La Dolce Vita

It’s a beautiful sunny day when I arrive at the centre of ancient Rome. It’s an odd experience seeing so many ancient buildings that remain largely intact; I begin by walking round the Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine before walking round the Palatine Hill; the Severian Palace, and the Circus Maximus. Finally, I walk around the Forum; the Curia, the Arches of Titus and Septimus Severus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina the House of the Vestals, the Temple of Saturn and the Basilica of Maxentius. The sub burns fiercely but I can stop at the Farnese Gardens with its Papyrus grasses and Bougainvillea where there is a fountain from which cold water gushes out. The Coliseum has a small exhibition with sculptures of Jupiter and Ganymede, Ptolemy and Sappho; I’m amused by a cat sneaking into the shadows. I’m more surprised by the Kestrel I see resting on the Palatine ruins. I then go for a walk into the Capital, past modern sculptures of Augustus, Nerva and Trajan that overlook the forum of Augustus, the Torre delle Milizie and Trajan’s markets. I then come to Trajan’s column and the Victor Emmanuel monument. Augustus said that he left Rome clad in marble; the ruins I saw that day were mostly bereft of their marble cladding leaving burnt red brick beneath. But the Victor Emmanuel monument perhaps gives a good idea of what the original buildings might have looked like; in truth, the building is rather brusquely grandiose, mostly reminding me of the works of Stalin or Ceaucescu. Lastly that day, I walk round to the church of Santa Maria in Aracaoeli and the Piazza del Campidoglio with its statues of the Dioscuri. I walk down the Aracoeli staircase past the Theatre of Marcellus to the church of Santa Maria Cosmedin and the nearby temples of Heracles and Portunus.

The following day, I travel away from the centre of Rome out to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. There’s a military ceremony commemorating the liberation of Italy after WW2 in a nearby park and I go to have a look at the nearby Protestant cemetery. This is also a cat sanctuary so the place is filled with cats snoozing in the shade. It feels more like a garden than a cemetery; Pomegranate trees grow throughout and flowers bloom in the midst of weeping angels and the graves of Keats and Shelley. I walk on to the church of San Saba with its frescos, and the church of Santa Maria in Dominica with its mosaics, before arriving at the Baths of Caracalla. Though not as intact as the Coliseum, the baths are on a larger scale and much of the mosaic flooring remains in situ. I then walk past the Lateran obelisk to the cathedral of San Giovanni with its coffered ceiling; I especially like the cloisters with its sculptures of lions and sphinxes. I then walk onwards to San Maria Maggiore with its mosaics before going to St Paul Within the Walls; it’s rather odd to see a Burne Jones design fitting in so neatly in a Roman surround, especially when the church otherwise has so many of the hallmarks of GE Street. Nearby is another highlight from my visit; the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane; here, Borromini’s designs put me in mind of an Italian Hawksmoor. The interior is austere with a pure white predominating in much the same way as in English Baroque. From here, I walk to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This is perhaps only notable for two things; the fact that it is constructed out of the Baths of Diocletian and the Mitoraj sculptures. The Mitoraj sculptures on the door are a golden bronze that shines in the afternoon sunlight, while one of them on the interior is a brilliant white in the light that floods down in the gloom of one of the side chapels. Lastly, I visit Santa Prassede with its frescoed naves and mosaic ceiling in its side chapels, the church of San Martino ai Monti and San Clemente with the Mithraeum deep beneath the church.

The following day I visit St Peters and walk around for a while outside alongside its colonnades and Egytpian obelisk. After a rather long queue through airport style security to get in, I get inside to see Michaelangelo’s Pieta and the statue of St Peter. The cavernous interior is rather dark, lit by flashes of lit beaming through the windows of Michaelangelo’s dome. I proceed down to the Necropolis and the tomb of St Peter and re-emerge blinking into the sunlight. After that, I walk down towards the Tiber and the Castel San Angelo. The interior of the mausoleum is less like a castle and more like a labyrinth; I find that I frequently have to reverse course and retrace my steps. The interior encompasses a beautiful hall filled with wall frescoes of Hadrian and various mythological figures, a strange modern exhibition with pocket watches suspended from the ceiling and, of course, the chamber where Hadrian’s ashes were probably interred. I then walk over the bridge filled with Bernini’s angels and walk for a bit along the Tiber. Eventually, I come to the Ara Pacis. The gleaming modern pavilion seems somewhat at odds with the overgrown wilderness of the Augustus mausoleum next to it, but on the inside it does showcase the marble reliefs and bucrania freezes. I then decide to go for a walk through the centre of modern Rome, beginning at the Piazza del Popolo with its Sphinxes and Egyptian obelisk, before visiting the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Sant Agnese, Sant Agostino the column of Marcus Aurelius and the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a particularly striking experience; although adapted to serve as a church, the interior remains much the same as it was during the Empire. I also look seeing Sant Ivo alla Sapienza; again, this Borromini design reminds me of Hawksmoor, particularly the way All Soul’s College is framed by its cloisters. Other highlights include the gothic church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva; the whimsical Egyptian obelisk balanced on the back of an elephant is counterpointed by a gloomy dark gothic interior filled with tombs and monuments. Lastly that day I visit Trajan’s markets. Once again, the interior is surprisingly well preserved with a central vaulted arcade and long passageways, which lead out into a garden at the base of the Torre delle Milizie and down to the forum.

