and around The Pantheon, but there’s no line to get in. I’m surprised that it’s free. It seems like a Christian church, but it’s different. It’s more ancient. Pagan. The original pagan temple was built in 126 A.D. It burned down a couple of times, and there is some confusion as to when this version was built.
The Pantheon is one of the best preserved of ancient buildings because it was used as a church for a long time. It wasn’t raided for materials like other sites. It avoided “spoliation.”
The Pantheon is circular and people walk around its interior. The floors are marble. There are niches with large statues of Augustus and Agrippa. There are large columns along the walls. The dome dominates. The oculus is never closed. It’s hard to believe with all the ancient art inside. It had rained earlier in the day and the Pantheon seemed damp, but not wet. Water that makes it to the floor is drained by a system the Romans used.
The modern Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I are buried here. It’s also home to the tomb of Raphael.
The Pantheon is mesmerizing. The open oculus is fascinating. It seems timeless.
Near the Pantheon is the Church of Luigi del Franches. It’s the French National Church. It took seventy years to complete. It was finished in 1598.
It contains early paintings of the life of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. The Contarelli Chapel holds The Calling of St. Matthew. Behind the altar is The Inspiration of St. Matthew. The Martyrdom of St. Matthew is on the right wall. They are all dramatic paintings with a lot of action for religious paintings.
The first version of The Inspiration of St. Matthew was rejected because its depiction of the Saint as a “tired old man with dirty feet” was too realistic for the time. The Calling of St. Matthew was the first of Caravaggio’s religious works.
Most of the paintings are behind dark altars and are hard to see. A one Euro contribution gets a little light thrown on the paintings.
Whenever I could I went into the churches in Rome. Some of them weren’t that impressive from the outside. They can blend into the fabric of the city. I went into the Oratory of San Francisco Saverio del Caravita. It’s dedicated to St. Francis Xavier and home to the Caravita Catholic community.
There has been a church on this site since the late twelfth century. The oratory was rebuilt by the Jesuits in 1631. Near the entrance there is a full size reproduction of the Shroud of Turin. It’s just a copy, but it was still surprising and fascinating to see it. It’s another little hidden gem.
There are frescoes of the life of St. Francis Xavier around the church. One is by Baldassare Peruzzi. Sebastiano Conca painted “St. Francis Xavier Preaching in the Presence of the Holy Trinity.” A shrine holds a relic of the saint in a silver reliquary.
This area is the “Center of the Jesuit area of Rome.” The Jesuits were known for building churches that would overwhelm worshippers. The nearby Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola is bigger. I can’t resist going in.
It’s Baroque and has a large interior. Everything is in marble and gilt. It was built to show the power of the Jesuits. A large cupola was planned, but it was never built. A “fake dome” was painted on the ceiling by Andrea Pozzo. The domed ceiling is an illusion.
Back to the King Hotel. The room hadn’t been cleaned. I didn’t care about that, but there were no clean towels. I had been rinsing shirts and socks out, but it was time for a real laundry run. I went to the front desk and asked for clean towels. Carlo was very apologetic. I asked about laundry. The King Hotel had no laundry service. This didn’t make sense to me. I asked where a laundry was. “Just past the stop light on the right!” Of course. How could I not know that?
I decided to find the place before I started lugging laundry around. Right past the stop light was what I thought was an alley. It was a street. I went down it. Certainly didn’t see a laundry. At the end of the alley was a newspaper and magazine kiosk. The owner sent me back up the alley. This time I spotted a truck making a delivery. I must have walked by the laundry a couple of times. It had a small doorway. I took one look at the machines and decided not to deal with them, and just leave the laundry. “You can pick it up on Monday.”
The next day was the Vatican tour, so I really wanted to stay by the hotel tonight and take it easy. I went to a restaurant across the street from the hotel. I was the only customer at first. I tried to order a fresh fish. Turbot. It was priced by the gram. The waiter talked me out of it. Maybe it was an order intended for two. I had another cioppino style dish. More invertebrates.
The check was small by San Francisco standards. I paid cash. I waited for a while and then realized they weren’t bringing me any change. I don’t mind tipping. The difference was only three Euro, but they worked me for it. I was really getting tired of getting hustled for spare change.
I got a seat in a cafe across from the Barberini Plaza. A young black guy with natty draids and a rasta style hat was working the others sitting at the cafe. Eventually it was my turn. “American!” I was his long lost buddy. He tried to put a wood carving in my hand. When it was clear I wasn’t going to buy anything and I wasn’t interested in his life story he walked away. He muttered something about racist Americans. Whatever.