Though most of the buildings in Michelangelo’s piazza on Campidoglio [Capitoline hill] date from the Renaissance, the hill was once the epicentre of the Roman Empire, the place where the city’s first and holiest temples stood, including its most sacred, the Tempio di Giove [Temple of Jupiter]. By the Middle Ages, the Campidoglio had fallen into ruin. In 1547, Pope Paul III (1468-1549) decided to restore its grandeur for the triumphal entry into the city of Charles V (1500-1558), the Holy Roman Emperor. He called upon Michelangelo to create the Cordonata [the monumental staircase ramp], the edifices and facades on the three sides of the Campidoglio, the slightly convex pavement and its decoration, and the pedestal for the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the only surviving example of the many bronze equestrian statues which once adorned Rome. As Michelangelo’s pre-eminent urban set piece, the piazza and its buildings sums up all the majesty of High Renaissance Rome. In spite of changing events and historic conditions, it has remained at the very centre of Roman life. Today, it is the headquarters of the mayor and municipality of modern Rome.
The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, also called the Vittoriano, was built in 1911 to commemorate the Italian Unification. Rising from the foot of the Capitoline hill, the building’s two colossal chariots are surmounted by winged Victories, the dark bronze contrasting with white marble starkly visible against the city’s skyline. At its centre is the Altar of the Fatherland and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In what was once a marshy valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills, the Roman Forum or Foro Romano was the civic heart of Republican Rome and the austere enclave that grew up under the emperors in the 1st to the 4th Century. Now it is a series of ruins, marble fragments, isolated columns, and occasional paving stones. Yet it once was filled with stately and magnificent buildings—temples, palaces, shops—and crowded with people from all corners of the world. Here was the Senate and the golden Milestone from which all roads to the Roman Empire led out from. The Arch of Septimus Severus, Titus and Constantine, though worn down with the centuries, still stand as splendid testimonials to their time.
Just adjacent to the Forum is the Colosseum. Massive and majestic, ancient Rome’s most famous monument was begun by the Flavian emperor Vespasian in 72 AD and inaugurated eight years later. More than 80,000 spectators could sit within the arena, which was faced with marble, decorated with hundreds of statues, and had awnings to protect the audience from the sun and rain. It is elliptical in shape: 187 meters at its longest end and 155 meters at its shortest. The height of the external ring is 50 meters high. Around the exterior run three rows of arches with Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns respectively, and a fourth floor with Corinthian pilasters. Of the 80 arches that make up the ring, four correspond to the entrances at the four axes, of which only the entrance of honour reserved for the emperor remains. In the middle of the podium was the emperor’s seat, the rest was occupied by senators and members of the court. There were special places for civil and military officials, men and women. The favourite spectacles in Roman times were gladiatorial fights.
Trajan’s Forum was built by the Emperor Trajan to celebrate his triumph against the Dacians in 105 AD by cutting away 61 million cubic meters of earth and rock, a good portion of the Quirinal hill. The greatest monument to his victory was a column comprising 19 blocks of marble and a spiral staircase leading to the top. The ashes of the emperor were set into its base and his statue stood on the apex. A helicoidal band of figures spiral around the column, documenting the arms, art and costumes of the Romans and Dacians, the bridges Trajan constructed, and the fortresses and camps he attacked. Julius Caesar, Augustus and Nerva also built forums in Rome.
The Pantheon is the city’s only architecturally intact monument from Classical times. Initially built by Agrippa in 27 BC, the present building was redesigned by Hadrian in the 2nd Century. The interior measures 43.4 meters in width and height. The cupola is in fact a dome; its thickness diminishing as it rises. Light and air enter through an opening in the top, almost nine meters across in width. Raphael (1483-1520), the most popular amongst all painters in the world, is buried inside. His epigraph says, “Here lies Raphael. Living, great nature feared he might out-vie her works, and dying, fears she herself may die.” Nearby is the tomb of his fiancée who died three months before him. The first king of Italy, Victor Emanuele II of Savoy is also buried here.
There is no road with more interesting archaeological and artistic elements than the Appian Way. Proudly called the ‘queen of all roads’, it was began by Appius Claudius in 312 BC. Tombs of patrician families used to once line its sides. The first part of the road passes by the Baths of Caracalla which were opened by the emperor Caracalla in the 3rd Century. Encased in basalt, granite and alabaster, the enormous hot, warm and cold water baths could accommodate 1,600 people at a time. Splendid vaults, porticoes and gymnasiums were decorated with precious marble, columns and beautiful statues. Further up the Appian Way is the chapel of Quo Vadis, built on the site where according to legend St. Peter had a vision of Christ. Nero’s persecution of the Christians had forced St. Peter to abandon Rome. Just a short way away from the city walls he met another traveller who was walking towards Rome. St. Peter recognised him and asked him “Domine Quo Vadis?” [Oh Lord, where are you going?] Jesus responded: “I’m going to Rome to be crucified a second time!”
Some of the best known Roman catacombs, ancient Christian subterranean cemeteries, lie beneath this ancient road. The term Catacomb is derived from the Greek kata cymba meaning ‘near the cavity’. The catacombs were greatly expanded with the spread of Christianity in Rome. They were carved out on various levels for kilometres, creating an extricable spider web in which it is easy to lose one’s way. I visited the Catacombs of Domitilla named after a Christian lady and member of the Imperial Flavian family who used to own the land. These are possibly the most extensive catacombs in Rome, running for many kilometres at end. Yellow lights illuminate narrow damp cold passages hemmed with countless tombs and coffins. The 4th Century Basilicas of Sts. Nereus and Achilleus are also situated here. They were discovered in the 19th century and subsequently restored.