The next day, I visit the capitol. I’m amuse by the presence of the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus recreated as topiary and have a look around the Mamertine prison before going into Capitoline Museum. There’s an exhibition about the work of Michaelangelo on; including his busts of Brutus (compared to a rather more vulpine Roman version) and his (somewhat excessively muscular) statue of christ. Other highlights of my visit are the original Roman wolf, a bust of Medusa, statues of Tritons alongside a golden Hercules, the original equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, frescos of Hannibal and his elephants, the giant bust of Constantine, the Capitoline Venus, a bust of an Amazon warrior, the flayed statued of Marysas, Egyptian Sphinxes & Scarabs, the dying Gaul, the famous fountain statue of Mars, mosaics of tigers devouring antelopes. Upstairs, I also enjoy paintings by Reni, Caravaggio, Veronese and Pietro di Cortona. Afterwards, I visit the Arch of Janus before walking across the Tiber and visiting San Bartolomeo on the Isola Tiberina before visiting the Trastevere area of Rome. I start by visiting Santa Cecilia in Trastevere with its Bernini statue of the saint (I later see a copy in the saint’s tomb in the catacombs) before visiting Santa Maria in Trastevere with its wonderful mosaics. Walking back into the centre of Rome I walk past the Cat Sanctuary (not a great of energetic activity going on here) and the church of San Marco.

The following day is forecast to be rainy and I decide to visit the Vatican Musuem. After a rather tedious hour long wait, I finally get into the Egyptian section (possibly not the best idea; the crowds make it feel more like a visit to Oxford street than anything else). The highlights here are several Egyptian sarcophagi and statues of Anubis, Ptolemy and Antinous, before I proceed through the Assyrian and Palmyran sections to the sculpture gallery. This has sculptures and statues of most ancient mythological and historical figures; Ganymede, Paris, Athena, Augustus and Dionysus catchy my eye. I pause outside to look at the courtyard of the pines with the ancient lions of Nectanebo counterpointed by the modern scupture by Pomidoro in the centre of the courtyard before I walk onto the octagonal court with the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon. Returning inside, I walk through the room of the Muses to the Rotunda with its statues of Antinous, Hercules, Augustus, Claudius and the Roman mosaic at its centre. I leave this section by walking past the sarcophagi of Helena & Constance before visiting the Etruscan section. I find myself lingering for a while here, mostly as the relative peace and quiet makes it much easier to enjoy the exhibits. Amongst the works I like here are a bronze statue of Mars, funerary sculptures, bronze bosses and lion sculptures. I then walk through the galleries of tapestries and maps into the apartments with their frescos by Raphael and Pinturicchio. Eventually, this leads to the gallery of contemporary art, virtually all of which has few obvious connections to catholicism; paintings by Bacon, Van Gogh, Sutherland, Dali and Matisse. Finally, this leads to the Sistine chapel. Lastly, I come to the Pinacoteca; paintings by Lippi, Gozzoli, Vivarini, Raphael, da Vinci, Reni and Caravaggio.

The following day and I complete my visits to the main museums of Rome with Palazzo Massimo. The undoubted highlight is the frescos from the House of Livia, with their detailed depictions of trees, flowers and birds. Running close to this is the Discobulus statue, the veiled statue of Augustus, the Niobid, the bronze sculptures of the boxer and Hellenistic prince, a bust of Sappho, bronzes from the Nemi ships, a relief of Antinous, the sleeping hermaphrodite, frescos from the Farensina villa and the vast marble sarcophagus. I briefly visit the church of Santa Maria Della Victoria before walking out of the city along the Aurelian wall and the Via Appia Antica towards the catacombs. Firstly, I visit the catacombs of San Callisto with the crypt of the Popes and of Saint Cecilia before visiting the catacombs of Saint Sebastiano, with its frescoed pagan tombs. The sculpture of Sebastian in the church above is quite extraordinary, being far more openly sexual than the similar sculpture of Cecilia. Lastly, I visit the tomb of Cecilia Metella.

The next day, I visit the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, with its mosaics, ceiling frescos before heading out to Rome’s botanical gardens. Black and green lizards near ponds and a turtle basks on a stone in the middle of a lake in the Japanese garden. Koi carp swim lazily below. The lily flowers are about to seed while the date palms above are filled with fruit. After this, I visit the Palazzo Barberini, stopping to visit the Gesu church on the way. The Palazzo’s twinned staircases by Bernini and Borromini buttress an interior filled with frescos by Pietro da Cortona. I particularly note paintings by Lippi, Sodoma, Holbein (oddly, a painting of Henry the Eighth), Bronzino, Tintoretto,El Greco, Titian, Reni, Caravaggio and Salvator Rosa. Finally, I take the metro out to EUR. It’s an odd place; long boulevards lined with austere monumental architecture but with no pedestrians. The traffic is incredibly busy though, so crossing a road takes quite a while. On my final day in Rome, I visit the Borghese gardens and the Etruscan museum at the Villa Giulia. This is particularly notable for a preserved tomb interior complete with frescos, funerary sculptures, bronze bosses and sculptures from preserved temples. I particularly like a plate with an elephant leading its young on it.