Rome is one of those world cities that I’ve always wanted to visit. Boasting more than 2,000 years of history, the ‘Eternal City’ has been inspiring playwrights, composers, artists, and novelists for centuries. The ancient metropolis is habitually portrayed with such a sense of intrigue and passion that you can’t help but want to immerse yourself completely in the Roman culture. But at its core, I speculated before visiting, Rome is probably just another big city. Although I’ve left many major cities feeling satisfied with the experience, I also typically feel slightly underwhelmed. I suppose it’s because my real affection has always been out in nature – wandering amongst the forests, mountains, waves, and wildlife. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot I have enjoyed within many urban metropoles, but at the same time I always kind of find myself thinking, ‘eh, it’s a city.’ Much to my surprise, however, this recurring sentiment was not how I felt about Rome.
Rome was a realm of contrasts – indeed, a sprawling metro, but still offering miniature neighborhoods with narrow, cobblestone streets. Many avenues were loud and bustling, while others were strangely silent. In some spots, swarms of tourists and crowds of locals saturated the sidewalks, while just a few blocks away, you’d walk in utter solitude down a tree-lined boulevard. Much was new, modern, colorful and shiny, while just as much was ancient, rich with history, faded and worn. It was like two diametric worlds slammed together to create one curiously-captivating macrocosm. And I loved every bit of it.
I think what I adored most about Rome was that it made me feel like a kid on Christmas morning… or, let’s be real here, an adult in her mid-30s on Christmas morning, since I still insist on waking my family up at the crack of dawn by exuberantly blasting children’s holiday tunes into their bedrooms. You know, the standard gems like the Muppets 12 days of Christmas, anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks, or the timeless Italian classic, Dominick the Donkey. Anyway, much like the presents under the Christmas tree, around every Roman street corner a new surprise sat, just waiting to be discovered. Everywhere you turned, it was like your eyes were tearing the shimmering wrapping off a beautiful gift – a Renaissance sculpture over here, a Baroque fountain over there… a fresco-filled cathedral, a towering column, a monument of astonishing grandeur, or even a fragile archeological treasure that was still being unearthed. Everything was indescribably striking, and every time we stumbled across something totally unexpected, it felt almost magical.
The ancient city is also a photographer’s dream, especially for one who fancies art and architecture. Each morning, the sunrays would dance through the wrinkles of intricate marble sculptures; in the late afternoon, the warm light illuminated the imposing cathedral domes… and all of it was just breathtaking. To say the least, I was overwhelmed with amazement as I darted wide-eyed around the city, my trusty Nikon (and Stephan) flailing behind in the early autumn breeze.
Perhaps our favorite part of Rome was wandering without a destination around the smaller neighborhoods, exploring some of the more isolated churches, piazzas, fountains, and alleyways as we went. On our first morning, I found myself particularly taken with the Church of Saint Ignatius, a 17th-century cathedral that we fortuitously stumbled upon not too far from the Pantheon. The pulpit was just spectacular, adorned with soaring, gold-framed frescoes that glimmered in the soft glow of the crystal chandeliers, as organ music echoed through the domes. Throughout the smaller side chapels, eye-catching, hand-sculpted trees were showcased as part of a temporary art exhibit, each symbolizing a different virtuous quality.
As we poked around some of Rome’s more secluded streets, we made a point to visit a number of the Seven Hills of Rome. Although most of the hills are no longer discernable as such, each is the site of a unique monument, park, or historic relic. We made it to five of the seven hills (Palatine, Capitoline, Viminal, Esquiline, and Aventine), as well as Janiculum Hill which, across the Tiber and outside the limits of the city center, is not one of the official seven. Janiculum was quite beautiful though. The second-tallest hill around Rome, the avenue leading to the crest is lined with lofty trees whose gnarled branches form an enchanting canopy above the narrow road. Atop the hill, we were greeted by an enormous statue dedicated to the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi, as well as an attractive panorama overlooking the ornate domes of the city center. Also one of our favorites, Aventine Hill was the scenic knoll where mythological Remus wished to establish the ancient city of Rome. His brother, Romulus, though, favored Palatine Hill, and the intense disagreement ultimately led to Romulus killing Remus, and to the establishment of Rome atop Palatine Hill. Today, in addition to the lasting legend, Aventine Hill boasts a lovely little park, the Orange Garden (Giardino degli Aranci), as well as a unique perspective of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica – framed ethereally through a small keyhole in an unassuming wooden door.
