Rome in the Spring

We have been to Rome a number of times before, but for some reason we have never been in the city in the spring.  Big mistake – April in Rome is glorious.

We spent a few days in Rome last week, partly with some friends from Boston who were here for the first time.  We visited some places we had seen before, and some that were completely new to us.

We booked a full-morning tour to the Coliseum and Roman Forum, which was a big win — lines are very long, especially for the Coliseum, and with a hired guide you not only skip most of the lines but you are able to navigate more efficiently.

It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the Forum — the last time we went, it was free.  These days, you pay to get in, but they’ve improved the signage a lot — even without a guide, you can get some sense of what you’re looking at.  I’m always impressed by the size of the place – in the 1st C, this was the civic center of a city of 1,000,000 people.   After the fall of Rome, no other European city would reach that size again until the 18th C.

View of forum from the Palatine

A major “renovation” of the Coliseum was done about 10 years ago.  The word is in quotes because obviously it’s still an ancient structure.  But they’ve improved the access a lot, reconstructed some of the ancient arena floor, and provided a lot more information about how the animals and gladiators got on and off the stage.  It’s a fascinating place.

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We visited the Capitoline Museum, a place with amazing collection of ancient Roman statuary that somehow we’ve never gotten around to visiting before.  We tend to think of naturalism in art as something invented in the Renaissance, but some of these works, including a boy picking a thorn out of his toe and some of the portrait busts, convincingly demonstrate that the Romans knew how to do this too.

Capitoline Museum:  Boy with Thorn - Greco-Roman bronze (1C BC)

Most of the art in Rome is either ancient or Baroque, but there’s some medieval art too if you know where to look.  I was particularly impressed by the 6th and 7th C mosaics in the church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, a church in the Roman Forum built on the ruins of some imperial-era Roman buildings.  The mosaics were quite a bit more colorful and lifelike than the 9th C mosaics in the church of Santa Prassede, which are also masterful but are done in the more formal Byzantine style.

I was blown away by the church of San Carlo alla Quatro Fontane, which was designed by Francesco Borromini, a 17th C architect whose work is often overshadowed by his more famous contemporary Bernini.  That’s unfortunate, because Borromini was a genius in his own right.  This church, with its undulating convex-concave facade, is strikingly original.  Borromini was a master of trompe l’oeil (tricking the eye), which is hard to convey accurately in photographs, although this remarkable oval dome may give you some sense of it.

Santa Carlo delle Quatro Fontane - Borromini

We took advantage of the gorgeous weather to make our way up the Gianicolo hill, which offers some spectacular vistas.

Of course, no trip to Rome is complete without some visits to works by Bernini and Caravaggio.  I never get tired of looking at these.

I also said hello to one of my favorite paintings in the Villa Borghese, a depiction of John the Baptist by Bronzino .   The model for this portrait is believed to have been Giovanni de Medici, second son of Duke Cosimo I de Medici.  Bronzino, who also painted Giovanni as a toddler (in a portrait now in the Uffizi) here portrays him as a virile young man.  There were to be no mature portraits of Giovanni, though – he died not long after this portrait was completed, probably of malaria.  I think it is the poignancy of the unfulfilled promise of this young man that keeps drawing me back to this work.

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Rome is a remarkable place although, as one of our Ascoli neighbors (and long-time Roman resident) recently remarked, no one who understands Rome really wants to live there.  The city is poorly administered, public transportation is poor, and (especially in the summer) it’s unpleasantly hot and incredibly crowded.  With a little advance planning, though, you can see a lot in a few days, and I hope to be able to visit the city regularly as long as we’re here.

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Montedinove

Italy is so rich in historic monuments that international tourists, most with limited time, have to focus on the major sites.  One of the nice things about actually living in Italy is that we now have time to visit many of the smaller towns, many with fascinating histories of their own.

One of these in Montedinove, located in the hilly region of the Marche, about 40 minutes from where we are now living.   There are traces of human habitation here from the 6th Century, but the town was not formally established until the 11th Century.  It was connected to the Abbey of Farfa, one of the most important abbeys in Italy at the time, and was the home of a garrison of Templars, who had establishments n various parts of Italy to help Crusaders crossing Italy to reach the southern Adriatic coast, and from thence to take ship to the Holy Land.  The Templars helped to resist a siege by the armies of Frederick II of Sicily in the 13th C, and perhaps for that reason you can still see vestiges of Templar symbols here, even though the order was officially suppressed for heresy in the 14th Century.  The town went into decline after the Middle Ages, and eventually became part of the Papal states, where it remained until the unification of Italy in 1861.  These days, Montedinove is a town of about 600 known mainly for its apples.

There are two interesting churches here, which unfortunately are rarely open — many small towns in rural Italy don’t have the resources to keep historic buildings open on regular basis.  Under the supervision of FAI, a private organization which raises money for the upkeep of historic buildings, a number of these smaller sites are open several weekends a year.  FAI partners with local schools to provide student guides on these weekends, which is both a great way for the students to learn local history and a real benefit for tourists.

The Church of Santa Maria de Cellis was founded in the 12th C, with a second church built on top of it several hundred years later.  The practice of building a new church on top of an older one is quite common in Italy.  Sometimes the older church is completely buried under the new one, although occasionally you can reach it through an interior staircase. In Montedinove, where the church is built on the side of a hill, you can access either the older or the newer church by separate entrances.

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The church is best known for its Gothic portal, built in 1368, which includes many late medieval symbols that are difficult to interpret today.    On one side of the portal, there are flowers (unfortunately difficult to see) which are believed to be Templar symbols.

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The upper church also has a 14th Century crucifix .  The suffering face of Jesus, and his muscular arms, anticipate the more humanistic depictions which became common in the the Renaissance a couple of centuries later.  No artistic revolution ever comes out of nowhere.

The 18th C church of San Lorenzo, whose interior is done in an unusually restrained Baroque style, is to my mind remarkably beautiful.

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The town also has, rather surprisingly, a sanctuary dedicated to the English saint Thomas Becket.  Thomas studied canon law at Bologna (neither Oxford nor Cambridge had been established in his era), and made many Italian friends, who were quite distraught to hear of his murder.  Not long after, when an individual appeared claiming to have possession of some of Becket’s bones, the local monastery built a small sanctuary for it. During the 16th Century, the establishment became a sanctuary of another sort for English Catholic priests fleeing Tudor persecution.  You can still see the bones today, although the current building dates only to the early 17th Century.

The town also offers some magnificent vistas of the surrounding Apennines, which we took full advantage of – as well as the local wineries!

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