As part of my Christian tour of Rome I also visited a number of less touristy churches. The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the fourth largest church in Rome and the largest dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The Basilica, also called Liberiana was built by Pope Sixtus III in the 5th Century. Apart from some decorations it is the only basilica which still retains its original shape and character and is associated with a miracle. In August 356 AD, the Virgin appeared in a dream before Pope Liberius and commanded him to build a church on the site where it would snow the following day. By the way it never snows in Rome. The legend is represented in the medieval mosaics in the portico. The Romanesque campanile [bell tower] is the tallest in Rome. The inside is decorated with mosaics dating back to the 5th Century.
The Church of St. Peter in Chains was built with the generosity of an imperial matron, Eudoxia, to house the chains used by Herod to hold Peter. They were sent to Eudoxia by her mother who had received them from a bishop in Jerusalem. Pope Julius II had commissioned Michelangelo to build him a funeral monument, and the first statue by the artist, Moses, stands here. It was meant to be the central figure of a huge mausoleum containing 40 other such. The tomb was instead erected in the church with rather minimal trimmings. The strong and secure Moses is portrayed in a very simple position. Yet it exudes majesty and strength, and is one of Michelangelo’s finest works.
The Lateran was the residence of the Popes until 1309, when the papacy was transferred to Avignon. San Giovanni in Laterano [St. John in the Lateran] was founded by Emperor Constantine as the Basilica of the Saviour during the 4th Century. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times thereafter; the current version dates to the 17th Century. The statue of Constantine in the portico and the bronze doors are Roman. The most striking parts of the interior are the series of statues of the apostles set into niches framed by green marble columns, sumptuous gilded ceiling and the mosaic floor. Across the piazza is the building containing the Scala Santa [holy staircase] thought to be the same flight of steps which Jesus ascended in the house of Pontius Pilate. It was brought to Rome by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine. The 28 steps may only be ascended kneeling.
For centuries, the Scalinata di Spagna—Spanish Steps—has been the place to see and be seen. In fact it is much akin to an outdoor ultra chic club with everyone dressed to kill in designer wear, seated on the steps and ravenously checking out each other. It vibes with an air of tense excitement as crowds start gathering from early evening onwards and hang around till late night. Count me in as part of those crowds on one such Italian evening. Facing the steps is the via condotti where the premier fashion houses of Italy have their shops and showrooms. During fashion season, fashion shows are held on the street with super models displaying leading designers’ new collections. At the top of the staircase [divided by three landings] is the Church of Trinità dei Monti (15th Century) and in the Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish Steps is the Fountain of the Broken Boat.
The famed 17th Century Piazza Navona, which traces the oval form of Emperor Domitian’s stadium that once occupied this site and held 30,000 spectators, is one of Rome’s show-piece attractions. Three magnificent fountains in marble embellish the piazza. In the centre is the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini, who designed it as a base for an Egyptian obelisk. The four figures seated on the rocks represent the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata. To the south is the Fountain of the Moor and to the north is the Fountain of the Coppersmiths. The Church of St. Agnes facing the square is an excellent example of the Baroque style by G. Rainaldi and Borromini. Piazza Navona still has the carefree air of the days when it was the scene of Roman circus games, medieval jousts, and 17th Century carnivals. At night, it takes on the festive air of a crowded outdoor party. The piazza often attracts fashion photographers and Romans out for their evening passeggiata [promenade]. I had the most divine Lasagna Bolognese in one of the many cafes and trattorias lining the square. No one quite makes pasta like they do in Roma!
In contrast, the Piazza del Popolo, dating to the 19th Century is vast, architecturally grand and perfectly symmetrical, and is built into one of the many doors of the ancient city walls. At its epicentre is the second obelisk brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus. This is and always has been where the common Roman goes to with his family and pets for his evening stroll.
No trip to Rome could be complete without the customary throwing of coins into the Fontana di Trevi [Trevi Fountain], tucked away off Via del Tritone in a minuscule piazza. The fountain is a spectacular fantasy of mythical sea creatures amidst cascades of splashing waters. I faithfully threw in three coins so I would return some day.
Rome has the wonderful ability to make one love life, filling one with a sense of continuity through time, faith and la dolce vita! Whether its the arts, monuments, churches and lively squares or music and wine and good food, there is a passion for life which permeates everything and anything, making one feel blissfully alive.
Just outside Rome is the Villa d‘Este which was conceived and commissioned by Ippolito d’Este II in the 16th Century—a cardinal, clergyman and diplomat. Elected Governor of Tivoli, he decided to build a new villa in Tivoli with an extraordinary garden filled with wonderfully playful fountains. Of the numerous fountains, the most charming are the semi-circular Fountain of the Ovato, Fountain of Neptune and the Hundred Fountains. Lucretia, his mother, is one of the most memorable figures from Italian history. Her entire life was controlled by her brother and father who forced her to get married and then for political reasons forced her to get divorced, and marry another. But in the case of her second marriage she fell in love with her husband and refused to leave him despite all their pressurising. Soon after he died she remarried once again and moved to d’Este.
Note: My camera got damaged whilst travelling through Greece and Italy. I have, hence, instead used photos from various guides and museum books for my Italy web pages as per the credits.