In addition to exploring Rome’s streets and monuments, we also took some time to meander along the Tiber’s edge, crisscrossing back and forth over the many bridges that span the mighty river. Some were adorned with ornate sculptures (the St. Angelo and Victor Emmanuel II Bridges), while others were more modest, stone spans (the Sisto and Cestio Bridges). One with an especially impressive bit of history, though, is the Ponte Rotto (‘Broken Bridge’). Originally called the Pons Aemilius (Emilian Bridge), the bridge was constructed in 179 B.C. and is one of the few surviving pieces of architecture from the city’s Republican period. While only a single fornix of the original span remains (the significantly newer (19th century) Ponte Palatino stands nearby), it’s incredible to think that any stonework continually subjected to the Tiber’s unrelenting strength could endure for some 2200 years.
One of the most extraordinary and intriguing features of Rome, though, had to be the numerous archeological sites that sprang up indiscriminately amidst major thoroughfares and piazzas. It was incredible to be walking around admiring the architecture, only to be caught off-guard by a collection of columns and artifacts that were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. The exhumed Area Sacra dell’Argentina is thought to be the ancient location of the Theater of Pompey, the site of Julius Caesar’s tragic assassination. Primitive podiums, Corinthian columns, and majestic horse statues adorn both the Forum of Trajan (112–113 A.D.) and the sprawling Forum of Augustus (42–2 B.C.). Staring down into the excavation sites, I suddenly felt again as if I’d missed out on one of the exhilarating careers I longed to pursue when I was a kid (archaeologist ranking right up there with astronaut, oceanographer, and race car driver).
As much as we enjoyed somewhat aimlessly wandering the streets of Rome and uncovering some of the city’s less-visited treasures, we obviously also had to check out some of Rome’s more iconic (and consequently more crowded) sights. Perhaps the most congested, and most confusingly so, were the Spanish Steps, a flight of 138 steps that were built in the 18th century (1723–1725) to link the Trinita dei Monti with the neighboring Spanish Square. Apparently, many authors and artists have discovered inspiration here, though I must admit, we didn’t understand the appeal. It was a staircase… and a crowded one at that. Here is our one ‘classic’ photograph of the famed Spanish Steps, unappealingly saturated with tourists:
And here are my more unconventional photographs of the Spanish Steps. I whole-heartedly recommend the following angles for photographers endeavoring to acquire a people-free photo (rolls eyes cynically):
Just a few blocks from the outwardly lackluster staircase stands the Trevi Fountain, a Baroque masterpiece of travertine stone that was installed in the mid-1700s near the site of an ancient Roman aqueduct. The archaic conduit was constructed around 19 B.C., after a young virgin directed Roman soldiers to a vital freshwater source some 13 km (8 miles) from the city center. Today, the towering water feature stretches 86 x 161 feet (26 x 49 meters) across an old city block, luring visitors to its edge to toss a coin over their shoulders, an act that supposedly ensures a return visit to Rome. After each cheerfully tossing our coins, we speculated as to just how much change was flung into the fountain daily, and were shocked to learn that it totaled about 3,000 € (currently about $3,400 USD) each day. Provided that number reflects an accurate daily average, the fountain consequently amasses some 1.1 million € (about $1.2M USD) annually. Much to our delight, a small plaque in front of the fountain states that all the collected coinage is donated to charity. It turns out a local aid organization works with a major supermarket to subsidize rechargeable grocery cards to help feed those in need. We thought that was a fabulous idea – way to go, Rome.
