When In Rome…

The sheer weight of human history, art and culture in Rome is almost overwhelming.  Fortunately, it’s balanced by an equal amount of traffic and food options *grin*.  And if the word that comes to mind when we think of Paris is “parks”, the word that jumps out when describing Rome would have to be “statues”.  They – are – everywhere!

Our tour began on day one at the Piazza del Popolo where we discovered our first church (Santa Maria Dei Miracoli, since you asked).  Rome wins when it comes to statues, sure, but just as incredible are the churches.  If you stick your head into any nondescript church you happen to pass, you are rewarded with stunning works of art, carved marble, and architecture from all ages of history.  Adding to this sense of timelessness are the robed priests and monks everywhere – even next to you on the sidewalk.

Continuing on, we took in the Spanish steps and the famous boat-shaped fountain there.  We learned (thanks to the local polizia) that while the steps are lovely to sit on and people-watch, you are not allowed to eat on them.  Next was the Trevi fountain – Stephanie’s favorite fountain in the world.  This thing is huge, and the water thunders over the rocks and carvings.  It’s a place you could easily spend the afternoon, just watching the water flow.

After another surprisingly stunning church (San Ignazio de Loyola), we found ourselves at the Pantheon – so named because the niches around the enormous dome once held statues of all the Roman gods.  The only opening for light is a hole at the top of the dome, yet, perhaps due to the shape and size of the dome, the entire place feels filled with light.  This is where the sense of history really hit us for the first time.  The Pantheon was completed in its current form in 126 AD.  That means this thing has been here for almost two thousand years.  In ancient times, when ancient people ran around in ancient clothes and did ancient things, this building was here and in use, and somehow, without modern technology, these ancient people knew how to fill the building with light using just one hole in the ceiling.  It’s a bit mind-boggling.

Day #2 brought rain.  Well, I guess it was about time.  We have had about three rainy days this entire time in Europe, so I suppose we were due.  We headed to the Vatican museums to take in some indoor sights.  We had heard about the legendary queues to get into see the treasures of the Vatican, so we resolved to be there at 8:30 for 9:00AM opening.  We got there at 8:55, and the line already stretched down the street and around the corner.  Someone in line said, “Don’t worry, it moves quickly.  It should only take about 20 minutes.”  An hour later we finally got inside.  The wait was totally worth it.  We met some fun people in line who wanted to know all about Couch Surfing, and the Vatican museums are amazing.

First up was a gallery of statues.  The statues were just what you would expect when you picture ancient Rome, but I was a bit disappointed by the willful damage to so many classical statues.  Like the Greeks before them, the Romans often depicted men nude in their sculptures.  Along came the early Christian Church and decided that such classical nudity was offensive, and so there are many examples where the men’s genitalia had been chiseled off and replaced with a crudely attached, carved fig leaf.

The breadth of the collection in the Vatican Museums is stunning.  They contain everything from Egyptian mummies to Greek sarcophagi to tapestries to maps to illuminated manuscripts.  Sometimes the highly detailed ceilings alone seem like part of the museums.  All of this certainly made up for the fig leaves in my opinion.

The highlight, of course, is the Sistine Chapel.  We have all seen Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” but it is just one of dozens of biblical paintings adorning the chapel from both the Old and New Testaments.  The biggest and most elaborate is Michaleangelo’s “The Last Judgement” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_%28Michelangelo%29).  This fresco takes up an entire wall, and is the sort of work you can stare at for hours and constantly discover new things in it.  Once again, Stephanie declared a new worldwide favorite.

The Vatican also contains the Stanze de Rafaello – several rooms painted by Raphael.  Most well known is his “School of Athens,” which depicts philosophers debating (and accepting) Christianity as the ultimate truth.  More impressive to me was the opposite wall of the room – a fresco called “Disputation of the Sacrament” which is a multilayered depiction of heaven and earth all revolving around the eucharist.  Raphael really knew how to capture a moment in time – even a theoretical one.

Day #3 – First up was a stop at Piaza Navona to see the large and ornate Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).  This fountain came second in line only to Trevi Fountain.  It has four enormous statues – one at each corner – each a personification of one of the major world rivers of the time. Next we returned to Vatican City to see St. Peter’s Basilica.  The basilica is enormous, and filled with equally enormous sculptures.  There is pink granite everywhere but a lack of the paintings and gilding of many of the other churches we saw in Rome.

After a break from touring for a relaxing weekend with our host, we went to see the biggest draw in Rome – the Roman Forum, Palatine hill, and the Colosseum.  We made what turned out to be a good decision, and arrived at the forum before it opened.  Not only were we there before the crowds, but we got to enjoy the ruins of ancient Rome in the fabulous morning sunlight.

The Roman Forum was the hub of ancient Rome, and contains all kinds of temples of monuments including the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Temple of Saturn. We also saw the Temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestal Virgins – charged with keeping Vesta’s sacred flame alight.  These women were punished by being buried alive if they broke their vows of chastity!  Palatine Hill was *the* address to have in ancient Rome.  There, among gardens and ancient fountains are the Hut of Romulus – the oldest dwelling in Rome, dating to 1000 BC, and the house of Augustus with two-thousand-year-old frescoes.

The Colosseum was just incredible.  The engineering details from 126 AD make you realize just how advanced the ancient Romans really were.  The floors had a complex system of winches and elevators to raise and lower the combatants and the condemned – people and animals – to the floor. There were awnings that could be adjusted to protect the spectators from the sun.  Most impressively, the entire Colosseum could be flooded to recreate naval battles.

While in Rome, our favorite saying was, you guessed it, “When in Rome!”  It was admittedly a bit exciting and fun to say it over and over and not have it be just a cliché.  We worked extra hard to follow it.  We ate pizza and gelato, we waited in some of the most ridiculous traffic I have ever run across (or as the people of Rome call it: just another random Tuesday night), and we developed an appreciation for the history that was all around us.  Considering we each have just a few versatile outfits that work for any occasion though, I think we may have failed when it came to fashion there!


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