Likely the most prominent Roman landmark, the Colosseum was one of the grandest arenas of its time. Construction began around 70 A.D. under the emperor Vespasian and, astonishingly, took less than one decade to complete, under the rule of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. The ‘Flavian Amphitheater’ was dedicated in 80 A.D. as a gift to the Roman public, in an effort to improve morale following the callous ruling of Emperor Nero. Seating some 40,000–70,000 spectators according to social hierarchy, the ovoid stone and concrete structure hosted battles between gladiators (often matched against wild animals) for nearly five centuries.
Just west of the imposing Colosseum, tucked between Palatine and Capitoline Hills, stand the remains of the Roman Forum, a significant site during the city’s Republican period, from the 5th to 1st century B.C. We spent a few hours meandering the various ruins – of basilicas, temples, The Curia (Senate meetinghouse), and a host of public buildings which, together, provided a shared space for community meetings, worship, markets, and a court of law. During its long history, many of the Forum’s buildings had to be reconstructed time and time again, due to fires and civil discord. Today, the vestiges are an intriguing place to visit, and each set of ruins possesses a unique character and history. The Temple of Romulus was dedicated by Emperor Maxentius to his deceased son and, astonishingly, still features the original brass doors (307 A.D.). At the Temple of Vesta, a cult of Vestal Virgins fastidiously tended to a sacred fire, said to symbolize the city’s undying strength. Regal columns still stand at the sites of the Temple of Vespasian (dedicated to their father by Titus and Domitian), the Temple of Castor and Pollux (dedicated to Jupiter’s two sons for their aid in battling the Latins and Etruscans), and the Temple of Saturn, which once housed the State Treasury. Even the smaller pieces that are scattered about the Forum are particularly interesting, with well-preserved carvings and inscriptions highlighting the fine detail that went into to each construction.
Finally, another must-see for many visitors to Rome is Saint Peter’s Basilica, across the river in Vatican City. While the present basilica was consecrated in 1626, the old Saint Peter’s Basilica dates to the 4th century A.D. With Saint Peter’s tomb believed to buried directly beneath the high altar, papal inaugurations have been held at the site since Early Christianity. We planned our visit to the Vatican for a morning when Pope Francis was delivering one of his traditional ‘Papal Audiences,’ where he delivers a message of his choosing (often describing a recent event he has attended or country he’s visited) to an assembly of worshippers, then confers a special blessing onto the visitors and their families. As suggested by the U.S. Bishops’ office in Rome, we arrived just after 6 a.m. – before sunrise and nearly four hours before the start of the Audience. Remarkably, we found ourselves already 50–100 people back in one of four security lines, a spot that was ultimately good enough to earn us a seat six rows back, near the center, on an aisle. It felt kind of surreal to attend a papal event in St. Peter’s Square, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience of attending the morning assembly.
Following the ceremony, we spent the afternoon visiting the basilica and the nearby Vatican Museum, home to an unbelievable body of art, including Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel. The largest church in the world, St. Peter’s certainly was impressive, with its gilded, fresco-covered domes, intricate arched ceilings, statue-filled inlays, and colossal wooden altar. Even more exceptional, though, was the Vatican Museum. I am quite certain a person could visit the museum every day for month and still not see everything in complete detail. The Octagonal Courtyard is a lovely little terrace featuring immaculate, marble sculptures dating back centuries. In addition to the Sistine Chapel, I think my favorite piece of art was in this courtyard – a figure titled ‘River God (Arno)’ and sculpted by an unknown artist around the time of Emperor Hadrian’s rule (2nd century A.D.). While some portions were restored by various artists during the Renaissance, the detail is just exquisite (that beard… seriously?), and you can almost feel the emotion in the god’s facial features. The rest of the museum is just as breathtaking; tiptoeing down never-ending hallways, we were dwarfed by giant tapestries and murals that were meters tall. On the ceiling of the Gallery of Tapestries, trompe-l’oeil shrewdly deceived your eyes, convincingly giving the impression that the delicately-painted figures had been sculpted over the length of the arched interior. In the Gallery of Maps, a collage of religious scenes arranged in flawlessly-precise geometric patterns decorated the vaulted ceiling, while the walls were swathed with maps detailing each Italian province. Just beyond the expansive galleries (and before reaching the Sistine Chapel), the four Raphael Rooms sat waiting to be admired. With frescoes that blanketed every centimeter of wall and ceiling in each of the rooms, the works took the artist and his students some 16 years to complete (1508–1524). Needless to say, it was overwhelming trying to decide where to focus your attention.
While the entire museum was just spectacular, the Sistine Chapel has to rank fairly high on the list of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. At one point, I could feel my eyes welling up with tears, though I couldn’t begin to imagine any piece of art affecting me like that. I guess when you see something of such magnitude, it’s as if you can actually feel the artist’s soul, as every ounce of his being had to have been poured into that room. The scale and the detail of the paintings are mindboggling, and the use of shadows and light on the figures is simply breathtaking. Aside from the incredible talent and thoughtfulness that went into creating the masterpiece, it had to have been an exhausting amount of work. Michelangelo dedicated four years of his life (1508–1512) to creating the piece at the request of Pope Julius II. A part of me can’t imagine he could have completed such a staggering task in a mere four years; then another part of me thinks about just how long four years is, and how tedious it must have seemed at times (I can’t imagine working on ONE four-year experiment). Regardless, what an absolutely tremendous accomplishment. The one downside was that the chapel was, as expected, filled with other awestruck tourists, their necks craned skyward as guards commanded silence and a refrain from photography. All I could think was how awesome it would be to stand there alone in pure silence, enveloped by the paintings… to turn in circles with my arms outstretched freely as the scenes whirled above my head, before finally sprawling out on my back in the center of the cold floor and staring upward for as long as I wanted.
Obviously all of this sightseeing required some serious fuel, and luckily Rome is a fantastic place to be when you’re hungry – not to mention great for vegetarians if you are satisfied with an endless offering of Pomodoro pasta and creamy gelato. This vegetarian was certainly pleased with the city’s food scene, anyway. We found a couple of charming little cafes in Trastevere, a quiet little neighborhood just across the Tiber from the bustling city center. Here we found some traditional homemade pastas and pizza that were quite delicious, as well as Pianostrada Laboratorio di Cucina – a quirky, hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop that offered some truly unique creations. The two women who own Pianostrada were incredibly friendly, and Stephan was more than satisfied with his pane mare – a fusion of smoked swordfish, fresh mozzarella, arugula, fig jam, rosemary, and pink peppercorn oil, all sandwiched between a seed-laden bun infused with octopus ink. The day we visited the Vatican, we stopped for lunch at Bonci Pizzarium, an impressive little pizza joint a couple kilometers up the road. Their selection was fairly amazing, with crisp, thin-crust dough heaped with a dizzying array of toppings and combinations. With no indoor seating, you grab your slice (priced by weight) and head for the handful of outdoor (standing) tables that line the sidewalk. Much to Stephan’s delight, just a few hundred meters from Pizzarium was a small Sicilian bakery with an expansive dessert case brimming with cannolis. While his attempts to find the perfect cannoli in Florence had been largely disappointing, the one at La Pasticceria Siciliana left him beaming with happiness (and ordering a second).
If it wasn’t obvious from the quantity of pictures slammed into this blog entry, we were clearly enamored with Italy’s celebrated capital. They city is just a veritable feast for the eyes (and the camera lens), and a true treasure for those who adore history and art. Our biggest piece of advice if you’re visiting the city – get away from the five or six main tourist sites, and just wander around the smaller churches and streets… I promise, you’ll be sure to find your own little slice of heaven in Rome.